Sabbath School Lesson for October 7-13, 2017
The epistle to the Galatians seemed to have sparked Paul into delving deeper into the issue of righteousness by faith, as he took up the same subject with the Romans. As the Christian church was just beginning to spread its wings, there was much controversy over the relationship between the law and grace.
Jewish believers were still very much entangled with a love for the law, which had led to a very legalistic attitude on the part of almost everyone in that religious system. But Jesus came to help them break away from that faulty and one-sided perspective. His Sermon on the Mount demonstrated His desire to see them incorporate more grace and faith into their cut-and-dry way of relating to the law.
Paul had cause for concern, as Jews and Gentiles at that time differed on how to be saved. See Acts 15:1. It was perhaps natural for the Jewish brethren to insist on the same rituals and observances that they had been taught were correct and essential. After all, wasn’t that how it had always been done? In order to join the Jewish community, certain rites, including circumcision, were required.
We mustn’t think that the controversy was about what law we should keep, as we tend to focus on today. Although references to the law meant different things, Jews seemed to understand instantly whether the moral law, or other ceremonial and civil/health laws were spoken of. That wasn’t what the argument was about in the context of the book of Romans.
What was at issue was whether the keeping of ANY law was the means of someone being saved. And the answer Paul repeated many times was an emphatic “NO”. We are saved by faith alone, not through any works, or any keeping of the law, even the moral law (the Ten Commandments).
Memory Verse: “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” John 1:17 KJV
Jesus was the embodiment of His Father’s grace and truth. John said just previously to this verse, “And the Word was made flesh, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” v. 14
Many feel there must have been something faulty about the law of Moses then, for Jesus to have to come in and seemingly replace it. But we find much praise for the law by faithful men dedicated to God. David, for instance, said in Psalm 19:7: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”
So, there was nothing wrong with the law, as God gave it to Moses. The trouble came with the way the people kept the law. Their heart was not in it, as prophets of the time continuously pointed out to the Israelites (Ezekiel 33:31). God was anxious to put the law in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). It proved to be quite a task, even for Jesus.
As a matter of fact, the issue is still carried to extreme today by those who lean toward legalism and those who promote what’s been called “cheap grace”. Satan would love to have us inch over to either side, because that would draw us from our central focus, which is Christ, the most balanced Person in the universe.
Sunday: A Better Covenant
“But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.” Hebrews 8:6 NKJV
This verse about a better covenant is used by some to explain why we don’t follow Old Testament requirements any more. On the surface, it seems to indicate that Jesus came to bring us a better covenant than the one given to Abraham and Moses. And certainly the sacrifice that Jesus brought to us on Calvary, must be seen as superior to the animal sacrifices that had been offered by man over the generations, going all the way back to Adam. The book of Hebrews explains more fully how this is so.
But notice also that it was established on “better promises”. Just as God’s Sacrifice of His Son was better than our animal sacrifices, His promises are always better than that those from man. We must remember that God’s covenant and promises hadn’t changed. They have always been perfect. Malachi 3:6 says, God does not change.
The promises given by the people to keep the law had changed though. Remember how they promised at the time of Moses, “All the words of the Lord has said we will do.” (Exodus 24:3)? That was not exactly a good promise. It was based on the premise that they were capable of keeping the law on their own. And this was the mentality Jesus and later Paul were still trying to correct.
We can do nothing apart from Christ. Outward observance of any law, without inward, heartfelt compliance, is totally worthless in God’s eyes. David testified, “…A broken and a contrite heart–These, O God, You will not despise.” Psalm 51:17 NKJV God wants obedience from the heart.
Discussion Questions: Read Hebrews 8:6, Exodus 24:3, and Malachi 3:6. What and whose promises were spoken of here? How did Jesus try to change them?
Read Psalm 51:16-19. Is God happy when we change, or when we decide to let Him change us? Why is that difference important?
Read Matthew 19:17, James 2:10, 11, and Revelation 12:17. Why is the Ten Commandment law still binding? What does it represent and why is it still important to God’s people?
Monday: Jewish Laws and Regulations
We know that there were various categories of Jewish laws and regulations. They are somewhat artificial, because there is considerable overlap in the groupings. In studying the relationship between law and grace, however, it would be helpful to understand these designations and the purpose for the laws given at various times.
- the moral law–recognized as the Ten Commandments, spoken by God directly to the people (still binding for all Christians)
- ceremonial laws–directions from God, relayed by Moses, to properly conduct the services in the sanctuary (only applicable when the sanctuary or temple was in operation, and when the symbols pointing to the Messiah still had validity)
- civil laws–although based on the moral law, these served as guides in how to relate to each other and their leaders (not in effect after the Jews lost their independence and came under the control of another nation, when they were no longer a theocracy, or ruled by God)
- health laws–these guidelines pertained to the uncleanness and cleanliness of various life activities, but also impacted the effectiveness of one’s service to God (certain health principles may still be beneficial for God’s people, especially those pertaining to not eating scavengers and avoiding personal contact that leads to germs and disease)
Discussion Questions: Read Exodus 20:1-17. Why does this moral law apply to more than those brought out of bondage in Egypt? From what other kind of bondage has God delivered us?
Read Matthew 5:17-20. How were the Pharisees not being righteous, although they seemed to be keeping the moral law?
Read Matthew 27:50-51. What was significant about the temple curtain being torn, especially from top to bottom? What else pointed to this event being a sign from God?
Tuesday: As the Custom of Moses
With God being incapable of change, perhaps it’s no wonder that we humans find change difficult. However, in a sinful planet, our salvation depends on change. The whole process of spiritual conversion involves change. But always a change for the better.
Christian Jews in various places of the first-century world seem to have been particularly resistant to what should have been a change for the better. Accepting Jesus as their Messiah was only part of the change they were required to make. Letting go of the Mosaic laws and regulations, such as circumcision, that merely prefigured the Messiah apparently was much more difficult for them to accomplish.
Paul attempted this task of changing their legalistic mentality by constantly preaching to them about the role of faith in our righteousness. We are saved by faith alone, not by anything we do ourselves. He also accepted the decision of a council of believers in Jerusalem, elected to decide these issues. He was willing to work with a church body that was seeking God’s wisdom to make good decisions.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 15:1-11. What made the yoke hard for the Jews to bear (v. 10)? Was it circumcision and other commandments that were hard to bear, or the fact that they were trying to keep them on their own, without God’s help? In what other ways had they made it hard to bear?
Read Acts 15:12. Why was it necessary for Paul and Barnabas to remind them of the miracles that had occurred during their work with Gentiles? Was it still hard for Jews to believe that Gentiles could be blessed the same as they had been? Why were these prejudices still a part of the Jewish culture? Might we also be guilty of separating people into groups or cultures, instead of seeking ways to embrace and include them in our lives? How can we avoid this?
Why did Paul, who knew he had a prophetic calling from God, feel obliged to seek counsel and abide by the decision of the larger church body? Why is having faithful church leadership in place so essential to the function of the church, even today? Can this leadership be honored, and yet be questioned and held accountable for its decisions, good or bad? What makes our attitudes good or bad when it comes to church leadership?
Wednesday: The Gentile Believers
When Peter addressed the Jerusalem council about the difficulties they were having, he referred to the Jewish demands as a “yoke…which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Of course, this may have partly meant that keeping the law the way they had been taught, without God’s help, amounted to an uncomfortable yoke. But we also realize that all the additional regulations, imposed by rabbis through the centuries, had also made God’s original law quite a load to carry.
In considering which Jewish customs the Gentiles would be asked to observe, there must have been a desire not to offend those in the Jewish community. After all, unity in the church was the goal they desperately needed. Both Jews and Gentiles must be comfortable with the behaviors they were to promote in these early churches.
They therefore chose to ask them to abstain:
- from things offered/polluted by idols
- from blood, from things strangled
- from sexual immorality
These requirements, in addition to the moral law, embodied in the Ten Commandments, should be enough to keep both factions more at ease with each other.
Some have countered that since the Sabbath wasn’t mentioned in the Council’s list, that Sabbath observance was no longer binding on the Christian church. But this suggests that lying, murder, and the other nine commandments would no longer be binding either. James reminds us that “whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). And Jesus Himself told us, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18 NKJV).
No Jew would ever have signed off on an effort to toss out any of the Ten Commandments. They knew its divine origin better than anyone, with their forefathers being witnesses of the event at the time of Moses.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 15:20, 29, Leviticus 17:14, Genesis 9:1-4, and Hebrews 9:22. What was the significance of blood and why were they to abstain from it? Would this abstaining also include blood transfusions, as believers in another denomination have seen it to mean? Why, or why not? What about the blood found in some meats? Why is ingesting blood not a healthy idea?
Read Romans 8:1-13. What was Paul’s measuring stick when deciding between controversial topics and behaviors?
Read Mark 7:8, 9, and 13. In what ways might our local church be laying burdens on others by our customs and traditions? How might this be done in our homes, or even within our own self? Can an individual lay a burden on himself? How is God dishonored by such attempts?
Thursday: Paul and the Galatians
As we learned from studying the book of Galatians, the false teachers there and elsewhere had several hidden agendas that Paul was not hesitant in exposing:
- Galatians 1:7–they wanted “to pervert the gospel of Christ”
- Galatians 4:17–they wanted “to exclude you [the Gentiles]”
- Galatians 6:12–they desired to “make a good showing” and so they might “not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ”
Even though the council in Jerusalem had decided in Paul’s favor on this issue, Paul still had concerns that these Judaizers were continuing to disrupt and dismantle the basic tenets of the faith. Their insistence on actions one must take to ensure their salvation did not sit well with this apostle, and he felt it his duty to forewarn other believers every chance he could.
The church as a whole stood much to lose if Paul’s warnings and pleas were not taken seriously. The Christian faith depended on each of the churches embracing the doctrine of righteousness by faith. It was vital to their survival as a God’s people.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 1:7, 4:17, and 6:12. What were the motives of those encouraging Gentiles in Galatia to be circumcised? How did their teachings pervert the gospel?
Read Acts 15:1. Why was circumcision a particularly difficult requirement to place on Gentiles? And why do you think the Jerusalem council voted against it in their recommendations?
What do you say to those who feel the Sabbath is particularly difficult to manage in our world today? How can you explain its usefulness and blessedness to someone who has never experienced it?
In understanding the controversy facing the early Christian church, we looked at several angles Paul was addressing in his letter to the Romans:
- What was meant by calling attention to “a better covenant”? (Sunday)
- How might Jewish laws and regulations be classified? (Monday)
- What customs of Moses were the Gentiles being pressed to obey? (Tuesday)
- What was the determination of the Jerusalem council? (Wednesday)
- What motivated the false teachers in Galatia, as well as in Rome? (Thursday)
What about handling church controversy today? How does one navigate the delicate issues that divide us? When difficult decisions are made (keeping in mind that church bodies and leaders have been known to make mistakes), do we ignore the decisions and do what we feel is right anyway, or do we go along with decisions we feel are faulty, just praying the problem will go away in due course, in order to not further divide the brethren?
Each of us has our own conscience to live with in these matters. But one can’t help but wonder what Paul would have done if the Jerusalem council had decided in favor of the Judaizers. This is surely something only Paul and God could answer.
The best course for us to take is to keep our eyes on the Savior. Focusing on Him, listening to His counsel, and following His lead is the only way to deal with controversies in the church. Satan wants our attention to be on the problem. But we must keep our attention on the answer, which is Jesus Christ alone.
Next Week: The Human Condition
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
All Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/