Hebrew Roots? Yes. Hebrew Fruits? No.

By David Servant

Most every true Christian understands that Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and He kept the Mosaic Law all of His life. All of His apostles witnessed Him perfectly keep the Mosaic Law. He obviously, for example, kept the annual Feast of Passover (which, incidentally, foreshadowed His saving work in numerous ways.)

The early church was 100% Jewish. All of those early Jewish Christians, who lived among non-believing Jews, followed the Mosaic Law that they had been keeping all of their lives. It is clear that Peter, for example, kept the Mosaic dietary laws at least until Acts 10, which would have been seven to ten years after the Day of Pentecost.

It certainly made sense for the early Jewish believers to keep the Mosaic Law while they were trying to win non-believing Jews to Jesus. Had they abandoned the Mosaic Law in whole or in part, it would have erected barriers to the gospel for Jewish people. That is also why the apostle Paul (whose ministry was focused mostly towards Gentiles) followed the Mosaic Law when he was around Jews (see 1 Cor. 9:19-22).

During His earthly ministry, Jesus ministered a few times to Gentiles (see Matt. 8:5-13; Mark 7:24-30). He told His apostles that Gentiles would be included in His future kingdom (see Matt. 8:10-12; John 10:16). After His resurrection, He told them to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). He also told them that they would be His witnesses “even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). When the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to take the gospel to the remotest parts of the earth, fell on them on the day of Pentecost, they all spoke in Gentile languages. But those repeated messages didn’t sink in to their minds very well, which probably explains why none of them made any effort to proclaim the gospel to any Gentiles for at least 7 to 10 years after Pentecost.

Due to some extraordinary efforts by the Lord, Peter finally came to understand what he had missed for so long. He found himself divinely-directed to enter the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, and he ate a meal there, something he had never done before. Before eating, he preached the gospel to all the Gentiles who had eagerly assembled, offering forgiveness of sins if they would believe in Jesus. Soon, he witnessed the Holy Spirit fall on Gentiles who were speaking in other tongues (see Acts 10). That was the very first grafting of Gentile “branches” into the Jewish “trunk and roots” (see Rom. 11:11-24), and before long, many other Gentile branches were being continually grafted in, even to this present day.

That inflow of Gentile believers into the church understandably raised the question regarding their relationship with the Mosaic Law. Should they, like all the Jewish Christians, follow all of its non-moral requirements? The early Christians were divided over the issue, and so a special council of church leaders was convened in Jerusalem, which included both Peter and Paul, and at which there was discussion and some debate. Some believing Pharisees who were present were convinced that Gentile males could not be saved unless they were circumcised and kept all of the Mosaic Law (see Acts 15:1-5).

Let me interject that there never was, of course, any debate or question regarding whether Gentile believers should obey the commandments of Christ (see Matt. 28:19-20), or the moral law that God had written on every Gentile conscience (see Rom. 2:14-16). The debate was over circumcision and other non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. The question was, “Should Gentile believers act just like Jewish believers, all of whom are keeping both the moral and non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law”?

At the Jerusalem council, Peter reminded everyone that God had used him to reach the first Gentiles, and that entire incident made it quite clear that God wasn’t requiring Gentiles to be circumcised or keep any other non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law before He saved them. They were speaking in other tongues before Peter even finished his sermon!

Peter made a few other revealing remarks before the council:

He [God] made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], 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).

So the truth, according to Peter, was that no Jew had ever successfully obeyed the Mosaic Law, at least to perfection. That was true for Peter himself as well as for all of his contemporary Jewish believers. The Mosaic Law was, in Peter’s words, an “unbearable yoke.” And that statement begs the question, “Why then were Christian Jews still attempting to keep all the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law”? The answer is that they all just assumed that they should. It was ingrained in them from childhood. It was their culture.

In any case, the council ultimately decided that believing Gentiles had no obligation to be circumcised or keep the other non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. They did not want to put believing Gentiles under an “unbearable yoke.” They did, however, compromise slightly by advising believing Gentiles to avoid a few non-moral practices that were particularly offensive to Jews, practices that mostly (or entirely) had something to do with the foods they ate, such as foods “contaminated by idols” (see Acts 15:9).

The reason for the compromise was explained by James before the council: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). Many of the new churches consisted of Gentiles—who were not keeping any non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law—and believing Jews, who were all keeping the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. It was a strange and delicate mix! Moreover, all of those churches were near Jewish populations consisting of people where were also keeping the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. All that being so, the newly-grafted-in Gentile believers ought to demonstrate some respect for the Jewish tree into which they had just been grafted—by avoiding a few things that were especially offensive to Mosaic-Law-keeping Jews, both believing and unbelieving.

Some within the “Hebrew Roots” movement try to persuade us that the Jerusalem council actually decided to give Gentile believers a “Mosaic Law Starter Kit” that consisted of just four requirements from the Mosaic Law, because they would soon be learning all 613 of the laws of Moses when they attended their local Jewish synagogue each week. So, they claim, the council actually decided (borrowing Peter’s words) to “put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither” their forefathers nor they had been able to bear! The council also allegedly decided to ignore the plain fact that God’s Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius’ household while they were all uncircumcised and certainly not keeping any non-moral aspect of the Mosaic Law!

Those two facts are not the only biblical proof that the typical “Hebrew Roots” explanation of Acts 15 is silly. Another is that Peter publicly declared that the fruit of those who try to keep the Mosaic Law is law breaking, because no one other than Jesus ever kept it all. It is, he said, an “unbearable yoke.”

In any case, since the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, no Gentile believer has had any obligation to keep the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, with the possible exception of keeping four food-related restrictions mentioned in the council’s decision. And I think it is safe to say that those four restrictions would only apply to Gentile believers who were members of churches which included Mosaic-Law-keeping Christian Jews, or who lived in proximity to unbelieving Jews. That being so, there is essentially no reason for any Gentile believer today to be keeping any non-moral aspect of the Mosaic Law. So, when a “Hebrew Roots” Christian shows you their list of biblical texts that prove that the early church kept the Mosaic Law, you can say, “You are correct that the early Jewish Christians kept the Mosaic Law, but you are incorrect if you think that the early Gentile Christians did. Read Acts 15. After that, read Paul’s letter to the Galatians.”

My question is, did any of the early Jewish Christians ever realize that they, too, were under no obligation to keep any of the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law? Later chapters in Acts seem to indicate that Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem did not realize it. And what about Peter? Did he ever start eating previously-forbidden animal foods that he saw in the sheet lowered from heaven? I don’t know.

We can be sure, however, that the apostle Paul eventually understood that Jewish Christians were under no obligation to keep non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, because he said so. Writing about the Law of Moses (as one who was born a Jew), he wrote to the Corinthian believers:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under law [Jews] as under law, though not being myself under [the Mosaic] law, so that I might win those who are under [the Mosaic] law; to those who are without [the Mosaic] law [that is, Gentiles], as without [the Mosaic] law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Cor. 9:19-23, emphasis added, and with italicized words in the NASB removed for accuracy).

Paul did not believe that he was obligated, before God, to keep the Mosaic Law. However, when he was around Law-keeping Jews, believers or unbelievers, he kept it right along with them so as not to hinder them from receiving the gospel. We have an example of this very thing in Paul’s life near the end of the book of Acts. Paul was compelled by the Spirit to return to Jerusalem, and when he arrived, he spoke with the Jerusalem leadership. They told him:

You see, brother [Paul], how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four [believing Jewish] men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 21:20-25, emphasis added).

Paul followed the Jerusalem elders’ advice to the T, but it didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. In fact, a riot was started by some Jews who made some wrong assumptions. Paul was almost killed, but he was saved by a Gentile soldier. In the end, he found himself in prison. “Becoming all things to all men” is a wise strategy, but anyone who practices it realizes its inherent flaw, and that is you run the risk of being perceived as two-faced when one group discovers you act differently with another group.

But here is what I want you to see from all the scriptures that we’ve considered: For decades in the early church, Jewish believers kept at least some of the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, whereas Gentile believers did not, with the exception of four restrictions regarding food. Those believing Jews and Gentiles co-existed in some degree of harmony, which would have required that both groups exercise significant love and tolerance.

Apparently, God was not troubled by the fact that believing Jews continued to keep non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, even though they were actually under no divine obligation to do so, and in spite of the fact that it was an “unbearable yoke” according to Peter. Neither was God troubled by the fact that Paul, who knew full well that he was under no obligation to keep the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, sometimes kept the Mosaic Law in order to not offend believing and non-believing Jews.

Yet on the other hand, Paul was very troubled when Galatian Gentile believers were being circumcised and starting to keep non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. Why was that? Because they had swallowed a false teaching from Jewish Christians who were teaching them that they were obligated to keep the Mosaic Law if they wanted to be saved. How troubled was Paul about it? He sternly warned the Galatians: “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Yikes!

So what was the difference between Jewish Christians keeping non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law and Gentile Christians doing the very same thing? Why was it acceptable for the former and unacceptable to the latter? I will explain momentarily. But in light of all the above biblical facts, it would certainly seem wise for Gentile Christians to stop and think before they begin keeping any non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. And for at least three reasons:

1.) First, because there is no biblical precedent for them to follow any non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. In fact, just the opposite is true, and we’ve just read about it in Acts 15.

2.) Second, although an attempt to follow some non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law could be spiritually harmless (as it was with the early Jewish Christians), it could be spiritually deadly (as it was with the Galatian Gentile believers).

Now read slowly:

In the case of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, they came to Christ already culturally keeping the Mosaic Law. They were Law-keepers who believed in Christ, an acknowledgment that the Law could not save them but Christ could. In the case of the Gentile Christians in Galatia, however, they were already-saved believers in Jesus who started keeping the non-moral aspects of the Law, an acknowledgement that Christ did not save them but that the Law could.

And therein lies the potential danger for “Hebrew Roots” Christians. For that reason, they should make every effort to avoid the trap of believing that they won’t be saved in the end unless they act like Jews under the Mosaic Law. Otherwise, they could find themselves “severed from Christ” and “falling from grace,” as their actions would indicate an attempt to be “justified by law” (Gal. 5:4).

That being so, the only Christians whom I would not discourage from acting like Jews under the Mosaic Law would be those whose actual background is Jewish, and who were practicing Judaism. Then they, like the early Christians, would be acknowledging the Law’s inability to save them and the need for Christ’s salvation. They might want to continue with their lifelong Jewish cultural/religious practices in order not to erect barriers to the gospel for their Jewish family members and friends. In so doing, they would actually be imitating Paul’s practice and that of the early Jewish Christians.

With that in mind, however, can you see how Gentile Christians who start acting like Jews could potentially be erecting barriers to the gospel for their Gentile family members and friends? Such Christians would be sending a message to their unsaved family and friends that to be saved, you have to start acting like a Jew, keeping Jewish feasts, avoiding certain foods, and saying Hebrew prayers. That is also part of the inevitable fruit of Hebrew Roots Christianity. It portrays a false gospel to Gentiles. Recall that we just read that when Paul, a Jew, was trying to reach Gentiles, he did not act like a Jew under the Mosaic Law.

3.) A third reason Hebrew Roots Christians should stop and think before they begin keeping any non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law is because of everything Paul wrote to the Galatians. The entire reason he wrote his letter to them was because of his grave concern that Gentile believers were falling prey to the false teaching of some Jewish Christians who were persuading them that they needed to start acting like Jews, keeping non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, in order to be saved.

Most Hebrew Roots Christians will say, “But we aren’t keeping non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law because we think we must in order to be saved.” I am compelled to then ask, “Why then are you keeping some of the non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law? Is it because you think that is what God expects of you? If your answer is “Yes,“ what scriptural basis do you have (as a Gentile) for what you are doing? What gospel are you portraying to unbelieving Gentiles? Finally, how are you applying, in your Christian life, Paul’s warnings to the Galatian Gentile believers?

Moreover, if you believe all Christians are supposed to obey the Mosaic Law, why aren’t you striving to keep all 613 of the Mosaic Laws? If you say, “Because some of them have obviously been fulfilled in Christ,” I am compelled to ask why then are you celebrating Jewish feasts, such as Passover, that have obviously been fulfilled in Christ? And why are you completely ignoring scores of Mosaic laws that you could easily obey, like the regulations concerning not trimming your beard? (Lev. 19:27).

Finally, I am compelled to also ask: Does your focus on keeping non-moral Mosaic laws help or hinder your focus on keeping Christ’s commandments, most of which are included in the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law? It has been my observation that many (but not all) Hebrew Roots Christians are sidetracked, or worse, fixated on non-moral aspects of the Mosaic Law. The worst examples are the “evangelists” for Hebrew Roots, who are on a continual crusade to convert all the Gentile Christians to their practices, a practice that Paul referred to as “bondage” and “a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 2:4; 5:1), and Peter called an “unbearable yoke” (Acts 15:10).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians Christians: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God (1 Cor. 7:19). Obviously, he was referring to keeping the moral commandments of God, because circumcision was commanded under the Mosaic Law. Paul could have referred, not to circumcision, but to any non-moral aspect of the Mosaic Law that anyone might elevate to a place of spiritual importance. Paul’s declaration would still be true. Keeping any non-moral aspect of the Mosaic Law “is nothing” in comparison to keeping the moral commandments of God.

Paul similarly wrote to the Roman believers: “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Contextually, he was contrasting those who were focused on not eating certain foods with those like himself, who were focusing on enjoying the wonderful fruit produced in their lives by the indwelling Holy Spirit—the fruit of righteousness, peace and joy. How much better is the latter than the former!

Which of the two best describes you? I hope the latter! — David