A Nail in the Coffin of the Hebrew Roots Movement

Paul wanted to win all sinners, Jews and Gentiles, to Christ, not to the OT ceremonial laws

It is important to notice here that when Paul is saying these things about the law, he is not abrogating the Ten Commandments. After all, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, quite clearly states their continual application. Paul himself in chapter 5 will go on to list a bunch of sins on the one hand, and a bunch of virtues on the other, that are required to be walking in the Spirit. They all have to do with the moral law, and none of them have to do with the ceremonial law.

 

I came across a very curious passage in 1 Corinthians that I thought shed a lot of light on Paul’s relationship to the ceremonial law. Here it is in the ESV (1 Corinthians 9:19-23):

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that be all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

The first curious point to notice is this language “I became as a Jew.” The word “ginomai” can mean “be” or “become” depending on the context, but “be” seems unlikely in this context, since Paul’s point is that when he was with Jews he looked like a Jew, and when he was with Gentiles, he looked like a Gentile. He therefore “became” one of them in order to win them to Christ (N.B., he wanted to win them to Christ, not to the OT ceremonial laws).

The second point to notice is the phrase in verse 20 “though not being myself under the law.” There is a textual variant at this point. The Byzantine manuscript tradition does not have this phrase, while the rest of the manuscript tradition has the phrase. It is almost certainly original, when one considers the age, weight, and geographical distribution of the manuscripts that have the phrase. We will proceed on the textual conclusion that it is original. The question is this: what does Paul mean by that, especially when one considers verse 21′s description of not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ?

The answer is that there must be a distinction between various parts of the law operating here (verse 21 is quite clear about this: there was some way that Paul could be as someone outside the “law” without being outside the law of God. If law means the same thing in that sentence all the way through, then Paul is declaring nonsense, for he would be saying that he was both outside and inside the law at the same time). There are aspects of the law that are non-negotiable (this is what verse 21′s “the law of God” is talking about, the moral law, the Ten Commandments). Then there are parts of the law that are definitely negotiable depending on the group of people he is with (this is what verse 20 is talking about, the ceremonial aspects of the law). It is just here that the verb “became” is important. Paul does not regard the status of being like a Jew as something that he normally is! This is what is so odd about the verse. Paul was a Jew by ethnicity! The answer to this conundrum is Philippians 3: all those things such as his ethnicity are skubalon (dung) compared with the glories of Jesus Christ. Being united to the Messiah is Paul’s new way of being human that is far more important than ethnicity or anything else (Galatians 3:28). What things are skubalon in Philippians 3? Being a Hebrew of Hebrews, being a Pharisee, being zealous for the law, having confidence in the flesh, and even being blamelessly righteous under the law! See Philippians 3:2-6. For our purposes, the things that Paul counts as skubalon are the things that the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) prizes above Jesus Christ.

This is the particular hideousness of the HRM: the Old Testament is more important than Jesus Christ and does not point to Jesus Christ despite John 5:45-47 and Luke 24:13-49. Jesus (they will always call Him Yeshua regardless of what the entire GREEK New Testament calls Him, because somehow Hebrew is more sacred than Greek. It was really rather stupid of the New Testament authors to call Him “Iesous” of which “Jesus” is simply a transcription into English. It’s a good thing that the HRM folk are smarter than God at this point) always recedes into the background in the HRM. Just ask a HRM person why there are no sacrifices anymore. They will invariably answer that there is no temple. That’s their reason. Not that Jesus Christ was the once-for-all sacrifice that ends all other sacrifices (as the book of Hebrews makes abundantly clear all the way through the book). No, it’s because there is no temple. So why don’t they go build one and finish their denial of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for sins by starting up the sacrifices again, which Hebrews tells us never took away the guilt of sin anyway? The fact of the matter is that God had the Temple destroyed precisely because Jesus had ended the sacrificial system of the law by being the one perfect sacrifice to which all the OT sacrifices always pointed.

The juxtaposition of verse 20 with verse 21 indicates that there are things in the law that are regarded as negotiable for Paul, depending on the people he is with, and the possibilities for evangelism. Those aspects of the law are not what Paul usually does. When he does do them, it is for evangelistic purposes only, and even then it is only when he is seeking to reach Jews, and needs to avoid offense. These things that are included are things that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, such as dietary laws and feast-days.

Paul only did those things around Jews as a concession so that no one would be distracted from the gospel of Jesus Christ. But when people started insisting on these things, as in the book of Galatians, Paul fought back tooth and nail. He berated Peter for forcing the Gentiles to live like Jews (Galatians 2:14), something the HRM is most definitely advocating. In chapter 3, Paul says that the works of the law do not justify anyone. For anyone who relies on the works of the law (and the HRM definitely relies on the works of the law) they are under a curse, for perfection is required (Galatians 3:10). The law was a guardian until Christ came (3:24), which is no longer required as a guardian (3:25) because Christ has come. In chapter 5, Paul says that if they accept circumcision as a requirement, then Christ is useless to them.

It is important to notice here that when Paul is saying these things about the law, he is not abrogating the Ten Commandments. After all, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, quite clearly states their continual application. Paul himself in chapter 5 will go on to list a bunch of sins on the one hand, and a bunch of virtues on the other, that are required to be walking in the Spirit. They all have to do with the moral law, and none of them have to do with the ceremonial law.

In Galatians 6, Paul says that the real motivation for these ceremonial law-keepers is that they want to boast in the flesh (6:13). Paul says that he wants to boast in something different: the cross of Jesus Christ. He explicitly says that circumcision counts for nothing (6:15). If there is never any change whatsoever in the OT law (which is what the HRM claims), then why is circumcision declared by Paul to be counting for nothing? Is circumcision the only thing that counts for nothing? Or is circumcision the symbolic issue that stands for the ceremonial law of the OT? Surely it is the latter.

Lane Keister is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.