• The Commandment is Holy and Just and Good | Photo credit Creative Commons CCO

The Secret of Israel (17) – The Commandment is Holy and Just and Good

Rev Henk Poot - 23 April 2019

The apostles’ decision that obeying the law of Moses is not required for the new believers from the nations is justified because of four reasons:

The first one is that keeping the Torah is too hard for the non-Jews.

The second one is – and that will be the main topic of many of Paul’s epistles – that the obligation to keep the law will incite the misunderstanding that one must keep the law for ones true salvation. The law was not given to Israel as such. Israel did not become God’s people by keeping the law. She is God’s people because of God’s election and because God created Israel Himself.

The law was a gift to Israel that befitted her identity as a chosen nation. But it could be interpreted by the nation’s believers in this way and with that put Jesus’ decisive sacrifice in the shade, at the very least.

The third reason must have been that Israel’s unique position had to be guaranteed. Jew and Greek both had access to the kingdom through Christ. In that sense there was no distinction, but that didn’t mean that Jews and Greeks would merge. After all, the prophets had taught that Israel would keep her position in the future too.

Even Jesus had spoken about it that the twelve apostles would sit on the twelve thrones to rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. For Proselytes this decision and the preaching of the Gospel must have been a relief and they too belong to the core of the new congregation around Christ.

A fourth reason is that people simply do not have the time to teach the law to the gentiles. That will be done in the kingdom, later. Just before the soon coming of Jesus everything should now be aimed at the fast gathering of the nations.

In Romans 7, Paul describes in an impressive manner the position of the Proselytes and their initial struggle with the law. This chapter is misunderstood often as if it is all about Paul himself, but nothing could be further from the truth. For example, here he says that he used to live without the law (verse 9). That is difficult to say about the apostle.

He calls the law both holy and good. No, it is about a fictitious person he presents and that person is a proselyte. It is someone who is attracted to faith and to the God of Israel and goes to the synagogue. He tries to progress and become accepted as a real child of God. Therefore he does what the Jews do around him: He accepts the law but then notices that he gets hopelessly bogged down with it.

The law that seemed to be a way to life for him has forced him to face the fact that he is a sinner and only diverted him away from God: “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” (Romans 7:9).

Paul even quotes in this respect a saying from the well-known tragedy by Euripides, Medea: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19). Finally the proselyte exclaims: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). To which Paul recorded the famous words of redemption: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).

The apostles’ decision will prove not to be without controversy. Again and again there will be believers who say that the law applies to the gentiles as an obligation. Later theologians from the young Church in the first and second centuries will challenge them as so-called Judaists. But those theologians will take it one step further after the apostles’ demise: They will teach that the Gospel has replaced the law.

But that is not what the apostles had decided upon. The law was holy and good, a gift to Israel and thus it would remain so forever! Not much later the young Church from the nations will go one step further: The law is not only replaced by the gospel, but along similar lines Israel is replaced by the Church as well!

Now the question will no longer be whether the gentiles can be added and under which conditions, but if the Jews can join and then the condition will be: By releasing the law and no longer keep it! With this the breach between the young Church and Israel is final. Israel will never understand – and rightly so – that accepting Jesus goes hand in hand with abandoning her own identity and letting go of God’s great gift to His people, the Torah.

And even much later the Church will formulate a doctrine in which the knowledge of sin through the law is a prerequisite to arrive at Jesus’ salvation. And with that the law again, by backdoor methods, has become a step for reaching salvation. But that is not what Paul meant when he wrote his portrait about the wrestling proselyte in Romans 7.

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