Early in the book of Acts, the man we know as Paul the apostle was Saul the Pharisee, the persecutor of the followers of Jesus. He was a man on a mission, going from city to city seeking Christians to drag back to Jerusalem in irons. They believe that a man executed in shame on a Roman cross is our long-awaited Messiah? Blasphemy! Heresy! No doubt he took pride in his zeal, considering himself a defender of the Jewish faith, a champion of God.
Until, that is, he met the crucified and risen Jesus himself, and his world was turned upside down.
Paul the apostle was still a man of zeal. But he never forgot who he was before he met Jesus, nor who he became by the astonishing grace of God. Nothing mattered more to him than grace. Nothing was more central to his teaching of the gospel. And nothing could be allowed to contaminate the purity of that message, even if it meant having to resort to some zealously harsh words.
As we have seen in his letter to the Philippians, when it comes to matters that are crucial to the faith, Paul is hardly one to beat around the bush:
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh… (Phil 3:2-3, NRSVUE)
Who has earned such a tongue-lashing from Paul? Scholars call them “Judaizers” — basically Jewish converts to Christianity who insisted that Gentile converts follow Jewish ways. In particular, some were insisting that Gentiles be circumcised.
Imagine making elective surgery a condition of membership at your church.
To be fair, we should remember that the Jews had centuries of training in hating and reviling Gentiles, sometimes calling them “dogs.” Jews who acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah had already taken quite the leap of faith, one that separated them from the unbelieving Jewish community or even their families.
And they weren’t saying that Gentiles couldn’t, in principle, be Christians. They weren’t refusing to worship with them. Again, that’s an unprecedented leap. But they wanted one concession. Circumcision had always been a defining distinction of the children of Abraham. If Jews — who were God’s chosen people from the beginning and the first converts to Christianity — were to welcome Gentiles into the fold, surely a minute or two under the knife wasn’t too much to ask?
Everywhere Paul went, the issue nipped at the heels of his ministry to the Gentiles. It was no small matter. Even Peter struggled with it, despite having shared the gospel with a Gentile household himself. He watched in amazement as the Holy Spirit fell on them, and then ordered that they be baptized as believers (Acts 10).
Thus, when he visited the Gentile church in Antioch, he was at first perfectly content to break bread with Gentile believers. But then he heard that Jews who advocated circumcision for Gentiles were coming from Jerusalem. Fearing what they might think of his behavior, he turned his back on the Gentiles. Even Barnabas — the co-pastor of the church! — joined Peter in his hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-13).
When he saw this, Paul went nuclear, confronting Peter in front of everybody: “If you, though a Jew, live like a gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14). We don’t know what happened next. But by the time a council was convened in Jerusalem to discuss the matter, Peter came out in full support of the Gentile mission (Acts 15).
Despite the council’s decision not to impose circumcision on Gentile believers, however, the problem persisted. It’s important, I think, to keep in mind the context I’ve described above. The Gentile mission provoked a sea change in Jewish identity: God’s chosen people, by his divine will, was now to include Gentiles, the “them” in centuries of us-versus-them thinking.
We shouldn’t think of the Judaizers (or at least, not all of them) as wild-eyed, hateful fanatics. If even Peter, the Messiah’s right-hand man and one of the first to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, could lose his bearings on this, we shouldn’t expect any different from the rank and file.
Still: why such nasty invective from Paul? To call fellow Jews “dogs” would have been profoundly insulting. Was it because some of the Judaizers were, in fact, aggressively fanatic?
Perhaps. But the more important issue is that, especially given his own personal history, Paul could see with much more clarity what Peter could not. As we’ll examine in the next post, the very core of the good news was at stake. Any compromise would be but the thin end of a quickly widening theological wedge — a warning that is still relevant to us.