Can people keep the law? What does it mean to keep the law? Does the bible ever say people keep the law?
‘“Keep the faith” is an expression that has become famous in the English language. It means to maintain the cause, the goals, and the purposes of a belief or a cause. “The faith” was nothing less than the instructions accompanying the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai and with Abraham, King David and the prophets. The Hebrew verb shamar means “to keep,” but it is also translated in overlapping and similar ways: to care for, be careful, obey, guard, watch, or observe.’ (Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 102). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
This word study considers the topic of keeping the law, the commands of God.
- Old Testament
- Abraham and Moses (Gen 17:9–14; Ex 15:26; 19.5; 20.6; Lev 18:4-5; 22.31)
- Israel was commanded to keep all the commands of the law of Moses (Dt 26:16–19; cf. 5.29; 6.2; 13.18; 17.19; 19.9; 27.1)
- The commands are predicated on Israel’s prior salvation from Egypt (Dt 5.1-6)
- The Law of Moses (Ps 99.6-8)
- Moses says the Law is not to hard to keep (Dt 30.11-14)
- If Israel does not keep the law they will perish (Dt 30.15-20; cf. Dt 28.64-68)
- Some are described to have kept the law
- Joshua says the people with him kept all the commands (Josh 22.1-6)
- David says he kept the law (2 Sam 22:21–25; Ps 118.20; cf. Ps 32:1–5)
- The LORD said David kept the law (1 Ki 3.6; 3.10-14; 6.12-13; 9.3-5; 11.1-6,33,38; 14.8; 2 Chr 7.17-18)
- Assorted OT references (Ps 25.10; 78.7; 103.18; 119.2,44,55,60,63,69,100,129,168; Job 23.10-12; Eze 18.5-9)
- Israel did not keep the law, they abandoned God and were exiled (2 Ki 17:15–20; cf. Dt 28.64-68)
- Moses promised that Israel would be restored to the land and would keep the law again (Dt 30.1-10)
- During exile (Dan 9.4-5)
- Return from exile (Neh 1:5–6)
- New Testament
- Rich Young Ruler said he kept the some of the Laws (Mt 19.16-22)
- Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk 1:6)
- Jesus also talks about those who love him (Jn 14:15,21–24)
- Jesus says that we should keep his commandments (Jn 15:10–14)
- Acts (Acts 15:5–6)
- Paul (Rom 10.5-13; cf. Dt 30.12-14)
- Gentile Christians keep the precepts of the law (Rom 2.25-29; 1 Cor 7.19; Rom 6.17-18; 1 Ti 6:11–14; cf. 5.21-22)
- John (1 Jn 2.3-6; 3.17; 3.21-24; 5.1-5; Rev 12.17; 14.12-13)
The way I will go about unfolding the concept of keeping the law is to tell the story of Israel leading into the story of Jesus and beyond.
One of the earliest uses of the verb is in Genesis. Abraham is instructed to keep the covenant (Gen 17:9).
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall KEEP my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall KEEP, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen 17:9–14)
The verb is normally associated with various commands. In this early stage it is circumcision.
In Exodus and Leviticus the commands associated with the covenant increased in number. Like before Israel was still commanded to keep the covenant law (Ex 15:26; 19.5; 20.6; Lev 18:4-5; 22.31).
Israel was commanded to keep all the commands of the law of Moses
16 “This day the LORD your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. 17 You have declared today that the LORD is your God, and that you will walk in his ways, and KEEP his statutes and his commandments and his rules, and will obey his voice. 18 And the LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to KEEP all his commandments, 19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.” (Dt 26:16–19; cf. 5.29; 6.2; 13.18; 17.19; 19.9; 27.1)
None of the commands were to be left out. They were to keep all the commands.
The commands are predicated on Israel’s prior salvation from Egypt
We should also note what these commands are predicated on.
5 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, 5 awhile I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
6 “ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Dt 5.1-6)
They were delivered from slavery in Egypt by the LORD. In response they were to keep the law.
Obedience is predicated on salvation.
The Law of Moses
I’ve tabulated the law’s commands based on various categories. This should give you an idea of the types of commands involved.
|Love||Circumcision||Idolatry and Foreign Worship||Firstborn|
|Honor||Festivals and holidays||Murder and Violence||Property, Land and Servants|
|Worship and Sacrifice||Sexual immorality||Punishment and Restitution|
|Purity and Washings||Stealing||Social Justice and the Poor|
Moses says the Law is not to hard to keep
Near the end of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks about the commandments saying.
11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Dt 30.11-14)
After summing up all the commands of the law through many chapters, Moses says, ‘this commandment is not to hard for you’. I think he means the commandments are not to hard for them to keep.
Its wrong to say the law of Moses is impossible to keep, rather Moses said the law is not to hard to keep.
This makes it all the worse for Israel if they not keep the law.
If Israel does not keep the law they will perish
In Deuteronomy 30 Moses goes on to explain what will happen to them if they don’t keep the law.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by KEEPING his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Dt 30.15-20)
They shall perish and their lives will be cut short. Moses said earlier if or when this happens they will be exiled (Dt 28.64-68).
Some are described to have kept the law
Moses eventually passes away and Joshua leads God’s people into the promised land.
Joshua says the people with him kept all the commands
Joshua says the people have kept the law.
22 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them,
“You have KEPT all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to KEEP the charge of the Lord your God.
4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to KEEP his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. (Josh 22.1-6)
So at this point Moses has said its ‘not to hard for them’ to keep the law and Joshua has confirmed this. According to Joshua, Israel has ‘kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded’.
Bear in mind sometimes we can assume our experience and perspective of people is the same as the authors of scripture and their communities. If you look at the scriptures, their default and shared understanding was that some people could keep the law.
Different people and cultures over time have different perceptions of humanity and how to describe them. A persons perception of their own or anothers character and behaviour is inherently subjective. One person’s perception of reality may differ from another persons. One culture’s perception of reality may differ from other cultures. So when we look at the scriptures we should be wary of imposing our own subjective perception on the text and keep considering the perspectives of the authors who wrote the scripture and the original communities they wrote to.
Keeping the covenant law involves ongoing practice of all the commands in the law. Not sinless perfection.
When the scriptures say someone has kept the law it does not mean they are sinlessly perfect.
Keeping the law is not a one off situation. Rather a way of walking through life. It is done in relationship with the LORD and with the community of God. It involves obedience certainly, but it also includes forgiveness of sin.
People say, ‘no one can keep the law’. This assumption has been created by changing the biblical meaning of ‘keeping the law’ to one theorized by church tradition. Yes, its based on another explanatory function that ignores a number of scriptures.
The scriptures then take us through the period of Judges. But, they drop the ball and don’t really keep the law then (Jdg 1-2). Afterwards God chooses some kings for them. First Saul. No. He doesn’t keep the law. He disobeyed the LORD and the LORD rejected him.
Then came David.
David says he kept the law
21 “The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
22 For I have KEPT the ways of the LORD and have not wickedly departed from my God.
23 For all his rules were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside.
24 I was blameless before him, and I KEPT myself from guilt.
25 And the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight. (2 Sam 22:21–25; cf. Ps 118.20)
David is quite optimistic. He says he ‘kept the ways of the LORD’. But David sinned – once (1 Ki 15.5). Since he sinned, he can only say what he does above because at the same time he believes in forgiveness.
1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I KEPT silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Ps 32:1–5)
Hence if we combine David’s two sayings here. David’s understanding of ‘keeping the ways of the LORD’ includes the notion of forgiveness.
Keeping the law has always involved ongoing practice of the commandments and forgiveness of sin.
David isn’t the only one who says he kept the law.
The LORD said David kept the law
After David dies the LORD appears to Solomon in a dream and said he could ask him for anything. In the ensuing conversation Solomon says.
6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have KEPT for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. (1 Ki 3.6)
Solomon has a fairly high opinion of David. He walked before the LORD in faithfulness, in righteousness and in uprightness of heart. What does the LORD think about David? Solomon asks for wisdom and discernment.
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, KEEPING my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” (1 Ki 3.10-14)
The LORD agrees with Solomon’s evaluation of David. He says David kept the LORD’s statutes and commandments and instructs Solomon to do the same (cf. 1 Ki 6.12-13).
God would know if someone kept the law right?
Solomon builds the temple. This is the place where the LORD hears peoples prayers for mercy and forgives. During his dedication and high priestly prayer Solomon will ask the LORD to enable Israel to, among other things, keep the law (1 Ki 8:55–61). The seems to think the LORD can.
Afterwards the LORD appears to Solomon a second time. The LORD reaffirms his evaluation of David.
The LORD said to Solomon, “if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and KEEPING my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father,” (1 Ki 9.3-5; cf. 1 Ki 11.33,38; 14.8; 2 Chr 7.17-18)
David did all he was commanded, he kept the LORD’s statutes and rules. Sadly, Solomon turns away from the LORD.
11 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 3 He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. (1 Ki 11.1-6)
9 And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not KEEP what the LORD commanded. 11 Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not KEPT my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. 12 Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.” (1 Ki 11:9–13)
The author of kings says ‘David’s heart was wholly true the LORD’ (v4) and ‘David wholly followed the LORD’ (v6). From statements such as these I’m thinking the LORD believed David kept Dt 6.4-5.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Dt 6:4–5)
From this point onwards David is used as the benchmark for faith and obedience against which all the faithful kings of Israel are evaluated.
Assorted OT references
Various psalmists seem to think there are people who keep the law (Ps 25.10; 78.7; 103.18; 119.2,44,55,60,63,69,100,129,168).
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who KEEP his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Ps 103.17-18)
44 I will KEEP your law continually, forever and ever, (Ps 119.44)
55 I remember your name in the night, O Lord, and KEEP your law. 56 This blessing has fallen to me, that I have KEPT your precepts. (Ps 119.55-56)
63 I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who KEEP your precepts. (Ps 119.63)
5 He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, 6 that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, 7 so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but KEEP his commandments; (Ps 78.5-7)
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who KEEP his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Ps 103.17-18)
119 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! 2 Blessed are those who KEEP his testimonies, who oseek him with their whole heart, (Ps 119.1-2)
44 I will KEEP your law continually, forever and ever, (Ps 119.44)
55 I remember your name in the night, O Lord, and KEEP your law. 56 This blessing has fallen to me, that I have KEPT your precepts. (Ps 119.55-56)
60 I hasten and do not delay to KEEP your commandments. (Ps 119.60)
63 I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who KEEP your precepts. (Ps 119.63)
Job said he kept God’s commands (Job 23.10-12) and was ridiculed for it.
10 But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. 11 My foot has held fast to his steps; I have KEPT his way and have not turned aside. 12 I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food. (Job 23.10-12)
Ezekiel seems to think people can keep the rules and be faithful. He even goes so far as call them ‘righteous’ (Eze 18.5-9).
Israel did not keep the law, they abandoned God and were exiled
15 They [Israel] despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.
19 Judah also did not KEEP the commandments of the LORD their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. 20 And the LORD rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had cast them out of his sight. (2 Ki 17:15–20)
Moses said they would be exiled if they didn’t keep the law (Dt 28.64-68).
Moses promised that Israel would be restored to the land and would keep the law again
However, there is hope. If we look back to the prophecy in Deuteronomy 30.
30 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you [exile], 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you.
8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and KEEP all his commandments that I command you today.
9 The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to KEEP his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Dt 30.1-10)
God promises of to restore his people. They will ‘again’, just like they did with Joshua, ‘obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments’ (v8).
Through a number of prophets, God promises to return to Zion. The messiah will come.
Daniel seems to think there are people who love God and keep his commandments. He also recognises that Israel has sinned. That’s why they are in exile.
4 I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who KEEPS covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and KEEP his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. (Dan 9:4–5)
Return from exile
When the Jews returned from exile. Like Daniel before him, Nehemiah recognises that Israel has sinned and he also affirms God loves those who keep the LORD’s commands.
5 And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who KEEPS covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and KEEP his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. (Neh 1:5–6)
Nehemiah seems to think there are people who love God and keep his commandments. However for Israel he asks for mercy (Neh 1.8-9).
In the gospel Jesus affirms the validity of some laws (Mk 7.20-23) and rejects others (e.g. Mk 7.19). He fulfills the law of Moses (Mt 5.17).
The Jews still believed they kept the law.
Rich Young Ruler said he kept the some of the Laws
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, KEEP the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, m“You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 The young man said to him, “All these I have KEPT. What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mt 19.16-22)
I recognise the rich young man had issues. Jesus highlights them and this is why he walked away sad. However, Jesus answers the man’s question saying he should keep the commandments. People in his culture believed people could and did keep the commandments. When the man answers, Jesus seems to accept the point he had kept all the commandments he just named. The main point here is that it was not uncommon for people to think they kept the law like the young man believed.
Jesus also says that some are not keeping the law. The Jews who opposed him.
19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you KEEPS the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” (Jn 7:19; cf. Gal 6.13)
Jesus singles them out from those who do keep the law. Who? Well Zechariah and Elizabeth seem to have done okay.
6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. (Lk 1:6)
Jesus also talks about those who love him.
15 “If you love me, you will KEEP my commandments.
21 Whoever has my commandments and KEEPS them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will KEEP my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not KEEP my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (Jn 14:15,21–24)
Jesus says that we should keep his commandments.
10 If you KEEP my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. (Jn 15:10–14)
In Acts the Jews think the Gentiles should keep the law of Moses.
5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to KEEP the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. (Acts 15:5–6)
Do Gentile believers have to keep the law of Moses? To this point there are a number of people in Jewish history who seem to think there are people who have kept the law. But, Peter says its an unbearable burden (Acts 15.10). Although he doesn’t deny people cannot keep the law as we have seen previously.
Do the Gentiles have to keep the law of Moses when they believe in Jesus? The findings of the council are – no. Gentile believers do not need to keep the law of Moses. They do have to keep another set of rules to get along with the Jews (Acts 15.28-29).
When it comes to Paul and the other apostles. Its helpful to put their statements in the context of where people stand in relation to Jesus. I will now be applying the mindset below and assuming all the people spoken of are the righteous (C3). They believe Jesus lived, died and rose again. They believe he is the Christ. Their sins have been forgiven through his work on the cross, they are justified and they are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Paul strongly implies Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 30 is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom 10.5-13)
In the passage Paul is referring to the promise / prophecy in Deuteronomy 30. He explicitly refers to Dt 30.12-14. This promise has now come true in Jesus.
6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and KEEP all his commandments that I command you today. (Dt 30.6-8)
The promise of Dt 30 is fulfilled in Jesus and according to Dt 30.8 one aspect of this is God’s people will keep all his commandments. This is what Paul comes to expect of God’s people and explains what he says in Romans 2.
Gentile Christians keep the precepts of the law
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised KEEPS the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but KEEPS the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2.25-29)
Paul is saying the ‘physically uncircumcised’ but spiritually circumcised Gentile ‘keeps the precepts of the law’. He is using the same language as Deuteronomy 30.6-8. The argument loses all its weight if Paul does not really think some Gentiles can keep the precepts of the law. That would be logically incoherent. Paul’s statement assumes the Gentile ‘circumcised in heart by the Spirit’ can keep the precepts of the law.
19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but KEEPING the commandments of God. (1 Cor 7.19)
Paul is not highlighting the importance of them keeping the law of Moses. Rather he wants them to know Jesus’ commands in the gospel, listen to the apostles and discern God’s ethical will (e.g. Rom 12.1-2) through the Spirit. They should and will keep these commands. Thats what counts. Not circumcision. He strongly argues against imposing circumcision on Gentiles in Galatians.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to KEEP the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal 5:2–6)
Its not that Paul denies there are people can keep the law. He doesn’t say that. Its rather that the Gentiles were only observing a subset of the whole law (Gal 4.9-10) and if they allowed themselves to be circumcised (who could do it to themselves?!?) they would then be obligated to obey the whole law. Just like the people with Joshua, David, the people in the Psalms, etc, etc.
When Paul calls people ‘righteous’ or ‘Saints’ its logical to assume he is resting on the assumption these people keep the commands of God. Consider this passage.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5.6-8)
Paul is good at describing different people in various ways. Here he speaks about the ‘ungodly’, ‘a righteous person’, ‘a good person’, and ‘sinners’. He seems to think all these kinds of people exist. I’m betting in Paul’s opinion, the ‘righteous person’ and the ‘good person’ keep the law.
17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6.17-18; cf. 16.19)
The Roman believers have become ‘obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which they are committed’. Maybe this is the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom 1.5; 15.18; 16.26)? Presumably this includes the apostles teaching and their instructions for how to live. The latter because they are now ‘slaves of righteousness’. From Paul’s point of view, like the Gentiles in Rom 2.26-27 they keep the law. God’s law.
Lets finish Paul with his command to Timothy to keep the commandment.
11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to KEEP the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, (1 Ti 6:11–14; cf. 5.21-22)
The apostle John has more passages than Paul explicitly saying God’s people keep the commands of God. He basically suggests again and again that believers should and do keep God’s commands.
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we KEEP his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not KEEP his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever KEEPS his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 Jn 2.3-6; cf. 3.17)
21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we KEEP his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever KEEPS his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 Jn 3.21-24)
5 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we KEEP his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 Jn 5.1-5)
Interesting. John says keeping God’s commandments is not a burden. The Law of Moses has mixed reviews. Moses said the commandments were not to hard for them to do and some kept the law. Much later, Peter says they couldn’t bear it.
Lets finish off the New Testament with a couple quotes from Revelation.
17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who KEEP the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea. (Rev 12.17)
12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who KEEP the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev 14.12-13)
Yep. John consistently says believers keep the commandments of God.
My contentions of this word study are;
- the authors of scripture and the communities they wrote to believed people could keep the law,
- the scriptures say some people have kept the law,
- keeping the law means an ongoing practice of all the commands of the law including forgiveness,