It’s a matter of faith: We stand ready to die for the name of Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer just me living in this fleshly body, but Christ lives in me, too. Now the life I live in this fleshly body is a life of faithful service to the Son of God, who willingly sacrificed His life for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Does that mean anything to you? We were told to take up our own crosses (Matthew 16:24-26). While it has turned out to be literal at times for some, it is symbolic of a life purchased at great cost, wholly owed to the Son of God.
Many Americans, Christians in particular, struggle with the where to draw the line between parable and literal meaning. I use the term “Two Realms” to point out a teaching that is greatly needed in postmodern Western Christian thinking, because mainstream Christian religion confuses parable and literal teaching. Thus, most mainstream Christians tend to take parables literally, and dismiss as parable what Scripture meant literally. They pull Christ down to an earthly regime, and push biblical law off into “a spiritual thing.”
This is a major struggle for people trying to recover a genuine biblical view of this world. If you show up at our parish, you may stumble over that issue. You may find yourself frequently missing the point on things because of that long history of improperly mixing the Two Realms. We owe that to the Judaizers. They succeeded in subverting the mystical approach in the organized church hierarchy by the end of the First Century.
Jesus spoke of mystical truths, but then taught people how to use that mystical approach to understand the Law of Moses. The Torah is a mystical document; all the specific concrete requirements represent a much higher mystical truth. The Jews had forgotten that. By mixing Hellenized logic into their ancient Hebrew Law, they became legalistic and pushed mysticism off to the side. Mysticism was there, but not taken seriously as the primary proper approach to understanding the Scripture. So Jesus had a running battle with Jewish leadership about how to read Moses. He taught Moses, as Moses was intended, against their “traditions of the elders” (eventually formalized in the Talmud). Jesus was restoring the ancient Hebrew faith.
As the gospel spread across the Mediterranean Basin, it first went among Jewish communities planted all over the place. We call that “the Diaspora” — Jews living in a Gentile world outside their own kingdom. There were plenty of Gentiles attracted to the Jewish religion, but when they heard the gospel correcting it, they embraced it quickly. And while plenty of Jews also embraced the gospel, there was a natural tension in the whole process. Jews still suffered from that legalistic instinct, so the Apostles had to find a way to put out the fires of conflict.
In Acts 15 they made it clear that one did not have to become a Jew first to become a Christian. On the one hand, if Jews wanted to follow Christ, they could drop the Talmudic stuff and stick with the mystical truth. If they embraced Moses as Jesus taught him, then it meant no legalism and life was much simpler. Jesus pointed out how certain provisions of Mosaic Law weren’t even applicable outside of the more ancient historical context. With the sacrifice on the Cross, whole swathes of ritual were gone. What remained was the core of ancient Hebrew moral values.
Gentiles had their own brand of mystical law covenant: Noah. The list of prescriptions in Acts 15 was an echo of that more ancient law. The Apostles left out those parts of Noah that were covered under Roman Law and focused on what was left, the parts that were demanding enough on Gentiles from a broad range of pagan backgrounds. And for a deeper understanding, there was an expectation that churches would generally study the Old Testament Scripture to provide an expansive explanation of what Noah meant. Moses was a more explicit and particular application of Noah. The promised blessings and warned curses of Moses were inherent in Noah.
For Jewish Christians it was, “Christ in your hearts, Moses in your hands.” For Gentile Christians it was, “Christ in your hearts, Noah in your hands.” You could lie about having Christ in your heart, but you couldn’t easily lie about what you did with your conduct and your habits of life before the church. Your fellow church members knew to treat you as a fellow Christian because you had the good sense to walk and talk according to a mystical law covenant as applicable.
You have to understand that mysticism from those ancient times was not “mysticism” as commonly understood today, particularly in the West. That business of heart-led wisdom was well understood and widely discussed in literature going back into pre-history. It was their normal intellectual climate, an assumption taken for granted. It’s utterly foreign to us; we have to learn it from them. We have to learn how normative the heart-led mode of life is, and how it works when examining our own conduct, as well as that of the folks who share our household of faith. Thus, we are not legalistic, but strive to discern the heart of the matter — by taking that “heart” business rather literally.
For us, that call to crucify the flesh is a matter of keeping the intellect subjected to the heart-mind. Not just in those “spiritual” moments, but all day long. That way those spiritual moments aren’t just a matter of ritual, but they strike us with the power of God whatever it is we do. We place the initiative to act and respond to all external events within the heart. We test each moment by our convictions.
Because we need some kind of structure for the mind to obey the heart, we refer to the Law of Noah. If you prefer a Jewish approach, then it’s Moses — but it’s Moses as taught by Jesus, not by the Talmud. That phrase, “under grace, not under the law” refers to the Talmud as “the law,” a burdensome legalistic pile of nonsense. Jesus cut through all of that (Matthew 22:34-40). The difference between Noah and Moses turns out to be no more than a matter of ritual behavior.
Kosher was no longer law but a matter of personal preference, as Peter learned in his vision of the sheet (Acts 10). Ritual separation from Gentiles was never meant to be an excuse for racist hatred, but a way to call the Gentiles to a higher moral standard. The business of eating with someone had long been a matter of declaring peace, so eating with believing Gentiles was never a sin. Gentiles could not be held to the Law of Moses unless they wanted to become a citizen of Israel. They were held by Noah, instead. While Jews didn’t share in Gentile food (“sharing a table”), they could share their food with Gentiles. They also could associate with Gentiles socially long before the rise of the legalistic perversions of the Law. So Jews in the churches could continue being fussy about food, and even Gentiles should avoid pagan ritual meals, but that arrogant spite about “unclean people” was just plain wrong. What mattered was a circumcised heart.
In our parish today we refer to the Law of Noah, understood in light of the Law of Moses, which in turn is understood through Christ’s teaching, as the visible manifestation of an obedient heart.