Imagine if the Apostle Paul could embark on a twenty-first century mission journey to North America. What would we think of Paul— his appearance, his culture, his values and his religion? What message would he have for us today?
Imagine that Paul managed to learn a functional but very accented English. He has not found any first-century near-eastern clothing, but seems most comfortable with garments that are closer to what we find in the stricter communities of Orthodox Judaism today.
(A man praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; Photo By David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0, Source Wikimedia. What religious culture would Paul feel most comfortable in? Would Paul feel closer to today's Haredi Jewish culture than American evangelical culture?)
Imagine that Paul walks into our church one Sabbath; how do we accept him? We don't know that he is the Apostle Paul, so we don't give him any celebrity attention— yet he is unusual, so we can't help but notice him. He is friendly and talkative, entering into the Sabbath School discussions with deep knowledge and conviction— he seems to be a natural teacher. We are polite people and we are used to receiving occasional foreign visitors or returning missionaries from far off lands— we appreciate the novelty of some exotic diversion from our usual routines. But Paul— “he is different”— comes back week after week and then it becomes clear that he will be with us for a while. He is exceedingly personable and warm and has brilliant spiritual insights— and what an astonishing knowledge of Scriptures— but his religious practices are— well, he is just not “one of us”. Paul doesn't try to push his distinctive religious rituals on the rest of us, but there are some members of the church who are uncomfortable and feel that his “syncretism” is inappropriate. When Paul is confronted over his “Judaizing” he quietly replies, ”do not be arrogant toward the branches”, although he did say at one point, “that really isn't the problem now”. Whenever there seems to be tension over some theological disagreement his favorite response is always, ”If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing”.
How realistic is the Paul depicted in this imaginary scenario? Would he really be more like a Rabbi than an evangelical preacher? Toward the end of his life, Paul described himself as a Pharisee.
“All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” (Acts 26:4-5 NRSV)
What was a Pharisee? What was his religion? It was Judaism— as it was practiced at the time of the second temple. The Pharisees were the “strictest sect“ of Judaism. The Rabbinic Judaism of today traces its development directly back to the Pharisees, and it is likely that today's strictest Orthodox communities most closely resemble the Pharisees of Paul's time.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.” (Acts 22:3 NRSV)
The leadership of the Jerusalem church testified that Paul was faithful to the Torah. They are all zealous for the Torah— the Law of Moses— and also the customs. James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, is the one that suggests that Paul participate in the rite of purification. Some have suggested that Paul's participation in this plan is not consistent with his character, but Paul later speaks positively about this event and continues to assert his Jewish identity to the end of his life.
“When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (Acts 21:20-24 NRSV)
(Man praying at the Western wall in a traditional Tallit or Prayer Shawl; Photo By Brian Jeffery Beggerly, CC BY 2.0, Source Wikimedia)
Paul defends himself against any charges that he has broken with or opposed the customs of his people. He continues to identify as Jewish and to participate in the community of his people to the very end.
“Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.”” (Acts 25:8 NRSV)
“Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.” (Acts 28:17 NRSV)
If we are willing to admit it, we will recognize that Paul's religious practices and culture were very different from ours today. Here are a few examples that illustrate ways that might be considered strange if we encountered them in our church.
“After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.” (Acts 18:18 ESV)
“Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.” (Acts 21:26 NRSV)
“While I was doing this, they found me in the temple, completing the rite of purification, without any crowd or disturbance.” (Acts 24:18 NRSV)
Why is it important for us to consider these things about Paul? The big picture about Paul is that he was a missionary to the Gentiles. He was reaching out to people who came from very different cultural backgrounds than his own. It was Paul who was a leading advocate for accepting the Gentiles into fellowship without requiring them to convert to Judaism— it is described below in terms of circumcision, which was an essential step in the conversion ritual.
“Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement.” (Acts 15:1–2 NET)
Paul's purpose was to lead both Jews and Gentiles to fellowship and discipleship in the community— as he put it, the body— of Jesus. Jewish believers were to remain Jewish; Gentile believers were to remain Gentile. Paul puts it this way.
“Was anyone called after he had been circumcised? He should not try to undo his circumcision. Was anyone called who is uncircumcised? He should not get circumcised.” (1 Corinthians 7:18 NET)
This might not be completely clear to us, so here is a paraphrase— “Were you Jewish when you were called? Stay Jewish. Were you Gentile when you were called? Stay Gentile.” Paul showed remarkable openness to different cultures and made it his life's mission to bring them together— Jew and Gentile— in unity. How would he feel if he were to witness what has happened since? I am sure he would be sick with sadness. Most likely he would consider his life's work a failure— the unity that he had hoped for has not happened.
What can we learn from all of this? There are two ditches— two errors— we can fall into. During Paul's time, the bigger ditch was Judaizing, which manifested itself as forcing Gentiles to become Jewish. Today, the bigger ditch is anti-Judaizing, which manifests itself as compelling Jewish believers to give up their Jewish ways and live like Gentiles. But we can find both errors— both problems are present today. Some are agitating that we— Gentiles— should practice some thing or another from the Torah. Others are saying that those who practice those things are “denying Christ”. But, are we really in harmony with the ways of Jesus when we enter into these controversies?
Here is the appeal— can we learn this lesson from Paul? Can we join Paul in trying to bring these two cultural communities into harmony? Can we try to bring peace? To end controversy?
“I may speak in different languages of people or even angels. But if I do not have love, I am only a noisy bell or a crashing cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy. I may understand all the secret things of God and have all knowledge, and I may have faith so great I can move mountains. But even with all these things, if I do not have love, then I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing if I do not have love. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth. Love patiently accepts all things. It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-6 NCV)