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Tension of the Testaments   Leave a comment

These days non-Christians with an agenda spend a lot of effort trying to point out what they view as “Biblical illiteracy” among Christians. If you as a Christian state you will not comply with the latest secular law that asks you to violate Biblical principles, you are told you’re a hypocrite because you “eat cheeseburgers” and “get your hair cut”. Sometimes you may not have the foggiest idea what they are talking about. Sometimes that is actually due to a lack of careful scholarship on your part (you can do something about that, of course). Ofttimes it is the result of their misunderstanding of the Bible.

Christians do not live under the Old Covenant. The vast majority of us were born Gentles and are not required in any way to obey the Mosaic Law. It is merely a guide for us to follow because it shows the moral standards that are important to God. My next posting will be on the Jerusalem Council.

So, Old Testament laws by and large have no hold on Gentile-background Christians unless they are repeated in the New Testament. We live under the New Covenant and the New Testament is our guide and, yes, we are required to follow it (except for those handful of passages where Paul explicitly says he’s giving his opinion). If Old Testament laws are repeated in the New Testament, then it’s usually a good idea for New Covenant Christians to know the Levitical law in order to know God’s full teaching on the subject at hand.

So what are the Biblical scriptures that support what I just wrote?

Acts 9 and 10 recount how Peter — a Jewish Christian — began to be separated from the Mosaic Law through God’s actions.

He was traveling in Lydda, a Christian named Tabitha (or Dorcas), died of a severe illness in nearby Joppa. The church at Joppa sent messengers to Peter asking him to come with them “without delay”. Peter complied. When he got there, he cleared the room and resurrected the woman. But that isn’t what is really important in this passage. He laid hands on her dead body, which was a violation of Jewish laws. It made Peter ritually unclean. He then stayed for several days in Joppa with Simon the tanner, a man who also would have been ritually unclean due to his job. Why is that detail important? Because it shows that the believers in Joppa at that time were still following the Jewish law. Only the tanner had room for one of the acknowledged heads of the Jerusalem church because he had made himself ritually unclean by resurrecting one of their own. (Actions 9:36-43)

In Caesarea there lived a Gentile centurion named Cornelius. He was a God-fearer — a Gentile who believed in the Jewish God, but who had not converted to Judaism by being circumcised or keeping kosher. He prayed regularly and during one of those prayers (at 3 in the afternoon … so we know he wasn’t sleeping) he saw a vision in which an angel of God told him to send messengers to Joppa to get Peter. He sent three men, including one soldier who was also a God-fearer. (Acts 10:1-8)

Although the Jews considered all Gentiles to be unclean, soldiers were considered especially unclean because of their work … killing people involves a lot of blood. So it could reasonably be expected that Peter would reject them not only because they were Gentiles, but because they were soldiers.

While they were traveling, Peter received a vision of his own. He could smell lunch being prepared and a trance fell over him. Heaven opened and a sheet-like object descended. On this screen, Peter saw all kinds of four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. A voice said “Get up, Peter, slaughter and eat!” Peter objected. “Certainly not, Lord, fr I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean.” The voice of God (as Peter recognized it) said “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean.” This exchange repeated three times before the screen was withdrawn into heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)

Peter was a good Jew for a fisherman. Jews who worked harvesting food spent part of the year ritually unclean by virtue of what they did for a living. So he had touched the dead bodies of fish before. In that case, raising Tabitha from the dead was acceptable and he took the consequences from his society for doing that. But he was about to launch into totally unexplored and stormy waters. We know from later in Acts and from Galatians that the Jewish Christians were going to have a hard time understanding and accepting this New Covenant that was not actually new. The Levitical dietary restrictions were instituted for some good reasons and for some teaching reasons. A camp of thousands on a march through the desert needed to maintain high hygiene standards if they were going to survive the trip. Living in the Promised Land alongside of pagans like the Philistines and Canaanites, dietary restrictions kept them separate from their neighbors. It taught them discipline as well. That unique identity, exemplified by rituals and dietary strictures, helped keep the Jews as Jews through the Babylonian captivity and Roman occupation.

But it had also made them very insular and self-involved and now God was ready to use the Jewish Christians as a missionary force to the whole of the Gentile world. They wouldn’t be able to maintain those standards which had always been cultural in nature. Now they were moving toward worshiping in spirit and in truth.

Peter puzzled over the vision even as Cornelius’ men approached Simon’s house. When they showed up at the gate, the Holy Spirit spoke to him and said “Go with them because I have sent them to you.” Peter responded, but verified that they were there from a corresponding vision. Then he invited them into Simon the tanner’s house. If Peter had not been made to stay there because of his ritual uncleanness, he could not have offered these Gentiles shelter for the night. God knew what He was doing. (Acts 10:17-23)

The next day he traveled to Caesarea with Cornelius’ men and some of the believers from Joppa. Cornelius called together his relatives and close friends to witness as he paid homage to Peter, but Peter rejected worship. “I’m a mere mortal.” When they went into the house, he saw that he was surrounded by Gentiles. He pointed out that this violated Jewish laws, but that God had given him a new understanding. (Acts 24-33). Despite the fact that these were Gentiles, Peter preached the gospel.

Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) – you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announcedwith respect to Jesus from Nazareththat God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devilbecause God was with himWe are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in JerusalemThey killed him by hanging him on a treebut God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and dranwith him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the deadAbout him all the prophets testifythat everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)

The Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ house began to praise God and speak in tongues, evidence of salvation. Peter arranged for them to be baptized and then he stayed several days with them. (Acts 10:44-48).

When Peter got back to Jerusalem, however, the Jewish Christians called him to account because they had already heard he’d been eating with Gentiles. Peter explained what he had done and why and also detailed the results — Gentiles exhibiting the Holy Spirit. The Jerusalem elders stopped objecting at this point and praised God. (Acts 11:1-17)

Meanwhile, at the same time as Peter was going through this miraculous set of events, ministry was continuing elsewhere. Believers had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen. So far Christians had been witnessing to Jews, but then some Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene began to speak with Gentles. God brought in a large harvest there. Hearing this, the church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate and train these new believers. Barnabas quickly saw this was a work of God among people who did not have a Jewish background. He recognized a need for these new Christians to be taught properly. Apparently feeling inadequate to do this all by himself, Barnabas went to nearby Tarsus and got Paul, who had spent the last several years since his miraculous salvation experience in Damascus quietly growing in the Lord and studying how the Mosaic law interacted with Christianity. It was a bold step given Paul’s history, but it was also a brilliant and God-directed choice. (Acts 11:19-26) The church at Antioch was so distinctive and powerful that it was here that believers were first called Christians.

It would be this church in Antioch — a mixed congregation of Jewish Christians and God-fearers (Gentiles who accepted Judaism’s principles) — that would launch the ministries that brought Christianity to Europe.

So when non-Christians who have used a search engine to find what they suppose are contradictions in the Bible try to win an argument with you by making you feel as if you don’t know the Bible … remember this passage. God didn’t just let things run amok. He gave us specific instructions. When Jesus said “I haven’t come to destroy the old covenant, but to fulfill it,” it pays to know what He meant by that. It wasn’t the Levitical law that was the old covenant. The old covenant was the promises He made to Abraham in exchange for Abraham’s obedient faith. The new covenant is the promises He has made to us in exchange for our faithful obedience. They are the same, just lived out differently because of our different cultures … except when the New Testament speaks on something that is also in the Old Testament.

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