Monday, April 8, 2013

Why Paul Lived Like a Jew Among the Jews

The apostle Paul writing his epistles
When we read the epistles of the apostle Paul, we can clearly see where he stood in relationship to the Law.  Prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, he had been a Jewish Pharisee of Pharisees, faultless as far as legalistic righteousness was concerned.

After he came to Christ, he said he was no longer under Law, but under grace (see Rom 6:14).  Many people think they understand what the apostle Paul believed, and they consider themselves true preachers of his gospel of grace.  But I want to show another side of Paul that may cause some people to wonder whether they really understood him after all.  It should cause many to rethink their understanding of his beliefs.

I've been reading Acts 21 for twenty-seven years.  And I always thought Paul must have made a big mistake when he followed the advice of James and the Jerusalem elders, by participating in purification rites.  I assumed that mistake was what got him arrested, so that was proof to me it was not Spirit-led, since it did not bear good fruit. But that was faulty reasoning.  Paul said that all who seek to live godly in Christ will be persecuted, so we shouldn't assume that persecution is evidence that someone is in the wrong.  It may actually be evidence that they are living a godly life.  So now I see more clearly why Paul did what he did in the temple that week, and what he really believed.

Why not have a look with me!

Paul Participated in the Rite of Purification
Luke writes: After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come." (Act 21:17-22)

James and the elders of the Church in Jerusalem were concerned about whether the Jewish Christians would receive the apostle Paul or be offended by him.  He had earned a reputation among them that was not favorable, and the elders had a plan to address that.

They told Paul: "Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law." (Act 21:23-24) [emphasis added]

The plan was for Paul to join with four men who had taken a vow, by purifying himself ceremonially with them, and paying the expense for them to shave their heads. The goal was so that the Jewish Christians could see Paul's actions and conclude that he kept the Law, living an orderly life.

The elders acknowledged that they had previously written to Gentile believers about the matter of circumcision, telling them that they did not need to be circumcised.  There had been an issue, where a Jewish believer from Jerusalem began teaching the Gentile believers that they must be circumcised.  And the elders had convened to resolve it, as documented in Acts 15.  Their solution had been to write a letter, which James alluded to, in his statement to Paul:

"But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication." (Act 21:25)

So James and the elders clearly agreed with Paul that there is no need for Gentiles to be circumcised.  But they were concerned, because the believing Jews of Jerusalem had been informed that Paul was teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles to turn away from the Law and not to circumcise their children or follow Jewish customs.  Their main concern was to correct that misinformation about Paul’s teaching.  That’s why they made this proposal to Paul that he should participate with four Jewish men in their purification rites.

Amazingly Paul did not disagree with the plan the elders proposed.  He did not debate whether Jewish believers should be circumcised or zealous for the Law, nor deny that he himself continued to keep the Law.  He did not refuse to participate in this vow of ceremonial purification.

"Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them." (Act 21:26)

Paul did everything the elders asked him to do. He purified himself ceremonially, along with these four men, which would have included shaving his head.  This was known as a purification rite, which is a solemn act or customary practice. It required Paul to go into the temple and notify the priests when this seven-day rite would end.  And at the end of that period, he had to offer a sacrifice. 

When the Jews saw him in the temple, they had him arrested, because they had seen him walking around Jerusalem with a Gentile, named Trophimus the Ephesian. Trophimus was a disciple of Christ, who was cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and was himself a part of the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Yet Paul did not dare to take Trophimus into the temple with him, because he was not a Jew or Jewish proselyte (see Ac 21:27-29).

Later in his defense before governor Felix, Paul stated, "But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets." (Act 24:14)

Paul also told Felix, “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance." (Acts 24:17-18).  So he testified that he was ceremonially pure at the time of his arrest, and that he was in the temple to present offerings. 

Again at another time, in his defense before King Herod Agrippa, "Paul defended himself: 'I have done nothing wrong against the Law of the Jews or against the Temple or against the Roman Emperor.'" (Act 25:8)
Several Questions about Paul's Actions
As we read in Luke's account, called the Acts of the Apostles, about Paul's actions in the temple, we can't help but ask some questions.  Why did Paul do the following?

1. Join with the four Jewish men in their purification rites, even paying their expenses, so they could have their heads shaved? (Ac 21:20-25)
2. Go to the temple and notify the priests when their period of purification would end? (Ac 21:26)
3. Give an offering at the temple for himself and probably also for the other men? (Ac 21:26)
4. Not take a Gentile believer into the temple?  (Ac 21:27-29)
5. Say that "according to the Way (i.e., as a disciple of Christ), he served God, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets"? (Ac 24:14)
6. Say he had done nothing wrong against the Law of the Jews or against the Temple? (Ac 25:8)

Responses to the Questions
I think the answer may be found in his epistle to the Corinthians.  He said, "I am a free man, nobody's slave; but I make myself everybody's slave in order to win as many people as possible. While working with the Jews, I live like a Jew in order to win them; and even though I myself am not subject to the Law of Moses, I live as though I were when working with those who are, in order to win them. In the same way, when working with Gentiles, I live like a Gentile, outside the Jewish Law, in order to win Gentiles. This does not mean that I don't obey God's law; I am really under Christ's law. Among the weak in faith I become weak like one of them, in order to win them. So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible." (1Co 9:19-22)

To the Jews he became a Jew, in order to win them to Christ. It was for the sake of the gospel.  But in this passage, the Jews for whom he was doing this ceremonial rite of purification were already believers in Christ!  Yet he was still doing it for the sake of the gospel!

If he were doing all of this in order to obtain or maintain right standing with God, he would have been out of line with the gospel.  If he had done these things out of fear concerning what the Jews would think about how we are put in right standing with God by faith in Christ, rather than by doing what the Law requires, then he would be doing the same thing for which he had once rebuked the apostle Peter.  Here is his account of that confrontation, as he wrote it in his epistle to the Galatians:

But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong. Before some men who had been sent by James arrived there, Peter had been eating with the Gentile believers. But after these men arrived, he drew back and would not eat with the Gentiles, because he was afraid of those who were in favor of circumcising them. The other Jewish believers also started acting like cowards along with Peter; and even Barnabas was swept along by their cowardly action. When I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you have been living like a Gentile, not like a Jew. How, then, can you try to force Gentiles to live like Jews?" Indeed, we are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners," as they are called. Yet we know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires. We, too, have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be put right with God through our faith in Christ, and not by doing what the Law requires. For no one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires. (Gal 2:11-16)

Peter had been eating with Gentiles, which is not lawful for a Jew to do.  But that was before some men were sent by James, who were in favor of circumcising the Gentile believers.  When those men came from James, Peter withdrew himself from the Gentile believers.  He did this out of fear of what others would think, and it caused other Jewish believers like Barnabas to also act like cowards.

Paul rebuked Peter for implying, by his withdrawal from the Gentiles, that they must act like Jews by being circumcised. Paul reminded Peter that we are put right with God only through faith in Christ, never by doing what the Law requires.  That applies to Gentiles and Jews alike.

So based on all this, we know that Paul's participation in the rite of purification was neither to seek righteousness through the Law, nor to imply through his actions that others should do so.  And we know that he was not doing so out of fear for what the Jewish believers would think of him or his gospel. Paul did not do this for himself, but for the sake of the gospel, in order to reach others. We also know that his leaving his Gentile brother in Christ -- Trophimus the Ephesian -- outside the temple was not an act of withdrawing himself from Trophimus, but was an act of respect for the Jews in the temple, who did not know Christ. Paul did nothing to violate temple rules or to dishonor the temple. Nor did he violate his own teachings.

Paul Circumcised Timothy
We must not forget that Paul himself circumcised Timothy.  Luke recorded the incident in Acts:

“Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (Act 16:1-3)

Yet in this matter, as with the time he participated with the four Jewish men in Jerusalem in their purification rites, I do not believe Paul violated his own teachings.  Timothy was half Jewish and half Greek.  All the Jews in those parts knew that his father was a Greek, so they would assume he was uncircumcised.  It seems that in order to avoid any offense to the Jews, Paul circumcised him.  But had he been a full-blooded Gentile, I am certain Paul would not have done so.  Paul taught vehemently against Gentile circumcision.  This incident was the only one ever recorded in which Paul circumcised anyone.

Certainly Paul taught the Gentile churches that the observance of the rites (customary observances and ceremonies) of the Jewish law was truly slavery or bondage.

To the Gentile believers in Galatia, who were deceived into thinking they must be circumcised, Paul said, “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world…But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Gal 4:3,9).

He referred to the ceremonial law and Jewish rites as weak and worthless elemental things.  He was not saying the Law itself was bad, because he himself taught that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom 7:12).  The expression he used in his epistle to the Galatians, which is translated in English as “weak and worthless elemental things,” comes from the Greek expression “ta asthenē kai ptōcha stoicheia.” The word “asthenē” is an adjective, meaning “weak” or “sick.” This word is used also in Matthew 25:44 and 1 Cor 1:27.  The other adjective is “ptōcha,” meaning “worthless,” “beggarly,” or “poor” like a pauper, and it only occurs here in Gal 4:9.   Both these adjectives modify the noun “stoicheia.”  It is also used in Gal 4:3, Col 2:8, and Heb 5:12 to mean “elemental things,”  “elemental principles,” or “rudiments.”  According to Webster’s Dictionary, a rudiment is “A first principle or element; that which is to be first learnt; as the rudiments of learning or science. Articulate sounds are the rudiments of language; letters or characters are the rudiments of written language; the primary rules of any art or science are its rudiments. Hence instruction in the rudiments of any art or science, constitutes the beginning of education in that art or science.”

Paul was saying that ceremonial laws like circumcision were first principles used to provide religious instruction to Jews.  As such, ceremonial laws and rituals were like a tutor.  They were weak and poor rudiments, not because God is weak or because his Law is poor, but because they were weakened by the sinful human nature.  They could only lead one to Christ, the One in Whom is found the reality that those types and shadows represent.  Once you come to know Christ, or are rather known by Him, then there is no more need to return to the elemental principles than there would be for a professional scientist to return to studying the alphabet, or for an accomplished artist to return to learning the primary colors.  Therefore, when you come to Christ, you must die to those elemental principles (see Col 2:20).

To the Gentile believers in Colossae, who were also being taken captive by philosophy and empty deception, Paul wrote: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ…If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees…” (Col 2:8,20)

Through these passages, Paul taught that in Christ we now have the substance of all the shadows of the ceremonial law, so we no longer need those thingsThe only reason he circumcised Timothy was for the sake of other men, not for God's sake.  I can just imagine Paul praying as he knelt before Timothy with a knife, circumcising him.  He might have prayed something like, "Lord, you gave us the covenant of circumcision (the "brit-milah") through Abraham, who received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them. Now through Timothy's faith in Christ, he has followed in the steps of Abraham.  And in Christ, Timothy was also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which Timothy was also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. Lord, we know that circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of Your commandments.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love in a new creation. Timothy has become a new creation in Christ. And he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. We do this today, Lord, in order to become all things to all men, so that by all possible means we might save some of them."

Paul Recognized the Jewish Feast of Pentecost
Paul taught that Jewish festivals were merely shadows of what is to come, whereas the substance belongs to Christ (see Col 2:16-17). He taught that observing days and months and seasons and years is a weak and worthless thing that enslaves people (Gal 4:9-10). Yet he seemed to at least acknowledge the day of Pentecost each year. 

In one recorded instance, Paul was hurrying to be in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. “For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” (Act 20:16)

In another recorded incident, Paul indicated to the Gentile church in Corinth that he intended to stay in Ephesus until the feast of Pentecost: “But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost;” (1Co 16:8)

We know that the fulfillment of this feast occurred in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the early Church (see Acts 2).  While it is not clear whether Paul celebrated the Jewish feast of Pentecost, he certainly recognized it, even in his correspondence with the Gentiles.  

Paul Recognized the Feast of Unleavened Bread
It seems that Paul also recognized the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which occurs immediately after Passover and before the Feast of Pentecost.  In the book of Acts, Luke records an event in his journey with the apostle Paul saying, "We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days." (Act 20:6).  The fact that Paul did not travel with his team until after the Feast of Unleavened Bread is significant.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasts seven days (Leviticus 23:6-8; Exodus 12:17-18).  During this time the only kind of bread that may be eaten is matzo (unleavened bread, or flat bread).  The yeast represents malice, wickedness and sin.  So during the days of this feast, no yeast is used in baking bread.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with instructions about celebrating this feast according to the new way of the spirit and not the old way of the written code. He said, "Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (1Co 5:7-8)

Insights into Paul's Way of Life
In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he gives us further insight into his way of life, which helps us to better understand why he did things like participate in the purification rites with the four Jewish men.   He said, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved." (1Co 10:31-33)

Based on his own instructions to the Corinthians, we can be sure that the reason he participated in the Jewish purification rites with the four men was to the glory of God.  It was certainly not for his own benefit that he did this. His aim was to glorify God!  He sought to avoid offending the Jews, the Greeks, and the Church of God, except by the offense of the cross.  He sought to please all me in all things, so that they may be saved.

Interesting Paradoxes
Notwithstanding these facts that I have cited above, there are still some interesting paradoxes in this story:

1. Paul did not deny the statement James made that Paul kept the Law. So at least James and the elders of the Church in Jerusalem thought Paul kept the Law, and they saw that as a very godly thing.  In fact, Paul himself stated publicly that he believed everything that is in accordance with the Law, and he had done no wrong to the law of the Jews or the temple.
2. When the elders mentioned that many Jewish believers remained zealous for the Law, Paul did not correct them.
3. Paul seemed to imply to the Jewish believers in Christ by his actions that it was acceptable for them as disciples to practice ceremonial rites, such as purification and circumcision. One might even make a case that he condoned it for Jewish believers.
4. Paul circumcised a half-Jewish man, named Timothy, when he joined Paul in his gospel ministry, in order to avoid offending the Jews.
5. Paul cited the Law in his own epistles to the Gentiles, as the basis for his doctrines, including those regarding remuneration of elders, tongues, and the orderly behavior of women in worship meetings (Rom 3:31; 7:7; 1 Cor 9:8-9; 14:21,34; Heb 9:22; 10:28; cf. Ac 28:23).
6. Paul at least recognized the Jewish feasts of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost and may have planned his travels around them. However, we do not have any evidence that he celebrated these feasts, and it is unlikely he did so according to the old way of the written code, since he taught against it.

The Scriptures record these incidents just as they occurred, leaving the tension in place and not seeking to smooth out the paradoxes.  I think many believers today would consider Paul legalistic for such actions, if it were not for his own teachings about grace and faith in Christ.

What I am Not Saying
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting you come under the Law of Moses. As followers of Christ, we are not seeking to keep up the Law of Moses in conjunction with the gospel. I am not suggesting that disciples of Christ practice circumcision for spiritual reasons or seek to obey the ceremonial, ritual, and dietary laws of Moses. Paul was a Jew, and as he sought to reach Jews for Christ, he would live like a Jew among them. He was doing this, so that by all means he might win some of them. But among the Gentiles, he lived like a Gentile. Therefore, unless you are a Jew living among Jews, then there is no value in you doing those things. Such things do not matter if you are a Gentile believer living among Gentiles, or a Gentile believer living among Jews. In fact, these things don't even matter if you are a Jewish believer living among Gentiles. The apostle Peter was a Jew who lived like a Gentile, and not like a Jew (Gal 2:14). The apostle Paul was a Jew who through the law had died to the law, so that he might live for God (Gal 2:19). Paul became like one without the law in order to win those without the law (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 4:12).

As Paul said, “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified." (Gal 2:15-16). "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." (Rom 3:28). "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Gal 5:6, NIV). "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation." (Gal 6:15, NIV). "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." (1 Cor 7:19, NIV). "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Rom 14:17, NIV).

For those who have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ and gone back to observing the Law, I say with Paul, "Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?...For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.' Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because 'the righteous will live by faith.' The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, 'The person who does these things will live by them.'” (Gal 3:3,10-12, NIV).

Putting it All Together
James and the other elders of the Jerusalem Church understood that Paul kept the Law and didn't have a problem with that.  In fact, they wanted to reassure other Jewish believers that Paul kept the Law.  Paul never denied their claim that he did so.  In fact, he later stated that he did no wrong to the Law, and he even cited the Law sometimes, as a basis for his teachings.  According to the Way, as an apostle of Christ, he served the God of the Hebrew patriarchs, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets.

It's easy to be critical of others for their teachings and say that they do not agree with the Scriptures written by the apostle Paul.  But let's make sure we first understand what Paul really believed, and taught and lived, before we rush to judgment of others.

Are you doing all things for the glory of God?  You should be.  And if not, then don't be critical of those who are seeking to do so, just because you don't agree.  Are you all things to all men, seeking to please all men in all things, so that they may be saved?  Do you serve God, according to Christ, believing all that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets? That's the way Paul lived, and he instructed us to follow his example, as he followed Christ.

I'm not suggesting you come under the Law and try to earn your salvation. But your aim should be to glorify God in all things, including things many people today consider to be part of the Old Testament, incorrectly assuming they are not applicable to the disciples of Christ, like tithing and keeping the Christian Sabbath holy.  Certainly we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, not by works. You cannot rely on your obedience to the Law to save you, because it is only by grace that you are saved through faith (Eph 2:8-10). 

However, we still learn what pleases the Lord through all Scripture, including the Law.  What matters is keeping of the commandments of God. Always remember that we can do nothing apart from the Lord Jesus (Jn 15:5), and if you keep His commandments, you will abide in His love (Jn 15:10). Your faith must be actively working through love in a new creation, or else it is useless.

Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Other Scriptures taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®, where noted. The painting of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles is probably by Valentin de Boulogne (1591 - 1632) (French).  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Author's note:  If you enjoyed this post, you may also like Faith Works! and The Law of Christ. And don't miss Righteousness by Faith not Law.  Please see the other posts in this blog available through the Home page. You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."  Some other related articles are:

Law of Love in the New Testament The Law Established Through Faith Is Tithing Required? 
Is Obedience Optional? The Cost of Discipleship Obedience by the Spirit
 The Law Fulfilled in Us Resting from Work Deleted Scriptures in the Bible?

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Him.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"

Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International.  He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission.