"A Judgment in JERUSALEM"
Rick Aharon Chaimberlin, Litt.D.
"’AND some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’"
The statement above tells us of some initial tension between different segments of those who came to believe in Yeshua as the Messiah. In the first half of the First Century of the Common Era, it wasn’t at all unusual for Jews to believe in Yeshua as the Messiah. However, Jewish people did not "convert" to Christianity, because Christianity had not even been invented yet!
This was, however, a perversion of the Messianic faith; it is a perversion of Judaism to imply that a person is considered "saved" by getting circumcised or by keeping the Law of Moses. David certainly wasn’t "saved" because he kept Torah perfectly, nor were any other great men and women of faith. In Judaism, just as in Christianity, we depend upon the grace and mercy. We depend upon God’s "loving kindness, righteousness, blessing, and mercy (ahavat chesed u’tzdakah u’vrachah v’rachamim)" for our right standing before Him. Jews don’t demand a part in the Olam HaBa (World to Come) on the basis of one’s righteousness, but plead to Him on the basis of His mercy and kindness.
For the most part, believing in Yeshua was a "Jewish thing." There were very few among the Gentiles who believed in Yeshua. There were some Gentile proselytes to Judaism that may have come believe in Yeshua on the day of Pentecost (Shavuot) fifty days after the Resurrection. However, beginning with Cornelius in Acts 10, we have Gentiles who came to believe in Yeshua without first converting to Judaism. This was something really wild and hard to understand for the Messianic Jews. At that time, the question wasn’t, "How can a Jew believe in Jesus?" The question was, "How can a Gentile believe in Yeshua without first converting to Judaism?"
However, with the conversion of Cornelius and his family, some Messianic Jews began experimenting with the concept of witnessing to Gentiles, particularly in the city of Antioch. In fact, it was in Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians. The very word Christian is based on the Greek word "Cristos," meaning Messiah or "anointed one." The term "Christian" was very appropriate for the Greek-speaking Gentiles, but was not used for the Jewish believers. Other terms were generally used for Jewish believers such as Nazarenes, sect of the Way, or simply just plain "Jews." The term we prefer today, "Messianic Judaism," wasn’t yet used.
Messianic Judaism in the first century was probably as fragmented as the Messianic Judaism of today. To me, this is good. The religious groups that aren’t fragmented tend to be cults, with some sort of dynamic leader who tells every one what to believe, and anyone who disagrees is cast out of the cult. The many facets of Messianic Judaism is one additional proof that Messianic Judaism isn’t a cult.
In addition, even "non-Messianic" Judaism was highly fragmented. There were the Essenes, with their own separate calendar, who we know today primarily because of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947. There were the Zealots, who highly politicized Jews dedicated to the violent overthrow of the despotic Roman rule of Israel. There were the Sadducees, who rejected much that was supernatural, but who nonetheless were usually in control of the priesthood and the Temple. And there were the Pharisees, who laid the foundations of what later became Orthodox Judaism. However, even the Pharisees had much internal division, as can be witnessed in the Talmud, which was penned by Pharisees. In addition, there were highly assimilated, Hellenized Jews, who really enjoyed Greek and Roman culture, games, language, philosophy, and plays.
Many of the early Messianic Jews were Pharisees before they came to believe in Yeshua, and they remained Pharisees even after coming to believe in Yeshua. Even Paul ("Rav Shaul"), that great apostle of liberty, said, "I am a Pharisee." Please notice: He didn’t say, "I used to be a Pharisee." Rav Shaul continued to be a Pharisee even after coming to know his Messiah.
It was these Pharisees that we read about in Acts 15:1 at the beginning of this article. Notice that they "came down" from Judea. In Israel, it is always said that you "go up" to Jerusalem. Whenever you leave Jerusalem, it is said that you "come down" from Jerusalem. Since these men were "coming down" from Judea, it can safely be assumed that they were coming down from Jerusalem, the capital of the province of Judea. Jerusalem was most often where the "Jew’s Jew" lived-that is, where the most Jewish among the Jews lived. It is even true today. Mea Shearim and other "ultra-Orthodox" neighborhoods contain Jews in old-fashioned garb that make most Orthodox Jews look like Gentiles by comparison.
It was these ultra Torah-observant Messianic Jews from Jerusalem who were most concerned about these Gentiles who were coming to believe in the Jewish Messiah without having converted first to Judaism. They were the ones who were going to the Gentile believers and telling them, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Please bear in mind that circumcision wasn’t "invented" by the Jews. Other nations, both ancient and modern, practice circumcision on male children. However, what is discussed in Acts 15:1 is "circumcision according to the custom of Moses." In other words, these "Orthodox" Messianic Jews were demanding that the circumcision be done according to Jewish Halakhah. The procedure must be done according to Rabbinic tradition. It is much more than a simple medical procedure.
Please note that in Acts 15:2, a great dissension erupted between these Pharisaic Jews and Paul (Rav Shaul), who was also a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Up until this time, there was no "standard operating procedure" for Gentiles converting to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rav Shaul apparently felt that the other Pharisaic Messianic Jews were laying too much on these new Gentile proselytes to the Jewish Messiah. The decision was made to "go up to Jerusalem" for a verdict as to what should be done for these Gentile believers in the Messiah, and what should be required of them.
By the way, it should be noted that the Messianic Jews were all thrilled that Gentiles were coming to the knowledge of Yeshua. As these Messianic Jews were going up to Jerusalem, they told of the "conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great joy to all the brethren." (It is interesting to note that the word "conversion" is used in regard to the new Gentile believers. Perhaps this is a clue that it was assumed that the Gentiles were converting to Judaism.)
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they told the "apostles and elders" all the things that God was doing among the Gentiles. "But there arose certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.’"
IN Judaism, a beit din ("house of judgment") is often gathered together to decide on difficult matters of faith and halakhah. A beit din also decides on whether or not a candidate for conversion is worthy of conversion, and even can expel (or "ex-communicate") a Jew from the Jewish community for heresy or bad conduct, although this is seldom done.
In Acts 15:7, it seems that this issue of the Gentile believers is being brought before a Messianic Jewish beit din, headed by Ya’akov (James [or Jacob]) the brother of Yeshua. (See Acts 15:13.) There was "much debate," as would be expected in a situation such as this.
It was Shimon Kefa (Peter) who rose to speak, urging a lesser degree of strictness regarding the inclusion of these Gentile believers into the Messianic community. It was Shimon Kefa, or course, who witnessed to Cornelius and his household, resulting in the very first Gentiles to come to faith in Messiah without first formally converting to Judaism. He even witnessed these new Gentile believers "speak with tongues," much as had been the case among the Jewish believers in the second chapter of Acts.
At this point, these new Gentile believers were immersed ("mikvehed") in water, something that is still done in Judaism when Gentiles convert to Judaism. Although the text doesn’t say so specifically, it is possible that Shimon and the other Jewish believers were indicating their acceptance of Cornelius and his household as converts to Judaism, as is indicated by the immersion. At a later date, Rav Shaul (Paul) attached the beautiful symbolism of immersion in water being a picture of identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Messiah. However, Shimon Kefa might not have understood this beautiful symbolism, as the immersion of Cornelius and his household was prior to Rav Shaul’s additional revelation about immersion. My hunch is that Shimon Kefa may have been demonstrating to the Jewish believers present that these Gentiles were to be considered converts to Judaism, which was "sealed" by the mikveh bris.
Today, most rabbis demand at least a year of study under a rabbi and quite strict adherence to Torah, as well as circumcision ("brit milah") before accepting a Gentile as a convert to Judaism. However, in the first centuries of the Common Era there was considerable leeway on the minimal requirements for full conversion. Whereas today, the mikveh is always after brit milah, in the first century the brit milah (circumcision) could be done after the mikveh, in other words, after the conversion process. (In the event that the man is already circumcised, there is a ceremonial "letting of blood" in which at least a drop of blood is taken from this area of the male anatomy, in English called a "mock bris.")
Shimon Kefa told the Beit Din in Jerusalem, "And God, who knows the hearts, bore witness to them, giving them the Ruakh HaKodesh (Holy Spirit), even as He did unto us, and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith." Shimon Kefa is telling them that the Holy Spirit had been poured upon the Gentiles, just as had happened to the Jews, so it was completely "kosher" to immerse them in the mikveh.
Then he added, "Now therefore, why do you put God to the test by putting a yoke upon the neck of the talmidim (disciples) which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" At this point, most Christians assume that the yoke being referred to is the Torah (Mosaic Law). The assumption is that Torah is a terrible bondage, something to be avoided at all costs. The belief is that "Jesus delivered us from the bondage of the Law." This, of course, does tremendous injustice to the many positive statements about Torah in the Scriptures. In fact, those who hate, despise, or forsake the Law are considered to be wicked sinners. However, the righteous "delight in Thy commandments, which I love," and "I understand more than the aged because I have observed Thy precepts." It is utter blasphemy to condemn the Law as bondage.
The "yoke" which Shimon Kefa was referring to were the many manmade additions to Torah. This is a reference to Rabbinic Halakhah. For instance, Torah tells us to observe Shabbat, which we also strongly support. However, in Rabbinic Halakhah, you can’t have a handkerchief hidden in your pocket, because that would be "carrying a burden," and you can’t turn on a light, because that is considered "kindling a fire," along with many other restrictions. This is called "putting a hedge around the Law" in order to keep you from breaking the actual written commands of Torah. However, all the many Rabbinic additions to Torah can become a genuine burden. This is the "yoke" referred to by Shimon Kefa. (We aren’t opposed to those who choose to be Rabinically Orthodox in their observance; we are, however, opposed to those who would try to impose this restrictive lifestyle on others.)
Likewise, in modern Christianity, there are man-made "yokes" in many denominations, legalisms in which people are forbidden to dance, drink wine, go to a movie, etc. In today’s society, dance, rock music, movies, etc., are increasingly corrupt and it might be wise to avoid most of these worldly activities. However, dance was a part of Davidic worship. We need to avoid activities which are contrary to Scripture, but, we need to be careful not to put a "yoke" upon believers which isn’t in Scripture.
The Judgment of Ya’akov
It was Ya’akov ("James" or Jacob), the brother of Yeshua who apparently headed the Beit Din at Jerusalem, and he came up with a decision about what to do with these Gentile proselytes (gerim) to the faith. He reminds those present of the Gentiles who came to faith through the ministry of Shimon Kefa. Then he gives a very free paraphrase of Amos 9:11-12, to demonstrate that YHWH also wants to bring His salvation to the Gentiles.
He then says, "Therefore, it is my judgment that we trouble not those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write unto them that they abstain from pollutions of idols, from fornication, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has those in every city who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Shabbat."
One of the common interpretations of the instructions given by Ya’akov ("James") is that Gentile believers only had to avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, and eating meat from animals which had been strangled or which was bloody. The myriads of Jewish believers remained "zealous of the Law (Torah)." There are some in the Messianic Jewish camp today who will insist that Torah was never abolished, and quote Matthew 5:17-19. But they will insist that Torah is for Jews only, not for Gentiles. They will quote the ruling of Ya’akov in Acts 15 as proof of the fact that Gentiles need not observe anything more than the minimal instructions of Acts 15:20.
I have some problems with such conclusions. Ya’akov was setting up some minimal levels of observance. He particularly was emphasizing aspects of Gentile behavior which would be especially repulsive to Jews, such as eating blood, idolatry, and sexual immorality. However, this was a foundation of basic behavior to build upon. Gentiles weren’t to stay in that position without any further growth. Is it "okay" for Gentiles to steal, kill, or commit other acts of mayhem and vandalism? Of course not! But Ya’akov never mentioned murder or robbery or any further prohibitions. Common sense seems to indicate that there is more going on here than first meets the eye.
In Acts 15:21, we read, "For Moses from ancient generations has those in every city who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Shabbat." This verse comes immediately after the minimal prohibitions mentioned for Gentiles in verse 20. Some don’t see any connection between verses 20 and 21. However, they are indeed intimately connected. We normally think of synagogues as meeting places for Jews. However, 2000 years ago, it was in the synagogues that Gentiles learned about the God who created heaven and earth. We see this throughout the Book of Acts:
And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Shabbat. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and proselytes followed Shaul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. Acts 13:42-43.
And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke in such a manner that a great multitude believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. Acts 14:1
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonica, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the JewsÖ And some of them believed and consorted with Shaul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and a number of the leading women. Acts 17:1, 4.
So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place everyday with those who happened to be present. Acts 17:17.
And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Shabbat, and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. Acts 18:4.
"St. Paul," that is, Rav Shaul, knew where to find both Gentiles and Jews to witness to. He went to the synagogues! The synagogues were lights in an otherwise spiritually dark world, and many Gentiles were attracted to that light.
Rav Shaul never instructed the Gentiles to stop going to the synagogues. In fact, it was expected that they would grow in their knowledge of God by attending the synagogues and listening to the teachings of the rabbis. "For Moses from ancient generations has those in every city who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Shabbat." Acts 15:21.
IT would be far too much to expect these new Gerim (Gentile proselytes) to observe all of Torah immediately after coming to faith in the Messiah, even though some ultra Torah-observant Messianic Jews felt otherwise. However, as they sat and learned under learned rabbis, they would grow in their observance of Torah. Today, many would warn new believers to "stay away" from the synagogues of the "non-believing" Jews. However, in the First Century, it is precisely these synagogues who provided much needed teaching for the Gentiles who had come to believe in the Jewish Messiah. These Gentiles had in effect become Gerim, proselytes to (Messianic) Judaism.
According to traditional Halakhah, Gentiles don’t need to observe more than the Noachide commandments in order to be in good standing with the Almighty and have a part in the Olam HaBa. The seven Noachide commandments are (according to Talmud-Sanhedrin 56a-b) prohibitions against: 1) idolatry, 2) murder, 3) blasphemy, 5) incest, 6) eating the flesh of a living animal, and finally the positive commandment to 7) promote courts of justice. Gentiles who observed these precepts were at the first rung of Gerim, the so-called "strangers at the gate." They were considered righteous, but were not full converts. Some Messianic Jews have compared the Noachide commandments to the prohibitions in Acts 15:19-20. However, there is really very little resemblance between the two, except for the fact that a minimal level of Torah observance was set for Gentiles who came to accept the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Noachide commandments are binding on all mankind according to the Rabbis. The prohibitions of Acts 15:19-20 would be added to the Noachide commandments, which had been given to Noah and his descendents.
However, as we pointed out in Acts 15:21, it was expected that there would be some growth in the observance of the commandments among the Gerim (Gentile proselytes). They would be sitting in the synagogues and learning from learned rabbis. The more they learned, the more they would apply to their own lives. I would expect that, for starters, they would also learn and obey the Eseret D’varim ("Ten Commandments"). These were, after all, the only commandments which were written on tablets of stone by the finger of God Himself. As such, it can be assumed that these commandments would be considered of more importance than most of the other 613 commandments of Torah. Most Christians are strong advocates of the Ten Commandments, although curiously the Fourth Commandment concerning Shabbat is considered to either be unimportant, or it is considered to have been replaced by Sunday, a premise completely unsupported in Scripture. Even the New Testament mentions Shabbat more than all the other days of the week put together, and never mentions replacing Shabbat with Sunday.
I remember when I was a new believer. I was taught that I was a "new covenant" believer. As such, I had no love or appreciation for the "Old Testament." What can I say? I was much younger and still quite ignorant. Eventually a realization took hold regarding what the "new covenant" really is. Actually, Scripture is quite clear; it was only my thinking that was a bit muddled. The first prophet to define the "New Covenant" was Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, saith YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; for as much as they broke My covenant, although I was a husband to them, saith YHWH. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith YHWH: I will put My Law (Torah) within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:31-33
THIS same passage is repeated again in Hebrews 8:8-10 and in Hebrews 10:16, giving a stamp of approval and agreement to it in the New Testament. There are a couple rather shocking things about this passage. For one thing, the New Covenant is the writing of Torah on our hearts. The "old covenant" was Torah being written on tablets of stone. Moses described in terrifying detail the terrible things that would happen for disobedience to the mitzvot (commandments) as well as the blessings that we would have if we kept the mitzvot. Torah is a schoolmaster to bring us to Messiah. In the new covenant, we are not "under the Law" because the Law has been internalized, much as what the schoolmaster has taught us is also internalized. When you were a child, you behaved yourself because you might have wanted to avoid a spanking. As you internalized what your parents told you, you started to live a more disciplined life and did what was right simply because it was right, and not out of fear. You might also have obeyed your parents as a demonstration of your love for them. Ultimately, this is why we keep the mitzvot in the new covenant-as a demonstration of our love for HaShem, not to earn "brownie points" or to "get saved." We do these things because we are saved, and because it is an integral part of the new covenant.
The other shocking thing about the passage in Jeremiah 31:31-33 is that the new covenant is made with the house of Israel. It isn’t made with the Gentiles. "Remember, at that time you were separate from Messiah, excluded from the Commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Messiah Yeshua you who were formerly far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah, for He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the middle wall of partition between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in the ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peaceÖ"
Yeshua didn’t abolish the Law, of course. He said as much in Matthew 5:17-19. What he did was pay the penalty for our transgressions of Torah, both Jew and Gentile. He "broke down the middle wall of partition" between Jew and Gentile, and brought the Gentile, by a process of conversion, into the "Commonwealth" of Israel. The British Commonwealth is still around to point to as an example. A person in India isn’t an Englishman. However, he is part of the Commonwealth of Britain. To be part of the British Commonwealth, certain standards need to be met, including respect for human rights and democracy. The British might not have been such wonderful people as a colonial power. However, most former colonies desire to be part of the British Commonwealth, which is a voluntary association of nations with certain ideals. Likewise, converted Gentiles are part of the Commonwealth of Israel. As such, anti-Semitism is anathema, if in fact this person is truly converted.
This same concept is further developed by Rav Shaul in Romans chapter 11. He speaks of Jews being the natural olive tree, whereas the Gentile believers are branches from the wild olive tree who have been grafted in-contrary to nature-into the natural olive tree, that is, into Israel. If Gentile believers have been grafted into Israel, doesn’t it stand to reason that these Gerim (Gentile proselytes) should take on some of the duties and responsibilities of Israel?
Please keep in mind also that the only Bible that Believers had for at least a generation after the death and resurrection of Yeshua was the Tanakh (O.T.). The New Testament hadn’t even been invented yet! However, the Tanakh met the spiritual needs of the First Century Believers very well. Rav Shaul wrote to Timothy, "But continue in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing of whom you have learned them. And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation which is in Messiah Yeshua. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for all good works." The "Holy Scriptures" being referred to were the books of the Tanakh (O.T.). This was decades before there was a volume known as the "New Testament," and a couple hundred years before Dispensational Theology came along, and "dispensed" with most of the teachings of the Tanakh.
Even after the Resurrection, Yeshua spoke strongly of the need to observe the mitzvot. He said, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations (goyim), immersing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded youÖ" The "Great Commission" was for Yeshua’s Jewish disciples to go out from Israel into all the nations teaching them "to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you." It is time for Messianic Judaism to reclaim its rightful duty to teach Gentiles to live as Yeshua lived-a life submitted to Torah.
I don’t believe Yeshua would be disappointed at the establishment of a new religion called Christianity. However, His purpose in coming wasn’t to start a new religion; His purpose in coming was to be the Messiah for the old religion-Judaism.
One of our readers (George Porey) wrote: "Today’s Messianic Gentiles should have the same opportunity as the Tanakh Gentile Believers-who sojourned with Israel and received an inheritance among the tribes. Yet, within the Messianic Movement, there is a backlash from what happened within the ‘Church.’ I believe conversion is the answer."
What Mr. Porey is suggesting was in fact what was done in the First Century "Church," which was, of course, a Jewish thing. The "Church" of today is far removed from the original Jewish context of the First Century.
Just who is the "assembly of Israel" that was at the foot of Mount Sinai? Consider the following:
A "Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth, about 600,000 men on foot, aside from children. And a mixed multitude also went up with themÖ"
A "The same Law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you."
A "But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, (neither) the native, not the alien (believing Gentile) who sojourns among you."
A "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God."
A "You shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves, and among the aliens who stay in your midst (believing Gentiles), who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel."
A "As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien (Gentile) who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before YHWH."
A "Assemble the people, the men and the women and the children and the alien (believing Gentile) who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear YHWH your God; be careful to observe all the words of this Law."
A "Also, the foreigners who join themselves to YHWH, to minister to Him, and to love the name of YHWH, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Shabbat, and holds fast My covenant, even those I ill bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayerÖ For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. YHWH, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others will I gather to them, to those already gathered.’"