PAUL THE JEW
Many people today who do not believe that Yeshua is the Messiah are still willing to recognize him as a faithful Jew. They see Paul, however, as a non- Jew, an apostate. Traditional Christian theology has presented Paul that way for many centuries, but it was not the way he saw himself.
Paul was a faithful Jew, and he always thought of himself that way. As a faithful Jew, he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Because people have not understood the context of what Paul was saying and doing among the Gentiles, they have confused or distorted his identity. We can see his identity clearly as we follow him through the book of Acts.
Saul of Tarsus, who was also known as Paul, went to Damascus to put an end to what he considered heresy faith in Yeshua as the Messiah. He had sought out and brought with him letters from the high priest authorizing him to go to the synagogues in Damascus, weed out the Jews who believed in Yeshua, arrest them, and then bring them back in chains to Jerusalem to be punished for their faith. Saul believed their faith was heresy, and, being zealous for God, wanted to put an end to it.
On the way, he was supernaturally knocked to the ground and blinded, and he heard a voice from heaven speaking to him. As a Pharisee, Paul was very familiar with other occasions when God had spoken from heaven. In the Pharisaic tradition at that time, the voice from heaven, called Bat Kol, was always authoritative and to be obeyed. [About 50 years later, the dominant group within the Pharisees, Beit Shammai, was overthrown and another group, Beit Hillel, took control. They rejected the teachings of Beit Shammai, and ruled that the voice of God from heaven was not authoritative.] Saul knew who was speaking to him, but not why, so he asked the Lord to characterize Himself, saying, "Who are you Lord?" The Lord answered, "I am Yeshua whom you are persecuting. Rise and enter the city and it shall be told you what you must do." Acts.9:5
Saul was led into the city, where he began to fast and pray. During that time the Lord spoke to a Jewish man named Ananias and told him to go to Saul of Tarsus, and pray for him. Ananias was "a devout man according to the standard of the Law." Acts 22:12 He was the one the Lord chose to represent Himself to Saul. Ananias was not eager to go because he knew why Saul had come. The Lord told Ananias, "Go for he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel." Acts 9:15 Saul of Tarsus, Paul the Jew, was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles, a light to the nations. Years later, Paul was in Antioch fasting and praying, and the Lord told him to begin to travel to fulfill that calling. So he and Barnabas went to Salamis in Cyprus, went into the synagogue, and proclaimed that Yeshua is the Messiah. The synagogue was the only place where the message could be understood. It was the only place where the word of God was being studied, where people were seeking to know the Lord, and where there was an expectation of Messiah.
They traveled on to Antioch in Pisidia, went into the synagogue, and delivered the message of Yeshua as the Messiah. Some believed and some didn't.
That's what happened everywhere. In Antioch, however, the Gentiles of the city asked if they could also hear this message. "The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of God. When the Jews saw the crowds they were filled with jealously and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul and were blaspheming." Acts13:44
Some Jews who hadn't believed were jealous of the interest that the whole city was showing in Pauls message. They knew that the Lord had created Israel to bring the Gentiles out of darkness and back to Himself. They knew that they had not done that. They were jealous and began speaking against what Paul was saying.
Paul and Barnabas responded to them, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first. Since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles, because this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth. " Acts 13:46-47 That is what the Lord had told all Israel through Isaiah the prophet. Paul saw himself as fulfilling this responsibility. Every other Jew had to make his or her own choice. Paul saw himself as a Jew being faithful to what God commanded all Israel to do to be a light to the Gentiles.
From Antioch, Paul went to Iconium, went into the synagogue to deliver Gods message. A great multitude believed, and some didn't. Acts 14:1 The next chapter of Acts (15) describes the Council in Jerusalem wrestling with the question of Gentiles who believed and their relationship to the Law of Moses. "Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.' The apostles and elders met to consider this question." Acts 15:5-6
All the Jewish believers, and proselytes who had become believers, faithfully observed circumcision, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham, and lived according to the law of Moses. They understood the Scriptures to say that the new Gentile disciples also had to do the same. They had to become Jewish and enter into Gods covenant with Israel made at Sinai in order to enter into Israel's New Covenant.
If the apostles, elders and other Jewish believers had rejected circumcision and were not themselves obeying the law of Moses, there would have been nothing to discuss. There would have been no question to consider concerning the Gentiles. Peter explained what happened when God sent him to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas also spoke, relating what God was doing among the Gentiles to what He had promised through the prophets. The Council concluded that the Gentiles do not have to become Jewish, they do not need to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, in order to follow Messiah.
Of course the God of Israel is the God of the Jews, but is He only the God of the Jews? or is He the God of all? If He is only the God of the Jews, then the Gentiles must become Jews in order to serve Him. The God of Israel, however, is the Creator, Redeemer, and Judge of all. There is only one true God, whom both Jew and Gentile must obey, but He deals with them differently, according to what He has created each to be.
That was the conclusion of the Council. To encourage the Gentiles to do that properly, the Council reminded them of four universal laws which they needed to obey. There are other universal laws, like the prohibition of murder and theft, which the Council did not consider necessary to mention, because all Gentiles were well aware that God expected these things of them.
Sometime after the Council Paul continued traveling (Acts 16) and came to Derbe, where there was a young disciple named Timothy, whose mother was Jewish and his father was Greek. Timothy had a reputation as a solid young believer. Paul wanted Timothy to travel and minister with him, but Timothy was uncircumcised. To bring Timothy into obedience to Gods command to Abraham, Paul circumcised him. As they came to congregations of believers, they delivered the decrees which the Jerusalem Council had affirmed as binding for all Gentiles.
They came to Phillippi where apparently there were not enough Jews to have a synagogue, so those there were met by the river on Shabbat at a proseuche, a place of prayer. There Paul told those who were gathered there about Yeshua the Messiah.
Then he "came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews and according to Paul's custom he went to them and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the scriptures." Paul always sought to persuade his fellow Jews that Yeshua is the Messiah. If he had been unable to demonstrate that from the Law, the writings, and the prophets, then no one would have, or should have, believed him. So he gave the Biblical evidence. Some believed, some didn't. From there he went to Berea, into the synagogue. The Jews there "were more noble minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness examining the scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed..." Acts 17:11-12 Because these Jews carefully compared Pauls message with the scriptures daily, many of them believed. Even as Yeshua had said, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me because he wrote of me." Jn.5:46
From there Paul went to Athens where he saw a city filled with idols, "and his spirit was provoked within him. Therefore, he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the god-fearing [Gentiles], and in the marketplace everyday with those who happened to be present." Acts 17:17
Pauls reaction to the idolatry of Athens was to go into the synagogue. His reasoning was that God has commanded the Jewish people to be a light to the Gentiles, to bring His salvation to the ends of the earth. The Gentiles in Athens were in a darkness of their own choosing, but no one was bringing the light to them. So Paul reasoned with the Jews of Athens that they might follow Messiah the King and bring the salvation of God to the ends of the earth, to all the Gentiles.
Paul then went to Corinth "and he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks." Acts 18:4 As in every other place, some believed and some didnt. Some rejected the message and spoke fervently against it. Paul spoke as fervently in response: "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." Acts 18:6
Paul saw his responsibility as the same that God had required of Ezekiel. God told Ezekiel that it was necessary for him to warn the people to turn from their sins, otherwise their blood would be on his head. If Ezekiel were to warn them, whether or not they believed him, he would have delivered his own soul. Ezek. 3, 33 Paul spoke in prophetic terms to say, "I have warned you. Your blood is on your own head now. I have delivered my own soul." He said much the same later to the leaders of the believers in Ephesus: "I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men, for I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God." Acts 20:26-27
When Paul said in Corinth, "from now on I will go to the Gentiles," he did not mean that he would not go to the Jews any more, but only that he would also go to the Gentiles. Paul moved next door to the synagogue, and subsequently the leader of the synagogue and his entire family came to faith in Yeshua. Acts 18:8 The new leader of the synagogue, Sosthenes, was very upset, and brought Paul before the judge to try to get him imprisoned and punished. The judge was not interested, and Sosthenes himself was beaten. Sosthenes later became a believer and traveled with Paul to spread the gospel. cf. 1 Co.1:1
In Cenchrea, Paul had his hair shaved to keep a vow according to the Law of Moses. Acts18:18 Paul then went to Ephesus into the synagogue to reason with his fellow Jews. Acts18:19 They wanted him to stay longer, but he needed to leave, promising to return when he could. When Paul returned to Ephesus, he went again into the synagogue to reason with and persuade those there about the kingdom of God. Acts 19:8
Paul observed Passover in the Diaspora, but cut short his ministry so that he could be in Jerusalem for Shavuos, i.e. Pentecost. Acts 20:6,16 He fasted in observance of Yom Kippur. Acts 27:9 As a Jew, Paul observed the feasts of the Lord.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, he went to tell Jacob and the other Messianic Jewish leaders what great things God had done among the goyim, the Gentiles. When they heard it, they glorified God for opening blinded Gentile eyes. There was, however, one very important matter that needed to be settled once and for all. The leaders said to Paul: "You see brother how many myriads 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, so do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow, take them, purify yourself according to the Law along with them, pay their expenses at the end of their purification in order that they may shave their heads and all may 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." Acts 21:19-26 The tens of thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, including the apostles, were all zealous for the Law of Moses. They had heard rumors about Paul that he taught Jews to reject the Law of Moses, to stop circumcising their children, and to forsake the Jewish customs. The leaders knew that these rumors were false. It was necessary for Paul to clearly and unequivocally show to everyone that the rumors were false.
There were four Jewish followers of Yeshua who had taken a vow, even as Paul himself had earlier done. Paul purified himself according to the Law of Moses, and paid for the Temple sacrifices at the conclusion of the time of purification to demonstrate once and for all that, as a Jew, he walked according to the Law of Moses and the Jewish customs. [In the Greek text, there is one word, e[qesin/ethesin, that signifies the customs of the people as a whole. There is another word, paravdosin/paradosin, that signifies the traditions of the Pharisees.]
Traditional theology teaches that the rumors were actually true, i.e. Jacob and the leaders were mistaken, because Paul did not really keep the Law of Moses and the Jewish customs. That would mean that Paul intentionally deceived the other apostles and everyone else by hypocritically doing what he had openly condemned elsewhere. Those who teach this suppose that when Paul left Jerusalem he continued to teach Jews to reject the Law of Moses, to reject Gods covenant of circumcision with Abraham, and to reject the customs of the Jewish people. In other words, they teach that Paul was a fraud.
The traditional teaching accuses Paul of serious "blunders" or "compromise." If the traditional teaching is correct, the accusations against Paul should be much stronger. He would have been guilty of the grossest hypocrisy and most malevolent deception. He would have been causing people to believe what would insure their damnation.
The Jewish believers in the Diaspora saw clearly how Paul lived among them, and knew what he taught to Jews and what he taught to Gentiles. If Paul had been deceiving the brethren in Jerusalem, the Diaspora believers would have had no difficulty in exposing him. Nor would the unbelievers. Paul claimed that, "I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man." Acts 24:16 He also spoke of "my way of life in Messiah Yeshua, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every congregation." 1Cor. 4:17 Yeshua said that seeking the approval of men rather than that of God made faith impossible. John 5:44 Paul agreed. "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Messiah." Gal. 1:10 Such claims stand in sharp opposition to the counterclaims that Paul compromised, deceived, and blundered in his attempts to appease men.
Traditional theology has been unable to reconcile the life Paul lived as a Jew with the message he taught as the apostle to the Gentiles. The difference between the "two Pauls" is the same as that made by the Jerusalem Council when they declared, "But concerning the Gentiles..." As Jews, they would continue to be Jews. The Gentile believers, however, did not need to become Jews in order to serve the King of the Jews.
As for Paul himself, as he said to the Roman authorities (Acts 22:3) and as he also said to the Jewish people (Acts 21:39), "I am a Jew." Even more, when on trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, he said, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead." (Acts 22:6)
Paul went through a series of trials where those who wanted him dead accused him of breaking the Law of Moses and defiling the Temple. In defending himself before Felix the governor, Paul said, "They cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. However, 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." Acts 24:13-14
Paul believed everything that agreed with the Law and the prophets, and rejected whatever contradicted them. As a Jew, he had a Jewish faith. "I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. In view of this I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men." Acts 24:15-16 He had a Biblical hope.
Paul always identified himself with Israel and the Jewish people. "After several years I came to bring alms to my nation and to present offerings." Acts 24:17 Purified according to the Law of Moses, he had just offered sacrifices in the Temple when he was attacked and arrested. Two years later, before Festus, the new governor, Paul said, "I have committed no offense either against the law of the Jews or against the Temple or against Caesar." Acts 25:8 Was Paul lying to the governor and the Roman court? His accusers would have produced witnesses and evidence to expose such a lie if they could have. They were unable to do that. They could not demonstrate that Paul had broken the Law of Moses in any way.
Standing before Festus and King Agrippa, Paul maintained that, "Now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers.... So having obtained help from God I stand to this day testifying both to small and great stating nothing but what the prophets and Moses said was going to take place." Acts 26:6,22 He claimed that his message was identical with what Moses and the prophets had proclaimed. No one could demonstrate otherwise. Paul appealed to Caesar to establish his innocence, and subsequently was sent to Rome. When he arrived in Rome, he was put under house arrest and could not go to the synagogue. So, "He called together those who were the leading men of the Jews and when they had come together, he began saying to them, 'Brethren, though I have done nothing against our people, or the customs of our fathers, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death.' " Acts 28:17-18
Was Paul lying and deceiving, or was he telling the truth? The Jewish leaders set a date for the whole community to hear Paul. "They came to him at his lodging in large numbers and he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them concerning Yeshua from both the Law of Moses and from the prophets from morning until evening." Acts 28:23
If Paul had been unable to present the evidence from the Law and the prophets for what he believed, no one would have believed it. He wouldnt have believed it himself. If anyone could have demonstrated that what Paul believed and the way he lived was not Jewish, then Paul would have been guilty of a capital crime. Rome recognized certain religions as legitimate. Anyone who adhered to another religion was guilty of "atheism", i.e. rejecting the approved gods. That was the later basis of Roman trials of Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua. It was not a question of strategy. It was a question of identity. Who was Paul? Was he a faithful Jew or not?
Years later, chained in a Roman prison cell, Paul wrote his last letter to Timothy, saying, "I thank God, whom I serve as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day." 2Tim. 1:3 Facing death, he could confidently pray as one who faithfully walked in the way that God had long before shown to Israel. This is Paul the Jew, who he was, how he saw himself, and the message he proclaimed.
Next: Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles
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