This question about Acts 28:17 is so covered in barbs and barnacles, I hardly know where to begin. Let me start with the meaning of the word ἔθος (ethos) a word quite distinct from the Law (the law is never mentioned in Acts 28:17). BDAG give these meanings for ἔθος (ethos):
- a usual or customary manner of behavior, habit, usagee, eg, Heb 10:25, John 19:40, Acts 25:16, 19:14, Luke 22:39.
- long established usage or practice common to a group, custom, eg, Acts 28:17, 6:14, 15:1, 16:21, 21:21, 26:3, Luke 1:9.
Note that there is no explicit mention of any law. Thus, at one level, there is nothing here to resolve about Paul's teaching on the law. Paul is simply saying that while in Jerusalem, he was careful to do two things:
- not offend ("against") the people; that is, he was not guilty of slander, robbery, embezzlement, larceny, or any other tort.
- abide by the local customs
Put bluntly, Paul knew he was not guilty of any crime or even offending against any Jewish customs, and the Jews knew this. The Roman authorities agreed. This was another set of trumped-up charges to eliminate the threat of Paul's Christian teachings which the Jewish authorities perceived as undermining their authority.
This remains true in any situation - a visitor to a county must abide by local laws and customs to prevent being offensive. For example, if one were visiting an orthodox Jewish area, it would not be advisable to set up a roast pork food stand, or sell produce on the Sabbath, even of the person is a gentile.
Law and Covenant
If one asks about "law", it is important to recall the principle that:
- law has no meaning in the absence of a covenant
- a covenant has no meaning in the absence of a set of laws (requirements in modern terms, ie, the terms of the contract/covenant)
Thus, if one suggests that Paul excuses people from "the law", then one must ask, which law and covenant? Surely it is not the moral law else we would be free to covet, steal, murder, blaspheme, and disrespect parents/authority, etc. Thus, the law and covenant from which we are excused (as exampled by circumcision in Acts 15) is the ceremonial law. See appendix below.
Indeed, Paul explicitly quotes many parts of the moral law as still binding on Christians:
- Eph 6:2, 3 quotes Deut 5:16, Ex 20:12;
- James 2:11 quotes Ex 20:13;
- Rom 13:9 quotes Ex 20:13-15, 17;
- Rom 7:7 quotes Ex 20:17;
- Acts 23:5 quotes Ex 22:28;
- Heb 9:20 quotes Ex 24:8;
- 1 Peter 1:16 quotes Lev 19:2;
- Matt 22:39, James 2:8, Gal 5:14 quotes Lev 19:18;
- 2 Tim 2:19 quotes Num 16:5;
- Matt 19:18, 19 quotes Deut 5:16-20;
- Mark 12:32 quotes Deut 6:4;
- 2 Cor 13:1 quotes Deut 19:15;
- Matt 5:31, 19:7 quotes Deut 24:1;
- 1 Cor 9:9 quotes Deut 25:4;
- Rom 12:19 quotes Deut 32:35;
- Heb 10:30 quotes Deut 32:35, 36;
Further, we are explicitly taught that the moral law is not abolished (Matt 5:17, 18), “anyone who sets aside one of the least commandments and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19), “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one jot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:17), the law is essential because “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:21, 7:7, 13), “we uphold the law by faith” (Rom 3:31), “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12), “the law is spiritual” (Rom 7:14), “the law is good” (1 Tim 1:8), keeping the law is to do right (James 2:8). “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Certainly not! Instead, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31). “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15); “we are now slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:16), or, “slaves to God” (Rom 6:22); “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the very commandment you have heard from the beginning, that you must walk in love.” (2 John 6); “And having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb 5:9); “But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom, and continues to do so—not being a forgetful hearer, but an effective doer—he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:25); “As you can see, a man is justified by his deeds and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24); etc.
Paul’s statements about being “free from the law” (Gal 5:1), or “not under the law” (Rom 6:14, 15), “released from the law” (Rom 7:6), clearly has the totality of Torah in view, including the 10 Commandments (see Rom 7:9-13). This does not mean that Christians are not subject to law! (The distinction between the Moral, Judicial/civil and Ceremonial laws in the Torah is never explicit anywhere in Scripture!) Paul’s intention is clearly that the Christian life is free from the chafing constrains of legalism because of the free atonement offered by Jesus. We do NOT have to be good enough to earn God’s favor because, not only do we already have it, but it is offered freely. However, Christians will live morally to reflect the life and character of Jesus, but only when motivated or “walking” by the Spirit who miraculously changes us (Rom 8:1-11). Note the following:
“Christ is the culmination of the law resulting in right-doing for all
who trust [in Him].” (Rom 10:4)
Finally, I observe that the NT never has Paul or any of the apostles keeping any of the ceremonial law; ie, there is no record of any of these keeping any of the annual Jewish feasts after the resurrection.
APPENDIX: Divisions of the Law
Traditionally, there have been several divisions of the law despite the fact that no such divisions are sated in the Torah.
- Thomas Aquinas discussed the tripartite law, moral, ceremonial, and judicial, in his “Summa Theologica”, section entitled "Treatise on the Law" and more specifically in questions 99-105.
- Luther appears to believe in a bipartite Law, when in The Bondage of the Will, he referred to "the civil or moral law”. (Luther Bondage CXLVI)
- Calvin, in book 2 of Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.7, 2.8.31), presented a bipartite view when he discussed the law, its moral and ceremonial aspects. However, later, in book 4 of the Institutes (4.20.14), when he discussed civil government, he presented a tripartite law when he stated: "the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.”
- The Westminster Confession (1646) set out a tripartite law
- The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) almost copies the Westminster Confession in assuming a tripartite law (see Chapter 19). (According to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, no such division exists.)