Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
–Acts 15:1 (NASB)
Also, in the eyes of most Jews, the statement of Acts 15:1 seemed incredibly obvious. One does not come to Hashem except through Judaism.
Even after I publish a particular blog post, I tend to obsess over it a little bit, searching for typos, finding a sentence that could be improved, that sort of thing. I try to do all this editing beforehand, but sometimes things slip by.
That includes the above-quoted statement. Today, religious Judaism is adamant that of the three monotheistic faiths in existence, they do not require others to convert to their religion in order to merit a place in the world to come. You can be a righteous Gentile and in obedience to the Noahide laws, you can have a place in the coming Kingdom. No need to actually convert to Judaism at all.
I realized that even in the days of the Apostle Paul, this was also true in some sense. It’s been suggested that some version or variation of what we call the “Noahide laws” today existed back then and was the operational guide for God-fearing Gentiles who populated the diaspora synagogues alongside the Jews and proselytes.
But I can only imagine that being a first-century God-fearer and seeing the awesome beauty of the Torah, watching Jewish men davening in a minyan, experiencing the joy of just hearing the prayers in Hebrew, contemplating the amazing link that each Jewish person had to thousands of years of the history of God’s interaction with Israel all the way back to Moses must have been an incredible lure. How many God-fearing Gentiles in response to their time in the synagogue started down the road of the proselyte ritual that culminated in converting to Judaism, so that they could say “My Fathers” rather than “their Fathers?”
I’ve been looking at Mark Nanos’ book The Irony of Galatians as it impacts my view of the actual epistle written by Paul and its intent toward the believing populations in the area of Galatia in that day. But what impact does it have on Gentile believers who worship among Jews today?
I’m specifically thinking of Messianic Jewish congregations, those few of which I’m aware that are “owned and operated” so to speak, by halakhic and observant Jewish people who are disciples of Yeshua as Messiah. What is it like to be a Gentile, a fully equal co-participant in Jewish worship and community life, and yet not to be Jewish?
For that matter, what is it like to be a Gentile believer in one of the variations of Hebrew Roots community life, be attracted to Jewish practice and the Torah, but find that the vast majority of people around you only have a so-so understanding of what that means and especially how to properly practice a Judaism (this isn’t absolutely true of all Hebrew Roots groups, but it is true of the majority of those I’ve personally experienced)?
A non-trivial percentage of those Gentiles have left either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots and like some of the first century God-fearing Gentiles, proceeded with the proselyte ritual, usually within Orthodox Judaism, and converted to that identity and that faith.
They too have missed the warning that Paul was issuing to his Gentile addressees in his letter to the Galatians and allowed themselves to “desert Him who called them by the grace of Christ for a different gospel, which is really not another gospel at all.”
In a Jewish or Jewish-like worship venue, especially with the involvement of traditional Jewish worship, study, and community practices, it can be easy for some folks to confuse Judaism for faith.
That was the point of Paul saying in Galatians 2:3 that Titus, a Greek who came to faith in Yeshua, specifically wasn’t compelled to be circumcised (convert to Judaism). It’s why Paul cited Genesis 15:6 as recorded in Galatians 3:6 that it was by Abraham’s faith God reckoned to him as righteousness before Abraham was circumcised.
According to most New Testament scholars, Paul likely wrote his letter to the Galatians before the events recorded in Acts 15 so it could appear that Paul was very much “shooting from the hip,” because the formal halakhic ruling regarding the legal status of Gentile Yeshua-believers within the Jewish worship and community context of “the Way” had not yet been issued. But Paul’s authority and assignment as the emissary to the Gentiles came directly from Messiah in a vision as we have preserved for us in Acts 9. If we can depend upon anyone to understand who the Gentiles were to be as worshipers of Messiah among the Jews, it is Paul.
His letter was a response to the confusion and dissonance that was occurring between believing Gentiles and non-believing Jews (this is according to Nanos in his “Irony” book) in the Jewish communities in the region of Galatia. The synagogue was the only proper setting for the new Gentile believers to learn Torah and thus begin to understand the teachings of the Master, and this decision was eventually confirmed in the words of Acts 15:21. But while being a Gentile God-fearer was most likely a reasonably well-defined role, being a Gentile believer of the Jewish Messiah was not, especially to those Jews who did not share in that faith and quite possibly for some who did (see Acts 15:1).
Several of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons in the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series address a very simple message of the writer of Hebrews to his Jewish audience in Jerusalem. The message says to pay attention to what we have learned and not to drift away from our faith in Messiah, lest we grow cold in faith and distant from the lover of our souls. That distance can make us mistake who really loves us and like the addressees of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we may think Judaism is our goal rather than Messiah, the living Word of God.
The traditional Christian interpretation of Galatians (I know I’m over-simplifying it) is that Paul was attempting to convince both believing Gentiles and believing Jews that the “Law was dead” and replaced for everybody by only faith in Christ Jesus, inventing a new identity in the Jewish Messiah for one and all, and eliminating Jewish identity for Jews entirely. That’s very much like throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Looking at the letter as Nanos sees it, it’s a cautionary tale specifically to the Gentiles not to confuse Jewish Torah observance and community life for the practices that accompany a Gentile faith in Messiah. Yes, many of the blessings and observances are identical for Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master, but the identities are not. This is a warning we can heed today, especially those of us who though not Jews are still attracted to Jewish studies, the Torah, the Talmud, and the wisdom of the sages.
The main reason Nanos wrote his book was to publicize an apprehension of Paul’s “voice” that did not give rise to anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, and anti-Torah sentiments, that enhanced the relationship between Christians and Jews rather than divide them, and in honor of all the Jewish people across the long centuries who have suffered and died because (directly and indirectly) of the historical and traditional interpretation of Paul’s letters by the Church.
Even as Nanos attempts to penetrate Christian history and tradition through scholarly means in order to contribute to righting many terrible wrongs, Boaz Michael, President and Founder of the educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) approaches the same goal through a more “grassroots” method as he writes in his book Tent of David. This sends people back into the church with the same message, that we have been misreading Paul for a very long time and the result has been disastrous on an epic scale.
We can correct the course of history by the grace of God, but we need to be willing to change. We need to be willing to see Paul in a radically different way as compared to Church history and tradition. We need to grant ourselves the ability to set aside our long-held preconceptions about what the Bible is saying and we need to resist two things: the desire to stay “safe” by digging in our heels and not even considering that Christian interpretive traditions could be wrong and, for those Gentiles attracted to Judaism in some manner or fashion, to resist the desire to abandon the Church, Christianity, and even Christ and embrace a fully Jewish identity through conversion.
Neither option is correct. We cannot summon the Messianic future by holding on to an interpretive tradition that was born out of supersessionism and anti-Semitism, nor can we do so by exiting Christianity and the nations entirely and converting to Judaism as our only way of serving God.
I’ve referenced Rabbi David Rudolph in a number of blog posts including An Exercise in Wholeness, Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph, and Oneness, Twoness and Three Converts to describe how observant Jews, particularly in the Messianic framework, and Christians, both within the Messianic community and in the local church need each other in order to fulfill prophesy and prepare the way for the return of the King.
In my opinion, no other avenue is going to work or is in accordance with the plan of God as we see, or as I see, in the Bible.
If you are a Gentile Christian in a church and you have an awareness of the Messianic plan as I often describe on this blog, you have an opportunity to help raise awareness among other Christians. It’s not easy as I can personally attest, and most of the time, people in the local church will not want to hear your/my message. Still, the effort must be made, for who can say that by starting the process, even if you don’t see its completion, that what you began was not effective?
If you are a Gentile believer in a Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots community, you do not have to apprehend Jewish identity in order to be an active and vital part of God’s plan. In fact, your Gentile identity is essential to bringing that plan to fruition. If the world was populated only with Jewish people (and that may seem attractive to many Jewish people), then the prophesies we have in our Bible about our role in bringing about the Messianic Age would be impossible to accomplish. Gentiles are absolutely needed, even as Jews are needed to be part of all that God said He would do.
Paul didn’t go anywhere near what I’m saying in the Galatians letter, but as I continue to ponder this epistle and the book that Mark Nanos wrote about it, the implications are there. Paul was addressing Gentile believers existing and worshiping in a Jewish religious and community space. After a long absence, we are beginning to see that process and those relationships begin anew. The Apostolic Scriptures don’t paint a very plain portrait of how those relationships should work in an ideal manner. We only have examples of the struggle to find balance and harmony, which was probably never accomplished in Paul’s lifetime and which completely disintegrated in the decades and centuries after the Fall of Jerusalem.
Whether you are Jewish or Gentile, Messiah does not require that you give up who you are and become something you are not. Jewish believers make a mistake by “converting” to Christianity and assimilating into the Gentile mainstream because God never intended “the Church” to finish the job of eliminating the presence of Jews on our planet that Hitler’s Holocaust started (I know that sounds harsh, but that’s how some Jewish people see assimilation, especially into a normative Gentile Christian identity). Jewish believers serve God by retaining a lived Jewish identity, by observing the mitzvot, by davening with other Jews, by being who God made them to be.
Gentile believers make a mistake by thinking that being a member of the nations who are called by His Name means they/we aren’t good enough for God or somehow that status makes them/us insignificant in God’s plan. If you abandon your fellow Gentile believers and especially if you abandon Messiah and convert to Judaism, you defy one of the primary reasons for your existence. God has made all of the Jews He intends to make. For some few, conversion to Judaism may be valid, but for the majority of us, the only thing we’re trying to satisfy through conversion is our own desires or to smother feelings of inadequacy.
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
–1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (NASB)
Whoever you are, don’t give up who you are, because God created you and the roles you fill for a reason, even if you can’t see what that reason is right now. Paul may have written his letter to a group of people who lived halfway around the world two-thousand years ago, but in this case, I can perceive very clearly how his “ironic rebuke” is addressed to us today. Perhaps you can hear this message, too.