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From Law to Grace in Acts

      As I got into the book of Acts, I expected to find more and more evidence that the law was done away with. What I found was somewhat surprising. Since I can't present all the evidence in this brief summary, I'll try to include representative samples.

      Early in the book we have the account of Stephen, who was opposed by some Hellenistic Jews because of his strong preaching about Jesus. They went so far as to produce false witnesses who testified that Stephen spoke against the temple and the law, that he was predicting the destruction of the temple and the changing of the law (6:13-14). Since these are described in the text as false witnesses, the implication is that he did not claim any of these things. In fact, in his rebuttal speech, he retells the story of the giving of the law and calls it "living words" (7:38). And the climax of his speech was when he accused his hearers of not obeying the law (7:53).

      Later in the book, Paul is accused similarly by a group of Jews, of "persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law" (18:13). Just as Paul is about to make his defense, he is interrupted by the proconsul, who dismisses the case. Interestingly, Paul and Silas are also accused by the Gentiles in Philippi of being Jews and "advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice" (16:20). Hmm... I wonder what those could be.

      We do know that in various places in the book of Acts Paul takes on a Nazirite vow (18:18), has Timothy circumcised (16:3), tries to get to Jerusalem for the feast days (20:16), and commended people in Berea for testing his teachings by the standard of the Old Testament (17:11).

      There are a couple of passages in Acts that might be taken to teach cessation of certain parts of the law. One is in chapter ten where Peter sees a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals and a voice tells him to kill and eat. Peter resists, and the voice says not to call anything impure that God has made clean. This passage certainly teaches that Peter had continued to have a biblical standard of eating, and that Jesus had not taught differently. But is God here dismissing the dietary laws? Peter was wondering that. But after some men came and took him to visit Cornelius, Peter understood the meaning of the vision. He said, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" (10:28). He understood the animals in the vision as illustrations of how he should treat men.

      Another passage of interest is in Acts 15. The prevailing Jewish view was that for Gentiles to become fully accepted by God, they needed to convert to Judaism, becoming circumcised and embracing the entire law. Paul and Barnabas argue that God accepts the Gentiles as Gentiles. In Jewish tradition Gentiles had never been obligated to the law. What about these new believers in Jesus? What was to be their relationship to the law? Peter argues that it would be too much of a burden to impose the entire law on them right away. James suggests four prohibitions for the new Gentile believers to adhere to (15:20). Then he makes the interesting statement, "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (15:21). The four prohibitions are things that would keep the Gentiles ritually pure enough to be able to attend the synagogue services. Is James suggesting that this is a starting point and that the Gentiles embrace more of the law as they learn it? Whatever his meaning, the other members of the council, including Paul and Barnabas, were in agreement with this course of action, and they sent a letter to all the churches commending it.

      There are some interpretive issues regarding this passage that make it somewhat ambiguous in terms of how it views the law. But there is no ambiguity in Paul's later testimony. From the middle of chapter 21 to the end of the book of Acts, Paul finds himself accused of teaching contrary to the law. And each time he defends himself in no uncertain terms by stating that he lives according to the law.

      In the first case, Paul is told that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem have believed in Jesus. And they are all zealous for the law. But there is a false rumor going around that Paul is teaching Diaspora Jews to abandon the law. Paul agrees to take action to squelch this gossip by paying for the purification expenses for four men who had made a Nazirite vow (as Paul himself had done earlier in 18:18). The stated reason for this action was that "everybody will know that... you yourself are living in obedience to the law" (21:24). In the course of these actions Paul is arrested under false pretenses. In the ensuing chapters he testifies six times: before the crowd, before the Sanhedrin, before Festus, Felix, Agrippa, and the Roman elders. Each time his message is the same. He is a Pharisee and gladly keeps the law. All the accusations are false.

      Admittedly, this is not the attitude that I expected Paul to have toward the law. I had been taught that Paul had declared the law to be obsolete. Maybe studying his epistles would clear up some of the confusion.

From Law to Grace in the Epistles
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I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil.
Psalm 119 :162