Chapter 3: The Pauline Epistles

The New Testament Epistles are the final word on the meaning and application of Christian faith. They were written after the events described in the four Gospels and after Pentecost had given the apostles inspired insight into the significance of what had take place in Christ's death and resurrection.

The Gospels, of course, were also written after Pentecost -- even after Paul had written his Epistles. But the Epistles expound the implications of the Christ event in the actual situation of specific churches. They particularly address the Gentile problem, which was undoubtedly the great problem of the early church. The Gospels, on the other hand, do not address this problem but record the tradition of the Christ story up to the time of the resurrection.

Some of the radical exponents of form criticism contend that the four Evangelists simply put those words on Christ's mouth which bear on the issues they faced in the church at the time of writing. It is said that they thereby skillfully manipulated the Jesus tradition for their own apologetic purposes. We suggest, however, that the evidence of the Gospels indicates how restrained and true to life the Evangelists were in narrating the works and sayings of Jesus. Jesus is depicted as a real Jew living in Jewish culture. Although He freed the Sabbath from petty rabbinical restrictions, He did not discourage people from respecting this ancient institution. How could this fact, however, be used to prove that Jesus imposed Sabbath-keeping on all His followers for all time? Jesus did nothing to discourage people from offering sacrifices, being circumcised, submitting to priestly functions and paying the temple tax either. The issue is not whether Jesus discourage Jews from living like Jews. Even the apostles after Him did not command Jewish Christians to stop circumcising their children, to cease their Sabbath-keeping or to refrain from observing food laws. The issue is whether the Gentile Christians were commanded to observe these customs also. The distinct fact is that the Gospels concentrate on what Jesus said and did before Pentecost. It is clear that He did not address the problem of Sabbath-keeping among Gentile churches. On the other hand, Paul was given a special commission for the great Gentile mission, and he therefore addressed the matter of whether Gentile Christians should be subject to Mosaic laws.

The central concern of Paul's writing -- especially of his Galatian and Roman letters -- was the Gentile mission. The apostle was called from his mother's womb for the special assignment of enlightening the Gentiles in fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, Isaiah and Jeremiah (Genesis 12:2-3; Isaiah 49:1, 6, 60:1-3; Jeremiah 1:5; Acts 9:15, 26:16-18; Galatians 1:15). Paul was dominated by the overwhelming consciousness that the decisive hour had arrived when God's secret plan concerning the nations was to be accomplished (Ephesians 3:2-6). The gates which guarded God's bounties within Judaism were to be thrown open, and the nations were to be invited to share in the blessings of Abraham. Christ had inaugurated a new day in which the Gentiles could come into the family of Abraham. Christ had inaugurated a new day in which the Gentiles could come into the family of Abraham without becoming proselytes to the Jewish law. Paul saw that they must be evangelized, not proselytized. All barriers which hindered the Gentiles from embracing the gospel had to be removed. If the regulation of the written code were an obstacle, they must be set aside. It was more important to bless others with the gospel than to preserve the regulations of an abstract law (cf. Galatians 2:11-14 with 1 Corinthians 9:20-23).

Paul is not silent on the issue of Sabbatarianism, as some have suggested. The reason he is not silent on the matter is because he confronted the stormy issue of whether or not the Gentile churches should be subject to Jewish laws. The Jewish Christians reverenced their heritage and continued their distinctively Jewish way of life. Some of them insisted that Gentile converts must also be inducted into their culture and live like Jews in obedience to the law. If these Jewish Christians had had their way, Christianity would have remained another sect of Judaism. The Jerusalem Christians were too conservative. They lacked breadth of vision to see that the message of Christ was to burst from the narrow confines of the Jewish culture to become a faith for all nations. Like many Christians today, they identified Christianity with their own culture and wanted to press other believers into their own pattern of life and worship.

Paul's version of Christianity for the Gentiles won a great victory at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15). This conference decided that the law of Moses was not to be imposed on the Gentiles. Yet the battle was not over. The Pauline letters show that the apostle to the Gentiles had to fight both against the legalism of Jewish Christians and the antinomianism of Greek libertines. But troublesome Jewish Christians overshadowed the libertine element as the major problem in the Pauline churches. Consequently, there are many allusions to the presence of these Jewish Christian agitators in such letters as Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Timothy and Titus. They did not always agitate the same form of Christian Judaism. Apparently there many forms of it in the first century, just as there were many sects within Judaism itself. But these agitators all insisted that some aspect of Jewish piety or precept must be added to Paul's gospel.

The three major things which characterized the Jewish faith were circumcision, the Sabbath, and the food laws. (1) Since these were the heritage of Jewish Christians, we should not be surprised to find Paul intimating conflict over circumcision (Galatians 5:2-3; Philippians 3:2-3), the Sabbath (Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5) wherever Jewish Christian agitators had penetrated. Paul is only silent on Sabbatarianism in not urging it on his converts. But he is certainly not silent on Sabbatarianism.

Given the historical situation, it is difficult to argue that the following scriptures are not referring to conflict over the Sabbath:

      You are observing special days and months and seasons 

      and years.  I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted 

      my efforts on you. -- Galatians 4:10-11

      Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat 

      or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New

      Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. -- Colossians 2:16

      One man considers one day more sacred than another; 

      another man considers every day alike.  Each one should be 

      fully convinced in his own mind.  He who regards one day as 

      special, does so to the Lord -- Romans 14:5-6

Since there is good reason to suspect that text without context is pretext, we will examine each of the preceding scriptures in its respective context.

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