In the last couple of posts, I’ve outlined my study of a topic that has long bewildered me: the law. In the first post I looked at the Old Testament perspective. In the second, I looked at the New Testament perspective. Things were going great until we got to Paul’s seemingly dueling perspective. Now, there seems to be dissension in the scriptures.
Maybe I’m just overly idealistic, but I believe there can, and indeed there must, be unity in the scriptures from beginning to end. I believe Numbers 23:19 when it says:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
So when God says something is forever, I believe Him. Here are a few examples:
- the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16)
- the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:17)
- the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29)
- and the law as written down by Moses (Deuteronomy 12:28)
But when I get to a passage of Paul’s that seems to contradict what God has said, what am I to do? This exact question caused me much trouble for years and years, until I understood a foundation that was critical as I sought to deal with the massively intelligent, massively confusing apostle.
Here are those four foundational points:
1. When God and Paul seem to disagree, God always wins.
Neither Paul nor anyone else could preach a message that was contrary to the revealed and explicit words of God Himself.
This was made clear in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 when Moses was reviewing the law with the people for the last time before he died and they entered the Promised Land. He warned them to not follow anyone who would lead them away from God’s commandments, even if it was a prophet or a dreamer of dreams who came loaded with signs and wonders.
“For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.”
At the end of this passage, he commands a severe penalty for anyone teaching against the way of the Lord:
“But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
According to this, if Paul taught anything contrary to the explicit word of God revealed in His law, he would have to be put to death…which leads us perfectly to the next point.
2. When accused of teaching against the law, Paul consistently and vehemently denied it.
When he came to Jerusalem, he was greeted by friends who warned that the many thousands of Jews who believed in the Messiah and were zealous for the law had heard that Paul taught against Moses (Acts 21:17-21). In order to prove that there “is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law,” they instructed him to join and support four men who were undertaking vow (Acts 21:22-26).
Oddly enough, he took their advice.
And that’s not the end of the oddities. Despite his efforts to prove his adherence to the law, the unbelieving Jews rose up against him. A series of trials began. But in each, Paul continued to make odd assertions.
When standing before Felix, he said,
“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14).
When standing before Festus, he said,
“Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8).
When standing before the Jews in Rome, he said,
“I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” (Acts 28:17).
And later, he tries to convince them about the Savior using the Law of Moses and the Prophets (Acts 28:23).
If Paul believed that the law was bondage or a curse, why would he want to prove that he lived in observance of it? Why would he believe everything laid down by it? Was he delusional, a liar, or simply out to please whatever men happened to be near at the time?
Some answer these questions by saying that Paul upheld the law for the Jews, but was instrumental in freeing the Gentiles from it. But does this fit with scripture?
3. The law was always meant for the native Israelite and all who joined themselves with God’s people.
From the beginning, once Gentiles chose to follow the God of Israel, they became Israelites and members of the covenant, which included obedience to His instructions. There was never a law for the native and a separate one for the foreigner.
“There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
“You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 24:22)
“And if a stranger sojourns among you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, according to the statute of the Passover and according to its rule, so shall he do. You shall have one statue, both for the sojourner and for the native.” (Numbers 9:14)
“For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.” (Numbers 15:15)
But what about Acts 15? Didn’t the Jerusalem council unequivocally decide that Gentiles weren’t constrained to follow the law of Moses?
Well, that’s a whole other post in itself, but because understanding this is so critical, we’ll do a quick recap of it now.
Some believing Jews argued that Gentiles couldn’t be saved unless they first kept the law of Moses, including circumcision. But Peter, Barnabas, and Paul recounted the miracles done among the Gentiles and argued that God had seen their believing hearts and had already granted them salvation because of their faith.
Not even the Jews were required to walk obediently in order to earn salvation. God had redeemed and freed His people before He instructed them in how they should walk. Requiring obedience in order to earn salvation is a yoke no one has ever been able (or even asked) to bear.
The problem was that the newly saved Gentiles engaged in a highly idolatrous lifestyle. In order for these new converts to rightly worship God, they needed to first be willing to abandon their idolatrous activities of temple prostitution, strangling idol offerings, drinking blood of offerings, etc. The first things on God’s Top 10 list deal with worship of God alone, so it’s no wonder why the first commandments given to the new converts were ones to prove their single-heartedness towards the only true God.
In fact, instead of the law being done away for former Gentiles, they are actually being pointed right to it! This list of first commandments for the new converts is a perfect summary of the commandments given in Leviticus 17-18. They are even listed in the same order!
No one expected this list to be all the former Gentiles ever did in obedience to God. Their obedience was expected to continue to grow. Verse 21 contains an enlightening glimpse into the head of James who was making the recommendation:
“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:21)
The new converts would come to the synagogues every Sabbath and would hear the law being read, as written down by Moses. The assumption seems to be that as they heard it, they would be conformed to it. This group of people didn’t grow up under the instruction of the Lord. They would need time to “grow” up into it just as the Jewish children did.
So it seems more Biblically accurate to see Paul as a misunderstood, God-fearing, Torah-observant man who believed that salvation was a matter of faith and that obedience to the law was a result of that faith. When so many others believed that obedience to the law must precede salvation, we can see why Paul’s message was controversial and misunderstood.
4. Paul was difficult to understand in his own day; he’s much more difficult to understand now.
Because thousands of years, at least one language, and an entire cultural chasm separate us from the original Biblical text, we have to work diligently to be sure that we properly understand the original words and meaning. The writings of Paul have been particularly susceptible to misinterpretation because of this distance of time, language, and culture.
Peter warned people in his own day, who spoke the same language and lived in the same culture to handle Paul’s writings carefully lest they be “carried away with the error of lawless people.” (2 Peter 3:15-17) If they ran the risk of misunderstanding Paul, how much more do we?
With that foundation laid, we’ll turn to some of Paul’s words in the next post.
For those interested in more on Paul, here is a great article that addresses the thoughts some modern scholars have on Paul.