Freed From Bondage

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:1-3, NKJV throughout; emphasis mine).

The Scripture verse  quoted above has been used by many Bible students to prove that Jesus Christ has freed everyone who would believe in Him, from a “yoke of bondage.” And that “yoke”:  the keeping of the “whole law” of God.  Therefore, as the understanding of many goes, the keeping of the law – and particularly the law in the Old Testament, starting with the law on circumcision – is bondage. Thus, for any preacher to insist on imposing the law of God on a person who wants to come to God would, supposedly, be to bring that person into bondage.

The whole issue of circumcision – especially as it related to the “uncircumcised” (Greeks, Romans and other non-Israelites) who were coming to faith in Christ during the early days of the Christian Church – had become such a sticking point that it called for a conference of church leaders at that time, in order to resolve the issue. This watermark event, held in Jerusalem, is recorded in Acts 15.

Certain Jewish converts to the Christian faith had gone around telling the Gentile converts: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). It is quite probable that these Jewish brethren had reached the Christians in Galatia and had confused them as to what the true gospel of salvation really was (Galatians 1:6-9; 5:1-6, 11; 6:12-15). Thus, the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to clarify the issue about circumcision and its relation to the law of God, justification, Christian liberty, and salvation. The issue had been so pervasive in the churches in the other Gentile areas that Paul also tackled it in his letters to the Christian brethren in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and Colossae.

After all the church leaders in conference had discussed the issue back and forth, the apostle Peter (being the chief apostle) gave the inspired decision that was to be implemented throughout the entire congregations of the Church of God. Finally, the other leading apostles and elders sent out letters, based on their consensus after Peter’s decision, to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23-29), excerpted below:

Since we have heard that some who went out from us have  troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” – to whom we gave no such commandment – it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than those necessary things; that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

From this “circular” letter which was probably also read in other congregations of the Gentile converts (as Paul indicates about his letters; see Colossians 4:16),  it is clear that Gentile converts were not to be required to be circumcised, nor to “keep the law” – except for “those necessary things” listed.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses the words and phrases like “the law,” “works of the law,” “through the law,” “by the law,” “of the law,” “under the law” and “the whole law” to refer, apparently, to “the law” mentioned in that circular – except in three or four instances, as I will explain. Let’s keep in mind that these words and phrases are all wrapped up in the issue of circumcision, justification, and salvation.

Why a “yoke of bondage?”

After the church leaders’ discussions on the issue of circumcision, the apostle Peter remarked as he concluded the matter: “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples [the Gentile converts] which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10)?

What “yoke” was Peter referring to which he considered unbearable to the Jews then, as well as to their forebears? Was circumcision that yoke which they could not bear? Certainly that was part of it. But Peter must have had in mind something weightier than merely circumcision as the bulk of that yoke.

When we consider the Jews, in fact, taking pride in their being circumcised as a “badge” of God’s special, sanctified [or “set apart” as “holy”] people, it is hard to think that the Jews or Israelites would take circumcision as a “yoke” they could not bear. Certain Jewish converts were actually so gung-ho about circumcision that they wanted Gentile converts to be in on the “badge” too!

In putting a closure on the dispute about circumcision, Peter concluded: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles [the uncircumcised] should hear the word of the gospel and believe [see the story in Acts 10 and 11]. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us [the circumcised] and them [Acts 10:44-47], purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:-9).

What is there about “purifying their hearts” – other than by faith – that would have been so burdensome a “yoke” as to have been unbearable to the Jews? What is it in the law of God that made purifying the heart such a heavy burden?

In the first place, why is there a need for the heart to be purified? Why, simply because the human heart is impure!  Paul says, “Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12;  see also 3:23;  6:23). [See:  Your Eyes Will Be Opened!”] And sin, simply put, is transgressing the law of God (1 John 3:4, especially KJV), in a similar manner that crime is the violation of the law of man.

Since Paul was himself in that same Jerusalem conference with Peter (Acts 15:2, 12, 22), they both understood what the “yoke” carried with it. It is the same “yoke” that Peter referred to which Paul also mentions in his letter to the Galatians, whose puzzlement over the circumcision issue might probably have precipitated that conference.

What yoke in the “whole law” was unbearable?

The entire law of God – which includes laws that define the righteous way to worship God and to love one’s neighbor – cannot be considered all a “yoke” of bondage.

Take, for example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17). God also gave Israel statutes that were an elaboration of these Ten Commandments. Moses reminded the Israelites, in Deuteronomy 6:24, of God’s good intent for His law: “And the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day.”

God’s statutes and judgments, when observed by the Israelites, were to be their wisdom and understanding “in the sight of the [Gentile] people who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6). How could these be a “yoke of bondage” when they were in the Israelites’ favor?

Contrary to Moses’ inspired view of God’s law and statutes, many people consider the Ten Commandments a burdensome “yoke.” Some even call it “The Terrible Ten.” Much more would they consider God’s statutes an added burden. But that is exactly how the “carnal” or “earthly” mind reacts to God’s law: enmity or hostility (Romans 8:7) – as Adam and Eve rejected God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit, in the Garden of Eden. The carnal mind thinks that God’s commandments are a burdensome yoke. But God says otherwise!

1 John 5:2-3 says that we love God when we keep His commandments, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments…” And notice the rest of verse 3:  “And His commandments are not burdensome.”

The apostle Peter, therefore, could not have been referring to the Ten Commandments, as well as the statutes that elaborate on how we are to love God and love our neighbor, as the burdensome “yoke” that “neither we nor our fathers could bear.” These are the laws and commandments that define, from God’s perspective, what sin is – and what righteousness is (Romans 7:7).

How, for example, can the Second Commandment (against making a carved image to worship and serve it) be “burdensome” when, in fact, it promises that God will show His mercy to thousands of generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments particularly this second one (Exodus 20:4)?

And again, how can the Fifth Commandment (to honor one’s parents) be burdensome, when God promises to reward those who obey it with long life (Exodus 20:12) – and that it will be well with them (Ephesians 6:1-3)?

How can the keeping of God’s Sabbath day be a burden when, in Isaiah 56:1-2, God callsblessed” the man – the “son of man” — (not just an Israelite) who keeps justice and does righteousness, “who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil?”

In Isaiah 58:13-14, God also promises to one who would “call the Sabbath a delight” [not a burden!] this handsome reward: “Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth [symbolic of prominence among nations], and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father?” The “heritage of Jacob” is the same one passed on to him by his father Isaac, from his grandfather Abraham (Genesis 28:1-4;  17:19, 21;  17: 4-8;  12:1-3, 7;  13:14-16, etc.).  [See: What If the Sabbath Is Still Holy?]

Paul referred to this law of God, which he described as “spiritual…holy…just and good” (Romans 7:14, 12). This law cannot be a “yoke of bondage” to anyone but a carnal, not spiritual, mind!

When we do sin, as everyone does in this mortal life (1 John 1:8; Romans 3:23), we earn the penalty of death (Romans 6:23). But in His enduring mercy, God has provided an effective means for us sinners to be “saved” from our sins – to be “purified,” “justified” or “made right” before God, as we shall see later.

Circumcision and purification

Peter pointed out that the Gentiles who had come to believe in Jesus were “purified by faith” even though they had not been circumcised – in the same way that the circumcised Jews who believed in Jesus were also purified by faith. In this Peter and Paul agree:  God justifies the ungodly (sinner) – whether circumcised or uncircumcised – by faith (Romans 4:5-12). Faith – not circumcision – is the crucial element in one’s being purified or justified from sin, in one’s being forgiven of sin.

In the history of the nation of Israel, time and time again God found the Israelites lacking in faith. God called them an unbelieving, stiff-necked, rebellious people or nation (Exodus 32:9;  33:3, 5;  Deuteronomy 9:6, 13;  Isaiah 30:9;  65:2;  Ezekiel 2:3, 5; etc.). They rejected the law of God, exchanged Him for pagan gods, and followed pagan ways. Some of the very few who did have faith are mentioned in Hebrews 11 (what we might call the “hall of faith”).

Because of the faithless Israelites’ sins or transgressions (against God’s commandments), God added another set of laws to serve as a temporary, “remedial” measure before the real and effective solution to sin – Jesus Christ — would appear (Galatians 3:19, 24). These added laws comprised the whole sacrificial system God gave to Israel. [See: Law Added to Law Transgressed.] The fact that these laws were added means that they were not originally given to Israel. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, told the Israelites: “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22).

These sacrifices for sin were indeed a burden most Israelites and Jews could not bear! Just imagine the material or financial burden of making a sin offering out of one’s own flock or herd every time an Israelite sinned. The more a person sinned (as is very likely with human beings), the more animals he would have to sacrifice! Leviticus 4 through 7 gives the details of the kinds and number of animals to be sacrificed for sins or trespasses.

Yet, for all these expenditures – not to mention the hard labor of those Levites who were tasked to kill and offer the sacrificial animals – the people’s sins were not really blotted out. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Sinners only experienced “the purifying of the flesh” — not the conscience or the inner person (Hebrews 10:13). These sacrifices, prescribed by the law, were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” The reality was then yet to come – and it did come — in Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)! He appeared on earth once, “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself;” He “was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:26, 28). We will discuss more about this later.

How did the Old Testament men and women of faith receive forgiveness, when Jesus Christ had not yet been sacrificed as the Lamb of God? 

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel,  Joseph, Moses, David and the prophets of the Old Testament times are among those mentioned in the “Faith Chapter” (Hebrews 11). They had faith by which they were “justified” — forgiven of their sin.

How was this possible, when Christ had not yet come to be offered for the forgiveness of their sin, and the sin of the whole world? And forgiveness comes only through the blood and resurrection of Christ.

King David had the key to understanding how he and the other men and women of faith in the Old Testament received forgiveness from God. In his great Psalm of repentance, David said to God: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).

David understood what true repentance is: turning away from disobedience to God’s law [which is an act of sin] and obeying that law wholeheartedly. This is something which the vast majority of the children of Israel — and all of mankind, for that matter — failed to do.

Revelation 13:8 describes Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Although the God of the Old Testament had not appeared as the Lamb of God, He had been as though slain since the beginning of human society. And this is because,  in His sovereign power and will, God looks at things that He has willed as already existing even though they have not yet taken place (Romans 4:17).

It appears, then, that God “advanced” to David and the other Old Testament men and women of faith the forgiveness that is possible only through the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why David and the rest of his fellow-believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit — even the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Psalm 51:11;  1 Peter 1:10-12). Having thus “died in Christ,” they will in fact rise, in the resurrection to everlasting life at Christ’s return, ahead of those true Christians who remain alive at that time (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). [See: Moses and Jesus — Are They Contraries?]

Additional burdens

Not only did the Law of Moses prescribe animal sacrifices for sins or trespasses; the law also prescribed specific penalties for various kinds of sins or trespasses. Exodus 21 through 22 outlines these penalties: death (usually by stoning) for capital sin; restitution for stolen animals and other properties; compensation for bodily harm or damage done, etc. These were indeed heavy burdens for the people who sinned and were subject to these judgments.

The Law of Moses also contains various requirements to wash oneself and/or one’s clothes whenever one became ritually “unclean” (Leviticus 11:24-39;  15:1-33). While there is apparently some hygienic value in these washings, they are able to cleanse only the flesh, not the conscience (Hebrews 9:9-10).

These and the various sacrifices were the “added” part – the “yoke” that was burdensome and found “hard to bear” by the older generations of Israelites – in the Law of Moses. Because this law carried the death penalty for capital sins, this part of the Law of Moses has been attributed to Moses’ “ministry of death” or “condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7).

Liberty in Christ

In contrast to Moses, Jesus Christ came with “the ministry of the Spirit” and of “righteousness” (2 Corinthians 3:8-9). With that Spirit – that “Spirit of life — given “to those who are in Christ Jesus,” He has made them “free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2), for “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Before Christ came with His ministry of the Spirit and of righteousness, the sinful Israelites (as indeed all others of sinful mankind), had been “under the law” – the law under this ministry of death that Moses brought. This law was directed toward sinners – not toward the righteous or obedient (1Timothy 1:8-11). The Israelites’ complying with the law of circumcision, the sacrifices and compensation for sin comprised the “works of the law” which the Israelites and the Jews did, but which did not justify them – did not purge their conscience. The only way for them to be redeemed or purchased back from the death penalty for their sin is through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God – Jesus the Messiah – which was foreshadowed by those animal sacrifices.

Peter told the Israelites and Jews that they were redeemed “from your aimless [sinful] conduct received by tradition from your fathers…with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Paul told both Jewish and Gentile Christians: “In Him [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Paul also said: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:8-9).

Through His sacrifice, Jesus Christ fulfilled what circumcision and the sacrificial laws could only foreshadow but could not achieve, for man’s justification or purification from sin. As Galatians 3:24 declares, “Therefore the law [the “added” law] was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

By God’s grace – by God’s favor, as God chooses and wills (Romans 9:15, 18) – a man is freely justified or forgiven through Christ and is freed or liberated from the bondage of sin and its consequence, death.  And that is possible only by faith or belief and trust in that sacrifice. A man cannot be justified by the “works of the law” – by complying with the added law of sacrifices and purification alone, without faith.

True “circumcision” in Christ

In his other letters Paul gives us a deeper understanding of the relationship between circumcision and purification – not through physical circumcision and complying with the “purification” rites of the Law of Moses, but through Christ.

“In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands [not by any human hands], by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven all your trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us [particularly those judgments requiring the death penalty]. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:11-14).

Paul’s message to the Colossians about being “buried with Him in baptism” ties in with Paul’s message in Romans 6:2-6, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism unto death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.”

It is our faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that justifies and purifies us of sin, and liberates us from the bondage of sin and death. That sacrifice is something Christ did for us – not we for ourselves! Even our faith in Christ is a gift from God!  No man can come to Christ – or to true faith in Christ — unless God the Father draws that man to Christ (John 6:44, 65). [See: Predestination.]

Righteousness through “the law”

Paul’s writings about “the law” have been the subject of much controversy and misunderstanding. Peter warned that Paul’s letters did indeed contain “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

One of such “things hard to understand” is Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:21, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” Earlier, in verse 17, Paul mentioned being “justified by Christ” – in other words, being made righteous by Christ. Again, this has to do with the “mechanics” of being justified, forgiven – made righteous.

“The law” that was the added, temporary means to “justify” the sinner (in contrast to Christ’s sacrifice) was about animal sacrifices and penalties the sinner was to offer or pay. Paul says that, to trust in that “law” (along with circumcision) in order to justify oneself – what he also called “the works of the law” – was to cause Christ (His sacrifice) to be of no profit or benefit at all (Galatians 5:2). To do so would be to consider Christ as having died in vain.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about two kinds of laws. As I said earlier, most of the phrases where “law” is mentioned refer to this added, temporary law of sacrifices pointing to Christ’s supreme sacrifice. The few instances where by “law” Paul meant that law of God that defines sin and righteousness are the following:

  • Galatians 3:10 — “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse [sinners have whatever appropriate penalty or “curse” for their sin]; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Here “the book of the law” refers to that law that is violated and thus brings on whatever curse. The “works of the law” – the doing of the “added” law on sacrifices – do not really remove the curse for sin and thus sinners who resort to these works are still “under the curse.”

Christ took upon Himself the curse of death that should rightfully be ours as sinners, so “that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Thus forgiven (justified, purified) in Christ, we have been liberated from the bondage of sin and the curse of death, and we become heirs to the same promises God made to faithful Abraham. The first blessing Abraham received, through faith, was the forgiveness of his sins – justification (Romans 4:1-8). The ultimate blessing God promised Abraham was for him to inherit the land God showed him, to be a father of many nations, and for his children to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 17:4-8).

  • Galatians 4:21 — “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” In the latter “law” we have an alternate “label” for the Word of God in general. In the following verses Paul alludes to the story of Abraham and Sarah from the Book of Genesis and a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah. This is similar to the way Jesus Christ mentioned “your law” to the Jews or “their law” while referring to a passage in the Psalms (John 10:34;  Psalm 82:6;  John 15:25;  Psalm 69:4).
  • Galatians 5:14 – “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” This is the same “law” that Jesus spoke about, in that incident recorded in Matthew 22:34-40.
  • Galatians 6:2 – “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus Christ spoke about that “law” (Galatians 5:14;  Matthew 22:34-40) as a part of His law. He summed up the essence of the Old Testament this way: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them [many have called this “The Golden Rule”], for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). [See: The Law of Christ.]

God’s law not voided by faith

In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul made it clear and certain that faith does not abrogate or make void the “law” of God which we just referred to above. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31).

Further, in Romans 6:1-2, Paul makes another positive statement about that law: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin [transgressing or disobeying God’s law] that grace may abound?  Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” And, in verse 15, Paul adds: “What then? Shall we sin [violate God’s law] because we are not under law but under grace?” His answer: “Certainly not!”

Faith, along with grace, does not do away with God’s law! Why?  Paul says, “…for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “… I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’ ” (Romans 7:7). “…sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Romans 5:13).

Genuine faith, in fact, results in acts of righteousness – obedience to the law of God. Paul declared that Abraham was justified by faith when Abraham believed God’s promise (Romans 4:3), and that same faith led Abraham to obey God. James 2:14-26 explains good works as an essential complement to genuine faith, using Abraham as one of the primary examples of faith. [In Genesis 26:5 God attests that “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” – in whatever form God had revealed these to him.] With this Paul agreed, when he wrote, in Romans 2:13, “(for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified….” Those who obey the law of God are “just” and “righteous” – and this as a result of their faith, which God gives graciously to those He chooses.

True liberty

Paul declares how, after we have become “justified” or “purified, we can be truly free from sin and its consequence (death for all eternity): “…where the Spirit of the Lord [Jesus Christ] is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Does this liberty include liberty from having to obey God’s law — the law of God that defines what sin is? To echo Paul, I would say — certainly not! Jesus did not liberate mankind from that law so that it is now OK for all to disregard it – in other words, that it is now OK to sin. Paul asked: “…is Christ therefore a minister of sin?”  And his answer: “Certainly not!” (Galatians 2:17). When Christ forgives our sins, He tells us “Go and sin no more!” (John 5:14;  8:11), which means: “Disobey God’s law no more!” Faith, along with grace, gives us no license to sin or disobey God’s law. And what is sin without the law? Paul said, “…the strength [or power] of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). [See: No Such Thing as Sin?]

In Romans 6:15-23 Paul explains that, by all of us choosing to obey our desires that are contrary to God’s law, we have become “slaves of sin…slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,” which leads to death. Paul compares our bondage to sin to being once like the child of the “bondwoman” [Sarah’s Egyptian maid Hagar], to being under the covenant that God struck with Israel on Mount Sinai [which did not promise God’s Spirit, thus Israel was unable to obey God’s law], and to Jerusalem in the Middle East [a sinful city that God condemns like He did Sodom and Egypt, Revelation 11:8] (Galatians 4:22-25).

Without the right heart and God’s Spirit in them, the Israelites did not have it in themselves to obey the laws God had given them (Deuteronomy 5:29). Thus they remained enslaved to sin, in bondage like that Egyptian slave woman Hagar and her son.

Through Christ’s sacrifice, we “have been set free from sin” and its consequence: death (Romans 6:18, 20-21). Christ has freed us from being once slaves of sin, so we can be God’s “slaves” – “slaves of righteousness [Psalm 119:172 equates righteousness with all of God’s commandments] for holiness,” the end of which is everlasting life (Romans 6:22).

It is the Spirit of Christ in true Christians that transforms their minds from being hostile to God’s law to delighting in it and obeying it! God had not given Israelites of old that transformed mind or heart, and His Spirit. But God had long promised to the house of Israel that, in His own time, He would give them a new heart, and place His Spirit in them so that they would obey His statutes and judgments and be His true people (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

God gave that Spirit to a few Old Testament men and women of faith, and so they also belong to Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 11), having been God’s faithful servants or “slaves of righteousness,” like true Christians since the New Testament times. Paul compares all these Christians to the children of “Jerusalem above” which is free, and to Isaac [who was “born according to the Spirit” – by God miraculously causing Abraham’s post-menopausal wife Sarah, a “freewoman,” to bear Isaac] (Galatians 4:26-31) and therefore they are “children of promise…born according to the Spirit” and not “according to the flesh” (as Ishmael was).

Paradoxically, it is when we become “slaves of righteousness” that we can  become truly free!

“These necessary things”

In that circular sent by the church leaders to the Gentile churches after the Jerusalem conference concerning circumcision, certain “necessary things” (and “no greater burden” than these) were to be laid on Gentile converts: “that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29).

Were these the only “necessary things” that the church leaders were to teach to the Gentile converts – for all time? The urgency of the crisis which the issue of circumcision had brought upon the Gentile members of the Church of God then needed to be addressed as quickly as possible. It would seem that, for the moment, those “necessary things” listed in the circular were sufficient. But, as we shall see from his other letters, the apostle Paul did teach a lot more “necessary things” to the Gentile brethren!

True to the circular, Paul did teach the original “necessary things” like staying away from idol worship (2 Corinthians 6:15-16;  1 Corinthians 5:10-11;  6:9;  10:7, 14;  1 Thessalonians 1:9). He even equated idolatry with covetousness (Ephesians 5:5).

Paul also taught against sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13;  6:9-10, 13-20;  2 Corinthians 12:21;  Galatians 5:19;  Ephesians 5:3;  Colossians 3:5;  1 Thessalonians 4:3). Sexual immorality is, of course, related to the Seventh Commandment (against committing adultery), which we will refer to below.

While Paul did not mention specifically about refraining from blood and “things strangled,” his charge to abstain from “uncleanness” (Galatians 5:19;  Ephesians 5:3;  Colossians 3:5) would cover those prohibitions. Leviticus 22:8 [as also Leviticus 17:15 and Deuteronomy 14:21] declares that a person who eats the carcass of an animal (“clean,” of course) which dies “naturally” – or “of itself,” as the KJV renders it – becomes defiled or “unclean.” Like in the case of a “strangled” animal, an animal that dies “of [or by] itself” has not had its blood let out. God prohibits His people from eating the blood of animals (Leviticus 7:26-27;  17:14) – with a heavier punishment, in fact, than being merely pronounced “unclean”: they were to be “cut off” from among God’s people – some type of “excommunication,” disowning, or banishment.

In addition, Paul taught the Gentiles about observing the other commandments of God, as also “necessary things”:

  • Not blaspheming God’s name (1 Timothy 1:20;  2 Timothy 3:2;  Colossians 3:8). Paul taught that we not only blaspheme God by such acts as using God’s name in profanity, but also by behavior or conduct that casts God’s name – which Christians carry as “God’s people” – in a bad light (Timothy 6:1).
  • Honoring parents (Ephesians 6:1-3;  Colossians 3:20;  1 Timothy 5:4). Paul also exhorted parents to rear their children well, “in the admonition of the Lord,” so that they would grow up respectful and well-behaved (Ephesians 6:4;  Colossians 3:21;  1 Timothy 3:1, 2, 4-5;  Titus 1:6).
  • Not murdering (Romans 1:29;  13:9;  1 Timothy 1:9;  Galatians 5:21). Paul upheld Jesus’ magnifying this Sixth Commandment by including anger and hatred toward one’s brother without a cause (Matthew 5:21-26). He exhorted the brethren to put away wrath and anger toward each other (Ephesians 4:31;  Colossians 3:8). He encouraged them to instead be gentle, merciful and forgiving to one another (Galatians 6:1;  Philippians 2:1;  Colossians 3:12;  Ephesians 4:32;  Colossians 3:13), and not to avenge themselves for wrongs done them (Romans 12:9).
  • Not committing adultery (1 Corinthians 6:9;  Hebrews 13:4;  Romans 13:9;  Galatians 5:19). Paul taught about protecting and enriching marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33;  1 Corinthians 11:3, etc.;  Hebrews 13:4).
  • Not stealing (Romans 13:9;  Ephesians 4:28;  Titus 2:9-10). Paul expanded this Eighth Commandment by exhorting the brethren to work with their hands, so that they could even give to those who are in need (Ephesians 4:28). He taught them to care for one another (Galatians 6:2, 10). He set the example by energetically collecting contributions from the Gentile churches to help the needy brethren in Jerusalem and Judea in their moment of crisis (Galatians 2:10;  Romans 16:25-26;   1 Corinthians 16:1, 5;  2 Corinthians 8:1;  9:1).
  • Not lying (Romans 1:25;  Colossians 3:9;  1 Timothy 1:8-10;  2:7;  4:2;  Romans 9:1). Paul encouraged the brethren to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
  • Not coveting (1 Corinthians 5:10-11;  6:10;  Ephesians 5:3, 5;  Colossians 3:5;  1 Timothy 3:3;  2 Timothy 3:2;  Hebrews 13:5). As mentioned earlier, Paul equated coveting or covetousness with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5).

Paul and the Sabbath

Here is one “bone of contention” especially defended by those who believe that Paul did not give any command or charge to Gentile Christians, anywhere in his letter, to observe the weekly Sabbath.

This may be true as far as any direct charge or command is concerned. His declaration, in Hebrews 4:9-10, about a “rest” [Greek sabbatismos — meaning “a keeping of a Sabbath”] “for the people of God,” many contend, was directed only to Jewish Christians as such, and not to Gentiles. [See: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?]

Paul held the staunch belief in God being “no respecter of persons [or faces]” – that God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11). “For as many as have sinned without law [such as Gentiles who do not have the formal, codified law of God] will also perish without law [will receive the just penalty for transgression of God’s spiritual law (sin), regardless of their ignorance of that law], and as many as have sinned in the law [those among the children of Israel, who have had God’s law revealed to them] will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12).

God’s law certainly includes the Fourth Commandment, on observing the weekly Sabbath as holy time. On the basis of this commandment, and the rest of God’s commandments, God will judge both Israelites and Gentiles, for He is a “God who ‘will render to each one [regardless of race] according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). God has meant for His law to apply to both Israelite and Gentile (Exodus 12:49).

The same valuation for doing what is good, such as observing the Sabbath, applies to both Israelite and Gentile: “…but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 2:10). After all, Jesus plainly declared that “the Sabbath was made for man…” (Mark 2:28) and not just for Israel. The Sabbath is for all of mankind. And it was made for man – not against man, not something that is to burden or oppress man! [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant and What If the Sabbath Is Still Holy?]

That said, Jesus however taught that in the Day of Judgment, the Jews and Israelites (who know better, having had God’s law revealed to them) will be judged more strictly than the Gentiles, who do not have that same knowledge.  In His parable, recorded in Luke  12:42-48, Jesus said, “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”

Paul’s examples of Sabbath-keeping

While Paul does not give any direct charge to Gentile Christians to observe the weekly Sabbath (or the Fourth Commandment), we have records of him preaching the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, on the Sabbath.

Acts 17:1-4 records that it was Paul’s custom or regular practice, wherever Paul had the opportunity, to go in to the Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath to preach about Jesus Christ to both Jews and “a great multitude of devout Greeks.” These Greeks had known about the Jewish Sabbath and were, in fact, attending the Jewish synagogues in their assigned places. “Not a few of [these] Greeks” (verse 12) came to believe in Jesus Christ or were “persuaded” and “joined” Paul and Silas (verse 4).

Besides Thessalonica and Berea, Paul also preached in the synagogue at Athens, “with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers” (verses 16-17). Earlier, Paul had met with a group of women in prayer at a riverside in the city of Philippi, on a Sabbath day (Acts 16:11-15). He taught the group, and a Greek woman from Thyatira “who worshiped God” was there among the audience. “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” Forthwith, she and her household were baptized.

These great multitudes of “devout Greeks,” who had been worshiping the God of Israel in the Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath, did not need to be taught or convinced by Paul about observing God’s commanded holy Sabbath.

Paul’s other teachings

Paul’s letters reflect the teachings that Paul had received directly from Jesus Christ, who promised to reveal things to him (Acts 26:16;   Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17;  2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul exhorted the brethren to imitate him as he also imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Among the things Paul observed, as Jesus did in His lifetime, were the holy days or festivals of God. Among these was the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 20:16;  1 Corinthians 16:8), as well as “the feast” – of Unleavened Bread (1 Corinthians 5:8) – and the Passover (verse 7 and 11:23-29). Acts 27:9 mentions a time after “the Fast” [the Day of Atonement] in connection with Paul’s advice to the helmsman and the owner of the ship which Paul and his companions were on, against navigating through turbulent seas at that time of the year. Why would that holy day be referred to at all, if didn’t mean anything to Paul, or to the primarily Gentile readers of Luke’s account of church history? [See: God’s Feasts in the Book of Acts: Mere Time Markers — or to Be Observed?]

One only needs to comb all of Paul’s letters to see the continuity and harmony between his teachings and the Old Testament and Christ’s teachings as found in the “gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the Book of Revelation and the letters of James, Peter, John and Jude. [See: The Law of Christ.]

Paul exhorts all true Christians to follow his example, and that of other faithful men and women: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Hebrews 13:7).  [See: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews? and see also: 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9.]

Paul on circumcision and God’s law

To those who have long believed that circumcision and law-keeping are synonymous (and therefore are lumped together as a “yoke of bondage”), a number Paul’s statements and acts merit some serious reflection.

  • Romans 2:25-29, “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law, but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”

The important thing that God is looking for is true righteousness in the heart – made possible through the Holy Spirit – regardless as  to whether one is outwardly circumcised or not. Circumcision is no guarantee of righteousness, “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law” (Galatians 6:13).

  • 1 Corinthians 7:19, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.”
  • Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”

As explained earlier, true faith is evidenced in “good works,” as Abraham’s faith led to obedience to God’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. Abraham had faith before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11). After he and the males in his household were circumcised (Genesis 17:23-27), Abraham was judged by God to be one person whom He had known, “in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him: (Genesis 18:19).

The mover of faith — “love” — in its true essence, causes one to be in full harmony with the law of God. Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me…” (John 14:21).

  • Galatians 6:15, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.”

Again, true circumcision from Christ – circumcision of the heart – is a parallel to what happens in true baptism: the believer in Christ has his sins buried (forgiven) in the waters of baptism, where his “old man” dies with the crucified Christ. As he rises from those waters, the believer also rises to a “new life” (Colossians 2:11-13;  Romans 6:3-6) – he becomes a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

From being condemned to death for sin, a believer in Christ now “lives again” – receives a new lease on life, a life that seeks to please and obey God instead of oneself and the world. From being in bondage to sin and death, a believer in Christ is now free to become God’s slave – God’s servant – to live a new, righteous life, with the hope of receiving eternal life! A person who has been given God’s Spirit obeys God (Acts 5:32).  [See: God’s Spirit and Obedience and The Law of Christ.]

  • Acts 16:1-3, “Then he [Paul] came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews, who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.”

Right on the heels of the Jerusalem conference about circumcision (Acts 15), Paul is shown here circumcising the half-Jew Timothy, as a concession to the Jews in that area where he was. Paul demonstrates here that circumcision is not an issue where there is also faith and obedience (Romans 2:25). However, when it came to pure Gentile converts, Paul stood his ground. True to his belief that Gentiles were not to be required physical circumcision in order to be justified, Paul refused to have the Greek convert Titus be compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5).

Christ’s yoke and burden

Jesus calls those who “labor and are heavy laden” – not with obeying the laws of God, but with the weariness of disobeying those laws and suffering heavily for it – to come to Him, and He promises them rest (Matthew 11:28). Those whom the Father draws to Christ (John 6:44, 65) come to Christ and receive this promised rest. The yoke and bondage of sin and death are taken off a believer through Christ’s sacrifice; the believer finds rest in this life – and the ultimate rest in God’s kingdom.

Then, Jesus bids the believer: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

What makes Jesus’ “yoke” easy, and His burden light? It is the power and ability, which the Spirit of Christ imparts to the true believer in Jesus, to obey the laws and commandments of God. It is that power which evidently worked in the lives of Jesus’ apostles, after they had received the gift of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:8;  2:1-3:26, etc.), to fulfill Christ’s commission to them (Matthew 28:18-20;  John 21:15-17;  2 Corinthians 11:2). It is that Spirit which empowers the Christian to bear the manifold fruit of the Spirit, which is compatible with — not contrary to — the law of God (Galatians 5:22). The Spirit also empowers the Christian to overcome the “works of the flesh” – all manner of sins or disobedience to God’s laws (verses 19-21) – that he would not be able to overcome otherwise. [See: God’s Spirit and Obedience  and The Higher Law of the Spirit.]

Justification and salvation

In the typist’s language, to “justify” a typewritten text is to type in such a way that the uneven or crooked margins (especially on the right-hand side) form a perfectly aligned perpendicular or vertical edge. In the not-too-long-ago age of manual typewriters, manually justifying a text entailed laborious and complicated effort – often resulting in imperfectly aligned edges.

We might compare this to the old manner in which the “carnal” children of Israel were seeking to be “justified” – to have the “crooked” edges of their lives aligned straight, their sins “purified” or forgiven — through circumcision and the keeping of the ordinance of sacrifices. It was truly a yoke which the faithless ancient Israelites and the Jews in Christ’s time were unable to bear.  And, sadly, it did not really justify them in the end. But God has prepared something better for them when He will revisit them in the future. [See: Predestination.]

With the advent of cyber-technology and computers, justifying a “typewritten” text is just a breeze: with a mere click on the “justify” button, justifying the text is automatic, effortless – and perfect.

We might compare this new way of justifying texts to our justification in and through Christ. When God the Father grants us true access to Christ, all we need do is to “click on” to Him: believe and trust in the power of Christ’s blood and resurrection to justify us – cleanse us of sin and make us “just” or “righteous.” No more wealth-diminishing animal sacrifices and laborious washings and other rituals of cleansing.

Indeed we cannot add to the “finished work” Jesus did on the crucifixion stake at Calvary and at the empty tomb! We cannot do anything more, or less, to make us “more forgiven” for any sin we commit. In this sense, Christians are “by grace [from the Greek charis, meaning “gift”]…saved through faith…not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

By God’s grace and mercy – not by any of man’s work – a person who is drawn by God to faith in Christ is “saved” in the sense of being “justified” or forgiven from sin which, remaining unforgiven, reaps for the sinner the consequence of death (Romans 6:23). Justification is the starting point of salvation. It is not the ultimate end of salvation, which is “glorification” – becoming like our glorious God: Spirit, immortal, incorruptible, sinless – perfect (Romans 8:30;  1 Corinthians 15:42-55;  Philippians 3:20-21;  1 John 3:9).

God’s purpose for our justification or forgiveness

Once freely forgiven of sin, through God’s grace and mercy in Christ, a Christian is also given the free gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). That Spirit helps the Christian to live a life that seeks to please God and not the self or mere men. That Spirit will help the Christian to overcome the pulls of the carnal nature that is hostile to God and His law (Romans 8:4-13). Paul exhorts Christians to “walk…to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2). He then lists some of those commandments, in verses 3-7, which they are to follow and observe.

Paul’s declaring the “liberty” Christians have in Christ is not a license to be “nothing doing” Christians! Paul exhorts Christians to “…walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). He declares God’s purpose for creating mankind: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Paul shows what God’s grace should lead to: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed [sin] and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14). He adds: “…those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8;  see also verse 14).

In 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, Paul gives Christians this blessing: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work.”  He tells the brethren: “Do not grow weary in doing [what is] good” (1 Thessalonians 3:13), as he tells the Galatian brethren (Galatians 6:9-10).

Paul tells us one of the main reasons that God has given us the Scriptures: “…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God’s grace should not make Christians careless about their behavior; rather, they should “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

God does not mince words when He tells us, through Peter, that the Father “…without partiality judges according to each man’s work.”  Peter then exhorts: “…conduct yourselves through the time of your stay here [on earth] in fear” (1 Peter 1:17). [See: Saved for Good Works and  Can We Fear and Love God at the Same Time?]

Jesus tells us that the Father “…has given Him authority to execute judgment also [along with mercy], because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth [in a future resurrection] – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [or judgment]” (John 5:27-29).

In the ultimate analysis, it is those who obey God’s commandments who will receive everlasting life – who will gain access to, and enjoy the fruit of, the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22). “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the [holy] city” – the New Jerusalem, where there will be no more death (Revelation 22:14; 21:1-4, 10, etc.).

That obedience shows itself in genuine love even to “the least of these My brethren,” says Christ (Matthew 25:31-40). The people who show this love in concrete ways to Christ’s brethren may unknowingly do it to Christ Himself, who tells them: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (verses 34, 40).

And who are Christ’s brethren? Some say: “the Jews.” That is partly correct, for indeed Jesus was racially a Jew. Let Jesus give the full answer to the question: “Who are My mother and who are My brothers? [And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said] Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).  Luke 8:21 adds: “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.” They are the true children of God.  [See: Are We All God’s Children?]

1 John 5:2-3 shows us the acid test of our genuine love for the children of God – Christ’s true brethren: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

God’s laws and commandments are not a burdensome yoke that mankind will forever be unable to bear, that will keep mankind forever in bondage, as most people think. Through Christ’s sacrifice and through Christ’s Spirit, that yoke becomes bearable – light and easy. [See: The Law of Christ and The Higher Law of the Spirit.]

And, as James 1:15; 2:12 puts it, that law is not a law that brings to bondage but is “the perfect law of liberty” – a “royal law” (James 2:8)! Psalm 119:44-45 testifies: “So shall I keep Your laws continually, forever and ever. And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.”

 

Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.
010706/201213

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