High Priest in Heaven

36 Grace and the Ceremonial Law

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. John 1:17.

The apostle Paul was well educated, a deep thinker, and probably had more contact with Greek
thought than the other apostles. He studied under the brilliant Gamaliel.1

Because of his education, he may have been a more astute theologian and may have been the first
to identify problems when they arose. Possibly because of his familiarity with Greek thought, he wrote much more about abstract concepts than did the other New Testament writers. This was significant because Greek thought has influenced western civilization to this day. It is Paul’s insight that we need to comprehend the relation of grace, covenant, and the ceremonial law.

Jewish Christians at that time had difficulty letting go of their worship traditions. Paul wrote about
this in his epistles. The issue faded away as the church became predominantly Gentile.

Saul Becomes an Apostle

Saul was a Jew, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and a student of the famous rabbi Gamaliel. He came from Tarsus, in Asia Minor (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5). How long he lived in Jerusalem we do not know. He was present when Stephen gave his sermon to the Sanhedrin. He observed the godly demeanor of Stephen and the vicious fury of his compatriots. Coming from a leading member of the Sanhedrin, Saul’s consent was a significant influence in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58).

Following this, Saul zealously persecuted the Christians, hauling them off to prison (Acts 8:3). On
the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ came to Saul in a vision and changed him from a zealous persecutor of Christians to an even-more-committed Christian preacher and missionary. It was a major upheaval in his life. After his conversion, he was blind and had to be led by the hand. God called Ananias, a believer in Christ, who looked for Saul and then baptized him, after God restored Saul’s sight in response to Ananias’ prayer.

Saul then preached to the Jews in Damascus, meeting all their objections, until he had to flee
Damascus to save his life. He went into Arabia for three years, where in solitude, he had time for
self-examination, confession of sin, and blessed pardon. Jesus Christ spoke to him, established him in the faith, and taught him more of his mission.

Saul returned to Damascus and again preached to the Jews. Once again, he was met with hatred
and plans to take his life. An angel warned him to leave the city, but his enemies guarded the gates. Saul escaped as fellow believers let him down over the wall in a basket.

Saul traveled to Jerusalem, and Barnabas introduced him to the brethren. Again, he preached to
the Jews until hostility and hatred threatened his life. Warned by an angel, the brethren took Saul to
Caesarea and from there to Tarsus. It was in Tarsus that Barnabas eventually found him, and together they began their missionary journeys (Acts 9:27; Gal. 1:17, 18; 2:1; 1 Cor. 9:6; 15:3, 4, 8; Acts 22:17–21).

When Paul returned to Jerusalem, he was prepared to speak for Christ, not against Him as he had done before. The issue of grace became the main focus of his preaching. He determined “… not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Missionary Journeys

The church in Antioch ordained Saul and Barnabas and sent them on their missionary journeys
(Acts 13:2). In each new city, they attended the synagogue on Sabbath where Paul spoke to the Jews. Then they might be asked to speak to the Gentiles (Acts 13:42). The issue for the Jews was that the Messiah, prophesied since Eden, had come, and His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He had now come to earth, lived a sinless life, died on the cross as a willing sacrifice for the sins of humankind, and came back to life. He was now with the Father in heaven. (Saul’s preaching to the Gentiles seems to be a transition point in the story, for he is now called “Paul” from this point on in Luke’s narrative.)2

Paul preached in Antioch of Pisidia, giving the message of Christ crucified (Acts 13:14–43). Christ had vanquished Satan. He had paid the penalty for the sins of humankind, and the door was now open for human beings to come to the throne of God for help in time of need (Heb. 4:15, 16). Many Jews of the Diaspora believed, and increasing numbers of the Gentiles believed and joined the church.

Priestly Ministry from Earth to Heaven

Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection, He ascended to heaven to begin His heavenly
priesthood. In sanctuary terminology, He had made the true sacrifice on the cross for humanity’s sins. He took the sacrificial blood into the heavenly sanctuary where He continued, through that blood, to give pardon and to make atonement for sin. Sacrificial animals were no longer needed; circumcision was no longer a requirement. Jesus’ true sacrifice now provided pardon for sin in the heavenly sanctuary.

God gave the covenant of grace at Sinai (Exod. 19:5, 6; 34:10). At the same time, God gave the ceremonial law, with its symbolic sacrifices and rituals, pointing to the Messiah, the true sacrifice for sin. As time passed, belief in the coming Messiah dimmed, and the people began to look on the sacrifices, ceremonies, traditions, and their descent from Abraham as a means to obtain salvation. Their performance of the “law of Moses” cemented into an old covenant mindset.

In the New Testament church, there was always a tension between the law of Moses and the grace
of Christ. Certain Jewish converts to Christianity had a hard time letting go of their dependence on
Abraham as their father and their meticulous keeping of the law, the sacrifices, and the ceremonies as a means for obtaining salvation. These were a tradition that had lasted 1500 years, and these externals were how they identified themselves as Jews. They could not understand how anyone could be saved unless he or she kept “the law of Moses.”

Circumcision and Ceremonies

Genesis 17 described circumcision as the means by which a person enters the covenant. When
Moses proclaimed the tenth plague on the Egyptians, many non-Jews wanted the deliverance promised by the Passover. To attend a Passover required being circumcised (Exod. 12:43, 44, 48). With this history, one cannot blame Jewish Christians for standing for what they felt was a fundamental principle.

As Paul evangelized the Roman world, the Gentiles readily accepted the grace of Christ. This upset certain of the Messianic Jews who felt that Gentile believers must accept circumcision and other ceremonies in order to be saved. Peter had seen the centurion Cornelius receive the Holy Ghost and recognized that God intended to bring the Gentiles into the gospel as well as Jews (Acts 10). This brought tension between groups of Messianic believers who strongly held different opinions.

The church councils in Jerusalem and at Antioch (Acts 15) dealt with these issues. They decided
that Gentiles need not follow the ceremonial law except for four issues:
   (1) Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised;
  (2) fornication among Gentile believers must be dealt with as a sin;
  (3) Gentile believers should not eat things offered to idols, and
  (4) Gentile believers should not eat the meat of strangled animals or blood.

While the leaders agreed on these points, there was still a problem. Certain Jewish converts to
Christianity followed Paul to the new churches and taught Jewish customs to the Gentile converts.
Several passages in Paul’s epistles deal with this problem, including the books of Hebrews, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians. Paul compared legalistic perceptions of these Jewish Christians with the grace of Christ through the cross of Calvary. To continue to hold onto the ceremonial law was to deny the grace of God and the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.3

Epistles Meet a Crisis

“For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified”
(1 Cor. 2:2). This verse sums up Paul’s message.4

Circumcision was the token of the covenant from the time of Abraham (Gen. 17:11). Even in Old
Testament times, the man receiving circumcision must be converted, or the ritual itself was meaningless (Rom. 2:25–29). Paul applies this spiritual standard: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:29). To hold to their descent from Abraham and the laws of Moses was to deny what Jesus had done for them on the cross.

Paul goes on to say, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the
law … This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ …” (Rom. 3:20, 22, NIV). In second Corinthians 3, there are several comparisons:

• tables of stone vs. fleshy tables of the heart
• the letter kills vs. the spirit gives life
• the ministration of death vs. the ministration of the Spirit
• the ministration of condemnation vs. the ministration of righteousness
• their minds blinded by a veil vs. the veil removed in Christ.

In this chapter, Paul compares what Christ has done for us, with a mistaken perception of the law
on tables of stone or spelled out in writing. The law is holy, just, and good, and a guide to what
is sin. The ability to keep that law must be through grace, which is not from the law (Gal. 2:21).

Paul wrote the book of Galatians to correct the damage to the Galatians church by false teachings.
For people to depend on their keeping the law to deliver them from sin is a denial of the grace of Christ “who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: … To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel” (Gal. 1:4–6).

Further, Paul says, “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ”
(Gal. 2:16). In Galatians 3 he directly confronts the problem: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? … Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
(Gal. 3:1, 2).

Galatians 3:1 to 5:6 is an ardent call to make Christ first and to purge dead works as a means
of salvation. In these passages, the word “law” is not an attack on the ten-commandment law. Paul recognized that grace received through faith is what gives the Christian the ability to obey the law
(Rom. 3:31). However, keeping the law—either moral or ceremonial—as a means of salvation was and is wrong.

It is necessary for Christians to consent to the work of grace to cleanse the life of sin, which is violation of the law (Rom. 3:20; 1 John 3:4). The sinful nature comes from a lack of love for God, which leads to pride and unbelief, and a lack of love for our fellow human beings, which leads to selfishness. These motives of the heart can be changed only by grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians cannot change their motives by force of will.

Besides these passages, Paul wrote extensively on faith, grace, and justification, always with an
emphasis on the cross of Christ, leading the church away from the deeply ingrained traditions of Jewish thinking.5

Lasting Legalistic Legacy

Concerns about the ceremonial law did not end with the early church. Some churches today have
a legalistic approach to salvation. Many individuals believe in grace, yet they live an old covenant life. If people can do something to be saved, then they feel at liberty to live as they please. (Others use legal justification to achieve the same end. As long as they have justification, they believe they can live as they please.) Either way, it requires a higher commitment to submit to Christ and consent to the work of grace in the life. Not everyone wants his or her life changed, but Christ has promised His Holy Spirit to give love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith. In Him, we have life everlasting (Gal. 5:22).

Many Christians today have swung to the other side. They believe that keeping the law—carefully
obeying God’s commandments—is legalism. Yet, failure to uphold the law is causing untold misery
and evil in society today. It comes back to our obligation to keep the law. How does one keep it? The Christian must make a commitment to obey the law and consent to the work of grace. Once one decides to obey the law and cooperates with the Holy Spirit, then obedience to the law is the gift of God.6


1. The term “Diaspora” refers to a scattering or dispersion, for whatever reason, of a people from their ancestral homeland. It generally requires that the dispersed people maintain their ethnic identity. For instance, seventy years after Judah went into captivity to Babylon, a small part of the Jewish nation returned to Judah. The greater population remained in Babylon or scattered to other locations in what would become the Roman Empire. Most of these met together regularly and maintained their Jewish identity.

Gamaliel the Elder, or Rabban Gamaliel I, was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin, in the mid-first century AD. He was the son of Simeon ben Hillel, and grandson of the greatest Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder. Gamaliel died twenty years before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70). He fathered a son, whom he called Simeon, after his father, and a daughter. The name Gamaliel is the Greek form of the Hebrew name meaning “reward of God.” Christians recognize Gamaliel as a Pharisee, doctor of Jewish Law. Acts of the Apostles speak of Gamaliel with consummate respect,
a man who spoke in favor of arrested Christian apostles. He taught Jewish Law to Paul the apostle.

In the Talmud, Gamaliel is described as the president of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Many consider Gamaliel one of the greatest teachers in all the annals of Judaism. Since Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder, died, society has lost purity, piety, and reverence for the law. The teaching of Hillel is presented collectively, making it difficult to identify what is Gamaliel’s. See http://
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamaliel, accessed 8/15/2012.

2. “Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him” (Acts 13:9).

3. Judaism is the religion, philosophy and the way of life of the Jewish people. It is a monotheistic religion, originating in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh). Rabbinic Judaism holds that God revealed his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of both the written and oral Torah. (Yet, monotheistic religion originated with Adam and Eve, long before the Hebrew Scriptures were written!)
Jews are an ethno-religious group and include those who were born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism.

Jewish religious movements include Orthodox Judaism, which teaches that the Torah and Jewish law are divine in origin, eternal, and unalterable, and that they should be strictly followed. Conservative and Reform Judaism are more liberal, with Conservative Judaism promoting a more “traditional” interpretation of Judaism’s requirements than Reform Judaism. A typical Reform position is that Jewish law should be viewed as a set of general guidelines rather than as a set
of restrictions and obligations whose observance is required of all Jews.

According to Jewish Law, a Jew is anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in accordance with Jewish Law. American Reform Judaism and British Liberal Judaism accept the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child with a Jewish identity. Traditional Judaism maintains that a Jew, whether by birth or conversion, is a Jew forever. Thus, a Jew who claims to be an atheist or converts to another religion is still considered, by traditional Judaism, to be Jewish. According to some sources, the Reform movement has maintained that a Jew who has converted to another religion is no longer a Jew, and the Israeli Government has also taken that stance after Supreme Court cases and statutes. The Reform movement has indicated that this is not so certain or unchangeable, and different situations call for consideration and differing actions. “ A proselyte who has become an apostate remains, nevertheless, a Jew” (Walter Jacob, Contemporary American Reform Responsa [Mars, PA: Publishers Choice Book Mfg., 1987], pp. 100–106).

4. Paul strongly believed and taught “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:22–24; 2:2). To the unbelieving Jews this has always been offensive, a rock of stumbling. Yet, at the same time, Paul had a deep regard for his Jewish brethren (Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10; chaps. 9–11; Heb. 3:1) and worked for their salvation. Was Paul Anti-Semitic? See http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2004/04/Is-Paul-The-Father-Of-Anti-Semitism.aspx, accessed 8/15/2012.

5. More on this topic will appear in the chapters discussing Hebrews 8–10. In some Jewish circles, today, Paul is described as “Romanized” and “anti-Semitic” (Rom. 2:21–29). As Gentile converts
flooded into the Christian church, they quickly learned the story of Jesus, His life, trials, crucifixion, and resurrection.

This always put the Jews in a bad light, and many Jews accepted a different account of these events, promoted by the Jewish leaders at that time. Consequently, there was strong opposition from many Jews, leading to riots and persecution of those who believed in Jesus, many of whom came from a Jewish background.

6. A decision to keep the law cannot be called a “work”? (1 Cor. 9:26, 27; 2 Cor. 3:18; 10:3–5; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 6:10–18; Phil. 3:12–14; 1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7; James 2:17, 18).