“We are required to keep the Torah!”
Is this a controversial statement? Certainly not if it’s made by a Jew to other Jews. The appropriate response in that scenario would be something along the lines of, ”Duh.” But when you hear that same phrase uttered by former Christians who have now embraced Torahism (aka the Hebrew Roots Movement), and they are preaching it to current Christians, it then becomes very alarming.
According to Torahism, every one of the laws of Moses (aka the Torah) are still valid and binding on Jesus-followers today. They believe we are supposed to be celebrating the feasts, keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, keeping the dietary laws and all the rest. Orthodox Christian theology, on the other hand, teaches that we are no longer under the law of Moses because that law was fulfilled (brought to completion) by Jesus.
How are we to resolve this issue? It turns out this exact question was answered just 20 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus by a council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Fortunately for us, the answer they rendered was written down in the Bible for all to read. And I believe once you see it, you’ll understand why I say it spells the end of Torahism.
The Historical Setting
If you imagine the Mediterranean region in the years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, it’s not hard to understand why there was so much confusion among the Jews. These were lifelong Jews, steeped in Judaism, who came from generations upon of generations of Jews. And just recently one of their own, a Jew named Jesus, had shaken up their entire world. Many Jews rejected Jesus, considering Him a heretic or insane. But the Jews who understood He was their long-awaited Messiah had come to put their faith in Him. And for this first generation of new believers, the Jewish Christians, it would have been an especially confusing time. Especially considering they were holding Christian church services in the Jewish synagogues at the time!
This is the historical setting in which the apostles and disciples were out visiting towns and cities, preaching the good news about Jesus, and obeying His command to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As the gospel spread, some new Jewish believers began to teach others that they needed to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses in order to be saved. These believers—sometimes called Judaizers—were teaching things that are eerily similar to modern day Torahism.
At one point, the apostle Paul and his traveling companion Barnabas got into a sharp dispute with some Judaizers on this issue. So it was decided they would go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about it (Acts 15:1-2). And the assembly of church leaders who convened in Jerusalem to discuss this issue became known as the Council at Jerusalem.
The Council At Jerusalem
At this council were the apostles Paul, Peter and James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem at the time. Also in attendance were some of the believers who belonged to the Jewish party of the Pharisees. It was this group who stood up during the council and put forth the issue to be discussed, saying, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) This is the exact same issue we encounter in modern-day Torahism.
This question was then considered carefully and discussed in depth by the apostles and elders (Acts 15:6). Peter got up and argued that neither circumcision nor the law of Moses should be required of the Gentile believers, saying, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:10–11).
Then Paul and Barnabas told the council about all the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them (Acts 15:12). And finally, James addressed the assembly, ending his speech by stating that they should not make it difficult for Gentiles who are turning to God but instead tell them to abstain from just a few things (Acts 15:19-20). The rest of the elders and apostles agreed with James’ and they all drafted a letter to be sent out to Gentile believers informing them of this decision. This letter ended as follows:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)
Did You Catch That?
There’s a bit more to unpack in this passage, but I want to push pause for a second to make sure we don’t miss something huge. If there was ever a time during the forming of the nascent Christian faith for the Jews to instruct the Gentiles that they are required to keep the law of Moses, this was it! But they did not make that a requirement. Circumcision was not even mentioned. Nor was keeping the feasts or observing the Sabbath or any of the other laws of the Torah. The decision made by this council was to mention just four restrictions; as opposed to the entire Torah. And these four restrictions were not set forth as a matter of salvation. In fact, it’s debatable if they were even given the full weight of commandments. The Gentiles were simply told, “You will do well to avoid these things.”
Thus, the final decision of the Jerusalem Council was not to require believers to keep the Torah. A decision that not only carries the full weight of the apostles and elders but it also bears the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. If the apostles, elders, and Holy Spirit did not require Gentiles to keep the law of Moses from the earliest days of our faith, who are we to require it of them today?
Why These Four Laws?
Isn’t it interesting that the Council chose four seemingly random instructions for the Gentiles to follow? At this point, our Torahist friends will commonly suggest that these four laws were given to the Gentiles as a sort of “starter pack” of commandments. If followed by the Gentiles, these commandments would stop them from doing a whole lot of sinful things right off the bat. And then over time, the new Gentile believers would learn the rest of the commandments as they hear the scriptures preached every Sabbath day in the synagogues.
This may be an interesting theory, but it fails at two points. First, there is nothing in Acts 15 (nor in all of Scripture) that suggests a gradual approach to the learning and obeying of the law of Moses. Second, it goes against God’s holiness to give anyone a free pass to knowingly walk in sin by only obeying a small part of His law until such time as they are ready to learn the whole law. There is simply no Scriptural basis for a “starter pack” theory.
We do, however, have Scriptural support for the idea that Christians, who are free to eat whatever they want, should not use their freedom to offend others or cause them to stumble. And this is what James is talking about when, in the next verse, he explains, “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21). Because the law of Moses was so central to the Jewish believers in Jesus at that time, the Council decided to issue a few restrictions to the Gentile Christians so that they would not unnecessarily offend their Jewish brothers and sisters. This was a common theme in the teachings of the early church:
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (Rom 14:19-21)
“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (1 Cor 8:13)
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? (1 Cor 10:25-30)
Thus, the Jerusalem Council was not listing these four restrictions as a matter of salvation, or even as a sacred requirement. They were offered as a matter of consideration for fellow believers.
I was still curious why the Council decided on four laws, and why these four laws. It turns out that Scripture doesn’t give us the specific answer. But in my research, I learned something very interesting. The four laws mentioned in the letter—sometimes called the four “apostolic decrees”— are strikingly similar to four of the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah that were placed on foreigners who wanted to remain in the land of Israel. Mosaic law required them to abstain from pagan sacrifices (Lev 17:8–9), from blood (Lev 17:10–14), from things strangled (Lev 17:13–14), and sexual immorality (Lev 18:6–23).
We serve an amazing God!