What Commands to Obey?
The Bible is full of God-given commands. There are 613 commands in the Pentateuch, all of which are taken seriously by pious Jews. But Christians have tended to dismiss the ceremonial and civil laws, with only the moral Old Testament laws accepted. “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom 10:4) and “love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10).
However, there are important God-given commands in the New Testament also. Some examples:
- In a vision, God commanded Peter to eat any food, for ”what God has cleansed, you must not call common.” (Acts 10:15)
- God has commanded us to baptize believers. (Mt 28:19)
- He commanded us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: “Do this.” (I Cor 11:25)
- We are commanded to have nothing to do with a believer who “is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber – not even to eat with such a one.” (I Cor 5:11, cf. 11 Cor 6:17)
- Scripture commands us against having sex outside of marriage. (I Cor 6:16-17)
- Married couples who are believers are commanded not to divorce. (I Cor 7:12-13)
- Women are commanded not to wear jewelry and other finery. (I Pet 3:3)
- We are commanded not to take a fellow believer to court. (I Cor 6:1-8)
Different Christian denominations implement these commands differently. Some are very strict, others are quite loose in implementation.
The Jerusalem Council’s Dilemma
Then comes the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. The believers (mostly Jewish at this point) understood that all the laws of God should be taken seriously to be faithful to God’s covenant with His People. God promised great blessings if His people obeyed His laws and great disaster if they became lax or compromised (Dt 28, Josh 1:7-9). Of all the commands, the command to be circumcised was the one that had particularly identified one as part of the covenant community.
Suddenly Barnabas and Paul came along and insisted that Gentiles can be part of the covenant without observing all of the scriptural commands and simply by believing in Jesus (Rom 3:28).
You can imagine the response of the Jewish believers:
- You want to have all the blessings of the covenant without the obedience?
- You want to pick and choose which laws to obey, according to your own convenience and pleasure?
- You want to simply profess belief and then show no obedience in your life to demonstrate it?
Minimally, they would say, you must obey the command of circumcision to be a part of the covenant. Acts 15:1 says, “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” This was perfectly understandable and reasonable for them. They are willing to compromise on a few things, but not this most fundamental command of God must be recognized and obeyed.
But Barnabas and Paul could not accept even this compromise. Circumcision was the crux of the issue they were facing:
- Roman and Greek culture idolized the perfection of the human body. If this mutilation of the human body were to be required of converts, very few would come.
- Theologically, if Jesus really is “the end of the law” (Rom 10:4), then that has to include also the law of circumcision. If you insist on circumcision, then you are “bound to keep the whole law.” (Gal 5:3)
- Practically, what is the point of baptism as the entrance into the family of God if circumcision also is required? “For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal 3:27)
Paul’s target community on his journeys were the “God-fearers” (Acts 10:2, 13:26, 50, 16:14, 17:4, 17). These were Gentiles who accepted that Yahweh was the one and only true God. They would join with the Jewish community in the synagogue worship, but they could not make the step of circumcision. They could not remove themselves from all their family and friends socially by insisting on a kosher diet. The God-fearers were ripe for Paul’s message that “The Kingdom does not consist of food and drink.” (Rom 14:17) It was music to their ears when Paul confronted Peter saying, “How can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14)
Paul could, then, confront the hypocrisy of it all. How could we put a burden on new, fragile believers, a burden that we ourselves don’t bear? It’s the same issue that Jesus had with the Pharisees. They were adding all kinds of elaborations on God’s simple commands, “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mt 15:9) and “loading people with burdens hard to bear.” (Lk 11:46) Must we really expect and require these newborn “babies in Christ” to be ready to alienate themselves from the culture, family, and community by imposing our culture upon them?
At the Council, Peter, was the first to be convinced. God had already prepared him by shocking him with the vision of ritually impure foods and the new command to “kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13) He had experienced the faith and Spirit-filled heart of the Gentile Cornelius and was convinced and “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,” without circumcision. (Acts 10:48). Peter was moved to pronounce to the Council:
Now why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers no we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. (Acts 15:10-11)
The Council, then, “after there had been much debate” (Acts 15:7) wrote a letter and sent trusted emissaries. First of all, they apologized to the new Gentile believers that the Judaizers, “some persons from us have troubled you.” (Acts 15:24), well-intentioned but wrong. The letter dropped the demand for circumcision, saying
It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. (Acts 15:28)
The ministry and gospel understanding of Barnabas and Paul were now ratified by the apostolic community. Indeed, Paul went on to go beyond the Council’s decision, allowing Gentile believers to take food that had been sacrificed to idols, as long as their actions did not cause weaker members of the faith to get offended and lose faith. (I Cor 8:1-13) With the cultural obstacles removed, the faith spread rapidly in the Gentile world.
Implications for Hindus
How does Acts 15 apply to modern Hindus? Similarly, we might say that “some [well-intentioned, but mistaken] persons from us have troubled you”, insisting on some behaviors such as:
- Hindus eat beef and Muslims eat pork prior to baptism
- Names should be changed to biblical or western names
- The bindhi must not be worn by women
- Withdrawing from the family community lest they be tempted from the faith
- Worshipping in Western forms and expressing faith in Western terms
- Marriage only inside the Christian community
In this, they live among people whose morals were often much worse than what they had seen in their Hindu community.
Similar to God-fearing Greeks of the first century, Hindu bhaktas of Jesus need not accept all of these additional commands, and it is their right to live as devotees of Christ in ways that are culturally appropriate to them and do not offend their family communities.
Further articles will discuss this faith community in more detail. But, right now, are we ready to say with our Lord: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”? (Is 42:3)