5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Legalism is a big topic of debate throughout the church. Whether we admit it or not, even from within the church we are constantly discussing what is right and what is wrong; this is Pharisaical practice. Sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of discussing whether or not we should eat cheeseburgers and lobster tail because in the Old Testament the Jews were prohibited from doing so. Here we find another one of these issues that is asked by the former Pharisees, whom before their conversion were committed to following the entire law to embody God’s righteousness. So then, what of circumcision?
Throughout the New Testament, we see this and similar issues arise in trying to discover “what is right” in accordance to God’s will. Today, we still have the very same conversations. So how do we know, then? We seem to have conflicting accounts throughout the scriptures where God tells Paul to eat “unholy” food, but then continues to tell all the disciples to obey His commandments. The issue is the heart.
There are issues such as: eating food sacrificed to idols, women covering their heads, eating or not eating certain foods, and other examples in the New Testament that arise which as we study the replies, we find that it isn’t about what we do or what we don’t do, it’s about why we do it. We were created to bring God glory. We are to honor Him with all we do in accordance with His unconditional love. If we strongly feel at heart that we need to abstain from certain foods for His honor, then it isn’t a bad thing. If eating food sacrificed to idols gives a message that following Christ is akin to worshipping idols, we should probably avoid it. If you believe that being circumcised or having your children circumcised is something you must do to honor God, then it isn’t bad to do. However, if there is something that you think you MUST do in order to receive His salvation, then you have missed the point entirely.
God’s salvation is free. His grace and love are unconditional. It is after this point that we are free under His law. In Matthew 22, we stumble upon an often-quoted passage but we probably miss the motivation behind it:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
The question regarding the greatest commandment was a signature of the Pharisees. They usually claimed one of the commandments, which of course revealed what part of the Law they were most partial to. Jesus, in His wisdom, answers with two. This accomplishes two objectives: revealing how close minded we are as religious humans trying to prove our own righteousness while explaining plainly the purpose behind God’s commandments in the first place. Jesus says that loving your neighbor as your self is similar to loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind because in loving our neighbors unconditionally we display our love for Him. Why then, do we focus on circumcision, meal choices, and covering our heads instead of loving God and loving others? The closer we grow to God, the more we will understand how to love Him. We learn more about others by growing in our relationships with them; the same holds true in our relationship with God.
Some might think I am arguing against doctrine, God’s righteousness, or even living the way God designed us to. On the contrary, I am saying that the scriptures clearly state that everything we do should be a result of loving God and our neighbors. If what we are doing does not display this ultimate love (be it our food habits, our attire, or how we speak), then we are not living the way God designed us to live. The Apostle Paul explained this when talking about becoming a slave to all for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. I am actually arguing for doctrine, for God’s righteousness, and for living the way God designed us to live. God’s doctrine, woven throughout the scriptures, is revealing His glory and bringing Him honor by living and revealing to others His ultimate love.