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Volume 17, Issue 4: Stauron

Reading the Lines, II

Gary Hagen

Neither do the scriptures succor this familiar Reformed defense at this point. The counterargument fails because the issue that the writer of Hebrews was condemning was not Old Testament sacrifices per se. What was attacked was a return to the old symbols as the means of redemption (10:18 cf. Acts 15:1, 5). This misplaced faith as the crux of the issue—and not a continued use of the symbols themselves—becomes more readily apparent when we look beyond the pages of Hebrews to the whole counsel of Scripture.

Recall that Paul warned about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). But he did not prohibit that activity per se. What Paul did caution against was stumbling of a weaker brother if such a one saw them eating meat offered to idols. Paul knew that these Christians were not putting their faith in an idol (v. 4), and so even their eating in the idol's temple was not his concern (v. 10). But he was solicitous for those that might return their faith to that system if they misunderstood what they saw more mature believers doing (v. 7).
In the same way, we learn that first-century Jewish Christians continued to sacrifice in the temple at Jerusalem, and this was not a problem! The only exception we find to this in the Scripture was when Judaizers, who placed their faith in the old symbols of the law, insisted on observance of the old ways. And then Paul refused to have any part of it (Gal.2:-4), as in his refusal to have Titus circumcised since he was a Greek and not a Jew. Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia provides an extensive and strongly worded warning against a legalistic slavery to the law (5:1). Yet he elsewhere praises the continued use of the law so long as it is wisely employed for that which it was intended (1Tim 1:8 cf. Rom. 7:12). Even for the early apostles this was not always an easy course to steer, and both Peter and Barnabas were stumbled at certain points in this until Paul directly challenged them (Gal.2:11-21).
Recall also that while Paul refused to have Titus circumcised when Judaizers demanded this, Paul did have Timothy (son of a Jewess) circumcised (Acts 16:3). Paul did not follow a gospel that rigidly prohibited Jewish Christians from continuing their observances of ceremonial ordinances so long as these were correctly understood. Yet had Paul permitted Jewish ordinances to be imposed upon Gentile believers, this would have incorporated Jewish ordinances as essential elements of Christianity.
By this time, large portions of the Christian church and perhaps a majority—those parts composed of converted Jews—were still zealously observing the law. In fact, James and the elders at Jerusalem informed Paul that "myriads" (tens of thousands) of Jews that had believed in Christ fell into this very category (Acts 21:20). Given the context of the subsequent verses and the "therefore" of v. 23 where James and the elders at Jerusalem encouraged Paul to participate in sacrifices (which included a sin offering, a burnt offering, a peace offering, a grain offering, and a drink offering) associated with a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:13_21) along with four other men, we must assume the myriads mentioned also participated in continuing Old Covenant sacrifices even after their belief in Christ (Acts 21:17-26, NB v.26). We also see that Paul made similar vows of this nature on his own accord in other instances, and kept the Jewish festival days even after his own conversion (Acts 18:18_21 cf. 20:16).
Not unlike some sects of the Christian church today, Judaizers of the first century looked upon their religious ceremonies as the sine qua non of their religion. They placed their faith—not in the God who had ordained this worship—but in the ritual practices themselves. Such legalism was categorically rejected by the apostles and the church council of elders in Acts 15. And yet in Acts 21, James and these same elders encouraged Paul's public observance of Old Covenant Jewish offerings. And this is not simply a case of different guidelines for Gentile and Jewish believers. The principle was one and the same.
Gentiles were advised not to eat things offered to idols in Acts 15:29, and yet Paul's letter to the Corinthians (8:4, 8) makes no such prohibition since idols are nothing. Jews are warned in the book of Hebrews not to return to the Mosaic system, yet we see in Acts 21 that thousands of believing Jews practiced the Mosaic Law with the blessing of the apostles and elders. Is this a disconnect? Not at all. The issue in both situations was the locus of faith (cf. Heb 10:29; 1 Cor. 8:10).
We see therefore that the key difference between Acts 21 and what we read in Hebrews 8-10 is not one of the external practices, but rather an issue of the object of faith for salvation—the symbols or the Savior. In other words, whether these symbols were superstitious ritual observances—a righteousness of works—or expressions of true faith makes all the difference between a legalistic apostasy and walking wisely in the law.
How then shall we understand Ezekiel's temple? Are the premillennialists right in all this? Hardly. But we shall have to wait until Part 3 for that discussion.

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