Peter and the Yoke of the Law

When Paul went up to Jerusalem, he had been teaching Gentiles that they are not converting to Judaism and they are therefore not under the Jewish covenant nor the Law associated with it.  At the meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and agrees that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).

Jerusalem CouncilPeter briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501). Here are a few examples of this view from Sirach (200 B.C.), the Psalms of Solomon (50 B.C.) and the Mishnah (A.D. 250, but perhaps reflecting an earlier oral tradition).

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9 For Thou wilt pity the seed of Israel for ever And Thou wilt not reject (them): But we (shall be) under Thy yoke for ever, And (under) the rod of Thy chastening.

PsSol 17:30 And he shall have the heathen nations to serve him under his yoke; And he shall glorify the Lord in a place to be seen of (?) all the earth.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Peter therefore seems to be saying that God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith, but that God has only given the Law to Israel. The law is a yoke, but is is a yoke that the Jewish people accept.  Peter agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, but rather Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God, a new “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is certainly not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given an additional burden that was given to the Jewish people.

I suspect that many (non-Jewish) Christians in the contemporary church would find the law to be a difficult burden, mostly because the western value of freedom. To a Jewish person in the first century, the Law was not difficult because it was exactly what God had called them to do. It was a responsibility, but also a response to the grace of God toward the Jewish people.

The Law was not something the Jewish people “had to do,” but rather something they “get to do” in order to honor their God.

25 thoughts on “Peter and the Yoke of the Law

  1. I feel that looking at the Law today, I personally think that it would be a huge burden to take that on, and have that pressure to make sure that I would follow all the parts of the Law. Sometimes I look at the Jewish people in the Old Testament and wonder how they would want to or how they would teach themselves to keep all the parts of the Law. I look at the Law, and I see it as being a lot like how we as Christians today are called to live like the Lord did, and make sure that we are shinning His light each day through our daily actions, thoughts, and things that we say. I feel that we have a “law”, but it is a lot more lenient than what it is for the Jews. Due to the fact that we are under that day of Grace, we do not have to keep the Law, but we do still need to make sure that we are living a Christ centered life, and making sure that we are always being an example for Him. Just like the Jews had ways of living so that they would be able to fellowship, and have a relationship with the Lord, we have ways of living so that we may have a relationship with the Lord, and that we may have fellowship with Him today through the day of Grace.

  2. It’s interesting to think about the fact that Jews saw the law as something they “got to do,” instead of something they “had to do.” They didn’t see it as a burden because it was their call to follow God and worship Him. Many times, in our Christian walk, we view our following God’s commands as burdensome, but in reality, God gives us His commands to protect us and to make our lives less complicated. I feel the Jewish people saw this as the case as well. Now that being said, it is also true that keeping Jewish law would have been a burden to those Gentiles who had come to a saving faith. Much like, I would find that to be a huge burden if I chose to follow Jewish law. Paul’s view that Gentiles should not have to be burdened with the following of Jewish law was spot on. After all, don’t we as Christians emphasize the fact that you are saved by grace through faith? It was hypocritical for those apostles who chose to tell Gentiles that they didn’t have to follow Jewish law, but turn around and reject what they had said. The Jerusalem Council was incredibly important for the apostles and for Paul as they adjusted to the spread of Christianity between the Jews and Gentiles. Peter’s conclusions, regarding Gentiles sums up what became the belief between the apostles and Paul, “Gentiles should be presented with no difficulties–no need for circumcision and the law” (pg. 115). The same is true today as we minister to unbelievers, we need to emphasize faith in Christ Jesus, instead of a list of things to do. Our serving and following God’s commands should come along as we draw closer in our relationship with Him.

  3. Whenever I read through the Old Testament Law, I often feel that were I required to completely follow the Law like a first century Jew, it would be a massive inconvenience as is mentioned in the post; but at the same time I feel myself long for such a wonderful external manifestation of my faith as the Law was. Christians look far too much like the world today that it is often quite had to distinguish one from the other. Christians themselves often forget to distinguish themselves from the world in thought and deed. I believe that Christians need something that radically differentiates them from the secular world; something beyond WWJD bracelets and fish stickers on cars. It needs to be easy for the world to tell that something is different. The Law provided such an external manifestation of faith. It served the function of not only cuing the world in that observers of the Law were different, but was a constant reminder to the observers of the Law that they were different and why. While I’m not necessarily advocating an abandoning of bacon and the growing of beards, it certainly something to think about if you plan to call yourself Christian.

    • I think that this is the main problem, there are verses in the Law that Christians want to use to justify their behavior, or to change the behavior of their children, without taking into account the implications of trying to keep the “whole law.” Ignorance and rejection of context leads to a bad reading of the Bible.

  4. From a personal stand point, thinking about following the Law does seem as though it would be a burden, dietary laws would be especially difficult for me. I think non believers today see the way Christians live their life as full of burdens (attending church, reading the Bible, living a life like Christ, abstaining from sinful things). As stated in the post, our society today deeply values freedom and independence. Collectively, as a society, we have a hard time being told what we have to do or should do. Yet, when we attempt to put ourselves in the context of Jews abiding by the Law, we begin to see that it was a part of who they were as a people to follow the Law. When the Law is discussed as something Jews “get to do”, it no longer seems like a burden, but rather a privilege. With this in mind, it is apparent why there was the discussion in Acts 15 about what should be required of Gentile converts. Polhill uses this portion of scripture, that if following the laws were difficult enough for the Jews, then how much more difficult would it be for the Gentiles to follow the Law (Polhill, 114). Peter’s solution is that there are no stipulations for Gentiles, only faith in Christ (Polhill, 114). This is the balance of harmony between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

  5. At first glance it seems a little odd to refer to the Law as a yoke and consider that to be a good thing. However, closer inspection of both a literal yoke and Jewish history reveals the truth in this statement. First of all, a traditional yoke that is used to harness animals is more of a benefit than a burden to the draft animals. The yoke served to keep the animals together and the load even, and without it the team would have a significantly more difficult time pulling the load. Secondly, by this time in history the Jews had the task of following the Law down to a tee. Hundreds of years of faithful practice had cemented the traditions of the Law into the everyday actions of Jewish life. On top of that, the knowledge of what happened when the community disregarded the Law – such as in the time of the Judges and Kings – would be a strong incentive to be faithful to it.
    With this in mind it would only make sense that the Jews were hesitant to allow Gentile Christians to completely ignore the Law. In their minds it was this very kind of unfaithfulness that resulted in God sending the nation of Israel into exile. Tradition and culture are difficult things to change, and it would take time for many of the Jews to comprehend Gentile salvation “apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

  6. It is funny to me how we as Christians in the U.S finding it so hard to fallow the law but Jewish people can keep the law. Not that they are perfect but where background is more geared to keeping Gods law then our Western world of believe what you want.. But then again, this is why God has given us the gift of restoration and salvation because he knew we cant do it perfectly. But just because we have that gift, we are not to get ride of the law. i like what Paul says in Rom. 7:25 that the doers of the law will be justified. Doing the law to the best to your ability is for God as Paul says he does it for Yahweh.

    • I have never really looked at the law through the eyes of the early Jewish people. Often when I read through it, it does seem burdensome. It would be difficult to wrap around all of the different stipulations and rituals that the law called for in our culture. If we look to Psalm 1:2 the author calls a person blessed if he or she Delights in the law, and even in the new testament Romans 7:22 says “for in my inner being I delight in God’s law”. I can see where the law would be a positive yoke to bear. It was God that chose the Israelites and gave them the law so that they would remember his promises and Grace given to them. It was a burdensome to do list, but something that they could do that helped them grow closer to God if they did it with the correct mind set.

  7. The idea of the law becoming something that the Jewish people “get” to do rather than “have” to do, is a rather new concept to me. I like the idea, though, because it paints a better picture of what Peter was trying to do with his missions. Peter was not at all trying to abolish the Jewish culture, or get rid of the lifestyle they live, but he was trying to assist in forming an entirely new culture, an entirely new way of living. This whole concept of Christianity was obviously a real challenge to the Jews, and Peter was simply trying to be a part of defining what that culture was supposed to look like, and how it differed from second-temple Judaism. I think the concept of “yoke” as a positive, a delight, should be something more christians ought to be looking at, and living out. It ought to be a delight for us to be living out the “law” of our current religion, and should become more of a privilege than a requirement. The life we’ve been called to is something more difficult, and more strict than the life the world is living and encouraging us to live. But, rather than looking at that as something negative, it ought to be an absolute honor to us. So, I think, looking at how the Jews treated living under the yoke of the law, can learn quite a bit from their attitude if nothing else.

    • I love your statement of “the life we’ve been called to is something more difficult, and more strict than the life the world is living and encouraging us to live.” It reminds me that it’s easier to live according to the world and to follow its ways. It’s encouraging, though, like you said, that when we draw closer to God in a relationship, we develop a desire to do His will and follow His commands. Not that works save us, on the contrary, our works are the fruit of God working through us. In much the same way, I feel that Paul and Peter saw this as true when they presented Jesus to the Gentiles. Jewish law would have pushed them away, but a message of love, forgiveness, and grace would draw them in. And it would draw them in farther and farther until they wanted to have a personal relationship with God and follow His commands. Jewish law; circumcision, food laws, and such had virtually no ground in the Gentiles lives because it was not their traditions or culture. It would only serve to burden them and take the joy out of following Jesus. It is thought provoking to add that it is harder to follow Jesus, which I wouldn’t disagree with. Most of our attitudes, at least in my experience, need to change in regards to how we treat “living under the yoke.” We should be willing, excited even, to obey God and follow Him in whatever we do. You hit the nail on the head by saying that we can learn a lot from how the Jews treated living under the yoke.

  8. Out of curiosity, did they feel that being “yoked” to the law was a privilege simply because it was a way that they got to show their love for God? I think I disagree slightly with some of the people here who said to first century Jews the Law was not a burden. I cannot imagine a situation where a big yoke on someone’s back would not be a burden. I do understand how this could be a form of worship as a response to God. It’s maybe like how a husband might take off his shoes in the house because he loves his wife and he knows that his wife doesn’t like when he wears his shoes in the house. It is still inconvenient, but it is an act of love.
    I also wonder if just maybe there was a slight aspect of elitism involved in keeping the Law where the Jews could say in that slightly condescending way, “Well you guys don’t have to keep the Law, but we do because we really love God so we’re going to go the extra mile.”

    • I suppose that for some Jews in the first century keeping the law was a point of pride (Paul in Phil. 3 certainly boasts in his perfect keeping of the law). But I can’t how that is any different than a modern young evangelical who has spiritual pride because they only listen to “Christian music” or have an arrogant attitude towards people who are not as spiritually motivated as they are.

      Keeping the law (for a Jew in the first century) was supposed to be a joyous response to their gracious God, human pride and sin turns that privilege into obnoxious boasting.

    • Sure, it is what God called them to do, so it was a privilege to serve God in that way. Modern westerners are put out when we are told to do something, but an Ancient Near Est mindset would see a command given by the sovereign Lord of the Universe as a great privilege to do, even if it was a difficult command to follow.

  9. I couldn’t imagine today that if we accepted Christ that we would have to follow the law too. I feel like that is too much of a burden to carry and would make it really hard to follow God intentionally rather than just trying to justify ourselves through the law. I would feel like I had to jump through hoops and say the right things just to be justified by God. Paul knew that the gentiles wouldn’t be able to keep the whole law. The law is something that the Jews grew up into and that they were called to keep in order to be close to God and be God fearers. Since the Gentiles weren’t called to follow the same laws as the Jews, there would be no point in trying to follow it after conversion. Like you say in the last line of the post, it’s not something that they had to do but something that they get to do. Just as we don’t murder or steal because it honors God not to do it, but just because we follow it, doesn’t mean that we are saved or justified by it.

  10. It was interesting to me to hear the word ‘yoke’ described as something good. I seemed to always think of it as something burdensome or heavy. The fact that the Jews thought that keeping the Law was not a burden somewhat shows how lazy Christians are today. We aren’t called to keep the Law, but I think if we were asked to, we would just laugh. I think we can learn a little something from the Jews in a way because now we seem to have the mentality that we just need to say ‘the prayer’ and we are ‘good’. But when Jews devoted their lives to God, they were fully devoted and gave over every area of their lives to Him and followed the Law as close as they possibly could. They didn’t let others get in the way of what God wanted them to do. If Gentiles were required to keep the Law, I don’t think there would be nearly as many Gentile Christians as there are. Polhill talks about this, “He was convinced that God was reaching out to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ. He also knew that such restrictive provisions of the Torah as circumcision and the food laws would in effect close the door to most Gentiles… Should the Christians have insisted upon them, it would have ensured that Christianity would stay a strictly Jewish movement with little impact on the Gentile world” (Polhill 107).

  11. Matthew 22:37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus made it very clear, the law while useful a gift from God himself was meant to be a spirit of the heart not a letter of the law thing. Jesus himself did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Paul reading this, learning this, tasting this freedom that come from Jesus; seeks to free his brothers and help people who dont understand the law be free in the price Jesus has paid. “peter referred back to his experience with the gentile God fearer Cornelius. at that time God had shown Peter through the vision of the sheet filled with animals that no person is unclean in God’s eyes” (pohlhil 113) Though the Jews had the law no one, not even paul a righteous pharisee could be righteous under the law and with his ministry to the gentiles, kept them from trying to keep something they could not. The law’s yoke more than would break their hearts, it would break their spirits.

  12. Looking at this issue from a “westerner” (which I do value the element of freedom very much), it does make sense why Jews would want Gentiles to participate in their traditional rituals for many reasons. First, Jews had been commanded by God through Moses (hence, the continuous references to the “laws of Moses”) to follow these commands since Genesis 17:12 (in the matter of circumcision). If Jews were to follow the Law and become circumcised, then so should the Gentiles. Secondly, if the Gentiles could get away without following Jewish laws, the Judaism would lose its panache as the main means in the church.

    In my general opinion, the Jewish people should have been delighted by the specific duties that were handed down to them by God himself. Why would an extra burden be put on the Gentiles, they were not the people of God. The means in which they came through salvation was through grace alone. Even Peter reminds us of this in Acts 15: 10-11, “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.”

    Now, although I acquiesce with the notion that the Jews were given these “traditions” as a sort of privilege to honor God, one thought does arise. Could the yoke (that is of rituals) that was passed on by Moses to the Jewish people exemplify the imperfection of people in a whole? That no matter how hard you attempt to uphold the law to its deepest extents, we still fail? So in order to truly achieve salvation is through grace?

  13. In Acts 15:10 when Peter states that Gentiles do not need to be under the “yoke of the law” I had always thought of that to be a burdensome description. However, after reading today’s blog, I can see now that Peter is not degrading or questioning the Law, but rather he realizes that it is inadequate as a means of salvation. This would be a difficult transition for Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles did not need to keep the Law since it was so embedded in the Jews. As a non-Jewish contemporary Christian I am grateful that I am not required to keep kosher or other areas of the Law that would be difficult in today’s society. However, it is with respect that I look at early Jewish Christians and their devotion to keeping the Law of Moses. It seems that Polhill thinks that there were Jewish Christians who considered Christianity to be a sect of Judaism within Israel (p. 106) and therefore must have had extreme difficulty in accepting that Gentiles did not need to follow Jewish laws and customs to become saved. It is part of the realization process that the Law was the way until the Messiah came, but after Jesus, the Law was useless as a way to salvation. Only through faith in Jesus Christ could one be saved regardless of anyone’s “works.”

  14. This article is misleading, “a yoke we cannot bear” means the oral tradition that was institutionalized as law, such as washing your hands before eating. Our Lord told the Pharisees in Matthew 14, “why do you also transgress with your tradition?” Washing hands was not the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Our Lord goes on to finish the context, “these are the things that defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands defiles not the man.” End of context, this was not about eating unclean food, it was about washing hands institutionalized as law. Another good example of his words taken out of context is when he ordains 70 to go before him to the lost sheep of Israel and tells them, “take no thought what you shall eat,” he was not saying eat anything and everything you want, he is saying the Lord provides, he also tells us in Matthew, “Take no thought for your life, -what ye shall eat- or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” In this context he is saying the Lord provides.
    I only read from Matthew by the way, I believe I have found enough historical records that Christ’s disciples and the Nazarene only read from Matthew for several hundred years before the advent of Catholicism, and the institution of the Lords day, Sunday, by the newly formed Roman Catholic church. I believe Acts is based on a previous historical document. I am one of the first returning Nazarene, I am putting an emphasis on Matthew as the only New Testament canon, eating kosher and abstaining from fornication, we should know sex is for making children, I just want us to be holy already, so that is what the word tells us “do not pull out of a woman.” Please visit to learn about creation science and the return of the Nazarene!

    • It is not at all misleading, since it makes an assertion about what Peter (a non Pharisee) might have meant when he said “Yoke of the Law” and the supports that assertion with evidence from the Second Temple Period. You are free to disagree, of course, but the article does not mislead.

      Your comments are not wrong, but you are not commenting on the situation of Acts 15. The topic is not hand-washing or other oral traditions which the Pharisees developed and were eventually the basis for the Mishnah. Circumcision and Food taboos are in the written Law and (along with Sabbath) are the classic boundary markers of Judaism in the Second Temple Period. Jesus did not cancel these boundary markers, although he did reject the traditions developed by the Pharisees.

      Perhaps the problem is that you only read Matthew. I think that makes you an Ebionite, which makes a conversation on Acts 15 very difficult.

      • No, Ebionites read from a butchered Gospel of Matthew that was ammended to make the Lord and his cousin John vegetarians, it was called the Gospel of the Hebrews, circa 150 AD. Some of the first Muslims came from the Ebionites. I did my research, the Nazarene that fled to Pella at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Christ’s disciples amongst them) only read from Matthew. I have enough historical documentation to back up what I say. Paul was rejected as a false teacher for hundreds of years until the advent of Roman Catholicism because he taught contradictory to the Jerusalem council when he said eat whatever is on the market. The Nazarene rejected all false teachings and only read from Matthew, as Greek historian Epiphanius tells us, from the Gospel of Matthew as it was originally written word for word in the Hebrew alphabet. Please visit to learn about creation science and the Jewish Christians, the Nazarene.

  15. The law points out our sin, Jesus washes us and saves us from the sin…..with no law there would be no sin, and we would not need Jesus to save us..

  16. You a believer want to keep those laws? Are you serious? Are you out of your mind?

    Look at

    Jeremiah 31:31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
    31:32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

    Look at
    Romans 10:4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
    Look at….
    Galatians 3:24
    So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

    Look at;
    Romans 7: 1-4
    7:1 Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to men who know the law–that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?
    7:2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.
    7:3 So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.
    7:4 So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.

    Loooookkk at this;

    Act 13:38-39
    Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

    So you still want people to be BELIVERS and still be under the law? Did you not hear Jesus when he said, don’t pour a new win on old win?
    Or patch old clothes with new ones?

    Or if you want to keep law…

    Keep this first.

    Leviticus “‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.
    20:10 “‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
    20:11 “‘If a man sleeps with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
    20:12 “‘If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.
    20:13 “‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
    20:14 “‘If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.
    20:15 “‘If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal.
    20:16 “‘If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
    20:17 “‘If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and they have sexual relations, it is a disgrace. They must be cut off before the eyes of their people. He has dishonored his sister and will be held responsible.
    20:18 “‘If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and has sexual relations with her, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them must be cut off from their people.
    20:19 “‘Do not have sexual relations with the sister of either your mother or your father, for that would dishonor a close relative; both of you would be held responsible.
    20:20 “‘If a man sleeps with his aunt, he has dishonored his uncle. They will be held responsible; they will die childless.
    20:21 “‘If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.

    Kill those who do that, you will be more than Isis or Bokoharam than Christians

    • You should tag your response with the name of the person you are responding to, especially for an old thread like this. My original post in 2013 did not advocate Christians keeping the Jewish Law, FWIW.

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