WAS PAUL CONFUSED ABOUT THE LAW?
AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON GALATIANS
By Clyde Brown
Theologians over the centuries have embraced Paul as the great emancipator from the law of God. His letter, they claim, especially Galatians, make the case that the law of Christ had rendered the law of Moses null and void. Is there a difference between the two laws? Has Moses’ law, the Torah, been Superceded by a new “Christian” law? To find the answer to these questions we must turn to the historical debate the early church had on this very issue.
At the center of the argument about the law has been Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches. This letter was written before the major church council convened in Jerusalem to settle a few pressing debates on Gentile compliance to provisions within the law of Moses. In the book of Galatians Paul is already making his case on this contentious law issue. We know from the Jerusalem decree by James the brother of Christ, that Paul’s argument prevailed.
Before exploring the content
of Paul's letter to the Galatians, we must first consider the time line and
circumstances that made it necessary for Paul to address specific issues
pertinent to the churches in Galatia. Paul had established the churches in
Galatia on his first missionary journey, but he was not the first to carry the
gospel into Asia Minor.
On the Day of Pentecost of Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit was poured out, those from the Diaspora included Jews and proselytes from Asia Minor (Acts 2:5-13). Those who received the message of Peter and were baptized would have had some understanding of the gospel and carried that back to the cities in Asia Minor.
Far more Jews lived in the Diaspora than in Judea. Paul formed the church from the synagogues in Asia Minor. Attending the synagogues were the Jews, gentiles who had become proselytes through circumcision, and other God-fearing gentiles who had accepted the God of Israel but stopped short of circumcision. The gentile who had accepted the God of Israel but had not been circumcised was considered only partly clean until he had undergone the full circumcision rite. The women gentile God-fearers were to keep all of the rites within the circumcision covenant, of course, excluding circumcision.
The churches Paul established in Galatia were made up of believing Jews, proselytes and uncircumcised God-fearers. To share in the commonwealth of Israel according to the laws of Moses (laws of God), the gentile had to be circumcised and keep all of the laws of Moses. In so doing the gentile by religion and way of life was considered the same as a home-born Israelite.
Paul's letter to the Galatians came after the famine-relief visit in (Acts 11:27-30) and before the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. During the famine visit some in the Jerusalem church were calling for Titus, a Greek, to be circumcised. Titus had accompanied Paul from Antioch with relief supplies. Paul stood steadfast in refusing to circumcise Titus. The apostles Peter, James and John extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul without demanding circumcision for Titus. Although the circumcision question was raised during the famine-relief visit, no formal decree resulted.
The written Torah – The oral Torah
Another historical fact to consider is the added "works of the law" that were seen as a fence around the written Torah. To protect the Torah from being broken, a multitude of extra commandments called the oral Torah were made law by those who sat in Moses' seat of judgment (Matthew 23:1-6).
Although Jesus referred to many of these added commandments as "burdens" upon the people, the Sanhedrin court was the extended seat of Moses, and the disciples were to keep them. After the resurrection of Jesus it becomes clear that Moses' seat was now the seat (throne) of the risen Christ.
Authority to bind and loose
The seat of Moses was the seat of judgment to bind and loose according to the laws within the Torah, the first five books in our Old Testament scriptures. The judicial system that God first gave to Moses was for the purpose of making judgments within the law. Yet the Pharisees who sat on the Sanhedrin council to judge the cases brought before them began to make law, defining how the written Torah laws should be observed.
For instance, the Torah forbade work on the Sabbath but gave no specific details of what constitutes work. The Sanhedrin made case law from the bench for what constitutes work down to the smallest detail. Nothing was left to individual judgment. Not all oral laws were burdens, but enough were to inspire Jesus to comment that they were the commandments of men.
The apostle Peter's approach at the Jerusalem council was to comment on the same commandments of men, those that should not be placed upon the gentiles. Paul's letter to the Galatians came after the Antioch incident and before the Acts 15 council. Paul did not have access to the decree from the council at the time he wrote Galatians, yet, in view of the times, Peter's comments are important to an understanding of Paul's complaints against the Galatians. At the council Peter said: "Now therefore why tempt you God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" (Acts 15:10).
The Greek for the English “were” is in the aorist past tense, meaning that Peter and the other apostles were no longer bearing the burdensome commandments the Sanhedrin had added to the written Torah. The Judaizers who had come into the Jerusalem church were zealous for the law, both the written and oral laws added by the Sanhedrin. The decree that the God-fearing gentile did not have to be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses was the same as Paul's contention even before the Jerusalem conference.
In other words, Paul's conviction presaged what was decided at the conference, and therefore expressed in this letter he wrote just before the conference. In his letter Paul begins by stating that He is an apostle not of man but of Jesus and the Father, who resurrected Jesus.
Having established from whence his apostleship came, in Galatians 1:6-7 Paul marvels that the Galatians were so soon removed from the one (Paul himself) who had been instrumental in their calling into the grace of Christ unto another, perverted gospel. Paul declared that he did not receive his gospel from men (verses 11-12); he received it from Christ. In the remaining verses of chapter 1 Paul recounts his visit to Jerusalem after three years from his encounter with the risen Christ. Chapter 2 begins with events 14 years after his encounter with the risen Jesus, when Paul goes up to Jerusalem because of a revelation.
Prophets from Jerusalem
Prophets from Jerusalem had come to Antioch. One of them, Agabus, stood up to prophesy that a great famine was to occur. The disciples from Antioch gathered up supplies and sent Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem with provisions for the saints. Paul took Titus, a Greek, with him, so the Judaizers pressed for Titus's circumcision.
It appears that Paul was thinking that the Judaizers had dogged his trail and therefore had made their way to Galatia. He begins to explain the Antioch incident in which the Judaizers who had come from the Jerusalem church caused Peter to remove himself from table fellowship with the believing gentiles.
The issue was not the food set on the table; it was the Jewish believers sitting at the table with uncircumcised gentile believers. Here are two things we should keep in mind:
1) In New Testament times the meal was consecrated to God by thanksgiving and holy, and no unclean gentile should be at the table of fellowship.
2) In late-second-temple
Judaism; the gentile who had accepted the God of Israel but stopped short of
circumcision was considered still unclean. The acceptance of the God of Israel
was the first step for learning, by attending the synagogue, and later many
became full proselytes.
Peter, who had been sent to the God-fearing Cornelius (Acts 10), knew this wasn't proper, since God had pronounced the God-fearing gentile clean--even though uncircumcised. Paul accuses Peter of playing the hypocrite because Peter lived, as does the gentile. As Paul knew, so did Peter, that by grace through faith both Jew and gentile are justified in Christ and not by the works of the law, in this case the law of circumcision.
The Judaizers were persuading the gentile Galatians that they must be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses. The Jews knew the Torah was from God, but, since it was delivered to Moses to administer, the Torah was also considered the Law of Moses. Paul is clear that the gentile is not to come under the circumcision covenant, considered the Law of Moses.
It appears that Paul is teaching a law-free gospel. In fact, that is precisely what the later gentile church fathers gathered from Paul's writings. But is that so, or did the later Gentile church misread Paul? Paul states clearly; the law will judge the believer (Romans 2:12-13). Paul goes even farther and states that faith establishes and upholds the law (Romans 3:31).
Paul has been accused of being inconsistent and contradictory. If the gentiles are not to come under the Law of Moses, yet they will be judged without partiality as those under the Law, how is Paul's teaching to be explained in ways that are not contradictory? What is the problem with the Law of Moses, which is in fact the law of God?
The key to Paul's teaching is found in a profound statement to the followers of Christ in Corinth: "To them that are without law, [I became] as without law, being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:21). The law to Christ is the law of faith. Salivation is by the grace of God, through the faith of Christ, and our faith in God through Jesus Christ.
When we interpret correctly what Paul is stating here, what appeared as contradictory is coherent and consistent. The key is found in determining when Paul is speaking of the Torah law as under Moses, and the Torah law as amended by Jesus Christ fulfillment. Does being under the law of faith to Christ make void the righteousness of law of God in the first five book of the Hebrew Bible? God forbid Paul would say. How we would know sin if the commandments of God did not define sin?
Is salvation by the grace of God and the faith of Christ in opposition to the laws of God? Where Paul handles the grace and law question as two subjects separate and yet interrelated, traditional Christianity has turned the laws compliment to grace by faith into opposition, and confused both grace and the law.
Those who are "without law"
in gaining entrance into the new covenant in Christ, since entrance is by the
grace of God through faith, are subject to the law for maintaining their place
in the covenant, and for reward in this life and the world to come.
Does the gentile being without the circumcision law of Moses for gaining entrance into the new covenant in Christ by grace through faith, without law to God? Paul states “NOT” without law to God. Then the only logical conclusion one can draw is getting into the covenant by grace through faith, must be followed by maintaining ones position in the covenant, is obedience to the law of God. Grace through faith places the believer into the covenant, and disobedience can take the same one out of the covenant.
The law of God is in partnership with the grace of God through the faith of Christ. The exercise of the royal law of love is expected to remain in the covenant, but not as gaining entrance into the covenant. We can liken it to a guest come to stay in our home. They are invited in by our grace. But while staying with us they are expected to follow certain rules we have as a family. We are invited into the new covenant in Christ by God grace through faith, but once in, we are expected to abide by God laws, or find ourselves on the outside looking in.
Why can't the gentiles come
under the Torah as in Moses? Because the Torah as recorded in the circumcision
covenant in Moses excluded the gentiles. The gentile had to be circumcised and
become a religious Jew to be considered of the commonwealth of Israel.
Torah from Moses to Jesus
Our received New Testament comes to us in Greek, where the word for law is “nomos. ” Therefore we cannot always tell when Paul is speaking of the Torah as in the circumcision covenant of Moses. Nor can we always tell when it is the Torah as in Christ. But as a rule of thumb, when Paul is negative, it is how the law is being used, and always positive when the law of God is used as it was intended.
Furthermore, since the
"Torah in Christ" features modifications from the Torah as in Moses, those
modifications must be taken into consideration.
For instance, Christ is the high priest, and His sacrifice, which was once and for all, eliminates the sacrifices in Moses and eliminates the priesthood that performed the sacrifices. We are made clean in Christ and all of the washings for purification are eliminated through Christ making us clean.
Also, the "works of the law" that were added by those who sat in Moses seat, the commandments of men, are excluded from the Torah in Christ. And even righteous deeds of the law do not justify for entrance into the covenant of grace through faith.
Measure of righteousness
The Galatians were being persuaded by Judaizers to come under the Law of Moses. Not only that, but the "works of the law" were being used as a measure of righteousness, as justifying salvation.
Paul's teaching was that belief and faith in God through Jesus Christ is accounted as righteousness, and not the "works of the law," for the "works of the law" justifies no man. If the works of the law do not justify for salvation, then what does the righteous deeds of the law justify. The righteousness for entrance into the new covenant of Christ is by grace through faith alone. The righteous deeds of the Torah, the royal Law of Love, justify reward within the kingdom of God, and justify staying in the new covenant.
To sin willfully and reject the sacrifice of Christ, walk away, and never look back, there remains no hope unless there is repentance and return to God through Christ with a broken spirit. Although obedience does not qualify for entrance into the new covenant in Christ, disobedience can disqualify for staying in the new covenant. Righteous deeds of the Torah [Law] do count. They count for not only the proof of our faith; they count for gain or loss in reward in this life and the world to come. What counts for getting in the new covenant is God grace through the faith of Christ and our faith in God through Christ.
What counts for reward or punishment in this life and the world to come, is the righteous deeds of the law [Torah]. he just shall live by faith, so are the Galatians without law (Torah)? "God forbid," Paul says. He would not have known lust if the Torah had not said do not covet. This would apply to the Galatians as well.
Torah as in Christ
The Torah under Christ replaces the Torah under Moses. Christ replaces Moses as the bearer of the Torah. In Moses, God is the God of Israel only. In Christ, the world is reconciled to God; God is the God of all who believe, Jew or gentile.
For Paul the gentile Galatians were not to come under the circumcision Law of Moses because in doing so they would depart from the Torah as in Christ, who justifies us apart from the law. Justifications for salvation, and justification for reward and maintaining ones position in the covenant are two different subjects in Paul’s teaching.
Under grace through faith
Paul uses a Greek word mistranslated in most of our Bibles as “observe.” The Greek implies meticulous, and scrupulous, watching in great carefulness to all of the "works of the law," and that as a measure of righteousness for salvation. The same word is used in Luke 20:20 when spies were sent to watch Jesus to catch him breaking one the commandments of men. The Judaizers were leading the Galatians to the works of the law, the commandments of men. Not only that, the Galatians were being taught that the “works of the law” must be kept to justify salvation.
The works of the law as defined by Paul were the same burdens that gave Jesus problems, Peter in Acts 15, and now for Paul in Galatia. The “works of the law” as added to the Torah written law by those who sat in Moses seat is what Paul is referring to. This is most important to understand. If Paul were calling the works or deeds in the righteousness of the law, as forbidden to the Galatians to keep, Paul would have been in direct opposition to Jesus Christ. And although traditionalists attempt to wiggle their way around such a conclusion, it is only the correct conclusion.
We know Paul was not in opposition to the law; He called it holy, just, and good. The holy, just and good, laws kept for maintaining our position in the covenant is right in line with Paul’s teaching. The righteous deeds of the law justify reward, but not in place of God’s grace and the faith of Christ as justifying salvation. Getting into the covenant is one subject, and maintaining the position in the covenant is another, and when we attempt to make the two subjects one we miss Paul’s teaching altogether.
Since Paul was determined
that the Jew and gentile were to be one new man in Christ, we can be assured
he was not attempting to separate the gentile believers from meeting and
observing the Sabbaths and feast days as made even more glorious in Christ's
The later gentile church fathers, apart from the council of the Jewish believers and with anti-Semitism in their minds and hearts, focused on the days, months, times, and years, rather than how the days were being kept as works of the law and as a measure of righteousness for salvation. Salvation cannot come by the law because sin brings death and no man but one escaped sin, that Man Jesus Christ.
In other words, Paul was
against the Torah being observed as in Moses but all for the Torah being
observed in Christ, but not for justifying salvation. The confusion comes from
not properly discerning when Paul is critical of Torah. He is critical of
Torah as observed in Moses, or the law for justification of being in the
covenant. When Paul praises the Torah, it is in Christ, as affected by the
fulfillments of Christ, and our righteous deeds are proof of our faith.
We can be assured that Paul did not forbid the observance of the Sabbath or feast days, which are as necessary as table fellowship of the believing Jews and gentiles remaining as one in Christ. The separation of the gentile church from the Jewish believers can be historically confirmed no earlier than the second century of the Christian era.
Gentiles and the Sabbath
All of our New Testament that would eventually become part of the canon was written before the close of the first century, and Paul's writings as well as the book of Acts reveal no split of the church between the gentiles and the Jewish believers.
The council at Jerusalem, the Acts 15 council, was convened for the purpose of deciding whether the gentile had to be circumcised and keep the Torah of Moses. The decision was that such was not the case, because the God-fearing gentile was cleansed by God and given the Holy Spirit as a seal of the covenant. James had pointed back to the prophet Amos (Amos 9:12-13) as a proof text that God would choose out of the gentiles a people for His name. Requirements for table fellowship were set in a decree, and God-fearing gentiles were to continue, as was their custom, to attend the synagogues on the Sabbaths.
Even as late as 64-65 the book of Acts still finds the God-fearing gentile honoring the Sabbath. The only conclusion that renders Paul's teaching coherent and consistent is the realization that his negativity is always toward the Torah as observed in Moses, which excluded the gentiles. He positively affirms observance of the Torah as observed in Christ, not for justification to be in Christ, but for reward and staying in Christ. Even in Christ the Torah is not to be taken as a measure for righteousness that justifies salvation. The just shall live by faith, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer. In terms of the Torah in Christ the believer will be judged by the Torah for reward now and in the world to come.
It is by grace through faith that the believer should obey the royal law of love as reflected in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were considered one indivisible unit with 10 points. To break one of the 10 points is to break all, since all were one indivisible unit. James explains the concept well in the second chapter of his letter, verse 10-11. Since the Ten Commandments are one package, one unit with ten points, to break one break’s the unit, which is considered as one indivisible, and therefore it, is as though all ten were broken.
Something the church fathers missed
When we apply the historical context to Paul's letter to the Galatians, we come to conclusions different from those of the gentile church fathers. The Galatians were beginning to keep the works of the law in Moses, including the added works by those who sat in Moses seat. What was missed by the gentile church fathers is the gentile was not without law to God, but under the law to Christ.
They abolished the Sabbath and feast days and considered keeping them anathema, and for the Jewish believer to join with the gentile church, the Torah except for select commandments were scrapped. What can we say, then, for the Sabbaths and feast days in Christ?
If a memorial to God having the death angel pass over the children of Israel was important to remember, how much more the Passover from death to life in Jesus Christ? If Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation, and it was important to remember the Sabbath rest in the old creation, how much more important is our Sabbath rest in Christ, who makes us into a new creation in mind and spirit.?
"Therefore let us keep the
feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness;
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
The writer is a former department manager at Ambassador College Press who left the college's employment in 1970. He was one of the founders in 1974 of the Foundation for Biblical Research. After building and managing a 120-employee courier business, Mr. Brown retired in 1999 and has engaged in full-time theological and historical biblical research. Mr. Brown is also a member of the research project to locate the sites in Jerusalem of the temples and David's tomb.