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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWENTY-FOUR

SERMON DELIVERED ON 01-12-19

       Last week we began a mini series of sermons within the overall series I am doing on the Book of Acts. This mini series is designed to scripturally determine what is and what ain’t as to our behavioral obligations under the New Covenant. 

       It is generally recognized that religious regulations involving animal sacrifices, extant under the Old Covenant and going back as far as Abel, were fulfilled in Christ. The shedding of the blood of animals prefigured the shedding of the blood of Jesus in payment of the death penalty for sin.  Therefore, animal sacrifices are no longer required by God.

       Animal sacrifices, however, were only a part of the myriad of laws that made up the Old Covenant system.  As already discussed, there were specific regulations governing sexual conduct, disease control, dietary practice, personal injuries, property rights, treatment of slaves, farming practices and personal hygiene.  All this was in addition to the great body of law governing priestly duties and worship requirements and moral law in general.    

       As already discussed, the law given by God to Moses became referred to as the Law of Moses.  As Jews and Gentiles came to acknowledge and accept Christ as savior and the promised Messiah to Israel, much controversy arose as to what place the Law of Moses had in the developing Christian community.  Many Jewish converts to Christ continued to believe the Law of Moses still applied and should be enforced, not only within the Jewish Christian community but among the Gentile Christians as well. For Jewish Christians, Christ was seen as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies but not as an end to the Law of Moses.  Christianity was viewed as an extension of Judaism.

       Circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses became an early issue. As we saw last time, some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses."  These were Jews who had come to accept Christ as the promised Messiah to Israel but still believed circumcision and the Law of Moses must be followed.

       Circumcision, as a religious rite, initiated one into the community of Israel and placed one under the Law of Moses.  Circumcision obligated one to keep the Law of Moses.  The two went hand in hand.  Paul told the Galatians; “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:3).  The context of Galatians 5 shows Paul is referring to the Old Covenant law, commonly referred to as the Law of Moses.

        Some feel that only circumcision, as a requirement of the Law of Moses, is at issue at the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 and not the Law of Moses itself.  Paul’s statement to the Galatians shows this is not the case.  You will find throughout the writings of Paul frequent association between circumcision and obligation to keep the Law of Moses. The one equates with the other.  The great fuss being made by the Jewish community over these matters shows it involved a great deal more than the issue of circumcision alone.  In Acts 21 we find circumcision and Jewish customs clearly associated.

       In Acts 21 we see Paul visiting with James and the other elders at the church in Jerusalem.  This appears to be many of the same group which met at the Jerusalem conference as covered in Acts 15.  At that conference it was determined that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses.  Now a whole different matter was being taken up for consideration.  This matter involved Jewish converts to Christianity. It is now being questioned whether Jewish converts to Christianity must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.  Paul is accused of turning the Jews from circumcision and Jewish customs.   

        Acts 21:20-22: You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 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. 

       Verse 23-25: There are four men with us who have made a vow.  Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. 

       These passages in Acts are very instructive.  First of all we are told that thousands of Jews have become believers. This shows to what extent the gospel message had by now impacted the Jewish community.  We are also told these believers are all zealous for the law. This shows that Jews who had accepted Christ as their Messiah continued to believe the Law of Moses was still in force for them. It is then recorded that these Jewish converts to Christianity have been told Paul is teaching that Jews who live among the Gentiles don't have to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic regulations.

       Was this accusation valid?  Was Paul teaching that Jews who live among the Gentiles no longer need to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic regulations? We know Paul taught that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.  This is clear from a reading of his letters to the Gentile churches.  Paul clearly taught the Gentiles that to be circumcised was to embrace the Mosaic regulations as the pathway to salvation and a relationship with God which negated faith in Christ as that pathway.  

       Galatians 5:1-6:  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

       Galatians 6:15:  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.

        If Jewish converts to Christianity were present when Paul made statements like this, the accusation made against Paul would appear to be valid.  It is very apparent Paul taught that circumcision and keeping the Mosaic Law was not the pathway to salvation and a relationship with God.  Was this true for Gentiles only?  No, this was and is true for Jews as well. Paul was not teaching two different gospels, one to the Gentiles and another to the Jews. 

       Yet here in Acts 21 the Jewish converts to Christianity are acknowledging that Gentile Christians were not under obligation to be circumcised and keep the law while at the same time believing that Jewish Christians were under such obligation. If Paul was teaching that there no longer was a need to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic regulations, why did Paul agree to join in the purification rites of the four men?     

       Acts 21:26: The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.     

       So what is Paul doing here?  Was Paul here showing that keeping Mosaic regulations was still necessary for Jewish converts to Christianity?  Was He doing this only to appease the Christian Jews and not because he believed such rites were any longer necessary?  Was Paul simply trying to be accommodating to the sensitivities of the Christian Jews who still believed they had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Was Paul doing what he had told the Corinthians he did?

       1 Corinthians 9:19-22: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

       We see Paul using this approach when deciding to take Timothy along with him on a missionary journey.

       Acts 16:1-3: He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.   

      In view of what we know of Paul's teaching regarding the matter of circumcision and the keeping of the law, He certainly wasn't circumcising Timothy for religious reasons.  He was simple trying to keep peace with the Jews who lived in the area.    

       In reading Paul it is very apparent he taught that salvation cannot be obtained through keeping the Law.  He strongly taught against keeping the law as the pathway to salvation.  This being said, Paul certainly wasn’t teaching that we should abandon the keeping of law, including aspects of the Mosaic Law.  As strong as he was in teaching against keeping law as a means of obtaining salvation, he was just as strong in teaching we are to keep law as the pathway to righteous behavior before God and man.  It is the purpose of this mini series, imbedded in our over all series on the Book of Acts, to determine what is and what ain’t as to keeping law.

 Separatist Law:

        As already covered in this series, under the New Covenant circumcision is to be of the heart where God’s law is made part of the conscience of man.  The Law of Moses was a grouping of regulations external to the heart of man that required obedience but did not necessarily instill heart felt obedience.  The Law of Moses was a Covenant between God and Israel.  This Covenant was never between God and Gentiles.  Much of the Old Covenant contained regulations designed to show separation between Israel and the Gentiles nations. 

       Sabbath observance, Feast Days, New Moon Celebrations, dietary regulations, and the myriad of worship and ceremonial requirements created separation between Israel and the Gentile world.  It was a separatist system designed to facilitate a relationship with God based on keeping the Mosaic Law.  Only circumcised Israelites and Gentiles who joined themselves to Israel by becoming circumcised could participate in this system.  

        With the advent of Christ, the way to a relationship with God became available to all of mankind and there no longer was a need for such separatist regulations. On the other hand, moral regulations were always applicable to man whether Israelite or Gentile and were incorporated into the Old Covenant as part of that Covenants governance. When the Old Covenant was abrogated this didn’t terminate moral law. The moral law continues obligatory for Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant.  As Christians, however, these moral obligations for both Gentiles and Israelites were to become not just a superficial response to law but a living expression of the law fulfilled through love.

         In other words, if we truly have love (outgoing concern) for our neighbor we will automatically fulfill the intent of the moral law by not stealing, lying, murdering or doing anything else that would harm our neighbor.  This is reflected in what Paul said in regard to law.

        Romans 13:9-10:  The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 

       Paul cites several commandments that are found in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Some look upon the Ten Commandments as an eternal immutable body of law that must stand forever and can never be changed. Since a command to keep the Sabbath is part of this configuration of law, it is believed this command is immutable as well. However, since God creates law he can do anything He wants with it.  As creator of law, God can make it immutable if He wants. He can also change it, modify it or eliminate it.      

       Did God make the Ten Commandments an unchangeable, immutable body of law?  No He did not. The Ten Commandments are a particular configuration of law that formed the core of the Old Covenant.  There is nothing inherently eternal or immutable about this particular configuration.  This configuration included moral laws that had been extant since creation. This configuration also included prohibitions against engaging in polytheistic worship practices.  Only worship of the one true God was allowed. Making an idol of something and worshiping it was strictly prohibited as was the use of God’s name in vain. This configuration also included a command to keep the Sabbath. Why this command and why was it included in the Ten Commandments?      

       The Sabbath was included in this configuration because it identified Israel as set apart from the Gentile world.  The Sabbath regulation was a sign identifying the creator God as the God of Israel.  It signaled a special covenant relationship between God and Israel, a covenant relationship that did not exist between God and the Gentile world and never did. 

       Exodus 31:16-17: The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.'"  

       While requirements to obey moral law and worship YHWH as the one and only true God can be seen in evidence since creation, there is no evidence of Sabbath keeping until the time of Israel's exodus from Egypt. There is no evidence of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac or Jacob keeping the Sabbath. In basing the Sabbath observance on the seventh day rest of God at the end of creation week, the Israelites were made to continually acknowledge the creator God as the God with whom they were entering into a covenant relationship.  The Sabbath rest also served as a reminder to Israel that it is the one true God who brought them out of Egyptian slavery.   

       Deuteronomy 5:15: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

       The keeping of the Sabbath command was extremely important because it keep Israel aware of their Covenant relationship with God. It acted as a constant reminder of just who it was the delivered them from Egyptian bondage. Because of this importance, violating the terms of the Sabbath was punishable by death. It is recorded in Exodus 35:2 that anyone who does any work on the Sabbath must be put to death. In Numbers 15-35 it is recorded that God ordered Moses to have a man stoned who gathered wood on the Sabbath. OT Scripture shows Israel being often reprimanded for breaking the Sabbath. 

       The moral laws and laws pertaining to the acknowledgement of the one true God found in the Ten Commandments were laws extant since creation.  These laws were required to be kept by all of mankind. The Sabbath law is not seen as extant since creation and apparently became operational only after the Exodus and operational only for Israel. While the moral and worship laws found in the Ten Commandments are seen as applicable to all of mankind from the beginning, the Sabbath law is seen as applicable only to Israel beginning after the Exodus. 

       Some argue that because God is seen in the creation account as blessing the seventh day and making it holy because he rested on that day indicates He must have intended it to be a day of rest for man from the beginning. However, nothing in Scripture says this.  No mention is made of a seventh day rest being required of anyone until it became required of Israel.  It is apparent the rest of God on the seventh day of creation week simply was used as a template for the establishment of such rest for Israel.

       While we see the Gentile nations throughout OT history being reprimanded for worshiping false gods and failing to behave according to the moral law, we never see the Gentile nations reprimanded for not keeping the Sabbath.  

       It is instructive that we see no evidence of reprimand for breaking the Sabbath in the NT. In the various lists of sinful behaviors seen in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, not once is there mention of it being a sin to not observe or break the Sabbath.  In Mark 7:21-22 Jesus lists thirteen sinful behaviors.  In Romans 1:29-32, Paul lists 20 sinful behaviors. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul lists ten such behaviors. In Galatians 5:19-21 he lists 15 sinful behaviors and in 2 Timothy 3:1-4 Paul lists 18 such behaviors. While these sin lists directly reference or allude to various of the Ten Commandments, you will not find in these lists any reference to not keeping the Sabbath being sin.

       In replacing the Old Covenant with a New Covenant, it is readily apparent God eliminated a great deal of law that He had previously created. A covenant is an agreement between two parties and such agreement is defined by a particular configuration of requirements contained in the agreement. When such agreement is terminated, it terminates the particular configuration of requirements that defined such agreement. When the Old Covenant was terminated, the particular configuration of requirements contained in that agreement were terminated.

       The New Covenant is based on a new configuration of requirements. They include the acknowledgement of Christ as the facilitator of our salvation. They include the Law of love becoming part of the very fabric of our Being, a law which automatically includes prohibitions against murder, thief, adultery, stealing and any other behavior that harms your neighbor.  As previously discussed, these laws were extant prior to establishment of the Old Covenant and continue to be extant under the New Covenant. These laws were incorporated into the Old Covenant and when that Covenant was terminated, these laws were incorporated into the New Covenant. 

       On the other hand, the keeping of the Sabbath day, Feast Days, New Moon celebrations, dietary restrictions and a host of other such regulations are not seen as being incorporated into the New Covenant.    

       The Sabbath, Feast Days, New Moon celebrations and many other ceremonial requirements all served to show separation between Israel and the Gentile word.  These separatist regulations ended with the Christ event and did not carry over to the New Covenant.  Under the New Covenant there is no such separation.  Paul makes it clear that the wall of separation between Israel and Gentiles was removed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was a primary objective God had in facilitating the Christ event. In addressing the matter of separation between Gentiles and Israelites, Paul said this:

        Ephesians 2:14-16:  For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 

        What two being made one is Paul talking about?  What law with its commandments and regulations did Christ abolish?  The context of Ephesians 6 clearly shows it is Gentiles in contrast to Israelites that Paul is talking about.   Paul makes it clear that it was commandments and regulations that were a barrier and a dividing wall of hostility between Israelites and Gentiles that was abolished by the Christ event.

       Was the moral law a barrier and dividing wall of hostility?  Moral law was in operation in the Gentile world as it was in Israel.  It wasn’t moral law that created a dividing wall between Israel and the rest of mankind.  It was religious law.   It was the separatist laws of the Old Covenant that created a barrier and dividing wall.  It was these laws that were abolished. The Sabbath, Feast Days, dietary laws and a host of other regulations separated Israel from the rest of mankind and in essence separated the rest of mankind from God. God changed the ground rules relative to establishing a relationship with Him.  Paul makes this clear in what he wrote to the Colossian Church.

        Colossians 2:11-17:  In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ (NIV).

        These Colossian Christians like many of the Christian converts, whether Jew or Gentile, were being pressured to keep the Mosaic regulations. Paul makes it clear that this code of regulations was canceled. He identifies some of these regulations as dietary laws, festivals, New Moon celebrations and the Sabbath Day which are all clearly regulations of the Mosaic Law. He calls them shadows of things that were to come.  The writer to the Hebrews shows the shadow nature of the Law and further shows how Christ is the fulfillment of the good things to come.

       Hebrews 10:1: For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself (NET).    

       Hebrews 9:11: But now Christ has come as the high priest of the good things to come (NET).   

       Some argue that Paul is not saying these Gentile Colossians should not keep the Mosaic regulations but only that they should not let anyone judge them for doing so.  The Greek word translated "realty" in the Colossian passage is soma. In Greek this word has the basic meaning of a living or dead body but is also used by NT writers to describe the church as a body of believers. Some believe Paul is using soma in this passage to say don't let anyone judge you but the body (church) of Christ. It is pointed out that the word "is" is not in the Greek and that the text is simply saying "the body of Christ." Those who take this approach will use translations such as the King James to back up this position.

       Colossians 2:16-17:  Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body (is) of Christ (KJV).   

       However, Paul clearly identifies the eating and drinking, religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and the Sabbath Day as a shadow of things that were to come.  A contrast is being made between shadow and reality.  It is Christ who is seen as the fulfillment of the good things to come. He is seen as fulfilling the shadows.  Once the shadows are fulfilled there is no need to continue observing the shadows.  This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Colossians.

       Even if Paul is saying don't let anyone judge you but the body of Christ (the church), it doesn't nullify his saying these regulations are a shadow of things to come which other Scripture identifies as having come through Christ.  Once having come, there is no need for the shadows. Understanding this is what Paul is saying, most translators of this passage render soma as "reality" or "substance" to show that it is Christ who is the reality that has displaced the shadows.

       It is apparent these Gentile Colossian Christians were not only being pressured by Jews to keep Mosaic regulations that were no longer necessary but were also being pressured, possibly by their pagan friends, to engage in other behaviors unnecessary in their Christian walk.  Paul points out Christ died to free them from all such regulations.

       Colossians 21: 8-23:  Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.  He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.    

       With the Christ event God changed the manner in which He deals with mankind. He abolished law that led to separation and made relationship with Him available to everyone.  He abolished works of law as a basis for establishing righteousness. He changed the way moral law is administered.  Under the New Covenant, God writes the moral law in our hearts and not on tablets of stone.  God’s moral law becomes a natural expression of righteous behavior and not just a mechanical reaction to a written code.  Our behavior becomes motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of others and not just the avoidance of penalty for failing to keep a written code. 

       The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts in the matrix of God’s law being written in our hearts.  It is this written law in our hearts expressed in love based behavioral modifications that results in a reconciled, harmonious and forgiving relationship with both God and man.

PART TWENTY-FIVE