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.

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