Saturday, 17 January 2015

Should Christians keep the Mosaic Law?

In my late twenties I spent several years listening to the teachings of various Jewish Christians which for the most part was a real blessing and beneficial in helping the Old and New Testaments come alive in ways in which I otherwise might have missed. I really appreciate the symbolism and foreshadowing found throughout the Hebrew half of the bible and how Christ is alluded to in so much of it. But I am seeing something which seems to be becoming more and more popular of late which I am less enthusiastic about which is that the Church is going back to observing the Mosaic Law and teaching others that they are required to do so as well.
     The movement is most commonly known as the ‘Hebraic Roots Movement’ and is championed by groups like the Worldwide Church of God and 119 Ministries. They even have their own version of the Bible which translates the New Testament from Aramaic rather than the traditional Greek texts. As I have watched the movement gain momentum and seen friends (some of the smartest and nicest people around) get caught up in it I have decided to start looking more into it myself as well. I am still scratching the surface at this stage but here are some of my initial thoughts regarding the Hebraic roots movement.

Biblical exegesis 

Those who hold to the belief that we still need to keep the law tend to interpret all of scripture through the lens of the Torah rather than through a Jesus lens. I would argue the opposite to be a better approach as the Torah can only fully be understood and revealed in Jesus (Luke 24:27, Heb 1:1-3). Christ was not just another rabbi like all the others; He was a semikhah rabbi, one with the authority to interpret what the scriptures say (consider all of the “you have heard it said but I tell you…” verses in Matthew 5). And unlike any other semikhah rabbi Jesus received His endorsement directly from God Himself (Matthew 3:13-17).
     The second thing I see as a vital mistake is that the Hebraic roots movement fails to understand the salvific nature of the atonement made in Christ. The cross gets limited to a sacrifice for sin which falls short of what Paul teaches in Galatians 2:21, Ephesians 2:15 and Romans 7:6

If righteousness comes by the law then Christ died in vain

“(Jesus) abolished in his flesh the enmity that is the law of commandments contained in ordinances.

But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

To expand on this I would like to offer some observations I have made on what the Apostles taught regarding the keeping of the law amongst Gentile converts. Acts chapter 15 is a good place to start, in verse 5 we read of a certain sect of Pharisees who became believers but taught that it was necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses. What follows is a rebuke by all the apostles and elders including Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Barsabas and James which is summed up nicely by verse 24.

Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the Law”, to whom we gave no such commandment.

There are many other texts which elaborate on why gentiles were not (and are not) required to keep the law. Here are some specific areas worth considering:-

Regarding food

Many people have used Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 to argue that all foods are now clean. In this particular case I would actually side with those who say that this portion of scripture is not really speaking about food but rather it is about God revealing to Peter the mystery of which Paul speaks of in Ephesians 3; which is that the gentiles had been grafted in, along with the Jewish believers,  into Christ to form one new man. Verse 28 in Acts 10 is key to understanding Peter’s vision a few verses earlier.

Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

Having said that; I would like to point out that the only things gentiles were instructed to abstain from were “things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). Paul elaborates further in Colossians 2:16-17, “Let no one judge you in food or drink, festivals or sabbaths which are a shadow of things to come, the substance is of Christ.” This also underlines my earlier statement about the Hebrew roots movement giving precedence to the Torah over what has been revealed to us in and through Christ. They can point to the OT for a proof text regarding the dietary requirements of the Law but to state that gentiles should abstain from eating bacon and lobster is to not only go beyond what is written but it is to completely undermine what the apostles taught us.

Law keeping  is fleshly (excuse the pun)

As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. - Gal 6:12-13

In Eugene Peterson's ‘the Message’ he adds to this verse that “they are highly selective in the laws they do observe” which seems to be spot on. For all the talk about keeping the Law there are several Mosaic commands that I would like to point out that seem to conveniently be getting pushed under the carpet. Why are all the leaders of the movement not sporting ZZ Top style beards (Leviticus 19:27)? Why no more stoning of people caught in the act of adultery (Leviticus 20:10)? Okay I think everyone is glad that nobody is thinking about going “full Mosaic” on that one. Why are they not chopping off the hands of woman for grabbing a man’s genitals while defending her husband in a fight (Deuteronomy 15:11-12), (Yes it actually says that and yes, once again let’s be glad no one is going “full Mosaic” on that one as well)? Are women being “set apart for seven days” and treated like untouchables (Leviticus 15:19) during their monthly erm, I don’t really want to go there but you get the point. Why is the emphasis only on the Sabbath, the Feasts and dietary restrictions? Is there a list of which 613 Laws we get to throw away and which ones we should still keep? Not only is it impossible to keep the entire Law (there is no longer a temple or priests offering sacrifices) but Paul specifically states that if someone desires to keep the Law then they are a debtor to the whole Law (Galatians 5:3) and that they are placing themselves under a curse by “not continuing in all things which are written” (Galatians 3:10).

Law keeping is futile

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" - Galatians 2:21

“…if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law”. – Galatians 3:21

Human attempts to keep the law cannot produce righteousness or life. I understand that the Hebraic roots leaders would agree with this and that they even emphasize grace over works to distance themselves from the Judaizers (which letters in the bible like Galatians and Titus were written to address). In practice though it is hard to see any distinction; it is like when people say they can see that tithing is not biblical (in the NT sense) but they are going to continue doing it anyway. Why?

The Law has been done away with

In that He says, “A new covenant,” he has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and is growing old is ready to vanish away - Hebrews 8:13

For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God - Galatians 2:19

The Law has served its purpose

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. but after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor - Galatians 3:24-25

Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ that you may be married to another - to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. - Romans 7:4

The Law was merely a shadow

I already mentioned Colossians 2:16-17 earlier, “Let no one judge you in food or drink, festivals or sabbaths which are a shadow of things to come, the substance is of Christ.

Paul explains here that the Sabbath and religious festivals were merely shadows of things to come but that the reality is found in Christ. A sentiment repeated by the author of the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 10:1, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves”.

No one posts pictures of their wives and children’s shadows all over Facebook, it would be weird. One has to wonder what the fascination within the Jewish roots movement is with shadows. The true beauty lies within the person, not the shadow. We have Christ and He is glorious! We know God and He is wondrous! I can understand the infatuation in shadows from a man who has not yet met God; it would be something akin to a man who is going on a blind date. He would be full of questions beforehand but once he picks up his date and sits down face to face with her the dynamics will change completely.

The Law has been fulfilled

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. – Matthew 5:17

There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding this verse and what the word ‘fulfill’ means. To fulfill something means to consummate, attain or satisfy something. Once something has been fulfilled, it is complete and the obligation toward it has been satisfied.

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made – Galatians 3:19

The Law is written on our hearts

I will put my laws in their mind and write them in their hearts, and I will be their God and they will be My people. – Hebrews 8:10

But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law - Galatians 5:18

We no longer serve in the oldness of the letter but in the newness of the Spirit. We were never capable of serving in the oldness of the letter (Romans 2:17-24) in the first place. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” - Galatians 3:3


In concluding this rather lengthy post I would like to point out just how strong Paul’s words were to the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatians. In chapter 1 verse 7 he says that they “pervert the gospel” and in the following verse calls it “another gospel”. In chapter 3 verse 1 he calls them “foolish”. In chapter 4 verse 9 he says that they “again desire to be in bondage”. In chapter 5 verse 2 he says by reverting back to the law “Christ will profit them nothing”, in verse 8 he says that this persuasion toward law keeping is not from God and in verse 12 he goes as far as saying that he wishes that those preaching circumcision would castrate themselves! Ouch.
     This was a highly important issue to Paul as well as the rest of the early church. Once again, I know that the modern day advocates of Law keeping Christianity have attempted to distance themselves from the Judaizers. I would like to suggest that if you are in this group, you had better be sure they are not the same thing because Judaizing is considered a big issue in scripture. Let me end off with one last quote from Paul taken from Colossians 2:20-23:-

Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations -“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and the doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom, in self-imposed religion, false humilty,  and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on this. Especially if you believe that Christians should still be following the law today. How do you interpret some of the scriptures quoted? How is it decided which laws still need to be obeyed and which ones can be ignored? And how is the modern movement distinct from the Judaizers addressed in Paul's letter to the Galatians?


  1. Hi, I mostly agree with you here. We are supposed to be living by the Spirit and not by the law.

    But I think there is one aspect not often considered. Pretty much all your texts come from Paulo, and very few from Jesus. SO what do we make of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46) where Jesus clearly says the reason why some pass God's test and others don't is on the basis of their actions in caring for the poor?

    Normal evangelical theology simply changes the meaning so they can stay with Paul's salvation by grace through faith, but I don't think that is honest exegesis. James 2 is another problematic passage (by Jesus' brother no less!).

    I don't know the answer, but I have been toying with this. We can only be saved through God's grace, but how do we receive that grace? Conventionally it has been through faith, but in Romans 2 Paul suggests the gentiles will be judged by their consciences. I wonder whether some people will receive God's unmerited love through their works, not because their works earn their salvation any more than our faith earns it, but because God saw their heart in their actions?

    I think it's probably heresy, but I think something like that must be right. I can't believe God judges purely by whether we say a sinners prayer. What do you think?

    1. Yip! Definitely not just the sinners prayer. Although the law was only abolished (as Paul says) or fulfilled (as Jesus says) on the cross so it makes sense that Paul spoke more about than Jesus did. I think that maybe Paul gave us mostly the theology behind it and Jesus mostly demonstrated the practicality of living it out.

      But you are right in pointing to Matthew and James. Some people actually see James as a bit of a study of the Beatitudes which puts an interesting spin on it as well. Having said Jesus also condemned the works of the religious people so I guess it boils down to whether the works pointed to the evidence of Christ in them or of self justification. Thanks for the thoughts. I like the way you think :)

  2. Thanks. I grew up as a christian with reformed theology that thinks it can fully understand God and explain him in doctrine. To do this it needs to re-explain lots of inconvenient scriptures. I think it is better to accept the ambiguity that God has given us, and try to find a more fluid understanding.

    1. I couldn't agree more. Apart from "Jesus is Lord", I hold on to pretty much everything else with an open hand nowadays. I think the last several years have being as much about unlearning things as it has about seeing things anew.