Living Like The Gentiles

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 concede 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). 

The next verse in Galatians continues this thought: “Now that no one is justified by the Torah before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’” Since nobody is able to perfectly obey the Torah, and are thus under a curse, it cannot be through obedience that we are justified, otherwise everyone who ever lived would be doomed. Instead, it is through faith that the righteous live. This does not mean that Torah observance out of love for God and His word invokes a curse. The curse is upon everyone, regardless of attempts to live up to God’s standard. The only way to be free of it is to live by faith in Yeshua. A side-effect of this faith is that it will cause us to want to always live the way God wants rather than following what is right in our own eyes. 

So how should we look at this situation? Let’s compare it to Christianity today. There are many different doctrines of faith within the Christian realm, each with their own doctrines. Some say that once you hold to that set of beliefs, you are “in.” Some even take this to the point of saying that once you are “in” you can never be “out” of that faith. It is a similar situation that was going on in Galatia that Paul was addressing. Gentiles were being encouraged to become legally Jewish by those who still held the belief that only someone who was legally Jewish could be justified. Paul was warning them that if they became legally Jewish, they would be held legally responsible to obey the whole Torah, because that’s what the Torah says, according to verse 10 above.

Paul goes on to say in Galatians 3:12 that the Torah is not of faith. He seems to contrast those who keep the Torah against those who live by faith. This has caused the majority of the church to shun even a hint of Torah observance. Did Paul really mean that faith and Torah observance are opposites? 

Let’s look at life and death. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life.” Paul looked at these two terms, life and death, with more than just the literal meaning. For Paul, “to live” is what some would call “saved:” in other words, to attain the right to participate in the resurrection and eternal life in the Kingdom and the World to Come. So then, to “die” is what some would call “unsaved” or “lost“: in other words, to face death without hope and with dread of the final judgment. Paul did not invent these definitions, rather they were common terminology and interpretations he would have learned as a Pharisee. An example is in Leviticus 18:5, which says, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I Am the Lord.” This verse was interpreted by the well-known Torah scholar Rashi to mean that resurrection into the World to Come was granted by obeying God. So to Paul the phrase “He who practices them shall live by them” would mean that the one who obeys the commands will find eternal life through them. Because of this, relying on obedience does not come from a heart of faith. Those who are expecting to receive their justification by converting to Judaism and becoming reliant upon outward acts rather than deeds borne out of love from the heart are not truly acting in faith.

So what Paul is saying is that no one is exonerated before God by becoming legally Jewish, because the righteous will enter the World to Come by faith. Becoming legally Jewish by works of the Torah is not of faith, but the one who as a result of his faith does the commands will receive a reward in the World to Come (Luke 12:33, John 14:15, 21; 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 2:11-13). 

Instead of presenting faith as against the keeping of Torah, Paul is clarifying the role that each of these things plays in the life of the believer. Since he was writing to a community that was falling into deception about how they received their justification, his goal was to bring the truth in relation to that practice. In letters to some of the other assemblies, he is more focused on their actions (Titus 2:14, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Ephesians 5:11).   

The righteous man who lives by faith is the one who lives by God’s commands and does them (Romans 2:6-10). After he has been redeemed from the curse of the Torah, that is, he has put his faith in the death of Yeshua for his sins (Galatians 3:13), this faith will manifest itself in a desire to live the way God has established for mankind, Jew and Gentile alike (Ecclesiastes 12:13, Galatians 3:14). Even when our desire is to walk in this way, we will still slip up and sin. When this happens, we must show our faith by repentance, trusting in the blood of Yeshua to wash us clean so that we may turn from the impure and strive for holiness (Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 1:14-16, Revelation 22:11-12). Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Yeshua the Messiah for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” If we look at it this way, then there is no problem here: we are justified by faith, and we live out that faith and show our right standing before God by obedience. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *