Before starting, I wish to apologize to Pastor Randy, everyone at his church, and any Christians who may be offended by what I’m about to say. I’m sorry but the Church isn’t perfect. It’s full of flawed human beings (I know, I’m one of them). Last Sunday, one of those people proved it and I’m proving it again by even talking about it. I probably shouldn’t. I almost didn’t. But I decided in the end that this needs to be said, not to injure the Church but to help it improve.
Now to begin today’s “morning meditation.”
Two statements from the notes handed out in the church bulletin on Pastor’s sermon for last Sunday:
Paul’s Conversion in Damascus (22:2b-13)
- His Previous Conduct – How Judaism Once Controlled His Life (vs. 2b-5)
- His Present Conduct – How Jesus Now Controls His Life (vs. 6-13)
This was part of Pastor’s sermon on Acts 21:35-22:2a. For a little context, here are the relevant passage of scripture:
And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet; and he said,
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.
“But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. and I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.’ But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me and came into Damascus.
“A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him.”
–Acts 22:2-13 (NASB)
I go over the notes for the sermon before services while everyone else is “schmoozing” and drinking coffee. Sometimes, I’ll even start writing down my impressions (I’m kind of a nerd that way). When I saw the two points above, my immediate response was “Judaism and the Jewish Messiah are not mutually exclusive.”
It’s doubtful Pastor meant to say they were, at least in a first century context (today is another story), but so many Evangelical Pastors believe that with the so-called “birthday of the Church” in Acts 2, God had declared Judaism (and possibly the Jewish people) obsolete and replaced by Christianity and the Church (neither of which existed as we understand them today at that point in history).
Actually, I really liked today’s (as I write this) sermon. Pastor really shines in his knowledge of Biblical history as well as the languages involved, and he brought out many details I thought were important and illuminating. At the same time, I could see the “lights” dim in the eyes of some of the people around me as Pastor may have (for them) gotten a bit too historical and scholarly.
He also delivered a welcome and rousing speech condemning anti-Semitism and the shocking fact that there are some two-hundred neo-Nazi organizations in the U.S. today that teach adults and children to hate and kill Jews and other minority populations. Anti-Semitism should not exist in our world, especially post-Holocaust.
The only thing he left out was how for nearly all of the history of the Church, we have been one of the chief supporters of anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced conversions, torture, and murder of countless Jewish people, not to mention the numbers of synagogues, Torah scrolls, and volumes of Talmud we’ve destroyed “in the name of Jesus”.
Thankfully, Christians don’t participate in such actions today, but there’s an echo of that same sentiment toward Jewish people we can still hear in our churches right now, including in the Sunday school class I attended a few hours (as I write this) ago.
I’ll get to that in a bit.
In reading Paul recite his own history about how he so zealously opposed the Messianic Jewish movement of the Way, I realized the Bible never directly addresses why Paul embraced such murderous hate of the movement. What did it mean to him personally? Why did he make it his special mission to eradicate Jewish Jesus-believers?
Typically in the late second Temple period, the Way was opposed by other Jewish groups because of it’s unusually wide acceptance of Gentiles as equal co-participants in Jewish religious and social space without the requirement of the non-Jews undergoing the proselyte rite.
“And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
They listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!”
–Acts 22:21-22 (NASB)
The Jewish crowd, that had previously assaulted Paul because of the mistaken belief that the apostle had taken a Gentile into the Temple, up to this point, was (presumably) calmly listening to Paul relate his first encounter with Messiah, even describing how Yeshua appeared to him in a vision of light, and that he heard a Bat Kol from Heaven. Seemingly, they did not object to Paul’s assertion that Yeshua was Messiah and even that he could speak from the Divine realm. They only became once again enraged when Paul mentioned the Gentiles.
But when Paul previously opposed the Way some thirty years before, it was early enough in history that there would have been few, if any Gentiles participating in the Messianic Jewish movement. Paul’s motivation couldn’t have been Gentile involvement. But what else could it have been?
But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?”
–Mark 14:61-64 (NASB)
Jewish objections to Jesus were never about claims of his being Messiah. Would-be Messiahs came and went in Judaism all of the time. The worst Jesus and his followers could have been accused of was being wrong, but being wrong is hardly blasphemy. What would have been considered blasphemy was a man declaring himself co-equal with God. This is why the High Priest tore his clothes. This is what got Jesus killed. This is what the Jewish people found so incredibly offensive and wanted to exterminate.
Paul (Saul) was present at the defense of Stephen (Acts 7) and heard the disciple of the Master state, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), declaring Yeshua co-equal with God. Saul willingly held the cloaks of the men of the Sanhedrin as they drove Stephen outside the city and stoned him to death.
This may have been the genesis of Paul’s hatred of the Way, a sect of Judaism that went one step too far in not only following a (presumably) dead man as Messiah, but believing him to be co-equal with God and God Himself.
So in opposing blasphemy, from the point of view of most Jews of his day (or for that matter, ours), Saul was in the right (even though it turned out he was wrong). The only thing really questionable was how personal his hatred of the Jewish Messianics seemed to be. We can speculate as to Saul’s reasons, but the Bible is silent as to what they might have been.
So in Acts 9, Paul did not “convert to Christianity,” but he did have a supernatural and highly personal encounter with the Master, strong enough to override all of Paul’s previous motivation and set him on a new track. That track however, was one that was completely Jewish and might even be described as “Pharisaism with a Messianic twist”. By his own admission, Paul’s beliefs and practices were still totally consistent with being a Pharisee and a zealot for the Torah, but he was most of all a zealot for Messiah within a completely Jewish lived reality.
Although I thought Pastor’s sermon was very good with just a few slight wrinkles, Sunday school was another story. You may recall from a previous blog post how my wife had pointed out my arrogance, and as a result, I began to reevaluate my role in the church.
Out of that, I resolved, at least for a time, to remain silent in Sunday school. I mentioned to the teacher before class got started that I would be keeping quiet, and he honored that by not posing me with any questions.
There were more than a few times during class when I regretted my decision, although I still think it was for the best.
Oh sure, the non-believing Jews who opposed Paul were called “satanic” for their devotion to the Law and their rejection of Jesus (although nowhere in the narrative we were studying does it mention them rejecting Jesus at all). Teacher likes to label non-believing Jews as “influenced by Satan” from time to time, and I’ve called him on it in the past. He can’t seem to imagine the actual motivation and reasoning involved in first century Jews not understanding Gentile equality in a Jewish social and worship venue. I’ve noticed some Christians often treat the people they encounter in the Bible as “characters” playing out some sort of artificial role in a “Bible story,” as if they weren’t (and aren’t) real, live human beings in actual human situations.
But a number of people in class were sort of chuckling at the “ignorance” of the Jewish mob who had finally settled down and was listening to Paul’s words, and how they had a “hissy fit” upon Paul’s mention of the Gentiles.
At one point, a gentleman piped up complaining about all the accusations of “anti-Semitism” against Christians and wondering if there was some sort of opposite sentiment like Jewish “anti-Gentilism” (I suppose he was thinking along the lines of something like reverse discrimination, but depending on your point of view, that may or may not exist).
That’s when I started gritting my teeth. It’s incredible that anyone who has studied the Bible for any length of time (this person, by the way, seems well-read and intelligent) can miss why, especially on one of the three major pilgrim festivals on the Jewish religious calendar, Jews would be highly sensitive to Gentiles invading Jewish worship and social space in the Temple (which was what they were reacting to).
For cryin’ out loud, the Romans had invaded the whole blamed country and were occupying it. The Jewish nation was hip deep in oppressive, cruel, dictatorial Gentile Roman soldiers. Who responded to keep the peace when the Jewish mobs rioted? The Roman soldiers. Why? Because Rome had control of Israel and jurisdiction over Jerusalem, including on the Temple Mount where the riot occurred. Of course the crowds of Jews, both native to the Land and from the diaspora, millions of them inhabiting Jerusalem during the festival of Shavuot, would have been incensed at the very idea of Gentiles taking even more away from the Jewish people than they already had.
Believe me, if you were a Jew in that situation, you’d probably have “lost it,” too.
I stayed silent and no one else spoke up. Remember those echoes I mentioned before? This was one of them.
I’ve already got enough theological and doctrinal issues to address in church as it is. I don’t want to find something like this on top of it all.
I know it might seem like a small thing to some, maybe to most people. Maybe it’s just that I’m married to a Jewish wife and have three Jewish children. But the Church, including each and every individual in my little local church, won’t truly make Pastor’s dream of a world without anti-Semitism come true until we really start treating the ancient and modern Jews like real people with real concerns instead of caricatures or stereotypes used only as “bad examples” of religion without Christ.
My Sunday school teacher made a point several times in class to emphasize how, when we believe we don’t like someone, to look deeper and to find what is good in them rather than focus on what we dislike. In complaining about the Jewish crowd who opposed Paul as displaying “anti-Gentilism” and failing to see why they would feel and act as they did, one Christian gentleman overtly failed in that mission and by not speaking up, the rest of us silently agreed that we didn’t have to look past Jewish anger to see Jewish hurt, fear, and vulnerability.
We always read these “Bible stories” supporting Paul and the rest of the believing Jews and Gentiles, and imagining the Jews who were “persecuting the Church,” including Saul back in the day, as fools and villains. The Church exists in a post-missionary, crypto-supersessionist space, even now, relative to the Jewish people and Israel. If I would have called this gentleman on his comment, I don’t think it would have done any good. I’m an outsider, an anomaly in Christian religious and communal space. The rest of them had heard the Pastor’s plea to end prejudice against Jews in the Church. But at least one person didn’t think it applied to him.
Matters leading to sadness fall into two categories: matters that can be corrected and matters that cannot.
If something can be done to correct a situation, why feel sad? Simply take action to correct the matter!
On the other hand, if nothing can be done, what gain is there in feeling sad? Sadness will not improve matters. It is wiser to accept what cannot be changed.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Tonight at sundown begins the Festival of Shavuot which I commented on a few days ago. As long as even one believer thinks the “birthday of the church” completely overrides this moed’s meaning to God’s chosen people, the Jews, the Church will never be free of its anti-Jewish history.
One last thing. I’m often critical of the Church, not because I’m into “Christian-bashing” but because I believe that the Church, the Gentile Jesus-believing ekklesia, is good. But it could be a whole lot better. I’ve defended the Church more than once, and one of the defining qualities of Christianity is love of one’s neighbor and fellowship. I know I’m only one man, but I can see this so clearly. We need to do better, a lot better. We need to see the Jewish people and Israel as God sees them. Only then can we fulfill our own purpose as the people of the nations who are called by His Name to be the crowning jewels surrounding and uplifting Israel and her King Messiah.