The Apostles and the Law

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the June 14, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)” Romans 2:14-15, NIV

Near the end of the eighth decade of the fifteenth century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had succeeded in geographically uniting the country of Spain under their unified rule. They then sought to further unify their people by having a single system of religious belief. To this end they authorized the loosing of the Inquisition[i] to coerce belief according to the codified understanding of the predominant church. That church was the Roman Catholic Church. It became insufficient to profess faith in God and/or Christ as the church suspected that a number of Jews which had converted outwardly had remained Jews secretly. Several tests were devised to ferret out the miscreants. Those tests, originally aimed at the Spanish Jews, turned out to also be helpful for discovering Protestants as well.

While this unleashed the Spanish Inquisition on the world, it was only a continuation of ongoing persecutions that had preceded it in the Middle Ages, such as the inquisitions against the Cathars and the Waldensians.[ii] These periodic efforts to unify the faithful under a single, orthodox banner came to be a hallmark of Christianity once the power of the State began to enforce orthodoxy for the church, a process that began with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine after his victory over his opponent, Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312, CE. The Edict of Milan, in 313 and the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 came about as a result of the influence of the Emperor over religious expression in the Roman Empire.

Although Constantine tended toward toleration in his edict, the council was an effort to reconcile various theological viewpoints into a unified, harmonious one. While Constantine did not use the heavy hand of the State to enforce the Nicene Creed, a later Emperor, Theodosius I, did. In the Edict of Thessalonica,[iii] he decreed that only the Christianity of the Nicene Creed would be recognized. This was in large part due to the continued proliferation of Arianism, which the Council of Nicaea had attempted to refute. Statements of belief, whether formally called creeds or not, over time tend to become tools for enforcing orthodoxy. They also make it far easier for the State to intervene on behalf of the church with the creed providing the legal justification. The success of such State suppression of identified heresies is debatable. The Arian doctrine of Christology that posits Christ as a lesser created being rather than co-equal with God, the Father, continues to survive to the present day in such denominations as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others.

In spite of many calls for unity of belief and frequent concerted efforts to suppress heresies, no matter how much blood is shed in the process, unity has been elusive. It seems that just as the blood of martyrs has proven to be the seed of Christians,[iv] so it also seems to spread the heresies as well. Perhaps we would do well to pay more attention to Christ’s caution that uprooting the weeds would also cause us to unintentionally uproot the wheat as well.[v] Even with this counsel, we seem to put far more effort into ways to identify the weeds, than we do into ways to nourish the wheat. At best, we may succeed only in creating a legalistic and outward unity that belies the hidden conflicts of the heart.

Perhaps in this regard, the Jews have been an example of how not to proceed in religious matters. It seems reasonable to look at their example as Christianity arose within the context of ancient Judaism. Many might agree that Judaism and the Law are inseparable. This is an interesting perspective, because Jews consider themselves to be children of Abraham. Yet, the Table of the Law was given to Moses, not Abraham, according to the Pentateuch. The Levitical codes as well, are Mosaic rather than Abrahamic. The Jews, including even the genealogy of Jesus,[vi] claim to be descended from Adam, through Noah, Shem, Abraham, and Jacob. While this is not a complete genealogy, I mention these names for specific reasons.

Although there were many, many people who descended from Adam, all were wiped out by the flood, except Noah and his family. Noah became the nexus from which all of humanity sprung. Only his son, Shem, became the father of the holy line that received the Law at Sinai. Ham and Japheth then could be said to be the fathers of lines that were outside the line that received the Law. We could also say the same regarding the line of Lot, Abraham’s nephew; they too existed outside the line that received the Law. Eventually, those who descended from Lot through his two daughters even came to be enemies of those who received the Law. Even in Abraham’s household was a separation between Ishmael and his descendants who participated in the covenant of circumcision, but did not participate in the giving of the Law at Sinai as the descendants of Isaac would eventually do. Those who lived “outside the Law” came to greatly outnumber those who lived within it.

One cannot help but wonder why God would choose to provide the Jewish line with the sacred stone tablets as opposed to those others who did not receive them. Surely it was not based on any peculiar righteousness of Jacob’s descendants. They repeatedly violated its precepts and frequently trampled on and even killed many who tried to follow them. When they had opportunity, they even tried to kill the One who gave them that Law in the person of Jesus. One might argue that rather than instilling obedience, the giving of the Law was an act of grace without regard to obedience.

Why would this be so? Perhaps because grace brings life; the Law brings only death[vii] in its revelation of our inability to observe it.[viii] But in demonstrating we are all worthy of death, the Law then becomes an impetus to seek life and thereby grace. Since that grace is freely supplied by divine fiat, it also leads us into a relationship with God, the Grace Giver. Nonetheless the Law, given to the Jews through Moses, was intended to facilitate grace, but instead it became a tool for exclusion. It became about defining who was not and who was a Jew, who would be destined for salvation through the holy oracles of stone. What were perhaps intended to be touchstones of the failure of human effort, instead became a standard of righteousness that all tried to achieve in order to be saved. Perhaps Paul realized the universality of the problem when he pointed out that those outside the Mosaic covenant could still be keepers of the Law.[ix]

Those who try to be saved by obedience rather than grace often go one step further. They apply the Law as a standard to judge the righteousness of others. When we understand that all are unrighteous by nature, this becomes an exercise in futility. If we could somehow compel others to be righteous, there might be a justification for such activity. However, if we cannot even produce righteousness in ourselves, why would we expect to be able to bring it forth in others who in the end are just like us?

Such unrealistic expectations may cause us to develop creeds, rules and laws of many different forms to drive ourselves to obedience and thereby righteousness. When we establish rules for our faith, we endorse the idea that righteousness can be legislated or established by law. Yet, even if it were possible, such obedience falls far short of righteousness, for there are so many more ways to stray from righteousness than there are laws in the world. Jesus pointed this out when He taught that righteousness is not a matter of outward obedience to some rule. Instead it is a matter of the heart. That may be why it is possible, in spite of our disobedience, to still find grace. Like King David, we can say, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation…” Psalm 51:10-12a, NIV

Caught in flagrant violation of the Law, due to his tryst with Bathsheba, the wife of a trusted officer in his regiments, followed by the subsequent murder of that officer, David could find no salvation in the Law, only condemnation. Interestingly, instead of blaming the woman he seduced, as Adam might have done,[x] David accepted full responsibility for what he had done. He then appealed to the grace of God as Psalm 51 illustrates.

It is this willingness to accept responsibility for our actions and their results that leads us to find salvation through grace. It does not happen by willing ourselves to do better next time. Instead it happens when we admit we cannot save ourselves no matter how hard we try, and like a debtor who can never repay, we throw ourselves on the mercy of the One to whom we owe so much.[xi] Then grace abounds, and where grace abounds, so does life.

[i] “Spanish Inquisition,”

[ii] “Medieval Inquisition,”

[iii] “Edict of Thessalonica,”

[iv] Tertullian, “Apologeticus,” Chapter 50, “the blood of Christians is seed.”

[v] Matthew 13:24-30

[vi] Luke 3:23-38

[vii] Romans 6:23

[viii] Romans 3:23

[ix] Romans 2:14-15

[x] Genesis 3:12

[xi] Matthew 18:23-27



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