The last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, trying to learn as much about it from the Bible and from history and archeology as we can. I hope you’ve gotten a taste of how much information is available to our generation about the time of Jesus, much more than there has been for almost two thousand years. Before that we spoke a little about modern Israel and the fulfillments of prophecy that are taking place right now in our lifetimes. After the horrors of the Holocaust, Christians have been waking up to the Jewish roots of our faith, and the tremendous riches and depth this can give to our understanding of the Bible.
But the realization of Christianity’s Jewish roots also raises a lot of difficult questions. Most Protestants are already familiar with the idea that the Church went astray from Biblical truth in the centuries after Jesus. But how far did it go? The answer is that almost every area of our faith has been affected. So many things in Christianity are built on the spider webs of tradition rather than on the rock of faith. It’s going to take generations to get it sorted out.
Today we’re going to take a look at just one of these areas: an area that is absolutely essential to how we understand and live out our faith—an area that Jesus and the disciples spoke about constantly because it’s so important—and one about which the Church has been confused for a long time. It’s a topic which is one of the most difficult, and yet also one of the most important topics in Christianity today: the relationship of Gentiles and the Law of Moses.The best way I know to introduce this topic is to ask a question that will stump almost every preacher. This question assumes, first of all, that you understand that Christians are not under the Law of Moses. This was taught very clearly and directly by Paul many times. For example in Rom. 6:14: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” Or again in Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” And there are many others. This is a favorite theme with many preachers, who usually interpret this to mean that we as Christians do not need to obey the Law of Moses. Most Christians, I think, are familiar with this teaching and accept this interpretation of what it means that as believers in Jesus, we are not under the Law of Moses.
But many of those same preachers teach that we must be very careful to obey the Ten Commandments, which are the heart and soul of the Law of Moses. Most Christians also share the view that the Ten Commandments are very important for us to obey. But here’s the question for our preacher friends: If you say we’re not under the Law of Moses, why must we obey the Ten Commandments, which are themselves a central part of the Law of Moses? In other words, how can you say we’re not under the Law, but then turn around and say that we must obey the most important part of that same Law? This is a logical contradiction.
For a lot of preachers, that just shuts them down. They haven’t been taught about this, in fact, they may never have thought about the question. Others will bring up something about the “moral law” of the Old Testament as opposed to the ceremonial and ritual portions of the Law. This kind of reasoning sounds convincing at first. I used to teach it myself. But the Bible never makes any such distinction between different parts of the Law. So though this is a quick fix answer, it’s not very satisfying, because it’s not a Biblical answer.
Even the apostle Paul agrees that the whole Law sticks together as a single unit. When some Gentiles in Galatia were trying to bring themselves under the Law, he rebuked them and said, “But again I testify to every man who is circumcised that he is obligated to do the whole Law” (Gal. 5:3). It’s all or nothing.
So what about the Ten Commandments? Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that we should stop obeying the Ten Commandments. The problem is that the Church has forgotten why we obey them, and because of this has not only gotten itself into this logical contradiction, but has gotten quite confused about the meaning of law in the Bible and in our lives as believers. And this affects our entire understanding of what it is to be obedient to God as a follower of Jesus.
In order to find the Biblical answer to this puzzle, we have to expand our understanding of Biblical law and of the role that we as Gentiles have in this law. Many Christians have been taught to look at law as something bad. They think of the Law of Moses, for example, as an evil that had to be taken out of the way by Jesus. But is this really what the Bible teaches?
In Romans 7:14, Paul said: “For we know that the Law [of Moses] is spiritual…” That’s a pretty positive statement. In verse 12, he calls the Law holy and righteous and good (“The Law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” Rom. 7:12). In Romans 3:1,2 he says: “Then what advantage has the Jew?... Great in every respect: first, that they were entrusted with the sayings of God.” What are the sayings of God? The Old Testament, including the Law of Moses. That’s also a very positive statement. In Romans 10:4 he says, “For Messiah is the goal of the Law leading to righteousness for everyone who believes.” The Law of Moses points us to Jesus. That’s the ultimate function of the Law.
Now I know that’s not the way Romans 10:4 is usually translated. It’s usually translated that Messiah is the “end of the Law.”* But the Greek word used here, telos means end as in the saying, “the ends justify the means.” So what Romans 10:4 is actually saying is that Jesus is the goal, the completion, and the fulfillment of the Law. All of these are better translations than “the end” to give us the original sense of the sentence.
* In part because of the influence of hundreds of years of anti-Semitism in the Church.
This is why the disciples preached Jesus from the Old Testament. Because Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, he fulfills the Law. He is a perfect sacrifice for our salvation because he lived perfectly according to the Law, “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). This is how we know who Messiah is!
As Jesus himself said in Matt. 5:17: “Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but rather to fill [i.e. fulfill] them.” The Law was not a problem to get out of the way. It’s a record of God’s will that Messiah fulfilled in obedience to the Father. So the Law is a picture of the Messiah. And if the Law is a picture of Jesus, how can it be bad?
Jesus went on to say, in the next verse, “For ‘Amen' I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single `iota' [the smallest letter] or a single stroke will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass” (Matt. 5:18). Have the heavens and earth passed away? No. Then according to Jesus, the Law has not yet passed away. It still has an important role to play in God’s plan.
The Law in Biblical thinking, including New Testament thinking, is something extremely good. It’s a gift from God. Just think of Psa. 119: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, those who walk in the Law of the LORD. Blessed are those who keep his testimonies; they seek him with all their heart. Surely they do no unrighteousness; they walk in his ways. You have commanded your precepts, that we should keep them diligently. Oh that my ways may be established to keep your statutes! Then I will not be ashamed when I look at all your commandments” (Psa. 119:1-6). This does not present the Law as something bad, but as something very, very good. And it goes on like this for 176 verses!
The problem is not the Law. As Paul teaches, the problem is us, because we are fleshly, because we are sinners. As he says in Romans 7:14: “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, subject to [or sold out to] sin.” The Law is good, but I am a sinner. The Law’s not the problem. I’m the problem.
Or as he says in Romans 7:15,16: “For what I am doing I don't understand; for I don't do what I want, but rather I do what I hate. But if I do what I don't want to do, I am agreeing with the Law, that it is good.” When I see myself doing what I don’t want to do—when I sin and recognize that it is wrong—I’m agreeing that the Law is right, that it’s good. In other words, the Law is correct in identifying sin as sin. The problem is not the Law. The problem is me. The problem is that I keep on sinning even though I agree that that sin is wrong and I shouldn’t be doing it.
On the contrary, the Law is God’s gift to help me identify sin. As it says in Rom. 7:7: “What, then, will we say? Is the Law sin? May it never be! Rather I did not come to recognize sin except through law, for I would not know coveting unless the Law said, ‘Do not covet.’” The Law reveals God’s will to me about what is good and what is bad, about what is right and what is sin. This is a good thing. It’s a blessing and a revelation from God, so that we know how he wants us to live, and what he doesn’t like.
So what is the problem with the Law?—because there’s clearly some kind of problem that Paul and the others are talking about. It’s simply this: the Law, since it relies on our fleshly obedience, does not have the power to help us obey it. As it says in Romans 8:3: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was because of the flesh…” The Law is correct in all it says. That’s why it’s in our Bibles. It brings us conviction of sin, it helps people know what God wants. But it doesn’t have the power to bring victory over sin. So what’s the answer to this dilemma? Romans 8:3,4: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was because of the flesh, God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law may be fulfilled in us who do not live according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
What’s the solution? The Holy Spirit in us! The new covenant in Jesus’ blood brings us the power to live holy, the power to fulfill the requirement of the Law! The reason we are not “under” the Law is that we fulfill the requirement of the Law by living by faith in the Holy Spirit. The life of faith, life in the Spirit, fulfills the Law! Wow! Through faith in Jesus, we have fulfilled the Law—just as Jesus himself also fulfilled the Law and made it possible for us to follow him. So the Law is a testimony not only of who Jesus is, but also of who we are! When we fulfill the requirements of the Law by living in the Spirit, the Law proclaims that we are living the kind of life that God wants us to have!
This is what Paul meant when he said in Romans 3:31, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” We establish the truth of the Law through our faith. Are you starting to get a more positive view of the Law?
I like to put it this way. The Law of Moses is Bible 1.0. It’s the first release of God’s operating system for life. And it was great. But the New Testament is Bible 2.0. It’s a better, newer operating system! It fulfills everything that 1.0 made us want in an operating system.
And this is in fact what the Bible itself says in Hebrews 8:6: “Jesus has received a more excellent ministry inasmuch as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established as law on better promises.” The Old Testament was good, the New Testament is better!
What were the promises of the Old Testament? Long life (if you honor your mother and father), the land of Israel, being God’s chosen people, etc. What are the promises of the New Testament? Eternal life, forgiveness of all your sins, reigning with Messiah… better promises! That doesn’t mean the old ones were bad. It just means the new ones are better.
But there’s also something else that’s very important in this verse: it says (in the Greek) that the new covenant has been “established as law.” This means that the New Testament is also a law. It’s not the Law of Moses, of course, but it’s the Law of…the Messiah!
But what’s the Law of the Messiah? Most Christians haven’t heard much about it, even though it’s mentioned all over the New Testament. It’s called: the “law of Messiah” (1 Cor. 9:21, Gal. 6:2), the “law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15), the “law of faith” (Rom. 3:27), the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2), “the perfect Law of Liberty” (James 1:25), “the Royal Law” (James 2:8), “the Law of Liberty” (James 2:12), “the commandment of the Lord” (2 Pet. 3:2), “the holy commandment” (2 Pet. 2:21), “the commandment” (1 Tim. 6:14), “his commandments” (1 John 2:34, 2 John 1:6), “my commandments” (John 14:15,21; 15:10), as well as the “New Covenant” (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25, etc.).
This Messianic law was obviously very important to the disciples. In fact, it was one of the things that the Jewish people were looking forward to when the Messiah came: that he would bring a new Messianic Law that would solve all the difficult questions of the old one. So why have you heard so little about this Law of the Messiah? Because many Christians have been taught that law, of any kind, is something bad. But is that really what the Bible teaches?
One of the early names for this Law of the Messiah was the “Way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22, 2 Pet. 2:2). This was also the earliest name for Christianity: “the Way.” It meant living the way Jesus lived, obeying his commandments. Today we tend to think of Christianity as believing certain things. But the original faith focused much more strongly on living a certain way of life: a life lived in imitation of Jesus, obeying his law, his instruction for our lives.
To help you understand this different way of looking at Biblical law, I want you to imagine for a moment that you were there with Moses and the children of Israel in the desert. Before this time, nobody really knew what God or the gods wanted. If you brought one sheep as an offering to God, was that enough? Maybe you should have brought two…or maybe four…or maybe sixteen. In fact, there was no way to know what God would be pleased with.
As Micah put it, “With what will I go before the LORD, will I bow to the God on high? Will I go before him with whole burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Is the LORD pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Will I give my first-born my sin, the fruit of my body the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6). When is enough enough? Thousands of sheep? Rivers of oil? How about if I lay my sin on my first born and offer him up as a sacrifice?--which some people actually did in those days, and continued to do up until Jesus’ day out in the desert. Nobody knew what God really wanted. Nobody was sure how to please him. And because of this uncertainty, it led to all kinds of extremes.
In some parts of the world, people walk on fire and pierce themselves with pins. Or they meditate for days without eating any food. Why? They’re trying to get their god to notice them! They’re afraid if they don’t do enough, their god won’t see them! In Islam, some offer themselves or their children to be suicide bombers. Why? They’re trying to get the attention of their god. Because of this, in many countries the priests were the richest people in the country. There was one tribe in the Philippines that converted to Christianity because they couldn’t afford their pagan priests anymore!
But then, here comes this God who does some fantastic things for you, and he offers you a law. What’s in it? It tells you exactly what God wants. No more guessing. Now, if you want to know what God requires, what pleases him, you look in the book. What a great idea! There’s no more uncertainty. Now I know exactly what my God wants me to do. And even better, I know what he has promised to do for me! Wow! No other god did anything like that. So of course they said “yes” when Moses offered them the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was a wonderfully good thing. And then, through Jesus, came Law 2.0, which is even better!
But wait a minute. If the Messianic Law was so much better, why did Jesus and Paul and the other disciples continue to obey the Law of Moses? Yes! Did you know, they continued to worship in the Temple, even after Jesus’ resurrection:
Luke 24:53: “And they were constantly in the Temple, blessing God.”
Acts 2:46: “Every day…spending a lot of time with one mind in the Temple”
Acts 3:1: “Peter and John were ascending into the Temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer”
Acts 3:11: “All the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s [located in the Temple]”
Acts 5:12: “They were all with one mind in the Portico of Solomon”
Acts 5:21: “They entered about dawn into the Temple and were teaching”
Acts 5:42: “Every day…in the Temple…they did not stop teaching and telling the good news of Jesus the Messiah”
They continued to go to synagogue:
Acts 9:2: “…letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found some who were of the Way [followers of Jesus]”
Acts 17:2: “…where a synagogue of the Jews was. But according to the custom of Paul, he went in to them”
Acts 22:19: “From synagogue to synagogue I was imprisoning and beating those who believe in you” James 2:2: “For if a man in shining clothes with gold rings on his fingers enters into your synagogue” [clearly stated in Greek, but rarely translated correctly]
Hebrews 10:25: “…not giving up our meeting (episynagogeen) together”
And they also continued to obey all the other laws, including the Jewish feasts:
Acts 20:6: “We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread…”
Acts 20:16: “…for he [Paul] was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible on the day of Pentecost.”
Acts 16:8: “But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost.”
Paul continued to take Jewish vows (the Nazirite vow found in Num. 6): “…after he [Paul] cut off the hair of his head in Cenchrea, for he was keeping a vow,” (Acts 18:18).
And why today do most Messianic Jewish believers continue to obey the Law of Moses? This is a big challenge to traditional Christian thinking. It was a big challenge to me when I first went to Israel, because it disagreed with traditions I had been taught in seminary.
Well, what did Jesus say? He said he did not come to abolish the Law (“Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets,” Matt. 5:17). Even though Jesus has fulfilled the Law, it still has an important role to play—“until the heaven and the earth pass away” (“For ‘Amen’ I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single iota or a single stroke will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass,” Matt. 5:18). The role of the Law is not a saving role. The Law was not given for salvation, and nobody ever got saved by obeying the Law (Gal 2:21, 3:21). Some Jews obeyed the Law all their lives and it never saved them. The only way to be saved is by faith in Jesus. But the Law is still a big signboard in the world pointing to Jesus, and to us. That’s why it’s in our Bibles.
For Jews, the Law is what makes them Jewish. And the Jewish people still have an important part to play in the prophetic plan of God. The New Testament never says that Jews should stop being Jews when they come to faith. Just the opposite. Paul says, in 1 Cor. 7:18: “Let anyone called who is circumcised not become uncircumcised; let anyone called in uncircumcision not be circumcised.” When Paul speaks of circumcision here, he’s talking about Jewish ritual circumcision. It’s what makes a person a Jew. So what does he mean by this? If you’re Jewish and you come to faith in Jesus, you shouldn’t stop being Jewish. And if you’re a Gentile and you come to faith in Jesus, you shouldn’t try to become Jewish. Why not?
1 Cor. 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” You should obey the laws of God that apply to you. If you’re Jewish, of course you’ll continue to live as a Jew. But that circumcision doesn’t save you—it’s “nothing” when it comes to faith. Only faith can save you. But you will continue to obey the Law as part of your identity as a Jew—because that’s who you are. If you’re a Gentile, of course you’ll continue to live as a Gentile. And it doesn’t matter that you’re not a Jew—that’s “nothing.” What matters is obeying the laws of God that apply to you.
As Paul summarizes it in vs. 20: “Each in the calling in which he was called, let him remain in his calling” (1 Cor. 7:20). Being a Jew is a calling from God, even when you become a believer in Jesus. You have a special role and responsibility in the Kingdom of God. Being a Gentile is also a calling from God, even after you become a believer in Jesus. And Gentiles, too, have a special role and responsibility in the Kingdom.
But wait a minute! If Jewish believers in Jesus continue to obey the Law of Moses, and the Law of Moses is a good thing, should we obey the Law of Moses, too? This was the big question that confronted the apostles after Gentiles started to get saved. Some Jewish believers in Jesus were going around teaching that Gentiles, to be saved, must convert to Judaism and obey all of the Jewish Law (“And some, having come down from Judea, were teaching the brothers that ‘If you are not circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,’” Acts 15:1). As a result, Peter and Paul had a big argument about this in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21). The whole thing finally came back to Jerusalem where all the apostles and other leaders in the Church gathered together to decide what to do about the Gentiles (The Jerusalem Council, Acts 15, AD 49).
This was not the first time that the Jews had to consider this topic. Even Moses himself had to think about it, because of all the Gentiles that had escaped with the Jews from Egypt. The Bible calls them a “mixed multitude” (“And a mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock,” Exo. 12:38). Wouldn’t you have wanted to escape with them, too, if it would get you out of slavery? But when we read through the laws in the Law of Moses, almost all of them are directed only to the Sons of Israel.
Look, for example, at the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 19:3, just before the Ten Commandments, it says: “This is what you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” God’s words are addressed only to Israel. And in 20:22, after the Ten Commandments, it says, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘This is what you will say to the sons of Israel…’” Again, it’s only directed to Israel.
There is only one place in the Ten Commandments that mentions the Gentiles among them. It’s in Exodus 20:10, the Sabbath commandment: “And the seventh day is a Sabbath for the LORD your God. You will not do any work, nor your son or your daughter, your servant or your female servant, or your cattle or your stranger (ger) that is within your gates.” Who is this stranger (ger in Hebrew)? The ger was a non-Israelite that was living among the Israelites. And notice that here, only the gerim (plural of ger) actually living inside the camp of Israel (“within your gates”) were required to keep the Sabbath, not all the gerim in the world. The Gentiles living outside the gates of the Jewish camp or the gates of Jewish cities were not required to keep the Sabbath.
What other laws were Gentiles required to obey? Murder was forbidden for both the Israelites (the natives) and the Gentiles. “The one who kills a man shall be put to death. There shall be one legal decision for you; it shall be for the stranger (ger) as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God,’” (Lev. 24:21,22).
The sexual immoralities listed in Leviticus 18 were also forbidden. “And you will keep my statutes and my judgments, and you will not do any of these abominations, the native and the stranger (ger) who dwells among you,” (Lev. 18:26).
And there were several others:
No idolatry (Lev. 20:2)
No blasphemy (Lev. 18:21, 24:16)
No eating blood (Lev. 17:10)
Purification from contact with the dead (Num. 19:10)
Observance of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29)
No leaven during the Days of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:19)
Procedures for sacrifice (Lev. 17:8, 22:18,25; Num. 15:14-16)
Uncleanness from certain types of dead animals (Lev. 17:15, Deut. 14:21)
Making recompense for injury (Lev. 24:19-22)
Making recompense for killing an animal (Lev. 24:18-22)
Redemption of Hebrew slaves in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:47 ff.)
Being cut off for defiant sin (Num. 15:29,30)
Flight to a city of refuge for unintentional murder (Num. 35:15)
Eating what grows of itself in the Sabbatical year (Lev. 25:6)
Gleaning of the field if poor (Lev. 19:10, 23:22).
Others were only for Gentiles actually living inside the gates, like the Sabbath command:
Rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10, Deut. 5:14)
Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:11,14)
Hear the reading of the Law every seventh year (Deut. 31:12)
Now all together these are only 20 of the 613 laws in the Law of Moses.* That means that by far most of the Law of Moses was never required of Gentiles. Why not? Because Israel has a special calling as a nation of priests, priests on behalf of the rest of mankind (“And you will be a kingdom of priests for me, and a holy nation,” Exo. 19:6). If you’re a priest, you have more strict religious requirements than other people. Gentiles were not required to obey these more strict religious requirements.
* The laws listed here are the laws that actually mention the ger. There are a few more laws that may have applied to the Gentiles living among the Israelites that use different language to identify them.
But even this was not the first time that the Bible talks about laws for Gentiles. The laws for Gentiles in the Law of Moses are similar to another, much earlier group of laws in the Bible. Do you know what that earlier group of laws is? The laws given to Noah in Genesis 9 (The Covenant with Noah). Do you remember the laws given to Noah? They were: (1) Be fruitful and multiply. (“And God blessed Noah and his sons and he said to them, ‘Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth,’” Gen. 9:1). (2) “Every moving thing that is alive will be food for you; as the green plants, I have given them all to you. But surely flesh with its life, its blood, you will not eat,” (Gen. 9:3,4). Now we were permitted to eat meat, but not blood. And (3) “Surely your blood for your lives I will require; from the hand of every living thing I will require it, and from the hand of man, from the hand of every man’s brother, I will require the life of man. The one spilling the blood of man by man his blood will be spilled, for in the image of God has he made man,” (Gen. 9:5,6). The penalty for murder is death, a penalty that will be enforced by people. This was traditionally understood to imply the establishment of courts of law, to judge murder cases. And of course murder itself is also forbidden.
These laws were given not only to Noah, it says, but to all his descendants (“Now behold, I myself establish my covenant with you [Noah], and with your descendants after you,” Gen. 9:9, also 9:12). Are you a descendant of Noah? Then this covenant is with you, too. It’s for all of us: both Jews and Gentiles. And this is still the teaching of the Jewish rabbis today.
In fact the rabbis, just after the time of the New Testament, boiled all these laws of Noah and Moses down to seven essential laws that apply to all Gentiles: “Seven laws are binding on the descendants of Noah: the establishment of courts of justice, the prohibition of blasphemy, the prohibition of the worship of other gods, of murder, of incest and adultery, of theft and robbery, and of eating the flesh of a living animal before it dies [i.e. with its blood]." So for example, these were the laws that the Godfearers we read about in the New Testament were expected to obey.* These were Gentiles that were attending Jewish synagogues but did not convert to Judaism. Instead, they were obeying the Laws of Noah. And that was considered enough for them, since they were Gentiles.
* Or an earlier version of the same thing. Seven Laws of Noah are mentioned in the pre-Christian book of Jubilees.
Why haven’t you heard about the Laws of Noah before? Because the Church Fathers called them the Natural Law instead. But they were talking about the same thing: the law followed by Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob before the time of Moses.
By the time of the book of Acts, many had been thinking this way about the Gentiles for a long time: that they did not need to convert to Judaism, as long as they obeyed the Laws of Noah. This is why the majority at the Council of Jerusalem did not assume that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism to be saved. So what was the decision of the Council in Acts 15? That Gentile believers in Jesus do not need to convert to Judaism and obey the Law of Moses (Acts 15:19,24,28). Because of this, as Gentile believers in Jesus, we are not required to obey the Law; and in fact, we were never under the Law of Moses.
However, the Council did make three exceptions to this ruling, which they called “necessary things” (Acts 15:28). What were they? “But rather to write to them to keep away from the impurities of the idols and sexual immorality and things strangled and blood,” (Acts 15:20,29). Where did they get these things from? They’re part of the Laws of Noah required of all mankind.
But why only these three? Why weren’t the other Laws of Noah included? Probably because they were already considered wrong by the Romans: the Romans had courts of justice, they punished murder, and they forbid theft and robbery.
This leaves only the prohibition of blasphemy. But in Jesus’ day, this was only applied to misuse of the personal name of God (YHWH), that nobody but priests knew how to say anymore. So it seems this was not considered a problem.
If you think about it for a minute, you can see that the Laws of Noah are quite similar to the Ten Commandments: No idolatry includes the 1st and 2nd commands of the Ten Commandments. No blasphemy is the 3rd command. No murder, adultery, or robbery are the 6th, 7th, and 8th commands. And this is probably why preachers have been preaching that we must obey the Ten Commandments all these years. The lists are very similar. The commandments not included in the Laws of Noah, like honor your mother and father, and do not lie, are included separately in the New Testament.* So we also obey them because they are included in our covenant with God, the New Testament.
* Honoring your mother and father was included in an earlier version of the Laws of Noah (Jubilees).
Only one of the Ten Commandments is not included in the New Testament. Do you know which one it is? Observing the Sabbath. Both the Jewish rabbis and the Church Fathers agreed that this was not required for Gentiles. This is probably one of the reasons that Christians felt free to worship God on Sundays, and not on the Jewish Sabbath, which is Saturday.
So what’s the answer to the question: If we, Gentile Christians, are not under the Law of Moses, why do we obey the Ten Commandments? The answer is: we do not obey the Ten Commandments because they are written in Exodus or Deuteronomy. That’s the Law of Moses, which we’re not under, and in fact were never under. But we obey the Ten Commandments either because they were given long before that in the Laws of Noah (which the Church fathers called the Natural Law, which include the three exceptions of Acts 15), or because they are included in the Law of the Messiah (the New Testament).
So are we under the Law of Moses? No. That’s for the Jews. Do we obey the Ten Commandments? Yes, because most of them date back to long before the time of Moses, back to the time of Noah, and are repeated in the New Testament.
So let’s review a little, to make sure we understand everything clearly:
1) Gentiles were never under the Law of Moses, because we’re not Jewish. The Law was an agreement between God and the Jewish people. There are only a few laws in the Law of Moses that apply to Gentiles, but they are only for Gentiles who are actually living as strangers among the Jews.
2) But we are required to obey the Laws of Noah, which is an agreement made between God and the descendants of Noah, which includes us.
3) These Laws of Noah are very similar to the laws for Gentiles in the Law of Moses, and are also the same as many of the Ten Commandments.
4) This is why the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15, decided that Gentiles are not obligated to obey the Law of Moses, but only that we must observe the three exceptions, which are part of the Laws of Noah.
5) As believers in Jesus, our primary responsibility is to the Law of the Messiah, the New Testament. This is Jesus’ instructions for us. It is God’s grace extended to all mankind. It’s the covenant agreement with God by which we are saved. But the apostles wanted to make sure we didn’t forget a few other essential things in addition to this: a) no idolatry, b) no sexual immorality, c) and no blood, all of which are from the Laws of Noah.
Got it? This is not the end of this topic. There’s lots more that could be said. It’s quite complicated. It’s also very controversial right now in some places. But the point of view I have shared with you today is the understanding of both Jewish and Gentile scholars that are working on this topic. I hope that it’s opened your eyes to begin to think about the Bible’s teaching on this very important topic. Because as we’ll see, God willing, it’s foundational to understanding so many things in the New Testament.