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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWENTY-SIX

SERMON DELIVERED ON 02-09-19

       

       Today we will continue our discussion of the ramifications of the decisions made at the Jerusalem conference as covered in Acts 15.  Last week we began to explore what it means to live under the New Covenant and have the law written in our hearts. As we have seen, having the law written in our hearts involves being committed to the law of Christ which is the law of love. 

       The law written in our hearts is clearly not the separatist religious law contained in the Old Covenant.  This is made plain by the conclusions reached at the Jerusalem conference and the plain instruction given to the Colossian Christians regarding Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, etc.  As previously discussed, Paul makes it plain in his letter to the Ephesians that the laws of separation have been abolished.  Therefore it should be apparent it is not these laws that are written in our hearts.

        It should be clear it is the moral law, in existence since creation, that is in view when Paul writes to the Galatians that the "entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is the same royal law spoken of by James as discussed last week. We also saw last week how  Paul has the moral law in view when he instructs the Galatian Christians as to what kind of behavior they are to avoid. We see Christ recite some of the moral law when asked what must be done to obtain eternal life.

        Matthew 19:16-19:   Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."  "Which ones?" the man inquired.   Jesus replied, "`Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and `love your neighbor as yourself.'

        It is instructive that Jesus says nothing about Sabbath or Holy Day observance, dietary restrictions or any other such regulations of the Mosaic Law. Jesus only recites portions of the moral law.  In answering the man in the manner that he did, was Jesus saying that keeping the moral law would earn one eternal life?  You will remember we asked the same question of Paul when we referenced his statement as recorded in Romans 2:13.  Paul said “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13).

      As previously discussed, when seeking to have our sins forgiven and be justified in the sight of God, there is the expectation of repentance which is the turning away from behaviors contrary to the law of love and turning to behaviors that are in harmony with the law of love. Repentance is seen throughout Scripture as a prerequisite for establishing a relationship with God. Apostle James addresses this issue as well.

        James 2:14-17:  What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 

        James is providing a practical example of faith being expressed through love and that it is only this kind of faith that has efficacy. As covered last week,  Paul told the Galatians that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. This is the key to our whole discussion.   Faith in Christ is defined by behaving according to the Law of Love and the Law of Love is defined by the moral code.  By placing faith in Christ for salvation we commit to behaving according to the royal law of love. While it is the sacrifice of Christ that saves us, that faith must be expressed through practicing the law of love. 

        We began our discussion several sermons ago by asking what Paul meant by saying  we are not under law but under grace while at the same time saying we are not to sin which Scripture shows is the breaking of law?   Let us revisit this passage and go a little deeper into it.

        Romans 6:14-18: For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.   What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

       Being under law places one under its control.  As humans, we all break law.  Law demands a penalty for disobedience to its requirements. It is powerless to provide release from such penalty. We become a slave to law in so much that we can’t get released from its penalty.  Law holds us hostage.   Christ has provided release from the control of law by meeting its demands of penalty.  We are therefore no longer slaves to law because it no longer has a claim over us. The claim has been met by Christ.  

        In Christ we are under grace which provides for continual protection from the penalty of eternal death for breaking law.  This continuous protection proceeds from God in response to what Christ did.  This continuous protection presupposes our having faith in Christ expressed through love.  We become slaves to the law of love which is the same as saying we become slaves to righteousness.  This righteousness is not defined by the practice of religious regulations sometimes referred to as legalism, but by expressing the fundamental moral laws of human conduct extant since creation.

        Our slavery to the law of love doesn’t earn us life.  Christ did that by what He accomplished on the cross.  Our slavery to righteousness is our expression of faith in Christ.  It tells Christ Jesus we love him, want to obey Him and appreciate what He has done for us.  It tells Jesus we have made the choice to have the law of love written in our hearts to have it become part of our very conscience.

        Some feel that any required obedience to law is legalism and therefore runs contrary to grace as the basis for establishing a relationship with God.  Let’s define what legalism is and what it is not.  Requiring obedience to law as a means of establishing a righteous standing before God is legalism.  We can’t earn a righteous standing before God based on our obedience.  Only the sacrifice of Christ can establish us as righteous before God. Christ had a righteous standing before God by living a sinless life and it is His righteousness that enables us to have a relationship with God.

        Is it legalistic to be required to obey moral law?  It can be if we are obeying law to maintain a righteous standing before God.  God doesn’t require us to keep the moral law or any other law as a means of establishing or maintaining righteousness with him.  That was tried with Israel and it didn’t work.  It must be understood, however, that God does require and expect us to honor the righteous status bestowed upon us through what Christ did. We do this by obeying the law of love.  This is how we express faith in God.   Keeping the law of love is not legalism. We don’t keep law to earn a righteous standing before God.  We keep law as a response to what God has done for us.  It is a demonstration and expression of faith in God. 

       This expression of faith, however, does not include keeping laws that have been done away by God.  The Old Covenant separatist regulations have been done away.  Our expression of faith in God does not include the keeping of these regulations. The same is true of regulations and prohibitions added by men which become looked upon as being required to please God when in effect they are not so required.  We find such added regulations and prohibitions in fundamentalist Christian fellowships and even in many mainstream Christian churches. All such requirements constitute legalism because they are not required by God and yet are believed to be required by God in order to be pleasing to Him and be given eternal life.

       As a youth, I attended a fundamentalist Christian fellowship that determined that such things as playing cards, going to a movie, dancing, playing pool or drinking alcoholic beverages was sin. This is an example of religious legalism. This is an example of adding regulations that are not required by God. It was believed gambling was sinful and that since playing cards is associated with gambling, it must also be sinful. As it turns out, neither is sinful.  Going to the movies was sinful because it was felt one was giving acceptance to the sinful behavior being portrayed on the sliver screen. Dancing was a no, no because it could lead to sinful sexual activity. Drinking alcoholic beverages was sin because it could lead to drunkenness.

       Playing pool was associated with pool halls where sinners hung out so pool was off limits. Reminds me of the musical, “the Music Man.”  In that musical the music man Harold Hill came into town to build a youth marching band and used the fact that teens were hanging our at the local pool hall as a sign of sinful behavior which could be avoided by these teens joining his marching band.     

       These are all examples of regulations added by man based on faulty reasoning as to what sin is. Within legalism, the thing is often though to be sin rather than the misuse of the thing. Sin is not the thing but the misuse of the thing. If dancing led to committing fornication or adultery, it would be the fornication or adultery that is sin, not the dancing. If drinking beer leads to drunkenness, it is the drunkenness that becomes sin, not the drinking of the beer.

       An extreme example of the use of the thing being considered sin as opposed to the misuse of the thing being sin is seen in the Shaker movement of the 1700 hundreds.  Back in the 1700’s a religious group appeared in the US called the Shakers. These folks looked upon sex as sin and preached complete celibacy as the pathway to a righteous standing before God.  Well, there aren’t any Shakers left.  I wonder why? 

 Conclusion:

        We began our extended discussion of the decision made at the Jerusalem conference by asking “What is and what ain’t.”  What law is gone and what law remains. The law that ain’t is all law that prohibited Israelites and Gentiles from having a relationship with each other and prohibited Gentiles from having a relationship with God.  Also gone is all law that was never authorized by God in the first place.  This would be all legalistic regulations Christians come up with which have no bearing on fellowship with God and tend to block fellowship with each other.

       The law that remains is the moral law extant from creation.  This is the law that facilitates reconciliation.  This is the law that facilitates forgiveness and mercy. This is the law that honors and sustains respect for the sovereignty of God.  This is the law that defines our faith in God.  This is the law that is. 

       There is one additional thing I need to cover in this mini series before we get back to our journey through the Book of Acts. That is the issue of the dietary laws of the Old Covenant.  This was a major issue in transitioning from the Old to the New Covenant. For some it is still a major issue.  I think it may be instructive to review the dynamics of this issue before we get back to the Book of Acts.     

       Some within the Christian community teach that we should obey the dietary laws established under the Old Covenant.  Under that covenant, Israel was prohibited from eating the flesh of certain creatures including swine, rabbits and fish that did not have both fins and scales. These Old Covenant regulations are defined in Leviticus, chapter eleven.  Are these dietary laws incumbent upon us today?  To properly address this issue, we need to begin by looking at the issue of clean and unclean as it pertains to Israel. Under the Old Covenant, to be clean or unclean was a huge issue.  There were many laws governing ones status of being clean versus being unclean. Ones standing before God was predicated on strict observance of these cleanliness laws.  Let’s look at some examples.

       Menstruation caused uncleanness for seven days, and whoever touched the woman's bed was unclean until evening.  If a man slept with his wife during menstruation, he would also be unclean for seven days, and any bed he laid on would also be unclean (Leviticus 15).

       Normal sexual intercourse rendered both husband and wife unclean (Leviticus 15:18). Childbirth made women unclean. For a boy baby, the mother was unclean for a week, and cleansed or purified 33 days later. For a girl baby, the mother was unclean for two weeks, and purified 66 days later. In both cases, her purification ceremony involved a burnt offering and a sin offering (Leviticus 12:1-8).

      If a person touched a corpse, he would be unclean for seven days and be unable to participate in religious activities such as the Passover (Numbers 5 & 9). If a person died in a tent, all who were in the tent would be unclean for a week (Numbers 19:14).

       If an unclean man touched anyone or spit on anyone, that person would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:7-8). If the unclean man touched a pot, the pot had to be broken (Leviticus 15:12).  If a person touched an unclean bed, he would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:4-10). Even if a person accidentally touched something that was deemed to be unclean, he was considered guilty of being unclean.  He had to confess his sin and make a sin offering (Leviticus 5:3-6).

       You will notice that to be unclean in these various ways was considered sin. A sin offering had to be made to return one to a state of being clean before God.

       Various skin diseases could cause a person to be considered unclean. If a sore was more than skin deep and the hair turned white, the person was unclean (Leviticus 13).  If the skin problem spread, the priest pronounced the person unclean. Such persons had to live outside the camp and warn people that they were unclean.

       When a person could be declared clean, the priest killed a bird, dipped another bird in the blood, sprinkled the person and released the live bird (Leviticus 14). The person then had to shave and wash twice before he was fully clean. Then he had to offer a guilt offering and a sin offering, and the priest was to anoint him on the right earlobe, the right thumb and the right big toe.

       People who were unclean because of a dead person could be cleansed by the water of cleansing, which was made with the ashes of a specially sacrificed red heifer.  Although the ashes could be used to purify people from sin, people who made the ashes were unclean, and those who touched the water were unclean until evening. Those who failed to be cleansed in this way were to be expelled (Numbers 19). The ashes had to be put in a clean place outside the camp.

       These laws of clean and unclean appear rather unusual, and the purification ceremonies even more unusual. Why would a red heifer be more effective than a black one?  Why dump sacrificial ashes in a clean place rather than an unclean place?

       Why was sexual intercourse defiling?  Why were sin offerings required for circumstances beyond a person's control? Why were pots broken rather than simply washed?  Why did the water of cleansing make some people clean and others unclean?  Why anoint the right big toe instead of the left little toe?

       The system of clean and unclean given to Israel was very complicated and difficult to sustain.  You can see why Peter, in Acts 15 described the Mosaic system as very burdensome for Israel.  We have touched on just a few of the multiple dozens of such regulations under the Old Covenant. 

       As you read through the Pentateuch you will see one over riding refrain.  All these regulations were given to achieve separation from the rest of the human race and to keep the Israelites in constant need of doing physical things to maintain an awareness of their privileged status as God’s chosen people.  Included in these regulations was prohibition against eating certain kinds of animals which were defined as unclean.

Clean and unclean meats:

       We see distinctions between clean and unclean animals being made before the Mosaic covenant.  Noah was told to take more of the clean animals than the non-clean animals into the ark. After the flood, we are told in Genesis 8:20, “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds; he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” Then we find in Genesis 9:1-3:  

       Genesis 9:1-3: Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

       For Noah, the distinction between clean and unclean animals appears to relate to sacrifices, not food.   Nothing is recorded as to God telling Noah that the animal distinctions He gave him had to do with diet.  The Jewish Encyclopedia, under the heading "Clean and Unclean Animals," volume 4, page 110, says the following: "It seems that in the mind of this writer (The writer of Genesis) the distinction between clean and unclean animals was intended for sacrifices only: for in the following chapter he makes God say: `Everything that moves shall be food for you.'”

       If the distinction between clean and unclean organisms was for sacrifices only after the flood and possibly before the flood as well, why does God now make clean versus unclean a matter of what the Israelites could eat or not eat.  Why did God make it a dietary consideration for Israel?

      Leviticus 20; 24-26: But I said to you, "You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations. "`You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground--those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

       God set apart certain organisms as being unclean. In what respect were they unclean?  Were they not good for food and is that why they were unclean?  Where these dietary restrictions employed for health reasons? 

       It is instructive that that when you read about the various things that could make a person unclean, they are invariably tied to being ceremonially clean or unclean.  The laws of clean and unclean are seen as ceremonial.  Here are a few examples:

       Leviticus 12:2: "Say to the Israelites: `A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.

       Leviticus 12:6-7: When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.   "`These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl.

       Leviticus 17:15: Anyone, whether native-born or alien, who eats anything found dead or torn by wild animals must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be ceremonially unclean till evening; then he will be clean.

       Well, what about the dietary regulations?  Were they for ceremonial reasons as well?  Let’s take a look.

       Leviticus 11:2-4: "Say to the Israelites: `Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud. "`There are some that only chew the cud or only have a split hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you.

       Leviticus 5:2: If a person touches anything ceremonially unclean--whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground--even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.   

      Deuteronomy 14:7: However, of those that chew the cud or that have a split hoof completely divided you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the coney.  Although they chew the cud, they do not have a split hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. 

       Being ceremonially clean or unclean is seen as the overriding dynamic associated with the laws of clean and unclean, including the dietary laws.  As already discussed, these laws were designed to create and maintain separation between Israelites and non-Israelites

       Deuteronomy 14:21:  Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God. 

       It is Scriptures such as these that make it evident that distinctions as to what could be and not be eaten was part of the comprehensive system of ceremonial regulations that were designed to show separation of Israel from the rest of mankind and facilitate holiness before God. These were not health laws as some contend.  If they were health laws, then God was protecting Israel from problems related to diet while virtually saying to the Gentiles, “I don’t care about your diet or if you get sick from what you eat.” 

       The very fact that non-Israelites were given the green light to even eat animals that had died of themselves, shows these food laws were not to protect health, did not have universal application and applied only to Israel.  It was a sin for an Israelite to eat a dead animal.  It apparently was not a sin for a non-Israelite to do so.  If it was, God was sanctioning Gentile sin.

        It is quite apparent that the dietary regulations of the Old Covenant were part of the greater body of law having to do with being ceremonially clean before God. These were "holiness laws." Under the Old Covenant, holiness was attained by strict adherence to the regulations seen in the Law of Moses. These laws of clean and unclean were established to facilitate a holy relationship between God and Israel. The dietary regulations of the Old Covenant system were part of these holiness regulations. 

       Under the New Covenant, holiness before God is not attained through the ceremonial regulations of the Old Covenant but through the sacrifice of Christ. We appear holy before God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross and not because we avoid eating a ham sandwich.  Paul makes this plain in his letter to the Colossians.

       Colossians 1:21-22: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation--     

       Some teach that because distinctions between clean and unclean organisms preceded establishment of the Old Covenant, these distinctions are still binding upon Christians today. It is argued that because they predated establishment of the Old Covenant, they would not have been abrogated by transition to the New Covenant. They remain as stand alone regulations.

       Those who teach this also point out that in the New Testament narrative we see evidence for the first century Jewish Christians observing the foods laws.  In the vision given to Peter of the clean and unclean meats, as recorded in Acts 10, we find Peter recoiling at the very though of eating unclean animals.  This vision occurred some ten years after the ascension of Christ. 

       Is it valid to conclude that because distinctions between clean and unclean organisms preceded establishment of the Old Covenant, regulations pertaining to such distinctions are still enforce for us today?  Is it valid to conclude that because first century Jewish Christians were adhering to these regulations they must be still valid for us today? Let's answer the last question first.  

       A careful reading of the New Testament narrative shows the entire Jewish Christian community continued to keep the Mosaic regulations in full or in part after the Christ event.  This included the dietary laws.  They had kept these regulations all their lives and even though they had come to recognize and accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, they continued to observe the Mosaic regulations. It wasn't a matter of them only keeping the dietary regulations but keeping the Mosaic regulations in general.  Being weaned from obeying these regulations was a slow and arduous learning process that took many years to accomplish.

       Claiming we must keep the Old Covenant dietary regulations because they preceded establishment of the Old Covenant is a bogus argument.  As already discussed, pre Old Covenant distinctions between clean and unclean animals appear to have been for sacrificial purposes only and not dietary purposes. These were not dietary regulations but sacrificial regulations prior to establishment of the Old Covenant. Remember what God told Noah after the flood. “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

        Next week we will turn to the NT and its treatment of dietary issues

PART TWENTY-SEVEN