An Unbearable Yoke: Acts 15:10
According to the apostles, Gentile believers have been grafted into the family of Israel, brought near to the covenants of promise, and become citizens of the commonwealth of Israel. The dividing wall of partition is removed, and both Jewish and Gentile believers are as one new man, a spiritual temple being built together on Messiah. Together, Jewish believers and Gentile believers create the Israel of God.
Those truths were not, however, self-evident to the apostolic-era community of believers. Some schools of thought insisted that Gentiles could not be part of Israel and the kingdom or even inherit eternal life unless they underwent conversion and became Jewish after coming to faith.
In Acts 15, believers from among the Pharisees charged that the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and compelled to keep the Torah. "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). By "circumcision," they meant a legal conversion to Judaism. By "order them to keep the law of Moses," they meant compelling the Gentiles to keep the Torah as Jews.
The Apostle Peter objected, saying, ""Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). What does Peter mean by the word "yoke?" Would the apostle Peter dare refer to God's holy Torah as an unbearable yoke?
The Torah is not Unbearable
Peter's statement presents no difficulty for traditional Christian interpretation. Christian theologians have always taken a dim view of Torah and are glad to dismiss "Old Testament law" as an unbearable yoke. But disdain for the Torah is not a Jewish perspective, nor is it a Messianic Jewish perspective. It's not even an apostolic perspective. Instead, the apostles teach that "the law is spiritual" (Romans 7:14); "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:12), and, most pertinent to the point, God's commandments are not a burden:
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)
Even the Torah itself says that we are not to regard the commandments as too hard or too difficult:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off ... but the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Given this positive view of the Torah and the fact that 1 John 5:3 explicitly says that God's commandments are not burdensome, could Peter have referred to the Torah as a yoke "that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?"
Did Peter Mean the Oral Law?
In the past, I have sometimes tried to deflect the problem by identifying the unbearable yoke as the oral Torah of Pharisaic tradition. After all, when the Pharisees of Acts 15 prescribe obeying "the whole Torah," they are prescribing much more than just the five books of Moses.
In rabbinic literature, the Sages speak of the "yoke of Torah," the "yoke of Kingdom of Heaven," the "yoke of commandments," and the "yoke of repentance," but all of these "yokes" are terms for taking on Torah. To the rabbis, the word "yoke" ordinarily represents "Torah."(1) The rabbinic yoke of Torah includes not only the written Torah, but also all of the oral Torah, along with its traditions, fences and halachic rulings. Even by the first century, Torah observance had become a confusing maze of laws and traditions stacked upon commandments which the simple and uneducated found nearly impossible to navigate.
But the oral Torah has little to do with Peter's point. Peter and the apostles did not say, "Let's have the Gentiles keep the written Torah but not the oral Torah because the oral Torah makes the written Torah so unbearable." (We cannot even say with any certainty that the two Torah concept of an "oral Torah" distinct from the written Torah of Moses had even developed yet. Instead, the apostolic writers tend to speak of the traditional Jewish legislation as the traditions and the customs of the fathers.)
If the apostles were only trying to keep Gentiles free from the yoke of oral tradition, why then did James speak positively about the Gentiles learning Torah as it was "read every Sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21)? The teaching of Torah in the Diaspora synagogues included Jewish traditions and interpretations. If Gentiles were to learn Torah in those synagogues, they would be learning both the written Torah and its traditional, rabbinic interpretations.
Though I have been unhappy to admit it in the past, the Torah under discussion in Acts 15 is none other than "the Law of Moses" (Acts 15:5), the same "Law of Moses" that Peter and the other Apostles observed. For me, identifying it as the oral Torah and then setting that oral Torah in antithesis to the written Torah was an evasion tactic.
The Acts 15 counsel was not attempting to make a distinction between written Torah and Jewish tradition. Instead, Acts 15 is attempting to answer one simple question.
Question and Answer
Acts 15:6 says, "The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter." What was the matter they were considering? Not the difference between oral tradition and written Torah. Instead, they were considering a legal question:
Question: Is it "necessary to circumcise [the Gentile believers] and to order them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5).
Peter's Reply: "Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10)
As the apostles debated the question, Peter made his declaration about the unbearable yoke. He made those remarks to address the initial question of whether or not Gentile believers must be circumcised and compelled to keep the whole Torah of Moses. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that the yoke which neither the apostles nor their forefathers had been able to bear is indeed "the law of Moses." It referred to full obligation to the Torah: "[Yoke] was commonly used by Jewish writers in the sense of 'obligation,'"(2) "a metaphor for obedience, subordination, servitude."(3) "The term 'yoke' is particularly appropriate in this context: a proselyte, by undertaking to keep the law of Moses, was said to 'take up the yoke.'"(4)
Circumcised and Keeping the Law = Being Jewish
The Jewish people of the first century saw the world as composed of three types of people: (1) naturally born Israelites, i.e. the Jewish people, (2) Proselytes, i.e. Gentiles who underwent conversion and became Jewish, and (3) the Gentiles. In the Jewish view, membership in one of the first two groups implied full compliance with all of the Torah's laws, including circumcision, Sabbath, festivals, and dietary laws. By the same token, a person who received circumcision and kept all of the Torah's laws was considered Jewish. This is why Paul refers to a Gentile who takes on halachic (legal) Jewish status as "under the law."
The Gentile believers belonged to the third group, but they were different from ordinary Gentiles. God had made them sons of Abraham by faith in Messiah and had spiritually grafted them into the people of Israel. To many Jewish believers, it seemed logical that the believing Gentiles should naturally graduate into the second category: they should progress from Gentile status to proselyte status. All they needed was to undergo circumcision and take on the yoke of the Torah.
Peter objected to the policy. According to Peter, requiring Gentile believers to undergo conversion to Judaism (circumcision) and compelling them to keep the law of Moses is "putting God to the test" (which is just a Jewish way of saying, "making God mad").
Is it Needful for Salvation?
Why would requiring Gentile believers to undergo circumcision and take on the whole yoke of Torah make God mad?
Although Acts 15 seems to be a merely halachic (legal) debate, an important theological concern lies behind Peter's objection. The Acts 15 Pharisees taught, "Unless [Gentile believers] are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, [they] cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Without becoming full proselytes, Gentiles could have no share in the kingdom of heaven or the world to come. In order to attain salvation, the Gentile believers needed to become Jewish and keep the Torah as Jews. In his comments on Acts 15, Tim Hegg observes:
Most Jews in Paul's day believed that only Jews had a place in the world to come. A Gentile could secure a place in the afterlife only by becoming a Jewish proselyte (convert) ... The council was dealing with this question: If Israel had a place in the world to come, did Gentiles, therefore, need to submit to the contemporary man-made proselytizing ritual in order to secure eternal life; that is, be saved?(5)
Peter objected saying, "Why are you ... placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:10-11). He pointed out that even the apostles themselves were not saved on the basis of their covenantal status as Jews. They were saved by grace, through faith in Messiah. Peter contrasts the unbearable yoke with salvation through faith. God cleansed the Gentile's hearts by faith, not because they had changed their legal status from Gentile to Jewish.
How About Just the Torah and not Conversion?
In that case, why didn't the apostles just affirm that salvation is by grace, that Gentiles need not become Jewish to be saved, but that they are still required the Torah out of simple obedience? That would have been a clear and easy answer to the entire question. It would demonstrate that Torah observance was not necessary for salvation and that Gentiles did not need to become circumcised (proselytes), but it would still uphold the whole Torah as a universal standard for all believers.
Though it seems like an attractive solution, it does not work from an apostolic perspective. From the apostolic perspective, ritual circumcision (conversion) and obligation to the whole Torah are synonymous. Someone obligated to keep the whole Torah is also obligated to ritual circumcision. Someone who undergoes ritual circumcision is obligated to keep the whole Torah. And in fact, circumcision is one of the commandments of the Torah. One cannot keep the whole Torah and ignore circumcision.
Notice the parallels in thought between Acts 15 and Galatians 5. In Galatians 5:1, Paul speaks of submitting to circumcision (conversion) for the sake of attaining salvation as a "yoke of slavery." In Galatians 5:2 he warns the Gentile believers that if they convert for the sake of attaining salvation, they will no longer be depending on the grace of Messiah. Galatians 5:3 warns the Gentile believers that if they convert, they will be liable to keep the whole Torah.
The Yoke: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1) A yoke ... that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10)
Grace vs. Circumcision If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. (Galatians 5:2) We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. (Acts 15:11)
Circumcision = Full Obligation I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:3) It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses. (Acts 15:5)
If the apostles required the Gentiles to keep the whole Torah, that would be the same as requiring them to become Jewish--a policy advocated by the Pharisees present at the counsel. If they made becoming Jewish the criteria for salvation or even the requirement for Gentiles after salvation, they would, in effect, be teaching that Gentiles have no place in the kingdom of heaven and cannot be saved.
Why is it a Burden?
All of this explains why the apostles chose to exempt the Gentiles from full obligation to Torah and circumcision. But we still have not explained what Peter meant by referring to Jewish status and obligation to Torah as a burden that neither the apostles nor their fathers had been able to bear. Several things should be noted.
To insist that Peter could not have referred to the Torah's obligations as a difficult burden simply because other texts contradict that sentiment denies a literate reading of Scripture. Peter was certainly able to articulate the idea that, though the Torah is a source of blessing and holiness, it is also difficult. A naÃ¯ve, rigid, theological reading which cannot abide any hint of contradiction between one passage and another will find this difficult, but the Jewish voice, following what Marvin Wilson calls the contour of Hebraic thought, would find no difficulty in admitting, "The Torah is a great blessing and the commandments are not burdensome; but they are difficult!"
In Judaism, the concept of "burden" and "duty" were related. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament points out that "In rabbinic texts masa' [burden] ... has ... the transfigurative sense of 'obligation,' 'duty.'"(6) Previous generations of Jewish history had already proven the Torah to be an unbearable duty for sinful human beings. The Torah is a source of blessing, but outside of Messiah's righteousness, it is also a source of curse. All men sin and fall short of the glory of God and incur his wrath. "The law brings wrath" (Romans 4:15). Peter only means to point out that obligation to the whole Torah (Jewish status) is not an avenue to salvation.
In addition to the theological ramifications of forcing Gentile believers to become Jewish and keep the whole yoke of Torah, the apostles also had in mind the very practical ramifications of such a decision. If the Gentile believers took on halachic Jewish status, they placed themselves under the authority of the Torah courts (including the Sanhedrin which was, at the time, hostile to believers).
In those days, when a Gentile converted and became Jewish, he not only became responsible for the whole of Torah, he also became liable to the punishments for breaking the Torah. Those punishments, distributed by Torah courts of law, included flogging and stoning for offenses that might seem like innocuous violations of ceremonial laws. The Talmud tells about how the rabbis used to try to dissuade potential converts from making a hasty conversion decision they might later regret:
When a man desires to become a proselyte ... he is to be told, "Be warned. Before you came to this condition, if you had eaten forbidden fats you would not have been liable to excision (karet). If you had broken the Sabbath, you would not have been liable to stoning. But after [circumcision] if you eat forbidden fats you will be punished with excision, if you break the Sabbath you will be punished with stoning." And he is told the punishment for transgressing each of the commandments ... (b.Yevamot 47a-b)
By allowing the God-fearing Gentile believers in the community to remain as God fearers, the apostles insulated the Gentile believers from repercussions which would have been difficult for the new believers to bear.
Divine invitation explains why Peter considered full obligation to the Torah as an unbearable yoke for Gentile believers. Peter was not referring just to the "oral Torah" or the traditions of men. The question before him was one of conversion to Judaism and obligation to the whole Torah.
The prevailing theology of the day taught that Jews attained salvation simply by merit of their Jewish status. Therefore the Pharisees taught, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). A proselyte to Judaism was obligated to keep the whole Torah; and someone who kept the whole Torah was a proselyte to Judaism. Therefore the Pharisees taught, "It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentiles] and to order them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5).
If the apostles made Jewish status the criteria for salvation, they would, in effect, be teaching that Gentiles cannot be saved. If they obligated the Gentile believers to the whole Torah after salvation, that was the same as requiring circumcision and full conversion--again effectively declaring that Gentiles have no place in the kingdom of heaven and cannot be saved. Such a policy would have implied that salvation can be achieved by observance of the Torah and grace is limited only to people with legal Jewish status. But the historic experience of the people of Israel demonstrates that the Torah brings wrath, not grace. Moreover, compelling the Gentiles to become full proselytes made them liable for the prescribed punishments for breaking the Sabbath and Levitical dietary laws.
Nevertheless, the apostles were not forbidding the Gentiles from participating in the Sabbath, the dietary laws, or any aspect of Torah-life. Remember, in the days of Acts 15, the God-fearing Gentile believers were probably more Torah observant than most Messianic believers today. They worshipped in synagogues in the midst of the Jewish community. They had no other days of worship or holidays other than those of the synagogue. (They did not need to drive to get to their place of fellowship.) To share table-fellowship with Jewish believers in the community, they must have maintained the biblical dietary laws. For all practical purposes, they looked Jewish already. But they were not, and they were not liable to the Jewish aspects of the Torah like the Jewish believers. Instead, they had divine invitation to participate along with Israel.
At First Fruits of Zion, we advocate the God-fearing path for Gentiles. We encourage Gentile believers to walk out even the aspects of the Torah for which they are not liable. Simple obedience to God's Word "is not too hard for you, neither is it far off," (Deuteronomy 30:11), for God's "commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).
An Additional Word from Boaz Michael:
I realize that this explanation may not sit well with some of our readers. If so, give yourself some time to mull over it. Let us know where you think we may be missing the mark. Remember, we at FFOZ are fallible human beings, just like yourself, doing our best to handle the word of God responsibly:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
Peter's description of the Torah as a difficult yoke reminds me of how far we are away from the practice of Torah in the days of the Bible. A lot of times, people in Messianic Judaism emphatically insist that, in Messiah, the Torah is an easy yoke and a light burden, but in reality, they are shouldering only a portion of the weight of Torah. When the meaning of Torah observance is self-defined, it's easy to talk about how lightweight and easy it is to be Torah observant. Most Messianic believers have not seriously taken on issues of biblical Sabbath observance or even the full implications of the Levitical dietary. Real, serious obligation to the whole Torah actually is difficult and comes only at great sacrifice. It is difficult. Often the complexities of integrating full compliance with the Torah into a Gentile family's life outside of non-Jewish space are overwhelming.
Nevertheless, even in the difficulties of Torah, there is great blessing.
1. For example, see m.Avot 3.5.
2. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Acts of the Apostles [5 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1920-33], 4:173-74.
3. W. D. Davies and Dale D., Jr. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, (London: T. & T. Clark Publishers, 1989), 2:289.
4. F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 290.
5. Tim Hegg, It is Often Said, vol. 1 (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2006), 32.
6. Konrad Weiss, "Phortion," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985) 9:85.
Notes 2, 4, and 5 from David Bivin's article "Jesus' Yoke and Burden" at Jerusalemperspective.com.
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