Understanding the Law Under the New Covenant

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I am wrestling with Romans 2 & 3 right now. When you work through these texts you cannot help but wonder what is going on in Paul’s head when it comes to the Law (Torah) and its applicability to first century Jewish Christians. Growing up I always heard that the law was done away with, gone, nailed to the cross and had nothing to say for us today. I have been questioning that for some time now but haven’t really dealt with how to put all the pieces together in my head. First of all I think our logic has gotten the best of us. We have become reductionists. We read Romans 3:21 – “ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…” and we think to ourselves, “If there is righteousness apart from the law, then the law is no good and is over because we know that the only things that are important are matters of salvation.” Well, who is to say that just because righteousness doesn’t come from the law makes the law any less important or means that the law was dead in the water in the first century? But Matt, Jesus did away with sacrifices once for all, Hebrews tells us that right? Of course Jesus offered a more perfect, one time sacrifice but that doesn’t mean that first century Jewish Christians checked their Judaism at the door of the house church. Peter, Paul, James and many others were Christians who took their Judaism very seriously. What do you do with these verses?

Acts 10 – Peter is still keeping Kosher law. Of course we learn in this story that God declares all food clean but in the process we learn that the law is still a priority for Peter. We see it further when he has to interact with God-fearing Gentiles and needs some confirmation from God that those interactions are “Kosher.”

Acts 18:18 – Paul takes a Nazirite vow.

Acts 21:20-26 – Paul makes a vow and pays the ritual purity fees for four men precisely because accusations arose about Paul being apostate from the law and teaching against Moses, circumcision, and the customs. Paul goes headlong into a demonstration of how the law was still important to him.

Acts 25:8 – Paul is defending himself against accusations and says, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Some would argue (including Jacob Jervell) that Luke’s purpose in Acts is to show that Paul is not apostate from the law.

What do you do with these verses in Romans?

2:25 – “Circumcision has value if you observe the law…” Well, Peter and Paul and those in Acts 15 were Christians who were still observing at least portions of the law.

3:1 – “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!”

There are many more verses because even the verses that are traiditionally used to show that the law was dead in the water are actually pretty poorly interpreted (the most important being Colossians 2:13-15).

One reason we have been taught the law was dead is we have been sold a bill of good that the law was all about works righteousness whereas Jesus brought grace on the scene. That is far from the truth. There was plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament (Lev 4:20ff, Exo 34:6-7, Num 14:18-19, Jeremiah 36:3, Micah 7:18-19). God actually did forgive people in the Old Testament. Even in Gal 3:10 is not about obeying the whole law, rather, relying on the distinctive markers of the Jewish faith to save rather than faith in Christ).

When you put the pieces together, as best I can tell, there were still law practicing Jewish Christians in the first century (including James, Peter, and Paul) who still fully relied on Jesus Christ for their righteousness. Sure no more sacrifice and sure no more clean and unclean and sure the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be “in” but that doesn’t mean that the law was tossed to the side once they heard about Jesus Christ. Notice Acts 21:20-22 “Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do?” There were Jews who believed in Jesus and yet still valued circumcision and the teachings of Moses (which were…the Law/Torah).

The key verse in all of this is 1 Cor 9:22 – Paul was willing to become all things to all men to win some. We get confused when Paul is writing to Gentiles it makes the law seem like it is in a negative light and so we downplay the law. Paul is trying to assure them that they don’t have to turn to fully obey the law and be circumcised to be “in.” They need Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the law was not valued and still had some value for early Jewish Christians.

0 Responses

  1. You must feel like you have been sent in to wrestle a handicapp match against three or four very large apes. I love the book of Romans but reading it as a book written to address a specific pastoral issue rather than a non-contextualized systematic theology is a challenge.



  2. I’ve always thought that Peter’s (as well as any other Jew’s) continued observation of the Mosaic dietary law was from a lack of understanding on their part — not that God desired them to continue it. After the cross (and certainly after Pentecost), the Jews were allowed to eat shrimp and catfish just as much as they were allowed to preach to the gentiles. Although refusing to admit gentiles into the church was surely less excusable.

    As far as Paul’s vow in Acts 21, I believe it was more a matter of expediency in trying to counter the reputation he had of preaching the truth on such matters — that the old law was fading away and becoming obsolete — Heb. 8:13. I seriously doubt that he was planning on taking any such vow on his own / without first hearing how upset his less informed brethren were on such matters. I see his vow simply as an example of him becoming a Jew in order to gain the Jews. It seems clear that were he to refuse the advice of the elders to take the vow, that many new converts would’ve been lost.

  3. I have to disagree with Hank. The last passage you posted from Acts 21 is really important: “how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.” We’re talking about decades after Pentecost, with THOUSANDS of Jewish Christians still obeying the Law. This was the norm in Jerusalem, not an aberration.

    I also think that Paul would be horrified to see how we’ve used his teachings on the Law. He held the Law in high respect.

  4. Tim,

    I agree with you on how we have used and abused Paul and his take on the law. In support of Hank part of his answer is due to my original question in the post of what have you heard taught in churches. He and I discussed this some yesterday and I need to look more closely at Hebrews 8:13 to see if it has any merit. Although I do think Paul specifically took the vow because he was showing that he was not living contrary to the law.

  5. A quick response to Tim,

    I am aware of the fact that there were indeed thousands of Jewish Christians who were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), even decades after pentecost. My questions are as follows:
    1) Why were they all told that Paul had been teaching “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to their customs” v. 21?
    2) Why were the Jews accusing Paul of being the man “who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place” v. 28?
    3) Wasn’t there any truth behind those accusations? If not, why didn’t Paul (or anybody else) deny them?

    To Matt — Doesn’t Heb. 8:13 (along with other very similar passages) teach that the first covenant (i.e., the Law of Moses), was becoming obsolete and about to dissapear soon?

    By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear — Heb. 8:13 NIV

    I will pay close attention to how others see such passages differently.

  6. hey, looks like im coming in late to this conversation…

    I think its interesting that they accused paul of causing a falling away of moses…since that’s what the ANTICHRIST is prophecied to do (daniel and 2nd thessalonians)

    Here’s why i think that:

    One thing i have found while studying is that the word “forsake” is – apostasia

    646 avpostasi,a apostasia {ap-os-tas-ee’-ah}
    Meaning: 1) a falling away, defection, apostasy

    KJV Acts 21:21 And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.

    note that this word is also only used as “falling away”

    KJV 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

    So what is this falling away? This apostasia? Its what was prophecied in Daniel when they also talk about (probably the antichrist) the man

    Daniel 11: (the key chapter in Daniel that the whole context of 2nd thessalonians 2 is all about)

    30 For the ships of Chittim shall come against him: therefore he shall be grieved, and return, and have indignation against the holy covenant: so shall he do; he shall even return, and have intelligence with them that forsake the holy covenant. 31And arms shall stand on his part, and they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate. 32 And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he corrupt by flatteries: but the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits.

    forsake is
    5800 bz:[‘ `azab {aw-zab’}
    Meaning: 1) to leave, loose, forsake 1a) (Qal) to leave 1a1) to depart from, leave behind, leave, let alone 1a2) to leave, abandon, forsake, neglect, apostatise

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