The Early Christians and the Mosaic Law
“The Law has become our tutor leading to Christ.”—GALATIANS 3:24.
1, 2. What were some of the benefits that came to Israelites who carefully observed the Mosaic Law?
IN 1513 B.C.E., Jehovah gave the Israelites a code of laws. He told the people that if they obeyed his voice, he would bless them and they would enjoy happy, satisfying lives.—Exodus 19:5, 6.
2 That Law code, called the Mosaic Law, or simply “the Law,” was “holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12) It promoted such virtues as kindness, honesty, morality, and neighborliness. (Exodus 23:4, 5; Leviticus 19:14; Deuteronomy 15:13-15; 22:10, 22) The Law also incited the Jews to love one another. (Leviticus 19:18) Furthermore, they were not to mix with or take wives from among Gentiles who had not submitted to the Law. (Deuteronomy 7:3, 4) As a “wall” of separation between Jews and Gentiles, the Mosaic Law kept God’s people from becoming contaminated by pagan thinking and practices.—Ephesians 2:14, 15; John 18:28.
3. Since no one could observe the Law perfectly, what effect did it have?
3 However, even the most conscientious Jews could not observe God’s Law perfectly. Was Jehovah expecting too much of them? No. One of the reasons why the Law was given to Israel was “to make transgressions manifest.” (Galatians 3:19) The Law made sincere Jews conscious of their desperate need for a Redeemer. When that One arrived, faithful Jews rejoiced. Their deliverance from the curse of sin and death was at hand!—John 1:29.
4. In what sense was the Law a “tutor leading to Christ”?
4 The Mosaic Law was to be a temporary arrangement. Writing to fellow Christians, the apostle Paul described it as a “tutor leading to Christ.” (Galatians 3:24) A tutor of ancient times accompanied children to and from school. He was generally not the teacher; he merely led the children to the teacher. Similarly, the Mosaic Law was designed to lead God-fearing Jews to Christ. Jesus promised that he would be with his followers “all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 28:20) Once the Christian congregation was formed, therefore, the “tutor”—the Law—served no further purpose. (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:25) But some Jewish Christians were slow to grasp this vital truth. As a result, they continued observing features of the Law even after Jesus’ resurrection. Others, though, adjusted their thinking. In doing so, they set a fine example for us today. Let us see how.
Exciting Developments in Christian Doctrine
5. What instructions did Peter receive in a vision, and why was he shocked?
5 In 36 C.E., the Christian apostle Peter had a remarkable vision. At that time a heavenly voice commanded him to slaughter and eat birds and animals that were considered unclean under the Law. Peter was shocked! He had never “eaten anything defiled and unclean.” But the voice told him: “You stop calling defiled the things God has cleansed.” (Acts 10:9-15) Instead of rigidly clinging to the Law, Peter adjusted his view. This led him to an amazing discovery concerning God’s purposes.
6, 7. What enabled Peter to conclude that he could now preach to Gentiles, and what further conclusions did he likely draw?
6 This is what happened. Three men went to the house where Peter was staying to ask him to go with them to the home of a devout uncircumcised Gentile named Cornelius. Peter invited these men into the house and entertained them there. Having grasped the significance of this vision, Peter accompanied them the next day to the home of Cornelius. There Peter bore thorough witness concerning Jesus Christ. At that time, Peter stated: “For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” Not only Cornelius but also his relatives and close friends exercised faith in Jesus, and “holy spirit fell upon all those hearing the word.” Recognizing Jehovah’s hand in the matter, Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”—Acts 10:17-48.
7 What enabled Peter to conclude that Gentiles who had not submitted to the Mosaic Law could now become followers of Jesus Christ? Spiritual discernment. Since God had shown his approval of uncircumcised Gentiles, pouring out his spirit upon them, Peter discerned that they could be accepted for baptism. At the same time, Peter apparently realized that God did not expect Gentile Christians to observe the Law of Moses as a condition for baptism. If you had lived back then, would you have been as willing as Peter to adjust your viewpoint?
Some Kept Following the “Tutor”
8. What view of circumcision that was different from Peter’s was promoted by some Christians living in Jerusalem, and why?
8 After leaving the home of Cornelius, Peter went to Jerusalem. News that uncircumcised Gentiles had “received the word of God” had reached the congregation there, and a number of Jewish disciples were disturbed about the matter. (Acts 11:1-3) While acknowledging that Gentiles could become Jesus’ followers, “the supporters of circumcision” insisted that these people of the non-Jewish nations must observe the Law in order to be saved. On the other hand, in predominantly Gentile areas, where there were few Jewish Christians, circumcision was not necessarily an issue. The two viewpoints persisted for about 13 years. (1 Corinthians 1:10) What a test that must have been for those early Christians—especially the Gentiles living in Jewish areas!
9. Why was it vital that the issue of circumcision be settled?
9 The issue finally came to a head in 49 C.E. when Christians from Jerusalem came to Syrian Antioch, where Paul was preaching. They began teaching that Gentile converts had to get circumcised according to the Law. And there occurred no little dissension and disputing among them and Paul and Barnabas! If the issue was not settled, some Christians, whether from Jewish or from Gentile backgrounds, were bound to be stumbled. Thus, arrangements were made for Paul and a few others to go to Jerusalem and ask the Christian governing body to resolve the issue once and for all.—Acts 15:1, 2, 24.
An Honest Difference of Opinion—Then, Unity!
10. What were some of the points that the governing body considered before making the decision regarding the status of Gentiles?
10 At a meeting that was convened, some apparently argued in favor of circumcision, while others presented the opposing view. But emotion did not rule the day. After much disputing had taken place, the apostles Peter and Paul described the signs that Jehovah had performed among the uncircumcised. They explained that God had poured out holy spirit upon uncircumcised Gentiles. In effect, they asked, ‘Can the Christian congregation rightly reject those whom God has embraced?’ Then the disciple James read a passage of Scripture that helped all in attendance to discern Jehovah’s will in the matter.—Acts 15:4-17.
11. What factor was not involved in making the decision regarding circumcision, and what shows that Jehovah’s blessing was upon the decision?
11 All eyes were now on the governing body. Would their Jewish heritage slant their decision in favor of circumcision? No. These faithful men were determined to follow the Scriptures and the leadings of God’s holy spirit. After hearing all the pertinent testimony, the governing body unanimously agreed that there was no need for Gentile Christians to get circumcised and come under the Mosaic Law. When word reached the brothers, they rejoiced, and the congregations began to “increase in number from day to day.” Those Christians who submitted to clear theocratic direction were blessed with a solid, Scriptural answer. (Acts 15:19-23, 28, 29; 16:1-5) Yet, an important question remained to be answered.
What About Jewish Christians?
12. What question was left unresolved?
12 The governing body had clearly indicated that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised. But what about Jewish Christians? The governing body’s decision had not specifically covered that aspect of the question.
13. Why was it wrong to assert that observance of the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation?
13 Some Jewish Christians who were “zealous for the Law” continued circumcising their children and observing certain features of the Law. (Acts 21:20) Others went further, even insisting that it was necessary for Jewish Christians to observe the Law in order to be saved. In this, they were seriously mistaken. For example, how could any Christian offer an animal sacrifice for the remission of sins? Christ’s sacrifice had made such offerings obsolete. What about the Law’s requirement that Jews avoid close fellowship with Gentiles? It would have been very difficult for zealous Christian evangelizers to observe those restrictions and still carry out the commission to teach the Gentiles all the things that Jesus had taught. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8; 10:28)a There is no evidence that this matter was clarified at a meeting of the governing body. Still, the congregation was not left without help.
14. What guidance regarding the Law did Paul’s inspired letters provide?
14 Guidance came, not in the form of a letter from the governing body, but in additional inspired letters written by the apostles. For example, the apostle Paul sent a powerful message to Jews and Gentiles living in Rome. In his letter to them, he explained that a real Jew “is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit.” (Romans 2:28, 29) In the same letter, Paul used an illustration to prove that Christians were no longer under the Law. He argued that a woman could not be married to two men at once. But if her husband died, she was free to remarry. Paul then applied the illustration, showing that anointed Christians could not be subject to the Mosaic Law and belong to Christ at the same time. They had to become “dead to the Law” so that they could be united with Christ.—Romans 7:1-5.
Slow to Grasp the Point
15, 16. Why did some Jewish Christians fail to get the point regarding the Law, and what does this show about the need to remain spiritually alert?
15 Paul’s reasoning regarding the Law was unassailable. How was it, then, that some Jewish Christians failed to get the point? For one thing, they lacked spiritual discernment. For example, they neglected taking in solid spiritual food. (Hebrews 5:11-14) They were also irregular in attendance at Christian meetings. (Hebrews 10:23-25) Another reason why some did not get the point may have had to do with the nature of the Law itself. It was centered on things that could be seen and felt and touched, such as the temple and the priesthood. It was easier for someone lacking spirituality to accept the Law than to embrace the deeper tenets of Christianity, which were centered on unseen realities.—2 Corinthians 4:18.
16 Still another reason why certain professed Christians were eager to observe the Law was outlined by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. He explained that these men wanted to be viewed as respectable, as members of a mainstream religion. Rather than standing out in the community, they were willing to make almost any compromise in order to blend in. They were more interested in gaining the approval of men than in gaining the approval of God.—Galatians 6:12.
17. When did the proper viewpoint regarding observance of the Law become perfectly clear?
17 Discerning Christians who carefully studied the divinely inspired writings of Paul and others drew accurate conclusions concerning the Law. However, it was not until the year 70 C.E. that the proper view of the Mosaic Law became unmistakably clear to all Jewish Christians. That occurred when God allowed Jerusalem, its temple, and the records pertaining to its priesthood to be destroyed. This made it impossible for anyone to observe all the features of the Law.
Applying the Lesson Today
18, 19. (a) What attitudes must we adopt and what attitudes must we avoid in order to remain spiritually healthy? (b) What does Paul’s example teach us about following the direction we receive from responsible brothers? (See box on page 24.)
18 After considering these events of long ago, perhaps you are wondering: ‘If I had lived at that time, how would I have responded as God’s will was progressively revealed? Would I have rigidly held to traditional views? Or would I have been patient until the proper understanding became clear? And when it did, would I have wholeheartedly supported it?’
19 Of course, we cannot be sure how we would have reacted if we had lived back then. But we can ask ourselves: ‘How do I respond to clarifications in Bible understanding when they are presented today? (Matthew 24:45) When Scriptural direction is provided, do I try to apply it, observing not only the letter of the law but the spirit of it? (1 Corinthians 14:20) Do I patiently wait on Jehovah when answers to lingering questions seem slow in coming?’ It is vital that we make good use of the spiritual food that is available today, so that “we may never drift away.” (Hebrews 2:1) When Jehovah provides direction by means of his Word, his spirit, and his earthly organization, let us listen carefully. If we do so, Jehovah will bless us with endless life that is both happy and satisfying.
a When Peter visited Syrian Antioch, he enjoyed warm association with Gentile believers. However, when Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem, Peter “went withdrawing and separating himself, in fear of those of the circumcised class.” We can imagine how hurt those Gentile converts must have been when the respected apostle refused to eat with them.—Galatians 2:11-13.
How Would You Respond?
• In what sense was the Mosaic Law like a “tutor leading to Christ”?
• How do you account for differences in the ways Peter and “supporters of circumcision” responded to adjustments in understanding of the truth?
• What have you learned about the way in which Jehovah reveals the truth today?
[Box/Picture on page 24]
Paul Humbly Meets a Test
After a successful missionary tour, Paul arrived in Jerusalem in 56 C.E. There a test awaited him. News that he had been teaching that the Law had been set aside had reached the congregation. The older men were afraid that newly converted Jewish Christians would be stumbled by Paul’s outspokenness on the subject of the Law and that they might conclude that Christians lacked respect for Jehovah’s arrangements. In the congregation, there were four Jewish Christians who had taken a vow, perhaps a Nazirite vow. They had to go to the temple in order to complete the requirements of the vow.
The older men asked Paul to accompany the four to the temple and to care for their expenses. Paul had written at least two inspired letters in which he argued that observance of the Law was not required for salvation. However, he was considerate of the consciences of others. He had previously written: “To those under law I became as under law . . . that I might gain those under law.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23) While never compromising where vital Scriptural principles were involved, Paul felt that he could go along with the suggestion of the older men. (Acts 21:15-26) It was not wrong for him to do so. There was nothing unscriptural about the arrangement for vows, and the temple had been used for pure worship, not for idolatry. With a view to giving no cause for stumbling, then, Paul did as requested. (1 Corinthians 8:13) No doubt this took considerable humility on Paul’s part, a fact that deepens our appreciation for him.
[Picture on page 22, 23]
For some years, differing views of the Mosaic Law persisted among Christians