The Apostolic Council and the Ten Commandments

The Apostolic Council and the Ten Commandments (Part 2)

Final installment of a two-part series on where the issue of the Sabbath may have fitted into the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

The Ten Commandments are not mentioned at all in Acts 15. As we I saw in the first installment of this series, the apostolic command to .A. abstain from fornication (pomeia) refers to Leviticus 18 not to the seventh commandment, which forbids adultery (moicheia). These two distinct terms are used rather consistently in Jewish Greek literature; the word porneia is rarely applied to the seventh commandment.

Does the lack of any mention of the Decalogue in Acts 15 imply that the Ten Commandments were no longer binding on Christians? Did the apostolic council assume that it was now acceptable for Gentile Christians to worship other gods, take God's name in vain, break the Sabbath, kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, and so on?

Clearly, this is absurd. Without question all parties took for granted the continuing obligation of the basic ethical behaviors and duties enshrined in the Decalogue, which explains the many prescriptive allusions throughout the New Testament from the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:17, "If you want to enter life, obey the commandments" (NIV), to the description of the saints in Revelation 14:12 as those "who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus."

We must remember that the leader of the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council was Jesus' brother James, who had the highest regard for the law. This is clear not only from his dialogue with Paul in Acts 21 but also from his epistle, where he calls the Decalogue the "perfect law," the "law of freedom."1

James the Just, whom Christian tradition remembers as a pious traditionalist, vegetarian, and teetotaler, 2 would never have supported any move to lessen the authority of the Decalogue.

The Sabbath

As we have seen, some Jews believed a proselyte might worship God without being circumcised. Rejection of circumcision, then, did not necessarily imply wholesale rejection of the law. And even rejection of the Mosaic legislation did not imply rejection of the basic, primordial rules of morality and worship enshrined in the Ten Commandments. As universal principles going back to Creation, these precepts would apply to all people.

Genesis 26:5 says that Abraham kept "my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." That the Sabbath was one of those laws is clear from Genesis 2:3, Exodus 20:11, and 16:23-30. Particularly interesting is Exodus 16:28f, where God, prior to the giving of the law on Sinai, says, "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath."

It is clear from reading the New Testament that Jews of Jesus' day regarded the Sabbath as a creation ordinance. The Jesus movement clearly held the precedents affirmed in Genesis in high esteem. It is fair to say that the theology of Jesus tended toward restorationism ("back to Eden"), in which the material presented in Genesis was given a guiding authority along with, but even sur passing the authority resident in later Mosaic and covenantal legislation. For example, Jesus in Mark 10:2-12 dismisses a Mosaic law allowing divorce by arguing for the priority of the creation ordinance of marriage.

In Matthew 22:23-32 Jesus again trumps a law of Moses by citing an earlier patriarchal tradition from Genesis (cf. John 7:22). A third example: Jesus defends the fifth commandment against later Jewish legislation that nullifies it in Mark 7:8-13.

The point is, if Jesus tended to exalt creation law over later Mosaic legislation, it is unlikely that His followers would have turned their backs on the Sabbath.

Nor was there any reason to dismiss the Sabbath. Roman emperors routinely issued decrees allowing Jews to celebrate the Sabbath in peace.3 Indeed, the Sabbath had become an accepted reality, at least in parts of the Roman world. According to Josephus (Against Apion 2.282, Loeb), "The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread."

Around A.D. 200, Tertullian reproaches pagans for adopting the Jewish custom of resting on the Sabbath: "You have selected one day [Saturday] in preference to other days as the day on which you do not take a bath or you postpone it until the evening, and on which you devote yourselves to leisure and abstain from revelry. In so doing you are turning from your own religion to a foreign religion, for the Sabbath and cena pura [special supper] are Jewish ceremonial observances" (AdNationes 1.13).

Since Dies Saturni (the Sabbath) was widely accepted among the Romans as the day of rest, it is more than safe to say that Sabbath keeping never became an issue in the early church. That is why, of course, it was not a contended issue in the New Testament Church.

After the Jerusalem Council, Paul still continued to worship on the Sabbath (Acts 17:1, 2; 18:4), even where there was no Jewish synagogue (Acts 16:13). It is no more reasonable to assume that the apostolic council abro gated the Sabbath than to assume that it abrogated marriage, which is also a Torah command and which is also omit ted from the stipulations of Acts 15, and which also has its origin in the Genesis account.

The creation ordinances which antedated Moses were simply not under discussion. Any decision to change the day of rest would have generated so much controversy as to make the circumcision debate look like a tempest in a teapot. Just com pare the relative amount of attention given to both commands in the Old Testament. Yet we have no record of such controversy.4

Was the Sabbath binding on Gentile converts?

The council of Acts 15, then, concluded that while the law of Moses as a whole was not binding on Gentiles, those laws pertaining to "aliens among you" were. This reality provides us with another argument for the ongoing relevance of the Sabbath in New Testament communities.

The Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:10 is the only one of the ten explicitly worded so as to apply to Gentiles as well as Jews: "The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, . . . nor the alien within your gates" (i.e., "in your towns" as in the NRSV; the gates belong to the city).

In both Hebrew (gef) and Greek (proselytos) the word for "alien" here is the same as in Leviticus 17 and 18. In the LXX the "authorized version" of the Scriptures for Greek-speaking Christians the fourth commandment requires Gentile proselytes living within the community to observe the Sabbath. That the Sabbath is for Gentiles is elaborated in Exodus 23:12 and Isaiah 56:6, 7.

The Christian church did set aside one class of laws which were binding upon aliens. The law of Moses required the alien (ger in Hebrew; proselytos in the LXX) to participate in the ritual sacrifices (Num. 15:27-29, 19:10) and the annual festivals that were closely tied to them (Lev. 16:29; Deut. 16:11, 14). Yet the early Christians, along with other reform movements within Judaism, held that the Jewish sacrificial services were no longer acceptable to God.

Hebrews 10:8, 9 explicitly states that God has "set aside" the "sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings." 5 The death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, made the sacrifices obsolete. But they did not set aside the laws of Leviticus 17 and 18 or the Sabbath.

In summary, in the world of the New Testament, the Sabbath was seen by some as a creation ordinance. It had become well known and was quite widely observed as a prevailing custom. Therefore, like marriage or the particular ban on murder, the apostolic council of Acts 15 passed over it in silence. Furthermore, the council held that those parts of the Torah that applied to proselytes, with the exception of the sacrificial service, were applicable to Gentile Christians and the fourth commandment explicitly says that the Sabbath applies to proselytes.

We may therefore safely conclude that the apostles and their Gentile converts continued to keep the seventh-day Sabbath after the apostolic council of Acts 15.

1        See James 1:25, 2:8-12; 4:2, 11; 5:12, where he cites specific commandments of the Decalogue.

2        Hegsippus says James “holy from his mother’s womb, and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh” (Eusebius Hist. 2.23.5). Augustine agrees. Other disciples may also have been vegetarian. Clement of Alexandria: “It is far better to be happy than to have your body act as graveyards for animals. Accordingly, the apostle Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh” (The Instructor, 2.1). Peter was also vegetarian, according to the Clementine Homilies (12.6) and Recognitions (7.6), second-century works purportedly based on the teachings of St. Peter. It is interesting that there is no mention, at the Last Supper, of the traditional Passover lamb dish. Abstinence from wine and meat is advocated in a book that may have been familiar to the disciples, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Test. Of Reuben 1:10, Test. Of Judah 15:4, Test of Issachar 7:3). Four Ezra 9:2 also advocates vegetarianism. This was clearly an issue in the early church (Rom. 14:21).

3         Josephus cites some of them in Antiquities 14:10.

4         The Sabbath controversy in the Gospels has to do with how the day should be kept, not which day is the rest day. The earliest Sabbath controversy I know of in the Christian era is the persecution of the Jews at Antioch around A.D. 66 (after the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul) by one Antiochus, a Jewish renegade who “became a severe master over his own citizens, not permitting them to rest on the seventh day, but forcing them to do all that they usually did on other days” so that “the rest of the seventh day was dissolved not only at Antioch, but the same thing.. was done in other cities also” (Josephus, Wars 7.3.4, Whiston). This sort of thing was one of the causes of Jewish war with Rome A.D. 66-70.

5        Some Pauline passages regarded as referring to Sabbath observance refer instead to sacrifices, such as Colossians 2:16: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration of a Sabbath day.” Whenever these phrases (“festival, new moon, Sabbath”) are used together in the Old Testament, they refer to the burnt offerings on those days (1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 8:13; 31:3; Isa. 1:13, 14; Ezek. 45:17; 46:4-11; Neh. 10:33; Hos. 2:11). Nehemiah 10 is particularly interesting, because this chapter speaks of both Sabbath keeping (verse 31) and of Sabbath sacrifices (verse 33), but only in verse 33 in reference to the sacrifices do we find the threefold phrase used in Colossians. This phrase refers to the annual, monthly, and weekly sacrifices of Numbers 28 and 29. Numbers 28:2 reads, “My offering, my food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor, you shall take heed to offer to me in its due season.” There follows a description of the daily sacrifices (verses 3-8), the weekly Sabbath sacrifices (9-10), the monthly new moon sacrifices (11-15), and the annual festival sacrifices (28:16-29:38). This interpretation is the only one that makes sense of Colossians 2:17, “Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body (soma) is of Christ.” It is the sanctuary service that is a shadow (Heb. 8:5). The closest parallel is Hebrews 10:1-9, which uses many of the same phrases: “the law is only a shadow of the good things that coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it could never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship…Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but a body (some) you prepared for me.’…He sets aside the first to establish the second.” Colossian 2:16,17, then, is a condensed version of the argument of Hebrews 10. Even the “food and drink” of Colossians 2:16 relate to the sacrificial service (Cf. Heb. 9:9, 10; Num. 28:24).




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Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

April 2005

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