The Real Pharisees (Part 17): The Pharisees Wanted to Hold Onto Parts of the Old Law

The Real Pharisees

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’” (Acts 15:5).

Despite all of the problems that we have seen with the Pharisees throughout this study, some of them had evidently believed and obeyed the gospel. A notable example of this was Paul (Acts 26:5; 9:1-18). However, many of them held onto the same attitudes and continued to be “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).

Because of this, certain ones came to Antioch – a church with a large number of Gentile disciples (Acts 11:19-21) and where they were “first called Christians” (Acts 11:26) – and taught, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Luke recorded that “Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2) because this teaching would effectively bring these disciples “into bondage” (Galatians 2:4).

Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever taught that circumcision was necessary for those living in the gospel age. In fact, Paul wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). He told the Corinthians, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Clearly, by the time the gospel was preached, circumcision was not one of the “commandments of God.” Yet many of the Pharisee Christians (often called “Judaizing teachers”) wanted to bind it as a requirement upon the Gentile converts.

When this issue was discussed in Jerusalem, Peter said, “[God] made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 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? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:9-11). No one was able to perfectly keep the old law; therefore, they were not to bind it upon others. Even if one only tried to bind circumcision, this would still be wrong because trying to keep part of the Law puts one “under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Galatians 5:3). Those who seek “to be justified by law” – the Law of Moses – have “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Circumcision of the flesh has been replaced by circumcision of the heart. Under the gospel age, Paul said, “Circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). He told the brethren in Colossae that they had been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” by being “buried with Him in baptism” (Colossians 2:11-12). The old law that required circumcision (cf. Leviticus 12:3) had been “taken…out of the way” and “nailed…to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). It has been replaced with the gospel – the law of Christ (cf. Hebrews 8:8-12; Matthew 28:18-20).

So who are the real Pharisees today? They are not the ones who advocate for a strict adherence to the law of Christ. Instead, they are those who turn to the law of Moses and seek to find justification for their preferred practices.


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