Christ and the Law of Moses

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the April 12, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“Who is a Jew? …A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.” [i]

A strange transformation has taken place over the past few thousand years that perhaps has distorted our perspective about what it means to be a Christian. Today, we see ourselves as being distinct from Judaism and some even are perhaps hostile to it. However, when we examine the roots of Christianity, we discover that such distinctions may have been unknown to the Apostles and the first century church.

Judaism has had several sects within the faith over the centuries. The Bible speaks of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. We also know of others such as the Essenes through Josephus as well as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls which apparently were secreted by the Essenian community at Qumran in caves to protect them from some perceived danger. Yet, members of all of these groups, which differed widely at times over articles of belief, were still considered to be Jews.

From the quotation above, perhaps we can see that Jewishness is less a question of faith than of genealogy. This would seem to make the case for why the genealogy of Jesus was laid out in both the gospels of Matthew[ii] and Luke.[iii] Based on these passages, He was unquestionably a Jew. Even apart from knowledge of His ancestry, He also was apparently readily identifiable as a Jew by observation.[iv] Jesus never contradicted this Jewish identity, but rather He embraced it. When we consider His statements about Jewish practice,[v] we cannot help but wonder how Christianity became a separate religion. Would Jesus consider Himself a Christian and not a Jew if He were here, today?

When we look at the record of the Apostles, we can perhaps see that they probably did not self-identify as anything but Jews as well. For instance, they continued to meet regularly at the temple.[vi] Also, they continued to participate in the sacrificial services of the temple, as Paul was doing, several years after Jesus’ ascension, when he was taken into protective custody by the Roman authorities.[vii] While the Bible record is not clear on how long this went on, perhaps the early Christians in Jerusalem continued to consider themselves Jews at least until the destruction of the temple in 70, C.E. Even Paul, who was the noted Apostle to the Gentiles, regularly sought out synagogues to worship in and to inform the members about the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.[viii] We are therefore left to wonder at how and why Christians came to no longer be considered Jews.

It may have been hard for outsiders to make the distinction, since both groups were professedly monotheistic and refused to participate in the cult of emperor worship. The fact that they commonly shared places of worship and worship ceremonies may have added to a perception that they were just sects of the same religion. Perhaps incentives to develop separate identities were the varying political circumstances affecting each group.

The Jews became enemies of the Empire under Nero when they revolted against the plundering of the temple treasury by the Romans for “back taxes.” Maybe this caused the Christians to want to be sure they were not considered Jews to avoid the stigma of belonging to a group seen as being rebellious. If so, it may have backfired because they became the scapegoats for the burning of Rome under the same emperor. Many Christians were martyred during the persecution following that conflagration. While the Jewish faith, even when the Jews were persecuted, was a legal religion in the empire, once Christians sought to distinguish themselves from Judaism, they placed themselves in legal limbo. This may, in part, account for their various persecutions and misfortunes until the early 4th century, when they finally received the protection of being a recognized, legal religion under Emperor Constantine.

Why is all of this history important? Because experience often informs theology as it changes our perspective. While we may wish to consider the historical context of whatever passage we are studying, we cannot entirely divorce ourselves from our modern experiences and education. In part, this may be because in many cases, we cannot have perfect understanding of historical context. Also, we may be unable to extricate ourselves from how these modern influences affect our understanding on a sub-conscious level.

When we approach the historical aspects of our faith, today, we see ourselves as distinct from Judaism. This colors our understanding and creates a barrier to faith practices that might minimize those differences. A good example would be the idea of observing the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment.[ix] Today, many Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, denigrate the idea of observing that day by calling it that “Jewish” Sabbath. This serves to further divide the two faiths as opposed to developing commonalities that once existed between both groups.

While on the face of it, there is little scriptural reason to observe Sunday as a special day of worship as opposed to Saturday, since one is biblically commanded and the other is not, one might see how it could help distinguish Christians from Jews in the context of persecution. The Jews, who would typically not kindle a fire on the Sabbath,[x] could be easily spotted as those whose homes had no smoke rising from their chimneys on Saturday. By changing to Sunday observance, the Christians would be free to kindle a fire on Saturday and any persecution of the Jews would not sweep them up as well. Perhaps it is not too far a jump to see how a passive disassociation from their Jewish neighbors could grow to become an active participation in their persecution to avoid being identified with them at all. (If you don’t join with us in persecuting them, you must be one of them.) We have seen a similar behavior in regards to the persecution of homosexuals in our day, when some of the most rabid anti-gay individuals were discovered to have hidden homosexual partners. Pastor Ted Haggard and Idaho Senator Larry Craig are two examples of several that come to mind.

Perhaps the unfortunate influence of an anti-Semitism that may have had pragmatic roots in avoiding persecution is what causes us to dissect scripture into portions that we may safely observe today as Christians and other segments that we should ignore for no better reason than that they are “Jewish.” While some of these changes may have occurred early on, this process may continue to color our understanding today, even without our knowing it.

Circumcision was one practice that was relegated to the practice of “Judaizers” during the first century according to Paul’s Epistles and the Book of Acts. This being the early understanding in spite of it being almost a certainty that Jesus was circumcised. Was Jesus then a Judaizer because He did not speak against the practice? When we try to understand theologically any basis for consistency, the Bible can become a minefield, especially for the literalist. On the one hand, we have clear commands for circumcision and Sabbath observance, with some Christians not observing either. Then, on the other hand, although there is no clear command to abstain from eating any meat, some Christians feel vegetarianism is an important part of their faith and evangelize over the practice. Problematically, there may be many who want to draw the lines which define our faith, but they too often do not want to draw them in the same place.

Some like to say that Jesus “fulfilled” certain requirements, so we do not need to observe them now. This only begs the question “How do you know which ones He fulfilled?” For instance, why did He fulfill the Sabbath commandment such that it does not matter which day we observe as some say, but failed to fulfill the need to pay tithe?

Others like to say that fulfilling does not mean abolishing so we are still required to observe the Ten Commandments, but these also draw lines. They may say that we still need to observe the dietary requirements of Leviticus, chapter eleven, but then balk at requirements that different types of yarns not be woven together.[xi] Is our faith as Christians based on inconsistent practice? How then can we as one denomination point out the inconsistencies in another denomination when we ourselves are doing the same thing only with the lines being drawn differently?

Are we gerrymandering the borders of our faith to accommodate our denominational or individual preferences, and then referring to that gerrymandered understanding to produce “biblical” support for our position? It is easy to say that we define our faith thus and so and then claim because we define it that way and others do not, they are in error and apostate. The religious of Jesus’ day did that with Him. They failed to see that even though they could not agree on a common understanding of their faith, such as disagreeing on whether or not there is a resurrection, they could nonetheless agree on one thing. They had no use for Jesus.

[i] "Who Is A Jew?," Judaism 101,

[ii] Matthew 1:1-17

[iii] Luke 3:23-38

[iv] John 4:9

[v] Matthew 5:17

[vi] Acts 5:42

[vii] Acts 21:24-27

[viii] Acts 19:8, et al.

[ix] Exodus 20:8-11

[x] Exodus 35:3

[xi] Deuteronomy 22:11



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