If I’m new to the Torah, it seems like the most logical place for me to start to obey the Father is to actually start reading the Torah itself.
In fact, the leaders of the early congregations in Acts gave instructions to new believers like me, people who didn’t grow up learning about the Torah. As the gospel of the Kingdom went out and began to reach the Greek and Roman cities around Asia Minor, we see that these Gentile believers didn’t know how to conduct themselves in proper Jewish culture.
However, even further, they didn’t know how to walk righteously with God. They were babies, and they were untrained. Their ignorance often got them into trouble, eating things they shouldn’t and mixing the message of Messiah with the pagan idolatry of their Gentile cultures.
The Jewish believers saw this and were scandalized. Their tradition taught that if a person wanted to convert to Judaism, he must undergo a long process of teaching in both written and oral Torah, so that he would understand the “yoke” which he was taking upon himself. He would be taught the Hebrew language, how to study Torah, what the sages taught, how to eat kosher food, how to dress properly, how to pray properly, and so on. This process could take up to a year, and it culminated in ritual circumcision and immersion (baptism) in a mikvah (a bath in running water, or “living” water).
The shorthand word for this entire process was “circumcision.”
A circumcised person was admitted as a full citizen in the nation of Israel, so you can see that it wouldn’t be taken lightly.
Gentiles who were just beginning the process of circumcision, or who were merely sympathetic to the Jewish people and lovers of Torah, were referred to as “God fearers.” They were not fully circumcised, but they often ate kosher food and tried to be respectful to the laws and traditions of Judaism.
In Acts 2, Peter addressed the crowd of people on the day of Pentecost (the feast of Shavuot) and proclaimed to them that the risen Yeshua was the Messiah of Israel. In the crowd were many Jews, both native born and converts to Judaism.
“There were staying in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven… Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lib-ya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:5, 9-10).
The first believers in Yeshua were all either native-born Jews or converts to Judaism. The gospel soon spread into the nearby Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25). Philip explained the good news of Yeshua to the Ethiopian eunuch, causing the spread of the gospel into North Africa, but it wasn’t until several years had passed that we read about Peter going to visit Cornelius in Caesarea, a Roman city on the coast of the Mediterranean.
“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:1-2).
“We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” (Acts 10:22).
Cornelius was a God-fearer, and he was considered “righteous,” which means that he was already trying to keep the Torah, both written and oral. We see that he was respected by all the Jewish people. However, he had not yet officially converted to Judaism. He was not “circumcised.”
One of the oral laws of Judaism stated that a Jew could not eat at the same table as a Gentile. It probably started out as an innocent protection for the people of Israel, so that they would not accidentally sin by eating unclean food served unknowingly by a Gentile. However, by the first century, it was established as if it were a law of God Himself. It was considered the height of uncleanness to sit at the same table with a “Gentile dog,” even though the written Torah never made this command.
This is why God gave a vision to Peter of a sheet filled with unclean animals, telling Peter to kill and eat. Peter rightly refused to eat unclean animals, for the Torah stated that to eat of these animals was an abomination in God’s sight.
However, God’s response to Peter was,
“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).
You can understand why Peter was confused!
However, after Peter met Cornelius, he understood why God had given him that vision.
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to asso-ciate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
The vision wasn’t about eating unclean food, for that would have been subtracting a command from the Torah! We’ve learned that this can never be! Rather, the vision was about sharing the good news of Messiah with “Gentile dogs,” those whom first-century Jews would not even sit at the same table with for a meal.
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right'” (Acts 10:34-35).
Peter explained to Cornelius that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Incredibly, all the Jewish believers who were with Peter saw that God accepted Cornelius, even though he was not an official convert to Judaism or well trained in the Torah.
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
“Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Yeshua the Messiah. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days” (Acts 10:44-48).
Cornelius was baptized that very day, or immersed in a mikvah in Jewish fashion, even though he had not completed the long process of “circumcision.” This caused quite a ruckus among the other believers!
“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them'” (Acts 11:1-3).
Peter carefully explained everything that had happened, and concluded by saying,
“‘So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?'”
“When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:17-18).
This remained a sticky issue for quite some time, however. By approximately 50 A.D., we see that it was such a disagreement that the apostles had to call a special meeting.
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:1-2).
Notice that the argument wasn’t about what the written Torah said; it was about the “custom taught by Moses,” or the oral traditions that they believed had been passed down from Moses to their time.
They truly believed that unless a Gentile completed the full conversion process, including physical circumcision, that person could not be a true believer in Messiah Yeshua.
The apostles and elders of all the churches met in Jerusalem, and there was much debate.
- Paul and Barnabas had preached the gospel in many Gentile towns by this time, and they told of how the Spirit of God had moved strongly among the new Gentile believers, even those who had not been through the formal conversion process of circumcision.
- Some of the devout Orthodox Jews made a good case for why Gentile believers could not be admitted as full citizens to the nation of Israel unless they had been properly taught and tested to see that they would be faithful to the Torah. In their defense, we can tell that they wanted to be sure nothing was subtracted from the commands of God, as Deuteronomy 4:2 says.
- However, Peter then made a defense for not subjecting the Gentiles to any additions to God’s commands in the form of the oral traditions we would now call Talmud. He called these “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear.”
“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 10:7-11).
When all was said and done, James stood up and explained that the prophets had foretold of a time when the Gentile nations would seek to be included with the people of God.
“The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘”‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek YHVH, even all the Gentiles who bear my name,’ says YHVH, who does these things — things known from long ago'” (Acts 15:12-18).
Then the apostles and elders decided to write letters to all the churches, sharing that they didn’t want new Gentile believers to be burdened with anything except for four requirements, all of which were found in the written Torah itself and not in any tradition that had been passed down.
“Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:19-21).
The Apostles were convinced that new Gentile believers would be attending synagogue each Sabbath day and would therefore hear the written Torah of Moses read and explained. They knew that all the rest of God’s commands would be learned week by week, slowly, in a way that wouldn’t be overwhelming.
Reading the Torah is going back to basics. This is true discipleship! As we read, chapter by chapter, through the first five books of the Bible, we can very naturally ask questions and learn how to apply the commands of God to our lives.
Ideally, we learn in a group environment, new believers with mature “old folks” who have been walking this road for a while.
The Apostles didn’t start with “circumcision” and training in Jewish halachah. Rather, after sharing the good news of Messiah Yeshua, they started to help new believers grow by studying the written Torah each week – and that’s where I want to start with you, too.
“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law (Torah) of YHVH!” (Psalm 119:1)
In the coming weeks, we’ll start by examining the Sabbath day, something that the first-century believers took for granted but feels foreign to most of us almost two thousand years later.
Then we’ll cover the same four rules the first-century apostles gave to new believers:
- Abstaining from things polluted by idols
- Abstaining from sexual immorality
- Abstaining from things strangled
- Abstaining from blood
We’ll spend the weeks after that discussing the remainder of God’s commands in the written Torah. Just as in first-century times, I’ll try to keep encouraging you to take your time, learning how to walk in Torah with the support of other believers around you, if at all possible.