In the last couple of programs we looked at the eternal or perpetual nature of God’s Law as given to His Jewish people, and we also looked at the eternal and unconditional nature of His covenants with the only conditional covenant being the Mosaic Covenant.
We looked at the purpose of why God gave the Law to His people as well. That the Jewish people at the very beginning of their development went into Egypt as a family and endured 400 years of slavery and ill treatment at the hands of the Egyptians, and that during that time frame, they knew that the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, existed, but they didn’t actually ‘know’ Him. Their only religious experience came from the paganism and the false religious system of the Egyptians.
God gave them the Law after their rescue so that they would know what sin was and that they were law breakers, as well as a system that would provide them a temporary means of forgiveness through animal sacrifices.
But the problem with sin is that it’s in our nature and we’re compelled to sin, and the Mosaic Covenant that was supposed to provide the remedy for sin was continually being broken. So the purpose of the Law was to reveal sin, reveal God’s holiness and abhorrence toward sin and to reveal how far away we are from God and His holiness.
Things are very different today. The Jewish people have suffered terribly because of their rebellion against God and in 70AD, the holy city of Jerusalem was laid waste and the Temple was utterly destroyed. The ceremonial and sacrificial law, which was necessary to provide temporary covering and atonement for sin, is no longer in play, and without the Temple it’s not possible to fulfil all those commands. (Heb 8:13 – 9) The ceremonial and sacrificial system was fulfilled and completed through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah and that’s why it’s now obsolete.
However, the moral, ethical and social laws and expectations remain.
God didn’t throw away the law to not murder with the ushering in of the New Covenant era. He didn’t say it was then ok to lie, steal, cheat and commit adultery now that the ceremonial law was finished with either. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount tightened up the moral laws even more!
Read Matthew 5 & 6 and you’ll discover that Jesus was getting down to the nitty gritty of what it means to live our lives righteously before God and it was all about the condition of the heart. The outward appearances weren’t enough…it wasn’t good enough just to not commit murder, now you weren’t even allowed to hate someone in your heart or you were just as guilty of committing murder. It was no longer enough not to commit the physical act of adultery, now you couldn’t even entertain a lustful thought in your heart or you’d be guilty of that sin! From start to finish, the Sermon on the Mount made obeying God even more impossible than it already was. Why would Jesus teach such things?
Again…what’s the purpose of the Law? To show us how exceedingly sinful sin actually is, and how far removed from the holiness of God we actually are.
God had an expectation and even a demand that His people conduct themselves in a manner that was contrary to the nations around about them. Those nations used any and every means available to them that incorporated the worship of their false gods into their daily lives including the dedication of their food to pagan gods and goddesses; their clothing, how they cut their hair, how they cut and tattooed their bodies, how they sacrificed their children…everything they did was dedicated to the worship of their gods and the One True God demanded that His people not copy them.
Then God required His people to dress differently to make them visibly different. He required the covenant between them be marked in their physical bodies so they were physically different, and that was the mark of circumcision in their flesh. He demanded that they not eat certain foods, primarily because those particular animals (such as pigs, vultures and shellfish as an example) served a function within nature that God didn’t want His people contaminated by. These creatures are like the garbage disposals of nature, feeding on dead creatures and filtering out contaminants. There was a purpose for everything. Even the Sabbath day served an important purpose.
So what about our ongoing behaviour? While the sacrificial system as laid out in the Mosaic Covenant is no longer able to be kept because of the loss of the Temple, what is required of us regarding our behaviour, conduct, conversation and everyday living?
Religious Jews have adapted Judaism into a very works based religion, and they’ve done so in an attempt to obey God as best they can without a Temple. Jewish believers in Jesus are also working through what they believe they should and shouldn’t do, understanding that they’re part of the ongoing generations of Jews that are required to obey the perpetual and eternal commands laid out to their forefathers, these are not an issue of salvation but rather of behaviour, and it’s a challenge for them to navigate.
But what about Gentile believers? What is required of us as far as our conduct is concerned, not with regard to salvation, we’re talking about conduct and daily living?
Acts 15 recounts a dilemma in the first church; the Gospel began to spread to the Gentile world and many of them were coming to faith. It was exciting and thrilling and the church was booming, but there was a growing concern.
At the church in Jerusalem there were some Pharisees who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, they were authorities on the Law of God and they knew that God insisted that all those who were to come to Him and be in covenant with Him had to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath and follow the dietary laws strictly. These laws were part of the eternal, perpetual covenant that God made with His people and they were non-negotiable. It’s understandable then, that they believed that Gentiles coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah would by necessity, have to obey all those things themselves and then their salvation would be true, because they were not grafted into them.
However, when Peter and Paul addressed the council to explain to them again how the Gentiles were coming to faith and how the Holy Spirit was being poured out upon them in the same way He was poured out on the Jewish believers, they all came to understand that Salvation was a gift given freely by God to both the Jew and the Gentile without condition.
The council concluded their findings on the issue and then wrote a letter to be read out to the Gentile believers making it clear that as far as the church council and official leadership were concerned, Gentiles were not required to partake in those essential covenant rituals and laws that the Jews were given. However, that’s not all they commanded of the Gentile believers, and we’ll look more at next time at exactly what the council expected from Gentile believers next time on Foundations.