Why Keep the Law?

In both Acts and Galatians it is clear that there are some Gentiles who want to keep the Jewish Law. There were some Gentiles like Cornelius who worshiped and served the God of Israel and kept some forms of Jewish practice. Practices like Sabbath and food taboos were in some ways easy to adopt (especially in one was a retired soldier or independently wealthy). While circumcision was almost universally mocked by the Roman world, there were still some Gentiles who submitted to the ritual in order to fully convert to Judaism.

KosherThere might be several motivations for Gentiles who want to adopt Jewish Law. First, to accept Jesus as Savior is to reject pagan gods. By rejecting pagan gods, the Gentile converts severed many social ties and joined a religious movement unlike the rest of the ancient world. If a Gentile was fellowshiping in a Jewish Christian community, it is possible that they looked at the church as a new family.  Recall that Jesus did say that those who “do his will” are his family members.  Jewish law and traditions were very family orientated and provided a kind of “new family” for people who might have been rejected by their own families and friends.

Second, as Ben Witherington suggests, by accepting Jesus as messiah and Savior, they have also turned their backs on the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman world. This would include any ritual observances associated with those gods. There are virtually no rituals in the Christian church other than an initiation ritual and a shared meal.  There are no sacrifices or liturgy to follow, no festivals, feast days, temple or central gathering places.  The Jewish Law, in Witherington’s view, provided an opportunity for Gentile believers to concretely express their Christian identity (Galatians, 362).

Third, new religions were suspicious in the Roman world. A convert to Christianity might have a hard time explaining that they have joined a new religion that was less than 50 years old! Most of the mystery cults that were popular in the Roman world tried to connect their rituals back to ancient legends or even Egyptian gods. Since Judaism was an ancient religion, Gentile converts could avoid the charge that they were accepting a new religion, a “superstition” which was suspect in the Roman world.

The real problem for some Gentile converts to Christianity is that there is nothing about being a Christian that is externally obvious.  One could identify a Jewish person as a Jew with a glance, but Christians had no distinctive dress or behavior that sets them apart as Christians. Christians were distinct in that they honor Jesus as God and Savior and (at least in theory) do good to all people. If a Christian gives alms to the poor, they are even forbidden to take credit for that act of mercy!  The question of how one defines their new faith in Jesus as savior for these new Pauline churches is going to be very difficult.

This is one of the most important applications of the letter to the Galatians in a modern church setting.  Very few people would argue that Christians ought to be keeping the whole law (although there are a few). More likely is the claim that one must do a series of rituals in order to be right with God, or that one must subscribe to a particular doctrinal formulation, or that one must avoid certain lifestyles or behaviors. Paul never says that one must act like a Christian in order to be right with God – one is right with God because they have been adopted into God’s family and they are his children.

Paul is not talking about a religion in Galatians, but rather a relationship with God.

10 thoughts on “Why Keep the Law?

  1. Certainly being a Christian is not as cut-and-dried as practicing Judaism. Unlike many religions, Christianity should not be followed by maintaining a checklist of religious actions to perform. The difference is we are not trying to earn our salvation; Jesus Christ has already done it all. As a result, it should not be our rituals that cause us to stand out, but our love. Jesus told His disciples that it would be their love for others that revealed their status as followers of Him (John 13:35). We may not have to follow the Law, but we are called to love others, spread the Gospel, and glorify God (Luke 10:27; Matt 28:19; Rom 15:6).

  2. This is really interesting to me. I never thought about the reasons why new Gentile Christians would want to keep the Jewish law, but this all makes sense. I especially like Witherington’s view that Jewish law gave new converts a new religious identity to express. It is kind of like when I first started playing guitar, and I was so enthusiastic about it that I had to go out and buy a Fender t-shirt to express that part of my identity lies in the fact that I play guitar (and not just any guitar).

    • I also found this very interesting. It makes a lot of sense that the Gentiles would want to follow the Jewish customs in order to reject pagan gods and to join a family. I agree with Steve that Christianity is not just a “Checklist religion”, we don’t have to follow religious routines or the Jewish law, but at the same time we should not cheapen grace and go on sinning. It is easy to join in and have the same type of family experience. Being referred to as a singular body of Christ points to a certain kind of closeness that we should hold.

      • Please note that this was when I first started playing guitar, before I knew any better.

  3. I appreciate Worthington’s observation that Christianity does not include any blatant rituals or physical appearance which would indicate one’s belonging to Christ, which was a contrast in comparison to the rituals of the ancient religions of that time. Steve Burkey stated something that I was also thinking, the difference is that we do not need the rituals, or necessarily physical indicators that set us apart from others to show our belonging to Christ today either. What differentiates Christians, then and now, from other religions is our belonging to Christ. Following the law was no longer required, the reason being that Christians are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ- we are no longer under the law but under grace (Romans 6). Yet, we are able to see why Christians then would want to keep Jewish rituals in order to feel a sense of belonging to something more than themselves.

  4. The question that Paul begins to answer for Jews about the requirements for Gentile converts to be accepted as Christians is a difficult process for the Jews. Paul even talks about his “former life in Judaism” (Gal 1:13) where he also looked to the Law as his security in his faith. However, in his letter to Galatia, Paul begins to define people’s new faith in Christ and what that looks like. In Gal. 2:15 Paul states that though they are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, they know that a person is not justified by the law but through faith in Christ. No doubt this was a difficult concept for the Jews to grasp. They had already been circumcised and probably continued to follow the Law even though they were not saved by it. However, it must have been extremely hard for Jews to watch Gentile sinners not be required to be circumcised or follow the Law as a requirement for salvation. As said in the blog, there is nothing externally obvious about some Gentile converts to Christianity. By this I mean performing outward rituals, although there would/should be a change of heart and behavior because of the new love for Christ and the work He did on the cross.

  5. I definitely can see why the new Christians would want to cling to the law that the Jews held themselves to because the rituals would show good deeds that would be pleasing to God. I do not believe that they did this to become Jews but looking at what they had to base their faith off of, was very limited. we are blessed to have the complete Bible no matter where we go but it was a lot harder for them so keeping the law would have been a safe way to serve God. I think that it is important to take in account that we should keep the law even though we are not under the law as Christians. some are not necessary to today’s society but there are some that we can keep that would maybe benefit our relationship with God. But God does not put us under the law and Paul says in Eph. 2:8-9 we are saved by Grace through faith and not by the law.

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