Does Church Meet Your Needs?

John is every pastor’s dream member. He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously and leads others passionately.

But last year he dropped out of church. He didn’t switch to the other church down the road. He dropped out completely. His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member. It wasn’t triggered by any single event.

John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision. He said, “I’m just done. I’m done with church.”

The Rise of the ‘Done With Church’ Population
Tom Schultz
ChurchLeaders.com

This article was recently posted on FaceBook with the question, “Any thoughts?”  That simple question spawned a comment battle that was unexpected by the person who posted it.  When I saw the question and article, I knew immediately that it would ruffle some feathers.  I was ready for the popcorn and of course, I couldn’t help but put my 10 cents into the mix (that’s giving my 2 cents more than once).

I was disappointed there weren’t more comments that seemed relevant to the contents of the article.  There were comments from some that understood the article to mean people were leaving church because they had their priorities wrong, had a bad experience with church, or were just letting go of their commitment to God.  If you didn’t read the article, I’d highly suggest you do before reading any further.  It will take you 60 seconds to read the article.

At Group’s recent Future of the Church conference, sociologist Josh Packard shared some of his groundbreaking research on the Dones. He explained these de-churched were among the most dedicated and active people in their congregations. To an increasing degree, the church is losing its best.

-ibid

There’s the crux of the issue.  Dedicated attenders, having a deep relationship with God, are losing interest with the typical church experience.  This could be from a variety of reasons.  The article mentions that one reason is this group feels bored with the same routine.  Why not change churches?  If you’ve ever changed churches, you know that the typical church is considered typical for a reason.  Brief greetings trying to catch up since 7 days ago, 2 or three songs, greet your neighbor, couple more songs, announcements, offering, sermon, song, cordial good byes.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I believe the challenge lies not with the format of church, but the content.  The one-sized fits all message just doesn’t appeal to everyone occupying a seat.  At times it is hard to blame the pastor.  I am confident that the majority of church pastors are doing their best to provide an inspiring message teaching a thing or two.  For the majority of attenders, this isn’t an issue.  In fact, it is exactly what they need to stay connected.

The article is discussing those that aren’t fulfilled by the above recipe.  The article is discussing a group of people emerging that want more.  We want depth.  We want discussion.  We don’t expect to always agree.  In fact, we almost look forward to disagreeing just so we can learn more.  We want to take scripture apart to the point it is almost uncomfortable because it stretches our mind to think beyond a feel good life application sermon, but instead a historical lesson that takes us back two or three thousand years to understand why that particular message was so significant to the audience at the time.

But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.

Daniel 12:4 (ESV)

I’m not going to engage in a debate as to whether this passage only applies to people seeking knowledge during the tribulation period or not.  That seems to be a popular Christian commentary theme.  The point is that this prophecy from Daniel points to the idea that people will begin to seek more knowledge and deeper understanding of God.

If the article is accurate, which I believe it to be, how do churches keep up with this phenomenon?  Perhaps the answer is to support this hunger for knowledge?  Why not encourage bible studies within the church walls, even if only 3-5 people are interested?  Allow and encourage attenders to engage and dig and seek and search.  Establish some basic boundaries to ensure the discussions remain respectful.

The reality is that people are seeking more and evidently enough are not finding what they need so leaving their churches.  Not because they have lost their relationship with God, but because they want it to be deeper.  Why not encourage encourage the search instead of ignore it?

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Offer the birthday boy a gift this Christmas

I had an interesting thought a few days ago.  I was considering the meaning of Christmas and contemplating whether it is an appropriate holiday to celebrate.  It seems that, as a Christian, it is a no-brainer to celebrate Christmas.  After all, it is the traditional celebration of Jesus’ birthday, right?

Yet, as someone who doesn’t quite fit into the traditional Christian mold, I find myself questioning a lot more than probably the typical church goer.  That doesn’t mean I am better.  It just means I am different and I approach my relationship with God differently than most people who I attend church with.  I observe the Sabbath, the biblical festivals, dietary guidelines, and attempt view the bible through the lens of understanding that Yeshua was fully Jewish and practiced Judaism whole heartedly, as did the apostles.

The interwebs are full of polarizing arguments about Christmas.  Is it a Pagan holiday?  Is it scriptural? Should we celebrate man-made traditions or holidays?  Are we giving in to commercialism?  A blogger I follow wrote an excellent piece recently entitled, Christmas is Coming! Don’t Panic!

I would be a hypocrite if I used the argument that Christmas isn’t in the bible.  Neither are cars, TVs, or Independence Day, yet I acknowledge all three and more.  For that matter, Hanukkah is not considered one of God’s holidays, even though it is noted in the gospel of John, chapter 10 that Yeshua observed.  So, using the argument that Christmas isn’t a biblical holiday is not an option for me since my family will light five Hanukkah candles tonight.

It occurred to me that the intended meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of our messiah, Yeshua.  Not that this has never occurred to me, but I recently had a vision from a different angle.  I envisioned a birthday party with signs saying, “Happy Birthday Terry!”  Several friends and family mingling around talking about me and the contributions I’ve made to this world.  We all sit down for a wonderful meal together, and afterwards we meander to a room full of beautifully wrapped gifts.  As I stare at the pile of gifts, with wide eyes, I watch in amazement as they are passed around the room out to all of the guests, and I stand empty-handed.  The gifts are all opened and the guests are thanking each other, happy, and excited to show off their new wares.  I now sit, looking around, still empty-handed, wondering what just happened.

That kind of birthday party seems completely ridiculous.  Yet it is exactly what we do on the day that we are supposed to celebrate the birth of the most important person in our lives.  So how do we change this?  It’s not like we can walk into a department store, purchase a gift for Yeshua, wrap it up and present it as a birthday gift.  What do you buy the Messiah, who has access to the whole world at his finger tips?  It’s not like he’s really excited to get his hands on the latest CD, gadget, or video game.

Perhaps it is a lot easier than we think.  After all, Yeshua told us exactly how to shop for him, didn’t he?

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:40 (ESV)

The answer is so simple.  When we do anything for the least of these, we are serving him.

Occasionally I find myself at the grocery store or gas station witnessing someone who can’t fully pay their bill or someone behind me that by appearances, seems to be more needy than I.  On a handful of occasions I have succumbed to the tug inside of me and stepped forward to help pay the bill or perhaps leave money with the cashier to help the unsuspecting person behind me.  I don’t consider this a significant gesture, nor do I think it is in any way inconveniencing me or my bank account.  I typically do not give much thought afterwards to what I’ve done, and if I share the story at all, it is typically only with my wife.

This Christmas season, consider giving gifts to the birthday boy.  Find an anonymous way to provide for someone else, even in a small way.  Volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Buy a present for the community Christmas tree.  Drop a bag of food at the food shelf.  Anonymously leave a bag of groceries on someone’s doorstep. Invite someone alone to your family holiday dinner.

Find a way to make the least feel like they matter and you will be blessed.

Count the cost

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26-33 (ESV)

Did Yeshua really tell us we must hate our family?  I’m not going to spend much time answering that question.  If one were to read earlier, Yeshua had just taught using the parable of the wedding feast.  The point of that message is that some that are invited are unwilling to prioritize their responsibilities in order to attend the wedding.  Of course, a metaphor referencing that some will be invited to the Kingdom, but will be unwilling to put God as their priority.  This lesson of counting the cost is merely a continuation of that parable, driving the point home.

In some scholarly circles there is debate on what word Yeshua really used.  The odds are very high that Yeshua did not speak or teach in Greek.  More than likely he spoke Hebrew or Aramaic.  That’s not the point I am considering.  The point is that more than likely, Yeshua did not use the word hate and certainly could not have been teaching to literally hate our family members.  The intent of the passage is to prioritize our lives, being willing to put God ahead of our family, if necessary.

I don’t know what other people consider when they think about this passage, but I get anxious wondering how I would measure up to such a standard.  Would I be willing to choose a path away from my family, if that is what God asked of me?  God wouldn’t intentionally design a path for me that required me to turn my back on my family, would He?  I would argue that the path to God is open to all, and if we choose to walk that path, our family is invited, but may choose not to walk that path.  So in reality would we be turning our backs on our family, or would our family be turning their backs on God?  Then again, perhaps a different understanding is that God may guide me to be part of a foreign county mission trip which would require me to leave my family for a period of time or put myself directly in the line of danger.

The author of the book of Hebrews had a little to say on the matter.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrew 12:1-4 (ESV)

 Many misunderstand the first part of this passage, picturing a crowd of cheering spectators, whether angels or spiritual forefathers.  First, in further context, the author continues the message by relating the story of Yeshua enduring the cross.  The author challenged readers to consider him who endured hostility and reminded readers that they had yet to shed blood.

The word witnesses was not used the same as we use it today.  This word is actually derived from the word martyr.  D. Thomas Lancaster did a thorough job breaking down the history and meaning of this word in one of his sermons.  To summarize the thought, a witness was used in reference to one that was called by the Roman courts to renounce their belief in God.  If they did not renounce their belief, they would often be put to death, being called a martyr or witness for providing their testimony without failing to renounce their loyalty to God.

The author of the book of Hebrews seems to have upped the ante a bit.  Instead of expecting followers to leave behind their family, the writer is reminding and forewarning the readers about real persecution. The deaths of Stephen and James are both recorded in Acts.  Paul recorded various punishments he received in 1 Corinthians.  History has recorded several barbaric deaths of disciples and God followers for thousands of years.

How does one count the cost when living in a culture that the most difficult persecution we face is perhaps embarrassment, social pressure, or appearing socially awkward?  The cost of loyalty for some, is taking a purity oath as a teenager, and living life as a virgin in high school or as a young adult.  Perhaps it means admitting to your family that you have to be late for an event because of church.

As I write this, my family and I prepare to light the 5th candle in celebration of Hanukkah.  The story of Hanukkah perpetuates the lesson of counting the cost of being loyal to God.  The Maccabee family chose to rally and inspire enough in the community to stand up against Antiochus and take control of the temple back.  A rag-tag crew of community members were outnumbered by 10 to 1,  yet stood to fight against trained Roman soldiers.  Those community members paid a hefty price for what they believed, but their faith proved enough for God to bring victory.

I don’t exactly fit in a typical Christian church because I observe the Sabbath, festivals, and dietary guides.  That’s not typical for a Christian. I still believe Yeshua is the messiah so I don’t fit into a Jewish community.  I’m sort of in between.  Sometimes the cost for me is that I don’t participate in some church activities on Saturdays because I do observe the Sabbath.  There is definitely some awkwardness between myself and other church attenders because the church I attend openly teaches against these traditions as “old law.”  At the family Christmas dinner in a few days, I will choose not to eat the ham that my mother in law will prepare and possibly withstand a minor, but not ill intended, joke from my brother in law.  Is that persecution?  I hardly think Yeshua or the author of Hebrews would feel sorry for me.

How can I even understand the cost, let alone count it?

Book Review: The Hebrew Yeshua vs The Greek Jesus

However, my understanding of who Yeshua was as an historical person has changed.  I once thought of him to be a usurper who came to do away with Torah. Yet the more I study the Hebrew Matthew, the more I find that whenever Jesus seems to be doing away with Torah in the Greek, Yeshua ends up upholding Torah in the Hebrew.

Nehemia Gordon
The Hebrew Yeshua vs The Greek Jesus p. 71-72

This book was recommended to me by a trusted friend, whom knows I am working to digest as much information as I can comprehend and absorb, on a journey that started about a year and a half ago.  I’ve started to question everything and seek verifiable answers in scripture, based on the historical and cultural relevance of when those scriptures were written.

To be forthright, Nehemia Gordon is a Karaite Jewish man, who does not believe Yeshua is the prophesied messiah.  However, he has a respect for those seeking truth and maintains some friendships with Torah observant Christians.  A couple of these friends asked him for some translation help with some confusing text written in Matthew..

It all started when my friend Michael Rood, a Messianic teacher, asked me what I thought of Matthew 23:1-3.  Michael explained that in this passage Yeshua told his disciples to obey the Pharisees because they teach with authority.  At first I told Michael that as a Karaite I stick to the Tanach and therefore I did not really have an opinion on the matter.  Michael asked me if I could nevertheless use my scholarly training to help him understand this test.  I hold a degree in Archaeology and Biblical studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and worked for several years on the Dead Sea Scroll Publication Project, the official publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  So Michael figured I could use these skill to try and shed some light on the book of Matthew.

-ibid p.2

One of the frustrating issues I have discovered is that each Bible translation has some differences.  Sometimes these differences may be inconsequential and other times they are so different that the meaning of a passage can be read entirely different.  Many are aware of the King James controversy surrounding Acts 12:4, in which the word Easter was used to replace the word Passover.  Or the trinity reference in 1 John.  These are minor to some, or major issues to others. Either way, it can really affect a reader by causing a separation from the original Jewish author and the modern-day reader.  There are several examples similar to this, and the King James edition is not the only culprit.

At first I believed these were innocent mistakes based on the interpreters language skills, cultural background, or even their attempt to interpret difficult passages while expressing their best guess of the intent of the scripture.  The problem is that when these passages are changed through poor interpretation, whether mistaken or intentional to pursue an agenda or bias towards a certain theology, the entire meaning of all scripture change.  Very rarely anymore does anyone studying scripture only use one verse as the basis for an entire theology.  Scriptures are referenced, cross referenced, combined, compared, and grouped into similar messages.  One small change can have a ripple effect, touching several other passages.

It is fairly common knowledge that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament has been presumed to have been written in Greek.

After a few grueling weeks immersed in New Testament Greek, I was no closer to an answer than when I started. So what if the book of Matthew had been written in Hebrew or had Hebrew sources?! As fascinating as this was, how did this help me understand Matthew 23:2-3? I went back to my colleague at the university and he confessed he had left out the most important part.  My colleague explained that not only did some scholars believe that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, but a version of the Hebrew Matthew has survived to this day.

-ibid p.35-36

Earlier, Gordon explained that the Greek version of Matthew was full of Hebrewisms (p. 33).  A Hebrewism is what scholars consider an awkward translation, typically into Greek, in which a common Hebrew phrase or idea sounds awkward or loses meaning after translation.  Any of you with teenagers should understand this. chinese-sign When a teenager says, “That car stereo is sick,” we understand that sick is slang for awesome.  Imagine someone who only understands English as a second language and does not have the experience of street slang.  They could translate into their language as, “That car stereo has an illness.” No doubt, many, if not all of us have seen funny pictures of ill translated signs from around the globe.

 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

Matthew 23:1-3 (KJV)

The awkwardness of this passage, for many that have tried to study this, is to understand the overall message of what Yeshua is trying to teach.  The commonly accepted understanding is that Yeshua was teaching his disciples to recognize the Pharisees because they are in authority, and follow what they teach, but do not follow the hypocrisy of their examples.

I won’t rewrite his analysis of the translation, but Gordon explains the mistakes made in translation by presenting the Hebrew version and re-translating.  The summary of Gordon’s analysis is that Yeshua was not necessarily supporting the Pharisees as being in a position of authority, but he was stating that if their claim to authority is that they sit in Moses’ seat, then diligently do what Moses says! (p.48) 

While this  review is not going to do justice to the full content of Gordon’s analysis, the point I hope to get across is that he does a thorough job of breaking down the text, and even more so, making a strong case why Hebrew was the original language.  For anyone curious about the origin of scriptures and their meaning, or perhaps seeking validation that Yeshua’s message has been subtly distorted from Judaism over the years, Gordon’s book is an eye opener.

Galatians – Part 2 – Running in vain

In the previous post, I established that Paul wrote this letter prior to the Jerusalem Council.  I also made a statement that I disagree Paul was breaking free from Judaism or challenging Jewish leadership.

 I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.

Galatians 2:2 (ESV)

What did Paul mean by run in vain?  Have you’ve ever watched a marathon or race on TV, such as the Olympics?  If you watch long enough, at some point it is common to see the race participants spread out as the reach their own pace.  Imagine watching the race and one of the participants veers off course, yet continues to run as if still in the race.  The helicopter zooms out and shows this lone runner well off course, but smiling as thought he is thinking, “There’s no one else in sight.  I can’t believe how far ahead I am!”  When the reality is that he is so far off course that he’s not even in the race any longer and thus, running in vain.

There is more than one account of Paul submitting to authority.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Acts 9:1-2 (ESV)

Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

Acts 21:26 (ESV)

It is worth remembering that Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel and considered a zealous Pharisee.  For Jews, submitting to authority was and is paramount.  Whether he was seeking permission from the high priest or agreeing to a purification ceremony to prove his Torah observance, he submitted to authority.  The idea that in the middle of his ministry he would challenge or turn his back on authority, is inconsistent with the scripture accounts of his character.

and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

Galatians 2:9 (ESV)

Paul describes a meeting that he had with three leaders; James, Cephas (Peter), and John.  If you aren’t already familiar with a beit din, I would recommend you follow that link and do some research.  Essentially a beit din is a leadership council, typically of three rabbis that would render decisions based on scripture interpretation.  I would also encourage you to read about the Jewish meaning of binding and loosing, which Yeshua mentions in Matthew 18:18.  If someone had a question about how a scripture passage should be applied, they would typically ask their rabbi.  If the rabbi was unsure of or wanted to confirm the answer he would request a ruling from the beit din.  If the beit din disagreed with the answer or interpretation, they would bind (forbid) the interpretation.  Contrarily, if they agreed with the interpretation, they would loose (permit) the interpretation.  Again, understanding context is critical.

Paul accounts that the beit din added nothing to his teaching and gave him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship to continue teaching the Gentiles. Despite a common perspective that Paul was breaking away from Judaism to create something new or different, the evidence does not support that.  Paul describes a scenario, in which he knew he needed validation from leadership that what he was teaching was not contradictory to scripture.   He knew if the beit din of James, Cephas, and John ruled against him, no matter how right he felt he was, he would not be considered a reliable rabbi, nor would he be welcome to teach in synagogues.  He would not have had the support of the Jerusalem leadership.

Paul may have challenged authority, by presenting his vision and arguing his case using scripture.  However, he was still submitting to authority and I believe he would have respectfully lived with their decision in the same way David submitted to King Saul, even when he knew the king was wrong (1 Samuel 24).  It just turned out that the beit din agreed with his interpretation and permitted his ministry to continue.

Galatians – Part 1 – When did Paul write this letter?

To some, this post is going to seem tedious, unimportant, or possibly more complicated than it needs to be.  For me, this was just the beginning of unraveling common misunderstandings or misinterpreted passages in Paul’s letter. When reading commentary about Galatians, I found the common understanding was that this letter was written after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and Paul’s reference in the chapter 2 about going to Jerusalem is an account of him challenging the authority of the council, thus breaking away from his old Jewish ways or turning his back on Jewish authority.  I find this account wrong, and unsupported in scripture.  I spent days flipping between Galatians and Acts comparing the timelines and accounts to figure this out.  I believe I have a legitimate and accurate account of Paul’s timeline, and I believe by reading Paul’s letter correctly, we see him submitting to authority rather than challenging or turning his back.  This post will flip back and forth a lot between Galatians and Acts.

As a diversion, before I even get started, I learned something interesting while writing that is unrelated to the timeline.  If one looks at a traditional map of where Paul travelled, he was always north of Jerusalem, yet in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 he wrote that he “went up” to Jerusalem and in Acts 9:30 “they brought him down to Caesarea,” which is north of Jerusalem.  This confused me until I learned that in Hebrew, when referencing a trip to Jerusalem, the word aliyah is used, which means to go up.  Thus, regardless of where you are in relation to Jerusalem, you will always go up or when you leave, go down.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)  Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to Destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.

Galatians 1:15-24 (ESV)

Unfortunately the writers of this time did not provide date stamps in their letters.  That sure would have made it a lot easier for us!  Paul provided a short synopsis of what occurred over about a three-year period.  He sawYeshua while traveling to Damascus, spent about 3 years in the area, then traveled to Jerusalem and met with Cephas (Peter) and James, brother of Yeshua.

I compared Paul’s brief account to Luke’s account in the book of Acts.

But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.  When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul.  They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

Acts 9:22-25 (ESV)

Along with Acts 9:1-21, this corresponds with Paul’s account of spending time in Damascus after his vision.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.  So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists, but they were seeking to kill him.  And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Acts 9:26-30 (ESV)

While Luke does not provide a time frame of how long Paul was in Damascus until his visit to Jerusalem, in Acts 9:26, I believe this corresponds with Paul’s account in Galatians 1:18, which he wrote after three years.  So far, so good.  Pretty simple comparison and the timeline accounts correlate.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.  I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.

Galatians 2:1-2 (ESV)

Keep in mind that Paul is providing a timeline as part of his testimony.  He is establishing credibility with the readers of his letter by providing details and names that can be verified by others.  With that said, Paul claims that he went to Jerusalem for a few days and met only with Cephas and James.  In his next sentence he states “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem.” He doesn’t provide a record of what he did during those fourteen years, but the way in which he wrote this implies that the next time he went to Jerusalem was fourteen years later.  If, in Galatians 2, Paul is referring to his trip to Jerusalem regarding the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council, it seems inconsistent with Luke’s historical and chronological account because Luke mentions Paul going back to Jerusalem between those visits.  If we flip back to where we left off in Acts 9, the next time Luke mentions Paul is Acts 11:19-30.

Paul mentions that he went back to Jerusalem “because of a revelation.” What revelation?  Is Paul talking about his revelation when he met Yeshua on the road to Damascus?  That just doesn’t seem to make sense.  Earlier in Acts 9:27, Barnabas already vouches for Paul and retells the story of Paul’s vision of Yeshua.  Why, fourteen years later, would Paul feel the need to go back to Jerusalem and explain his revelation?

I believe the revelation that Paul is speaking of is one of two things.  Either he is referring to Peter’s vision and subsequent understanding of that vision that salvation is also available to Gentiles (Acts 10 & 11), or, more than likely, he is referring to the prophecy mentioned in Acts 11:28 of Agabus’ vision of a famine because of Paul’s reference to remember the poor in Galatians 2:10.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Acts 11:27-30 (ESV)

Paul is in Antioch at the time Agabus prophesied that a famine was coming, so the disciples took up a collection and sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver it.   The next mention in Acts of Paul is the last verse of chapter 12.

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.

Acts 12:25 (ESV)

Other than a brief mention that Paul and Barnabas bring a collection, then leave Jerusalem some time later.

Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Galatians 2:10 (ESV)

Paul makes a specific mention about remembering the poor, which completely correlates to the account given in Acts 11:30 about going to Jerusalem with a donation because of an impending famine.

My conclusion is that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

If you have followed along up to now, here’s the point.  When trying to understand some of this, I found a common theme in a lot of commentary that considered Paul’s explanation at the beginning of Galatians chapter 2 as him taking a stand against Judaism and starting the Christian church.  Instead of an act of rebellion, I believe Paul was sincerely following Jewish protocol and seeking validation from leadership.  Instead of breaking away from his Jewishness, he was embracing it and following protocol.

Galatians – About the Author

In order to understand my perspective of Galatians, one must understand my perspective of the author.  After all, I am attempting to put myself in the shoes of the author as much as possible, two thousand years later, in order to decipher one of his letters.  I was not raised with the beliefs I currently hold.  I was raised believing that The Church had essentially replaced Israel as the chosen people.  Therefore, I always read the Bible from that perspective.  After my revelation, when I read scripture, I viewed it through a different lens.  One significant conflict I had to work through when I read anything written by Paul, I struggled with inconsistency between what I was taught vs what I read on the page.  Prior to studying and consequently teaching Galatians for an adult Bible study, I decided to get to know Paul better and understand his character, personality, and attempt to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements he made.  There are numerous books written about Paul, of which I had not read until recently.  When formulating my understanding of Paul, I did so with an ESV bible and a lot of prayer.  Since that study, I found a great article written from the same perspective I developed on my own.

This is the result when we approach Paul from our side of the time line. We live after the triumph of Christianity and the final parting of ways between Jews and Christians. Paul did not. Yet we bring that post-Pauline framework with us when we read him. And that framework has determined how we read him—at least until a few decades ago, when a number of scholars began to offer a new view of Paul.

Consider what would happen if, for just a moment, we were to consider Paul’s letters from the other side of the time line, from Paul’s time instead of our own. What would happen if we threw into doubt the triumph of Christianity in Paul’s time, or even the notion of the final split between Jews and Christians?  Or—since we have started to ask tough questions about our assumptions—what would happen if we were to recall (here I am not inventing but simply describing) that in Paul’s time there was no Bible other than the Hebrew Bible, no New Testament, or even any idea of a New Testament, and no Christianity, or even any idea of Christianity? What difference would it make to our reading of Paul if we were to bring these assumptions, this framework with us when we read his letters? The result is not just a minor adjustment here or there on the fringes of the old image. What I and others have been arguing is that the old image, the image that has been 100 percent dominant from Paul’s day to our own, is 100 percent wrong, from top to bottom, from start to finish.

John G. Gager
Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity (p.6-7)
Biblical Archaeological Society
biblicalarchaeology.org

Gager’s position described my own when I was trying to reconcile inconsistencies between Paul’s letters.  To any believer, it is a requirement that scripture can not contradict itself.  Otherwise, we can not rely on it as an absolute truth to guide our lives.  If that is true, then how was it possible for Paul to make pro-law and anti-law statements?  How was it possible for Paul to write against the law, yet continue to observe the Sabbath, travel to Jerusalem for festivals, engage in a Nazarite vow of cleansing, and defend himself as law-abiding when accused otherwise?  Either my previous assumptions about Paul were wrong, or Paul was a complete hypocrite, speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

What if the last two thousand years of history and doctrine has adjusted our position of what Paul was attempting to say?  Is it possible that if we view Paul from a different lens, a lens from his perspective in history, that what Paul meant was completely removed from how his words are read today?  Prior to reading Gager’s position, I attempted to reconcile these questions on my own, simply by digging into scripture and finding what I considered to be contradictions.  I will not spend a lot of time here outlining the contradictions.  Instead, I am going to paint a picture of the Paul I found in scripture by seeking words from his pen and how some of Paul’s life was recorded by Luke in the book of Acts.

Paul authored nearly half of the New Testament books.  Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon.  It is easy to determine which letters Paul wrote because he introduced himself in the beginning of each one.

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (Romans 11:13 ESV)

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8 ESV)

Arguably the father of many Christian church doctrines because he was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles and each of his letters ring a certain theme of teaching directed towards Gentiles.

I am not sure where I heard the claim that Saul’s name was changed to Paul after his vision of Yeshua as a method to separate himself from Judaism.  This subtle assumption may seem inconsequential, but it does provide a pinch of understanding that scripture can be misread so easily.  Acts 13:9 simply reads Saul, who was also called Paul. The simple understanding here is that in Hebrew, he would have been called Rav Sha’ul or Rabbi Saul.  Paul is the Greek equivalent of the name Saul in the same way that Yeshua is the Hebrew equivalent to Jesus in the Greek.  Odds are much higher that Paul referred to himself with his Greek name because his mission field was primarily Greek speaking territory. Other than the name he used or what we call him today, who was Paul?

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.

Romans 11:1 (ESV)

Paul, being an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, was potentially named after King Saul, also from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:21).  Being named after King Saul is purely speculation, but would not be uncommon.

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

Philippians 3:5 (ESV)

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 

Acts 23:6 (ESV)

Paul was proud of who he was.   Clinging to his Pharisee status, with pride, well into his ministry.  It is important to recognize a common misconception among New Testament readers.  All Pharisees were not bad.  Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were different sects within Judaism.  Similar to Christian denominations, Judaism has sects which have different understandings of how to interpret or uphold scripture.  The common Christian understanding is that all Pharisees were bad because of the snapshot portrayed in scripture.  Being a Pharisee wasn’t bad in itself, in fact there are a few good examples in scripture.  That, however, is an entirely different topic which I may write about in the future.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.

Acts 22:3 (ESV)

Being trained by Rabbi Gamaliel would have been an incredible honor.  Rabbi Gamaliel was very well-known, highly influential, and to be a disciple of him would have meant Paul was extremely well-educated. (As an honorable mention, but unrelated to this post, do not forget that Gamaliel, although not a messianic believer, was a Pharisee and the voice of reason on the Sanhedrin that saved the Apostles.  Acts 5:34-39).

So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

Acts 22:27-29 (ESV)

Historically, Roman citizenship meant high status. It could be obtained by being born in a Roman territory of parents that were citizens, serving in their military, adoption, or by purchasing the citizenship. Simply living or being born in a Roman territory did not grant citizenship.  The idea that Paul was born a citizen, and that his parents were Jewish, implies that someone in his lineage was able to purchase their citizenship.  His Roman citizenship probably held significance in respect to him being able to move and teach within these territories without as much fear of persecution.  As seen above, Roman citizens were not as susceptible to legal retribution or punishment.  Obviously this changed during the time of his ministry, but it allowed him to have a far-reaching effect.

Finally, I feel the need to establish a pattern of Paul’s character and obedience to God and the Torah (law).  I believe that this is the single most important key to reading Paul’s letters accurately.  One of the most argued positions regarding Paul’s letters is his stance on the law.

And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. (Acts 21:20-24 ESV)

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 ESV)

Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” (Acts 25:8)

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:12 ESV)

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (Romans 7:22 ESV)

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:25 ESV)

Each passage above shows a consistent pattern of Paul defending the Torah.  Many readers have interpreted Paul’s writing to mean that the law was no longer required.  Many have even interpreted Paul’s writing to mean that the ceremonial portion of the law should not be observed.  Specifically Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and the biblical festivals.  I argue that Paul’s lesson is not that the law is no longer required, no longer important, or even no longer necessary.  I argue that Paul’s lesson is that salvation does not come through the law.  If one is capable of setting aside preconceived ideas about the grace vs law debate, and reading Paul’s letters from the perspective that Paul is teaching that salvation comes through grace, and not teaching against Torah observance, scripture makes a lot more sense.

Consider this point:  If Paul truly taught against observing the law or in some way was attempting to teach that Torah observance was not required, not necessary, or even worse, should be abandoned, isn’t Paul the biggest liar and hypocrite?  Consider the conflicting message.  In several passages, Paul defends the law.  Luke recorded in Acts, Paul defending himself, claiming to follow the law.  James, also recorded in Acts, believed and defended to others that Paul lived according to the law.  Paul himself, in Romans claims the law is holy and should be upheld.  Either Paul was lying and had others fooled, or Paul truly maintained Torah observance.  Scripture simply will not contradict itself.

but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. (Acts 13:14 ESV)

As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. (Acts 13:42 ESV)

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2 ESV)

And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:4 ESV)

but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. (Acts 20:6 ESV)

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 20:16 ESV)

Several references that Luke recorded throughout the book of Acts provide evidence that Paul observed the Sabbath and made the festivals a priority for his travel.   All of this must be taken into consideration when reading Paul’s letters.

From my perspective, by reading scripture, Paul was a well-educated Jewish man, from a proud Pharisaic family, trained by the prominent Rabbi Gamaliel, who loved God, and forsook all that he had to carry out a mission spreading the gospel to the nations.  He lived a Torah observant life and refuted anyone that accused otherwise.

I repeat Peter’s warning that Paul is difficult to understand and his words easily twisted.

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,  as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.

2 Peter 3:15-17 (ESV)

When deciphering anything that Paul wrote, I will maintain the assumption that Paul was Torah observant and would have expected his readers to know that.  He also would not have been hypocritical and taught contrary to his lifestyle.