Paul, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

We can never hope to fully understand Paul unless we constantly bear two things in mind about him:  (1) his identity as a Jew, and (2) his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. To lose sight of either of these (or both!) is to miss the most important context for understanding him.

Paul lived at a very critical time in the history of redemption—when the saving benefits of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants were first extended en masse to all nations. It was a period of remarkable transition, quite unlike anything Israel had ever experienced. And Paul was called to participate in that transition. It brought about a fundamental change in the composition of the covenant people. Throughout history, God had dealt in a unique way with Israel. They were his “treasured possession among all peoples…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). The Lord regarded them as “the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8) and gave them many special favors. As Paul put it,
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9:4-5)
Theirs was a very enviable position. When Paul was asked, “What advantage has the Jew?” he answered, “Much in every way.” And then he added, “To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). This was no small thing, to have God’s verbal revelation through the prophets. The Gentiles had the light of nature to teach them about God, but the Jews had, in addition, the light of Scripture. Paul echoes the Psalmist who said:

[The Lord] declares his word to Jacob,
          his statutes to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
          they do not know his rules. (Ps. 147:19-20)

Throughout history the Lord had made a distinction between those who belonged to him by virtue of the covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants and those who did not so belong to him (Ex. 9:4; 11:7; 33:16; cf. Mal. 3:18).[1] However, even though Israel enjoyed this unique status—this highly favored position—it had always been God’s intention to extend his saving benefits to all nations (see e.g., Gen. 12:3; 18:18; Isa. 49:1-6). We find several instances in the Scriptures of individual Gentiles turning to the God of Abraham and being incorporated into Israel (e.g., Ex. 12:48; Josh. 2:11; compared with 6:25 and Matt. 1:5; Ruth 1:16-17). But with the advent of Christ, the conversion of the Gentiles became a central focus of God’s redemptive program. The good news for Israel was that her Messiah had come; the good news for the Gentiles was that they were freely, openly, and actively invited to the celebration…as Gentiles.

It is against this historical background that we should understand John 3:16, arguably the most well-known verse in the entire Bible.
For God so loved the world [not just the Jews], that he gave his only Son, that whoever [Jew or Gentile] believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.[2]
This new period of redemptive history can be thought of as an expansion of Israel. Israel is broadened by the inclusion of believing Gentiles. Or perhaps we would do better to refer to the period as a transformation of Israel. Israel is redefined in terms of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews who (as Jews) confess Jesus as Lord, and Gentiles who (as Gentiles) do the same, are included in Christ, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

This transformation of Israel was fraught with difficulty. Many thorny questions arose. Is Israel’s unique status as God’s covenanted people compromised if believing Gentiles are admitted into the number of the chosen people? On what basis are Gentiles to be included? Must they perform the works of the law, which is to say, must they become Jews? That is, must they be circumcised, keep kosher, adopt Israel’s customs related to the Sabbath (i.e., the works of the law), before they find acceptance with God? Or are they accepted as Gentiles, solely on account of their faith in Jesus? What becomes of those Jews who do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah? More importantly, what becomes of God’s promise to Israel if the majority of Abraham’s descendants continue in unbelief? Has his promise failed? Has he revoked Israel’s calling? How are Jews and Gentiles to live side by side with each other in the same Christian community, given Israel’s purity laws? Can a Jewish Christian have table fellowship with a Gentile Christian? What are Gentile Christians to think about Jewish Christians? What are they to think about non-Christian Jews?

Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all deal with the problems arising from the tremendous influx of Gentiles into the fold of God.[3] They were very pertinent questions with very far-reaching practical implications. To properly address them, Paul would necessarily have to get to the bottom of things. He would have to treat of justification, the role of the law, the place of circumcision, the status of Israel, etc.

The importance of keeping the Jewish/Gentile question at the forefront of our thinking cannot be emphasized too strongly if we wish to properly understand Paul’s letters, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Let us proceed, then, by considering the Jewishness of Paul and his mission to the Gentles.

Paul, the Jew
We sometimes forget that Paul was a Jew. But if we wish to understand him it is vitally important that we remember it. For Paul, being a Jew was not incidental to his self-understanding, but essential to it. It meant that he belonged to the chosen people. Of all the people on the face of the earth, God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his own treasured possession (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:17; Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; Ps. 135:4; Isa. 43:21; etc.). As God’s people, the Jews were highly favored and blessed.[4]

Paul refers to his Jewish background and training, and indeed to his zeal as a Jew, on several occasions (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:4-5; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:3-6). Piecing the information contained in these autobiographical passages together with additional data gleaned from other sources, a clear picture of Paul begins to emerge. His given Hebrew name was Saul (Acts 7:58).[5] Being from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5), he was perhaps named after that tribe’s most illustrious son, Israel’s first king (1 Sam. 9:1-2). He seems to have been descended from a line of Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Being the son of a Torah-observant father, he was of course circumcised on the eighth day, according to the law (Phil. 3:5; cf. Gen. 17:12). Though born in Tarsus of Cilicia, young Saul was raised and educated in Jerusalem, the religious and political center of Judaism and the site of the holy temple. He was a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 23:3), one of the most celebrated rabbis of the age, a teacher of the law who is still held in great honor among the Jews.[6] Under Gamaliel’s tutelage, he was brought up “according to the strict manner of the law” (Acts 22:3). He confessed before Agrippa, “According to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5). This mention of the “strictest party” of the Jewish religion is perhaps a reference to the Pharisees in general as being stricter than other prominent Jewish groups (e.g., the Sadducees). But there is reason to believe that Paul may have been a member of a subgroup of Pharisees that proved to be even stricter than the Pharisees as a whole. 
A division had taken place within Pharisaism in the generation before Saul of Tarsus. During the reign of Herod the Great (36—4 bc) there arose two schools of thought within the already powerful movement, following the two great teachers of the Herodian period, Hillel and Shammai. We know them through dozens of discussions in the Mishnah (the codification of Jewish law, drawn together around ad 200), where almost always Hillel is the ‘lenient’ one, and Shammai is the ‘strict’ one. Their followers, likewise, argue issue after issue in terms of lenient and strict practices.[7] 
As we have seen, young Saul was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, the founder of the more lenient school of Pharisaic thought. But there is evidence to suggest that his sympathies lay with the stricter party of Shammai. One piece of evidence consists in his use of the word zeal to describe himself (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6). This zeal was not a mere warm-heartedness or emotional fervor in performing his daily devotions, as a modern Christian might use the term. It seems rather to have referred to a particular response toward fellow Jews whom he regarded as seriously compromised, a response that included violent suppression. When he spoke to the crowds in the temple, after they nearly tore him limb from limb, he said, “I am a Jew, born of Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). He said they were showing zeal for God. How so? By trying to kill him![8] And why were they trying to kill him? Because they supposed he had departed from the law by bringing a Gentile into the temple. A greater sacrilege could hardly be imagined. “Away with him!” they shouted (Acts 21:36). And a little later, when he dared to announce that Messiah Jesus had sent him to preach to the Gentiles, they yelled, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live” (Acts 22:22). This was a zeal which Paul said he once cherished himself. And the record of Scripture bears him out. He was present and consenting to the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1). Furthermore, Luke tells us that Saul was not content to harass and imprison the saints who lived in Jerusalem, but sought them out in foreign cities as well. 
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). 
This is why he writes to the Galatians, 
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14). 
He mentioned his former career of persecuting the followers of Messiah Jesus in his letter to the Philippians also. He described himself like this: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6). So then, although he was educated by the more lenient Gamaliel, who advised against a violent response to the fledgling Christian movement (Acts 5:33-39), Paul seems clearly to have had sympathies in line with the stricter school of Shammai (c. 50 bcad 30), who advocated taking a harder line with those deemed to be apostates. 

Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (ad 70), the majority of Pharisees were associated with the school of Shammai,[9] and the views of this school were deemed authoritative.[10] Of particular interest for us is the emphasis among the Shammaites “to severely restrict contact” with Gentiles.[11] And this brings us to the second thing we must constantly bear in mind:  Paul’s commission to preach to the Gentiles.

Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles
Paul’s life took quite an ironic turn when the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. This most Jewish of Jews, this most zealous of Pharisees, received a divine commission to invite Gentiles as Gentiles to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).

Jewish opinion was divided in the first century concerning Gentiles. There were some branches of Judaism that took a softer view, but both biblical and extra-biblical evidence show that the majority had a very low opinion of them. They were regarded as inherently unclean. They were presumed to be idolaters and sexually immoral, a presumption that was not altogether unjustified. Nevertheless, God’s concern for them was very great. And so he brought Jesus into the world, not only “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel,” but also to “make [him] a light for the nations, that [his] salvation [might] reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). And Paul was the instrument he chose to bring it about.

He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15)

Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21)

Delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you (Acts 26:17)

...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations [i.e., the Gentiles] (Rom. 1:5)

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (Rom. 11:13)

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16)

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience (Rom. 15:18)

He...was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16)

I went up [to Jerusalem] because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2)

They saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7-9)

For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Tim. 2:7)

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it (2 Tim. 4:17)

This is the necessary background for understanding Paul, especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. This explains his choice of subject matter. This explains why dealt with the issues he dealt with. It explains his emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith—to show that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christians; that they need not become Jews in order to be acceptable to God, because it is not by the works of the law (circumcision, keeping kosher, offering sacrifice, etc.) that one is justified before God. It is rather, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Of course all peoples and all nations belong to him by way of creation, but Israel belonged to God by way of his saving covenant with Abraham.
[2] That Jesus says, “God so loved the world,” and not that he so loved Israel, is significant. Of course Israel is a part of the world, and God loved Israel too. But the emphasis in the passage is quite unlike the testimonies we find in the Old Testament of God’s particular love and concern for Israel as distinguished from the nations (e.g., Deut. 4:37; 7:7-13; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3). In John 3:16 Jesus is hinting at the universal scope of the gospel in calling even Gentiles to salvation.
[3] These problems are an indication of the success of Paul’s ministry as “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; 15:16; Gal. 2:8-9; Eph. 3:8). Had the number of Gentiles who believed been small, there would not have been such urgency to address the issues.
[4] That God should have a special people at all—a people he favors above all other peoples—offends modern sensitivities. But it is true nonetheless. It should be noted further that the spirit of egalitarianism, so prevalent in the West, requires that God favor all people equally. But God is sovereign and may do whatever he pleases. And if he has deemed it wise to form a particular people through whom to work in history, who are we to gainsay it?
[5] “Paul” was a similar-sounding Greco-Roman name he used among the Gentiles.
[6] In the Mishnah, it is said, “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah [i.e., reverence for the Torah] came to an end, and cleanness and separateness perished” (Sotah 9:15).
[7] N. T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, p. 26
[8] Acts 21:31
[9] They of the School of Shammai outnumbered them of the School of Hillel (Mishnah, Shabbath 1. 4).
[10] Jacob Neusner, ed., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, p. 292
[11] Geoffrey Wigoder, The Encyclopedia of Judaism, p. 641


Steverino said…
Absolutely outstanding. I am THRILLED to read this clear, pithy, illuminating, helpful, wise and so-true little treatise. How well said! I learned valuable things from your insights. Thank you, beloved brother. Oh-- one more word: WOW!
Well-written and very clear and easy to undetstand. Your points were right on the money.
Doug Enick said…
Thank you gentlemen.

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