Who Were the Judaizers in the New Testament?

Judaizers were people (both ethnic Jews and Gentiles) who continued to adhere to the Jewish customs and laws after Christ’s salvific work. In the New Testament, typical Judaizers were those who sought to persuade others to embrace the Jewish customs and laws. Since the provision of the Law in Moses’ time, Israel had been set apart from all other nations. From circumcision to their dietary laws to their worship, God made the Israelites unlike any other nation in the world. God’s Law was designed to make Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As one would expect, God placed great emphasis on the importance of keeping His Law (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-2).

Up to the time of Jesus, Israel’s covenant relationship with God was conditioned on their adherence to the Law (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 4:1-2). However, God also told Israel He would bring them under a new covenant that differed from their Mosaic Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The first century was a dramatic time period for the nation of Israel and the entire world. After Jesus completed His work on the cross, and before he ascended into heaven, He commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations, beginning with Israel (Luke 24:7; Acts 1:8). The day of Pentecost marked the advent of God’s New Covenant, where peoples’ relationship with Him was defined by their faith in Christ and not their obedience to the Law. As the Apostles proclaimed the gospel to lay the foundation of the first-century church, they faced extreme challenges both from within the church body and outside it. One of the external challenges came from the Judaizers.

What Did the Judaizers Believe?

As distinguished in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, the first century Judaizers generally fell into one of three groups:

Custom-observing. These individuals made a personal choice to adhere to Jewish customs; however, they did not treat these practices as necessary components of salvation.

Social. This group embraced a separatist viewpoint. They made every effort not to associate with the Gentile populace who did not follow the same practices.

Elitists. These people believed the observance of the Law was necessary for salvation, including circumcision and Sabbath-keeping. This article will focus on the Social and Elitist Judaizers.

Why Was Their Ideology so Dangerous?

The notion of works-based salvation is nothing new. In fact, it’s one of the most common concepts among world religions. It’s natural for people to think of their salvation like a business exchange with the divine. After all, we experience that reality in much of our earthly lives. We go to work, put the hours in, and get the payment we’re owed for our labor. In our personal lives, we get what we put in. The more labor you invest in your home life, the more you benefit. For the worldly mind, it only makes sense this would carry over into religion regarding our salvation (I’m using that word loosely). The problem is that idea is both false and deadly. It cannot lead someone to salvation. Scripture is crystal clear; our salvation depends on our faith in Christ alone. Our works do not contribute anything to our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia dealt primarily with the Judaizers’ dangerous doctrine that threatened that region. There had been a group of Judaizers who infiltrated the church body after Paul left; they managed to convince the people Paul had not given the complete message of salvation. The Judaizers contended that a person needed to be circumcised in addition to their faith in Christ. As a result, many of the Galatians were getting circumcised. The Apostle Paul vehemently rebuked this teaching because it fabricated a false gospel. Whether the Judaizers realized it or not, they had propagated an apostate doctrine that could only lead others to Hell. They corrupted the Gospel message by mingling Christ’s perfect work of salvation with human works.

The letter of Galatians is a masterpiece in which Paul ardently defends the biblical doctrines of sola fide, faith alone, and Solus Christus, Christ Alone. It has sometimes been referred to as the Magna Carta of the Christian faith. In this letter, Paul displays how God justifies people on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. It may have seemed righteous to the Galatians to embrace circumcision as part of their salvation. Indeed, Abraham set an example and was obedient unto God when he was circumcised. Why wouldn’t they want to be like Abraham? However, as Paul points out, the problem with the Judaizers’ belief system was it fundamentally changed the way salvation operated. They integrated human effort into the salvific work of God. As Paul demonstrated, the only thing which revealed the relationship of our works to salvation was the Law, which proved how impossible it was for people to obtain their salvation through works (Galatians 3:1-14).

According to the Law, righteousness was contingent on a person’s ability to keep God’s entire Law. It was a package deal. A person could not create their own standard for righteousness because God alone defines what is necessary for salvation. The Law was like a linked chain; to break any one of the statutes was to break the entire Law (Galatians 5:2-4), incurring condemnation on oneself. In essence, the Mosaic Law drove a person to God for grace and mercy because its requirements were impossible for anyone to keep. The Israelites had to constantly seek atonement for their sins, and the animal sacrifices served as a shadow of Christ by preserving the concept of substitutionary atonement. Christ fulfilled the law of atonement through His work on the cross (Hebrews 10:3-4).

The Judaizers failed in every sense to understand the purpose of the Law and the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. They believed their circumcision and level of obedience to the law were sufficient to contribute to their salvation. It was faith in Jesus plus works. The operating principle of works-based salvation is incompatible with God’s plan of salvation through Christ, which eliminates all human effort from the equation. The moment anyone tries to implement any level of human effort into salvation, they are obligated to use God’s standard, which is impossible to keep because of our sinful nature. Christ was the only man to keep the Law perfectly. The apostle Paul fought viciously against the Judaizers’ teaching because he knew it was a false gospel that would save no one (Galatians 1:6-9).

Do We See Similar Issues in the Church Today?

The letter of Galatians gives us some much-needed guidance against other beliefs which seek to infuse human effort into our salvation. One of the most common forms of this false belief is the notion good people go to heaven. Many churchgoers think they will get to heaven because they didn’t commit any of the major sins such as rape, murder, and theft. Like the Judaizers, these people create a pseudo standard for salvation that insults the completed work of Christ and leaves them lost in their sin. In Scripture, God teaches us no one will be justified by their own works (Romans 3:19-20). Only those who put their faith in Christ and His atoning work will be saved. God designed our salvation to come from Him alone.

There can be much confusion about the function of the Law in a believer’s life. On the one hand, there are people who say God’s Law has no place in their life because they are under the covenant of grace. The danger of this position is it can encourage people to live under cheap grace, where no effort is made to live holy lives that are pleasing to the Lord. In this view, God’s grace is taken for granted to cover sin, and people don’t concern themselves with central doctrines such as repentance of sin and sanctification, that are present in the lives of all genuine converts. The letter of Romans clearly refutes this position (Romans 6:1-7).

On the other hand, there are people who argue Christians must display a certain level of obedience if they are truly saved. This viewpoint is dangerous because of its legalistic approach which deviates from grace. People with this belief err by trying to quantify the life-changing results of salvation. It’s true that all believers will demonstrate a degree of godly change because we are all new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, this will look different from person to person. There are numerous factors that impact a person’s personal walk with Christ. Sure, there will be commonalities shared by all believers, but the before and after in one believer’s life will never be identical to another’s. For this reason, it’s impossible for us to determine the exact measure of change a true believer must demonstrate. That’s only for God to know, not us.

We should be careful to adopt the position taught in Scripture. Even though Christians are not made righteous through the Law, it still has an important place in our lives. God’s Law teaches us what pleases Him and what doesn’t. It helps understand how to live holy lives for Him. Not because we are seeking to justify ourselves, but because we love God and seek to worship Him with our lives. Our obedience to God’s commands is the result of our sanctification. All true believers grow in their obedience over time because they inevitably grow in their sanctification. Some mature faster than others, but we all move in the same direction because we seek to honor and glorify our magnificent Savior. With that in mind, we should always fix our gaze upon Christ, the Author, and Perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/tomertu

Stephen BakerStephen Baker is a graduate of Mount Union University. He is the writer of a special Scripture study/reflection addendum to Someplace to Be Somebody, authored by his wife, Lisa Loraine Baker (End Game Press Spring 2022). 

He attends Faith Fellowship Church in East Rochester, OH where he has given multiple sermons and is discipled by pastor Chet Howes.