The Apostles and the Law

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law. (Acts 21:20)

 After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples begin to live out their new found faith in Messiah. It is important for us to examine how they lived in order to determine if they continued to follow Torah. Again, not as a means of salvation, but, did they keep it as an expression of their stance as a community of God. We will begin with the book of Acts and progress into the theological teachings of the letters from the apostles in a following post. Is there evidence that the first apostles had torah observance as an expression of their religiosity? If so, this tells us that early apostolic thought was not that the Torah was “done away with” after the resurrection of Messiah.

Immediately in the book of Acts, we find support for, not only Torah observance from the apostles, but also from the Lord Himself. Prior to His ascension, Jesus tells the apostles to “tarry in Jerusalem” until the coming of the Holy Spirit. This would’ve been a great time for Jesus to demonstrate to His new church that the law was “done away with.” However, this is not what we read in the New Testament. What we find is that Jesus, the one who baptizes with fire, choses a holy day as prescribed in the Torah, as the day for the Holy Spirit to come. Jesus sets it up this way. He purposefully tells the apostles to stay in Jerusalem till the coming of the Spirit. He knew it would come at Pentecost. All Jewish males were required to be in Jerusalem according to the law, and Jesus commanded His new church to be in the place that the law required. If Jesus was anominal (without the law or doing away with the law) He should have chosen a different city from which to establish His church and not the capital of the Old Testament, and the place where the law states that God will “establish His name.” Especially since this particular Holy Day celebrates the giving of the Law to Israel. This would’ve been an awesome opportunity for Jesus to distance Himself from Torah; however, He does not. He continues in torah observance for His church even after His ascension and resurrection. This tells us that Jesus still has respect and honor for the law and that the law has a place in the life of a believer. This theme continues. We see a constant undertone in the life of all the apostles where their lifestyle centers around torah observance while walking in the power of the Spirit.

In chapter 3 of Acts, we find Peter and John (two of Jesus inner circle of disciples) going up to the Temple at the “hour of prayer” which is the ninth hour. It is interesting to note the particular time that these two apostles pick to go to prayer. The law commands that two sacrifices were to be made daily, one in the morning and one in the evening (Exodus 29:39). The evening offering was usually offered at the ninth hour. Hence, all the faithful in Jerusalem would pack the temple precincts at this time for prayer according to the Torah. Who do we find in the middle of all this? Two of Jesus closest disciples. John Lightfoot notes, “This is certain, that the ninth hour of the day (which with us is three o’clock in the afternoon) was the ordinary hour as for sacrifice, so also for prayer too. As to the hours of sacrifice, Josephus gives us this account: ‘in the morning and at the ninth hour they offer sacrifices on the alter twice a day.” (1) The fact that John and Peter where in the temple precincts praying with every other Torah obedient Jew in Jerusalem makes a statement about their stance on the law. This also applies to the newly appointed deacons.

When we get to Acts chapter six, we find Stephen going to trial. What is he accused of? He is charged with “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” (Acts 6:11) Stephen is accused of being “anominal.” (Not observing the Torah) What is interesting about this is that it was all a lie. The first part of that verse tells us “ Then they secretly instigated men who said.” thus, they were making up a lie. This means that there was no grounds for the accusation. Hence, Stephen must have been Torah observant in some regards because if he was not, they wouldn’t have had to lie about him. In fact, when they pick up stones to kill him, he accuses them of not keeping Torah. He states, “you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7: 53) Stephen tells them that they received the revelation of how to live as God’s chosen people and they rejected it. Then, they, full of rage, picked up stones to kill him. Why? Because he was right.

In Acts chapter 10, Peter has a vision that is filled with multiple images and illusions that some have used to justify the eating of unclean foods. This subject is one that I will cover in an additional post, but one interesting point I would like to bring up now. Peter had been walking in the power of the Holy Spirit for awhile prior to this vision. If Jesus were “doing away with the dietary laws”, as some theologians would have us believe as recorded in the gospel of Mark (another post that will come later on Mark 7:19) Let’s suppose that Jesus did declare all foods clean back in the gospel of Mark. What should we find Peter doing at this time in his apostolic career? Eating whatever he wanted and teaching others to do the same. What we find in the book of Acts is exactly the opposite. Peter states, “But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” (Acts 10:16) One might argue that the fact that Peter didn’t “get it” until now is difficult to imagine. Peter was raised a Jew and if Jesus was teaching the disciples to “do away with the law”, as dense as he was on occasions, Peter would’ve gotten that, for sure. It would’ve been a no-brainer for him and for any other Jew. (In fact, the Sanhedrin could’ve had actual charges to bring against Jesus had he broken the dietary laws of Torah, they wouldn’t have had to bring in liars. They would’ve had real charges.) To sum it up, we find Peter here still adhering to a torah observant lifestyle.

Once again, in Acts chapter twelve, we find the apostles in Jerusalem during the Holy Days. It is the feast of unleavened bread and it was commanded in the Torah that all males go to Jerusalem. Again, we find the apostles in the middle of the torah observant crowd preaching the gospel.

In chapters 13 and 14 we find Paul and Barnabas going out on their first missionary trip. We see them going to synagogue on the Sabbath day. Thus, we find them observing the Sabbath, a huge torah observant trait. Why wouldn’t these apostles, sent by God, have told these converts to have church on Sunday because Jesus changed all that with his resurrection? The reason we find it absent from the text is that this particular theology didn’t exist at this time. (again, another post that will follow) What we are demonstrating throughout the book of Acts is that, the apostles led an underlying torah observant lifestyle,

The Jerusalem council takes place in Acts 15. When one is discussing the Jerusalem council, it is important to put the whole thing in its proper context. The context of the council is not, what is the role of torah in the life of the believer. The context of the council ia, how does one get saved. Salvation is what they are discussing and not the law. Evidence of this is found in the first verse of the chapter. It states, “ But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 italics added for emphasis) Why was there so much disputing? Does it make any sense that if the Law had been “done away with” as is so commonly taught, someone here would have said so, and the dispute would have been resolved quickly and easily? If the believers in Christ were not obligated to follow the Law, why didn’t they just say “well, this is awfully silly. None of us have to follow the law! Don’t you know that it’s been done away with?” But no one says this. Instead they are trying to figure out the laws the Gentile believer must follow in order to be saved ([see verse 1]) Once we understand that they are not discussing the role of Torah in the life of the believer. Things begin to make sense.

The law is only mentioned because it is being misused as a vehicle of salvation. This is what Peter clarifies when he states, “Now, therefore, why are you putting to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:10-11 italics for emphasis) Peter is telling us exactly what we have been saying throughout this series, that the law was never intended to be a vehicle of salvation. But it does have a role in the life of the believer. This is what James clarifies when he states, “but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:20-21) What James means by this statement is that the Gentiles need to turn from a polytheistic worldview to one of monotheism. All of the activities described for the Gentiles to turn away from are forms of pagan worship. It would’ve been easy for the polytheistic culture of the Greeks and the Romans to lump Jesus into a category with all the other gods. The apostles were moving them into a monotheistic worldview. What is amazing about these recommendations is that many of them are from the Torah. As noted Jewish scholar David Stern notes, “Abstain from things polluted by idols, defined in v. 29 as food sacrificed to false gods, especially meat. Fornication, any form of sexual immorality. In the first century pagan world sexual unions outside of marriage were regarded very lightly, along with homosexual behavior, temple prostitution and other improper practices…And blood. This could be either literal, referring to drinking animals blood, or failing to remove it from meat, or figuratively, a metaphor for murder.” (2) Also, in the Torah, God tells Noah, “ But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:4) So, it would appear that the recommendations for the Gentiles, again in order to be saved, was to turn ones heart completely toward God which is demonstrated by doing some things that are listed in Torah. (see below for details) Furthermore, common sense tells us that these can’t be the only four things of the Law that are required of Gentiles, because then Gentiles would be free to murder or to lie or to steal or to hate their neighbors, or to practice homosexuality, or witchcraft – all of which come directly from the Torah but are not mentioned here as the “necessary things” (vs. 28) These four laws have something distinctive about them that sets them apart from other Laws such as hatred or homosexuality, which we believe to be the worship of idols.

James goes on to suggest that after the Gentiles have turned from a polytheistic worldview, that they should go to synagogue and learn the torah as the standard of holiness. Avram Yehoshua, a torah observant Jew and teacher in Israel writes, “This is probably the most interesting sentence in this passage. “For Moses of old time has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.” What does Moses being taught in the synagogues have to do with anything? We believe that verse 21 is the logical extension of verse 20 and verse 11 (that the Gentile is saved in the same way as the Jew.) The Gentile didn’t need to be circumcised in order to be saved (more on that later.) But the Gentile did need to be told what would disqualify him from membership in the kingdom of God. (v. 20) Then he was directed to the synagogue to learn all of the rules of the Kingdom that pertained to him (v. 21). Not every law of God pertained or applied to the Gentile, just as every law of God didn’t apply to Jesus. He didn’t need to keep the laws pertaining to offering up the daily sacrifice (Exodus. 29:38-42) because He wasn’t the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple. But Jesus kept all the laws that applied to Him. The Gentile would learn Torah as they walked with Jesus. No one, least of all James, expected the Gentile to learn Torah overnight. The Gentile would assemble in the synagogue on the Sabbath (see Acts 13:42; 13:44; 18:4) to learn the Torah of Moses, gradually. This verse tells us that James assumed or understood that the Gentile was to go to the synagogue to learn the Law of Moses. In declaring to everyone at the council that the Gentiles were to go to the synagogues on the Sabbath Day to learn Christ’s commandments, we see that James was thinking about Torah specifically in relation to the Gentile. They would learn it every Sabbath. With that, he shows us today that Torah should be a part of every believer’s life. James was establishing the place of the Law for those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:31). He was presenting Torah as a lifestyle of sanctification for the Gentile just as it is for the Jew (e.g. Peter, Paul, etc). (3)

 

To re-cap, the Jerusalem council met to discuss the question of “how are the Gentiles to be saved?” They determined that the law was never intended to be a vehicle of salvation. Furthermore, the Gentiles that were turning to God, were encouraged to keep some of the commandments of torah (thou shalt have no other gods(Exodus 20:3), do not engage in temple prostitution (Duet 23:17) and stay away from blood(Lev 17:10). If the intention of this council was to “do away with the Torah” because Jesus fulfilled the law, then they failed miserably. Far from doing away with it, the apostles established it as a measuring line for holiness. This was the original intention of the law. To provide a standard of holiness for God’s chosen people.

The apostle Paul begins his second missionary journey in chapter 16. The first thing that Paul does in preparation for this journey is circumcise Timothy. The reason for this being “because of the Jews” in that area. This demonstrates that Paul continued to have a reverence for Torah. Later in his life, Paul will be accused of taking an uncircumcised man into the Temple, an action which would’ve violated temple customs. In order to live above reproach, he circumcises Timothy. At a minimum it demonstrates his respect for the law. (As regards to Titus’ uncircumcision, it would appear that Paul wouldn’t circumcise Titus in order to placate Judiazing Christians who purported that circumcision was necessary for salvation, again this was the reason for the Jerusalem council.)

In chapters 16 and 17, we again see Paul, as was his custom, going to synagogue on the Sabbath. Again, Paul is observing Shabbat. More information is available on Paul observance of the law in chapter 18.

Two interesting events take place in chapter 18 that gives us insight into Paul’s torah observance. First, he is accused, by the Jews, of “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” (Acts 18:13) Let us recall that this is the same accusation that was brought against Stephen. Paul never gets the chance to refute these charges, but he will later while on trial in Jerusalem. Secondly, Paul takes an interesting vow that required him to shave his head. (Acts 18:18) The only vow that demanded the shaving of the head in scripture is the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6:1-21. Commenting on this passage, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “Paul had evidently taken a Nazirite’s vow which he began to terminate at Cenchreae by cutting off his hair (Acts 18:18), and which was completed formally in Jerusalem with other Christians under Nazirite vows (Acts 21:23).” (4) This proves a great deal about Paul’s personal convictions about the Torah. It was more to him than a tool of evangelism, more than just being a “a Jew to the Jews”, it was his lifestyle and culture. It was not his vehicle for salvation, but, he continued to observe it as a lifestyle of holiness. As noted Jewish scholar David Stern notes, “No matter what the details of Sha’ul’s (Paul’s Hebrew name) vow were, this proves that he did not abandon the Torah; on the contrary, even when he became as a Gentile among Gentiles he continued to observe Jewish practices. See also Acts 13:9, I Corinthians 9:20-22 (5) This fact is further demonstrated when the scripture states “I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem.” (Acts 18:21 KJV) This is a quote from Paul who desired to go to Jerusalem for an upcoming holy day. If he was not concerned with Torah, the feast in Jerusalem wouldn’t matter to him. Scripture paints a different picture of the apostle. Mainly, that he continued to be torah-observant.

An interesting phrase is used in Acts 20 that, on the surface, seems to inaugurate Sunday worship instead of Sabbath. This verse states, “ On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (Acts 20:7) There are several reasons to believe that this was not a traditional Sunday morning worship service. First, Paul continued to preach until midnight. This is either the longest recorded sermon ever, perhaps lasting around 14 hours, or, something else may have been happening. Perhaps the phrase, “On the first day of the week“, had something to do with it. “We have reasons to believe that Luke uses consistently in his narrative the Jewish time reckoning. According to such a system…the first day began on Saturday evening at sunset, the night part of Sunday preceding the day part. The evening of the first day on which the meeting would then corresponds to our Saturday night…In light of these indications it would appear that Luke respected the Jewish liturgical calendar and used it quite consistently when reckoning time” (6) ( Consequently, the meeting took place on Saturday night after the close of the Sabbath. It is interesting that at this time of day, Jesus did ministry as well. (see Mark 1:32)) Perhaps Luke’s numerous mentioning of Torah, proofs that he, himself, was a torah observant Christian. It would seem unlikely that Luke would follow around Paul and not participate in the things that Paul was doing. This evidence suggest at a minimum, Luke’s knowledge of torah, and at a maximum, his participation, along with Paul, in torah observant events. Nevertheless, it does seem to de-bunk the theology of Sunday worship beginning here. On the contrary, it occurred in a meeting after the Shabbat.

Further evidence for the Torah observance of Paul and his traveling companions is found later in chapter 20 where it states, “for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” (Acts 20: 16) Again, Pentecost is one of the feast that required Jewish males to be present in Jerusalem. Because of his torah observant lifestyle, Paul was hastening to be in Jerusalem. Was he present in Jerusalem at all the feasts? No, but, he lived torah as his lifestyle and when it was possible for him to “keep” a commandment, then he kept it. When the work of an apostle kept him from Jerusalem during the feast, then he honored the higher calling on his life. Nevertheless, Paul was mindful of the Holy days and desired to keep them according to Torah. Additionally we find in chapter 20, “And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days.” (Acts 20: 6) Here we see Luke and those with him make specific mention to the feast of the unleavened bread (which starts on the day of Passover.) We also see Luke make specific mention to the fact that they did not leave Philippi until after the days of unleavened bread. By this it can be determined that they were keeping the feast of the unleavened bread, else there would be no reason to tell us that they waited until the days were over.

Another example of Paul’s torah observance is found in Acts 23:2-5: And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, [thou] whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the *law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. (KJV) The word “law” used in verse 3 is the Greek word “paranomeo” (Strongs 3891) which means “to break the law, Torah”. Paul, who is usually so bold and unwilling to compromise calls the High Priest a “whitewashed wall.” However, upon finding out that he is a High Priest, he backs down saying: “it is written, thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.” Did it make the High Priest any less wrong? No. But we see Paul clearly unwilling to disobey a Commandment found in the Torah. (Leviticus 5:17, 18; Exodus 22:28)

There are some other references to believers as being torah observant. In his defense, Paul describes Ananias, the one who laid hands on him to receive his healing and subsequent, baptism in the Holy Spirit, as “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” (Acts 22:12) This means that a believer, other than an apostle, was a torah observant Christian. Furthermore, the book of Acts mentions, “The Fast” in Acts 27:9. No doubt, this is a reference to the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kipur in Hebrew), a day when the devout Jews would fast. (See my article on the blog entitled, “The Day of Atonement.”)

 

Perhaps the strongest evidence for torah observance among the apostles and the first Christians comes from Acts 21. Several references exist both to the church in Jerusalem’s stance on torah and the apostles stance, as well. First, Paul and James meet and James and the elders in Jerusalem glorify and rejoice with all that God is doing among the Gentiles. Secondly, James shares with Paul about the ministry in Jerusalem. James states, “ “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law. (Acts 21:20) This verse demonstrates that the first believers of Christ, were saved by grace but joyfully and willingly chose to live out the holy standard of the law as a lifestyle. This was the essence of the church in Jerusalem. It is also important for us to understand exactly how many people were living according to this lifestyle. If this is just a few radical fundamentalist, then a case can be made that this was not the stance of the first church. A cursory glance at the text dispels all doubt. “It is estimated that the population of Jerusalem in the first century C.E. was approximately 100,000 to 120,000 people. In Acts 21:20, the Greek text literally tells us that “tens of thousands” (Greek word for myriads) of Torah observant Messianic Jews lived in Jerusalem. Using the least case scenario, at least 20,000 people in this population were Torah-observant Messianic Jews.” (7) This tells us that the bulk of, if not all the Christians in Jerusalem, were torah-observant Christians. In point of fact, torah-observant was not the minority opinion, it represented the bulk of all Christians living within the first 30 years of the resurrection of Messiah. This gives us insight into their theology and how they practiced the faith. Exactly as we have maintained the relationship with the torah.

Then, James tells Paul that they have heard rumors that He was “ they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” (Acts 21:21) This was an accusation that was made of Paul earlier in his career, as we have already noted, and an accusation that was made against Stephen. James, however, is confident in Paul’s’ torah observant lifestyle, that he asks Paul to take some Christians who had taken a Nazirite vow, to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifices and pay for the purification rites. This Paul willing does. Why? The only motive that is mentioned in the text is to prove his own torah observance to those who were torah observant, all of which, are Christians. While in the temple, Paul is again accused of anomonism (a torah-less-ness lifestyle) and is almost killed by unbelieving Jews. This leads to his arrest and eventual trip into Rome. To sum up Paul’s stance on Torah, perhaps we should let his own words speak for himself. “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” (Acts 28:17) and in another place he states, “But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets.” (Acts 24:14) . If the ministry of Christ was truly to abrogate all of the torah in the lives of the believers, then that ministry failed. It is evident from this review of the book of Acts that the apostles continued to observe Torah while maintaining the stance that they were saved by grace. Yet, the law remained the standard for the Holy People of God. This stance completely agrees with our stance as set forward in the beginning article, The Law and The Believer. Therefore, the bulk of the evidence in the lives of the apostles points toward torah observance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endnotes

**All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible, Crossway Bibles, Wheaton IL, 2001. Unless otherwise stated.

1. Lightfoot, John, Commentary on the New Testament form the Talmud and Hebriaca, Hendrickson, Publishers, 2003, volume 4, page 37.

2. Stern, David, The Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, Clarksville, Maryland, 1992, page 277.

3. For further discussions on the Jerusalem council and torah observance in general, the reader is encouraged to visit Avram Yehoshua web site, www.seedofabraham.net and also to see his book entitled, Set my People Free. Much of what is written here as been gleaned from his work.

4. Bromiley, Geoffrey, The International Standrd Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979, Page, 502.

5. Stern, page 291.

6. Bacchiocchi, Samuele, From Sabbath to Sunday, The Pontifical Gregorian University Press, Rome, Italy, 1977, page 105.

7. Freidman, David, They Loved the Torah, Lederer Books, Baltimore, MA, 2001, page 74.

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