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WHAT IS AND WHAT AIN’T:  PART TWO
  New Covenant versus Old Covenant law
  (What Is The law Of The New Covenant?)

 

altThe Cornelius Event:

        The Cornelius event is very instructive as to the question of what laws are applicable under the New Covenant and what laws are not. In Acts 10 we have the account of the Gentile Cornelius, the Roman centurion who became a Christian.  Cornelius was an uncircumcised Gentile Roman centurion.  He would have had charge of 100 soldiers. He would be on duty 24/7.  He would be responsible for maintaining peace and enforcing the laws of the Roman Empire.  It is apparent Cornelius and his family were not polytheistic as was true of much of the Greek/Roman world of the first century.  He and his family are identified as fearing God and practicing works of righteousness such as giving to those in need and praying to God regularly.  It is apparent Cornelius and his family acknowledged the God of Israel as the one true God and conducted their lives accordingly. 

        Acts 10:1-2: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.

       Were Cornelius and his family Gentile proselytes of Judaism? The English word proselyte is from the Greek word proselutos and basically means to embraces a belief one didn’t formally have.  There apparently were two types of Gentile proselytes in view in NT times according to historical sources from that period.  There was the “proselyte of righteousness” who was a proselyte who became circumcised and required to keep the entire Law of Moses. Secondly, there was the “proselyte of the gate.”  This type of proselyte was not required to be circumcised nor keep the whole Mosaic Law.  This type of proselyte was only required to keep certain Mosaic regulations such as prohibition against  idolatry, blasphemy against God, homicide, unchastity, theft or plundering, rebellion against rulers and the eating of animal flesh with the blood still in the meat. 

       Some have conjectured that Cornelius was this type of proselyte. While it is possible Cornelius was a "proselyte of the gate," we know he was not a so called "proselyte of righteousness" which would have meant he had become circumcised and require to keep the entire Mosaic Law. Peter's account of the conversion of Cornelius makes this very evident.  We see in the two accounts of Peters visit to the home of Cornelius that Cornelius was an uncircumcised Gentile.        

       Acts 10: 34-35: Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him (KJV).  Verse 44-45; “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.       

        Acts 15:7-11:  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.

        What yoke was it that Israel was unable to bear?  The yoke they were unable to bear was trying to establish and maintain a relationship with God by works of the law.  This included circumcision, and all regulations that separated Israel from Gentiles.  The Gentile Cornelius was clearly keeping the moral code as he is described as doing works of righteousness.  Obedience to the moral code has been defined as works of righteousness since creation. On the other hand, as a Gentile, Cornelius works of righteousness would not have included being circumcised and the keeping of the ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations of the Mosaic Law.   

        In not requiring Gentiles to be placed under the yoke the Israelites were unable to bear, Peter is not referring to the moral law.  Obeying the moral law was a requirement irrespective of covenants. It applied to all mankind from creation. It was included in the Old Covenant but not inclusive to the Old Covenant. Peter was not suggesting that Gentiles no longer had to keep moral law.  Peter was saying that Gentiles should not be required to observe the ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations of the Mosaic Law in order to be accepted by God.  This was the yoke that Israel was unable to bear.

       The circumcised believers were astonished that God had accepted this Gentile and his family because they knew these Gentiles were uncircumcised.  They knew these Gentiles were not "proselyte of righteousness" converts to Judaism. They knew this Gentile family didn’t keep the Mosaic regulations.  They knew this Roman centurion did not keep the Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws, do sacrifices or perform any of the other regulations they believed made only Israel eligible to have a relationship with God. As a Roman centurion it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to do so. Yet here they see God confirming that these uncircumcised Gentiles were being accepted by God.

       After his conversion to Christianity, was Cornelius required to be circumcised, start keeping the Sabbath, Feast Days, new moons, dietary restrictions, and the host of other Mosaic regulations in order to maintain his new found relationship with God?  No he was not.  At the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15, Peters asks: "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?  James then goes on to make a ruling that asks the Gentile converts to adhere to some very basic requirements. Nothing is said about keeping such  Mosaic regulations as Sabbath keeping, Feast Days, tithing, dietary restrictions or other such requirements found in the Law of Moses.    

       Some will point out that the NT Scriptures show first century Christians keeping the Sabbath, Feast Days and dietary regulations. It is argued that since this is the case, these regulations could not have been abolished and Christians to this very day are obligated to keep these regulations.

       It certainly is true that first century Jewish converts to Christianity and probably many Gentile proselytes to Judaism continued to keep these regulations of the Law of Moses.  As stated earlier in this series, Jewish converts to Christianity did not suddenly stop keeping the Mosaic Law.  First century Jewish converts to Christianity were not converts as we generally understand that word.  They did not leave Judaism for Christianity.  They simply added Christ to the Mosaic system.  Some of these Jewish Christians also believed the Gentile Christians should adhere to the Mosaic system. That is the issue being addressed as recorded in Acts 15. 

        It was this Jewish mindset that initially created such a challenge for Peter and his associates. Peter would not have had reservations about going to the house of Cornelius if this Gentile was a convert to Judaism and was keeping the Mosaic Law.  God showed Peter through the vision of clean and unclean meats recorded in Acts 10 that Gentiles were being welcomed into fellowship with God outside of being required to keep the ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations of the Law of Moses.  However, for Jewish converts to Christianity, separation from observing Mosaic regulations was a slow and arduous process. This was even true for some of the Christian leadership.

        We see this in the altercation between Paul and Peter as recorded in Galatians 2.  Peter apparently had been eating with Gentiles but when some Jewish associates showed up, Peter withdrew himself because He feared what they might say. In doing this, other Jewish Christians including even Paul's companion Barnabas withdrew from eating with the Gentiles. 

       Paul rebuked Peter for being two faced and pointed out that Gentiles were not compelled to live as Jews.  How did Jews live?  They lived by a variety of Mosaic regulations which included dietary laws which Gentiles did not observe. How did Gentiles live? They did not observe Mosaic regulations unless they became proselytes to Judaism. The moral law was not at issue here. Both Jews and Gentiles would be expected to observe moral law. The moral law was extant from the beginning and was included in the Law of Moses but not inclusive to that Law. Moral law was as applicable to Gentiles as it was to Israelites and always had been.

       What was at issue here were separatist laws that were inclusive to the Law of Moses. It is this law that was done away through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is this law that Paul understood was no longer in force.

       Peter apparently had come to understood this and was living like a Gentile as Paul pointed out.  Peter simple became squeamish when his Jewish friends showed up who hadn’t yet come to understand the full significance of the Christ event relative to the Old Covenant. A number of Jewish converts to Christianity still believed that one must keep the Mosaic regulations to be pleasing to God. In response to Peter's hypocrisy, Paul makes it clear that justification before God is not accomplished by observing the Law but by faith in Christ. 

        Galatians 2:16: know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.  

       What law is Paul referring too here? In Romans 7, Paul appears to be teaching we are not justified by observing any and all law including moral law.  However, it is also clear from his writings that while keeping law doesn't justify us before God, we are expected to keep the moral law.  Therefore we can be certain that Paul is not speaking of moral law here in Galatians 2.  He is referring to Mosaic Law that served to separate Jews from Gentiles.

       This altercation between Peter and Paul is very instructive. It is apparent from the Book of Acts that many Jewish converts to Christianity believed they needed to continue to keep the whole Law of Moses. This altercation between Peter and Paul tells us that not only Gentiles were exempt from having to keep Mosaic regulations, so were Jews exempt, Peter is seen as living like a Gentile. It is apparent from the overall context of Galatians 2 that Paul, Barnabas and other Jewish Christians in Antioch were doing the same. To live like a Gentile was to be exempt from keeping law that served to separated Jews and Gentiles. As seen in this series, these laws included dietary regulations, and ceremonial/worship laws such as Sabbath and Feast Day observance.  However it would take time for Jewish converts in general to abandon these separatist Laws.

The Jerusalem Conference and the Law of Moses:

       Let's take a closer look at what has become known as the "Jerusalem Conference."  Sometime subsequent to the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius and his family and the conversion of a number of other Gentiles to Christianity, some men came from Judea to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were ministering.  It is said these men were teaching Gentile converts they cannot be saved unless they are circumcised.

       Acts 15:1: Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."

       It is recorded that this led to a sharp debate between Paul and Barnabas and these men from Judea. The result was that Paul, Barnabas and other believers were appointed to travel to Jerusalem to see the Apostles and elders about this matter. After arriving in Jerusalem, they were met with a challenge from some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.

       Acts 15:5: Then 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."

       The term “the Law of Moses” is found 13 times in the Hebrews Scriptures and 8 times in the Greek Scriptures. In Acts 15, it is seen as a major issue that needs to be resolved.  What makes this event more interesting is that Paul had been a Pharisee and it is members of this religious party that have created this issue. The debate was about whether Gentile converts to Christianity were required to be circumcised and keep The Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas argued against such requirement and others argued in favor of such requirement.

       To properly understand the dynamics involved here, it is important we examine exactly what it is that was called the Law of Moses. Was The Law of Moses just another name for The Law of God?  If so, why was it called the The Law of Moses? Since it was God who gave the Law to Moses, why not simply call it the Law of God?

       We know from OT history that God gave a great deal of Law to Moses.  God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel as recorded in Exodus 20 and wrote them on two tablets of stone at Mount Sinai which he gave to Moses as recorded in Deuteronomy 5. The first of these Commandants prohibited Israel from having any God in place of YHWH God. This was followed by commands against making and worshiping idol gods and misusing YHWH's name. The fourth Commandment orders Israel to keep a Sabbath rest.  This command appears to be a response to what Israel had to endure while in Egyptian slavery where they probably had to work seven days a week.

       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 remaining six commands have to do with interpersonal relationships with prohibitions against dishonoring parents, murder, adultery, thief, false testimony and covetousness. 

       In Exodus chapters 21 through 23, we see a great deal of additional law given to Moses in the form of rules and regulations pertaining to every aspect of Israelite life. Beginning in Exodus 25 through chapter 40, we see much additional instruction given to Moses regarding sacrifices, the building of a tabernacle and the selecting of a Priesthood including what they would wear and how they would function. We see instruction about the Sabbath and annual feast days.  In Deuteronomy and Leviticus we see more law given by God to Moses including dietary regulations, sexual conduct directives and more instruction about keeping annual occasions called Feasts of the Lord.

      This is all law that was given by God to Moses.  Because this massive amount of Law is seen as being given to Moses who then becomes the administrator of this Law among the people, it simply came to be known as the Law of Moses even thought it came from God and was in reality is the Law of God.

       This great body of Law is first mentioned as The Law of Moses in Joshua 8:31.  It is recorded that Joshua built an alter to the Lord according to the specifications found “in the book of the Law of Moses.”  Then, in the presence of the Israelites, he copied on stone the Law of Moses which he (Moses) had written.  Following this, Joshua read to the people all the words found in the Book of the Law.

       Joshua 8:34-35.  Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law--the blessings and the curses--just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them.

       It is recorded that Joshua read every single word of what Moses had commanded.  We find in Deuteronomy 31:24 that shortly before his death, Moses wrote in a book the words of the law from beginning to end. It would appear from what we seen read thus far, The Law of Moses includes every rule and regulation God had ever given to Moses.  This would include the Ten Commandments, dietary regulations, feast days and every other rule God gave to Israel through Moses.

       1 Kings 2:1-3: When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son. "I am about to go the way of all the earth," he said. "So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go.

       Here we see included in the Law of Moses the decrees, commands, laws and requirements God required of Israel, a rather all inclusive statement.  During the time of Nehemiah, we see the Book of the Law of Moses brought to the people and apparently read it in its entirety.

       Nehemiah 8:1-3: All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly.  He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate….and all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

       Nehemiah 8:13-14:  On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law.  They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month.

       So here we find that the feast of the seventh month, what was called the Feast of Tabernacles, was part of the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that all the other feast days recorded in Leviticus 23 were also part of the Law of Moses. In Luke 24, we see Jesus, after His resurrection, telling His disciples the following:

       Luke 24:44:  He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

       The phrase, “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" has always been understood as identifying the tree-fold division of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The Law of Moses refers to the Pentateuch which is the first five books of the OT.  While not everything in these five books has to do with the Law, it certainly does include the entire Law given to Moses by God, including 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." Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant--the Ten Commandments.

       Deuteronomy 4:13-14: He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. And the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

       It should be apparent that 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. This was a complete package of law that made up the covenant God made with Israel.  When God entered into a covenant relationship with Israel we see it is the Law given to Moses that spelled out the terms of the Covenant. 

       The NT clearly shows that the covenant made with Israel was being replaced with a new covenant.  A covenant is an agreement defined by rules and regulations which become the terms of the covenant.  When such covenant is dissolved, the terms that defined such covenant are also dissolved.  If a new covenant is established, such new covenant will have its own rules and regulations defining the terms of such covenant.

       The terms of the Old Covenant were defined by the Law of Moses. When the Old Covenant was terminated so where the terms that made up that covenant.  It must be understood, however, that rules and regulations that make up the terms of one covenant can be used to make up the terms of a different covenant. When looking at the Old and New Covenants made with Israel, we must determine what rules and regulations of the Old Covenant were transferred from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and which rules and regulations were not transferred.

       Both covenants under consideration were designed to engender a positive relationship with God.  Under the Old Covenant the pathway to accomplish this relationship with God was to carefully observe moral and ceremonial law which included many worship regulations. Under the New Covenant the pathway to a relationship with God is defined by faith in the sacrifice of Christ and living the  Law of Love which is seen as fulfilling the moral law. 

       Romans 13:8-10: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 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 shows that loving your neighbor as yourself and doing no harm to your neighbor is to fulfill the law. It is obvious Paul is talking about moral law that has been in operation from the time of creation.  Such things as murder, theft, lying, adultery and other such behaviors are seen as sin from the beginning. 

       Paul defines this law in more detail as seen in the "sin lists" found in Paul's letters where behaviors such as greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice. slander, insolence, arrogance hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and orgies are condemned and identified as sin. (See Romans 1 and Galatians 6)

       On the other hand, nowhere in the New Testament is a failure to keep the Sabbath, Feast days, dietary regulations, tithing and other such directives seen as sin.  While we see Old Testament Israel often chastised for breaking the Sabbath, we see nothing of the kind under the New Covenant. It is apparent that the moral law made up the terms of both the Old and New Covenants while the great body of ceremonial and worship law that made up the terms of the Old Covenant did not become part of the terms of the New Covenant.  This takes us back to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.

       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.  So 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. As already discussed, Peter relates that God accepted the Gentiles based on their faith in Christ. He sees circumcism and the Law of Moses as a yoke that Israel was never able to bear, a fact clearly born out by a review of OT history. 

       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 the dietary restrictions and a host of other regulations.

       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?  Idol worship, sexual activity associated with idol worship and eating meats associated with idol worship was a common practice among the Gentiles. It appears James is simply telling the Gentiles they are to discontinue their involvement with such practices.  Such practices would have been especially offensive to the Jews.  James may have simply been trying to foster better relations between Jews and Gentiles.  We see in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 that Paul modified this 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. 

       Many of the first century 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.    

       As can be seen, the passing of the Old Covenant was a process. While the Christ event made the Old Covenant obsolete, adherence too many of its separatist 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 separatist regulations of the Old Covenant. Paul had to deal with this during his ministry. 

       In Part Three of this series we will further discuss the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and provide Scriptural evidence showing the separatist regulations of the Old Covenant have been abrogated.

PART THREE