The Early Church and the Law of Moses
Many early Christians apparently did not completely understand the significance of all that Jesus Christ did. Even several decades after Jesus' death, many Christians did not understand what a dramatic difference Jesus had made in our relationship with God. Many Jewish Christians did not seem to understand that the new covenant had replaced the old. Perhaps they thought the teachings of Jesus had simply been added on top of the teachings of Moses.
As far as we can tell in the Gospels, Jesus did not tell his disciples that Passover lambs and sacrifices would no longer be needed. He did not tell them the old covenant was obsolete. He simply proclaimed that his blood was the blood of a new covenant, and it took the church many years to learn how significant this really was. Luke records part of the story in the book of Acts. Let's turn there to see what the Holy Spirit revealed to the church about the old covenant laws.
1. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who worshiped God. Did God accept his worship? Acts 10:1-4. Was he respected as righteous by the Jewish people? Verse 22. Does God accept gentiles who worship him and live righteous lives? Verses 34-35. Did God give the Holy Spirit to Cornelius? Verse 44. Was Cornelius then baptized in water? Verse 47.
2. Did all the Christians joyfully accept what Peter had done? Acts 11:2-3. After Peter told the story, did they accept the idea that gentiles could be saved? Verses 14, 18. Did the Jewish Christians then begin preaching the gospel to gentiles? Verses 19-20.
3. As Paul and Barnabas traveled, did they begin by preaching to gentiles? Acts 13:13-14. Were both Jews and gentiles included? Verse 16. Was Paul's message well received? Verses 42-44. Were the Jews more receptive than the gentiles? Verses 45-48. Did the Jews and gentiles of Iconium react similarly? Acts 14:1-2. Was the "door of faith" open to the gentiles? Verse 27.
4. What did some Jewish Christians teach the gentile Christians in Antioch? Acts 15:1. Did Paul and Barnabas agree with this teaching? Verse 2. How did they decide to resolve the question? Same verse. In Jerusalem, how was the question phrased? Verse 5.
Comment: A small group of Jewish Christians thought the gentile believers ought to 1) be circumcised and 2) be told to obey the law of Moses. In other words, they thought the gentiles, in addition to believing in Jesus Christ, should also become proselytes — converts to Judaism. They thought the gentiles should obey all the laws God had given the Israelites — circumcision and everything else.
5. The phrase "law of Moses" is used in six other places in the New Testament. What kinds of laws are included in the law of Moses? Luke 2:22; 24:44; John 7:22-23; Acts 28:23; 1 Cor. 9:9; Heb. 10:28.
Comment: The law of Moses included laws of ritual purification, prophecies about the Messiah, rules about treating livestock, and civil laws about penalties for religious crimes. Apparently the "law of Moses" included everything Moses wrote, what we now call the books of Moses. Jews call it the Torah, the Law, one of the three main sections of the Bible.
In Jewish thought, the law of Moses also included the requirement for circumcision. Although that custom began with Abraham, it was included in the regulations of Moses (Lev. 12:2-3). This is shown in Acts 15:1, where circumcision is one of the customs of Moses. The early church met to discuss whether gentile Christians ought to keep all the law of Moses, including the purification rituals and circumcision.
6. Years later, some Jewish Christians became concerned about what Paul was teaching. What was the attitude of these Jewish Christians toward the Torah? Acts 21:20. What kind of requirements were included in the law they were concerned about? Verses 21, 24. Were they concerned about what Paul was teaching gentiles? Verses 21, 25.
Comment: The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued to keep the customs of Judaism. They continued to circumcise their children, continued to participate in temple rituals and continued in the law of Moses. Those things were part of their culture. It was not wrong to do them, but it would have been wrong to think that they were required for all Christians. God had not commanded such things for gentiles, and gentiles were being saved without any need to keep old covenant laws. That question had already been settled at the Jerusalem conference, and the Jewish Christians were not worried about what Paul was teaching gentiles. They were concerned only with Jewish Christians.
The leaders of the Jerusalem church devised a plan to show that Paul had nothing against the customs taught by Moses — Paul participated in a temple ritual. Christianity did not require Jewish believers to abandon all their worship traditions. But neither did it require them to continue. Paul had the freedom to participate when he was among Jews; he also had the freedom to act as if he were not under the Torah (1 Cor. 9:21). He had the freedom to live like a gentile. Peter had that freedom, too (Gal. 2:14).
Some people in the early Jerusalem church apparently did not understand this, and Paul did not attempt to correct them at that particular time. Later, the book of Hebrews explained that the old covenant was obsolete and no longer binding — even for Jewish Christians. No one has to participate in temple rituals or observe other laws that God gave only under the old covenant system.
Jewish Christians do not have to keep the law of Moses. Although in some situations (such as in Jerusalem) it might be wise to observe the customs, it is not required. When we live among people who do not have the Torah in their tradition, we can live like them, since we are not under the Torah (1 Cor. 9:20-21). Rather, we live under the law of Christ. We obey him, and his teachings do not require us to obey all the laws of Moses. As we go forward in this study, we will learn more about the difference between the law of Christ and the law of Moses.