Paul Bible Study, Lesson 5.
Matters of Conscience
Another part of Romans which has been widely misunderstood is Romans 14. Many believers read this chapter and go away believing that through Yeshua, God has gotten rid of the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and the Biblical Sabbath day. Many believe that these are just matters of conscience. We will take a deeper look at this and a few other similar passages to see if we can find out what Paul was actually saying.
In the chapters leading up to this one, Paul had been dealing with the issue of sincere love for our brother (Romans 12:9, 14-21; 13:8-10). Now he applies these to a specific situation that was going on in the community at Rome. Apparently there had arisen some type of dispute about certain eating habits and holy days.
He begins by saying, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (verse 1). In confronting this issue, his main point is that all things should be done with a commitment to love our neighbor and seek his good. When he refers to weakness and strength, he is referring to the measure of faith each believer possesses. It is important to note that this is not an issue of one group being right and another wrong, but it is a question of “opinion,” or as some translations put it, “disputable matters.”
Now we arrive at the two sides of the debate in question: “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only” (verse 2). Who are these two groups, and what are the reasons behind their diet choices? The traditional argument claims that this was an issue between those who still followed the kosher laws (the weak in faith who only ate vegetables) and those who realized that these laws were no longer important.
The two sides of the debate are not necessarily distinguished ethnically, that is, Jews on one side and Gentiles on the other. As we will see, the issue is more complex than that and is grounded in the culture and religion of both Jewish and Gentile believers in a pagan world.
One thing that is worth reiteration as we proceed is that the topic of this debate is considered a matter of opinion. Surely a matter of following a commandment wouldn’t be considered simply a difference of opinion to Paul. One way or another, if this issue had some solid conclusion based on Scriptural fact, then Paul would have been much more firm in his language, as this is what he does throughout his epistles. In keeping with the traditional understanding of Paul, if he had indeed been adamant against believers keeping Torah, in this case kosher laws, then we would surely expect him to be much more severe in condemning anyone eating only vegetables in order to avoid breaking kosher, and while we have seen that this interpretation of Paul is incorrect, we must point out the inconsistent logic it applies to this passage. On the contrary, we have seen Paul tell us that those who follow God subject themselves to the Torah (Romans 3:31, 8:7). With this in mind, we can confidently assert that this dispute is not related to the kosher laws in the Torah. So what was the problem?
The problem, in short, was Rome itself. Idolatry filled every aspect of life to the point where even food sold in the marketplace was often offered to idols by dedicating a portion of the item to the idol, then selling the rest in the market. Judaism considered food sacrificed to idols “defiled,” as we see exemplified in Daniel 1:8-12. Daniel knew that portions of the meat and wine of the king would have been involved in pagan offerings, so he refused to partake of it, and God blessed him for it. This stance on food was passed on to the new Gentile believers in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:20). Because of this, apparently some members of the community, whether Jew, Gentile, or a mix thereof, had become so afraid of accidentally consuming such food that they chose to refrain from meat entirely. The other group felt safe to eat “all things.” Being able to eat “all things” quite obviously does not actually mean all things, for example poisonous plants and animals. Extending this limitation to a Jew unkosher animals would not be considered food at all, thus believing they could eat all things would not include breaking kosher, as we previously established. What this phrase actually meant was that the man strong in faith felt free to eat any food from the marketplace or at someone’s house, unless it had been explicitly made known to him that the food in question had been sacrificed to an idol. This teaching is paralleled in 1 Corinthians 10:25-28.
Not only had there been disagreement on this matter, but apparently it had led to some ill will between the two disagreeing parties:
The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:3-4)
Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you will be judged.” When our hearts are full of love for our brother, there is no room for us to judge them. Just as Paul spoke of in leading up to this point, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:9-10). Since neither group is acting in violation to the Torah, their judgments and contempt for one another are not rooted in truth, but in the flesh.
Paul says that each person is to respect the other and realize that God accepts both their convictions. Earlier in our study we talked about the two masters: the sinful nature and the Spirit. Paul applies this concept to loving our brother. Because we can serve only one master, we are accountable to Him alone. When we choose to serve God, He becomes our Master. This means we do not have the right to judge another brother, for in a sense this is setting yourself as master over him. But each person is responsible only to God. We all stand as individuals before Him, and Paul emphasizes that we each have the liberty to organize our priorities according to God’s will. We see a type of this example of God honoring personal conviction in Jeremiah 35:1-10, 18-19.
Paul now turns his attention to special days: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (verse 5). Due to our theological assumptions, the first thing we think of when we hear this is the Sabbath, although this is not mentioned anywhere in the text. There are many types of days which this could be talking about, but the most likely is some type of fast days which were esteemed as holier or more distinct than other days. This is based on verse 6: “He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” This would seem to be contrasting one who eats against one who esteems the day and doesn’t eat. We see an example of the practice of regular fasting in Luke 18:11-12, and this practice carried over from Judaism into the early followers of Yeshua, for He assumed that they would be fasting after His death and resurrection (Matthew 6:16-18, Mark 2:18-20). In both Jewish and pagan circles, these fast days were not arbitrarily assigned, but were chosen for a special purpose according to a certain timetable, and therefore these fast days were chosen due to their holy status. While fasting was indeed part of the believer’s life, setting aside a fixed schedule of days which were better to fast on (outside of Biblically assigned fast days) because of a belief that these days had special holiness is not something that can be proved either way, and therefore is a matter of conscience, not worth arguing over.
The phrase, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” must be carefully understood within its context so it will not be twisted to mean something it is not. It goes back to Romans 14:1 which indicates that both the dispute over diet and special days are not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter where neither side can be proven objectively correct. This is not to say that this applies to every disagreement between believers, for someone can be convinced in their own mind of something that is contrary to God’s truth, and in such cases it is not beneficial for them to continue in this thinking (Ephesians 5:11, Titus 2:15, 1 Timothy 5:20). Paul himself corrects people on their behavior all throughout his epistles, showing that he did not apply this idea of absolute freedom from doctrinal limits in most situations.
He continues in verses 7-8: “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” The wording Paul uses brings to mind a passage from the Jewish work “Chapters of the Fathers,” which is a compilation of rabbinic sayings with dates from 200 BC to 200 AD. In one place, it says, “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure.” Paul would have been familiar with the rabbinic style of thinking, and so he most likely was trying to convey a similar thought. If both sides of the debate were doing their actions to please God, then in the end each group would be rewarded by God for holding to their personal service of Him, so long as they were able to disagree without resorting to contempt or judgment.
Another tradition he would have been familiar with is that a blessing over a meal is a way a person may honor God (verse 6). The practice of blessing after a meal is traditionally considered to be commanded in Deuteronomy 6:10-12, but tradition also commanded that a blessing be given before eating as well. Yeshua sets an example of this in the story of the loaves and fish (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41). When a person devotes everything in his life to be sanctified by God, he becomes a living sacrifice to prove what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Because this is the case, then, Paul explains that it is not our place to judge anyone who walks out their convictions differently than we do (Romans 14:10-12). Since God has created everyone and we are all equal in His sight, we must respect our fellowman, knowing that we have the right to judge no one. Paul uses Isaiah 45:23 to show that all will stand before God and give account for their actions. If we compromise on something that God put in our hearts to do, then will He reward us for such an action (verse 23)? And will He reward someone who judged their brother, who was living the way they saw as right within the framework of God’s righteousness?
In Romans 14:13, Paul says that instead of judging, we should be careful to not put a stumbling block or obstacle in someone’s way. We see the idea of a stumbling block first in Leviticus 19:14. Literally interpreted, this seems like a strange commandment, but underneath lies an important message. The standard Jewish interpretation of this verse equated a blind person to one who lacked knowledge, and therefore placing a stumbling block in front of them meant doing something which caused them to sin. We see Yeshua use the phrase this way as well in Matthew 18:6-7. What relevance does this have to the issue in Rome? Paul is trying to make the point that in judging someone else, you may cause them to sin by harboring resentment towards you. In this particular circumstance, it may also be that if the one weak in faith compromises on his beliefs about meat from the marketplace because of your judgment, he may mistakenly believe that other more fundamental beliefs are also susceptible to compromise (see also 1 Corinthians 8:9-11).
Now we move on to verse 14. Since all people are created by God and will give an account to God, Paul’s main objective is to love his brethren and respect their convictions. Paul puts this belief in the importance of honoring the convictions of others into practice. Although he is convinced that “nothing is unclean in itself,” he acknowledges that if anyone is convinced that something is unclean, then to him that thing is unclean, and therefore it would be sinful for that one to partake of it.
At first glance, most believers would be quick to say that Paul is here negating the kosher and purity laws in the Torah by saying that “nothing is unclean.” What did Paul actually mean by this? We must look at the Greek language to get our answer.
The Greek word used in this verse for “unclean” is koinos. This word means “common,” in the sense of something which is not holy. When used in reference to Jewish purity, koinos refers to otherwise holy/pure things which have become as if they were unholy, for example through defilement by touching an unclean thing.
This word is contrasted against akathartos. This word means “unclean.” It is most often used in the New Testament in reference to unclean spirits, but is also used in Acts 10 as well as in the LXX to refer to food which God has called unclean. In Acts 10:14, the two words koinos and akathartos are both used, further signifying that there is a distinction between the two: “But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common (koinon) or unclean (akatharton).’”
We see a similar issue of ritual purity being dealt with in the first part of Mark 7. Yeshua and the Pharisees were having a debate over unwashed hands. This hand-washing wasn’t about getting rid of germs, but was because the Pharisees believed that to eat with unwashed hands was defiling their body, or making it “common,” koinos. Their discussion was not over unclean (akathartos) food, but rather about the tradition they had about the handling of food and if eating food with unwashed hands made a person “unclean” (koinos). So what was the issue? Yeshua tells us in verse 8: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
We have to remember whenever we are reading Scripture that we always have to look at the context: what happens before and after a verse, or even a chapter or book, of Scripture. So we need to understand that the discussion in Mark is not about kosher foods, but eating practices. Then, out of the blue in Mark 7:19, we see it says, “Thus He declared all foods clean.” Did Yeshua negate the commandments about dietary restrictions, thus “neglecting the commandment of God,” as He had just condemned these Pharisees for doing? Is this an accurate translation?
Once again, looking at the Greek text is important to understanding the meaning of the verse. A literal reading of the Greek in Mark 7:19 says, “because not it enters of him into the heart, but into the belly, and into the draught goes out, purifying all the food.” The King James, among others, therefore translates the final phrase as part of Yeshua’s quote: “[Do ye not perceive that]… it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught [latrine, sewer], purging all meats [foods]?” According to these translations, Yeshua is not declaring all unkosher foods now fair game, but is saying that through the process of digestion any perceived defilement of already kosher food is lost and excreted with the other waste. This makes more sense considering the context, which is Yeshua arguing that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person, but rather the actions that arise from a person’s heart are what defiles him. Even if we operate on the assumption that the translation “He declared all foods clean” is accurate, we still do not arrive at an abrogation of the Leviticus 11 food laws. When understood this way, the phrase effectively means the same thing: food that God has declared clean is not made unclean (koinos) by eating it without ritually washing the hands. This is the same point Paul is making in regard to food dedicated to idols.
So let’s get back to Romans 14. We need to remember that Paul’s message is all about love for our brother in Yeshua: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Messiah died” (verse 15). The word “grieved” corresponds to the Hebrew word for “wrongdoing.” So just as there can be wrongdoing in words, so there can also be wrongdoing in eating. The big issue is how far we can take our “freedom” in the Lord. As the old saying goes, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” When it comes to the body of Messiah, our right to do whatever we please ends where God’s commandments begin, which includes loving our neighbor and sacrificing our will.
Paul has the understanding that not respecting another’s commitments is like saying that God does not respect them either. He also says that treating things that are forbidden as though they are permitted does not nullify these things. His idea is that no one should be forced to compromise: the only compromise that is permissible is when it is done voluntarily, out of love. The best way to serve God is by sanctifying all our thoughts and acts by walking in the Spirit in love. Sometimes, we need to go beyond a strict observance of our own perceptions of the law, which is right and good, in order to do what is right and good. How do we serve the Messiah in this way? By offering our bodies as living sacrifices in the sense of loving our fellow man, as in the golden rule (Luke 6:31). There is another principle in Jewish thought called “the paths of peace” (from Proverbs 3:17). This principle states that we should not judge our brother for his personal convictions and we should not do things that would cause him to stumble.
Romans 14:20 goes on, “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.” The phrase “all things are clean” here is obviously not unlimited in its scope (Ephesians 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Revelation 21:27). But keeping the rest of the chapter in mind, this verse is echoing the words of Yeshua in Mark 7, although Paul adds that if a man eats meat he feels is defiled, if it goes against his conscience, to him it is sin.
He goes on to say we should not eat meat, drink wine, or do anything that causes our brother to stumble (verse 21). Here is more evidence for the theory that this passage is about food dedicated to idols. In Judaism, wine, being made of grapes, is not restricted through the Levitical food laws. However, wine was offered to idols ceremonially in the ancient world, and this could be considered a source of impurity for the wine that would make it appear unclean to some. Paul re-emphasizes his main point in bringing up this dispute, that we must wholeheartedly watch ourselves so as not to hurt our brethren through hypocritical attitudes. Even if the things we do are not sinful of themselves, if they cause someone else to sin, then we share partial responsibility for their guilt. We must be faithful not only to our convictions, but to our brother by loving him even if his convictions differ from ours (1 John 3:18-24).
“Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (Romans 14:22). Paul continues the theme of blessing/giving thanks from verse 6. If we want to be blessed, we need to know that the things we bless are acceptable in God’s sight. That is the only way we will prove God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
Chapter 14 draws to a close with Paul saying, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” The word “doubting” is the Greek word diakrino, which means to make a distinction, to distinguish, or to judge. If we act contrary to our convictions concerning what we eat, when we eat it, and with whom we eat it, we condemn ourselves. James 4:17 says “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” So Paul agrees that if we participate in things that are against our convictions, then it is sin, so long as our convictions are aligned with God’s will. We see that there are two sides to our convictions before the Lord: things we feel may be sanctified and things we consider unable to be sanctified. Both of these must be balanced with our ability and willingness to love our brother when the things he feels can be sanctified differ from ours.
In summary of this chapter, we need to look back to verse 1. Remember, we always have to look at Scripture in context. Verse 1 says we should not pass judgment on “disputable matters.” I think we would all have to agree that God’s commands are not disputable. We need to acknowledge that what Paul is addressing are areas of personal conviction, not the commandments of God. This is the issue at hand here in Romans 14, in Mark 7, and in other such Scriptures. In matters of truth, let us be zealous; but in matters of preference, let us not be quick to pass judgment or criticism: “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
The next section of our study will focus on the book of Galatians. When we read this book, we must remember that even in his own day, Paul was being misunderstood
(2 Peter 3:15-16). Why did Paul write the book of Galatians, and whom was he addressing? We know that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (1 Timothy 2:7). In Hebrew, the word for “apostle” is shaliach, which means “one sent.” In the first century, the majority of Jews lived outside of the land of Israel, so it was common for the Sanhedrin, the ruling body, to send out letters by a shaliach. This is how they would send out rulings and instructions to the synagogues in the diaspora. Paul, however, was not sent by man, but directly by Yeshua the Messiah.
Previously we touched on the types of people in the synagogue: Jews, converts to Judaism, and God-fearers. The latter is the group which Paul is mainly addressing in this letter. So Paul tells us that he is an apostle: “not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Yeshua Messiah and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1), sent out to deliver truth to the Gentiles. Many scholars believe that Galatians is the first of Paul’s epistles and the oldest writing in the New Testament, pre-dating the writing of the gospels and the book of Acts.
In Galatians 1, we are introduced to Paul’s gospel. Apparently there were some false teachers who had come to Galatia, challenging the message which Paul had brought: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Messiah, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Messiah” (verses 6-7). Although the message which others brought is not explicit here, it can be gleaned from the book of Galatians and the arguments which Paul uses against the community there. This teaching was so contrary to truth that Paul went so far as to call a curse against those who taught it (verses 8-9).
Continuing in verses 11-24, Paul explains why he has authority to believe that his gospel is the truth. He explains that his, is not “man’s gospel” (verse 11), that is, not a message thought up or preached by himself or any other human being. Rather, he received his gospel directly from Yeshua (verse 12, see also Acts 22:17-18, 21). In Paul’s day, most believers were Jewish, including the apostles. Their task was to go around telling other Jews about their Messiah. This was a message preached and received by man, as is the conventional method. Paul, on the other hand, became a believer in a very unusual way: supernaturally (Acts 9:3-6). Because he had this assurance that his message was true, he didn’t feel the need to consort with any of the apostles about this gospel or try to seek approval from them before preaching it (Galatians 1:15-24).
So what was Paul’s gospel, his good news? Paul and the other apostles all included the Gentiles in salvation through Yeshua. The distinguishing point of Paul’s gospel is that many of the other leaders expected the Gentile to eventually become legally Jewish. Paul did not, and this is what his gospel to the Gentiles hinges upon (Ephesians 3:4-7).
Some scholars believe that Galatians was actually written before the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The passage in Galatians 2:1-10 speaks of a journey to Jerusalem, but due to conflicts of details, it is unsure if this is the trip where the council took place or if it is a separate occasion. Up until that decision, the common consensus was that Gentiles would become legally Jewish upon professing faith in Yeshua. Paul did not agree, and eventually, according to Acts 15, the rest followed suit. So then what is the “other gospel that is no gospel at all“? It is the message that Gentiles must become legally Jewish through circumcision in order to become part of Israel (Galatians 2:3-5).
In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul and Peter have a confrontation related to this issue. Many read this passage and think that Peter had been living like a Gentile, that is, disregarding the Torah and rejecting his Jewish heritage and religious expression, but in the presence of some influential Jews “reverted” to Judaism. But is that what the Scripture says?
We need to remember that Peter was the first of the apostles to go to a Gentile. This event is recorded in Acts 10:9-11:18. It is a very lengthy passage, so we will only hit the main points. Peter receives a vision from the Lord: a sheet with all kinds of animals on it is lowered, and the Lord tells him to kill and eat. Peter replies, “Surely not, I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” This happens three times. The vision ends with God saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Many say that this is God doing away with the kosher food laws. Let’s take a closer look.
First we need to look at the two words used: impure and unclean. Previously, we discussed how these are two words in Greek. One is something normally “clean” that is contaminated. The other is something that God has commanded as unclean. So in Acts 10:14 when Peter says “common,” he means the first definition, and when he says “unclean,” he means the second. The key to understanding this passage is Acts 10:28. According to Jewish law (not the written Torah, but traditional oral teaching), Jews were not even allowed to eat normally kosher food with a Gentile. This was because a Gentile, by nature, was considered contaminated by idolatry. Prior to this vision, Peter would have considered even a God-fearer unclean. So what was Peter’s interpretation of the vision? That he should call no man unclean. The issue was not food, but people. Peter doesn’t begin to eat pork after the vision, but instead he goes and ministers to a Gentile God-fearer. God shows him that he can enter a Gentile’s house and even eat with him without becoming unclean. Remember, a God-fearer was a Gentile who was not converted, but was attending the synagogue and participating in the basics of the Torah. He would never have thought of serving something contrary to the food laws of Leviticus.
Now we can return to Galatians with a proper understanding of the context of Paul’s issue with Peter. Peter had been the first of the apostles to accept Gentiles as uncircumcised, since he saw they had received the Holy Spirit without being converted. Due to this, he saw that eating with God-fearing Gentile believers in Yeshua was not an impure thing: “For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:12). These false teachers, called the “party of the circumcision,” were those who believed that Gentiles needed to be circumcised (formally converted) in order to achieve salvation. This is the gospel which Paul is opposing all through Galatians. These men could have been Jews preaching circumcision for all, or they could have been proselytes themselves who were trying to convince other Gentiles to convert. Apparently Peter and others felt intimidated by them, and so they conceded to their beliefs (verse 13).
Paul is not going to let this slide, so he calls Peter out in front of everyone:
But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (verse 14)
He reiterates that this has to do with the “truth of the gospel.” Paul’s gospel had to do with the fact that Gentiles did not need to be formally circumcised and undergo conversion in order to share in reaping the blessings of Israel, including the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation through Yeshua. Therefore those who were teaching a false gospel were preaching otherwise, sharing the opinion of those in Acts 15:1. Their position was that circumcision was the logical next step for Gentiles who were joining themselves to Israel. The truth of the gospel was that through Yeshua, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, meaning both groups are united in the body of Yeshua while maintaining ethnic identity.
Paul asks Peter, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Is he saying that Peter is no longer living according to the Torah? The common interpretation of verse 14 is that Peter had indeed previously abandoned the Torah (Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.), but now he was trying to convince Gentiles to come under its heavy burden, and this is what Paul was coming against him for. This interpretation, however, does not make sense considering the catalyst of the argument, which was regarding table fellowship, which is a matter of oral interpretation rather than God’s commandments. So what does Paul mean?
Peter was previously living like a Gentile in the sense that he refused to accept the mainline Jewish practice regarding the ritual purity of Gentiles. He was talking with, worshiping with, and even eating with Gentile God-fearers, which was completely against the predominant Jewish views regarding Gentiles. This doesn’t mean he didn’t still keep Torah; on the contrary, he was living in the true heart of the commandments now that he was loving his Gentile brothers and sisters in Messiah. Peter recognized that Gentiles who believe in Yeshua do not need to be circumcised and convert to Judaism, as he demonstrates, for example, in Acts 15:7-11. But when he separates himself from eating with the Gentiles to appease those of the party of the circumcision, he is essentially agreeing with them in saying that the Gentile believers are impure before God until they become circumcised, thus “compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews.” The phrase “live like Jews” is from the Greek word Ioudaizein, which is sometimes translated as “Judaize.” In the LXX, this term is used to indicate conversion to Judaism through circumcision (Esther 8:17), and we see it is used the same way here in Galatians. Paul’s condemnation of Peter has nothing to do with teaching Gentiles to keep Torah, but is about falling back to a “salvation by works,” where salvation and inclusion into Israel is attained by being physically Jewish or converted to Judaism through circumcision.
Paul aligns this belief with justification through “works of the Torah” (Galatians 2:15-16). Some have been led to believe that the keeping of the commandments is itself justification through the “works of the Torah,” and therefore should be avoided. The Dead Sea Scrolls shed some light on this phrase. One of the scrolls is entitled “Selection on Works of the Torah.” Discussed within are various halakhic rulings, mostly regarding ceremonial purity. Paul may or may not have known about this document, and perhaps this phrase was used in other contexts as well. But bearing this in mind, we see that Paul was applying the term to mean specific rulings, particularly those related to becoming legally Jewish, and saying that a person is not justified by observing these. This fits with the overarching theme we have seen thus far, that being conversion and acceptance of the believing Gentiles.
Paul continues to make the point that the wall of partition has been broken down between Jews and Gentiles, and this unity means that there is no need for the Gentiles to become Jewish through circumcision, “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (verse 18). If, after recognizing that Gentile believers are sanctified through Yeshua, the walls were again built up between the two groups so that Gentiles must be circumcised, then they would be found to have fallen for the false gospel that Paul warns against.
Let’s continue to look at Paul’s dialogue against Peter in verse 19. Here Paul says that he died to the Torah to live to God. For most Christians, this is a simple verse. They would say Paul is contrasting his former life as a Jew and his new life as a Christian. There are some problems with this belief. If it is true, then Paul is a hypocrite (Acts 25:8, 28:17). We know that Paul was a faithful Jew. So when he says things like this, he does not mean he is forsaking his former ways of faithfulness.
He clarifies what he means by the phrase “I died to the Torah” in the next verse: “I have been crucified with Messiah; and it is no longer I who live, but Messiah lives in me.” This is similar language to that which he uses in Romans 7:1-12. As we learned there, Paul was making the point that Yeshua bore the punishment for our transgression of the Torah. It is as if we have already paid the price for our sin when we put our faith in Yeshua. This gives us freedom so that we may “live for God,” walking in faith and obedience to His commands, putting to death our sinful nature daily. For, since Yeshua obeyed the Torah without fault, if He is living through us then we will inevitably be doing those same deeds He did. As Paul was saying, this relationship is through faith, not by being from a certain ethnic background or observing certain ritual traditions.
His dialogue against Peter ends in verse 21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Torah, then Messiah died needlessly.” If we achieved salvation by merely becoming circumcised, then there would have been no need for Messiah to die. But this is not how we are saved, and it is not how anyone was saved prior to Yeshua. Everyone who is righteous before God is not so on account of things they have done or their lineage, but because they have faith in God to forgive their transgressions when they earnestly repent (Ezekiel 33:12-16, Daniel 9:18-19, Hosea 14:1-4). Even before Yeshua was born, those who lived by faith were trusting in Him, even if they didn’t understand it fully (John 8:56, Hebrews 11:13).
So to summarize, this passage says nothing of Peter turning from Judaism and living like a pagan. He had not turned from Judaism, but was living the way the vision of the sheet had revealed to him. After some men came who did not believe the same way, he changed his tune. Remember, if we consider the fact that Galatians may have been written before the events of Acts 15, there was still no hard and fast rule at the time of this event about how Gentiles should be included. And if in fact this happened soon after the Jerusalem council, then Peter and the others would be even more at fault. So what about the “false believers?” In order to be “false” believers, they must be claiming to be believers, so since they were trying to force the Gentiles to become legally Jewish, they could have been Jews, but more likely they were Gentiles who had already become legally Jewish. Paul was not anti-Torah, but he was bringing the teachings of the Judaism of his day that related to Gentiles forward and adapting them to his gospel as revealed by Yeshua Himself. This involved correcting those who taught that the only way for a Gentile to be justified was by legally becoming a Jew.
Now let’s move on to Galatians 3. Here Paul seems to contrast the Spirit and faith against the Torah:
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Yeshua the Messiah was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Torah, or by hearing with faith?
What was the folly in Galatia that had Paul so upset? Somehow most Christians today believe that the Galatian believers who came to belief in Yeshua were keeping a form of modern Christianity until these men came along and turned them back to Judaism. We must remember that the first century Christians were a sect of Judaism and were functioning within the synagogue system (Acts 14:1, 18:4, 17:17). There was no Christianity as we know it today. The books in what we call the New Testament were letters written to individual communities, and had not been written until, at the earliest, around 50 AD.
The problem in Galatia was that the Gentiles who had previously received the Spirit were now under theological attack from those who were trying to get them to become circumcised and go through the legal conversion to Judaism. Paul’s question in verse 2 is an attempt to get them to focus on the root of their belief. They did not receive the Spirit by converting to Judaism, but rather through faith in Yeshua. Though they were uncircumcised, the Holy Spirit was given to them as the sign of the New Covenant and of salvation. Since they received it while still a Gentile, then it is evident that conversion to Judaism is not a prerequisite for salvation. Peter and some other Jewish believers recognize this in Acts 11:1-18, and this is the issue which was addressed at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
Paul continues this line of reasoning in Galatians 3:3: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Flesh obviously refers to physical things. So he’s saying, “After beginning your walk with a spiritual transformation, are you now trying to be perfected through a physical transformation by becoming Jewish (through circumcision of the flesh)?” He can’t be referring to following the rules of the Torah, for the Torah itself is spiritual, and thus also lies in opposition to the flesh (Romans 7:14).
Why does this seem to be such a big issue for Paul? Remember, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to see what Scripture said about the justification of Gentiles, and he found his answer in Genesis:
Even so Abraham ‘Believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ [Genesis 15:6]. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” (verses 6-8)
Even before the command of circumcision, Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. So Paul reasoned that since Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of faith prior to circumcision, circumcision and Jewish status cannot be a prerequisite for salvation (Romans 4:11-12, 16-18). Here we also see a succinct statement of Paul’s gospel: “All the nations will be blessed in you.”
So where does the big misunderstanding come in? It is based on wrong assumptions. To Paul, “works” refers to attempts at earning justification through conversion to Judaism and the various extra laws which necessarily rest upon a person once they go through such a conversion. He was not opposed to Gentiles being obedient to God according to the commandments within the Torah that apply to them as Gentiles. He was talking about Gentiles becoming Jewish in an attempt to be justified before God or accepted by men. In regard to this usage of works, there is no discrepancy between Paul and James. Paul, when writing to Gentiles about a very particular issue, used the term works to mean conversion, circumcision, and becoming Jewish. James wrote to Jewish believers, so when he referred to works he meant doing good deeds. The real faith vs. works question was this: “Can an uncircumcised Gentile be saved by faith, or does he need to undergo the works of circumcision and become Jewish?” And the real grace vs. law question was: “Can an uncircumcised Gentile be considered a son of Abraham and receive the same grace Abraham did, or does he have to keep the Torah first in order to receive it?” So we see that Paul and James were both right.
Paul continues to condemn the Gentiles’ behavior in Galatians 3:10: “For as many as are of the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Torah, to perform them.’” After reading this verse, many would see a Messianic Jew or a Christian who decides to honor the seventh-day Sabbath or eat kosher, and say to them, “Don’t you know that you are putting yourself under a curse?” Some versions of Scripture word this passage “those who rely” or “depend” on the works of the Torah. However, in the literal reading of the passage it says, “those who are of the works of the Torah.”
Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 27:26, the phrase spoken during the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Everyone who tried to avoid that curse found themselves unable to meet the requirements necessary to do so. We could paraphrase Galatians 3:10 like this: If a person is legally Jewish, either through conversion or heritage, and they rely on these and other works for justification, they are under a curse, because the Torah says that anyone who does not keep the Torah is under a curse. In fact, all of mankind is under that same curse (Romans 3:19).