Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Acts 15 study Q&A

While I was on vacation (and trying to do as little thinking and studying as possible!), a thoughtful reader left the following thought-provoking comment in response to my study on Acts 15 (here are the links to part one and part two of the study to which she was responding):

Hi Aaron!

Thank you very much for your clear presentation of Peter's position. It makes sense. I had been struggling with the question of how much of the law was still applicable to the Circumcision gospel. I still have some questions, though... 

(1) Why did Paul say that Peter was "living as the nations" (Gal. 2:14), if he was keeping the law? 

(2) Did the "sheet vision"'s meaning include that eating "unclean" animals was fine from now on? I know the main meaning of the vision was to say that the Gentiles that were cleansed by God (Cornelius etc) were not to be considered unclean, but did that vision also include changes to food laws? 

(3) What is your comment on AEK's commentary on Acts 15:19? This is what got me thinking that not all the law was still to be followed (such as food laws), together with the fact that there is (coming to be) a transference of the Law mentioned in Heb. 7:12 (necessitated by "the priesthood being transferred", while it was on the basis of priesthood that "the people have been placed under law" Heb. 7:11). 

AEK writes: "A Jew, even if a believer, could not eat at the same table with a gentile if he should serve an idol sacrifice, or strangled meat, or blood. Had Peter's advice been followed, they would have cast off the yoke of the law, which they never were able to bear, and so could have had free and joyful fellowship with the Uncircumcision. James' plan keeps the Jews under the divine law and puts the nations under a human law. Instead of loosing all from bondage, he binds both."

Now I'm thinking that this is one of the rare times where AEK got things wrong. Thanks for clearing up that the "yoke of the law" actually means the so-called "oral law" of rabbinical tradition. With this understanding, AEK's comment about getting rid of the yoke would make more sense. But on the other hand, James' decree comes from the Mosaic, not oral law (as far as I remember), so though James ought not to have put these laws on the Gentiles, the Jews could not have "cast off the yoke" of those rules without violating their covenant obligation.

(4) When Paul tells the Galatians that the law was Israel's guardian until the time of maturity (which happened when God sent His Son), it sounds like he is speaking of the Circumcision, not just about Jewish Uncircumcision believers like himself. Or not? Perhaps you have already written on these things. I would very much appreciate an answer directly or by way of pointing me to a page you already have written. 

Many blessings,
Ruth

In addition to being encouraging (which is always much appreciated, and helps keep me going even when I'd prefer doing other things), Ruth's comment contains some great questions as well. As much as I try to "leave no stone unturned" when writing my articles, this is, unfortunately, an ideal that is never fully reached. And in the case of my study on Acts 15, Ruth has helpfully brought to my attention a few stones that I neglected to turn over. Thus, I’ve decided to devote this blog article to answering Ruth's great questions. 

My original plan was to answer Ruth's questions in the exact order in which they appear in her comment, but I eventually had to give up on that plan (in fact, I’m actually going to be responding to her last question first).

Is Israel “no longer under an escort?”

The verses from Galatians to which Ruth was referring in her last question are found in Gal. 3:19-29:

19 What, then, is the law? On behalf of transgressions was it added, until the Seed should come to Whom He has promised, being prescribed through messengers in the hand of a mediator.
20 Now there is no Mediator of one. Yet God is One.
21 Is the law, then, against the promises of God? May it not be coming to that! For if a law were given that is able to vivify, really, righteousness were out of law.
22 But the scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ's faith may be given to those who are believing.
23 Now before the coming of faith we were garrisoned under law, being locked up together for the faith about to be revealed.
24 So that the law has become our escort to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.
25 Now, at the coming of faith, we are no longer under an escort,
26 for you are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus.
27 For whoever are baptized into Christ, put on Christ,
28 in Whom there is no Jew nor yet Greek, there is no slave nor yet free, there is no male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.
29 Now if you are Christ's, consequently you are of Abraham's seed, enjoyers of the allotment according to the promise.

As with other passages in Paul’s letters that make reference to the law, this passage (especially verses 23-25) has been understood by most Christians as revealing that the law given by God to Israel had been abrogated. However, Paul is not talking about the relationship that all Israel had (or has) to the law. Rather, he’s referring specifically to the relationship that Israelites such as himself (i.e., Israelites who’d been called through the evangel of the Uncircumcision to an expectation distinct from Israel’s covenant-based expectation) have to the law. That is, what Paul had in mind in this passage is the status of the law in relation to Israelites who’d become members of the body of Christ. When we keep this fact in mind, we find that there is no contradiction between what Paul wrote in this passage and other verses that indicate that God’s covenant people, Israel, still had a covenant-based obligation to keep the precepts of the law given to Israel.

This is not the only time that Paul addressed the relationship that those in the body of Christ who were formerly under the law now have to the law. The entire seventh chapter of Romans addresses this subject as well. Here’s how Paul begins this section of his letter (notice how he’s addressing those saints within the ecclesia “who know law” – i.e., those who, like himself, were formerly under the law and thus acquainted with it):

1 Or are you ignorant, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know law), that the law is lording it over a man for as much time as he is living?
2 For a woman in wedlock is bound to a living man by law. Yet if the man should be dying, she is exempt from the law of the man.
3 Consequently, then, while the man is living, she will be styled an adulteress if she should be becoming another man's, yet, if the man should be dying, she is free from the law, being no adulteress on becoming another man's.
4 So that, my brethren, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ, for you to become Another's, Who is roused from among the dead, that we should be bearing fruit to God.
5 For, when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were through the law, operated in our members to be bearing fruit to Death.
6 Yet now we were exempted from the law, dying in that in which we were retained, so that it is for us to be slaving in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter.


According to this passage, it is those who have become members of the body of Christ who have been “put to death to the law” and “exempted from law.” Keeping this important fact in mind, let’s now return to Paul’s words in Galatians 3:19-29. It must be emphasized that much of what Paul wrote in Galatians was written in response to the following problem: Some of the saints in Galatia - as a result of the influence of Judaizers in their midst - were desiring to be “under law” (Gal. 4:21), which would’ve involved getting circumcised and becoming “a debtor to do the whole law” (5:1-4). It was because Paul was writing to combat this problem that, in the verses under consideration, he put the focus on the relationship that Jewish believers in the body of Christ had to the law. If, through faith in Paul’s evangel, those who were formerly under the law had become exempt from the law, why would those who were never under law place themselves under it?

Verse 19 needs to be understood in light of verses 23-25. And these verses, in turn, need to be understood in light of verse 22 and verses 26-29. Consider verse 22: “But the scripture locks up all together under sin, that the promise out of Jesus Christ's faith may be given to those who are believing.” Notice that Paul’s focus is on those to whom “the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faith” had been (or would be) given. In other words, he had in mind believers.

Thus, when Paul wrote that “we were garrisoned under law” in v. 23, we can conclude that he had in mind those Jews to whom “the promise out of Jesus Christ’s faith” would be given (and not every Jew on the earth at that time). That is, Paul had in view only those Israelites who, through faith in his evangel of the Uncircumcision, had become members of the body of Christ (such as himself and Barnabas; see Gal. 2:9 as well as Paul’s use of the word “we” in Gal. 1:8-9). It was these alone who were “no longer under an escort” (i.e., the law), for they’d been “justified through the faith of Christ,” “baptized into Christ” and become part of that company of saints in which there is neither “Jew nor yet Greek” (vv. 26-28).

When we keep in mind the specific problem that Paul was addressing in this letter (i.e., that certain Gentile believers were desiring to place themselves under the law), it becomes much less perplexing why Paul would put the focus on a relatively small category of believers within the body of Christ (i.e., those believers who had formerly been ”garrisoned under law,” and for whom the law had been their “escort to Christ” until his coming).

How was Peter “living as the nations?”

In regard to what it meant for Peter to have been “living as the nations,” I think it would be helpful to first consider what this most likely didn’t mean. Some have suggested that the food Peter was eating while fellowshipping with certain believing Gentiles wasn’t kosher. According to this view, Peter and the other Jewish believers with him had been disregarding the basic dietary laws given by God to Israel (e.g., by eating meat with blood in it, or eating pork and shellfish). But it seems unlikely that such a flagrant violation of God’s law (as well as Jewish norms) would’ve been practiced by the believing Jews at Antioch. The Gentile converts with whom Peter had been eating most likely had come from the ranks of the “God-fearers” (who presumably would’ve already been very familiar with, and sensitive to, Jewish dietary practices).

Moreover - and in connection with Ruth’s second question - we find no indication that the dietary laws given by God to Israel had been annulled or modified. We’re not told anywhere in Acts that, as a result of the “sheet vision,” Peter came to believe that the things which God’s law explicitly forbade Israelites from eating had become “clean.” The sheet vision was clearly symbolic and was intended to convey to Peter the following idea (as expressed in the words of Peter to Cornelius): “…God shows me not to say that any man is contaminating or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Based on the only explicitly-stated meaning that Peter is said to have gotten out of the “sheet vision” experience, we should conclude that Peter had learned only that “God is not partial, but in every nation he who is fearing Him and acting righteously is acceptable to Him (Acts 10:34-35). So I wouldn’t say that this was merely the “main meaning” of Peter’s “sheet vision,” but the only valid meaning.

So how had Peter been “living as the nations” if he was keeping the law of God (including Israel’s dietary laws)? I think the answer is pretty simple and straight-forward, and is stated by Paul himself in Gal. 2:12: Peter had been sharing a meal (or perhaps meals) with those from among the nations. This, it must be kept in mind, was not something that Jews normally did in that day. It should also be noted that the law of Moses didn’t prohibit an Israelite from eating with people from among the nations; as long as certain fundamental dietary precautions were observed, there was no reason why even strictly Torah-observant Jews could not eat with Gentiles. However, the cultural norm in Peter’s day was that Jews ate and fellowshipped at the table only with other Jews.

Sharing a meal around a table with someone was a big deal in that day, and to eat alongside uncircumcised “Gentile sinners” was a taboo among the Jewish people (eating together with those of the nations was something that only those of the nations did, and was thus characteristic of how the Gentiles lived). And given this deeply-entrenched social norm, Peter would’ve been considered as “living as the nations” simply by virtue of his “eating together with those of the nations” (Gal. 2:12). It was this taboo practice that I believe Paul had in mind when, in his public rebuke of Peter, he referred to Peter has “living as the nations.” Thus, it was not what Peter was eating that allowed Paul to say that Peter had been “living as the nations,” but rather the “mere” fact that Peter had been eating with them at the same table.

Christ, Israel’s Chief Priest

What about the “transference” of “the priesthood” and the corresponding “transference of law” and “repudiation of the preceding precept” referred to in Hebrews 7:12, 18? Many Christians seem to understand these verses (among others) as affirming that the law of Moses had been abrogated when the letter to the Hebrews was written (or, at the very least, that the Levitical priesthood had been abolished and superseded by the priesthood of Christ). However, I’m not convinced that this interpretation is sound.[1]

As I argued in part three of “God’s covenant people,” I believe that the law of Moses is going to continue – and that God’s covenant people are going to continue to be under the law - until the passing away of the present heaven and earth (Matt. 5:17-20). Only on the new earth will Israel, I believe, enjoy the same freedom from the law that those in the body of Christ presently enjoy (for more on this subject, see my remarks on Galatians 4:26). But what, then, does it mean for “the priesthood” to have been “transferred?” In the next chapter of this letter, the author made it clear that, if Christ were on earth at that time, he would not even be a priest (Heb. 8:4), since there was, at the time the letter was written, a Levitical priesthood on the earth operating in accord with the law. And according to what we know from prophecy (see, for example, Jer. 33:20-22 and especially all the reference to the Levitical priests in Ezekiel 40-48), we know that the Levitical priesthood will, in fact, be present and operative on the earth during the next eon, after the kingdom has been restored to Israel. So what did the author of Hebrews mean by the words, “the priesthood being transferred?”

By “the priesthood” the author seems to have been referring specifically to the chief (or “high”) priesthood. If that’s the case (and, again, the context seems to support this view), then the author was simply saying that the office of chief priest had been transferred to Christ (who, we’re told, had become “Chief Priest…according to the order of Melchizedek”). In other words, when Christ ascended to heaven, he assumed the office of chief priest over Israel. Does this mean that there ceased to be lawfully appointed Levitical priests on earth, who were of the order of Aaron? No; Hebrews 8:4 presupposes the existence of Levitical priests appointed by law. Thus, the “priesthood” being transferred to Christ simply means that the chief priestly office was transferred to him, and that Christ’s priesthood is, therefore, superior to that of every priest of Israel on earth.

Concerning the “transference of law” that the author understood as necessarily following from (or perhaps occurring in conjunction with) the transference of the priesthood, I believe this was simply the author’s way of saying that that the transfer of the chief priesthood to Christ was given legal validity by God (and that the transference of the priesthood could thus be recognized as legally valid by the recipients of this letter). In any case, it must be emphasized that a “transference of law” in no way equates to or suggests an abrogation of law (or even to a radical change in the law). However one understands the “transference of law” referred to in v. 13, this “transference” no more involved the abolishing of the law than the transference of the priesthood involved the abolishing of the office of chief priest.

But what about the “preceding precept” referred to in v. 18, which we’re told had to be repudiated? In the context, the “preceding precept” refers back to the “fleshly precept” referred to in Heb. 7:16. This precept concerns the requirement that the chief priest be from the family of Aaron (it’s called “fleshly” because it involves the fleshly lineage of priests). In Exodus 29:9 we read that “the priesthood shall be theirs [i.e., Aaron and his sons] for a perpetual statute.” This precept concerning the Aaronic priesthood requirement is said to be “weak and without benefit” insofar as it “appointed men chief priests who have infirmity” (v. 28), and who, consequently, couldn’t adequately deal with sin and bring Israel to perfection (and, it should be emphasized, this was never the job of the Levitical priesthood in the first place). In contrast with this precept, we read that the “word sworn in the oath which is after the law appoints the Son, perfected, for the eon” (v. 28; cf. vv 20-21). But what does it mean for this precept concerning the Aaronic priesthood to be “repudiated?” Answer: The repudiation of this precept should not be understood as involving the abolishing of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood (for, again, it’s prophesied that this priesthood - as well as its associated sacrificial system - will be present and active during the next eon). Rather, the precept has been repudiated only in regard to Jesus’ present, heavenly priesthood. It is only insofar as the precept does not apply to (or have any authority over) Christ in his present, heavenly location that it is to be understood as having been repudiated. The heavenly chief priesthood of Christ simply functions at a different level and in a different realm than the Levitical priesthood. The qualifying factor for priesthood in the heavenly realm is not fleshly lineage but rather “the power of an indissoluble life” (Heb. 7:16-17).

A.E. Knoch on Acts 15:9 (and James’ four essentials)

Regarding A.E. Knoch’s remarks on Acts 15:19, I completely disagree with Knoch that Peter was advising Jewish believers to disregard the law given by God to Israel. This understanding of what Peter said at the Jerusalem conference runs contrary to not only what the Lord himself taught Peter and the other disciples during his earthly ministry, but also to what we know will be the case during the eon to come, after the kingdom has been restored to Israel. Moreover, the idea that keeping “the Jews under the divine law” (as Knoch suggests was part of “James’ plan”) was somehow a bad thing is, I believe, inexplicable in light of the fact that keeping the precepts of the law was in accord with Christ’s own teaching as well as Israel’s covenant-based expectation. Keeping the Jews under the law that God gave to Israel is in accord with the plan of God himself (at least, until the new heaven and new earth), so if that was “James’ plan,” then James was 100% justified in advancing it.

Not only did Knoch (seemingly) have a low opinion of the apostle James, but we find him writing disparagingly of James' proposal (and the resulting epistle) in his remarks on Acts 15:19 (cf. Knoch’s comments on Ephesians 2:15). As with what Knoch wrote concerning what Peter said at the Jerusalem conference, I believe Knoch misunderstood the intent of James' decision and the epistle that was subsequently written at the Jerusalem conference. First, a little background on the epistle that resulted from James' proposal: the Jerusalem conference had to do, of course, with whether or not believers from among the nations had to become proselytes (which would’ve involved their being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses) in order to be saved. And the answer on which the leaders (including James) agreed was an emphatic “no.” Becoming proselytized was not required for the believing Gentiles to be saved. Moreover - and as I’ve argued elsewhere) - the things from which James thought it would be good for the nations to be abstaining presupposed that the nations who were “turning back to God”[2] were not proselytes to Israel. Rather, the four "essentials" of the letter presupposed that the Gentiles came from a non-law-keeping background. 

Now, some have argued that James was trying to put Gentile believers "under law," and that he may have even understood the salvation of believing Gentiles as depending (at least in part) on their abstaining from the four things contained in the epistle. However, nowhere in the epistle (which can be read in Acts 15:23-29) is there any mention of salvation. Nor do we read of any penalties/consequences for violating the "essentials" referred to in the epistle; the epistle simply ends by saying that if the nations abstained from the things referred to, they would “be well engaged” (CV), would “prosper” (Rotherham), or would “do well” (Young). 

But why were these particular “essentials” chosen, as opposed to others? If, as some believe, these four decrees were selected as requirements for salvation and law-keeping for believing Gentiles, then it would be inexplicable why these four were selected while others were excluded. If these essentials are to be understood as a selection from the 613 laws given by God to Israel through Moses that the believing Gentiles were to keep in order to be saved, the selection would be completely arbitrary (making the purpose of the decrees pointless and absurd). To better appreciate this point, consider the following imaginary dialogue between Peter and James:

James: “Okay, so I think we’re all agreed that the salvation of those among the nations who believe doesn’t depend on their being circumcised - which, as we all know, would make them debtors to the whole Mosaic Law [Gal. 5:3]. At the same time, we don’t want any non-proselytized Gentiles to be complete violators of the whole law, either.”

Peter: “Good point. What do you propose, James?”

James: “Let’s just come up with four commandments to make sure at least part of the law will be kept by them. That should be sufficient for their salvation as Gentiles, right?”

Peter: “How about abstaining from idol sacrifices, and blood, and what is strangled, and prostitution?”

James: “Sounds good! All those in favor, say ‘Aye!’”

Understood in this way, the decrees and the decision reached would've been completely contrary to everything Paul wrote concerning the nations being justified by faith apart from the works of the law (as revealed most clearly in Galatians and Romans). Had Paul understood this to be the purpose and nature of the decrees, there is no way he would’ve agreed to it; he would’ve protested and likely rebuked James to his face. Paul wouldn’t have tolerated - even for a second – any supposed “plan” by James to “bind” believers from among the nations and place them “under a human law” (to use the words of Knoch in his commentary). But Paul clearly had no problem with anything James said. James’ four decrees had Paul’s apostolic approval and consent! This fact completely undermines Knoch’s view of what James’ “plan” involved (and the idea that there was any nefarious intent behind it).

But if the four “essentials” proposed by James aren’t a random selection from the Mosaic Law (and weren’t intended by James or the other Jewish leaders to be “laws” that the nations had to keep in order to be saved) how, then, should we understand them? Although several theories have been put forth (such as seeing the decrees as having their basis in the so-called “Noachide Laws”), I believe the best explanation is that all four essentials had to do with customs associated with pagan cults.[3] That is, the decrees did not comprise a random list of things that the nations were to avoid, but were all connected to certain activities/rituals that were performed in (and were seen as inseparable from) the worship of false gods. This understanding of the decrees would best explain why Paul had no problem with them; as Paul made clear in 1 Cor. 10:14-22 and elsewhere, it was not appropriate for the saints to be participating in activities that were connected with the worship of demons (which Paul understood as being behind all idolatrous practices).

Thus, while the content of the epistle could certainly be understood as an exhortation to avoid certain things, there is no indication that James (or anyone else) understood the avoidance of the four essentials as being “requirements for salvation,” or an example of law-keeping/Torah observance. Insofar as the epistle had Paul's apostolic approval, the four essentials of the epistle simply make known certain standards that reveal how believers among the nations should be “walking” in order to “walk worthily of the calling with which [we] were called” (Eph. 4:1; cf. 4:17-19; 5:15-16). They weren’t (and aren’t) a matter of eonian life or death, but of living in a way that honors God and Christ and promotes peace and harmony between believers among the Circumcision and those among the Uncircumcision. These decrees are no more Mosaic commandments than are Paul’s exhortations that believers not steal (Eph. 4:28), that they avoid prostitution and uncleanness (5:3), and that they abstain from getting drunk with wine (v. 18).



[1] I should also add that I don’t think we’re being told in Heb. 7:11 that it was “on the basis of priesthood” that Israel was “placed under law.” The relevant words in the CLNT have been translated as follows: “…for the people have been placed under law with it [i.e., the Levitical priesthood].” This translation doesn’t necessarily express the idea of the priesthood being “the basis” on which Israel was placed under the law. Young’s Literal Translation renders the words as follows: “…for the people under it [the Levitical priesthood] had received law.” Regardless of which version better translates the Greek here, however, the main point that needs to be emphasized is that we’re not told that the entire law of Moses had been abrogated at the time during which the author of Hebrews wrote.

[2] When those from the nations repent of their idolatry and turn to the one true God, it can be spoken of as a “turning back to God.” At one point in history, all humanity (i.e., before there was a distinction between Israel and the rest of humanity) worshipped the one true God. Only later did the worship of the one true God degenerate into the worship of false gods/idols. Thus, when people from among the nations repent of their idolatry, they are returning, in a sense, to the primitive state of their ancestors.

[3] For a more in-depth defense of this position, the reader is encouraged to check out the following articles: https://www.gci.org/acts/decree2 and http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Acts%2015.pdf.

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