Paul was a first century Jew. While he was born in Tarsus (Acts 21:39), from his youth he lived in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). He classified himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Though he was not born in Palestine, he did not wish to be known as a Hellenist Jew. The designation “Hebrew of Hebrews” likely signifies he was an Aramaic speaking Jew rather than a Jew who did not speak the language of Palestine. He was circumcised the eighth day of his life (Genesis 17:9-14) and born into the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). He became a member of a Jewish family with devout, ‘conservative’ parents (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5). Not only was Paul a Pharisee, but also his father was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). His personal religious background was rooted in and nourished by Jewish strictness, orthodoxy, and a deep respect for Jewish traditions. This devotion continued into his adult life: he lived in Jerusalem; he was a student under Gamaliel [the leading Pharisee and rabbi of Paul’s time] (Acts 22:3); and he, as a leading student, honored Jewish tradition (Galatians 1:14).
A concept often accepted and too rarely examined is the concept that Paul was a ‘Jew’s Jew’ prior to Acts 9, but had nearly nothing to do with Jewish perspective, Jewish practices, or Jewish tradition after becoming a Christian. In this view, Paul ceased being Jewish culturally. He became gentile in lifestyle when he accepted salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus most of us gentile Christians of today look upon Paul as ‘one of us’ culturally. Scriptural evidences indicate this accepted transition from Jewishness to a gentile Christian lifestyle is more our creation than revelation. However, these evidences are frequently ignored because they do not fit our common [or convenient] views of first century Christianity.
Begin with this understanding: Jesus was a Jew who came as God’s Messiah to ‘fulfill’ [bring to completion] God’s purposes in the nation of Israel. Jesus did not come to destroy the nation of Israel. He did not come to destroy God’s revelation of righteousness through those who were faithful in the nation of Israel. He did not come to destroy Deuteronomy’s plea or the prophets’ message. Jesus came to bring to completion God’s revelation of righteousness. See Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17-18. The nation of Israel existed through God’s work and intent. The law existed through God’s work and intent. Jesus existed through God’s work and intent. None of these three revelations are God’s enemy or enemies to each other. Each complements the other two. A failure to understand any of the three is a failure of human understanding, not a failure of God’s work or God’s revelation.
To challenge you to recognize God’s work in the nation of Israel, God’s revelation in the law, and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, read and consider some scriptures. Read statements such as Deuteronomy 6:4, 5 and 10:16. Note the priority for Israel as a nation was focused on establishing a relationship with God based on love. ‘Following the rules’ has meaning only if a relationship of love exists. Circumcision was more than an external religious ritual. It was an internal reality reflecting an in depth appreciation for God. It declared faith in the fact that God intervened in human history to produce deliverance.
Consider Isaiah 1:10-15. Israelites did ‘all the right things’ in their worship. God commanded them to do everything they did in their worship. Yet, their ‘correct’ worship deeply offended God. It offended God so much that He declared He would ‘hide his eyes’ and refuse to see their ‘correct acts’. He would close His ears and refuse to listen to their prayers. Why? They had no relationship with God! Though they worshipped ‘correctly’, their ‘correct worship’ did not express loving appreciation for God. Though their worship acts were correct, the focus of their lives was distinctly ungodly. Their lack of relationship with God deceived only themselves!
Jesus’ ministry and death were the living and dying example of relationship with God. He moved relationship with God to higher levels, declared God’s priorities in relationship, and made it possible for all Christians [regardless of ancestry] to relate to God as cherished family members.
Belonging to God is focused on more than merely ‘keeping the rules’. Rules lose their meaning and significance if there is no relationship. Just as in any successful marriage or family, if there is no love relationship, rules are meaningless and become oppressive. The same reality is true in association with God. If there is no love relationship with God, rules are meaningless and become oppressive.
In Christ, Paul grasped this truth. He understood the significance of God’s act in giving Jesus because he understood God always stressed and wanted relationship. People, not God, changed the religious focus in Judaism! People, not God, change the religious focus in Christianity!
Paul and Jewish Existence
Paul did not see Jewishness as an enemy of God or Christ. He used his Jewishness to (a) illustrate God’s purposes in the nation of Israel reached completion in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:2-11) and to (b) illustrate that God had not abandoned Jews (Romans 11:1). The problem was not that people born to Jewish parents were citizens in the nation of Israel. The problem was that Israel did not understand God’s priorities and intents for their nation (Romans 10:1-3). They substituted their priorities for God’s. The problem did not lie in God’s work in Israel, but in Israel’s expectations.
When Paul discussed his ‘becoming all things to all people,’ fifty per cent of his personal adaptations focused on Jewish ancestry and the Jewish belief system (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). His challenge to the Jews was not (a) to abandon who they were by ancestry and culture, but (b) to find the completion of God’s work in accepting Jesus [a Jew] as the promised Messiah.
The initial issue in presenting the gospel to Jews and to gentiles was basically different. God gave the Jewish nation a basic responsibility to gentile peoples (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; Luke 2:32). Paul frequently reminded Israel of their mission to the gentiles (see Acts 13:46, 47; 18:5-6; 19:8-9; 22:21; 26:20; 28:28). God wished to work through Israel to bring all people to Him. Israel was to be a “light” in a darkened world. Israel was to lead everyone to God. Again, Israel was not the goal but a means to God’s goal.
Acts’ Emphasis and Christian Paul’s Jewishness
Paul interrupted his planned mission travels with a determined return to Jerusalem. He had additional mission travels planned—to Rome and to destinations west of Italy (Romans 15:24-25). However, first he must go to Jerusalem. He had a personal dream—by encouraging gentile Christians to make a contribution to needy Jewish Christians, he would make a breach in the wall that often separated Jewish and gentile Christians. (See 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 and 2 Corinthians 8, 9.) With this gift from gentile Christians, Paul was convinced he would promote spiritual inter-dependence between Jewish and gentile Christians. The gift from gentile Christians would challenge Jewish Christians to acknowledge gentile Christians’ benevolent generosity. Had not the Christian leaders in the Jerusalem church stressed giving to the poor was an essential part of the gospel message? (See Galatians 2:10.)
The author of Acts stressed the Jewishness of the Christian Paul as he completed his third mission journey by returning to Jerusalem. In Acts 18:4, while at Corinth, Paul spoke in the synagogue persuading Jews and Greeks every Sabbath. In Acts 18:18 Paul took a vow that involved cutting his hair. [This likely was the Nazarite vow, a common Jewish vow requiring cutting the hair and burning the hair at the Jewish temple. It was a voluntary vow often used to express gratitude to God.] In Acts 19:8 Paul spent three months in the synagogue of Ephesus “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.” Acts 19:21 acknowledged Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem. Acts 20:3 acknowledged a Jewish plot against Paul during his return trip. Acts 20:6 indicated the time of the trip by referring to the days of unleavened bread. Acts 20:16 speaks of Paul’s determination to be in Jerusalem on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Acts 21:4 speaks of Paul’s commitment to return to Jerusalem in spite of Christian discouragement.
Certainly Paul wanted to take the gentile Christians’ gift to the Jerusalem Christians. However, his determination to take the gift had nothing to do with denying his own Jewishness. In fact, when things did not occur in Jerusalem as he intended, Paul used his Jewishness as a defense against the charges against him (see Acts 21:39-40; 23:6; 24:10-12; 25:8; 26:2-7). Being a Christian did not involve Paul’s abandoning his Jewishness. This is a critical understanding if today’s Christian is to grasp the happenings of Acts 21:20-30.
Paul and Acts 21:20-30
Paul’s return to Jerusalem immediately presented a problem. Paul first reported to the leadership of the Jerusalem church (Act 21:17-19). These leaders were thankful and grateful to God for the success of Paul’s work among the gentiles (Acts 21:20). However, these leaders [and Paul] faced a problem. The problem was the false report from gentile areas spread by Jewish enemies of Paul. To the leaders, the problem was not Paul’s work with the gentiles, but the false rumor declared against Paul. Many Jewish Christians still followed Jewish practices and rituals. If these Jewish Christians perceived Paul’s mission to the gentiles as the destruction of Judaism, there would be significant harm to the work of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
The problem the church’s leadership confronted was disproving the false rumor against Paul. Paul did not teach the Jews in gentile areas to abandon Jewish ritual and Jewish culture. He did not declare, “Do not circumcise your children. Do not meet in synagogues. Do not make pilgrimages to the temple. Make no distinction between clean and unclean food.” He declared gentiles did not have to adopt Jewish practices in order to become Christians. He did not demand Jews abandon their rituals and culture, nor did he bind Jewish rituals and culture on gentiles.
The problem: “Paul, how do we prove the accusations against you are false?”
The solution: demonstrate you have not abandoned your Jewishness by helping some men make their Jewish vow. “Paul, take the four men ready to make a vow. Purify yourself with them [a Jewish act]. Take them to the temple [a Jewish place]. Pay their expenses [finance their sacrifices, a Jewish obligation]. In doing these things, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem will know the accusations against you are false. They will know that you live as a Jew and keep the law.” Paul did as these Jewish leaders requested (Acts 21:26).
The problem that occurred was caused by the Jews from Asia, not Jerusalem Jewish Christians (Acts 21:27). His accusers caused the crisis by again accusing Paul of something he did not do—bringing gentiles into an area of the temple compound off-limits to gentiles.
The incident reveals the enormous emotion and pressure contained in the Jew-gentile question. The Jerusalem church leaders understood God’s will in extending salvation to gentiles without gentiles becoming proselytes. However, the emotional climate among Jews [including Jewish Christians] was so tense that it produced an emotional reaction rather than an understanding of God’s will. The pressure was enormous!
Surely today’s church leaders understand the pressure! With all the concerns emotionally swirling in today’s congregations [questions concerning the role of women; questions concerning worship styles; questions concerning singing; etc.], today’s leaders are much aware of matters ‘too hot to handle’. They know often the pressure of inflamed emotions make open investigation a virtual impossibility. Even today, well intentioned efforts often solve nothing!
If your initial reaction is to disregard the previous evidences by declaring, “That cannot be true!” consider an illustration. Paul met Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman, on a mission trip (Acts 16:1-3). Paul was a Jewish Christian doing Christian mission work. Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian. Timothy was an uncircumcised Christian. His father was a gentile, but his mother was a Jew. By Jewish standards and customs, Timothy should have been circumcised eight days after birth because his mother was Jewish. Paul wanted Timothy to be part of his mission team and assist in teaching [primarily] gentiles. What did the Christian Paul do with this man who had a Jewish mother? He took Timothy and circumcised him. If Timothy had not had a Jewish mother, Paul never would have circumcised Timothy!
The same Jewish Christian Paul had the uncircumcised Titus with him in Jerusalem. Things would have been much easier for Paul on his visit had he circumcised Titus. Yet, he did not take Titus and circumcise him as he did Timothy. Paul used that fact to prove the Jewish leaders did not require gentile Christians to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3).
The same Christian man did exactly opposite things regarding Jewish circumcision. Was Paul inconsistent? No! He was consistent with his emphasis in sharing the gospel with gentiles. He had the Jew circumcised and left the gentile uncircumcised. Jewish Christians followed Jewish practices. Gentile Christians did not.
Jewish Christians did not continue Jewish sacrifices which Jesus satisfied in his sacrifice by producing a permanent solution. An element of faith in Jesus being the Messiah was trusting God’s atonement in Jesus. For example, Leviticus 16 presented the appropriate procedures for the nation of Israel to follow on their day of atonement. Jesus’ death provided perpetual atonement for every person who enters him. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, divine forgiveness is assured. Through that forgiveness, the person receiving atonement through Jesus’ sacrifice is sanctified permanently by the offering of Jesus’ body. The Jewish Christian no longer needed to offer animal sacrifices for atonement because Jesus is the perpetual, totally effective sacrifice for atonement (Hebrews 10:1-10).
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