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
thought than the other apostles. He studied under the brilliant
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 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
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
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
Saul traveled to
Jerusalem, and Barnabas introduced him to the brethren. Again, he
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
(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
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
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
Christ. Certain Jewish converts to Christianity had a hard time letting
go of their dependence on
Abraham as their father and their
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
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
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.
passages in Paul’s epistles deal with this problem, including the
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.3Epistles Meet a Crisis
determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him
(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.
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
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.
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”
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
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
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.5Lasting Legalistic Legacy
Concerns about the ceremonial
law did not end with the early church. Some churches today have
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).
Christians today have swung to the other side. They believe that keeping
obeying God’s commandments—is legalism. Yet,
failure to uphold the law is causing untold misery
and evil in
. 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
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.
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.
(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
Jews are an ethno-religious group and include those who
were born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism.
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
and obligations whose observance is required of all Jews.
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).
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
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
flooded into the Christian church, they quickly learned the
story of Jesus, His life, trials, crucifixion, and resurrection.
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,