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The letter to the Galatians may be Paul’s most important, representing the life and death struggle for the universal Church. It may have been followed by what may be the most important event in early church history, the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul also exhibits his most combative attitude in this letter. He does not open with any sense of gratitude for the church at Galatia, as was his custom. Paul, instead, must take on those other “teachers” who are presenting a “different gospel”, which undermines Paul’s gospel of justification by grace. Those other teachers were what Paul calls the “circumcision faction” (NRSV), who were demanding Gentile believers to observe the law of Moses, to become circumcised, which is to rely on Jewish Heritage.
Paul had met with Peter, had joined him at table fellowship with Gentiles, and later rebuked him for pulling away from that fellowship when those “Judaisers” arrived. Even Barnabas pulled back and joined in this “hypocrisy.” Paul calls into question the motives of those teachers; was it to avoid persecution or to gain some advantage?
It’s unclear exactly who those other teachers are that are putting Gentile believers under a “yoke of slavery,” but his words for them are as biting as ever. He claims they will “pay the penalty,” that they are “accursed,” and he wishes that they would “castrate themselves.”
Paul declares that the believers who have come under that “yoke” are “stupid” and “foolish.” They are by their actions denying the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel of Grace Paul preached to them. They are willing to “add” something, as if something more were necessary, to their simple trust in God.
Paul’s argument is that everyone, even Jews who do ‘works of the law’ in accordance to their heritage, must abandon their hope for a right relationship with God through trust in any other means, including Jewish Heritage. We must all find our hope and place our trust in Christ alone. Paul argues that Jewish heritage is more than adherence to Mosaic Law. Their father is Abraham, whose faith in God and not his adherence to any law. Therefore, Paul argues that reliance on law is finished for all Christians. The law does not and cannot foster the kind of faith and trust that leads to life. The Law was an imperfect agency, added as a kind of tutor, which identifies sin.
Followers of Christ are to emulate the trust of Abraham. The controversy called for the Council of Jerusalem. The consequences of this letter and this issue had divided churches, and if it had not been resolved, may never have allowed for Gentile believers without conversion to Judaism. The consequences would have dramatically hindered missionary efforts. The core of this issue may be the strong tendency of many Jews to place their trust in their ethnic and religious identity.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to eliminate all barriers to full religious participation based on race, sex, social status, etc. This is the challenge, I believe, for any cross-cultural transmission of the gospel. For that reason, if this controversy had not been sufficiently quelled, it would have done irreparable violence to the gospel of grace.
So much changed after the first Temple was destroyed and the Israelites were sent into exile. The entire society and leadership changed during the years of captivity and the rebuilding of the Temple under Persian authority. No longer was it a Davidic kingdom. Rather, it had become a Hasmonean kingdom and the Second Temple was expanded and remodeled by Herod the Great. The Second Temple, during Jesus life and ministry, was only a shadow of the original.
Second-temple Judaism was more concerned with purity of kinship bloodline, reinforcing a Patron-Client political and extractive economic system, than it was in fulfilling her vocation and the covenant of Abraham, to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Second-temple Judaism continued in captivity, a Client-kingdom under Roman rule.
Jesus’ message to Herod and to all of Israel, who was still completing the Temple at the time, was that they were “building their house on the sand.” They had failed to seek God’s rule, which Jesus came to announce. They failed to recognize their deliverer because their social and political system had become self-reinforcing, exclusionary, and corrupt. Those who sought political deliverance for Israel failed to see the extraordinary fulfillment of Israel’s destiny taking place through Jesus.
Paul’s greatest contribution is his defense of the gospel for the Gentiles, most notably leading up to the Council of Jerusalem. Paul’s ethnic and educational background, his nationality, and his religious identity was useful, however he knew they also obstructed his vision and witness of Jesus. (Phil. 3:8) Paul found the center of Judaism in Jesus, who helped him interpret the Scriptures and discern points of dissent with his own and with every other culture. From his Mestizos vantage point he also understood the powerful forces at work dividing cultures and people. He was forthright at pointing out idol worship among the nations, which had also found its way into Judaism. (Acts 17:23, Rom. 1:25, Gal. 3:25) Rather than serve God’s purpose to unite all humanity (Gal. 3:26-28), humankind had erected dividing walls through the influence of invisible forces. Paul’s missionary task and the task he calls the church to undertake is to unmask the principalities and powers, exposing the cultural idols, false teachers, and elementary principles to proclaim in their place the gospel for every people. (Gal. 4:8-9) The Church is challenged to deal with these powerful forces holding people and cultures captive, blinded from seeing the gospel. (Eph. 3:10)
The notion of the “Cosmic Race,” popularized among Latinos by Mexican author Jose Vasconcelos, is a philosophical basis for pride in the mixture of races. González writes, there is “no single perspective or a single clue to ‘reading with Hispanic eyes.’” Therefore a people of varied backgrounds sharing a single identity is dubious. However, this is Paul’s vision and the message he preaches to the Gentiles. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul (or one of his disciples) writes that Jesus’ “purpose was to create in himself one new person.” He (or she) continues with the message of solidarity, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Eph. 2:15, 19 NIV) This “unity in the faith,” misunderstood by Paul’s contemporaries, has also been misinterpreted in every generation since.
Before meeting Jesus, Saul/Paul’s aim was to eliminate the threat that the new sect of Jesus followers represented to Judaism. Ethnic and religious purity, which was tied to the ultimate conquest of Israel’s Messiah over all nations, defined his worldview. Sadly Spanish missionary endeavors in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries interpreted the Scriptures envisioning a kind of religious purity through coerced conversion in Latin America, which appears to be an amalgamation of the purity ethic of Second Temple Judaism and the conquest ethic of the Roman Empire. Modern Protestant missionary endeavors continued a triumphalist interpretation, albeit separated from military coercion, by expanding into the “frontiers,” which implies redrawing the “borders” of Western civilization. Western individualism, informed by the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith, which possesses an important “supporting role” in Paul’s gospel, became the central understanding the expanding Protestant missionary enterprise. Today, when Westerners read the stories of Moses at the burning bush (Exo. 3:1-10) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-35), they read how the individual finds God, rather than a calling, “to go back to their people to do the work of God with and among them.” Westerners interpret the purpose of the Church (and of the Bible) to be a functionary agent to meet individual needs, rather than an expression of the gospel itself and a “foretaste of the kingdom.” This misinterpretation of the gospel message has resulted in a new form of “exile,” “a dislocation from the center,” as people are either left out, pushed out, or choose to remain outside the center.
Saul interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures and carefully observed the Torah with increasing zeal. He saw himself as an instrument to bring the fulfillment of Israel’s story. Following the Torah according to Second Temple Judaism meant that God’s people must “mark boundaries of separation” through food laws, circumcision, and the Sabbath. Second Temple Judaism had defined holiness as a relative purity, a relative status before God. Saul’s zeal for the Law, however, should not be interpreted as his attempt to gain personal salvation. Instead, he sought to follow the covenant and increase Israel’s power for deliverance from her captivity through the holiness of God’s people. Therefore Saul determined to put a stop to the emerging community of Jews, members of the Way, who had “thrown open the doors to a new expanded membership,” not based on purity rituals of Second Temple Judaism.
Outside the city of Damascus the sudden appearance of the brightness of God’s holiness had blinded Saul. After falling to the ground, he heard a voice calling his name saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:3,4) Who could this be other than the One God he sought to honor? “I am Jesus,” came the voice. (Acts 9:5) Saul’s profound and personal encounter with Jesus did not disengage him from Judaism, rather it realigned his wayward zeal with a more complete revelation of the God of Israel. Rather than leaving Jewish monotheism, Saul found the center of Israel’s ancient faith. Having met Jesus, Saul continued to engage in a prophetic critique of Judaism, speaking “to the heart of their tradition.” Israel’s failure is her “relentless pursuit of national, ethnic, and territorial identity.” The “Son of Man” is revealed to Saul as the One who conquered sin and death through the Spirit of Life as Israel’s representative. Therefore, Saul not only found Jesus to be the fulfillment of Israel’s promised deliverance; he understood the purpose of God for all humanity through Israel’s Messiah.
Next post will be about Paul’s Eschatological Vision.
Saul’s self-identity as a member of the “strictest sect” of the Jewish religion has often led to a misinterpretation of Paul, the apostle of Christ Jesus. (Acts 26:5) The Pharisees were a significant social movement of nearly six thousand people at the end of the reign of Herod the Great. These ‘Separate Ones’ proselytized their fellow Jews to the end that a new community of devout followers of God, a sort of priesthood of all Jewish believers, would emerge. Consistent with the messages of John the Baptist and Jesus, many Pharisees sought to reform God’s people.
The Pharisees were not unified in their political and social aspirations, however. While the Pharisees may have all expected an apocalyptic future judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, they were divided, liberal and conservative, with different political and religious emphases. Under the tutorage of Gameliel, Saul originally identified with Hillelites, the liberal Hellenistic Pharisees. Saul evidently had a significant conversion within Pharisaic Judaism, through which he began to identify with Shamaites, the revolutionary Pharisees. This conversion had therefore narrowed Saul’s community of faith to a smaller group of “daggermen.” He was willing to use violence on anyone, even liberal Jewish “traitors”, who would not support the Shamaite’s tri-part myopic agenda for Israel, her people, her land, and her temple. This begins to explain why Saul gave approval of those who killed Stephen. (Acts 8:1, 3)
After six hundred years of captivity, the prophetic promise for Israel’s deliverance was deeply embedded in Saul’s worldview. (Isa. 46:12-13) Contrary to popular opinion, Saul’s identity in Jewish community was not defined by legalism. Instead, it was the belief that Israel was God’s people and that God had a special covenant of grace with them. Saul heard a new spin on the story of Israel’s Messiah when Stephen expounded the Hebrew Scriptures. Stephen’s rendition claimed Israel’s Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth. Then Saul witnessed Stephen looking up saying, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” As he was stoned to death, Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:56, 60)
Probably enraged by Stephen’s claim that he saw the “Son of Man,” the name reserved for Israel, Saul expanded his persecution seeking permission from the high priest to arrest followers of the “Way” in Damascus. (Acts 9:1-2) Though he was devout in his understanding of the grandeur of Jewish monotheism, Israel’s election, and apocalyptic eschatology, Saul’s radical devotion to Torah had diminished his Judaism to a sect with little evidence of grace. He must have been conflicted knowing that Israel was a covenant people who “responded to God’s gracious initiative in terms set forth in the Torah.” Clearly, Saul witnessed the grace of the Spirit of Israel’s Messiah through the testimony and martyrdom of Stephen. Saul’s longing for the abundant grace of God for the community of Israel was not evident in his life, however this early encounter of grace exhibited in Stephen’s final words had implanted a seed of apocalyptic revelation.
The next post will be about Paul’s changing relationship with the Torah and the Law of the Spirit Life.
Saul of Tarsus’ dramatic meeting with the risen Lord Jesus radically completed his appreciation for Jewish monotheism. The change of his name to Paul and the dramatic changes in his ministry orientation have sometimes been interpreted as an abandonment of his zeal for the faith of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However Paul’s scathing criticism of the first century practices of Judaism and his message of inclusion to pagan Greeks and Romans into communities of faith alongside Jews is not his final verdict on Judaism, it is rather his interpretation of the sequel to Israel’s story. After more than a century of Biblical scholarship, which has both “used and abused” Paul, some have begun to reevaluate Paul’s relationship to Judaism. With these new studies, we can now better compare and contrast changes in Paul’s story, his identity before and after his encounter with Jesus. In the next several posts, I will look at the changes and consistencies in Paul’s identity within his faith community, his understanding of the Law, and his eschatological vision, which I believe are all best understood through the singular lens of his personal encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus.
Based on his missionary journeys in the Book of Acts, it’s very likely that among Paul’s letters in our Bibles, his letters to the Thessalonians were probably the first. Paul’s main concern for the Thessalonian believers relates to Christ’s second coming. Nothing has changed. For as long as I can remember, Christians have had similar questions about Christ’s second coming. What can we learn from Paul’s letters regarding the second coming? More than I can relate in this short post.
Because Paul’s first letter shows a curiosity among early Christians about Jesus’ return, we should not be surprised when today’s Christians are also curious.
The Thessalonians were despairing over the long delay of Christ’s return. The fame of their church had spread beyond Macedonia, even though there was apparently little formal church organization. It was truly an organic movement of believers radically committed, no matter what the risk, to a new king, Jesus.
Paul writes to assuage the early Christians’ worries about Christ’s delayed return, especially their questions about those who have already died. This is when the letter gets interesting.
Paul writes about what Christian tradition has called the “rapture.”
Paul writes with pastoral compassion. He is particularly intimate in his first letter, as he not only teaches and corrects, he also admonishes with advice regarding behavior. This is not a private letter. He admonishes the one who receives it to read it aloud for the whole community.
In his second letter, Paul addresses the Thessalonians’ anxiety that Christ may have already returned. They thought they had missed it. This was a festering eschatological confusion, which continues today. In this second letter, Paul is comforting those suffering under persecution and uncharacteristically speaks of the coming wrath and judgment.
Again Paul is primarily addressing apocalyptic issues, which are consistent with his background in apocalyptic Judaism. So what does he say about the rapture?
The return of the Messiah will be sudden and the events preceding his coming will be observable. It will be sudden, like a thief, but it will not be a secret. No, you won’t wake up from your nap on a plane and find your neighbor’s underwear “left behind.”
This notion of being “left behind” is the popular view, but it does not stand up to an honest and thorough study of the scriptures. Jesus is coming. But everyone will know when it happens.
More on this in a later post.