Who is Israel?
The Transition from Judaism to Christianity – part 2
If one was to ask a Jewish person, “What is the most anti-Semitic book of all?” It is very likely he would answer, “the New Testament” – to the surprise of most Christians. The animosity between Jew and Christian has a very long history going back to the very beginning of the transition from Judaism to Christianity.
We must remember that Paul wrote: “As concerning the gospel they (the Jews) are enemies…” (Rom. 11:28). Paul is not just writing about the Jews being unbelievers, he is writing about the Jews being active hands on, boots and all, opponents of the Gospel. Paul is writing about his experience with the Jews. Where ever Paul went and whenever he preached, Paul had to fight the Jews for every convert to Christianity.
Whenever Paul went to a city, for the first time, it was his custom to go to the Jews first and present the Gospel to them. The usual reaction was to soften the hearts of some and harden the hearts of the others. Paul would then turn to the Gentiles. The stiff necked hard hearted ones would then go into action and do all they could to disrupt Paul’s evangelising efforts – including trying to kill him.
After Saul became Paul, on the road to Damascus, he instantly wanted to tell the world about Jesus. After he received his sight back, “straightaway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). The reaction of the Jews at Damascus was: “After that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him” (Acts 9:23). Paul had to flee by being lowered over the wall in a basket.
Antioch in Pisidia
Paul preached a great sermon in the synagogue in the city of Antioch in Pisidia. Some Gentiles, who heard Paul, encouraged him to preach to the Gentiles the following Sabbath. By the time a week had gone by the whole city had heard about Paul and the majority wanted to hear him:
The next Sabbath almost the entire city gathered together to hear the Word of God [concerning the attainment through Christ of salvation in the kingdom of God]. Acts 13:44. The Amplified Bible.
The Jews in the city, who originally heard Paul, were not at all happy. They were about to fulfil the role that Paul had described in Romans 11 – that the Jews would become jealous of the grace and mercy God was showing towards the Gentiles.
…through their (the Jews) fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Rom. 11:11.
Paul writes that this jealous reaction is what prompts the Jews in Antioch (Pisidia) to actively work against the Gospel:
But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Acts 13:45.
Paul goes on to tell us how the Jews managed to stymie and strangle the Gospel in Antioch. They did it by appealing to the ruling class in the city to use their influence against Paul:
But the Jews stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. Acts 13:50.
Here we see the Jews fulfilling the role that Paul said they would assume. They are envious of the success of the Gospel. And the opposition stirred up by the Jews forced Paul and Barnabas to move on to his next destination, Iconium.
And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren. Acts 14:1, 2.
The opposition stirred up again by the Jews resulted in assaults and stoning of the believers so Paul and Barnabas moved on to Lystra.
In Lystra the people were so impressed with Paul and Barnabas that they thought the gods had come to visit them. They were so excited they wanted to sacrifice animals in their honour. However the joyful reception quickly changed because of Jewish intervention:
And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. Acts 14:19.
The Jews were not just anxious to drive Paul and Barnabas out of their own cities but they wanted to make sure they were not welcome anywhere. So, here we see Jews from Antioch and Iconium following Paul and Barnabas to a Gentile city, where they have been rapturously received, and there they turn the praise and joy into murder. They convince the inhabitants of Lystra to stone Paul to death. But Paul survives and he and Barnabas move on to Derbe.
The Jews thought they had killed Paul at Lystra. Therefore, Paul was free to move around for some time, and after preaching unmolested at Derbe, he actually retraced his steps back to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. But not to preach, rather he kept a low profile by concentrating on “confirming the souls of the disciples and exhorting them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22).
This was the normal pattern of Paul’s evangelistic efforts (and of most of the apostles and disciples) – the Jews worked actively against them taking every opportunity to oppose, and even kill the preachers of the Gospel. Truly Paul was correct when he wrote: “As concerning the Gospel they are enemies…” Rom. 11:28.
The Party of the Concision – the Judaizers
As dangerous as the Jews where to the furtherance of the Gospel, there was an even more dangerous Jewish faction working against the Gospel and against Paul. The Jews who stirred up the Gentiles and the rulers of cities against the Gospel and against Paul were Jews outside the Church. The most dangerous Jews were a special faction or party of Jews inside the Church. These Jews were known as ‘the party of the concision’ – generally known today as the Judaizers.
Any transition period is fraught with problems and misunderstandings. It is natural for the ‘old guard’ to fight to preserve traditions, customs and beliefs that, they hold sacred and sacrosanct, during any period of change. On the other hand the advocates of reform are impatient and will not tolerate delay and restrictive practices. They generally appear irreverent, disloyal, and revolutionary to the conservative element. The confusion and strife is further exacerbated because the reformers often argue among themselves, over what needs to be retained and what needs to be abolished.
When institutions, nations or religions go through such periods, it is a time of struggle and strife – there is anger and harsh words, and often bloodshed. The transition from Judaism to Christianity was no exception. The big question at this time, for Jewish Christians was: what do we take with us from Judaism into Christianity, and what is it that we leave behind? What needs to be retained and what needs to be abolished?
The New Testament was written during this transition period. And the whole New Testament is permeated with issues arising from this struggle. In fact, much of the New Testament was written as a direct response to this problem. Almost the entire contents of the letter to the Hebrews, the letter to the Galatians, and letter to the Romans are devoted to this problem and related issues. Unless one is aware of this fact, it is very easy to misunderstand some critical points in the New Testament.
There was a great deal of confusion in the early church about what constituted a true follower of Christ. For example, there was much confusion about the status of the Gentiles. The first believers were all Jews, and they shared in the common prejudices of their fellow Jews concerning the Gentiles.
The Jews knew that throughout their history they had often fallen into idolatry. When they returned from the Babylonian captivity they were largely cured of that particular temptation. However, in order to preserve themselves from all temptation, they built a wall around themselves and refused to have contact with the Gentile nations surrounding them. Therefore, it came as a major surprise to the Jews, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, could have mercy on the Gentiles, and offer them the same salvation, as He offered to them.
This exclusive attitude that the Jews had, in the time of Christ, was naturally a great hindrance to the spreading of the Gospel, and God dealt with it quickly (see Acts chapters 10, 11). However, such ingrained attitudes are not easy to change, and the exclusive attitude persisted, even on the part of many of the Christian Jews. However, even though this exclusive attitude was a serious problem it was not the most important problem. The real problem was: that these same Jews believed that in order to become a Christian, one first had to become a Jew. And for these advocates of Judo/Christianity, the most important part of becoming a Jew was circumcision.
The Apostle Peter was the first to suffer from the Judaizer’s disapproval. They were astounded that Peter did not observe the proper Jewish protocols for associating with the Gentiles. They accused Peter of acting familiar with them: “Saying thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them” (Acts 11:3). In his defence Peter told them about the vision he had just had in Joppa. He told them about the sheet full of unclean animals, and when he objected about the instructions to eat them, God said to him:
What God has cleansed and pronounced clean, do not you defile and profane by regarding or calling it common or unhallowed or unclean. Acts 11:9. Amplified Bible.
Peter was then instructed to go to Caesarea where he witnessed the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles, “as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). When the Jewish believers in Jerusalem heard Peter’s report they rejoiced, and “they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
The Law on Stone verses the Law in the Heart
However, in spite of the fact that these Jewish believers appeared to accept the leading of God, there were others who did not. The Jewish believers who did not accept the unconditional entry of the Gentiles were the Judaizers. These Judaizers were very influential, and ultimately Peter proved too weak to stand up against them – it was left to Paul to do battle against them – and he had to do it virtually alone.
This battle was not just one of circumcision it touched on far deeper issues. It was fundamentally a battle over how we are saved. It was an issue over the relationship between Law and Grace. Paul’s position was that we are saved by grace, ‘without the law’ – “therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:21, 28). The Judaizers maintained that the ceremonial law was still to be observed, as well as the moral. Even after approximately 30 years, since the crucifixion, the Jews in Jerusalem understood little of the concept of grace. James and the other church leaders in Jerusalem, described the Jerusalem believers as: “all being zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). To Paul this was the ultimate in error and he fought tenaciously against it. Thus the lines were drawn and the battle commenced – and it is still going on today.
During the course of the battle, Paul wrote some rather strong statements about the keeping of the law as a means towards salvation. This has led many people [and churches] to construe, that Paul was advocating that the law was now abolished. In reality, Paul was addressing the Judaizer’s enthusiasm for keeping the law written on stone as a means to salvation – it really does help to understand whom Paul was aiming his arrows at, when he wrote about the relationship between law and grace.
Act and Galatians
Paul usually had something positive to say in his letters to the churches, but not so the Galatian Church. The Corinthians were also doing many things wrong, even to the point of committing immoral acts that the heathen would not countenance, but Paul still called the Corinthian believers ‘the saints of God.’ Paul had no such words of comfort for the Galatians. They received nothing but scathing rebuke from Paul’s hand. What made the difference? What sin did the Galatians commit that was even more grievous than the Corinthians? The answer is: even though the sins of the Corinthians were serious, they could still obtain forgiveness for them, if they repented. The case of the Galatians is more serious, because they had forsaken the pure Gospel that Paul had taught them, and had gone over ‘unto another gospel’ (Gal.1:6, 7). The Corinthian Church was suffering from sinful behaviour – the Galatian Church was suffering from heresy. The Galatians had succumbed to the teachings of the Judaizers.
That Paul considers this a major threat is obvious from the language he uses. Twice he says that the proponents of this ‘other gospel’ be accursed if they preach it (Gal.1:8, 9). He is amazed that the Galatians could believe it, and he believes they have become bewitched, and he rebukes them for being so foolish (see Gal.1:6; 3:1).
The epistle to the Galatians was written to save the Galatian Church from the fatal delusion that keeping the law written on stone would save them. In chapter one, Paul first establishes his credentials. His point is that, he was taught the true Gospel directly by Jesus, not by man. However, after fourteen years working in Gentile lands Paul is instructed to go up to Jerusalem to consult with the other apostles and leaders there. [Chapter 2 of Galatians should be read together with chapter 15 of Acts]. They are dealing with the same problems and are referring to the same events in Antioch and Jerusalem]. Acts 15 begins thus:
And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren [in Antioch], and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. Acts 15:1.
The record says that Paul and Barnabas, “had no small dissension and disputation with them.” It was then decided to take this question to the brethren in Jerusalem. This meeting in Jerusalem was a crucial one for the future direction of the church. The debate was over the status of the Gentiles and the principles of salvation. Specifically over the question: did the Gentiles have to keep the ceremonial law in order to be saved? The meeting did not begin well:
There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed (the Judaizers), saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. Acts 15:5.
The account in Acts informs us that this resulted in “much disputing.” Simeon (Peter) then intervenes and repeats his vision and his experiences at Joppa and Caesarea. Once again the indisputable evidence of God’s leading sways the meeting. The leader of the Church in Jerusalem, James, announces the decision:
My sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled and from blood. Acts 15:19, 20.
In would appear from this decision that here was a clear and conclusive victory for Paul and the Gentiles, and one would expect that decision made by the council in Jerusalem would have put an end to the matter – but it did not. It seemed rather to have intensified the conflict, and the writings of Paul testify that he encountered this problem wherever he went. The judgement in Jerusalem, went in favour of the Gentiles, but said nothing about the obligations of the Jewish Christians. Therefore, the Jewish Christians continued to be confused about what religious practices were required and what were not. Not only were they confused but in addition, many of them were still determined to enforce their beliefs on all the followers of Jesus, whether they were Jewish or Gentile. In fact, the Judaizers were firmly entrenched at Jerusalem (see Acts 21:20), the headquarters of the work, as subsequent events at Antioch soon proved.
The believers at Antioch rejoiced at the news from Jerusalem, and Peter came down to confirm the decision. But then some of the Judaizers also arrived from Jerusalem, and the record says that they came from James – in other words, they were the most influential church leader’s colleagues. Peter obviously knew that these people had power and influence in Jerusalem, because he began to ‘dissemble’ [back track] and “other Jews dissembled likewise with him” (Gal.2:12, 13). Peter had at first associated with his fellow believers at Antioch, but when the Judaizers arrived he “withdrew and separated himself – fearing them that were of the circumcision” (v.12). For his pains, Paul publicly rebuked Peter. Thus, in spite of the decision made in Jerusalem, the issue was not settled and the battle continued.
Approximately nine years later Paul was in Jerusalem again, and far from getting better the problem seems to have gotten worse. After again giving a report to James and the elders of the Church about the progress of the work among the Gentiles, the elders praised God for Paul’s success and they then told Paul about the situation among the Jewish believers:
And they said to [Paul], You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and all of them are enthusiastic upholders of the [Mosaic] Law. Now they have been informed about you that you continually teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn back from and forsake Moses, advising them not to circumcise their children or pay any attention to the observance of the [Mosaic] customs. Acts 21:20, 21. The Amplified Bible.
As a result of this attitude among the converted Jews, Paul acceded to the ‘advice’ of his brethren in Jerusalem and he observed some of the Jewish rituals in the temple. Thus there was intense pressure put upon the ‘apostle of grace’ to placate his critics, and prove to them that he did not oppose the law of Moses (see Acts 21:22-26). At first it might seem odd that Paul would do such a thing, but by not doing it, it would mean that he would violate another principle that he lived by. Paul was very concerned that no stumbling blocks be put in the way of people’s salvation. Therefore, one of the principles that he lived by was:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. 1 Cor. 9:19-23.
This is why Paul acquiesced to the suggestion that he perform certain Jewish rituals, in order that the Gospel that he preached would have more effect upon his listeners. Nevertheless, the whole incident is a fair indication that the problem was far from over.
Returning to the letter to the Galatians – after recounting his experience at the first congress in Jerusalem and the subsequent events that followed at Antioch, to his Galatian readers, Paul then launches into a theological discussion, about why salvation by grace is far superior to the impossibility of being saved by the works of the law. He then suggests a course of action that, would dramatically illustrate the point he is making: “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Gal.5:12).
The Greek word ‘to cut off’ is apokopto. This is translated elsewhere in the Bible as, “to dismember oneself”- “to mutilate oneself” (Mk.9:43; Jn.18:10), “to castrate oneself” – “to make oneself a eunuch” – [as in the Greek translation of Deut.23:1]. Paul is saying that he wishes the Judaizers, who exalt so much the benefits of circumcision, would go all the way and castrate themselves.
In saying this Paul is not trying to be cynical or vindictive. The Galatians were familiar with the practice of castration for religious reasons. The city of Pessinus, in central Galatia, was the seat of the cult and worship of Cybele, the nature goddess of ancient Anatolia. It was the custom of men devoting their lives to the worship and service of Cybele to make themselves eunuchs.
The point Paul is making here, is that, if circumcision can secure a measure of virtue, one should be able to obtain even more by castration! Paul simply means that the Judaizers might as well do as he suggests, because it is a logical conclusion if one is trusting in cutting the flesh. In so doing the Judaizers would appear for what they really were – fanatics!
The primary purpose of the letter to the Galatians is to refute the claims of the Judaizers and to uphold the great Gospel truth that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and not through the works of the law. Paul concludes his arguments by reminding his readers of the essentials:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumsion, but a new creature. Gal.6:15.
So far we have seen the Judaizers influence in Galatia, Antioch and Jerusalem. But their activities were not confined to these areas. Paul encountered them everywhere, and just like the unbelieving Jews these Judaizers followed Paul around undermining Paul’s efforts and promoting their own agenda. Paul obviously felt compelled to counteract their influence because he mentions them in almost every letter he wrote.
Broaching this issue with the Corinthians Paul wrote:
Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. 1 Cor. 7:18, 19.
The Amplified Bible translates v.19 thus:
Circumcision is nothing and counts for nothing, neither does uncircumcision, but [what counts is] keeping the law of God.
The Amplified Bible merely makes Paul’s point, that much clearer, and the point is a most significant one. Circumcision to the Jews was a sign, or a symbol, of the covenant relationship between them and God. It was undertaken as a commitment, as a promise, to keep the law – all the law – the Jews did not distinguish between the ceremonial law and the moral law (see Gal.5:3). However, Paul, being the master theologian that he was, obviously does make a distinction. He first says uncircumcision means nothing and then he says, what really counts, is keeping the commandments of God. This must have been a real puzzle to the Jewish mind. But the problem is resolved if one remembers the distinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law. Paul is simply stating as he so often does, that the ceremonial law has been abolished, but that the moral law remained and had to be obeyed.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the situation has not become better but worse. Paul’s level of concern resembles that expressed in the letter to the Galatians. In chapter 11, Paul shows himself again jealous for the purity of the Gospel. He expresses the same sentiments that he expressed towards the ‘foolish Galatians’ – and for the same reasons. The Corinthians were not immune to the influence of the Judaizers. Paul wrote that they were listening to ‘another Jesus preached’ and ‘another gospel.’ Paul feels once again that he has to prove his authority and establish his office as an apostle. It also appears that these false preachers had been accusing Paul of being an opportunist, only interested in getting money out of God’s people (cf. 11:13-18). Paul calls such preachers ‘false apostles, deceitful workers’ masquerading as, ‘ministers of righteousness.’ And he admonishes the Corinthians for allowing men to “bring you into bondage” (v.20). Does Paul mean the bondage of the ceremonial law? Yes he does! Because he clearly identifies these deceitful workers as the Judaizers:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more. 2 Cor. 11:22, 23.
The letter to the Philippians was written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. He was nearing the end of his life, and his struggle with the Judaizers had not abated at all – if anything it had become more intense and bitterer. Paul uses some very strong language indeed, in his attempt to warn the Philippians about the Judaizers:
Look out for those dogs [Judaizers, legalists], look out for those mischief-makers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. Phil. 3:2. The Amplified Bible.
Literally the Greek says ‘look out for the dogs.’ The use of the definite article points to a definite group of people. In Paul’s time dogs were mostly without masters, and wandered in the streets and fields. They were accounted unclean (see Lev.11:2-7), and to call someone a dog was a strong expression of contempt. Paul is holding up the Judaizers insistence on circumcision to derision. But there is also a deeper meaning. Paul’s point is that their attempts to mutilate the flesh, is also a mutilation of the true Gospel.
Paul then reiterates a point he made in Rom. 2:25-29, that true circumcision is of the heart, cutting out sin and not having ‘confidence in the flesh.’ He then launches into a lengthy description of his own life as a Judaizer only to conclude that it was all useless and worthless, reckoned only as ‘dung.’ Paul was willing to give it all up that he might “win Christ” (Phil. 3:3-8). Paul was able to make the transition from Judaism to Christianity. A significant proportion of the Jews were not able to understand, or accept the necessary changes.
One of Paul’s concerns in his letter to Titus is for “sound doctrine” (1:9). Then he explains why:
For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision… Titus 1:10.
Here, Paul clearly identifies the group that is troubling him the most – the Judaizers. He instructs Titus that this group must be opposed in no uncertain terms:
Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s (money’s) sake…. Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth…They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate (disloyal, rebellious). Titus 1:11, 14, 16. (cf. 1 Tim.1:3-11).
The issue of transition from Judaism to Christianity not only permeates the New Testament, a solid case could be made for the fact that this issue dominates the New Testament. There are two other letters that deal very extensively with the transition from Judaism to Christianity one is the letter to the Hebrews where the whole thrust of the letter is about the transition from the literal Jewish religion to the better and greater spiritual religion. The other letter is the Book of Romans which could just as well be entitled ‘the Letter to the Jews.’