While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
–Acts 13:2 (NRSV)
Last Sunday, I was wondering how Pastor Randy was going to preach for an entire hour on just three verses from the Bible. He told me there was a lot packed in those three verses (Acts 13:1-3) and he was right. However, his explanation of the Greek word translated as “worshiping” in the above quoted verse was especially interesting.
According to TheFreeDictionary.com, the word “leitourgia” (which is rendered as “worshiping” above) is related to the English word “liturgy:”
- A prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship.
- often Liturgy Christianity The sacrament of the Eucharist.
[Late Latin ltrgia, from Greek leitourgi, public service, from leitourgos, public servant, from earlier litourgos : liton, town hall (from los, dialectal variant of los, people) + ergon, work; see werg- in Indo-European roots.]
That’s a lot to pack into the word “worshiping” and reading that verse in English totally obscures the meaning of what’s being said. It might have made more sense to translate the word as “ministered” (which the King James Version actually does) in order to render the meaning more accurately.
According to Pastor Randy, the sense of the word can refer to the duty of the Levitical Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem and as the dictionary definition states above, addresses the discharge of a public office.
But what was that about liturgy again?
Pastor Randy didn’t touch on this, but what may also have been communicated by Luke when he used the word “leitourgia” was that the worshiping of God was being performed using liturgical prayer, or more specifically, a Jewish prayer service.
This isn’t beyond the realm of possibility if we consider that the “church” in Syrian Antioch was actually a synagogue servicing believing Jews and Gentiles. What other model for worship of the Jewish Messiah would they have?
The other day I wrote a blog post citing New Testament scholars Larry Hurtado and Paul Trebilco on the topic of “Early Christian Identity.” That source, along with many others I’ve quoted from over the many months I’ve been writing this blog, continued to confirm that the early Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah unquestionably identified themselves as Jews worshiping (ministering, praying liturgically, providing a service to God) within a wholly Jewish context.
The Huffington Post recently published an article called The Apostle Paul Lived and Died as a Dedicated Jew written by psychologist, college professor, and journalist Bernard Starr, who expands greatly on this topic in his book Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew
Most Christians and Jews don’t have a problem with the idea that Jesus was a Jew and lived a completely Jewish lifestyle, but when Paul comes up in conversation, most folks aren’t really sure who he was or what he was up to. Actually, I’m being generous. Most Christians and Jews actually believe Paul took the Jewish teachings of Jesus and made up a new religion called “Christianity.”
In the article I mentioned above, Starr writes:
It’s widely acknowledged that Jesus was a thoroughly practicing Jew throughout his life. Anglican Priest Bruce Chilton expressed that conclusion explicitly and concisely in his book “Rabbi Jesus”: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.”
But what about Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles? It’s generally accepted that Paul was the true founder of a new religion called Christianity. Biblical scholar Gerd Ludemann, author of several books about Jesus and Paul including “Paul: Founder of Christianity,” affirms that “Without Paul there would be no church and no Christianity.” Ludemann adds, “He’s the most decisive person that shaped Christianity as it developed. Without Paul we would have had reformed Judaism … but no Christianity.”
Paul converted Jews and then Gentiles to Jewish Christianity, basing these conversions on his belief in the teachings, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. But powerful evidence within “Acts of the Apostles,” the book of the New Testament that chronicles Paul’s mission, reveals that Paul, like Jesus, remained a dedicated Jew until his execution. In fact, if Paul had simply stated that he was no longer a Jew but the leader of a new religion, he would not have been imprisoned or executed.
Actually, that last part is probably not true. It was a crime in the Roman empire to promote an illegal religion. If Paul was spreading the “good news” about a form of Judaism, as attorney and Bible scholar John Mauck asserts in his book Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity, then he was innocent of the charge of “atheism”. If, on the other hand, he really had “converted” from Judaism to Christianity and was promoting a brand new religion to Jews and Gentiles, he was guilty and would have deserved to be sentenced to a harsh punishment by the Roman court up to and including death, according to Roman law.
However, both Starr and Mauck emphasize the same thing: That Paul, as the Apostle to the Gentiles, lived a lifestyle completely consistent with that of an observant Jew and even died as a Jew. He didn’t “convert” in the sense that he left Judaism for a new religious form. He did “convert” in the sense that he recognized that Yeshua (Jesus) was indeed the prophesied Messiah, and from that Jewish platform and the mission given to him by Messiah in visions, he proceeded with unabashed courage to take the Gospel of Messiah “first to the Jews and also to the Gentiles,” in order to fulfill the command Jesus uttered in Matthew 28:19-20:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Paul didn’t create a new religion and he didn’t abandon being Jewish or “morph” the Jewish “Way” into something alien to the Jewish disciples.
According to Starr:
Still, Paul said nothing about a new religion. On the contrary, he presented himself to the Roman Jewish community as a loyal Jew who was being persecuted for his revisionist views. Since the Romans had no quarrel with him, as a Roman citizen, and with the Sanhedrin a continent away, there would be no viable case against Paul — if he had denounced his affiliation to Judaism and declared a new religion. At this point in his life, facing trial and execution for blasphemy against Judaism, didn’t Paul have every reason to sever his tie to Judaism? The Sanhedrin, representing traditional Judaism, sent a clear message by their action against Paul: “We will not accept your beliefs and teachings about Jesus.” Despite this definitive rejection, Paul didn’t choose the obvious way out of the clutches of the Sanhedrin: declaration of a new religion. This strategy never even showed up for discussion. Paul chose to go to his death as a Jew. Why?
Paul’s vision was to make his brand of Judaism — with the recognition of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah — a world religion easily accessible to everyone. He never surrendered that passion. But after his death the accelerating conversion of Gentiles to a movement that began as Jewish Christianity became increasingly distanced from Judaism — and a new religion was launched.
Last week, Derek Leman published a blog post called Jewish “Unbelief,” Romans 11, Isaiah in which he supported (rightly in my opinion) the position that “Jewish unbelief” in Jesus as Messiah was a temporary state and initiated by God for the sake of the Gentiles. God never intended to abandon His people Israel and in the end, “all of Israel will be saved.”
Derek is supporting the same points I am; that the Jewish believers remained Jewish and maintained normative Jewish religious practices as disciples of Messiah. He also soundly (again) refutes traditional replacement theology (supersessionism). The Gentile Christians did not replace the Jews in the covenant promises and God’s love for Israel and His devotion to them has never wavered.
I was so impressed with this particular blog post of Derek’s that I sent the link to Pastor Randy last Wednesday morning. During my Wednesday evening conversation with Pastor, I found that he had printed the blog post. He agreed with everything Derek wrote up until this point:
- Unbelief in Torah and Yeshua.
- Unbelief in Yeshua; belief in Torah.
- Unbelief in Torah; belief in Yeshua.
- Belief in both Torah and Yeshua.
The core of the disagreement is the word “Torah.” He and I still haven’t settled upon a mutual definition of the word (it’s not all that easy to define) and our conversations about Torah tend to get a little “slippery” in how we apply it in the days of Paul vs. modern times. Pastor isn’t convinced that Jesus ever intended for the Jewish disciples to conform to the Torah mitzvot much beyond the lifetime of Paul and certainly not after the New Testament canon was closed.
But what about the Torah in the days of Paul?
You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.
–Acts 21:20 (NRSV)
I quote from this verse fairly often. Thousands of Jewish believers all zealous for the Torah. I think Pastor can accept this because, after all, it’s right there in scripture.
So Paul lived and died fully and completely as an observant Jew and, based on what I read in the New Testament record as well as what I’ve written, including my conclusions on Acts 15 taken from Mauck’s Paul on Trial book, Paul never taught the Jewish believers to set aside Torah, nor did he teach the Gentile believers they had to keep Torah in an identical manner to the Jews.
The part I emphasized is important to note (especially for my critics) since I don’t say that Torah doesn’t apply to Gentile believers at all. In fact, we see that Christians are often better at performing some of the weightier matters of the Torah than much of Messianic Judaism and (as far as I can tell since they don’t blog, write, or teach about this aspect of Torah), just about all of the Hebrew Roots movement.
What can we say then? Paul was born, lived, and died a Jew. Even after his encounter with the Messiah and being commissioned as an Apostle to the Gentiles, he remained completely Jewish, taught other Jewish believers to maintain the Torah mitzvot, and defended himself by stating that he never committed the crimes against the Jewish people and against the Temple of which he was accused. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees.
And, to return to the beginning of this missive, just before he and Barnabas were sent out by the congregation at Syrian Antioch on what has been called “Paul’s first missionary journey,” he and the other Messianic Jews and Gentiles were “praying, prophesying, teaching, fasting, working, and ministering/worshiping/praying liturgically in the manner of the Jews” together.
At the end of his article, Starr tells us:
Nevertheless, an understanding of the deep connection to Judaism held by the founders of Christianity should highlight the common ground of Judaism and Christianity and pave the way to reconciliation between the two faiths.
I’m convinced that in the coming days of the Messiah, he will teach us that there is only one faith; faith in the God of Israel. Right now, two peoples are contained in two separate religious expressions: Judaism and Christianity. One day, Moshiach will reconcile us as two peoples, Israel and the people of the nations called by His Name, occupying a single body: the body of Messiah.
May he come soon and in our day.
The Tzemach Tzedek once told his son, my grandfather, an incident in his experience, and concluded: For helping someone in his livelihood, even to earn just 70 kopeks (a small, low-value Russian coin) on a calf, all the gates to the Heavenly Chambers are open for him.
Years later my grandfather told this to my father and added: One should really know the route to the Heavenly Chambers, but actually it is not crucial. You only need the main thing – to help another wholeheartedly, with sensitivity, to take pleasure in doing a kindness to another.
Thursday, Sivan 28, 5708
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan