Continuing where we left off yesterday, let’s dig a little more into Dr. William J. Larkin’s (Ph.D.) treatment of Acts 15 in his IVP New Testament Series Commentary on Acts. Yesterday we considered his use of ‘law-free gospel.’ Today, we will consider another phrase he uses, ‘yoke of the law,’ which is pretty commonly misused in Christendom.
What solution to the controversy does this freshly articulated understanding yield? James makes an “official” proposal of one negative and one positive action with respect to Gentile converts. We should not make it difficult for them: that is, Jewish Christians should not pressure Gentile converts (compare Judg 14:17; 16:16 LXX) into adopting circumcision and the yoke of the lawas a necessary condition and sign of their salvation (contrast Acts 15:1, 5). Positively, the council asks Gentile converts to abstain from food polluted by idols (compare 15:29, “food sacrificed to idols”; Ex 34:15-16; compare Lev 17:7-8), sexual immorality (possibly meaning marriage within levitical degrees—Lev 18:6-18), meat of strangled animals (meat that has not been ritually slaughtered so as to drain the blood properly—Lev 17:13) and blood (eating blood—Lev 17:10).
First, as we pointed out yesterday, there was no such thing as ‘Jewish Christians.’ That is an oxymoron! They were completed Jews, who kept on being Jews, but had come to faith in their OWN promised Messiah. They didn’t stop being Jews, nor stop being obedient to the revealed Word of Yahweh.
The real problem with Larkin, and much of Christendom’s, paradigm is revealed in the phrase ‘yoke of the law’ and the way it is (mis)handled. Here is Acts 15:10, the verse to which Larkin is referring,
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?
Notice the word ‘law’ does not appear in the verse. In fact, after searching multiple translations, there is only one verse in all of Scripture that has ‘yoke’ and ‘law’ in the same verse. (Numbers 19:2) But search the phrase, ‘yoke of the law,’ on the internet and it comes up multiple times used in a similar fashion as Larkin’s use or even more specifically as ‘yoke of the law of Moses.’
Firstly, we need to understand that when Christendom expands ‘yoke’ to mean ‘yoke of the law,’ they are making an assumption! Further, when they state ‘Mosaic Law,’ ‘Torah’ or ‘Law of Moses,’ they are making an even greater assumption. The context is not so clear as they make it seem. We need to do some sleuthing. Let’s consider four possible interpretations of the word ‘yoke.’
- The yoke could be circumcision itself. The debate is about circumcision, though any idea that it is too much to bear makes this first possibility an immediate fail.
- The yoke could be Mosaic Law, the Torah, as Christendom often asserts, however a cursory look at the way Yahweh describes His Law demonstrates this is a complete fail. Multiple places in Scripture we are specifically told the Law of God/Torah is NOT burdensome. See Deuteronomy 30:8-16; I John 5:2-3; as well as Matthew 7:21-23 (note:’lawlessness’); Matthew 5:17-19; 11:28-30; and Acts 15:21 (Riddle me this: If Torah is the yoke, why did James expect them to learn Moses in the synagogue on the Sabbath? Crazy!)
- The yoke could be ‘works of the law as a basis for salvation.’ Now this has legs, because there are multiple warnings in Scripture against the misuse of the Law for works based righteousness. Galatians is a favorite misused epistle that largely falls into this category. Chalk it up as ‘possible.’
- The yoke could be the Oral Law and traditions of the elders. Multiple places Yeshua warns of the leaven and the traditions of the elders while upholding the Torah. He also openly breaks traditions that were later set forth as Rabbinic law in the Talmud (pictured at left). The Apostle Paul follows suit calling the Torah holy, righteous, good and established by faith, while he rejects ‘works of the law’ as a means of salvation or of having any value. Often those ‘works of the law’ have to do with Rabbinic law, an understanding that clarifies Pauline writing as he was a Pharisee affiliated rabbi, and therefore was a ‘Jew to the Jews’ by practicing the oral/Rabbinic law when among Jews. This is the ‘probable’ meaning of Peter’s use of ‘yoke.’ He is referring to tradition and Oral Law that Pharisees considered binding upon Jews, however, the Torah and Yeshua both clearly declare these additions and subtractions from the Torah are NOT binding. (You shall not add…)
When we consider these various understandings of ‘yoke,’ and the likelihood that Peter was NOT referring to Torah, James wanted new believers to learn Moses in the synagogue on Shabbat, and the Pharisees loved their oral traditions, we can see that maybe Acts 15 is not about doing away with the Torah as the gold standard of righteousness. (After all, that is what Yeshua kept!!)
In fact, a while back I wrote about Yeshua saying, ‘take My yoke upon you and learn of Me…’ What did He mean? He gave us a clue what yoke we are to take on and that is not at odds with Peter. We can have the yoke of tradition, whether Judaic or Christian, or we can have the easy and light yoke of Torah, simple righteousness given directly from the Father.
More to come…