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One of the defining marks of an Old Covenant believer is that he has been physically circumcised. Circumcision wasn’t a choice under the Old Covenant—Yahweh commanded parents to have their sons’ foreskins removed when they were eight days old. Males who came to the faith later on in life were also required to get circumcised. Jewish men were further commanded to make sure that every male in their households was circumcised—even non-Jews who were not followers of Yahweh. This means that if you were a young man who was sold as a slave to an Old Covenant believer, you were going to get circumcised, regardless of your personal beliefs. All of these rules were given by Yahweh to Abraham and there was no room for negotiating.
Now what was awkward about this circumcising business is that you couldn’t tell just looking at a man what his status was. Jewish men were not in a habit of dropping their drawers to prove that they had met Yahweh’s Covenant requirements. Being naked in public was considered an extremely humiliating affair, so guys kept their clothes on, and that meant no one could see who was circumcised and who wasn’t. So what do you do in this kind of situation? Well, you have to rely on other external characteristics to determine who was one of your group and who wasn’t.
In the Bible, we find ethnic Jews snubbing Gentiles on sight and referring to them as the uncircumcised. No one bothered to ask, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be circumcised, would you?” If you didn’t look like an ethnic Jew, the assumption was that you weren’t. This was hardly a fair assumption to make, because sincere Yahweh followers who were of different ethnicities would have gone to the trouble of getting circumcised just to please God. But that wasn’t good enough to be accepted by “true” Jews. In New Testament Israel, your genetic heritage trumped your efforts to obey Yahweh’s Laws. If you looked like an ethnic Jew, then it was assumed that you were circumcised, and you were allowed to come further into Yahweh’s Temple than if you were a Gentile who claimed to have converted to Judaism. There was just nothing Gentiles could do to be accepted as equals by ethnic Jews. The Jews considered themselves to be far superior, and we get a good dose of how strong these feelings were when we read the apostle Paul’s discussion in Romans 11 of how Yahweh loves ethnic Jews more than Gentiles.
Now Jesus’ disciple Peter was an ethnic Jew, and like his fellow ethnic Jews, Peter feels personally repulsed by Gentiles. He avoids them socially, and he never enters their homes. He considers Gentiles to be inferior yucks, so it comes as quite a surprise when God suddenly orders him to go meet with a Roman captain named Cornelius. Romans were Gentiles. Gentiles were yuck. What was God thinking?
Well, it turns out that Yahweh doesn’t approve of certain humans being treated like germs just because they don’t happen to be biological descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob. In our last lesson, we learned how Yahweh gave Peter a vision in which He essentially told Peter to stop with the bigotry. Once he got over his shock, Peter obeyed Yahweh and went to the icky Gentile’s house where Cornelius and a bunch of his icky Gentile friends were eagerly waiting to talk about God. Naturally Peter took some of his Jewish buddies along for support, and they were all quite shocked when the Holy Spirit suddenly came on all of the Gentiles. Who knew that Yahweh would be so receptive to folks who weren’t even circumcised? Talk about an awkward moment. But Peter tried to be nice about it and he declared that the Gentiles should be baptized.
Now Cornelius and his household were already sincere Yahweh followers before they learned about Christ. And since circumcision was a requirement of Judaism, it is both unreasonable and insulting for Jews to assume that Cornelius and his guy friends were blowing off Yahweh’s command. But this is exactly what is assumed because ethnic Jews were so used to looking down on Gentiles as unfit to be part of the Israelite community. When Peter returns to Jerusalem from his visit with Cornelius, the Jewish believers there immediately lay into him about socializing with the uncircumcised.
Soon the news reached the apostles and other believers in Judea that the Gentiles had received the word of God. But when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, the Jewish believers criticized him, saying, “You visited uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:1-3)
To defend himself, Peter tells them all about the vision Yahweh gave him just before some of Cornelius’ Gentile messengers showed up to ask Peter to come to Caesarea [sess-uh-REE-uh] with them.
“Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa [JAW-puh], and summon a man named Simon Peter. He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’
“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as He fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of Jesus’ words when He said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since Yahweh gave these Gentiles the same gift He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in Yahweh’s way?” (Acts 11:11-17)
Now let’s remember who’s talking. This is Peter: the guy who just raised a woman back from the dead in Joppa and healed a paralyzed man in Lydda. This guy is a hero—do these Jews in Jerusalem really want to make him their enemy? Isn’t it much smarter to stay on Peter’s good side in case one of them needs a miracle in the future? Of course it is, and these Jews aren’t stupid, so they suddenly change their tune and decide that Peter is alright after all.
When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising Yahweh. They said, “We can see that Yahweh has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” (Acts 11:18)
This comment reveals how totally out of touch with Yahweh and the Scriptures these Jews are. To say that Yahweh is just now giving Gentiles a shot at salvation—that’s crazy talk. The Old Testament has many accounts of non-Jews being accepted by Yahweh, plus Yahweh Himself has always commanded the Jews to be receptive to any soul who wants to convert to Judaism. But the Jews have been ignoring Yahweh since day one, so here in Acts, everyone’s acting like the idea of Gentiles getting accepted by Yahweh is some radical new concept.
Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia [fuh-NEE-shuh], Cyprus [SI-pruhs], and Antioch [ANN-tee-awk] of Syria [SEAR-ree-uh]. They preached the word of Yahweh, but only to Jews. However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene [si-REEN] began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)
These are groups of ethnic Jews who are going out preaching that Jesus is Yahweh’s Messiah. One group is only preaching to their fellow Jews, but another group starts branching out to Gentiles. When the Gentiles are very receptive, the Jews in Jerusalem are shocked once again and they dispatch Jewish Barnabas [BAR-nuh-bus] to go up to Antioch to survey this Gentile situation.
When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw this evidence of Yahweh’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. And many people were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:22-24)
It seems to Barnabas that the Gentiles in Antioch really are turning to Yahweh, and that excites him, because Yahweh is the national God of Israel. Having your enemies convert to your nation’s religion always feels like a score, and it helps to ease tensions.
Consider how souls react today when they come to a church and then get saved. They often feel one down to those who have been Christians longer than them and they tend to be very easy to boss about because they are so eager to please. Well, ethnic Jews in New Testament times enjoyed similar perks whenever Gentiles converted over to a belief in Yahweh. Suddenly the Gentiles were looking up to the Jews in admiration and taking a subservient attitude towards them. Whose ego doesn’t love being treated as superior? In the Church today, we’re still perpetuating this nonsense about ethnic Jews being intrinsically better than everyone else, thus you’ll find many Christians gushing over “Messianic Jews” as if it’s some great advantage to be Christian and Jewish. Well, no it’s not. Our Gods don’t assess our worth based on the genetic material of our earthsuits. It’s never right to favor or shun people because of what ethnicity they are, but thanks to our idolatrous worship of the New Testament apostles and our carnal hopes of squeezing extra blessings out of God if we suck up to the nation of Israel, the Church’s obsession with all things Jewish isn’t going anywhere.
Well, now that Barnabas is up north in Antioch, he’s very close to Paul’s hometown of Tarsus [TAR-suss]. Why not fetch him and get him involved with this Gentile revival? He’s a persuasive speaker. So this is what Barnabas does.
Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.) (Acts 11:25-26)
EMPEROR CLAUDIUS (AD 41-54)
So who’s at the helm of the Roman Empire while the Jesus movement is spreading among the Gentiles? Well, the current emperor is a fellow named Claudius [CLAW-dee-us]. Like so many emperors, Claudius is a tragic figure whose life is filled with sorrow, conflict, and very suspicious sounding deaths.
In ancient Rome, it was a life threatening act to get involved in politics. Back in the days of Emperor Augustus [aw-GUS-tus] (who was ruling when Jesus was born), Claudius had dreams of going into politics. But Augustus was a pill about it. When Augustus died and was replaced by Claudius’ uncle Tiberius [tie-BEER-e-us], Claudius tried again, only to get snubbed again. So he gave up. Whatever with politics.
Well, the Roman Senate had other ideas and they kept pushing Tiberius to let his nephew get involved in Senate affairs. Finally stubborn Uncle Tiberius died and Caligula [cuh-LIG-yu-luh] became the new ruler. Caligula was Claudius’ nephew—the son of Claudius’ brother. Caligula welcomed Claudius into politics only to then brutally pick on him and humiliate him in public. So from the beginning, Claudius is living life as the underdog. In fact the poor guy was so stressed out by nasty nephew, that by the time Caligula died, Claudius was a skeletal, sickly thing who was in very poor health. Rotten politics.
Well, Claudius wasn’t the only one to dislike nasty old Caligula. In AD 41, a major conspiracy against the emperor resulted in his assassination. Caligula’s wife and daughter were the next to go down and then somebody started having too much fun killing off members of the Imperial family. Suddenly it’s a bloodbath and, after seeing many of his friends chopped down by guards, our sickly Claudius flees to the palace to try and hide. But then a member of the Praetorian [pray-TOR-e-un] Guard (the royal bodyguards) finds Claudius hiding behind a curtain and suddenly declares him to be a candidate for the new emperorship. Yikes!
After a lot of dickering between the Senate and the Praetorian Guard, Claudius is named the new emperor. He’s the first guy to get nominated by the Praetorian Guard, and since royal bodyguards are famous for becoming royal assassins, it’s important that your bodyguards like you. Okay, so Claudius did some hefty bribing to keep the military muscle on his side—can we blame him?
Now in his personal life, Claudius had a whole lot of heartache. Women were always a source of grief to him. He got betrothed twice before ever marrying. The first betrothal was cancelled for political reasons and the second woman died on their wedding day. After that came four marriages, none of which were happy. Claudius’ first wife bore him a son, but that son suffocated to death as a teen just after becoming engaged. As we said, it was lethal business to get involved in Roman politics.
Claudius divorced his first wife on grounds of adultery, and because he suspected her of murdering her sister-in-law. Then he married again, and that was another mess which ended in divorce. His third try was to Valeria [val-er-EE-yuh] Messalina [mess-uh-LEE-nuh]: his first cousin, once removed. Valeria bore him a daughter, and then a son: Britannicus [britt-TAN-nih-cuss]. At last Claudius had a potential heir. But Valeria couldn’t stay out of other men’s beds, and she was so proud of her affairs, that one time she held a public ceremony to flaunt her marriage to one of her lovers, even though she was already the wife of the emperor. Talk about humiliating. Claudius killed them both, then told the Praetorian guard to kill him if he ever tried to marry again.
Well, Claudius’ pals just couldn’t let him give up on love, so they pushed and pushed until they finally found a sexy babe named Agrippina [agg-grih-PEE-nuh] to win him over. Agrippina was Claudius’ niece, which made the marriage illegal, so Claudius changed the laws to make it work. Marrying Agrippina not only solved some political problems, but she came with a son named Nero [NEAR-row] who was older than young Britannicus and thus a more competent looking heir. But while Nero didn’t have any political ambition, mommy Agrippina was determined to see him get the crown so she insisted that Claudius adopt Nero as his own son. Adoptions were very common in the Roman Empire, and to appease his strong willed wife, Claudius put Nero at the front of the royal succession line. But as time went on, his marriage to Agrippina became increasingly bitter and he began to have second thoughts. Anticipating those thoughts, Agrippina whipped out some poison and that was the end of poor Claudius. What a sad story.
Now while his personal life was a mess, Claudius had very strong religious views. He was all for the Roman state religion, which meant the promotion of Roman gods. He would tolerate other religions in the capital city of Rome, as long as none of those religions started pushing for new converts. Well, as Jews start turning to Christianity, more and more conflicts begin happening between the Judaism Jews and the Christian Jews who were living in Rome. Claudius doesn’t like Jews getting all pushy about their religious views, so when he hears about the ruckus, he tells all the Jews in Rome to get out of his city. We’ll find a reference to this expelling of the Jews later on in Acts, but right now, we need to talk about our first New Testament epistle.
HEROD AGRIPPA 1 & THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
Dating the epistles accurately and precisely is impossible to do. For starters, we can’t make up our minds about exactly what year Jesus was born, how long He preached in Israel, and what year He was crucified. So we estimate. And before you get too frustrated with all of the conflicting theories, realize that as time marches on, new facts emerge, and old facts begin to be doubted. It sounds simple enough to just slap a date on something, but it’s actually a complicated mess. Since one of the purposes of our Know Your Bible Series is to help you get a feel for the order in which biblical events happened, as we work through the book of Acts, we’re going to introduce epistles to you around the times that they may have been written, so you can get a feel for their historical context. Some epistles are easier to date than others, and the first one we’re going to talk about is James.
Now the James who wrote the epistle of James is not the brother of John who we heard about in the Gospel books. Instead, this James is believed to be one of Jesus’ brothers who took over as leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem after Peter left the area. James is an ethnic Jew who is believed to have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. As hard as it was for other Jews to accept Jesus, imagine how tough it would be if you were one of His brothers. Talk about being jealous of the family Superstar.
We don’t know much about this James’ personal background, but his epistle is a mess. From his demands for good works, to his very grim portrayal of Yahweh as a God who has no sympathy for those who are struggling with doubts, and his very bad teaching on prayer, James is just not the guy you want to look to for spiritual guidance.
Now while Emperor Claudius is going to get irked with the Jews in Rome for disturbing the peace, he’s not bothering the Jews in Jerusalem, unlike Herod Agrippa 1. Agrippa [uh-GRIPP-uh] is the grandson of Herod the Great—that tormented fellow we learned about in Lesson 42 who ordered the slaughter of all Jewish boys in an attempt to kill Jesus. Well, by now Grandpa Herod is long dead, but when Claudius was fighting to get the crown after his mean Uncle Caligula was murdered, Herod Agrippa helped Claudius out. So Agrippa and Claudius are friends, and being friends with the emperor often results in a promotion. Claudius expanded Agrippa’s territory, including the states of Samaria [suh-MARE-ee-yuh], and Judea. As a result, Agrippa became one of the most powerful kings in the eastern part of the empire. Agrippa spruced up his territory with some nice architectural features, and he started to beef up Jerusalem’s fortress-like walls until he felt that Claudius was becoming suspicious.
Now shortly before Caligula’s death in AD 41, the emperor was planning to set up his own statue in the Temple in Jerusalem—a desecrating act that outraged many Jews. Agrippa became a hero among the Jews for personally pleading with the emperor not to go through with his plans. In Jewish records, Agrippa is portrayed in a very positive light because of his fierce dedication to Judaism. But in the Bible, he’s portrayed very negatively because of his persecution of Christians. Reports of his death vary greatly, but for our purposes, we’ll just deal with the version we find in Acts.
Now as Claudius takes the throne in AD 41, Agrippa steps up his persecution of Christian Jews in Jerusalem, and continues hassling them until his death in AD 44. As the leader of the church in Jerusalem, James sees his people having a hard time, and in his letter he really urges Christians to persevere. It’s from James that we get that famous line:
Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jam. 1:2-4)
James addresses his epistle to other ethnic Jews: specifically Jews who have been scattered throughout the empire due to persecution. He exalts the poor and bashes on the rich, no doubt because he is one of the poor. He really hammers the principle that faith is worthless by itself—you have to pair it with good works or you won’t be saved. James gets so carried away with the importance of putting on an outward show of righteousness that he starts heaping on impossible commands like “rid yourself of all moral filth and evil” (Jam. 1:21) and his famous command to never speak a wrong word.
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (Jam. 1:26-27)
There’s just no pleasing James. Like Paul and John, he puts the bar impossibly high over our heads, accusing people of being false Christians if they so much as show favoritism of certain people in public.
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? (Jam. 2:1)
Like John, James tries to argue that sincere concern for pleasing God and perfect behavior are inseparable, thus if you sin externally, you obviously care nothing about God in your heart.
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? (Jam. 2:14)
This is total rubbish of course, and the letter of James has been driving well-meaning Christians into the dirt of despair for centuries. James has also had a major influence on the way that we approach prayer and the confession of sins. Even though sin is an issue we need to work out with God, James wants us to sit around listing off our sins to each other and praying for each other because he seems to think all illness is caused by unconfessed sins and a lack of faith.
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. (Jam. 5:16)
James also seems to think that merely having a human title makes one’s prayers more meaningful to God, thus he instructs believers to have elders pray over them whenever they are sick. You know, because God pays more attention to elders than He does to the commoners. And this from the guy who tells us not to practice favoritism.
Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the Name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. (Jam. 5:13-14)
See, it’s not God who you need to look to for forgiveness—it’s those oil drizzling elders. It’s their potent prayers that will force open the doors of Heaven to you once more. If the elders pray over you, then it’s guaranteed that you’ll get better because apparently in James’ mind, Yahweh has forgotten how to say the word “no” once an elder starts anointing someone. The man is delusional, but because he’s done so much damage, we’ve written a study on his whole letter to help you identify where he’s leading you theologically astray.
A FAMINE IS PREDICTED
Now in Acts 11, a prophet goes up from Jerusalem to Antioch and warns the Jews there that a great famine is going to hit the empire.
During this time some prophets traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus [AGG-uh-bus] stood up in one of the meetings and predicted by the Spirit that a great famine was coming upon the entire Roman world. (This was fulfilled during the reign of Claudius.) So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could. This they did, entrusting their gifts to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:27-30)
PAUL’S WORK IN GALATIA
Now by the time Barnabas comes to Tarsus to bring Paul over to Antioch, many years have passed. What has Paul been doing for all of that time? He’s been promoting Christ as Yahweh’s Messiah in the region near his hometown, and that region is called Galatia [guh-LAY-shuh]. To keep things organized, the Romans divided their empire into states or provinces which they gave Latin names to (and that means you should expect words that end in vowels or with the letter s). Jerusalem is located in the province of Judea. Paul’s hometown of Tarsus was located in a province called Cilicia [sill-IH-see-yuh], which was by another province named Galatia.
The modern U.S. city of New York is a melting pot of ethnicities. But if you’re from New York, someone can refer to you as a New Yorker, no matter what ethnicity you are. It’s the same with the folks in ancient Galatia. There were many different kinds of ethnicities living there, but we could call them all Galatians if we wanted to refer to them by their location in the Roman Empire. Guess who Paul is writing his letter of Galatians to? Folks who are living in the Roman province of Galatia—folks who Paul converted to Paul’s brand of Christianity before he moved to Antioch with Barnabas. So what is Paul’s brand of Christianity?
CHRISTIANITY ACCORDING TO PAUL
Because the apostle Paul has spent his whole life in a state of spiritual rebellion, he’s never been teaching truth. But he’s still been teaching—and he’s been quite passionate about his beliefs. Before he gave Christ any thought, Paul was a Pharisee in Israel. Pharisees were pompous preachers who claimed to be perfect in the eyes of Yahweh because somehow in their great zeal, they were managing to perfectly obey all of Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. That’s right—all of them. The Pharisees were perfect and they were quite proud of it. Pharisees taught that under the Old Covenant, salvation was obtained through works alone. You had to be perfect. You had to follow every jot and tittle of Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. The problem was that this was impossible to do. Yahweh simply had too many laws to keep track of, and even if you spent your life obsessing over His laws, you’d still mess up somewhere. Ah, but not if you were a Pharisee, because the Pharisees claimed to be perfect. Paul claimed to be perfect. How do we know this? Because the little braggart can’t help but mention how perfectly he kept Yahweh’s Laws when he writes to believers in Philippi.
If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more! I was circumcised on the eighth day. I’m a descendant of Israel. I’m from the tribe of Benjamin. I’m a pure-blooded Hebrew. When it comes to following Jewish laws, I was a Pharisee. When it comes to being enthusiastic, I was a persecutor of the Church. When it comes to winning Yahweh’s approval by obeying His Laws, I was perfect. (Philip. 3:5-6)
Now in this passage, Paul goes on to say that he considers his past perfection meaningless now that he’s in Christ. Well, sure, because Paul still claims to be perfect as a Christian—just perfect for different reasons. The important point you need to grasp is that it is beyond arrogant for any Old Covenant believer to claim to perfectly obey all of Yahweh’s Laws, because this just wasn’t possible. And the fact that Paul makes this claim after claiming to have been personally educated by Christ—the fact that the man doesn’t adjust his language to say something like, “Back in those days, I foolishly thought that I was actually succeeding at never sinning—boy what a dope I was”—this just demonstrates how utterly arrogant Paul still is.
You see, as we mature, we grow out of our foolish thinking and we learn to recognize arrogance in ourselves. We don’t just keep saying the stupid things we used to say without recognizing how foolish we were being. But this doesn’t happen to Paul—he doesn’t show any signs of growth. Instead of recognizing what a pride puff he was, he keeps talking like he really was sinless back before he met Christ.
The Pharisees didn’t claim to be perfect because they stayed on it with the atonement sacrifices. They claimed to be past sinning. Everyone knew this, and none of the commoners felt like they could possibly match the Pharisees’ level of perfection, which is why Jesus was intentionally giving an impossible command when He said:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)
Okay, so if Paul was so perfect, why did he need Christ? Well, in his mind, he didn’t, because he had salvation sewn up. But when Christ personally zapped Paul with blindness on the road to Damascus and Paul realized that some regular Jewish nobody had somehow gotten hold of some awesome powers, Paul decided that he wanted a piece of what Christ has (see Know Your Bible Lesson 77: Debunking the Conversion of Paul). So he adjusts his theology to make room for Christ. In Romans 7, Paul describes himself as being helplessly bound under sin’s power before he met Christ. He claims that he wanted to do right in his heart, but some power named Sin was forcing him to be bad. Of course the man is full of baloney, because if he really felt this way, he wouldn’t be boasting in Philippians of having perfectly kept all of Yahweh’s Laws. And yet Paul has to do something to tarnish his golden record or he’ll have no excuse for calling Christ his Savior.
Before he knew Christ, Paul claimed that salvation was a simple matter of doing good works—of being behaviorally perfect. Then he personally claimed to be sinless, thus he was an obvious shoo in for Heaven.
After he decided to try and get his hands on some of Christ’s power, Paul changed his tune. He declared that he was actually caught in a cycle of naughty behavior before Christ came, because that mysterious power named Sin was making him do what he didn’t want to do. But then Christ came and died as an atoning sacrifice for everyone’s sins. Big sigh of relief. Paul also says that Christ conquered Sin and Death and put an end to Paul being enslaved by Sin. Paul says that thanks to Christ setting him free, he can once again manage to keep his flesh totally under control and thus live a sinless life. Conclusion: salvation is still obtained by good works. You have to be behaviorally perfect—oh, and you have to really schmooze Christ as Yahweh’s special Servant and the One who atoned for all of your naughty deeds in the past. But you don’t worship Christ as God Almighty—that’s taking things way too far. Christ is just a human who really gained the favor of Yahweh. If we all treat Christ like our master—not our God—here on earth, then we can score big points with Yahweh and when we die, Yahweh will exalt us like He’s exalted Christ. Won’t that be great? Paul says it’s all about getting glory and power on the other side—that’s why we should be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake. We need to promote Christ as Yahweh’s promised Messiah, because if we don’t, Yahweh will be ticked. Oh, and we can forget about all of those Laws, because Christ has changed the rules and we no longer have to abide by all of the old rituals. The Christian way is simpler and more streamlined. Honor Christ, worship Yahweh, and don’t sin: it’s easy.
Now as we said earlier, the mark of a true Old Covenant believer is that he’s circumcised. Paul is circumcised, of course, but he says that now that Christ has come, circumcision doesn’t matter anymore. Christ has changed the rules. Well, this is good news for uncircumcised Gentiles, because now they can get on board with Paul’s version of Christianity without having to undergo any painful surgical procedures. But the problem is that Paul’s version of Christianity is too close to the warped New Testament version of Judaism—he’s still preaching faith in one God and that salvation comes through works. Well, if these new Gentile converts are going to claim to be pleasing Yahweh, then clearly they should be getting circumcised, because that’s what Yahweh says He wants all of His followers to do. This is what Old Covenant Jews say: all Gentile Christians should be circumcised. Remember, the kind of Christianity we’re talking about right now is false Christianity. No one is submitting to Jesus as God. The only God anyone’s talking about is Yahweh, and this is why there is so much confusion and fighting breaking out among the Jews.
All Jews have been anxiously waiting for Yahweh to finally send His Messiah. Now certain Jews are saying that He has, and that that Messiah was the human Christ. But those Jews are now using the coming of the Messiah as an excuse to tell new converts that they don’t have to get circumcised. This sounds totally wrong to Old Covenant Jews. But realize that none of these people are listening to the true Gods. The way Judaism was being practiced in the New Testament was false Judaism. According to Yahweh and Jesus, salvation has always been acquired through right soul attitudes, not sinless behavior. So as long as Jewish leaders are preaching that salvation is acquired through good works, they’re not talking about true Judaism. James, John, and Paul all say that good works are essential to salvation—that right soul attitudes simply aren’t enough.
True Christianity is a polytheistic (multiple god) religion. As long as we’re only talking about one God, we’re not talking about true Christianity. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the New Testament writers openly acknowledging the Divinity of Christ. Paul says Christ is just a human. Peter presents Christ as a human in Acts. The author of Hebrews says Christ was some mysterious non-God being who chose to become human. James focuses mainly on Yahweh in his letter and makes one reference to Christ as Someone who we put our faith in. Look closely at the language that Paul and John use and you’ll see that they keep distinguishing between God—who is Yahweh—and Jesus, who they keep referring to as Lord. For Jews, the term Lord was the equivalent of our English Sir—it was a very common title of respect that was applied to both humans and Yahweh. So while the Jews alternate between calling Yahweh God and Lord, they only refer to Jesus as Lord. Once you realize that they are avoiding the God title for Jesus because they do not accept His Divinity, you realize that none of these guys are teaching true Christianity. It’s time to rethink this tradition we have of calling ourselves New Testament Christians.
PAUL WRITES GALATIANS
So now that we understand what a mess is being made out of Judaism and Christianity in New Testament times, we can understand why there is so much fussing in Jewish circles over the issue of circumcision. Once you refuse to accept Christ as a second God, you’re not really leaving Judaism—you’re just accepting that Yahweh’s Messiah has already come. That’s hardly sufficient grounds to stop circumcising.
Well, when Paul was working to get converts for himself in the province of Galatia, he taught the people there that they didn’t need to bother with circumcision. They just needed to put their faith in Yahweh as God and believe that Christ was His special Messiah who has made it possible for them to now live sinless lives. He gets both Jews and Gentiles in Galatia to convert to his brand of Christianity. But then when he leaves to go join Barnabas in Antioch, fights start breaking out back in Galatia. Jewish “Christians” are hassling Gentile “Christians” about getting circumcised. When Paul hears about it, he dashes off an angry letter, berating his followers in Galatia for questioning his theology. And while he’s at it, he says that Jesus died just to rescue people from a crummy world.
Jesus gave His life for our sins, just as Yahweh our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live. (Gal. 1:4)
Wow, not really. This is a terrible summary of why Jesus died, but hey, it’s Paul.
I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from Yahweh, who called you to Himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.
Let Yahweh’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from Heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed! (Gal. 1:6-9)
When you’re an ancient Jew, it’s all about cursing your enemies using the potent Name of Yahweh, and naturally an alpha personality like Paul is ticked to see his influence over these Galatians so quickly fading. What can he do to get them back into submission? Claiming to have a superior connection to Christ is always a good place to start, so in Galatians 1, Paul boasts that the message he teaches was taught to him directly by Jesus. In other words, we’re supposed to believe that Jesus met with Paul in a series of Divine visions and made it clear that Jesus was nothing more than some human bumpkin whose current reign of power would only be temporary. No, we’re really not swallowing that.
Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12)
And while Paul is very good at elevating himself as a superior, perfect fountain of truth, he’s quick to downplay the importance of anyone else.
And the leaders of the church had nothing to add to what I was preaching. (By the way, their reputation as great leaders made no difference to me, for Yahweh has no favorites.) Instead, they saw that Yahweh had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as He had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. For the same Yahweh who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles. (Gal. 2:6-8)
First Paul claims that he couldn’t care less about ranks, then he tries to flaunt the fact that he’s been approved of by “pillars” like Peter and John.
In fact, James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift Yahweh had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews. (Gal. 2:9)
Paul’s going to milk this thing about working with the Gentiles his whole ministry long, because he thinks it makes him sound ultra self-sacrificing. After all, he’s a Pharisee—the cream of ethnic Jews, and he’s working with uncircumcised yucks. In Romans 11, Paul’s personal hatred of Gentiles comes through loud and clear, so why is he pretending to care so much about them? Well, Peter and John have already claimed the Jewish turf. Paul needs to branch out if he’s going to get his own little kingdom going. Gentiles who have bought into the lie that they are inferior to Jews in Yahweh’s eyes will be an easy sell when Paul comes waltzing into town, condescendingly inviting them to partake in spiritual riches which they really don’t deserve. And boy is he good at emphasizing how much Gentiles don’t deserve a seat at the table with the “chosen” ones.
As long as he’s trying to win the Gentiles in Galatia back over to his side, he might as well take the opportunity to bash on Peter, so he does. Paul is all the way over in Antioch, not in Galatia, when he’s writing this letter, yet he feels it is appropriate to tell how Peter snubbed Gentiles in Antioch and how Paul called him out on it.
But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?
You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. Yet we know that a person is made right with Yahweh by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with Yahweh because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with Yahweh by obeying the law.” (Gal. 2:11-16)
This bit of nasty gossip is hardly an example of mature leadership. Paul doesn’t need to specifically bash on Peter in order to get his point across that Jews should not be snubbing Gentiles over the circumcision issue. But Paul is clearly trying to surpass Peter in rank by making himself out to be the champion of the Gentiles while Peter is the toad. (Although notice how even in his role of champion he refers to the Gentiles as ‘sinners’ simply because they are not Jews.)
Now as Paul waxes on about the importance of not falling into legalism (which is ironic, since legalism is what he teaches by saying that we have no excuse to sin once we are in Christ), he makes this interesting comment.
Surely you remember that I was sick when I first brought you the Good News. But even though my condition tempted you to reject me, you did not despise me or turn me away. No, you took me in and cared for me as though I were an angel from Yahweh or even Christ Jesus Himself. Where is that joyful and grateful spirit you felt then? I am sure you would have taken out your own eyes and given them to me if it had been possible. Have I now become your enemy because I am telling you the truth? (Gal. 4:13-16)
Wow, no wonder Paul is upset to lose the loyalty of these people—they practically worshiped him when he was among them. But why? What did Paul do to inspire such awe and dedication among a bunch of strangers? We’ll never know, but clearly Paul is a very persuasive personality. When he’s among people, they quickly submit to his authority. But when he leaves, they rebel, and that’s when he writes an angry epistle.
Paul really doesn’t want his fans to get redirected to standard New Testament Judaism. So he goes on and on about how Christians are no longer under the law, but under grace. But then he keeps saying that any Christian who sins will go to Hell. Check out how contradictory these passages are:
So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. (Gal. 5:1)
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
Before you blow past that second passage thinking, “No sweat, I don’t do any of those things,” take a closer look at the items Paul lists. Lust. Sexual immorality. Hostility. Quarreling. Jealousy. Selfishness. Who can possibly say that these things have no place in their life? Whose definition of sin are we using here? If we’re using God’s, then according to Paul, none of us are going to Heaven. This is the Pharisee way: keep saying how simple and easy it is to please God, while you simultaneously make it impossible.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to His cross and crucified them there. (Gal. 5:24)
You can talk about your “freedom in Christ” all day, but Paul says that a true Christian has nailed his sinful nature to the cross and left it there. So if you’re selfish or jealous or lustful or sinning in any way, you’re out.
As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May Yahweh’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of Yahweh. (Gal. 6:14-16)
Paul clearly thinks he’s a new creation, and by his definition, that means he’s sinless. Well, you’re not sinless, and according to Paul, that means you’re not saved. Such is the hopeful message of Galatians.
As we start Acts 12, Agrippa gets riled up and launches an assault on Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. John’s brother James—one of the original twelve—gets killed by the sword, and the non-Christian Jews are so sadistically thrilled by this that Agrippa has Peter arrested during the week of Passover. The plan was to put Peter on trial after Passover, and no doubt publicly humiliate him. With four squads of soldiers guarding him, Peter doesn’t stand a chance of getting free…or does he? We’ll find out in our next lesson.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 80: The Wrath of Agrippa
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