Wrestling with God’s Law as Ceremonial, Civil, & Moral

In light of recent posts that have touched on the overarching structure of Scripture and how the OT and the NT properly interact, I’m curious…how do you all feel about the traditional division of the law (moral, ceremonial, civil), and how would you say it’s proper to determine that something from the OT does *not* carry over?

While there is significant preceding evidence that God entered into covenantal relationship with humans, at Sinai he specifically and exhaustively made clear—in a manner intended to be received by all who heard it, and to endure for all to come—that he intended to relate to mankind in a covenantal manner. He thus promised to be faithful to his chosen (elected) people, and they in turn were expected to obey his law or Torah. The law dictated the lifestyle of the people and reflected how a human was to relate to God, to others, to self and to material things (see McGonigle & Quigley, A History of the Christian Tradition from Its Jewish Origins to the Reformation, pg. 34).

To the degree that these laws directly reflected the nature of God in universal and timeless application these laws have never and will never be annulled. Laws of this nature have sometimes, helpfully, been called the moral law of God. Those laws appear in seemingly random places throughout Scripture and are variously summarized in multiple places and ways, including the 10 Commandments, the 2 Great Commandments, Micah 6:8, and elsewhere.

It is impossible to ignore the observable reality that within the Sinai legislation are laws peculiar to the situation of national Israel within the Land of Promise, ruled by judges and magistrates constrained by the Sinai legislation as their national law, and in the presence of a functioning Tabernacle/Temple system. Christian men have therefore sometimes quickly summarized those laws which endure with universal application as moral, those which apply specifically to the Temple system as ceremonial, and those which specifically direct the nation-state of Israel in the Land and governing themselves as civil. This shorthand description can function as a helpful categorization in aid to the complex process of deriving healthy, biblical application in diverse times and places.

To the degree that so-called ceremonial or civil laws reflect the character of God in a universally applicable manner, these laws remain binding in every age, though they do not, necessarily, direct all men in every place with specificity. So, all men everywhere are required to acknowledge God and no god before Him (Ex. 20:2-3), yet it is also true that all men everywhere are not mandated to redeem their firstborn son for the price of five shekels, to be given to the sons of Aaron (Num. 3:40-51).

There are several Reformation-era statements on these matters that are very helpful, especially when read as summary statements, reflecting extensive underlying exegetical work. Here are two that I especially like:

I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.

(Johannes Wollebius [1589-1629]), Compendium theologiae christianae)

VII. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

(39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

I’ve been giving this topic significant thought for several years now. In fact, I think I first mentioned it briefly in public at the 2013 New England Messianic Conference. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the topic recently because I think I’m finally making some progress in articulating something that will make sense to people. For a long time it was something I was intuiting, and I struggled to convey what I meant.

One thing I believe we should acknowledge is that the stereotypical response of pro-Torah people to this topic has not been well thought out, or sensitive to historical context. Among the Reformers and their early descendants (with some exceptions) references to the tripartite division of the Law were not meant to be rationale for how to escape the present applicability of God’s law, but used as a short-hand reference to figuring out how to apply God’s law. Unfortunately, being not well-informed on Reformation-era thought, too many have reacted against one sentence in the 19th chapter of the Westminster Confession (echoed in Chapter 19 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession), without being familiar with the broader context in which those statements were made.

I think we can all agree that figuring out how to apply God’s law to our contemporary situation is rarely easy. Just like “circumcision” had become shorthand for the proselyte conversion process in the 2nd Temple era, the division of the law into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories had become shorthand during the Reformation era and following for referring to the significant wrestling they had done to determine the manner in which God’s law should be applied in their time period.

But we read, “All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament,” and we freak out. Forgetting how precise these folks were in their working out of these concise statements. See, for example, the two quotes above.

There are at least four items of background we need to be aware of when considering this topic:

  1. For the Reformers, the reference to a tripartite categorization of God’s law was not a way to escape keeping God’s law, but a shorthand reference to textual exegesis focused on the manner in which his law should be kept.
  2. Over time, however, at least in practice if not in theology, this idea became a justification for why, essentially, nothing more than the 10 Commandments applied to contemporary Gentile believers.
  3. Dispensationalists seized on the complexity of the problem and the inevitable resulting inconsistency and said, “See, you can’t do this, it’s a unified whole and you must acknowledge that the entire thing has been done away with.”
  4. In reaction against the Dispensationalist’s view, which had increasingly influenced the practice, if not the theology, of Reformed people in the pews, Pro-Torah folks (ironically) insisted that the Dispensationalists were right and the law could not be categorized into parts, but must be accepted as a unified whole, but then in practice continued to inconsistently practice only those things which might be described as moral, while ignoring all those things which might apply to our congregational life (ceremonial) or political scene (civil).

It is time for us to stop reacting and to continue proactively articulating historically sensitive, theologically mature, biblically defensible, and eminently practical statements of our own. These will correct but not reject the overwhelmingly faithful line of reliable saints who have preceded us.

Baptism and the New Covenant in Brief

The New Covenant is the mechanism of delivery for the Gospel, which God preached beforehand to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3b; Gal 3:8).

Salvation is accorded to New Covenant participants who believe (Gen 15:6), and those individuals are described as the “sons of Abraham,” and comprise the many nations to whom Abraham is father.

The common features of God’s covenant/words/promise(s) to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 are that God will bless, God will multiply, and God will give the land, also that this will all be done through Abraham and his offspring.

Circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and was the sign feature of Abraham and his descendants “keeping” their obligation in this covenant relationship. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). The problem, of course, is that Abraham’s descendants don’t keep their side of the bargain; they neither walk blamelessly before God nor circumcise every male on the eighth day.

So long as this covenant depends on the actions of the human participants it is the Old Covenant (“All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Ex. 24:3 “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will hear/obey” Ex. 24:7 “circumcise your hearts” Dt 10:16) The key, however, is that God is going to keep the covenant, as is foretold in Deuteronomy, where before the book ends God has promised, “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Dt. 30:6).

As Jeremiah makes clear, the promise of the New Covenant is that God is going to circumcise their hearts, aka, “write [the law] on their hearts… for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:31-34). These are obvious descriptions of the details of the Gospel promise(s).

So, while circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant (“which you shall keep”), baptism becomes the sign of the circumcision of the heart. That sign—as is fitting of a superior covenant (Heb. 7:19, 22)—is applied not just to the men, but to every participant in the family of those descended from Abraham by faith.

In the same way as circumcision was given to all who were a part of the Old Covenant family, but it did not impart salvation, so the New Covenant sign is applied to all born into the New Covenant family, though the sign does not impart salvation.

How, someone might ask, do we know that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant?

First, because it is a sign of a spiritual act: the circumcision of the heart, rather than a physical act executed upon the old man. Second, because Paul states that we have been “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death so that we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). Third, because Peter writes that “baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Finally, because Paul tells us that “the circumcision of Jesus Christ is having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith,” which takes us right back to Abraham, who was credited righteousness because of faith, and whose descendants are those who believe—those “of faith.”

The inescapable conclusion is that baptism is the sign of New Covenant identification, which like the Old Covenant sign, is given both to new converts and the offspring of covenant participants. Like the Old Covenant sign, the New Covenant sign does not itself save but signifies the saving work of God through Christ.

The Definition of Sin

I recently listened to the guys from CrossPolitic converse with Greg Johnson, the pastor of the PCA church hosting the Revoice conference. I appreciated how hard they worked to convey a different perspective to their guest. As I listened, however, it became apparent that the fundamental difference dividing their thinking from that of their guest was the definition of sin. I think the CrossPolitics guys recognized this as well, but I would like to suggest that our definition needs to take one more step.

Yes, sin is missing the mark. Yes, sin is lawlessness, but I think more important today is the realization that sin is anything less than the glory of God. That mark of complete impossibility is what we must repent of. The law is a detailed explication of what the glory of God looks like in action; a description of the character of God in all its glory.

Pastor Johnson is struggling with the idea of asking folks to repent of something non-volitional (and there is much more that should be said on that topic), but if sin is understood biblically, we must all be repenting of falling short of the glory of God, not just of willful sins, but of the state of being a corrupted image.

Only then can we fully embrace the need to turn our hearts (and our feet, our lips, our eyes, etc.) away from anything but the glory of God, that consuming light where some sweet day we will once again be able to discern nothing detailed about the other except their being robed in the glory of God (and therefore be unashamed). O to no longer regard each other according to the flesh!

I love the Anglican confession that contains these three descriptors, reminding us that we “have sinned…through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.”1 Too often these days, we recognize only “deliberate” sins as sin, and while it is easy to agree that we were “conceived and born in iniquity and corruption” (to quote Calvin’s liturgy2), I suspect it puts the proper point on it to recognize and acknowledge that sin is falling short of the glory of God. Which of us Pharisees has the hubris to think we’ve met that standard?

Though I would set myself up for constant disappointment, I would like to hope that I never again hear that tired question/challenge: “Are you saying that _______ is a sin?” Yes, yes, I am; we are literally wallowing in sinfulness, and the Lord loves a broken spirit and a contrite heart; a heart that spends so much time gazing upon Christ that it realizes ever more fully how far short it falls, and therefore glories in the chesed (חֶסֶד )in which we move without condemnation, a heart that clings to the Father who knows our frame and remembers that we are but inglorious dust.

Footnotes

  1. Common Worship: Holy Communion | Confession
  2. Jonathan Gibson. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Kindle Locations 5792-5802). New Growth Press. Kindle Edition.

Letter to a Friend on Romans 14:14

The below is a letter to a friend written in response to a query regarding my understanding of Romans 14, and verse 14 in particular. I have removed situation specific particulars, but this is otherwise a faithful representation of the letter.

Thank you for honoring me with the opportunity to clarify.  Reading what follows will be a significant investment on your part, so I don’t take lightly your willingness to engage in this conversation. As I’m confident you can imagine, being willing to stand apart from the overwhelming majority of our Christian brethren on the matter of what we eat is a result of something not lightly considered, and a result of being convicted through years of study that it is not a light issue, but a major contributor to the inefficacy of our witness and inability to be salt and light to our culture. I venture to explain at this length because I am convinced that you also are equally desirous to serve God faithfully.

Having been convinced of this previously from Scripture, I have been fascinated to see in our lifetime the parallels between increasing sexual perversion and increasing obsession with what God calls unclean. Never before in history have shirts and hats proclaimed their dedication to bacon. Only in the extraordinarily decadent empires of history (and never to the degree we have taken it) has there been such a fascination with eating what has never previously been considered food, and we have likewise now surpassed even Rome in the depths of our sexual depravity. I have recognized over time that these things are not incidentally related.

Because it pains me to think “I’m right” in the face of so many legitimately godly people who disagree with me (my father and both grandfathers included, for whom I have enormous respect), and because it would otherwise unnecessarily differentiate my children from their friends (with both present and future consequences), I have on three occasions now gone back to reconsider from the ground up, whether the typical Christian perspective on this issue is correct. No one is entirely objective, but I have been diligent to presume the typical interpretation accurate, so as to read that perspective fairly. Of course, I also originally set out to disprove the conviction I now hold. On each occasion I have finally and reluctantly concluded that if one is willing to do the historical and exegetical work with an open mind to reading the Scriptures on their terms, there really is no other possible conclusion. I am fully cognizant, however, that most people do not have ready access to the details I will share below.

I spoke of two rules of hermeneutics. The first and easiest is to seek the controlling phrase, which establishes the context of a pericope, and is often found in the opening verse; as is the case, for example, in Mark 7 (the ritual washing of hands), Acts 15 (justification by circumcision/law keeping/ethnic conversion), and in Romans 14 (matters of opinion). This rule is often less helpful in prophetic passages, which can range all over the place, even sometimes within the same verse. Prophetic passages excepting, however, it is generally true that we need to seek the controlling phrase.

The second is much more difficult to wrestle with, but bears up under contemplation and investigation. The professor from whom I learned it said, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.”

My position on contradiction and change is something different from these two rules of hermeneutics.  First, God is immutable; his character never changes (Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17, etc.), and second, God (and therefore Scripture) never contradicts Himself (or itself). This does not mean that God doesn’t change instructions to mankind, but what we find is that case laws (specific applications of unchanging principles) are changed, and never moral laws, which are eternal because they reflect God’s character, which is eternal and unchanging. (This is inherent in the meaning of the word moral, which comes from the Latin mores, “customs or manners,” which change with society, but in the case of God are unchanging because He is immutable, i.e., God’s morals are ethical.)

In other words, adultery is not wrong because God flipped a coin and decided it would be so, but it could have been permissible had He decided otherwise. No, it is wrong because God cannot steal and cannot break his word; it would violate His character. Adultery has never been and will never be permissible; this is a moral law that cannot change. In the same manner, anything described by Scripture as “detestable” or an “abomination” is offensive to God’s nature and cannot change. Should a prophet/apostle have suggested that God changed his mind on one of these matters, he would have been rejected as a false prophet, on the basis of Deuteronomy 12:1-13:18, and very specifically of 12:32-13:5.

Deuteronomy 12-13 is an excellent place to practice discerning the case-specific from the enduring principle. I won’t do so here, but note that we find there instructions that guide our worship today, identify false prophets, and establish the second principle for recognition of Scripture (i.e., all subsequent potential scripture must agree with preceding Scripture or it is to be rejected).

So, God’s character does not change, though He may “change his mind,” (this, however, is an anthropomorphism, where something God does is explained in a manner that makes sense to mankind, while God knew from eternity what, for example, Moses and Abraham would say and what He would do as a result). Secondly, God does not contradict himself and Scripture does not contradict itself. This is not to deny that God makes changes in his instructions to mankind, and many examples could be given (e.g., where one is permitted to sacrifice), but these changes are always found to be modifications in application rather than revocations of principle.

So, if we were to take Genesis 9:3 or Romans 14:14 we are going to find something consistent with the meta-narrative of Scripture. Sometimes recognizing this is easy (e.g., Rom 14:14) and sometimes it is somewhat more difficult (e.g., Gen 9:3), but we can ferret out the intended meaning without doubt, if we are willing to submit to whatever Scripture actually says, regardless of what it might do to our present understanding or preferred system of interpretation. So let’s go there, and along the way we’ll hit Acts 10:9-29, and 1 Timothy 4:3-4.

There is no discussion in Romans 14 about whether it is okay to eat unclean meat, nor about whether we ought to keep the Sabbath. The context of the entire passage rules out the possibility of these two items being under discussion. For Paul and for his intended audience these are not matters of opinion; they are incontrovertibly declared by Scripture. And the rule of interpretation helpfully reminds us, “what it could not have meant to them, it cannot mean to us.”

I realize they are matters of opinion today, but we don’t interpret Scripture by contemporary opinion, but by exegesis of the text within its historical and scriptural context.

So let’s do that with Acts 10, because starting there becomes the key to instantly understanding Romans 14:14 (and the rest of the passage). Before we go there, recall that none of the passages which are now taken to suggest God changed his mind about clean/unclean meat (and the Sabbath) had even been written at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. No one held what is today’s popular opinion regarding clean/unclean meat at the time. So the situation is analogous to the following: I am preparing to write you a letter in which I will reveal that God has changed His mind about whether homosexuality is permissible… do you think I will treat that revelation as an aside, as a “matter of opinion,” or will that be a major focus of my letter? How will your opinion of my legitimacy as a prophet from God be affected by that letter? Will you canonize my letter or reject it?

I wrote an actual letter on Acts 10 some years ago to another friend, so I will attach that here. As you ponder the explanation of Acts 10, keep in mind that in Romans 14:14, the word rendered “unclean” is κοινὸν (koinon), which does not mean “unclean,” but “common” or “profane.” This is one of only two places in the KJV New Testament where κοινὸν is rendered “unclean,” and the other occasion (Hebrews 9:13) incontrovertibly confirms my claim, for it should also not be rendered “unclean” but “common, profane, or impure,” as it refers specifically to ceremonial impurity (as opposed to akathartos, which describes morally unclean).  Read on as κοινὸν will feature significantly in Acts 10… (transition to attached pdf).

_____________________________________________

 

Okay… (assuming you have digested the thoughts on Acts 10), we now see that the issue of whether something (or someone) was considered κοινὸν/common, is a matter of tradition… or “opinions”, above and beyond the Scripture’s requirement, which actually accords with the controlling context of Romans 14, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” So rather than having a verse which overturns (at that time) 3000 years of accepted Scriptural authority in a passing comment, what we actually have is Paul saying—in agreement with the surrounding context— that while nothing is common in and of itself, if someone considers it to be common then for that person it is… therefore do not offend their conscience. Please note, furthermore, that the entire pericope is not talking about relaxing Scriptural injunctions (in that case Matthew 5:17-20 would apply and invalidate Paul’s comment), but about issues where an individual goes further than Scripture requires.

Romans 14:14 is typically read as if Paul was suddenly—in the middle of a passage about people who are stricter than Scripture itself—relaxing one of God’s major prohibitions—contra Jesus who specifically prohibited such a thing, and yet we believe that this is something Jesus taught Paul in Antioch or in Arabia. This makes absolutely no sense—and yet we do it. It may be the most common and most egregious instance of eisegesis vs. exegesis ever seen. The preconditioning required speaks volumes about the capacity of human nature to read through selective lenses—and we all do it; I am as guilty as another. I have been repeatedly struck by the grace of God to open our eyes only to that which we are ready to see. O how we depend upon the truth that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus!”  Would that we would come to understand what it means to, “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit!” “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be…But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit”… and therefore are subject to the law of God, which is, “fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”

So…

  1. Romans 14:14 does not say, “there is nothing unclean of itself”
  2. it would violate the logic of the passage, if it did say that
  3. it would have been rejected by the hearers and caused Paul to be rejected as a legitimate apostle if he had said that.

To go back to something you said, is it possible to imagine that someone could engage in homosexuality “to the Lord”? The idea is first unthinkable, but secondly directly contradicts the flow of logic in Romans 14, as I’ve explained above. And this is the scenario Paul’s readers found themselves in—as we feel/think about homosexuality, so they thought about eating unclean meat. And now the legitimacy of the interpretive maxim is revealed: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.

Finally, and this will take us to Genesis 9:3 and 1 Timothy 4:3-4. Notice how Paul uses “Nothing” in Romans 14:14. It is a universal indicative that is not truly universal: it presumes first the statements of God and is inclusive of “all” but the previously precluded. We find this often throughout Scripture. Thou shalt not work on the Sabbath, period…but the priests are specifically instructed to do so in the Tabernacle/Temple. “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die” (Lev 16:2) …except for the specific time and manner about which I will now instruct him.

Similarly, when God says, “Every moving thing…” we are expected to understand that this doesn’t include the blowfish, which is poisonous, nor the unclean animals which if you were to eat one of the single pair available would eradicate the species. Notice the next word, “even as the green herb” which were also “all” given, except of course those that were poisonous, and except of course, from the Tree of Life.  So, when we read “everything created” in 1 Timothy 4:3-4, we have to read it in the context of the surrounding verses, and in the context of the entire Scripture, knowing that nothing Paul says will contradict what God has already established.

It should be obvious from the surrounding verses what Paul has in mind here; for once again, he is describing extra-biblical strictures, “forbidding to marry and abstaining from food.” So, as you said earlier, is it possible to eat that which God has forbidden “to the Lord” or “if it be received with thanksgiving?”

Let’s apply the logic that is often used to read this passage in another context and see how well it works.

“For every woman God created is good, and no women is to be refused, if she be received with thanksgiving: For she is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”

True, every woman God created is good (Gen 1:31), but this doesn’t mean all women may be received with thanksgiving, for that would violate God’s prohibition.

I hope this has been helpful in revealing the logic I was using, and explains a bit more about how we approach Scripture and life. Even more, I hope it was convincing, and if it was not, I would love to hear why not.

Warm regards,

 

Nathan

Understanding Acts 10

Hi, Nathan.

I was wondering if I might dialogue with you about biblical ideas or concepts I am trying to work out from time to time. In short, since completing Called to Obedience and reading Crazy Love a few years ago, I am reading the Bible with “fresh eyes”. There are things in the Bible I read now, which in the past I would have skimmed over or dismissed as irrelevant in our day and age. But now, I struggle with them. For instance Acts 10, Acts 15:29, or 1 Timothy 2:12 (or 1 Cor. 14:34). I value your opinion as someone who thinks hard on such matters, and tries to not let our culture and norms influence Biblical interpretation and application.

Let’s talk about food. What’s in – what’s out? This should be fun, as I know you’ve made dietary choices based upon your understanding of Scripture, and so I’m sure you’ve given it significant study.

In Acts 10, it appears God gives Peter instructions to put away his cultural foibles about clean and unclean food, specifically meat … what say you?

Ted

Well, I like to begin with what is clear and work toward the more difficult, so what better place to begin than 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (HCSB)

…“continue” suggests continuity with what has gone before, especially given the emphasis, “that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures.” This is clearly a reference to what we know as the Old Testament, so when Paul goes on to say that “all” Scripture is profitable/useful for “teaching, rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness,” I am struck that I must wrestle with how to apply what we now call the Old Testament, but the original reader would have known as their only Scriptures. Dr. Ben Witherington III writes, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.” (The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism. Kindle Locations 45-46)

Furthermore, I’ve become convinced of this truth, well-articulated by J.I. Packer:

“Keep two truths in view. First, God’s law expresses his character. It reflects his own behavior; it alerts us to what he will love and hate to see in us. It is a recipe for holiness, consecrated conformity to God, which is his true image in man. And as such (this is the second truth) God’s law fits human nature. As cars, being made as they are, only work well with gas in the tank, so we, being made as we are, only find fulfillment in a life of law- keeping. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.”

(Growing in Christ, Originally Published: I Want to Be a Christian. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, c1977. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994, 232.)

So…now I must wrestle with how to apply the law of God as found throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. This, I can attest, is no easy task, but a lifelong endeavor fully dependent upon grace and mercy!

As it relates to understanding what Acts 10 says or seems to say, I am bound to figure out how it works with and does not contradict the sense in which Leviticus 11 expresses the character of God. To be more specific, Leviticus 11 suggests that the reason we are to separate the tamei (unclean/defiling) from the tahor (clean/pure) is because, “For I am the LORD your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy….” (Lev 11:44), suggesting that this issue goes to the core of our identity—God-imitating, holy people.

Further complicating the issue, Lev 11 suggests that consuming these tamei creatures is an abomination (detestable/abhorrent). Why does this further complicate things? Because an abomination is something abhorrent to our very nature, suggesting that the food laws cannot be a ceremonial law! On this point, it is interesting to note Revelation 21:27; speaking of the New Jerusalem, John records: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. “ Suggesting that the categories of clean/unclean, detestable, etc. are still very much in force at the launch of the world to come.

If we make a list of the things God calls abominable it becomes very clear that something which is detestable cannot change: child sacrifice, bestiality, necromancy, hands that shed innocent blood, a lying tongue, homosexuality, sowing discord among brothers, the wages of a prostitute, money earned by betting on dog fighting, etc. We find it impossible to imagine that a single other thing categorized in Scripture as an abomination could change to suddenly being okay. And this is appropriate, for anyone who suggested such a thing would have to be rejected as a false prophet (see Deut. 12-13) and remember Dr. Witherington’s first rule of interpretation). Which leads us to quite a problem because several passages in the New Testament, including Acts 10, seem to clearly indicate that God changed His mind about whether certain meats were to be considered abominable. How can this be?

As an aside, so as not to be distracted by whether or not the clean/unclean foods were specific to the Sinai legislation, note that Noah was aware of which animals could be eaten and/or sacrificed and which could not. This is why he takes a pair of all unclean animals and 7 pairs of all clean animals (Genesis 7:2).

So this leads us, finally, to Acts 10, where upon reading the actual text, we don’t find what we’ve all been under the impression it says. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, as I did, have a mental picture—likely derived from a children’s bible story book—of a sheet full of unclean animals descending from the clouds above Peter, when in fact the text says:

“and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” Acts 10:11-12 (ESV)

“…and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.” (NASB)

So this was a sheet filled not just with unclean animals, but all kinds, both clean and unclean, as biblically defined. This will be important, because we are about to encounter a culturally rather than biblically-defined category.

“And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said,

‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.'” Acts 10:13-14 (ESV)

There are a couple things to consider here. First, if the sheet was filled with clean and unclean animals, why would Peter think God was telling him to eat an unclean animal? Imagine if God gave you a vision of a room full of women, your wife included, and said, “Rise, go and take a woman.” Would it even occur to you to imagine that God meant for you to take any woman but your wife? Of course not, because “thou shalt not commit adultery” is ingrained into your psyche. Likewise with Peter; in fact, Peter had even gone above and beyond.

What is the deal with Peter’s comment, “I have never eaten anything that is koinos/common or akathartos/unclean.”? Akathartos is the Greek word referring to something biblically defined as tamei/unclean, morally unclean. Koinos (a word you might recognize from koinonia/fellowship) is a category unfamiliar to us, but very familiar to Peter or any other observant Jew of Jesus’ day. It referred to a biblically clean animal considered to have become profane or common (as opposed to holy/set apart) by virtue of coming in contact with a biblically unclean animal (or unfit for Temple use, though not an unclean animal). This was a category extended to personal application outside of the Temple precinct by cultural tradition, not by biblical mandate.

Peter replies to God’s command to rise and eat by protesting, “But God, not only do I not eat unclean meat (obviously), but I’ve also always refrained from eating anything common, just to be extra careful.” This clean meat, in other words, became guilty by association in the minds of first century Jews.

Now again we come to a phrase where we are under the impression that God makes one statement, when in fact, He says something different. Acts 10:15 is even rendered to give such an impression in some translations.

“And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Acts 10:15 (ESV)

Because we are unfamiliar with the first century categories of unclean and common, we read this passage as if God said, “What God has made (i.e., “changed to” instead of “created originally”) clean/tahor/katharos do not call unclean/tamei/akathartos.” But this is simply not what God said, it is something we read into the passage!

This is about to make a whole lot more sense! So this happens three times and then the sheet is pulled up to heaven and Peter is left perplexed. And while he is pondering the Spirit speaks to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.” This is God’s explanation of what the vision meant. Peter understands; in fact, he has three Scriptural occasions to explain what the vision meant and he never mentions food, but somehow this fact escapes us!

First explanation:

“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” Acts 10:28-29 (ESV)

Please note that nowhere in the Torah does it say it is “unlawful” for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, rather this was another tradition that had been added to God’s law; probably with good motivation, which is why God himself came to Peter to explicitly instruct him to ignore the tradition and not to “call any person common or unclean.” I hope you’re beginning to see that food in this passage is nothing more than a metaphor and the topic at hand was people, not food.

The second opportunity for Peter to explain what the vision meant is in Acts 11:1-18. After relaying the same exact story as we’ve just read in chapter 10, note both Peter’s summary of God’s instruction and the summary conclusion of those who listened:

“And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.” (11:12)

“When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” (11:18)

Again, the message is about Gentile inclusion, about people…nothing about any change to the food laws.

Peter’s third explanation is in the context of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The topic under discussion was how the Gentiles might be saved.

“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a 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, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11 (ESV)

So, what is Acts 10 about? The people of God were told to be holy by making distinctions, between what was holy and unholy, what was clean and unclean, etc. They were, indeed, to be distinct themselves, to be a set apart people by virtue of imitating God’s character. For centuries, they had followed God’s command to distinguish between what God created tahor/clean and what he created tamei/unclean…in other words what animals He made for food and what animals He did not consider food. They had extended the command to distinguish between clean and unclean foods to distinguishing between clean, common, and unclean foods. They had further extended this practice of distinction to people, considering the non-Jewish people either unclean or common (which, in fact, they often were, because of their not practicing the law), but the folks gathered at Cornelius’ home were God-fearers: Gentiles who had voluntarily taken upon themselves the practices of the Torah to the degree it was practical or they were allowed, and God needed to make sure that Peter’s conscientiousness did not prevent him from going with the messengers from Cornelius. Where, in fact, God wanted to demonstrate that He would make no distinction between the Jews and Gentiles, but would give the Gentiles the Holy Spirit by faith, just as he had to the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

It is clear that the text of Acts 10 doesn’t say what we are given to thinking it says, and it is clear that Peter did not understand the vision to mean what we are given to thinking it means. Therefore, there is no longer any problem in reconciling Leviticus 11 and Acts 10, and I am now left to ponder Mark 7:19, Romans 14, specifically verse 14, and Colossians 2:16-17. Do they mean what we’ve so commonly thought?

How to Understand the Civil Laws of God

As is often the case, someone’s question caused me to articulate rather better than I would have otherwise. I think this explanation is worth everyone digesting…

Original Statement:

The Bible doesn’t specify lots about civil society. Don’t fall into the Islamic trap here.

Response:

The Bible specifies most all details of civil society as principle, with case law examples, which may be applied as appropriate based on time and location.

This is most eloquently expressed in The 39 Articles of Religion: 

VII. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

THE Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Note that it does not say they are not good for society, but that they need not be received in any commonwealth, “of necessity.”

Q: I’m not following this as a rebuttal of the previous comment.  It isn’t inspired scripture and it’s stating that we’re not bound by the ceremonies, rites, and civil laws but the moral commandments only.

A: Thank you for pointing out the need to clarify! I didn’t quote the 39 Articles as if they are inspired, but as if they explain well… which they do, if you are familiar with them and how they work. First, it should be noted that these were written in 1563, so the manner of expression is somewhat different from today. Secondly, they are a master of nuanced communication.

So, for example, note that they say, “nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.” This is to say, that while they might be beneficial (and, indeed, are) there is no mandate for contemporary commonwealths (as opposed to Bronze Age Israel) to adopt the precise expression of the civil precepts, as such. Rather, while the Moral laws are obligatory for every Christian, the civil precepts are to be considered prescriptive so far as they touch on moral law, but are not be considered obligatory en toto for contemporary commonwealths. See the difference? While the civil laws of Torah establish moral principles for civil government, they are not to be considered—in their specific application for Bronze Age Israel—as of mandatory necessity for adoption by Japan or the United States. But they do, nevertheless, describe and establish what is moral and immoral in terms of what civil government should look like.

To state the same yet another way: no one is to demand the wholesale and details-specific importation of civil case law from Torah to contemporary government as obligatory, but they should look to the civil laws of Torah as establishing and descriptive of what is right and what is wrong as it pertains to how civil government should function.

So, we don’t mandate that all new homes be built with parapets around their roof, as this is no longer specifically applicable, but we do fashion laws that take their example from this case law. Therefore, it is biblical to make a law saying all new backyard swimming pools should be built with a fence, unbiblical to fine a homeowner for not doing so, and biblical to punish that same negligent homeowner if someone from the neighborhood drowns in his pool, because he did not put up a fence.  Make sense?

One might easily surmise how this biblical principle would apply to the Philando Castile case.

In the King’s Army

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  1 Corinthians 15:56-58

Imagine a lengthy campaign to displace enemy forces and occupy the Asian theatre. Imagine, if you will, the plans made by the Joint Chiefs. Now imagine a solitary lieutenant of a single platoon stranded on a specific island with dwindling supplies who somehow comes into possession of a page from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Operation Order. Imagine his disillusionment as he reads the assigned objective: invade and occupy the continent of Asia. He can’t even get off the beach and they are telling him to conquer an entire land mass of nations. The grand plan seems wholly unrealistic. Discouraged by his present situation, he may even lose the will to get to the top of the next sand dune.[1]

As servant-soldiers in our King’s army this may be the situation we often find ourselves in. Facing seemingly repeated and unending defeat in our personal lives, we quail at the thought of the grand mission assigned to us. This perspective, however, reveals the consequences of the individualistic focus bequeathed to us by the baptistic perspective which has come to dominate the conservative landscape of North American Christians.

Men who are at war with themselves, and resentful of life and its requirements, are not able to command the future: they cannot even command themselves. –R.J. Rushdoony

When entering the Armed Forces, individual recruits go through a process of being broken down and then rebuilt, no longer as a mass of individuals, but now as a cohesive unit with each person thinking of themselves as a cog in the wheel of their collective mission. Having focused in on individual responsibility to decide for themselves and be baptized as a sign of their decision, we have largely lost this concept of being part of the Body of Christ, who is our Commander-in-Chief. As a result, we are taking no territory for our King. Too rarely is even the land of our own lives fruitful for the Kingdom; almost never are we conquering Canaan.

Implicit problems, however, with the Anabaptist view of the covenant have consistently taken Baptistic thought into Pelagianism.  Anabaptist theology individualizes the covenant. Consequently the covenant becomes subject oriented. Once that happens, the problems involved with subjectivism, mentioned earlier, cannot be prevented.” (emphasis mine) [2]

And therein the problem! Believer’s Baptism emphasizes the decision of the individual to the detriment of a focus on the Covenant Body, while deprecating the sovereign, solely capable, saving action of God. This has inexorably led to the completely out-of-control individualism of contemporary American Christianity. Why could the early Separatists and the Puritans pull off what they did in the colonies? Because they practiced infant baptism, and even if they were Baptists, they still held the residual perspective of the whole, rather than the over-arching autonomy of the individual, which has now utterly undermined the stability of America.

Look at the total inability of the Messianic movement to interoperate, and it becomes quickly apparent that a rescue of the covenantal perspective of circumcision/infant baptism is a desperately needed antidote to the presuppositional baptistic perspective of the majority of North American Christians, and almost all people of a Messianic persuasion. Tie this to objective rather than subjective salvation (and sanctification) and I am growing in my suspicion that “Reformed Baptist” (or Believer’s Baptism Messianic) might be the greatest oxymoron of the American era.


[1] I’m indebted to Jim Wilson in Principles of War: A Handbook on Strategic Evangelism (p. 14) for this illustration.

[2] Ray R. Sutton, “The Baptist Failure” in James B. Jordan, ed. The Failure of American Baptist Culture: Christianity & Civilization, No. 1. Paducah, KY: Geneva Divinity School, 1982, p. 157.