Part 2 in a 3 Part Series
What do I mean by singling out a Christian zeal for the Law as a problem? Well, that and the condemnation of Christians which followed suit with such a doctrine led to the downfall of the first century Church. We see the beginnings of this downfall in Acts 15.
But 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." And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. –Acts 15:1-2
As early as the middle of the book of Acts, we are already witnessing a sharp disagreement of whether Christians should follow the Law as the Jews did or not. This issue became so heated that the most brilliant minds of early Christian thought were called to rectify the matter. We continue with a record of this meeting in Acts 15:5:
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses." The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? –Acts 15:5-10
It is quite interesting that Peter would liken the Law to a yoke put upon the necks of the disciples. Merriam-Webster (2015) defines yoke in a number of different ways with majority of the definitions being variations of the initial definition, “A wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.” However, one definition is quite intriguing: “An oppressive agency; servitude; or bondage” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Could this second definition be the yoke that Peter was referring to in reference to the Law? Paul seems to agree with this usage of the word yoke:
Do you not know, brethren--for I am speaking to those who know the law--that the law is binding on a person only during his life? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. –Romans 7:1-2
But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. –Romans 7:6
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them." –Galatians 3:10
Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. –Galatians 3:23
Paul’s descriptions of humanity’s bondage by the Law are congruent with the idea that Peter’s use of the word yoke is in reference to “an oppressive agency.” Paul makes it very clear through the Epistles that the Law which came to Moses and the Israelites kept us in bondage to our sins. We will see a great example of the Law’s captivity over humanity as we delve further into the record. We pick the record up in Acts 15:23.
"The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For 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. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." –Acts 15:23-29
Wow, it seems the Christian leaders of the time came together and made the right decision in this passage. Where exactly did zeal for the Law bring down the first century Church? To find the answer, we now turn to Galatians to finish the story.
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. –Galatians 2:11-16
This incident happened shortly after the meeting in Jerusalem as evidenced by the record in Acts 15:30, “So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch…” And here is where you can see the beginning of the end for the first Christian generation. The fear of exhibiting Lawlessness was so great that even a man as great as Peter was carried away from the Truth.
This understanding of the Law will take us into the modern day where will see that Christians. sadly, haven't changed much.
Yoke [Def. 3]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/yoke.
To be concluded in Condemnation Theology: An Enemy of Christian Preparation