WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

 

THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWENTY-THREE

SERMON DELIVERED ON 01-05-19

       In my last sermon in this series I discussed in some detail what it is that is called the Law of Moses and how this became an issue leading to what is commonly referred to as the Jerusalem Conference as recorded in Acts 15. Some were claiming that the Mosaic Law had to be kept in order to receive salvation.  I concluded last time with showing how the Law of Moses included all sacrificial law, ceremonial law, dietary law and worship law.  It included the keeping of the Sabbath and annual Feast Days.  It included moral law as seen in the Ten Commandants and the many civil laws. It was the keeping of this great body of law that became an issue relative to Gentiles converts to Christianity.

       Some Jewish Christian converts were insisting that the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses which would have included observing the Sabbath, annual Feasts, dietary regulations and a host of other rules.  This issue came to a head at the church in Antioch and Paul and others traveled to Jerusalem to take up this issue with the leadership of the church in Jerusalem.

       The question before them was simply this: Must Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses and do all that is contained within that law. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed those present.

       Acts 15: 7-11: After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

       Following Peter’s speech, Paul and Barnabas told of the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them, thus giving evidence to the Gentiles being accepted by God outside of being circumcised and adhering to the Law of Moses.  Apostle James, a brother of Jesus, then got up and spoke of how the prophet’s spoke of how the Gentiles would come to be accepted by God.  He then made a judgement.

       Acts 15:19-20: It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

       In James saying “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” he is backing up Peter who spoke of the Law of Moses as a yoke which Israel could not bear.  He is telling the group that the Gentiles should not be burdened with this body of Law.  Gentiles should not be required to adhere to the requirements of this Law which would include being circumcised, observing the Sabbath, Feast days, dietary restrictions and a host of other regulations that were al part of the Law of Moses.

       It may be asked why James directed the Gentile converts to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”  Aren’t regulations against eating blood part of the Law of Moses?  We find prohibition against eating blood in Leviticus 7 and 17 and Deuteronomy 12 and 15.  These prohibitions involved the proper draining of blood of animals killed for food or sacrifice. Strangled animals would not have had their blood shed properly.

        So was James picking out certain regulations from the Law of Moses and imposing these laws on the Gentile believers?  Why did James only ask that Gentile converts abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality and from the meat of strangled animals and from blood?

       Idol worship, sexual activity associated with idol worship and eating meats associated with idol worship were all common practices among the Gentiles. These practices were very offensive to the Jews.  James may have simply been trying to insure that such practices were clearly understood be the Gentiles to be unacceptable.  We see in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 that Paul modified this instruction some and allowed meats offered to idols to be eaten provided it didn’t offend a brother in Christ.

       It is apparent that the Gentile Christians were not required to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.  There is nothing in the NT narrative that teaches that Gentiles Christians were required to keep the Sabbath, Feast days and dietary regulations or any other requirements of the Law of Moses. This body of Law pertained to Israel only and never pertained to Gentiles. Much of this body of law was intended to separate Israel from the Gentile world. Under the New Covenant such separation was abolished. 

       Many of the Jewish converts to Christianity continued to keep the Mosaic Law as this was their heritage. No doubt there were Gentile proselytes to Judaism who did the same. This is why you see evidence in the NT of Christians keeping the Sabbath, Feast Days, dietary laws and other regulations of the Law of Moses. It took time for them to realize they were no longer under obligation to keep this body of law.  The writer to the Hebrews made it clear that the Old Covenant was being replaced by a New Covenant resulting in the Old Covenant being abolished and passing away.    

       Hebrews 8:13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.    

       The writer says the Old Covenant was obsolete and would soon disappear.  While the Christ event made the Old Covenant obsolete, adherence too many of its regulations didn’t disappear until the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.  Yet, throughout Christian history, various Christian groups have insisted on following certain aspects of the regulations of the Old Covenant. Paul had to constantly deal with this during his ministry.

      The keeping of law and its relationship to salvation and pleasing God has been a contentious topic in Christianity from the beginning. It was a major concern in the first century Church as seen in the letters of Paul and the book of Acts.  It has continued to be an issue in the Church over the past 2000 years often dividing fellowships, families and friends. We in this fellowship certainly know how contentious an issue this can be having gone through what we went through in the 90’s and beyond.

       When it was determined that Gentile converts to Christianity were not required to keep the Law of Moses did this include all the regulations contained in this body of law?  What about moral law.  Surely the moral law of the Ten Commandments was not abolished, was it.  

       Since the matter of law keeping has been such a contentious topic in our past I want to follow up our discussion of the Jerusalem Conference with a couple of sermons dealing with the whole issue of law and salvation. We will simple title these sermons “What Is and What Ain’t.”  What is required of us and isn’t required of us as to the keeping of law and how does it relate to salvation.  So let’s begin this series within a series by going to Romans, chapter six.

       To the Roman church Paul said, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14).  Paul follows up this statement by saying, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:15).  Apostle John identifies sin as the breaking of law (1 John 3:4). 

       1 John 3:4:  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.

       If sin is lawlessness and we are not to sin, there must be law that we are obligated to obey.  So what does Paul mean in saying sin shall not be our master because 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?   

Types of Law:

      Law, as it pertains to humans, is generally seen as a system of rules of conduct recognized as necessary for responsible and acceptable human behavior.  This is often referred to as moral law.  It could also be called behavioral law. Prohibition against murder and theft is an example of such law.  We have civil law that governs societal behavior.  A speed limit is an example of such law. 

       We have physical laws which are rules that govern the workings of the physical universe.  These laws are often deduced from the observation that under given conditions, a particular phenomenon always occurs in the same way. The law of gravity is an example of physical of law. 

       We have religious law which often consists of worship regulations and procedures for expiating sin. Such law is often derived from the writings of religious leaders who claim special insights as to what is required by the supernatural.

Divine Law:

       The Biblical Scriptures reveal Divine Law.  Divine Law is law established by God.  Divine physical law was established at creation of the universe. It was established to facilitate how the universe operates.  Divine moral or behavioral law is seen as operative since the creation of beings given the ability to make choices as to how they behave.  The Scriptures identify the breaking of divine law as sin. Sin is seen as any behavior that is contrary to the requirements of divinely established law.  The Scriptures reveal that both humans and angels can and have sinned. 

       We see human sin identified early in the Bible.  We see from the beginning that murder was considered sinful behavior when Cain killed Abel. God told Cain,

       Genesis 4:7: "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it"

       Cain chose not to do right. He did not master sin. Instead he committed sin by killing his brother Able.

       When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph he said, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9).  Adultery was considered a behavior contrary to God's will and therefore it was considered sin.   The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah are described as having committed grievous sin (Genesis 18:20). The book of Jude identifies this sin as sexual immorality. This tells us from early on there were laws governing sexual behavior and to violate such law was to commit sin. God brought the flood in Noah’s day because of sin.  From the beginning we see sin used as the designation for behaving contrary to divinely established rules of conduct.  

        Religious law also appears to have been established from early on. We see sacrifices being offered to God by Cain, Able, Noah and Abraham. Circumcision was established with Abraham.  Abraham is seen giving a certain percentage of the spoils of military victory to the priest Melchizedek, indicating the existence of some kind of rule about such things. It is evident that a combination of moral, religious and civil law was extant from early on as seen in this statement about Abraham:

        Genesis 26:5: Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.  

        At the time of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, we see a rather complicated mixture of moral, civil and religious law established within the context of a Covenant relationship between God and Israel.  At the heart of this Covenant system was a grouping of ten laws which were called the Ten Commandments. 

       Exodus 34:27-28:  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant-the Ten Commandments. 

       Deuteronomy 4:13:  He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.

       In addition to the Ten Commandments, Moses was given many additional categories of law governing everything from interpersonal relations and dietary practices to hygiene, farming practices and disease control.  Worship regulations included a demanding sacrificial system, the keeping of the Sabbath, various festivals, New Moon observances and a complicated system of ceremonial washings.  Circumcision was established as a covenant sign between God and Abraham and continued as such within Israel (Genesis 17:9-14). Keeping of the weekly Sabbath was established as a sign of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13-17).  A Priesthood was established to facilitate strict protocols for carrying out the worship requirements of the covenant and enforce the covenant in general.

       It’s apparent that many of the laws that made up the Covenant between God and Israel were extant prior to its establishment.  We see moral law in operation from the time of Adam and Eve. We see sacrifices to God established as worship protocol from the beginning. The law of circumcision began with Abraham.

       In Deuteronomy 11:1 the Israelites are told to love the Lord their God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands.  This is very similar to the sequence of regulations as found in Genesis 26:5 regarding Abraham.  It is evident the Covenant with Israel was a mixture of preexisting laws and new laws established with Israel at Sinai.

       A good example of moral law included in the Covenant with Israel and in operation from the beginning of human existence is seen in Leviticus 18.  Here we find numerous regulations pertaining to proper sexual conduct.  Leviticus 18 teaches that it was the violation of these laws that defiled the Gentile nations surrounding Israel.

      Leviticus 18:24-25: Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.  Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

       This clearly shows that these sexual conduct laws had application to all peoples and where not laws for Israel only. These were not some new laws that were being introduced to Israel as part of the Covenant. These were preexisting laws that were added to the covenant.      

       Breaking these laws regarding sexual relations could not have defiled the nations surrounding Israel unless they applied to those nations. It is apparent God was simply reconfirming these sexual conduct laws by including them in the Covenant He was making with Israel so they would not repeat the sins that defiled the Gentile nations. 

       It is very apparent that there was moral law extant from the beginning and this law became incorporated into the Covenant made with Israel. It is also very apparent that there was much additional law added to this Covenant that was not extant prior to the establishment of the Covenant. This included a great deal of religious law.

       While religious law such as sacrifices and circumcism were extant prior to the establishment of the Covenant with Israel and subsequently incorporated into that Covenant, there is no Scriptural record of Sabbath keeping, the keeping of Feast Days, New Moons, or other such regulations extant prior to the establishment of the Covenant with Israel. The Scriptures give no hint of the nations surrounding Israel or pre-Covenant Israel becoming defiled because they didn’t keep the Sabbath, Holy Days, or any of the other religious regulations of the Covenant. These requirements appear to have begun with Israel’s escape from Egypt and they became incorporated into the Covenant made at Sinai. 

       Even though Israel agreed to obey the requirements of this Covenant between them and God, they were never able to do so in any consistent manner.  As Peter said at the Jerusalem conference, this Covenant was a yoke that Israel was never able to bare.

       After the death of Solomon, Israel split into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  Both Kingdoms continued to miserably fail to keep the Covenant. Israel was eventually invaded by the Assyrians and its people were dispersed among various nations.  Judah was invaded by Babylon and taken captive.  After 70 years the captives in Babylon were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple.  This temple was greatly remodeled during the reign of Herod the Great who made it into the magnificent structure that stood when Jesus was born in the Judean town of Bethlehem.

        By the time of Christ, the religious leadership of Israel had split into various parties and had added many additional regulations to the Covenant law.  Scripture shows that a New Covenant was to be inaugurated with the coming of the Messiah.  This New Covenant would be a spiritual Covenant in so much as Gods law would be written in the heart and not on tablets of stone.  The implication is that Gods law would become a natural expression of righteous behavior and not just a mechanical reaction to a written code.  God’s law would become part of ones very fabric of conscience.   Our behavior would be motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of others and not just the avoidance of penalty for failing to keep law.   

Back to Paul:       

        This brings us back to Paul’s statement about us not being under law but under grace and yet being obligated to avoid sin which is the breaking of law.  What law are we not under and what law must we obey in order to avoid sin?  What law is it that is written in the heart under the New Covenant?  What does it mean to not be under law but under grace and yet not sin which means keeping law? 

       When Paul speaks of law in his various writings, it is evident that at times he is speaking of law in general and at other times he is referring to the Old Covenant as a specific body of law or some portion thereof.  It is clear that regardless of how Paul references law, he maintains that keeping law is not what justifies us with God.  This was a major change in how God was dealing with His human creation.  Under the Old Covenant, a proper relationship with God was dependent upon obedience to the Old Covenant law. It was a relationship based on works.  Even Gentiles believed that what they did in relation to their various deities was critical to a right standing with such deities.

       What Paul was introducing was a new way of relating to God.  This was a huge change of paradigm and the shift to this new paradigm did not come easy.  While the Christ event facilitated establishment of a New Covenant, adherence to the Old Covenant didn’t just suddenly cease.  Adherence to this system of law continued another 40 years until A.D. 70 when the temple and priesthood were destroyed during the Roman/Jewish war. The destruction of the temple effectively ended the means to facilitate the sacrificial system and many of the ceremonial requirements of the Old Covenant. 

        The letter to the Hebrew Christians is all about the covenantal transition that was taking place in the first century. It is evident from what is said in this letter that the Old Covenant was still being adhered too but was also in the process of passing away. 

        Paul spent much of his time trying to convince his contemporaries the old system was no longer applicable and that a new system was being established that involved a different approach to God.  The Old Covenant provided for blessings and a relationship with God based on Israel’s obedience to the laws contained in that Covenant.  Israel failed miserably in keeping their part of the agreement.  Paul showed this failure was not the fault of the Old Covenant law but resulted from mans inability to keep it. 

       Paul shows God established a new system where we can have a relationship with Him based not on what we do but on what Christ Jesus did. This relationship would involve forgiveness of sin (grace) and the indwelling of God’s Spirit to facilitate expression of love which would fulfill the law.  When Christ died, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom signifying the end of the need for the Old Covenant system as the pathway to a relationship with God.

        When Paul speaks of not being under law he is speaking of not being under law as a means of establishing a relationship with God. That approach was tried with Israel and it didn’t work.  Paul was teaching a new approach.  Paul taught we can establish a relationship with God not by what we do but by what Jesus did.  Paul makes it very clear; however, that this change in how we relate to God does not do away with our obligation to obey law.

        The question that must be answered is what law are we obligated to obey?  Law has been around since Adam and Eve.  The Old Covenant contained a specific configuration of moral, civil and religious law which if adhered to would facilitate a harmonious relationship with God and man. The New Covenant facilitates a relationship with God based on Christ’s atonement for sin but also speaks of God’s laws being written in our hearts.  What law is written in our hearts?  How does it differ from the law given to Israel?  

       We will discuss and answer these questions next week.  But today we will once again reflect on Christ’s atonement for sin by partaking of the bread and wine which are symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus.  At the supper Jesus shared with His disciples just before His arrest, he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." He then took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

       The death of Jesus facilitated inauguration of the New Covenant that we see beginning to be implemented by the developing Christian community as seen in our ongoing review of the Book of Acts.  The New Covenant eliminated the separatist laws of the Old Covenant.  However, this New Covenant, as did the Old Covenant, requires we practice what is called the law of love. On the night before His death, Jesus gave a rather lengthy sermon to those with Him at the dinner table. In this sermon Jesus several times commanded His disciples to love one another.

       John 13:34: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

       John 15:12: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.    

       John 15:17: This is my command: Love each other. 

       Just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus firmly commanded that we love one another.  This wasn’t just a suggestion.  It’s a command. As we move through this mini series I entitle “What is and What Ain’t,” we will discuss what this law of love is.  Today, as we partake of the elements, let us be reminded that the death of Jesus not only facilitated our deliverance from the penalty for sin but also places us in a Covenantal relationship with God that requires we love one another.

PART TWENTY-FOUR