Understanding Paul, Part One.

…Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the scriptures, to their own destruction.

2 Peter 3:15-16

This post represents some friendly dialog with a man I respect, and a fellow blogger, Keith Haney. We are discussing Paul, and the book of Galatians, specifically, but the gospel, and discipleship, more broadly.

Keith has been doing a wonderful series on discipleship which I highly recommend, but I disagreed with some points he made concerning his reading of Galatians. Rather than fill his comments section with incomplete and debatable statements, I decided it would be better to write in detail my objections, as well as offer some independent thoughts of my own concerning Paul and Bible interpretation in general, and perhaps we will all be the better for the exercise.

The blog to which this post is responding can be found here: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/42681410/posts/1073720626

The name of the post is: “What does God expect of me?”

Keith did not attempt to explain the entire book of Galatians, but rather he highlights the concept Paul puts forth of the pedagogue, in chapter 3. Consistent with the discipleship theme, his purpose for doing so is to attempt to explain the role of God’s Law in the life of a believer. I agree with many things he says in the piece, but I believe he is in error concerning some key points.

My reason for doing this critique is that it is my conviction that the misreading of Paul has led to many incoherent theological positions. The false dichotomy of “law vs. grace” as promoted by Martin Luther, and perpetrated since, is the result of a misguided reading of Paul’s letters.

The following are the particular points of contention I have regarding the assertions which he makes in his post, and what I hope to address:

  1. The Law was put into place only for a certain period of time.
  2. The Judaizers (in Paul’s writings) taught that obeying the Law was necessary for salvation.
  3. The only purpose of the Law was to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah, and since his arrival it’s only use now is to remind people that they can’t keep it and that they need a Savior.
  4. There was no “life of faith” before Jesus, only “imprisonment under the Law”.
  5. Water baptism into the church (becoming a Christian) makes the body of believers into a “new nation”.
  6. “The Law created differences, distinctions, and hostility”, but through our adoption into Christ, all such distinctions have been removed “in Him.”

Okay, that’s a lot of things to cover in one post. I probably won’t do all of them justice in this first installment. First, however, we need to establish some interpretive ground rules, so that you understand how to track with me.

There are lots of scriptural “idioms” which get tossed about in the evangelical world. An idiom is a mode of expression which communicates a general idea. Idioms are meant to be a form of verbal “shorthand” which are designed to communicate a larger truth. In Christianity, we use idioms such as “we’re not under the Law”, or “we’re saved by grace alone”, commonly, to illustrate or to reinforce our conviction about how a person is saved. We feel safe using them because they are, in one way or another, quoting scripture. If it’s quoting scripture, then it must be irrefutable, right? Not so fast. An idiom based on scripture is only useful if it remains in proper context with its surrounding material. There are many such idioms (I’ve just mentioned two) which are drawn from Paul’s writings out of their rightful context, and these interpretive mistakes are the source of much debate.

On a larger scale, there is an interpretive problem which is rampant in the church, and is based upon a misunderstanding (or complete ignorance) of the Hebraic interpretive method used by the apostles. We don’t have room here to fully explain, but simply put, when the apostles quote a passage from the Old Testament, they are really quoting the entire section of scripture, not just that one passage. The passage quoted is a “hook” to anchor the listener’s mind to an entire section of scripture which they expected their reader to be entirely familiar with. This was true in the early church, particularly. They studied Torah every day, after all, and were intimately familiar with it, as well as the oral traditions surrounding it. Not so much today.

The church today is largely biblically illiterate. Consider this: When is the last time your church offered a verse-by-verse study in the book of Leviticus or Numbers? The answer is probably never. We don’t know our Bibles, folks.

The church often doesn’t know how to understand the writings of the apostles because we don’t know the material from which they draw their arguments. Therefore we often misinterpret them. This is especially true with both Paul and John, both of whom are very mystical in their argumentation. Paul, particularly, wrote in what could best be described as “rag-tag Greek” (to quote D.Thomas Lancaster), so this adds to the confusion. He is making advanced rabbinic arguments in a second language.  You try that sometime.  To further muddy the situation, the theological biases of the translators who bring us our English translations are a factor as well. There are some Bibles out there (such as the New Living Translation or the NIV) which do unforgivable violence to the original manuscripts in order to “prove a point”. Psychologists call this “hindsight bias”, which results in superimposing a meaning over something based on an inherent prejudice.

And don’t make the wrong assumption that your favorite preacher or author is familiar with these Old Testament writings, either. Even those who have had formal education (which in many large denominations is not even required) typically are not exposed to this type of learning. Most Divinity students at Christian universities are only exposed to perhaps six credit hours of Old Testament survey. The rest of their education is spent in the New Testament, and in learning about counseling, pastoral leadership, etc. Most pastors simply buy into the doctrinal dogmas of their denominational training and never “turn over the text”, as they say in rabbinic literature.

For example (just to illustrate) most Christians (and pastors) are under the impression that Jesus fulfills, and thereby makes obsolete, the sacrificial worship system. Yet Jesus has almost nothing whatsoever to do with that system. Yet the church doesn’t know this because it doesn’t know the Law. We believe we’re not “under the Law”, so who cares, right? Wrong.

I eventually need to  give you some concrete argumentation or you’re going to drift away and never finish reading. I know this. This has all been a manner of introduction to prepare your mind for the paradigm shift which you will need to make if you’re going to learn something here. It was important to set the stage. So let’s dig in…

Here are several interpretive principles which will guide us. These are principles which you can “take to the bank” (to quote another idiom). If you keep these principles in mind you will ask different questions than you would otherwise. As we all know, the answers we arrive at are determined in large part by the questions we ask.

Major interpretive principles:

  1.  Paul taught the same gospel as Jesus. The gospel the Lord taught was: “Repent, and turn from sin, for the kingdom is at hand.” Paul would not have changed the gospel. Acts 17 proves this.
  2. Paul was not a maverick. He was a man under authority. Jesus put the Council in place before he rose to heaven. James had authority over Paul and so did Peter. Paul also submitted to this authority and sought their approval for the sanctioning of his message.
  3. The ruling of Acts 15 created ecumenical unity between believing Gentiles and believing Jews, while also creating important distinctions between them. Jews were still fully expected to be completely “Torah-observant”, while Gentiles were expected to take on the parts of Torah which applied to them, such as fleeing idolatry, sexual sin, etc. The Council fully expected Gentile converts to learn Torah “every Sabbath”. (See Acts 15:21).  Paul’s concept of “one new man” (found in Ephesians and elsewhere) also has this “unity with diversity” in mind.
  4. Paul did not overthrow the Torah of Moses, nor did he teach against it. This would have made him a false teacher. (Read Deut.13).
  5. The promises of the New Covenant are found in the Old Testament. God made many promises to the Jewish people which the church claims for itself. A Christian has nothing in Christ outside of the promises that God first made to the Jewish people. As Jesus himself said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn.4).
  6. Israel is identified in the Bible as “God’s chosen people” and the “bride of God”. The church is NOT the “new Israel of God” (as promoted by Calvin). This means that the church is not a “new nation”. We are “grafted in” to the greater commonwealth of Israel, which is not just a spiritual nation but also a physical one with a real, physical prophetic destiny.

Finally, most importantly:

  1. The Law is PART of the New Covenant (See Jer.31-33 and Ezek.36). The Law exists        until “heaven and earth pass away”. New Testament believers (whether Jew or Christian) are still “under the Law” in that sense. So, then, what does Paul mean by this phrase “Christ is the end of the Law”, if that’s true?  Ahhhh….there’s the key…let’s explore.

Now, I’m ready to tackle my objections to my brother Keith’s discipleship post “What does God expect of me?” In the rest of this post, we will only deal directly with my first three objections, which are:

Objection #1: The Law was put into place only for a certain period of time.

Objection #2: The Judaizers (in Paul’s writings) taught that obeying the Law was necessary for salvation.

Objection #3: The only purpose of the Law was to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah, and since his arrival it’s only use now is to remind people that they can’t keep it and that they need a Savior.

This presumption is drawn from Paul’s statement (which is rendered differently depending on translation) that “Christ is the end of the Law”. Your Bible may say, alternatively, “Christ is the goal of the Law” or even “the culmination of the Law”.

Perhaps the worst translation of all is the New Living Translation, which renders this passage as: “For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.” Notice how theologically loaded the NLT is? This is really not a translation at all, but a paraphrase. And it presumes a theological reality which is not being communicated in the text.

Young’s Literal Translation (which follows the Greek or Hebrew as close to verbatim as possible, says: “For Christ is an end of law for righteousness to every one who is believing”

Do you see the vast difference between the literal rendering and the paraphrase? The NLT presumes to teach you the interpretation rather than simply presenting the text as it is originally given. (It’s one thing to place liner notes in the margins to illuminate the text, but quite another to embed the assumption into the text itself. This is downright subversive).

But, perhaps this is of no consequence to you. You may say, “Dave, they’re all saying basically the same thing. You’re splitting hairs.”

Yet, I am not. The translation bias is a result of a centuries-old interpretive position which goes back to the Reformation, and which positions the Law as opposed to the grace which is offered through Jesus, as though there was no grace before he came, as though grace “came through Jesus” in the sense that it didn’t exist before he arrived. Yet, Paul tells us right the book of Galatians that Abraham “found grace in the sight of God 430 years before the Law was given”. Similarly, the children of Jacob found grace in the eyes of God when He rescued them, through Moses, from Pharaoh and the Egyptians before He gave them His Law. So…

Grace always precedes the Law in the Bible.

You may say, “Dave, you’re making Keith’s point for him. I thought you had an objection?”

No, I’m not. The church teaches that grace is the opposite of Law. Another way they say this is that grace is supposedly the opposite of “works”.

But grace is not the opposite of law, or works.

The opposite of grace is condemnation. The opposite of Law is lawlessness.

We say that when a man has not found grace that he stands condemned by his sin. But we know that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom.8:1-2)

We also know that the deeds of the wicked are deeds of “lawlessness”. Consider the words of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'” (Matt.7:21,23)

Jesus is quoting Psalm 6 in this verse, which is interesting since this is a psalm of a cry for mercy. But part of the cry for mercy contains a desire to distance oneself from those who practice lawlessness. This means that those who have cast off the restraint of the Law are causing the suffering of the psalmist.

Earlier in Matthew, Jesus, during his Sermon on the Mount, declares:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill [this is a common rabbinic idiom. ‘Fulfill’ means to ‘uphold’.] For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt.5:17-18)

The church commonly interprets this saying of Jesus to be an eschatological statement of what he will accomplish on the cross. In other words, what is “accomplished” is the cross, and once he “accomplished” the cross, the Law is now “fulfilled”. But this is a wrong-headed reading of the passage. Let’s continue reading:

“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:19)

Notice that the application Jesus makes is not according to the common interpretation in the church. Rather than making an eschatological statement of the position of a believer after belief, Jesus is actually telling us what his true followers will be doing and teaching after he has already ascended. He is saying, in effect, “Don’t think I’m teaching that following me is a substitute for obeying the commandments of God. On the contrary, the Law is in force as long as the earth exists, and I’m here to uphold it, not teach against it. Anyone who follows me and teaches that they aren’t “under the Law” is least in the kingdom. (Notice he doesn’t say that they aren’t saved. We are saved by faith. He says they will be least in the kingdom.) Those who teach and keep even the slightest of the commandments will be great in the kingdom.”

So, really, what Jesus is talking about is discipleship. And this is the key reason I object to the notion that the Law is only here until Christ comes. That is a gross misrepresentation of what Paul is saying in Galatians, because it patently contradicts the teachings of Jesus.

We know Paul does not contradict Jesus’ teachings without having to do too much investigation. Consider Paul in Romans: “For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”(Rom.2:13)

So, what is Paul saying when he says Christ is the “end” of the Law?

Let’s remember the point we’ve established: Grace always precedes Law.

The issue which Paul is addressing in Galatians (and also in Romans) is the application of his gospel to the believing Gentiles coming into the community of faith. We have difficulty understanding this issue today.

As a brief history lesson, atheism was against the law in the Roman empire. In America we enjoy freedom of religion. You can believe what you want and still be a citizen in good standing. But in Rome, you had to participate in the Roman cults of pagan worship, which were the community centers for life and commerce (and were rife with filth and debauchery) or face potential arrest and the loss of community privilege. But the Romans had respect for ancient religions, and had made the practice of Judaism a sanctioned and legal religion within the empire. If you were a Jew, you were exempt from the Roman cult of polytheism and the worship of Ceasar.

As Gentiles came to faith in Christ, they naturally sought to convert to Judaism, in order to be received in the Jewish community and also to exempt themselves from the Roman cult.

The terms “under the Law”, “circumcision”, “works of the Law”, etc. which Paul uses in Galatians and Romans are shorthand phrases to signify “Jewish status through conversion”. The Judaizers were not people who were advocating that the believers needed to follow the Law of Moses as a condition of salvation. They were advocating formal conversion to legal Jewish status and identity, which involved circumcision (for men) an offering, a vow and immersion in a mikveh (water baptism). This is the same conversion ritual which is followed today. Paul was arguing, forcefully, that the Gentiles were gaining nothing by formal conversion to Judaism that they did not already have in Christ. The most likely people to be “Judaizers” were former Gentiles who had already converted and were looking down at Paul’s converts as “second-class citizens”. To these Judaizers, being “under the Law” was a sort of bragging right of status, as though they were more legitimate believers than the unconverted Gentiles.

This, briefly stated (as there is much, much more which could be said on that) is what Paul is talking about when he says that Christ is the “end of the Law”. He is telling people (he uses the story of Abraham to illustrate) that grace comes before Law. But by “Law”, Paul does not mean obedience to God’s commandments, but rather the status of being legally Jewish.

Jesus, as the Messiah, represents the “supernal Law” of God. He is the “word made flesh”.  He is what the Law points to. But this does not mean that the Law is “completed”, in the sense of being “finished”, by him. Let me explain.

If I fulfill a commandment of God, say, to show honor to my parents, this is “fulfilling” a commandment. Yet, tomorrow if I fail to do so, I will be sinning. I cannot say that I don’t have to honor my parents today because yesterday I “fulfilled” the commandment.

Fulfilling a commandment doesn’t abolish the commandment. It’s simpy what I’m supposed to do.

Jesus wasn’t playing an arcade game, people. It’s not like by living a perfect life he maxed out his score and finished the quest of the game. “Congratulations, Jesus, you have achieved the all-time high score in the game of righteousness. Please enter your initials here.” Yes, his righteousness is imputed to us, and yes it’s because he earned this status by living perfectly under the Law. But by doing so he does not “abolish” the Law. He simply did his job. The job of the Messiah is to bring redemption. It’s the Law of God that establishes the Messiah’s role and purpose. If the Law is abolished by the Messiah keeping it, then he is abolishing that which defines the kingdom and is therefore annulling his own kingship.

Further, to quote Aaron Eby of First Fruits of Zion, who is a Torah expert, language scholar and also a Messianic Jew, there is “no provision in the Torah which facilitates its annulment by virtue of someone keeping it.”

It’s not as though by keeping the Torah perfectly, that Jesus triggered some type of trap door which let the Law fall into the nothingness of time and space. To illustrate, if I keep the laws of my town, I don’t make them obsolete. Being a good citizen means I continue in doing what is right and good.

By providing atonement for our souls, He has restored the Law’s rightful place in our lives; as the blessing of God’s righteous standard, which stands in opposition to the lawlessness of the world.

After coming to faith in Jesus, the Law goes from being that which defines our condemnation, to that which provides the standard of discipleship. When we walk in the spirit of God, which is the birthright of every believer, we are drawn to obedience to God’s Law, and away from lawlessness. Paul explains this in Romans:

“For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”(Rom.6:19)

“Therefore I urge you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”(Rom.12:1)

The same exhortation, as an application to Paul’s teachings, is found in Galatians:

“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”(Gal.5:14) (This quotes Lev.19:18, which was also quoted by Jesus).

Does this mean that the rest of the Law is irrelevant? Do we simply need to walk in love? Not quite. Consider the words of John:

“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”(1 Jn.5:2-3)

Also Paul himself makes it clear that Jesus is not the “end of the Law” as the church typically understands it:

“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.”(1 Cor.7:19)

So, finally, the important thing we are learning here is that the teachings of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the writers of the New Testament are consistent, not contradictory. Paul did not have a radical message which departed from the teachings of the Master. His emphasis was very specific, however. He was the apostle to the Gentiles and the emissary to the nations of the ruling of the Jerusalem Council concerning Gentiles coming to faith. They were not to convert to Judaism and take on Jewish identity in order to be saved. They were saved through belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world and repentance from sin. They were to reorder their lives as holy sons of the kingdom, forsaking the idolatry and sin of the world, as veritable co-heirs, and equal to, the Jewish people in Christ. No need to put themselves “under the Law” in that sense. To prove this point, let me allow Paul to say it himself:

“I testify again to every man who receives circumcision [converts formally to Judaism] that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.”(Gal.5:3)

So, Paul’s phrase “keeping the whole Law” does not refer to obeying God’s commandments, which as we have seen is obviously expected of all believers, Jew and Gentile alike. What this phrase means is the taking on of the full obligation of “Torah observance”, as a Jew, meaning the written Law, the Oral Law, and the traditions of the elders. This was very involved and culturally-oriented. Paul did not want anyone to think that there were multiple hoops to jump through before they were accepted by God. They were justified by faith, not by being an “insider” within the Jewish community. However, what is often missed in this passage is the fact that Paul considered this level of Torah obligation to be entirely incumbent upon a Jew, as he was. This is the “unity in diversity” idea again which we see in Acts 15. It is wrong to think that the Jerusalem Council removed the Torah from the life of the believing community. Nothing could be further from the truth. The early believers were all fastidiously Torah observant, and this included the oral traditions. But they recognized, through the writings of the prophets, that part of Israel’s destiny was to be “a light to the nations”(Is.49:6), who would “stream to Zion to learn Torah from the Messiah”(Zech.14:16).

Let’s get back to the “tutor” argument. The idea presented by Keith in his blog, taken from Galatians, is that the Law is fulfilled in Christ in the sense that once Christ comes, there is no longer a need for a “tutor” or “pedagogue”. However, this argument only makes sense in relation to the dynamics in play in Paul’s communities, as I’ve described above. We’ve seen from both the teachings of Jesus and the apostles that instruction in the Law was expected to continue after Christ’s ascension. So, perhaps you are still confused as to how to interpret this passage?

Let’s look at it logically. Suppose you go to school to learn how to be a dentist. You spend six or eight years in schooling, learning all about the profession, the human body, disease, and all the other things you would learn in school, and finally reach the culmination of your education, and you invite your friends and loved ones to attend the ceremony where you will receive your Doctoral credentials. Imagine, then, that your leading professor, the dean of your school, makes a speech before you and all your classmates, and says:

“Congratulations, graduating class. You have reached the culmination of your education in dentistry. This certificate represents the goal of your entire education. Now that you’ve achieved it, you should forget everything you’ve learned. You don’t need any of it. It’s all fulfilled in this document. Just hang it on the wall. That’s all that matters. All those things you studied for the last eight years was just our way of keeping you shut in at school until we could finally print up these certificates. Come, enter into the joy of your profession.”

How ludicrous would that be? Do you see the point?

By embracing the false dichotomy that Law is opposed to Grace, this is how we present the gospel. And this is, unfortunately, how we read Paul. This causes us to become allergic to studying and applying the Law to our lives. We think we are violating Paul’s instruction to not go “under the Law” and thereby refuse grace.

The Law is God’s righteousness, revealed to men. Obeying God’s commandments is literally making God’s will to be manifest on earth. Yet, because we misunderstand Paul, we seem to be telling our church members that the Law only served the purpose of “detaining” us under sin until the “perfect” comes, who is Christ. Understand that Paul is merely explaining the gospel to people who were being pressured to convert to Judaism in order to be saved.

The Law of God is much more than just a legal declaration of our guilt before God. In fact, that’s not what it is at all. It is a code of conduct which, when embraced, brings forth righteousness. The word “Torah” doesn’t even mean Law. It means “teaching.” Jesus said that the world will know we belong to him by our love for one another. John says that the way to love one another is to obey God’s commandments. So, why do we say that Christ is the end of the Law? Because we don’t understand Paul.

Grace comes before the Law in the Bible. That means that it’s after we’ve received the grace of God that we should strive to obey the Law. Learning the Torah is so much more exciting and enriching when you have already received the grace of God.

The Law of God is not opposite grace. It is the path of discipleship. As Paul states to his chief disciple in his final written correspondence:

“You…continue in the things you have learned…that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”(2 Tim.3:14-17)

Paul says to continue in the things you have learned. He doesn’t say to “forget all that legalistic stuff. Now that you have Jesus you have all you need.” No, the Torah (which are the scriptures Paul is referring to here) leads one to salvation, because it leads to faith in the Messiah. Let’s try to remember this as we pursue the training of others in the faith.

We will continue our response to Keith’s post in future installments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Understanding Paul, Part One.

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