God’s Desire for Christian Unity

The problem I run across the most in the letters of the New Testament seems to be unity in the early church. The newly established and multi-racial church of the first century really struggled with overcoming social, religious, and ethnic boundary markers in order to have full unity and acceptance of one another.

Why is this so important? It was and is important because since the beginning God desired all nations to worship him in unity. So this is all part of God’s plan and the apostles understood the need to achieve unity in order to be pleasing to God. In Romans 15:3-5 Paul tells the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome about three things that all come together to give them unity and which result in a unified glorification of God through their worship (15:6).

  1. He mentions the example of Christ who was not out to please himself. If Christ had only tried to please himself he would not have endured the cross. He would not have suffered shame. And so we, as believers and followers of Christ, are not out to get our own way at the expense of unity. Instead we should be willing to suffer to a great degree to maintain unity in God’s church.
  2. Next he mentions the scriptures that were given to encourage and give endurance. We turn to the examples of those God has dealt with in the past in order to press forward in the identity God has given us and the mission he has in store for us.
  3. Last he mentions God himself who also grants endurance and encouragement. But God gives something in addition to what the scriptures give. God gives a spirit of unity. Notice he says that spirit is given as we follow Christ. Well, Christ wasn’t there in the flesh to be followed. Instead, we all come to perfect unity when we are walking as Christ would walk and follow his example.

There is a fourth thing that brings unity to God’s people that Paul doesn’t mention here but mentions in Galatians 3-4. In Galatians Paul constantly refers back to the Spirit and its role in bringing unity to God’s people. This is probably the number one aspect of the Holy Spirit we miss out on in our teaching. Because all Christians have God’s Spirit inside them, all Christians have a unity that comes by that same Spirit (See Eph 4:3-4 as well). In other words, if we create disunity toward someone who has by the grace of God the same Spirit inside them that we do, we fail to grasp or understand the very nature of our existence and reality of God’s dwelling within us through his Holy Spirit. But if we realize that all Christians have been blessed by God with his promised Spirit then we should by nature seek out unity and peace with our fellow believers.

Were Gentiles Allowed in the Church After the Jews Rejected Christ?

Growing up I heard on numerous occasions that in order for the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) to be allowed to become Christians the Jews first had to reject the offer of Christianity. The story goes something like this – Jesus died and rose again. The offer of salvation through Christ came first for the Jews. God got fed up when the Jews rejected Christ and so he finally offered salvation to the Gentiles. You may have heard a different version but that is what I have heard people say. I mentioned this in our Romans class last night and several in the class were familiar with this and agreed with this storyline so I am not just making things up here. This line of thinking really is out there. Here is how Jacob Jervell lays out this supposed story of why the Gospel was offered to the Gentiles:

“Luke describes the rejection of the Christian proclamation on the part of the Jewish people. Only after and because Israel has rejected the gospel, and for that reason has itself been rejected, do the missionaries turn to Gentiles. Because of the behavior of Israel, the Gentiles mission was set free, so that precisely the Jewish rejection of the missionary message proved to be the decisive presupposition for the Gentile mission.” (Luke and the People of God, 41).

I am indebted to Jervell for helping open my eyes to the fact that such a story line is problematic. There are components of Acts that lend itself to this theory – the fact that the apostles would first go to a synagogue to speak to the Jews in a city before going to the Gentiles. One example is in Acts 13 where Paul and Barnabas go to Pisidian Antioch and preach in the synagogue. In 13:44-45 some of the Jews are jealous of Paul and Barnabas and so they mistreated and rejected Paul and his message. Paul’s response to them? “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord…But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region.” That seems to confirm the theory that the Jews had to reject to open the way for the Gentiles…right?

We have a real difficulty in our interpretation to take one example and say this is the theology of the day. By that principle we could also say that people can and should receive the Holy Spirit prior to baptism based on what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10…but we know better because we understand the context of what God was doing in the Cornelius example. Just because the Jews reject Paul here and then he goes to the Gentiles does not mean that was God’s design to open the door to the Gentiles. In fact, when you really read this passage Paul is saying just the opposite. He cites Isaiah 49:6 to remind them that they are violating God’s intention of them being a light to the Gentiles. Isaiah 49 says God wanted his people to be an open door to the Gentiles because they were accepting God’s plan and not because they were rejecting it. Paul is condemning these Jewish leaders for letting their own pride get in the way of God’s actual intention – that the Jews would accept Christ and open the way for the Gentiles. Notice also that when Paul is preaching to them he is preaching to Jews and Greeks (13:16, 26)

Pair that with the stories of mass conversions in the book of Acts and tell me how you can conclude that the Jews wholesale rejected Jesus? (Thanks to Jervell, 44 for compiling several of these verses)

  1. Acts 2:41, 47 – 3,000 Jews believe in Christ and are baptized
  2. Acts 4:4 – 2,000 more Jews believe in Jesus
  3. Acts 5:14 – “more and more believed”
  4. 6:1,7 – The number of disciples was increasing at this time
  5. 9:42 – Many more believed in the Lord
  6. 12:24 – The word of the Lord continued to spread
  7. 13:43 – many Jews listened to the Gospel and continued in the grace of God
  8. 14:1 – great number of Jews and Greeks believed
  9. 17:4, 12 – Some Jews followed Paul as well as many Greeks
  10. 19:20 – the word of the Lord spread widely
  11. 21:20 – “many thousands of Jews have believed”

Wholesale rejection? Sure some rejected as all are open to make decisions based on freewill but the evidence in Acts hardly supports a Jewish rejection that opened the door to the Gentiles. Again, the opposite was God’s plan – that his people would be a light to the Gentiles. Hard to be a light if you are rejecting the message God wants them to believe. Then consider Galatians 3:14 – “He redeemed us (Jews) in order that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Paul says the Jews were redeemed (not that they rejected) so that the Gentiles might be blessed and come to faith in Christ Jesus (for a fuller treatment of Galatians 3 see this post). I don’t know how much more evidence we need that God’s plan (and indeed, what actually happened) was for the Jews to accept Christ first and then the Gentiles would get a chance to be reached with the Gospel. Jesus even spoke in John 10 of two groups of sheep who would hear his voice and listen – first the Jews and then the Gentiles (John 10:1-18).

I am sure many of you will disagree with me and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Hopefully this has been as eye opening for you as it has for me.

Understanding the Law Under the New Covenant

I am wrestling with Romans 2 & 3 right now. When you work through these texts you cannot help but wonder what is going on in Paul’s head when it comes to the Law (Torah) and its applicability to first century Jewish Christians. Growing up I always heard that the law was done away with, gone, nailed to the cross and had nothing to say for us today. I have been questioning that for some time now but haven’t really dealt with how to put all the pieces together in my head. First of all I think our logic has gotten the best of us. We have become reductionists. We read Romans 3:21 – “ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…” and we think to ourselves, “If there is righteousness apart from the law, then the law is no good and is over because we know that the only things that are important are matters of salvation.” Well, who is to say that just because righteousness doesn’t come from the law makes the law any less important or means that the law was dead in the water in the first century? But Matt, Jesus did away with sacrifices once for all, Hebrews tells us that right? Of course Jesus offered a more perfect, one time sacrifice but that doesn’t mean that first century Jewish Christians checked their Judaism at the door of the house church. Peter, Paul, James and many others were Christians who took their Judaism very seriously. What do you do with these verses?

Acts 10 – Peter is still keeping Kosher law. Of course we learn in this story that God declares all food clean but in the process we learn that the law is still a priority for Peter. We see it further when he has to interact with God-fearing Gentiles and needs some confirmation from God that those interactions are “Kosher.”

Acts 18:18 – Paul takes a Nazirite vow.

Acts 21:20-26 – Paul makes a vow and pays the ritual purity fees for four men precisely because accusations arose about Paul being apostate from the law and teaching against Moses, circumcision, and the customs. Paul goes headlong into a demonstration of how the law was still important to him.

Acts 25:8 – Paul is defending himself against accusations and says, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Some would argue (including Jacob Jervell) that Luke’s purpose in Acts is to show that Paul is not apostate from the law.

What do you do with these verses in Romans?

2:25 – “Circumcision has value if you observe the law…” Well, Peter and Paul and those in Acts 15 were Christians who were still observing at least portions of the law.

3:1 – “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!”

There are many more verses because even the verses that are traiditionally used to show that the law was dead in the water are actually pretty poorly interpreted (the most important being Colossians 2:13-15).

One reason we have been taught the law was dead is we have been sold a bill of good that the law was all about works righteousness whereas Jesus brought grace on the scene. That is far from the truth. There was plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament (Lev 4:20ff, Exo 34:6-7, Num 14:18-19, Jeremiah 36:3, Micah 7:18-19). God actually did forgive people in the Old Testament. Even in Gal 3:10 is not about obeying the whole law, rather, relying on the distinctive markers of the Jewish faith to save rather than faith in Christ).

When you put the pieces together, as best I can tell, there were still law practicing Jewish Christians in the first century (including James, Peter, and Paul) who still fully relied on Jesus Christ for their righteousness. Sure no more sacrifice and sure no more clean and unclean and sure the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be “in” but that doesn’t mean that the law was tossed to the side once they heard about Jesus Christ. Notice Acts 21:20-22 “Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do?” There were Jews who believed in Jesus and yet still valued circumcision and the teachings of Moses (which were…the Law/Torah).

The key verse in all of this is 1 Cor 9:22 – Paul was willing to become all things to all men to win some. We get confused when Paul is writing to Gentiles it makes the law seem like it is in a negative light and so we downplay the law. Paul is trying to assure them that they don’t have to turn to fully obey the law and be circumcised to be “in.” They need Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the law was not valued and still had some value for early Jewish Christians.

Tagged by Philip – Page 123

Tagged by Philip – Pick up the nearest book. Turn to p. 123. Skip the first 5 sentences and copy the next three. Tag five others.

This is from James Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians in the Black’s New Testament Commentary Series with some commentary on Galatians 2:12:

In such circumstances, as in the Maccabean period two centuries earlier, a natural reflex was for loyalists to attempt to mark out and maintain the boundary markers which distinguished their nation. Such pressure could very well lie behind Paul’s criticism of Peter that he acted ‘out of fear of those of the circumcision’; whether the criticism was justified or not, Peter’s action might well appear to be stimulated by fear of those who, like Paul before (see on i.13), had been prepared to use violence to maintain Jewish ethnic and religious distinctiveness (cf. Jewett, ‘Agitators’ 204-6; for Peter’s own attitude see on ii.13). ‘Those of the circumcision’ (cf. Rom iv.12; Col iv.11; Tit. i.10) signifies a group whose self-identity was bound up with circumcision, that is, here at least, with maintaining the distinctive markers of Jewish identity which circumcision itself most clearly expressed (see on ii.3); Peter could well have shown some trepidation at confronting such zealous Jews, believers included (cf. Acts xi.2;2 Cor xi.26; Rom. xv.31).

Can you believe all that is just three sentences?

Galatians – Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:10-14)

I was reading James D. G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians yesterday. His exegesis of Galatians 3 really opened my eyes to a few things I never understood. The first is the importance of the Jewish understanding of blessings and curses as found in “the law” (particularly Deuteronomy). Those who were part of the covenant community were considered blessed. Those who were outside of that community (Gentiles) were considered under a curse. Additionally those inside the community could find themselves under a curse, not if they were sinless, but if they did not abide by all that was in the law. What is the difference? To be sinless would mean to keep every rule every time. That is impossible. But it was not seen as impossible to remain within the law all of the time. “In Jewish thought to ‘abide within all that was written in the law and do it’ meant living within the provisions of the law, including all its provisions for sin, through repentance and atonement. That was why Paul was able to describe himself as “blameless” before his conversion (Phil 3:6); not because he committed no sin, not because he fulfilled every law without exception, but because the righteousness of the law included use of the sacrificial cult and benefit of the Day of Atonement.” – p.171.

Many Christian view their relationship with God as being solid until you sin and then you are in jeopardy until you repent. That is not how the covenant community viewed their relationship with God in the Old Testament.

Another problem with 3:10 comes in translation. The NIV translates this verse, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…” But a better translation is, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” What is the difference? For Paul the works of the law are distinctive Jewish markers (circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc) that set them apart from the Gentiles. The Gentiles in Galatia have not done those things and so the Jews are excluding them. Paul is saying the distinctive marker of our identity and relationship with God is faith and not those “works of the law.” That means the Gentiles can be accepted without having to be circumcised, etc. Paul is not talking about the whole law here as the NIV translates it. He traditionally uses “works of the law” to mean the distinctive markers of the Jewish community that traditionally set them apart from the pagans/Gentiles. Paul is saying those Jews who put all their eggs in the circumcision basket above faith are under a curse because the blessings under the Abrahamic covenant came by faith and not by works of the law (circumcision, etc).

I have always read this passage as Paul speaking poorly about the law. Paul is not speaking poorly of the law. He is speaking poorly of those who misuse and abuse the law to the exclusion of their Gentile brothers and sisters in the faith.

The rubber meets the road in 3:13-14 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Paul says this discussion of blessings and curses/who is “in” and who is “out” has further implications when it comes to redemption. What did Christ do in redemption of both Jews and Gentiles on the cross and in the resurrection? The Dead Sea Scrolls connect being “hung on a tree” with crucifixion. It is possible that people were saying Jesus couldn’t be the messiah because he was crucified and those who are “hung on a tree” are under a curse (Deut 21:23). Remember what was said above, being cursed means you are put outside of the covenant community. “The curses of Deut 27 and 28 not only involve the withdrawal of covenant blessing, but climax in being put outside the promised land to live among the Gentiles…To affirm that the crucified Jesus was cursed by God, therefore, was tantamount to saying that he had been put outside the covenant, outside the people of God. Which also meant…that God’s resurrection of Jesus signified God’s acceptance of the ‘outsider’, the cursed law-breaker, the Gentile sinner.” – p.178. In other words on the cross Christ experienced the curses of being put outside of the covenant and its promises. In doing so he related with the Gentiles who were in the very same position. “The barrier between blessing and curse had been broken down; now ‘in Christ’ the blessing could come to Gentiles too….This is the conclusion Paul draws from his understanding of Christ’s death as bearing the curse of the law that the effects of the curse have been abolished for Gentiles, that the restrictiveness of a law which marked off Jew from Gentile as such had been overcome, not that the law had been abolished, rendered null and void, or without further relevance to Christians…” – p.179

This clarifies a few things for me. It clarifies what part of the law Paul is talking about here (works of the law – circumcision, etc). Again my tendency when reading this passage in the past has been to focus on law and seeing it in a negative light rather than realize the context and which part of the law Paul is talking about. It helps me understand blessings and curses a little better (being in or out of the community comes with blessings and curses and how Gentiles are viewed as a result). It also helps me understand how these concepts had an impact on Paul’s message and his handling of the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Galatia.


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