Paul: Mission and Message

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the September 19, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” Galatians 3:2, NIV

Have you ever seen someone who was going about something the wrong way? Recognizing it will never work that way or that they might even get hurt if they continue to do what they are doing, you try to help. But they do not want your help. In fact, they tell you that this is the only way it has ever been done, and they prefer to continue doing it that way, thank you very much. Sometimes, they may be right, and we can learn something by watching them.  But sometimes they are not, and we walk away frustrated, shaking our heads and hoping that they do not injure themselves through their ignorance and stubbornness.

Perhaps the apostle Paul could relate to that. Both his Jewish culture and the Gentile culture he was reaching out to with the gospel had become enslaved to works-based righteousness. The Jews saw themselves as separate and distinct from the heathen Gentiles. They felt their worship of the one, true God assured them of salvation. In order to maintain that distinctness, they observed myriad, finely-detailed laws and ordinances. The end result was that they were indeed distinct in these observances, but they wandered off the path that leads to salvation. How they observed the rules became more important than why. In this, they were not so much distinct as they were similar to the Gentiles. While the Gentiles worshipped graven idols instead of the true God, the system of rules that evolved around such idol worship differed little in effect from the requirements the Jews lived by.

Both Jews and Gentiles had prescribed ceremonies and holy days. Both surrounded these days with various rituals and banned activities. Both had rules related to food and drink. Both also expected sacrificial gifts of animals and/or money to facilitate salvation. In both cases, all these things came to be understood improperly as vehicles to favor with the presiding deity. That the Jews had gotten off track in their understanding of what God expects was made clear by the prophet Isaiah who rebuked their sacrificial fasts that had become more important than justice and mercy.[i] Jesus also brought alive the memory of Isaiah’s counsel through His parable regarding the sheep and the goats.[ii] In addition, that parable provided a new perspective on the problem when Jesus shared that how we treat others is as though it was done to God himself. The Gentiles, though idol worshipers, had the concept of mortals entertaining heavenly visitors unaware of their godly status. In the many myths about such visits, they proved a boon or a curse to the visited depending on how they were received by their unknowing hosts. Jesus’ words therefore touch a resonating chord in the experiences of both Jews and Gentiles.

This begs the question whether or not this concept is somehow deeply rooted in a forgotten, common past. The early chapters of Genesis, the Bible’s first book, touch upon the commonality of all mankind, long before there were distinctions such as Jew and Gentile. Although definitely seen from a Jewish perspective, the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, brings us back to that commonality with the New Heaven and New Earth, with its holy city, New Jerusalem.[iii] An explanation for the loss of the common human experience appears in the story of the Tower of Babel, where a multitude of languages came about and split humanity.[iv] A counter point to this is the Pentecostal experience where the Holy Spirit allowed the Apostles to communicate the Gospel of grace in the various native languages of all the people attending the feast from their many different countries. The first event marked the shattering of mankind’s fellowship and unity. The second was earnest toward the healing and restoration of that unity and fellowship to its former state that will one day occur.

As a result of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, God used those who were open to that possibility to proclaim a unified message of salvation through grace to all people. He attempted to do this with Peter, the simple fisherman, through the vision of the lowered sheet and his encounter with the Centurion Cornelius and his family.[v] But Peter had trouble making the transition. He most likely did his best, but he was inconsistent. Exasperated by his vacillation, Paul finally had to confront Peter about it.[vi] Perhaps it was because of Paul’s unwavering commitment to whatever position he took that God looked his way when he needed someone to cross the cultural divide to the non-Jewish world and also remain fully committed to that effort. When we consider the various torments Paul was subjected to, including being stoned, we cannot help but wonder how Peter would have fared with similar treatment. Perhaps he would have done like John Mark and returned to the safety of familiar environs.[vii] The Bible is silent regarding this and the events in Peter’s life prior to his rumored crucifixion, upside down, in Rome. However, the same document that preserves this crucifixion tradition attempts to address the absence of information about Peter. But the apocryphal Acts of Peter never made it into the biblical canon, perhaps because of some of its claims, as in the story of Peter resurrecting smoked fish. Unfortunately, such claims call into question even the accuracy of the crucifixion story.

Philip was also led to evangelize outside of the mainstream Jewish world with his witness to Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.[viii] But both of these already acknowledged the one true God. It was still necessary to cross the divide into the Greco-Roman world. Paul, who had dual citizenship as both a Jew and a Roman by birth, was the ideal candidate to do so. A Jewish fisherman, even one who was steadier in conviction than Peter, would lack credibility on the Greek peninsula and in the Roman world. Paul was a human nexus astride the historical timeline. He was a man born to change the world as no one else might. There have been many who were born in two cultures who have never take advantage of the opportunities that presents. Paul, with his fixed purpose, had no failures there.

As this human conduit between cultures, Paul made some very important decisions that possibly decided the fate of his mission. He could have taken to the Gentiles a message about circumcision and burdensome, legalistic practices as had so many before him. Even after coming to Christ, some still wanted to do this. If he had, he might have achieved no better results than the Jews had ever achieved with Gentiles. Instead, he chose to take to them a message of faith and grace made possible by that faith. He chose to tell people that by simply believing, their lives could be turned completely around, and they would find salvation. This salvation comes not through appeasing sacrifices as they had been taught all their lives. It is a free gift of grace from a loving God.[ix] Legalistic requirements could not save them, no matter how many rules and ordinances they drew up and made themselves follow. Only believing in the one true God and the salvation He offers could do that.[x] All may be set free from these chains of law that bind us. They bind us, not for salvation, but to be controlled and subservient to those self-appointed gatekeepers who rule over artificial systems of worship with their books of creeds and ecclesiastical requirements.

Laws have often been attractive to certain controlling personalities. They allow them to exercise power over others that they might never otherwise have. These perhaps are those servants who have found themselves left in charge by an absentee Master, and they have abused that power to their own advantage.[xi] They don’t understand that the Master will return and see the results of their abuse of the other servants. Maybe because the return has been greatly delayed, they have ceased expecting it, allowing themselves to take liberties with their power they might never have done otherwise.

It is the power of the message that Paul preached that it breaks the control of these abusers. When one recognizes that grace is dispensed directly from God as a loving response to the faith of the supplicant, it becomes clear that such salvation needs no human repositories of grace to dispense it. They may tend to do so only for those they favor and deny to those they do not. This was the liberating message that Paul preached, and it was the fire that lit the Reformation one and a half millennia later. Whenever the world has lain in darkness, oppressed by the control of these legalistic “accusers of our brothers and sisters,”[xii] God has chosen remarkable individuals like Paul the Apostle and Martin Luther, to kindle the flame of grace brighter to pierce that darkness and set his people free. No matter how much those abusive servants attempt to perpetuate their control through nepotism and cronyism, they cannot extinguish that light. These great men knew that, and we may receive that liberating knowledge as well. Then we, like Paul, can carry it to the world.

[i] Isaiah 58:1-12

[ii] Matthew 25:31-46

[iii] Revelation 21:1-3

[iv] Genesis 11:1-9

[v] Acts 10

[vi] Galatians 2:11-12

[vii] Acts 15:36-38

[viii] Acts 8

[ix] Romans 6:23

[x] Galatians 2:16

[xi] Matthew 24:45-51

[xii] Revelation 12:10




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Galatians: Walking by Faith




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