The ‘children of Israel’ set apart
All of humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, male of female, slave or free, are under the terms and conditions of the Covenants that God made with Adam and Noah. Later, God gave promises and made a Covenant with Abram. In His Covenant with Abram, God made certain promises and commitments to Abram and his fleshly descendants through Isaac – descendants who became the ‘children of Israel’ or the Israelites. It was through the nation of Israel that God chose to reveal His purposes concerning restoration and deliverance. It was through Israel that the Deliverer would come. It was through Israel that the other nations of the world would be blessed. As such, the ‘children of Israel’ were set apart and the Covenants that God made with them required obedience and cleanliness. The ‘children of Israel’ were being cultivated for their role as God’s servants and were being made ready to receive their Deliverer – the Messiah, the one chosen and set apart by God to accomplish God’s plan of restoring His fallen creation and fallen humanity. As part of their development, God elaborated on His Covenant with Abram and gave the ‘children of Israel’ various Laws to guard them and keep them separate and pure.
Gentiles or non-Jews were outsiders, they were foreigners and strangers to these Covenants that God made with the ‘children of Israel’. Sometimes however, Gentiles or non-Jews expressed a desire to join the ‘children of Israel’ – they had become persuaded of the Jewish approach to God and so they ‘converted’ to Judaism. Such Gentile converts to Judaism were called ‘proselytes’.
The Covenant Law of Sinai gave specific regulations for the admission of those who were not born Israelites into Israel’s community. The Kenites, Gibeonites, Cherethites and Pelethites were thus admitted to levels of Israelite privileges and individual proselytes sometimes rose to positions of prominence. According to the Books of Chronicles, during the time of Solomon (c.971-931 B.C.) there were 153,600 proselytes in the land of Israel. In addition, the prophets speak of a time in the future when proselytes will share in all the privileges of Israel: Ezekiel 47 v 22; Isaiah 2 v 2; 11 v 10; 56 v 3 – 6; Micah 4 v 1. The New Testament mentions proselytes, though the word ‘proselyte’ itself only occurs in Matthew and Acts: Matthew 23 v 15; Acts 2 v 10; 13 v 43. Usually they are referred to as ‘devout men’, men ‘fearing God’, ‘worshipping God’ or ‘Godfearers’ as in Acts 10 v 2 – 7; 13 v 42 – 50; 17 v 4; 18 v 7.
In Rabbinic Judaism there are two kinds of proselytes:
- 1) Righteous proselytes, proselytes of righteousness, religious proselyte, devout proselyte and
- 2) Resident proselyte, proselytes of the gate, limited proselyte, half-proselyte.
A ‘righteous proselyte’ is a Gentile who has converted to Judaism, is bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish religion and is considered a full member of the Jewish people. If he is male, then the proselyte is circumcised as an adult, and undergoes ritual immersion to formally effect the conversion.
A ‘proselyte of the gate’ is a resident foreigner who lives in the Land of Israel and follows some of the customs. A ‘proselyte of the gate’ is not required to be circumcised nor to comply with the whole of the Covenant Law. They are tied to the Seven Laws of Noah in order to be assured of a place in the world to come. According to Rabbinical understand, these seven laws are:
- 1) Do not worship idols
- 2) Do not blaspheme God’s name
- 3) Do not murder
- 4) Do not commit immoral sexual acts
- 5) Do not steal
- 6) Do not tear the limb from a living animal, and
- 7) Do not fail to establish rule of law
I have outlined the obligations of the Noahic Covenant as follows:
- 1) God is to be honoured. Implicit in this is a rejection of the worship of other gods and idolatry
- 2) Offerings of blood sacrifice were to be made
- 3) Having children is encouraged
- 4) All animals and creatures are in the hands of humans for food
- 5) Humans are not to eat raw meat, or the meat of an animal that is still alive
- 6) Human life is precious because humans are made in the image of God and therefore God will demand an account of it from people who attack or kill another human being
- 7) A judicial principle of ‘measure for measure’ is established
- 8) A system of law, courts, judges and so on is used. Instead of being a ‘law unto themselves’, external, objective civil and religious laws are introduced.
Jesus, Gentile ‘children of promise’ and the Adamic and Noahic Covenants
For Christians, the terms and conditions of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants are fulfilled in Jesus – the One chosen and anointed by God to be the Deliverer. However, if a person does not accept Jesus as their Deliverer then the terms and conditions of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants still remain in force. This is the general position for Gentiles. If Gentiles do not accept Jesus as their Messiah, if they do not have faith in God that is counted as righteousness, then they will be judged in terms of their obligations under the Covenants made with Adam and Noah – together with their conscience – which may or may not excuse them. Because Gentiles were not given the Sinaitic Covenant of Law through Moses, then this Covenant Law will not be used to judge them on the day of Final Reckoning.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul was commissioned by God to present the good news of Jesus to non-Jews or Gentiles. He began by speaking in the various synagogues where the ‘proselytes of the gate’ (Exodus 20 v 9) and the Jews met. The Jews, had been separate and distinct from Gentiles since the time of Moses. Gentiles were seen as ‘unclean’ and Jews did not associate with them. But the favourable response of Gentiles to the gospel message came as an unexpected surprise, especially when the Spirit of God was poured out on such Gentiles and they spoke in tongues. A convention of Hebrew apostles was called at Jerusalem, and it was agreed to admit Gentile Christians into the Hebrew Christian Church as proselytes of the gate. A dispute had also arisen about whether such Gentile Christians should be circumcised – circumcision being the mark or sign of being under the Covenant made by God to Abraham. But such an insistence on circumcision was rejected at the convention or council of (Hebrew) apostles in Jerusalem. Thus, the apostle James declared: ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from:
- 1) Food polluted by idols
- 2) Sexual immorality
- 3) The meat of strangled animals and
- 4) Blood.
Because the Law of Moses (Sinaitic Covenant Law) has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath’ (Acts 15 v 19 – 21).
Gentile Christians did not have the burden of Sinaitic Covenant Law imposed on them at all, but rather, the principles of the earlier Noahaic Covenant were emphasized. As I said earlier, for Gentile Christians, the terms and conditions of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants are fulfilled in Jesus – the One chosen and anointed by God to be the Deliverer. But this does not mean that Gentile Christians are now free to do what they like. They are not tied to the Adamic and Noahic Covenants, but they are tied to Jesus. Seeing what manner of deliverance they have entered into; seeing that they are acquitted from condemnation, then they should ‘put on’ or ‘clothe themselves’ with behaviour that befits their new position in Christ.
So, if you are a Gentile Christian, here is the letter that was written by the Hebrew apostles at Jerusalem concerning your obligations:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. [About being required to be circumcised] So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
(Acts 15 v 23 – 29)