The Apostles, the Old Testament and God's Law

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The Apostles, the Old Testament and God's Law

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"Peter and the other apostles answered and said: 'We ought to obey God rather than men'" (Acts 5:29).

As we have repeatedly seen, one of the most misguided conceptions of the New Covenant is the idea that through it Jesus Christ canceled obedience to the laws contained in the Old Testament. That inaccurate conception has been taught—with many variations—for nearly 2,000 years. Therefore it is crucial to set the record straight on what Christ's apostles really taught concerning the laws given to define righteousness found in the Old Testament.

An index in the Complete Jewish Bible catalogs 695 separate quotations of Old Testament passages in the New Testament (David Stern, 1998, pp. 1610-1615). In dozens of additional places the Old Testament is referred to (as in cases where an Old Testament figure is mentioned), but no specific scripture is quoted.

Depending on which scholar's work you examine, the number of quotations and references in the New Testament to the Old may be as high as 4,105 (Roger Nicole, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 617). In comparison, New Testament writers quoted each other only four times. Yet some people still argue that the teaching of the New Testament is that the Old Testament is obsolete, only valid for a specific people at a limited time in history.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes how much the Old Testament permeated the thinking and writing of the New Testament authors: "One very notable feature of the N[ew] T[estament] is the extent to which it alludes to or quotes the O[ld] T[estament]. It appeals to the OT in order to provide proof of statements made, confirmation for positions espoused, illustration of principles advanced, and answers to questions raised.

"Frequently, even when no formal citation is given or perhaps even intended, the NT writers follow forms of thought or speech patterned after OT passages. It is apparent that the NT writers and our Lord himself were so steeped in the language and truths of OT revelation that they naturally expressed themselves in terms reminiscent of it" (ibid.).

Those who insist the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament is outmoded and irrelevant for Christians today ignore the abundance of evidence to the contrary within that same New Testament!

The simplest way to understand how the Old Testament applies to Christians under the New Covenant is simply to see what the apostles taught on the subject. After all, these men were those closest to Jesus Christ, having spent much time with Him and been personally taught by Him.

First we'll look at James, Peter, John and Jude, whose epistles bear their names. Their writings are called the "general epistles" because they are addressed to all early Christians as a whole and include general Christian instruction. Then we will let Paul explain for himself how he felt about obeying the Old Testament scriptures.

James' view toward the law

James was apparently the earliest of these four writers, authoring his epistle sometime before he was martyred in A.D. 62. As the half brother of Jesus Christ (Matthew 13:55), he was no doubt intimately familiar with Jesus' attitude and approach toward the Old Testament and God's laws.

James couldn't be clearer as to how he understood God's laws to apply to Christians. He refers to that law as "the royal law" (James 2:8) and "the law of liberty" (James 2:12), recognizing that obedience to that law frees us from sin and its harmful consequences. "But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does," he writes in James 1:25.

He again specifically upholds keeping God's commands when he writes: "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well" (James 2:8; quoting Leviticus 19:18). He goes on to explain that we cannot pick and choose which of God's commands to obey before concluding that we must speak and act "as those who will be judged by the law of liberty" (James 2:12).

James also tells us that simply saying we have faith and believe in God is useless—because even the demons acknowledge as much (James 2:19). He uses the Old Testament examples of Abraham and Rahab to show that our faith must be accompanied by actions—that faith without works is dead (James 2:17-26).

He also points out that it isn't enough to simply avoid sin—that if we know to do good but don't do it, that also is sin (James 4:17). As Jesus Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48), James holds Christians to a higher standard of conduct than simply following the letter of the law—he expects us to live by its full spiritual intent.

Peter's use of the Old Testament as his authority

The apostle Peter was a leader among the apostles and played a major role in the early Church. Peter's only preserved letters are his two epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, both apparently written in the 60s before Peter was martyred in A.D. 67 or 68.

What do these letters tell us about how Peter viewed the Old Testament and God's law? While the subject of law-keeping nowhere comes up directly in Peter's epistles, what he does write makes his views crystal clear.

He repeats God's command in Leviticus 11:44, telling us to "be holy in all your conduct, because it is written [in the Old Testament Scriptures], 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16). Quoting Isaiah 40:8, he reminds us that "the word of the Lord endures forever" (1 Peter 1:25).

He compares the Church to a new temple being built for God (1 Peter 2:5) and describes Church members as a new priesthood dedicated to serving God (1 Peter 2:5-9). He refers to Sarah, Abraham and Noah (1 Peter 3:6-20) to illustrate various points in his letter. In his first epistle, he quotes from the Old Testament more than a dozen times as the authority for what he is saying.

In his second epistle, written shortly before his death (2 Peter 1:14-15; compare John 21:18-19), Peter reminds us that the Old Testament prophets spoke (and wrote) under the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).

He speaks of the fearful judgment God brings on mankind for sin, using as examples the sin-filled world of Noah's day and the degenerate cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God exterminated as "an example to those who afterward would live ungodly" (2 Peter 2:5-6).

He also uses the prophet Balaam as an example of the disobedience to God's commands that brings His condemnation (2 Peter 2:15). And he reminds us of the need to "be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets" in the Old Testament, as well as the words of the apostles (2 Peter 3:1-2).

John teaches obedience to God's commandments

John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (see John 21:7; John 21:20-24), repeatedly talks about the need to keep God's commandments in his epistles, apparently written between A.D. 85-95 when he was the last of the original 12 apostles still living. His hard-hitting statements speak for themselves:

"Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4).

"Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4).

"And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22).

"By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:2-3).

"This is love, that we walk according to His commandments" (2 John 1:6).

Jude and the Old Testament

Jude, like James, was also a half brother of Jesus Christ (Matthew 13:55) and knew Him from childhood. Though his short epistle contains only 25 verses, he manages to include many references to the Old Testament, including Israel's wandering in the wilderness, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Cain, Balaam, Korah and Enoch.

The record from these men who learned personally from Jesus Christ is clear. They uphold the Old Testament as God's inspired revelation to mankind for all time and affirm that keeping God's commandments remains a requirement for Christians today.

How Paul's teachings were twisted

Paul wrote to the evangelist Timothy, "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 complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Since Paul had just defined "Scripture" in the previous verse as that which Timothy had known "from childhood," this could refer only to the Old Testament—since the New Testament had not yet been written and compiled. Thus Paul's view of the Old Testament scriptures' necessity for Christian understanding and living is plain.

Yet most theologians and preachers today think Paul regarded the Old Testament scriptures as obsolete. They see him as the person who first taught that these Scriptures are no longer needed as an authoritative guidebook for Christians.

In reaching this conclusion, they distort some of Paul's difficult-to-understand passages for support of their claim that Jesus Christ—by dying on the cross—abolished the Old Testament law.

In making that judgment they ignore Peter's cautionary warning that "Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written . . . some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).

When we examine Paul's writings carefully, it is absurd to presume that he used as his primary authority the very writings he was supposedly dismissing. He consistently appeals to the Old Testament scriptures as the main authority for what he taught!

Paul defends his faithfulness to Scripture

The first accusations that Paul was disregarding God's law came from certain Jews who vigorously objected to his preaching that gentiles could be saved without submitting to the rite of circumcision. They falsely accused him of abandoning God's law and his Jewish heritage. Paul denied the charge vigorously and set forth clear scriptural authority for his teachings and behavior.

To help Paul demonstrate that all allegations of his spurning of God's law were untrue, some of the Christians in Jerusalem requested that he accompany four particular Christian Jews in performing purification rites at the temple as set forth in biblical law (Acts 21:17-26). Paul embraced the opportunity, eager to silence his critics and publicly confirm his faithfulness to the Scriptures.

However, "when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia [opponents of Paul], seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, 'Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place'" (Acts 21:27-28).

They were lying. Nevertheless, a riot erupted and the Roman commander had to rescue Paul from the hostile Jewish mob that was attempting to kill him.

Paul requested permission to speak in his own defense to the assembled crowd. Permission was granted (Acts 21:40) and he spoke. Afterward he was taken before the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, and from there transferred to the city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast to appear before the Roman governor Felix. The Roman commander of the Jerusalem garrison, in a letter to Felix, included this explanation:

"This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman [that is, Paul possessed Roman citizenship]. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council [the Sanhedrin]. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains" (Acts 23:27-29).

Notice Paul's rebuttal of the false accusations made against him: "Then Paul, after the governor had nodded to him to speak, answered: 'Inasmuch as I know that you have been for many years a judge of this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself, because you may ascertain that it is no more than twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem to worship. And they neither found me in the temple disputing with anyone nor inciting the crowd, either in the synagogues or in the city.

"Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me. But this I confess to you, that . . . I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men'" (Acts 24:10-16).

How unequivocally plain! Years after he first became a Christian, Paul could declare that he still believed "all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets"—a Jewish term for the entire Old Testament. This testimony, from Paul's own lips, removes all doubt about where he stood in regard to the law of God.

Paul's second court defense of his teachings

Two years later Paul was summoned again to appear in court before a new Roman governor, Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27). "When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. Then Paul made his defense: 'I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar'" (Acts 25:7-8, NIV).

These official court appearances are significant. They establish, in Paul's own words, that he continued to be firmly committed to both believing and doing all of God's laws—the same laws the Jews claimed to obey. And none of his accusers could produce any provable evidence to the contrary. All allegations made against him were untrue—just like all modern claims that he taught against Old Testament laws are equally untrue!

Nevertheless, those same inaccurate and slanderous rumors that started with Paul's false accusers so long ago are still circulating today. They have become the basis of what is now commonly referred to as "Pauline theology."

This theological philosophy still presents Paul as someone committed to separating Christianity from its Jewish roots. It portrays Him as one who rejected his biblical heritage and initiated changes in teaching that repudiated all Old Testament laws.

But, as was explained above, that's a far cry from what Paul actually believed and taught. Throughout his life Paul defended Old Testament scripture as not only inspired but also profitable for "instruction in righteousness" for all Christians (again, see 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

That Scripture contains God's law, which distinguishes righteousness from sin. It is little wonder, therefore, that Paul would exclaim, "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law" (Romans 7:7, NIV).

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