Every time I hear the Apostle Paul portrayed as somebody who had given up the “Jewish” law because he had now found Jesus Christ as his Lord I feel uneasy – and unconvinced. For a long time it was just something nagging at the back of my mind that the arguments were one-sided, oversimplified portrayals of what are actually much longer, much more complex arguments in Paul’s epistles. Lately, a fresh rereading of the latter part of the book of Acts has solidified the problem with that portrayal in my mind.
Acts 15 sets the stage by describing the problem of (some) Jewish believers teaching that Gentiles must become Jews by circumcision (and therefore following the “Sinai Covenant”) in order to be saved. A council is called in Jerusalem to rule on the problem, and the answer comes out – an emphatic “no.” (Note that there is no requirement for Jewish believers to become Gentile in word or deed, either.) There is a requirement, however, that they be able to eat together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Eating together would require Jewish believers to put aside culturally-conditioned prejudices that twisted the law to mean that Gentiles were automatically unclean. This meant that a Jew that had contact with a Gentile (ate at the same table, for instance) would become contaminated for purposes of going to the Temple and offering sacrifices. (I wrote a New Testament Text Paper explaining how that thinking arose according to rabbinic interpretations of the law for a Bible College class for those interested in the details. Please note that the Word formatting of the date will always give the current date. The paper was written prior to 2000.) In other words, Gentile believers are now to be considered “clean” and therefore worthy of fellowship.
Armed with that judgment of the council, Paul goes back to Antioch to encourage the brethren with it (15:30-35). He and Barnabas decide to revisit the churches (v. 36), though they end up going separate ways over a dispute about taking Mark (v. 37-41). Paul goes to Derbe, then Lystra, where he meets a half-Jewish convert, whom he circumcises (16: 1-3). We find out in the following verse that the purpose of his trip is to deliver the church’s decisions so that they may be observed. In other words, Paul chooses to circumcise the half-Gentile Timothy on his way to deliver the news that Gentile converts do not have to be circumcised!
In Acts 18:6 Paul announces that he is now concentrating on preaching exclusively to Gentiles in Corinth, with whom he stays for 18 months. He eventually leaves to go to Syria, stopping at Cenchrae on the way. At Cenchrae he cuts his hair to signal the end of a vow he had made. This seems to have been a Nazirite vow – a very Old Covenant Jewish thing to do. He sets sail for Ephesus because he wants to be in Jerusalem in time for a festival (some translations move that explanation in v. 21 to the margin).
Paul waits (in 20:6) to leave Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread. Why mention it if he doesn’t observe it any more? He moves on because he wants to be in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost (20:16). It is possible that his only motivation is to get there when Jews have gathered from around the world for missionary purposes, but that is not the only possibility given what he has done so far as shown above. For more information about Jewish customs persisting in Paul’s mission field, here is another paper I wrote for Canadian Theological Seminary Church History class.
Once in Jerusalem, church leaders ask Paul to prove to Jewish believers that he is not against the Law by joining (and paying for) a group of Jewish-Christian believers who were purifying themselves for worship at the Temple (21:24-27). Without batting an eye, Paul does just that. Given what we know about how Paul dealt with Peter in Galatia when the Judaizers tried to impose circumcision on Gentiles, one would think that Paul would be offended by the offer – if he were really as anti-law as he is made out to be. Ironically, he is arrested by Jewish authorities for dishonouring Judaism while he is trying to prove that he is not against the law.
In Paul’s defense before Governor Felix (24:17-19) he denies any allegations that he was stirring up trouble against Jewish customs. Rather he was in Jerusalem to offer “alms and sacrifices,” and that they had found him in the Temple grounds completing a rite of purification. In Paul’s defense before Jews in Rome, he states, “…I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors…” This is perfectly in keeping with all that he had done above.
We may conclude that, while Paul had no interest in converting Gentile Christians to Judaism, he also had no interest in converting Jewish Christians to Gentile Christianity. The church Paul was planting seems to have been a tolerant one in terms of allowing the underlying culture of the believer to remain intact. (That does not necessarily mean that everything about that culture is acceptable to God.) It was a culturally diverse church that had a unifying life in the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ teaching, life, death and resurrection.
I long for a church that is open to the diversity and mutual Christian respect hinted at in the Book of Acts. I also long for a church that respects not only Paul’s teaching in the Epistles, but also the example he sets in the Book of Acts. After all, Paul himself asks his readers to look to him as their example of how to follow Jesus (Philippians 3:17). After all, his words may have been mostly in the Epistles, but his example is recorded for us in Acts. Let us read each in the context of the other.