The passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Old Testament against the New Testament or the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.
It means that if you are a Jewish believer , you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are part of the people, a spiritual son of Abraham, and that is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that God made to Abraham so long ago.
-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Twenty-Two: Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael (Galatians 4:21-31)”
This is just a sample of how Lancaster’s view of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians presents a fresh and startlingly different understanding of the apostle’s message to the Gentile believers. This book takes Paul’s letter, virtually line-by-line, and re-interprets it from what most Christians would see as a radically different perspective. The book’s subtitle, “Sermons on a Messianic Jewish Approach” reveals the specific lens by which Lancaster views the letter and the stance from which he presents his argument: that Paul was supporting the unique covenant identity for the Jewish believer and at the same time, was instructing the non-Jewish disciples that they could have the same access to God, though the Messiah, without converting to Judaism.
But let me back up a minute.
Lancaster’s book is based on a series of 26 lectures or sermons he delivered in 2008 to Beth Immanuel, his community of faith, in Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s not unusual for Lancaster, a long-time contributor of books and other educational text to First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), to “mine” his previous works for the sake of a new publication (for instance, Toby Janicki’s book Tefillin used some of Lancaster’s previous writing as a basis). Since each chapter represents one sermon in a series, I got an “episodic” feel as I moved from chapter to chapter, particularly in the first part of the book. I was also pleased that Lancaster’s ability to create the illusion that the reader is in the situation being described, was present in his current book. As I read through the chapters, I felt as if I were listening to Paul in one of the churches of Galatia, struggling with the issues he was trying to communicate, and experiencing the conflict between his teaching and the “influencers”.
As I mentioned before, this isn’t your typical Christian commentary on the Book of Galatians. Lancaster, using his knowledge of the Greek language, history, and accessing authoritative scholarly sources, “refactors” Paul’s letter into an almost completely different form, reflecting the Messianic Jewish viewpoint on Paul in general as well as FFOZ’s perspective in particular. There were a number of times when Lancaster would present the traditional Christian interpretation of a set of verses and then say something like, “this interpretation isn’t acceptable in Messianic Judaism”. I kind of wish he didn’t say it that way.
Sure, the focus of this book is to illustrate how Messianic Judaism views Paul’s letter in a dramatically different way, through its own “looking glass”, in order to understand his message in a way that makes more sense to both Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, but unfortunately, it could also be seen by a Christian reader as Lancaster just making the text say what he wants it to say to match his theology. The real value that I find in this book, (and many of FFOZ’s other materials) is in how it peels away almost twenty centuries of unchanging, set-in-stone, Christian theology and lets the reader see credible (and even very likely) alternatives to what Paul could have been saying. Questioning assumptions and courageously challenging dogma is not a property exclusively possessed by Messianic Judaism, Christianity, or any other religious movement. These qualities should be used by all people of honesty and faith when reading and studying our holy writings. These qualities should transcend denomination, movement, and sect, and be embraced by anyone who truly is a disciple of the Master and who seeks the truth of God and human existence.
The revelations Lancaster presents are too numerous to mention in this simple review (and I don’t want to give away too many “surprises”), but in reading this book, you will be introduced to a Paul and a Galatians letter that are completely new to you. This book offers a way of looking at Galatians, not as Paul’s anti-Jewish, anti-Torah rant, but as his answer to a complex dilemma facing the non-Jewish believers in the various churches in Galatia: does a “goy” have to convert to Judaism in order to be “saved”? The 21st century church would say emphatically “no” and in fact, would present the counter-argument that a Jewish believer would have to abandon Judaism and convert to Gentile Christianity in order to be a disciple of the Jewish Messiah. Conversely, Paul, at least as Lancaster understands him, would be appalled to hear that his letter had been so misappropriated by the modern church.
The book isn’t perfect. In general (and I agree with him), Lancaster uses various portions of Galatians to support his argument that Jewish believers (and non-Messianic Jews for that matter) were expected to obey the commands of God that He gave to the Children of Israel through Moses at Sinai, while at the same time, saying that the standard of non-Jewish “Torah” obedience to God was different…not non-existent, just different (see Galatians 5:13-26 for Paul’s interpretation of Gentile “Torah”). Unfortunately, there are any number of points in the book that, taken out of context, could be used to support the “One Law” argument (the position that states when a Gentile is “grafted in” to the Jewish root, they take on obligations to God absolutely identical to Jewish obligations). Other parts of the book make Lancaster’s position clearer, but I tended to stumble a few times when I encountered these ambiguous paragraphs.
To be fair, Lancaster is providing a detailed, in-depth analysis to a very difficult and wholly misunderstood piece of writing. Paul wasn’t easy to understand and trying to get into his head and into the culture and language in which he lived in the 1st century of the common era, let alone write an entire book about it, is a major undertaking. While I think the book succeeds overall, the reader is going to have to exercise a certain amount of patience and not jump to conclusions. Getting the entire message of Galatians means reading all of Lancaster’s book (I had to take copious notes) before coming to any sort of conclusion. Bringing an open mind as well as a notepad is also essential.
I don’t doubt that many of the people who read this book will either try to ignore it or start an argument about what it says. Lancaster completely disassembles the traditional Christian understanding of the letter and rebuilds it an atom at a time. That doesn’t make for comfortable reading if you’ve been taught for most of your life that the Torah is slavery for the Jews and grace is freedom for the Christians. For the One Law supporters in MJ, the book will also challenge many of their assumptions and at a few points, Lancaster even directly confronts the OL assumptions. Lancaster makes it clear in many of his comments that Paul never intended for the Gentile disciples to take on the entire “yoke of Torah” and that the “Torah” for the Gentiles was the “Torah of the Messiah”.
If you consider all that “the bad news”, I’ve also got “the good news”. The good news is that, if you set aside your preconceptions of what you think Galatians says, and by inference, many of the assumptions you have about what it means to be a Christian or to be “Messianic”, you’ll be able to read Lancaster’s book as an adventure in learning and an exploration of what it must have been like to be among the first Gentiles, having recently come out of pagan idolatry, entering a world and a relationship with God that had only previously been accessible to the Jewish people.
Who is Paul? Where did he get his “gospel”? Who did he see as his Master, Jesus or the Jerusalem Council? Who were the “influencers” who were disturbing the Gentile believers in Galatia? How did Paul see his fellow Jews and Jewish converts? What was Paul’s unique solution to the puzzle of integrating the people of the nations into the community of faith in the God of Israel?
The answers to those questions can be found in D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians. Click the link to find out more. You may not believe it now, but there are answers in this book that you need to hear.
Besides the review you’ve just read, I’ve commented on different portions of Lancaster’s book in other recent blogs. They include Building Fellowship, Knowing, Intermediaries, and The Tefillin and the Shoemaker. These blog posts include mentions of Lancaster’s book within the context of other topics and resources, but taken together, I think this material provides a rich understanding of not only what the book says, but how it applies to a life of faith and to the wider contexts of Christianity and Judaism.