Understanding Paul, Part Two

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”  Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: If this fixed order departs from before Me,” declares the LORD, “then the offspring of Israel will also cease from being a nation before Me forever.”   – Jeremiah 31:31-36

Thus begin the terms which the LORD lays out through His prophet of the coming New Covenant. This is the same New Covenant which Christ initiates through his death and by being raised from the dead as the first fruits of the coming kingdom.

(Note: This post is longer than most of my posts. Allow 10 minutes to read it thoroughly.)

This is part two of our two-part series on understanding Paul. We should remind the reader of the purpose behind these two posts. I am not trying to give a dissertation on Pauline doctrine, but to respond to a post made by a fellow blogger, Pastor Keith Haney. He made some statements in his blog post “What Does God Expect From Me?” which I have challenged. (A link to that post can be found in part one of this series).

The first three ideas which Keith put forth which I dealt with were:

  1. The Law was put in place only for a certain period of time.
  2. The Judaizers (in Paul’s letter to the Galatians) 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 the Law’s only current purpose is to prove to people their inability to keep it so that they recognized their need for a savior.

We dealt with these statements in the first installment, which can be found here: Understanding Paul, Part One.

The final three objections to Keith’s post will be dealt with here.

(I should make note that I’m not trying to pick on Keith Haney. He writes a good blog. I’m simply taking issue with the Replacement Theology which he, I think unknowingly, espouses through his misinterpretation of Paul; a common mistake in the modern church.)

These three statements which I will address are these:

  1. There was no “life of faith” before Jesus, only “imprisonment under the Law.”
  2. Water baptism into the church (becoming a Christian) makes the body of believers into a “new nation.”
  3. The Law created differences, distinctions and hostility, but through our adoption into Christ , all such distinctions have been removed “in Christ.”

There are also a couple of other statement which I disagreed with strongly, one of which I found galling:

  1. He attempts to mock a Jewish prayer, and wrongly attributes it to the Pharisees, as a way of trying to show how legalistic and harsh religion “under the law” was before Jesus. This will be shocking to some of you just how far from the truth Keith’s claim is.

In this post, we’re taking the gloves off, and we’re going to completely reveal the roots of what Keith is inferring in his post, whether he does so knowingly or not (I think not). Those “roots” are the false foundations of supersessionism, otherwise known as Replacement Theology, which in a very basic definition is the teaching that the church has replaced Israel in the redemptive purposes of God.The writings of Paul provide the most common “proof texts” that are used to justify this theology.

Most people I have discussed Replacement Theology with declare proudly that they don’t support it. They will typically follow up their statement with “I love Israel!” or some other such statement, all while actively and usually ignorantly promoting the theology through their interpretations of Paul.

On to the rebuttal:

Point #1 – “There was no life of faith before Jesus, only “imprisonment under the Law.”

It is easy to understand how Keith and others may think this, through an uncritical and literal reading of Galatians, especially when certain verses are plucked from their rightful context. Consider this verse, which formed the hinge of Keith’s argument: But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. (Gal.3:23) Sounds fairly cut and dry, right?

Not so fast. Paul is not suggesting that there was no faith in Israel before Christ. No, you must take this verse in it’s proper context. Paul is using well-understood Jewish teachings to create irony in the mind of his readers. He is shining a light on an established truth in order to illustrate his larger point, which is that there is no advantage for a Gentile to convert formally to Judaism and to take on the full Jewish obligation to Torah, since Christ is the object, or goal of the Jewish faith to begin with. Since the Gentiles have Christ “by faith”, then the Law (meaning God’s commandments) are enough for the Gentiles to embrace without going “under the Law” (formal conversion to legal Jewish status). Remember this context at all times when reading Paul, and he will be less confusing.

It is confusing for readers of the epistle who don’t understand what Paul and his Jewish brethren understood. You see, contrary to the common understanding of church theology, the Jewish people have never believed that they are saved by keeping the Law. This is a false presumption. However, this does not mean that many Jews throughout history have not fallen prey to this type of thinking. So this is a factor that Paul is dealing with as well.

Further, we are misguided if we think that God gave His law to Israel to prove their ineptitude. First, before the Law, God established a relationship with His people, starting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then, as a continued revelation of His purposes for both Israel and ultimately for all of mankind, He gave His Law so they could approach Him and learn holiness and right behavior. He gave His law to distinguish them from the surrounding nations. He also gave His law in order to provide a framework of godly community in order for them to become a “light to the nations.” Part of God’s giving of the law even included the promise of a Messiah. The Messiah does not replace the law. The Messiah brings the law to its intended glory through a New Covenant which “fills up what is lacking” on behalf of the people. The Messiah mediates between God and man as our High Priest. It’s beautiful once you see it in its proper context. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Before we further explain this passage, you must hold at the front of your mind the truth that Paul is arguing against Gentiles Christ-believers formally converting to Judaism. Paul himself was a strictly Torah-observant Pharisee his entire life and never abandoned his native faith or its practice. This is vital to understand as we read Galatians.

How is this possible? Does Paul advocate a different practice for Jews than for Gentiles? The answer is YES. This is the missing element about Paul’s teachings which most do not understand. Paul taught one way to the Father, through Jesus, but the Jewish people are distinct from the nations. It is categorically wrong to think that when Paul says there are no longer Jew nor Greek, that he means there is no longer a people group called the Jews or the Gentiles. He means very simply that all are saved through faith in the Messiah. He is denigrating the status of being legally Jewish as being an “inside track” to God. But this does not mean that the Jewish people are not still the “chosen nation/chosen people”. Nor does it mean that the church has superseded Israel in the redemptive plan of God.

Paul has a “rule for all his churches”. Do you know what that rule is? Ask your pastor sometime what “Paul’s rule for all the churches” was, and see what he says.

The answer is found in 1 Cor.7:17-21. Paul said that whatever state you found yourself in when you came to Christ is the state in which you should stay. That means if you are Jewish, don’t seek to become un-Jewish. If you are Gentile, don’t seek to be un-Gentile.

Romans was written after Galatians, which is useful to know when looking at this issue. In Romans, Paul goes into much greater detail in explaining some of the concepts he introduces in Galatians. For one thing, a question which arises in the mind of a critical thinker when considering Paul’s “grace” gospel is: What advantage does the Jew have over the Gentile if the Gentile receives the same salvation benefit without all the Jewish obligation to Torah?  Paul answers this question in Romans 2-3. First, he chastises the false belief among many Jews that one cannot be saved unless one is legally Jewish. He does this forcefully in Romans 2:17-29 (I suggest you stop and read that right now if you have time). Then, he asks the obvious question which logically arises at the top of chapter 3:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision [being under the Sinai covenant]? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. [This means the revelation of scripture and the right of interpretation]. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be!  – Romans 3:1-4

This is the beginning of Paul’s great reveal in Romans 9-11 in which he turns the tables on his argument, and aims his guns at the Gentiles who have obtained “freedom” in Christ, that they not become arrogant against the root for “the root supports you, and you don’t support the root” and also that “all Israel will be saved“. Read: God is faithful to the promises He has made to the Jews. And God commanded that the Jewish people honor their covenant with Him made at Sinai.

The Old Covenant is not abolished with the initiation of the New. This is a very common, but false, assumption which many Bible teachers and laypersons make. The Old Covenant is still very much in force. Remember, from the quoted scripture in Jeremiah, that the Law is PART of the New Covenant.

So, how to answer our objection to Keith’s blog in this first point? Easy. Paul makes it clear that Abraham found grace in the eyes of the LORD 430 years before the Law was given at Sinai. So, it is anachronistic to suggest that Israel used to be under a system of legalism, but now, under Christ, all men are free from the Law under grace.

Remember, always, that grace always precedes the Law. This is, after all, Paul’s point in Galatians 3.

But, you may object, what about the “curse of the Law?” What about “He who practices them shall live by them?” Again, we must understand the context. The law is not a curse. The way I put it to Keith in my brief comment below his blog post was that “the law was not a problem waiting to be fixed.” The law is the righteousness of God manifest. The problem is US. We are fallen, sinful creatures who cannot meet the perfect standard. We need a savior. This does not mean that the law should not be obeyed or followed or studied. On the contrary, now that we have found favor with God through Christ, we become like the psalmist David who declares:

How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart. They also do no unrighteousness; they walk in His ways. You have ordained Your precepts, that we should keep them diligently. Oh that my ways may be established to keep Your statutes! Then I shall not be ashamed when I look upon all Your commandments. I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart, when I learn Your righteous judgments. I shall keep Your statutes; do not forsake me utterly!    Psalm 119:1-8

David was a man who had found favor with God. He understood grace. His response to God’s grace was a desperate longing to learn God’s ways and His laws, so that he could order his life after them. It is a perversion of God’s holy Word to suggest that Paul intended for us to think that the Law was a “curse” and something we should be “free” from. No, Paul is being both ironic and hyperbolic in order to deal quickly and decisively with a serious problem which he faced in his communities of faith: Gentiles forsaking their liberty in Christ to become legally Jewish, thinking they were gaining salvation through it. Paul sought earnestly to make becoming Jewish as unattractive to his Gentile Christ-followers as possible, while at the same time forsaking sin (according to the law of God) and ordering their lives as David did, as their “reasonable act of worship.” (Rom.12:1)

Point#2 – Water baptism into the church (as a Christian) makes believers in Christ into a “new nation.”

This next objection will be quick and simple to deal with and I won’t spend much time on it. First and foremost, whether this is immediately apparent to Keith or to you, this is a blatant Replacement Theology statement. In other words, this presumes (and this presumption is built upon the wrong understanding of Paul’s mantra of “neither Jew nor Greek“) that there is no longer any legitimacy to the Jewish people apart from Christ. Now, I’m not at all suggesting that the Jewish people do not at some point need to embrace their Messiah. All who will be part of the World to Come are granted access to it through Christ alone. There is no other way to the Father. I’m not suggesting that Jewish people get a “free pass” on Jesus. Far from it. That would be ludicrous. What I AM saying, though, is that Gentile Christians (along with Jewish believers, if there are any among them) do not form a “new nation” by virtue of their faith in Christ.

There are only two things which are present in the book of Revelation at the Final Judgment which survive the Great Tribulation: families and nations. There is Israel, the chosen nation of God, and there are the rest of the nations.

There is no “new nation” of Christianity. Paul states that we are grafted in to the greater commonwealth of Israel through faith in Christ. The Jews are not grafted into the “church.” Remember also, the terms of the new covenant (quoted at the beginning of this post) state unequivocally that Israel will always be a nation before Him until the earth passes away.

So that’s that. I could put forth a veritable mountain of scriptures to further prove this point, but the hour is late and the post is long, so let’s move on.

Point #3 –  The Law created differences, distinctions and hostility,” but through our adoption into Christ , all such distinctions have been removed “in Christ.”

Again, this is a false presumption, and again, it is rooted in Replacement Theology. How so?

It is a misnomer to suggest that there are no distinctions between people or people groups “in Christ.” This is of course presumed from Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 which Keith brings up in his post. Again, it seems cut and dry at a cursory reading, but this shallow reading betrays a tremendous lack of cognitive reasoning skills.

The Bible tells us that when a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. Now, does Moses mean this in the sense that my wife and I are physically and physiologically one? No, it is a spiritual reality, not a physical one. The physical consummation of our relationship is both physical and spiritual, yes, but at the core what is being stated is that God now sees the man and woman as one man. This is precisely the imagery Paul uses in Corinthians to explain the church, and also in Ephesians. We are one in spirit, but we retain our distinctive qualities. She is still a woman and I am still a man.

My children are still my children whether or not they are “in Christ”. My boss is still my boss regardless if he/she is “in Christ”.

When Paul discusses the one new man in Ephesians, he means that Gentiles now have access to the “holy of holies”, which was beforehand restricted from them, through the blood of Christ, not that suddenly there are no more Jews and Gentiles. We have to be logical and sensible here, and stop building our theology like three-year-olds who have no ability to think.

Likewise, Jews are still Jews. A Jew has a different obligation to the Torah than a Gentile. This is clearly established in Acts 15. The Council did not rule that the Torah was no longer in effect, just that Gentiles did not have the same obligations as Jews. Do you find this troubling? You shouldn’t. It’s time to learn the law, folks.

In the Law of God, there have been codified (In Jewish writings) 613 commandments in the Torah. But all 613 are not required of everyone. They can’t be. Many laws only apply to the priesthood. Some only apply to the high priest. Some only apply at certain times of the year. Some laws only apply to men, some only to women, some only to children. Some laws only apply to slaves, some only to slave-owners. Some to employers, some to workers, and so forth and so on. The law is not one-size-fits-all and neither is our relationship with God. God deals fairly with all, but not always the same. You can’t put God in a box and declare that “if you do this, God will do that.” We like to think we can do that, but we cannot. There are factors at play at all times which we are not privy to. How do we know when God is being fair? Do we know all the factors that go into His judgments? Do we know better than Him? Obviously not.

God has seen fit to select a particular people unto Himself and has given them laws and statutes to uphold for all time, and has also entrusted them with His oracles (His Word) and given them the responsibility to be a “light to the nations”. That is very distinctive. Gentiles don’t have that responsibility. It might make you feel like a second-class citizen in the kingdom to think on this (in fact this is why Gentiles were succumbing to pressure from the Judaizers in Paul’s day). Yet if you are a Gentile like me, you are an equal heir to the kingdom of God, through faith in Christ. We have a different role than the Jews. We carry the light of Christ, as ambassadors of the King, to the nations. It’s an important job. But we are not to become arrogant against the Jews, or to think that we have supplanted them in God’s eyes.

Paul’s argument in his epistles concerning the idea of formal conversion to Judaism can be illustrated like this:

I’ve had two different men of God, pastors, talk to me very sternly, each in a different way, about my call to be a pastor. The first man, already a pastor, told me, “Dave, if there’s anything else you can do and be happy besides being a pastor, then do it. If you can’t answer that question with ‘no’, then don’t become one. It’s a hard road.”

The second man, also a pastor, looked at me incredulously when I told him my call and said, “Why would you want to be a pastor? That’s a burden. You’re free! Enjoy your freedom! You can minister at will whenever you want without the obligation that comes with this job. Don’t bring it upon yourself through your own effort. If God wants you to be a pastor, you’ll become one.”

Both men were essentially telling me what Paul is telling his readers in Galatians.

“Why would you want to become a Jew? Don’t you realize that if you go “under the Law” that you’ll be obligated to the whole Law? Why throw away your freedom in Christ?”

The analogy is accurate, because contrary to what most think, Paul was a strict Pharisee until he died. He was very much “under the Law.” In this way, he was “distinct” from most of his assembly. He made no apology for it, and he most certainly did not expect or encourage his Gentile converts to become like him in status, only in practice of devotion to God. Perhaps to further discourage his audience from thinking that he was “something special” as a high ranking Jewish rabbi, he states:

…although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee…But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. – Philippians 3:4-7

It is not that Paul turned his back on his religion. He didn’t. But he gave up the status he thought he was gaining through his zealous pursuit of moving up the ranks among Jewish leadership. As a personal disciple of Gamaliel, he was in line for the position of the Nasi, meaning the ruling teacher of the yeshiva, or house of study. He would have been a member of the Sanhedrin. Yet by following and serving Christ, Paul turned his back on such achievements and became an “off-scouring” for the sake of the Gentiles, by the commissioning of Jesus, and he considered it an honor to do so.

We see in Acts 15 that there were many Pharisees on the Jerusalem Council. Contrary to popular opinion, the synonym of Pharisee is not “hypocrite”. The Pharisees were a well-respected sect in Jesus’s day, and were looked up to by the people. Yes, there were bad Pharisees who perverted the justice and teachings of God, but many were good men who were zealous for good deeds and righteous living. Jesus agreed with the teachings of the Pharisees, but not always with their attitude or application of law. Paul was a Pharisee. Even as an apostle. When he was put on trial in the later chapters of Acts, and he proclaimed that he was a Pharisee in good standing, no one could deny his claim. They would have if they could have, but they could not. Paul was a “good Jew”.

This leads me to my final point. Keith states that the Law does not make us one with God or others, and tries to illustrate this with the following statement:

“The Pharisee would pray each morning, “I thank Thee, God, that I am a Jew, not a Gentile; a man, not a woman; and a freeman, and not a slave.” Yet all these distinctions are removed in Christ.”

Okay, he just threw me a hanging curve right over the middle of the plate, and I’m swinging…

He is referring to the prayer of the morning blessings. Don’t let Keith dupe you into thinking that this is some hypocritical prayer of a self-righteous Pharisee. In fact, the prayer originates with Ezra during the Second Temple building and spiritual restoration of Israel. Yes, the Pharisees prayed it, but so did every other practicing Jew, including Jesus and his followers and the early church! When we read about the early believers attending to the “prayers” in Acts 2, this prayer of the morning blessings would have been part of their liturgy. So, Keith is all wet on this. Fact is, I’ve had had to eat my own shoe leather on many occasions. Well, this is one time where Keith, and other misinformed folks like him, should do likewise.

Not only is he misinformed about this prayer and about the Pharisees, and about liturgical prayer and its origin, he also doesn’t do justice to the prayer itself, nor does he understand Jewish prayer in the least.

Here is the prayer in full:

Blessed are You , LORD our God, King of the Universe, who gives the heart understanding to distinguish day from night.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a heathen.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, men: who has not made me a woman, women: who has made me according to His will.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who gives sight to the blind.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who clothes the naked.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who sets captives free.

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, who raises those bowed down.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who spreads the earth above the waters.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who has provided me with all I need.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who makes firm the steps of man.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who girds Israel with strength.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who crowns Israel with glory.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe, who gives strength to the weary.

Now, after reading that (and if you’re still reading by now I am deeply thankful) does it still sound like the hypocritical self-righteous prayer as Keith tried to portray it? No, I don’t think so either. It’s a prayer of particularity, uttered from humility, expressing thankfulness and gratitude for God’s character, His divine will and His dealings with his children.

Concerning the prayer aspects which Keith highlights, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, comments in the Koren Sacks Siddur:

                “Who has not made me a heathen, a slave, a woman”: These three blessings are mentioned in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). Before we bless God for the universalities of human life, we bless Him for the particularities of our identity. We belong to the people of the Covenant; we are free; and we have differentiated responsibilities as women and men. These blessings have nothing to do with hierarchies of dignity, for we believe that every human being is equally formed in the image of God. Rather, they are expressions of acknowledgment of the special duties of Jewish life. Heathens, slaves and women are exempt from certain commands which apply to Jewish men. By these blessings, we express our faith that the commandments are not a burden but a cherished vocation. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

When we read our Bibles, the worst thing we can do is make application to what we read without regard to who wrote what we are reading, who they wrote it to, why they wrote it, the context which is being addressed and what they are communicating. If we don’t know the answer to these questions, we would be better served (especially if we are a teacher of the word) to hold off on making declarative statements about it until we do know.

Otherwise we could be reading into it the opposite of what it means.

May you be blessed on your journey. I hope this has helped answer some questions for you and perhaps created some new ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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