A Warning about Returning to Old Testament Law and Ceremony

Should Christians return to Jewish law? Particularly, is it good for a believer to bind himself or herself by the laws of God that were clearly intended for the nation of Israel during the time before Christ? Is it good for us to revisit and subject ourselves to ceremonies and restrictions that were intended to point the people of Israel toward the future coming of Messiah?

Imagine a young man engaged to be married. His fiancé gives him a photo of her to keep with him before they are wed. It is proper and right for that young man to gaze at that photo and anticipate the joy of union with his bride. However, would it not be strange for him to, once he is married, find fulfillment in gazing at the photo of his fiancé instead of finding joy in actually spending time with his wife?

In many a way, the Old Testament ceremonies and food laws are like that photo. They were gifts of God to help Israel look forward to the coming of Messiah. But once Messiah has come, the church is no more right to turn back to those meals and laws than the imaginary husband in the previous paragraph would be right to love looking at the picture of his wife instead of enjoying her company.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, as it seems that there is a rise in fascination with the Jewish feasts and practices among faithful believers. I am sure that this comes from hearts intent on honoring God. I am also sure that it comes from an emotional connection to the mysterious feeling of ceremonies that are not part of our culture. But I do not believe that the practice of Christians participating in Old Testament ceremonies or binding themselves by Old Testament dietary laws is at all wise or good.

This discussion came to mind as I read through the book of Galatians recently. In that book, Paul is dealing with a church that is being persuaded to return to Jewish laws. Particularly, the circumcision group has persuaded people in that congregation to return to Jewish practices because they suggest that this is required for salvation. With clarity, let me say that I do not believe that my fellow believers who are interested in the ceremonies and practices of the Old Testament are doing so because they believe that they will earn salvation for themselves. Many are doing so out of simple curiosity. Others are doing so because they believe that, with the feasts and the dietary laws, God has given us good things to continue to practice and that he will be pleased with our participation in those practices.

Let’s look at a few things we see in this short letter, however, to see that it is not wise or good for Christians to put themselves under Old Testament restrictions on diet or to practice the old ceremonies.

Galatians 2:11-14 – 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Just after a section in which Paul points out that his gospel was approved of by the other apostles though he did not receive it from them, Paul points to a moment of conflict between himself and Peter. That conflict particularly bears weight concerning the topic of a return to ceremonial law. While Peter was in Antioch, he returned to a Jewish dietary lifestyle. This act confused others around him, because they assumed that, if Peter was limiting his diet to only ceremonially clean foods as revealed in the law, other Christians, gentile Christians, Christians whose cultures never required this in the past, should also restrict themselves to that diet.

Paul, however, opposed Peter to his face. Paul spoke out publicly against his fellow apostle because Peter was wrong. Part of the problem, of course, is that Peter was reshaping his life to gain the approval of other men, the circumcision group. But part of the problem is that God has not in any way called Christians to subject themselves to the Old Testament dietary regulations.

Galatians 4:9-11 – 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Later in the letter, Paul clearly includes the days and seasons from the Jewish law in his discussion of a dangerous temptation to return to what will not benefit a believer. Not only are we not to subject ourselves to Old Testament food regulations, we are also not to return to the Jewish calendar of holy days.

Galatians 3:1-3 – 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Some might argue that, while God does not require a return to Jewish food laws and holy celebrations, to practice them is still helpful to our spiritual lives. Paul says that such a view is false. If you are saved by grace alone through faith alone, if this is a work of the Spirit of God, then there is no benefit to your spiritual life, your sanctification, in your returning to fulfilled ceremonial regulations.

Galatians 5:1-4 – 1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Obviously, here, Paul is talking about the call of the circumcision party that circumcision is required for the salvation of gentiles. He is adamant that any person who adds man-made requirements to a faith-alone gospel is not in possession of the gospel.

But can we not also see that any return to the food laws or to the ceremonies as if they are needed or beneficial is dangerous in a similar way? Maybe one claims that this is not about salvation. But a claim that we need the ceremonial law for personal sanctification is dangerously close to adding to the gospel, as being sanctified is a necessary result of salvation.

Dear Christian friends, the food laws of the Old Testament and the ceremonial holy Days like Passover, Saturday Sabbath observance, and even ceremonial circumcision are items intended to point to the coming of Jesus Christ. When Christ came, all of those laws were perfectly fulfilled. Christ particularly and specifically loosed the food laws (Mark 7:19) so that we would know that there is no longer any benefit in being bound by them. The food laws pointed to the separate nature of physical Israel as the nation through which God would bring Messiah. Once Messiah has come, there is no call for Christians to pretend as though we are part of an Israel still awaiting the Savior’s first advent. Similarly, Passover, the feast of booths, even Pentecost were festivals in which the physical nation-state of Israel was to remember the faithfulness of God to them in the past as they awaited the arrival of messiah through their particular genealogical lineage. But now Messiah has come, and there is no reason for gentile believers to subject themselves to those ceremonial requirements or to feel that participating in those ceremonies would be a spiritual benefit.

As the church, the people of God, we have been given by God ceremonies to practice. They are not ceremonies that anticipate the first advent of Christ, as the Savior has come, fulfilled the law, and accomplished the salvation of all the elect. Now we are given different ceremonies, baptism and Lord’s Supper, which point us to Christ’s completed work as they anticipate his second coming, the resurrection of the righteous, and our eternal joy in the presence of our Savior. We do not honor Christ by adding to these simple and beautiful ceremonies a fascination with things that are fulfilled.

A couple of points of clarity before I wrap up. No, I do not believe that it is sinful for a church to lay out a Passover meal to give their people a better understanding of what this would have looked like years ago. Neither do I think it is wrong for a Christian to visit one of those Revolutionary War era villages where people wear costumes and show you how they used to make root beer. However, I’ll add that there is a danger in laying out and practicing such a meal that people can be drawn into the novelty and think they are doing something spiritual when they are not. It is wrong if any Christian believes that he or she is spiritually benefitted by participation in such a meal.

Also, this post has nothing to do with civil law. Though I disagree with theonomy, that has nothing to do with my issue.

Throughout the centuries, there has been a temptation for believers to look for secret spiritual keys that will elevate their walks with the Lord beyond that of the ordinary. Some seek charismatic experiences. Some have looked for hidden spiritual truth in Gnosticism. And I believe that others are tempted by a spiritual-feeling fascination with Old Testament ceremonial practices. None of these is good for the soul of believers who should know that our Christian lives are to be simple lives of love of God, love of neighbor, and obedience to the commands of Christ. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Lord has given us the church and simple ceremonies that point us to salvation and to his return. We do not honor him by looking for ways to bring other ceremonies, fulfilled pictures and loosed laws, back into the faith as if this will make us more spiritual.

Adding Nothing to the Gospel

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is deeply concerned about the gospel and its purity. Early in the letter, Paul speaks as harshly as we ever see him speak in Scripture. Inspired by God, the apostle pronounces that anyone who preaches any gospel other than the gospel that Paul had already been preaching should be accursed.

Galatians 1:6–9 – 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

In case the language of accursed is not clear, that is Paul saying that a person who would preach a false gospel, a warped and non-gospel gospel, should be thrown by God into hell forever. Thus, we can fairly conclude that this is a big deal.

When we see this strong language used in the beginning of the book, we should be asking two questions. First, we should be asking what it is that is being proclaimed by the false teachers in Galatia. What is it that Paul is speaking so harshly against? Added to that, we should ask if there is anything like that in our generation that we need to watch out to avoid.

For several paragraphs in chapters 1-2, Paul tells his story and defends the gospel as he has preached it. He is careful to let the Galatians know that he is not preaching what he preaches to be a man-pleaser. Paul heard the gospel as revelation from Jesus himself. And Paul preached the gospel with clarity. Paul did travel to Jerusalem to compare notes with the apostles after 14 years of being saved, but nothing in his gospel changed, not even a little bit.

So, what is Paul speaking out against? We see a hint early in chapter 2 as Paul talks about his trip to Jerusalem to conference with Peter and James.

Galatians 2:1–3 – 1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. 3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

To our modern ears, verse 3 seems to come out of left field. But, if we will pay attention, verse 3 brings to light a very significant element of the gospel that is in danger of being lost. The reason that Paul points out that Titus was not compelled to be circumcised is that this was what certain Jewish believers were attempting to add to the simple gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These false teachers, known as Judaizers, believed that gentiles, because of their ethnicity and background, should be forced to submit to particular rituals and restrictions in order to be counted as Christians.

Now, we must grasp that, to some, this argument was quite persuasive. In fact, Peter almost falls for it as Paul points out later in chapter 2. Why was this persuasive? For centuries, there had been a clear difference in status between Jew and gentile in the Old Testament. The Jews were the chosen people of God. The Jews were the ones given the law of God, a good and perfect and holy law. And Old Testament gentiles who wanted salvation had to come to Israel and submit to the laws of God, including circumcision, in order to be forgiven.

Is it possible, then, now that Christ has come, that there is no longer any sort of division that is to be made in the church between people of differing ethnicities and backgrounds? What if the gentiles had been previously cruel and oppressive to the Jews? What if the gentiles had lived particularly immoral lives in their worship of false gods before their conversion? Should those gentiles not be put on equal footing with the Jews by being forced to obey the law that the gentiles had previously not known? Should they not at least still be forced to go through circumcision?

No! Paul is emphatic here. Titus was not forced to be circumcised. No gentile should be forced to be circumcised. There is no differing requirement for the gospel based on one’s ethnicity. And to add such a thing is to warp and destroy the gospel. Look why Paul says that he would not submit to those who pushed the addition of law requirements for gentiles.

Galatians 2:5 – to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Paul did not allow the addition of ethnic laws to the gospel because he wanted to preserve the gospel. Get this. Paul would not allow an addition of something beyond the gospel to the gospel because to do so would lose the gospel. That is why not adding to the gospel preserves the gospel.

Do we face anything like this today? Are there any who would threaten the gospel? Yes, there surely are. Any person who adds to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ any element that is more than salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is warping and destroying the gospel—they are preaching a non-gospel. We should beware, then, of who might be willing to add to the gospel. Religious cults add to the gospel. Legalistic moralists can come dangerously close to adding to the gospel. But what is most striking in our culture for today is the fact that, in some corners of evangelicalism in the United States, believers are bringing back into their discussion of the gospel divisions, and even at times new requirements for penance or shaming, based solely on ethnicity.

But the word of God is abundantly clear that, once we are in Christ, we take on brand new identities. No, we do not lose our ethnicity or culture. But we find who we are as defined by Christ and not by the past animosities that used to define us. Jews and gentiles hated one another. The supposed upper class looked down and mistreated the lower class. The rich often ignored the poor. But once we are in Christ, we take on the identity of Christian, and that identity is more important than all that went before.

Galatians 3:26-29- 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The danger that we must avoid in today’s culture is to add to the gospel rules, laws, or penances that would elevate any group based on their ethnicity or past or denigrate any group based on their ethnicity or past. In Christ, we see that we are one family of God. The blood of Jesus Christ helps us to do away with all that socially divides us.

In Galatians, inspired by God, Paul particularly removes from the table any notion of making gentiles jump through extra hoops to be saved simply because of their gentile past. Paul also particularly removes any notion that Jews in the church were to be elevated to a higher position because of the oppression they faced at the hands of the gentiles. Instead, Paul was clear that, in Christ, we are now one family. And this principle must define the church of the Lord Jesus today. If we are going to keep the gospel, if we are going to preserve the genuine promise of God as Paul did in this book, we must not allow secular thought to bring additions to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that divide us based on our pasts, good or bad. Because the gospel is so plain and so transformative, we must identify as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ first and foremost, and we must avoid anything else that we could welcome into our identities that would then splinter us based on social status, former religion, skin tone, native language, or anything else like these.

May God protect his church from any temptation to add anything to the only saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.