Many Christians would be surprised to find out what the book of Acts reveals about the Hebraic culture of the early church. When they find out, they don’t know the best way to respond to this revelation. You see, many people like their doctrines and beliefs wound up neat in a tight little ball of multicolored string. When the ball is loosened up, it turns into a big mess which makes them highly uncomfortable.
There are two typical reactions to this. One is they scoop up the mess, ignore the information, and try to get their doctrinal beliefs and religious customs back in a nice neat multi-colored ball without forsaking any of their long held traditions which are synchretized with paganism and doctrinal error. The other option is to be shocked by the mess but willing to examine things further despite being very uncomfortable in the process. If they tolerate the mess long enough, embrace real truths bit by bit, and be obedient to apply what they learn, the Holy Spirit will then unravel the remaining colorful mess, put everything in its rightful place, and reveal the magnificent tapestry that can’t be seen when everything is in a boring tight little ball. If you choose this path, it can take several years of patience and study to see much of this tapestry but based on my personal experience I can assure you that it’s worth the process. You will hunger daily to see more and more. It’s more incredible than you can possibly imagine including the fact that the Old Testament meshes perfectly with the New Testament.
Let’s see what we can learn in the book of Acts. The very first thing we notice it that the first century believers still observed the Feasts of the Lord. Activities in the temple were an important part of life of all believers. The prayers were the temple prayers (Shacharit – morning, Minchah – afternoon, and Ma’ariv –evening). Interesting things like healings and visions seemed to happen at the times of the daily prayers.
The apostles had become rabbis and were teaching Jesus’ interpretation of Torah. Initially the missionary focus was on Jews and proselytes found in various countries before it was on the Gentiles. The church or assembly was not new as many people currently believe but existed even in Abraham’s time.
Hebrew believers were a sect of Judaism that was still worshipping in the temple. They met at Solomon’s Colonnade which was located on the east side of Herod’s Temple. They understood that to repent meant to return back to the commands of Torah (Malachi 4:4-6) and that being transformed by the renewing of your mind involved obeying the original commands of God.
Stephen was put to death due to false accusations against him. He had not said anything against Moses, God, the temple, or the law. He did not say Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs Moses had given them. Stephen said it was really his accusers who did not obey God’s commandments.
Hebrews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus as the long awaited Messiah still attended synagogue on the Sabbath. The Jerusalem Council gave their recommendations from Leviticus 17-18 for Gentiles coming to faith in Christ yet reminded everyone that people could easily learn more of what was expected of them because Moses was being taught in every city and in the synagogues each Sabbath.
Many Hebrew believers were zealous for the law but had been told that Paul had told the Gentiles to forsake the law –not to circumcise their children or walk according to the customs. That’s not entirely correct. First , Paul said he walked orderly and kept the law (Acts 21:17-25). Second, Paul taught that circumcision (ritual conversion to Judaism) was not required in order to become a believer in Jesus but showing love for God by obeying His commandments was most important. Paul supported the recommendation of the apostles which was for Gentiles to keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. These things are basically a summary of what is taught in Leviticus. The phrase “that they should observe no such thing” which is found in English versions of Acts 21:25 is not even in the original Greek text! This added phrase leads us to believe Paul taught Gentiles to abandon the law. If we take out this phrase that’s not supposed to be there in the first place and read the rest in context we, see that Paul had not told the Gentiles to forsake the law but that he had been misunderstood or misquoted.
Believers in Christ still made vows including the vow of Nazirite and they offered sacrifices until the temple had been destroyed. Paul was falsely accused of defiling the temple by bringing Greeks into it and teaching all men everywhere against the people, the law, and the temple. Paul said “I am a Jew” and “being zealous for God, just as you all are today.” Note Paul used the present tense, not past tense. Paul also said he had done nothing worthy of death. If he had taught what they had accused him of, he would most certainly have been worthy of death according to the law.
As believers today study Romans and Galatians they look at it through a Greek perspective and fail to interpret it properly because they don’t understand the Hebraic culture of Paul’s time, the religious issues of the day, or the idioms Paul used. The differences are relatively minor but are still significant to us none the less.
Sometimes proper interpretation only requires a change in definitions. Even Peter admitted that Paul was difficult for many to properly understand. Second Peter 3:15-18 said, “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (NKJV) Many Gentiles are still improperly taught and still twist Paul’s teachings today. It is unfortunate that the Protestant Reformation was not complete or that doctrinal error was not corrected at that time.
Initially, it’s best to remember what Paul said in Romans 3:31 until we can learn more, “Does it follow that we abolish Torah by this trusting? Heaven forbid! On the contrary, we confirm Torah.” (CJB) Yes, this is a good start…
It also helps to remember Jesus words in Matthew 5:17-20, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah — not until everything that must happen has happened. So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness is far greater than that of the Torah-teachers and P’rushim, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (CJB) Jesus has made it clear that Torah will be the law until heaven and earth pass away. Until that time there is still much for Jesus to fulfill so don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
Look again at these verses. Who will be great in the kingdom of heaven?
So what will you do with your theological ball of string? Will you let it unravel some and let the Holy Spirit show you something awesome?
Never fear. Salvation is still by grace through faith in Jesus. He is the only way to the Father. Ask God to give you wisdom and knowlege. Be willing to embrace the Hebraic culture of those who lived during the time of the Acts of the Apostles. After all, the law was not abolished because of faith (Rom. 3:31). Remember:
- God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge and for practicing lawlessness (Torah-lessness).
- The only curse we’re not under is the curse of the second death.