For many centuries, most Christians were taught that there is dramatic discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, between “Law” and “Grace,” between Israel and the Church. While there are distinct and greater advantages to the New Covenant instituted by Messiah Yeshua, there is also much continuity between Old and New Testaments. There is grace in the Torah, and there are laws and commands in the New Testament. There are differences between Israel and the Church, but there is a lot of overlap as well. If you have ever heard people express thoughts like, “Christians should not be concerned with the Old Testament,” then I encourage you to consider the following:
The Founder of the Faith, Messiah Yeshua, was Himself very Jewish. Yeshua was a Sabra (a native-born Israeli). Since He was born to the tribe of Judah, and is a descendant of King David, He is Jewish royalty. He was circumcised on the eighth day. He was given a Jewish name – Yeshua. He was raised in a pious Jewish home by godly parents. He regularly went to synagogue, as was His custom (Luke 4:16). The life He lived was that of an observant Jew who kept the Torah (Galatians 4:4). He was able to say, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” because He never sinned by breaking the commandments of the Torah. Messiah Yeshua taught that He fulfilled, not set aside, the Torah (Matthew 5:17-19).
Orthodox scholar Pinchas Lapide made this observation: “Jesus never and no where broke the law of Moses, nor did he in any way provoke its infringement – it is entirely false to say that he did… In this respect you must believe me, for I do know my Talmud more or less… This Jesus was as faithful to the law as I would hope to be. But I suspect that Jesus was more faithful to the law than I am – and I am an Orthodox Jew.” (1)
What about the apostles? They were the first Christians, which means that they converted to Christianity and stopped living like Jews, right? Wrong! The Lord’s Jewish disciples continued to live a very Jewish lifestyle for centuries after His death. The book of Acts records the earliest history of the Messianic Jewish movement, and it presents a very Jewish picture. For example, the apostles and the other Messianic Jews regularly met in the Jerusalem Temple (see Acts 2:46, 3:1). They observed the Sabbath, including traditional Sabbath travel restrictions. Acts 1:12 refers to “a Sabbath day’s journey.” Luke, the author of Acts, was recording the fact that when the apostles were returning to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, where they saw Yeshua ascend to heaven, it was a Sabbath’s day journey away, or about 2000 cubits (approximately half a mile). This indicates the attitude prevailing among the apostles and Luke concerning Sabbath observance at the time of the writing of the book of Acts, in the 60’s AD.
The apostles also observed Jewish holidays like Shavuot (Pentecost). Acts 2 records the awesome events that took place on the day of Shavuot, when the Spirit of Yeshua was poured out on the apostles, and they were filled with the Spirit. Acts 10:9-16 indicates that Peter, the leader of the apostolic band, was still keeping the dietary laws of kashrut (the kosher laws) after Messiah’s death and resurrection. “Arise Peter, kill and eat (non- kosher animals in a great sheet)!” But Peter said, “By no means Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.”
What about Paul? Surely Paul lived like a Gentile, since he was the apostle to the Gentiles, and then, when he was among the Jewish people, he lived like a Jew, right? Not exactly; throughout his life this great rabbi from Tarsus reflected a great deal of respect for Jewish law. For example, Paul, who supposedly gave up his Jewish identity, took Nazarite vows, which included offering animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple (see Acts 18:18 and Numbers 6:2-21). Paul and company continued to keep Passover and the Feast of Matzah (see Acts 20:6). They celebrated Shavuot (the feast of Pentecost, see Acts 20:16). They observed the Yom Kippur fast (see Acts 27:9). Because he was a recognizable Jewish religious leader, Paul was invited to speak in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (see Acts 13:15).
In his defense before Porcius Festus, the new Roman governor, Paul said “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the Temple or against Caesar (Acts 25:8). In front of the Sanhedrin, Paul claimed that he was still a Pharisee: “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Notice that Paul did not say, “I was a Pharisee,” but, “I am a Pharisee.” When they heard this, the other Pharisees rallied to his side and said, “We find nothing wrong with this man” (Acts 23:9). Christian scholar H.L. Ellison, reminds us that “we are justified in thinking that throughout his missionary activity Paul lived in a way that would have called forth no adverse comment from a Pharisee who might have met him.” (2) This was the way that Paul lived his entire life. Toward the end of his life and ministry, in his defense before the Jewish leaders of Rome, Paul could say, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17).
What the great rabbi from Tarsus practiced, he instructed other Messianic Jews to do as well. In 1 Corinthians Paul insisted that other Messianic Jews maintain a Jewish lifestyle. “As the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the congregations. Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised… Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:17-20). What does it mean for a circumcised man to “not become uncircumcised”? It means that he should continue to live a Jewish life based on God’s laws.
Western society has tended to forget that what is called “the early Church” or “First Century Christianity” was a Jewish movement from its inception. The question in the first century wasn’t, “How much of the Law of Moses should we abandon” but, “Can a Gentile believe in the Jewish Messiah without first becoming a Jew and observing all the Jewish laws?” There was no question that Messianic Jews were to continue to live Jewish lives based on God’s Torah. It was understood that it was normative for Messianic Jews to continue to live a Torah-observant lifestyle (see Acts 21:20-26). It was the Gentiles’ relationship to the Torah, and how much of it was incumbent on them to observe, that was the issue under discussion at the First Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15).
While at first glance Paul’s letter written to the congregations of Galatia might appear to contradict this analysis, in actuality it doesn’t. In that letter Paul is not teaching that God’s unmerited favor (grace) is opposed to God’s Law. “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!” (Gal. 3:21). To understand this rather difficult letter, we need to grasp that the term “law” (which Paul frequently used in his letters), can refer to a number of distinct concepts. I have found at least nine distinct usages in the New Testament for the word “law.” It can refer to the Mosaic Covenant, or to the Five Books of Moses, or to the entire Tenach (the Torah, Prophets and the Writings). “Law” can refer to a specific biblical command, or to a “principle,” or to “legalism,” depending on the context in which the term is used. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses the term “law” in a way that parallels the concepts of “flesh,” or “works;” in other words, self-effort. Paul is focusing his attack on “legalism,” the idea that a person’s efforts and achievements can earn saving merit with God.
Many of the Jewish people in the first century had missed the basic message of the Torah. They had distorted their observance of God’s wonderful Torah into a system of works, self-effort and self- achievement. The idea of keeping God’s laws was twisted into a means of getting right with God by one’s own strength and merit. That misguided legalistic approach to salvation was being carried over into some sections of the new Messianic movement as well. In particular, Gentile believers in Galatia were being mistaught that self-effort and works resulted in salvation and/or a higher level of spirituality. It was this perverted legalism, and not God’s holy laws, that Paul so vigorously attacked. Paul’s criticisms of legalism must not be misconstrued as an attack against Messianic Jews keeping biblical commands out of a love for God and a desire to obey Him.
Another Christian scholar, R. Alan Cole, observes that “Paul never seems to have compelled the Gentile Churches to act like Jews… but it remains equally true that he does not expect Jewish Churches to act like Gentile believers. He never says that it is wrong for them to be circumcised, or to keep the law, or to observe the festivals. All he insists is that these have nothing to do with the gift of salvation.” (3)
Yeshua’s stance, and Paul and the apostles’ observance, find historical corroboration in the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. In chapter 9 of book 20 of Antiquities, Josephus records the death of James, the half-brother of Messiah Yeshua. James was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation. As a living descendant of King David, and the leader of the Jerusalem Congregation, James had aroused the anger of the high priest of Israel, who had James stoned to death. However, James was so beloved by the majority of the Jewish people because of his devout, observant life, that they complained to the new Roman governor, who then had the high priest removed from office!
In his book “Dialogue With Trypho the Jew,” Justin Martyr, a prominent Christian leader of the second century, indicates that there were Messianic Jews in the mid-second century that were still living a Jewish lifestyle while following Messiah Yeshua. After explaining that some Christians condemned Jewish observances, he says that as far as he was concerned, if they “wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses… along with their hope in Messiah… yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful… then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren.” (4)
Irenaeus, a prominent second- century church leader, whose mentor had been taught directly by the apostles, and who therefore had accurate knowledge of their lives, wrote this about the apostles (“Against Heresies” 3.23.15): “But they themselves… continued in the ancient observances… Thus did the apostles… scrupulously act according to the dispensation of the Mosaic law.” (5)
Most people don’t realize that the Messianic Jewish movement continued for centuries after Yeshua came. The apostles did not “become Christians” in the sense of giving up their Jewish identity, lifestyle and heritage. They did “become Christians” in the sense of following the Jewish Messiah. Around the year 400 AD, Epiphanius noted this (“Panarion” 30:18, 39:7): “But actually they remained wholly Jewish and nothing else. For they use not only the New Testament but also the Old, like the Jews; for the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, which are called the Bible by the Jews, are not rejected by them… They live according to the preaching of the Law as among Jews… They have come to believe in Messiah. For they also accept the resurrection of the dead… they proclaim one God and his Son Jesus Christ. They have a good mastery of the Hebrew language… for the entire Law and the Prophets… are read by them in Hebrew… with the Jews they do not agree because of their belief in Messiah, with the Christians (they don’t agree) because they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath and other things.” (6)
A few years ago, when Martha and I were in Israel, we visited a church in Cana, the ancient city in Galilee that is near Nazareth, where Yeshua did His first miracle, and turned water into wine. As archaeologists uncovered layer after layer of the remnants of older and older church buildings at this site, at the bottom-most layer they discovered the remains of the oldest edifice of them all, a Messianic Synagogue from the second century AD.
I find it fascinating that the Word of God teaches that in the future Millennium, when Messiah Yeshua is ruling from Jerusalem, all nations will be required to observe Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles – see Zechariah 14), the Sabbath and the New Moon festivals (see Isaiah 66:23). If these things were observed by God’s people for centuries before the Cross, by Messianic Jews for centuries after Yeshua came, and in the Millennium, then how bad can they be now?
In light of all this, I would urge my brother Christians and my fellow Messianic Jews not to look down upon those who stress the continuity of Jewish laws and customs that are biblically-based. I believe that we are better served by emphasizing the continuity between the covenants, as the apostles did, than by forcing a radical break between Old and New Testaments, as the more Gentile wing of the Church has done in the long centuries since that time.
(1) Dr. John Fischer, “Foundations of Messianic Theology: Following In Yeshua’s Steps?”, page 14.
(2) Fischer, page 16.
(3) Fischer, page 15.
(4) Ray Pritz, “Nazarene Jewish Christianity,” The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1992, pages 19-20.
(5) Fischer, page 16.
(6) Pritz, pages 33-34.