Apostolic Attitude toward Religious Judaism in the
Book of Acts
©November 21, 2010 by Asher Intrater
There has been a continuing controversy among the Messianic pastors in Israel concerning our attitude toward religious Judaism and the Law of Moses. There is a small percentage (perhaps about 10%), who believe we should accept everything of Rabbinic Judaism; and another small percentage (perhaps about 20%), who believe we should reject everything of Rabbinic Judaism. The majority are caught in the middle of the discussion.
I have noticed a similar controversy in pastors in churches around the world. A very small number become so enamored with Rabbinic Judaism that they desire to keep all of Jewish culture. A larger percentage is still affected by replacement theology, anti-nomianism (anti-Law), and even anti-Semitism. Many Christian leaders who see a love for Israel and the Jewish people in the Bible also find themselves caught in the middle, and remain somewhat confused.
This controversy can be compared to the Acts 15 controversy 2,000 years ago. There the question was asked whether the Gentiles should be required to keep the Law of Moses. The answer of the apostles, as I interpret it, was that Gentile Christians are free from symbolic ceremonial elements of the Law, but the elements of universal moral Law are still incumbent upon them.
Note: This distinction between priestly symbols and universal morality is not an invention of the New Covenant; it was already expressed by the prophets of Israel. Yeshua taught on the subject in Matthew 9:13, 12:7, 23:23, and Mark 12:33. Yet, the distinction between symbolic law and moral law can be seen earlier in I Samuel 15:22, Isaiah 1:11 and 17, Jeremiah 4:4, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:7 and 8. My favorite is Proverbs 21:3 – "Doing righteousness and justice is more desirable to the Lord than animal sacrifice."
In order to provide some background information, I prepared a brief survey of the attitude of the apostles by listing every verse in the book of Acts that concerned Rabbinic Judaism or the Law of Moses. I found 148 verses on the subject: 78 verses contained criticism; 70 verses contained affirmation. There was not even one chapter that did not contain some reference to this issue. As it was significant in the early community of faith, so is it today. What can we learn from this survey?
First of all, we see that there is a balance on the issue. To see Rabbinic Judaism as totally negative or totally positive is not biblical. There are pros and cons. I appreciate Paul's (Saul's) summary on the subject in Romans 11:28 - "Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, yet concerning the election, they are beloved because of the forefathers." There are elements of Rabbinic Judaism that are inimical to the grace of God and the gospel of salvation; yet within Judaism there are elements that maintain the historic faith from Abraham and Moses.
Of the 78 verses in Acts which are critical of religious Judaism, the great majority concern their persecution of Messianic Jews (59) and their rejection of Yeshua (10). Only 9 verses criticized them for legalism or sin. I found no verses that denied the position of religious Judaism as the continuation of the faith of our forefathers.
This is significant on both sides: Do not be deceived. There is an underlying "agenda" in rabbinic Judaism to oppose faith in Yeshua. Those who are not discerning will be weakened by being overly influenced by rabbinic teaching. On the other hand, Jewish belief and practice on issues not concerning the gospel are NOT necessarily rejected by the apostles.
Of the "affirming" verses, the largest category (16) was the statements of the apostles identifying themselves as part of the faith, culture, and ethnic background of the Jewish people. These expressions were voiced particularly when sharing the gospel, in an attempt not to let faith in Yeshua be separated from the people of Israel.
The second category (15 verses) was the attitude of the apostles to the Law of Moses. They saw the Law and the Prophets as the authoritative word of God. They viewed themselves as keeping the commandments and submitted to the prophecies of ancient Israel.
The third area of affirmation (15 verses) was of rabbinic tradition. The apostles did not affirm the traditions as the word of God, yet they made every effort to be respectful to the culture of their family and friends. Another 10 verses spoke of the custom of the apostles entering the synagogue in each city. The synagogue was seen as a valid place of prayer, community, and bible study.
Finally, I found 14 verses that spoke of a certain godliness, faith, and calling within the religious Jews themselves. The fact that they did not yet know the Messiah did not invalidate the degree of righteousness they did have within the Jewish religion.
We are committed to the truth of the whole word of God: Torah, Prophets, and New Covenant. Secondly, we desire to share our faith effectively with those around us. In the recent interviews on Israeli television and newspaper, many of the questions turned to how we in the Messianic community approach issues of Judaism and the Law of Moses, despite the fact that the Israeli media itself is predominantly secular.
As Yeshua and His disciples had to deal with issues of Torah when sharing the gospel with the Jewish people, so do we today. As the gospel goes out again to the nations of the world from Jerusalem, as it did in the first century, we desire our message to have the same kingdom priorities as expressed by the early apostles.
Our approach is to be radical in the work of the Holy Spirit, bold in presentation of the gospel, committed to moral integrity, and balanced in our approach to Jewish religious tradition. We follow in the footsteps of the apostles. Pray for unity on these issues in the Messianic community in Israel and in the international Body of Christ
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