To Quote A Pharisee...
Unfortunately, Christians tend to think Pharisee = Bad. Yeshua/Jesus’ conflicts with a group of Pharisees, as documented in the Newer Testament (NT), are very well known in the church. Lesser known are Yeshua’s positive comments regarding the Pharisees, but I digress because that’s not the point of this writing.
Instead, I’d like to quote a devout Torah observant Jewish Pharisee who said something very profound around 30 years after Yeshua’s death and resurrection. This Pharisee was named Rav Sha’ul (Rav is a generic Hebrew term for Rabbi/teacher). He said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
If you are a Christian, you likely recognize that quote as being from the book of Ephesians 2:8-9. A Jewish Pharisee said that?!? Yes, according to the Bible anyway. Rav Sha’ul is better known as the Apostle Paul, and he was a devout Torah observant Jewish Pharisee his entire ministry of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. In case you are unfamiliar with Paul, let me give you a little background.
The Apostle Paul is one of the major figures in the Bible. In the NT portion of the Bible, Paul wrote all of the books between Romans and Philemon. Some scholars think Paul also wrote the book of Hebrews. In relation to the Bible as a whole, Paul wrote a very small portion of the text. In relation to the rest of the NT, Paul wrote more books than anyone else. Around half of the NT’s 27 books are traditionally attributed to Paul. When it comes to the Bible and Christianity, Paul is a pretty big deal! Further, what we commonly refer to as books that Paul wrote are more accurately described as letters. Some of the most quoted and referenced verses by Christians come from Paul’s letters:
Ephesians 2:8-9 (quoted above)
Romans 10:9 - ….if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Philippians 1:21 - For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
1 Corinthians 13:13 - So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
2 Timothy 3:16 - All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
These verses are not only Paul’s words, but they are God’s inspired words communicated through the Apostle Paul. In and of itself, this is utterly amazing! However, it’s absolutely critical we don’t stop there in our understanding of Paul’s writings. Why? Listen to these equally inspired words of the Apostle Peter (my emphasis underlined):
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:15-18).
Before you read Paul’s writings, know that he can be hard to understand. Be careful with how you interpret what Paul says, especially concerning God’s Torah/Law, because you might misunderstand, get carried away by lawlessness and become unstable. According to Peter, this was already happening in the 1st Century!
It’s also critical to understand who Paul was as a person. When God inspired human authors, they didn’t stop being who they were. They didn’t lose their character or personalities! Further, God inspired them to address real people, at real times and in real places who were dealing with real problems. All of these issues must factor into our interpretation and application of Scripture.
So, who was the Apostle Paul? Like I mentioned earlier, Rav Sha’ul was a devout Torah observant Jewish Pharisee who believed in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah (Christ). Let’s look at several verses from a NT document not written by Sha’ul, the book of Acts, to learn more:
Acts 9 - Sha’ul or Saul has a divine encounter with Yeshua on the road to Damascus
Acts 9:15 - chosen to be the Apostle to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews)
Acts 13:9 - named Sha’ul, Saul and Paul - there was no Divine name change. After Acts 13:9, the underlying Greek text simply shifts from Saulos to Paulos for the majority of the remainder of the book
Acts 16:1-3 - circumcised Timothy according to Torah
Acts 20:16 - observed Torah by eagerly bypassing Ephesus to go to Jerusalem to observe Shavuot/Pentecost according to Deuteronomy 16:16
Acts 21:17-26 - underwent ritual purification to counter a false claim that he taught against Torah (i.e., Moses/Book of Moses/Law)
Acts 21:39 - identified as a Jew from Tarsus
Acts 22:3 - Highly educated and extremely intelligent. Paul probably had a genius IQ by today's standards
Acts 23:6 - self-identified as a Pharisee in the present tense
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, in this case using the book of Acts to provide some context into who the Apostle Paul was, we see that he was a devout Torah observant Jewish Pharisee before and after his encounter with the risen Messiah. Why am I pointing this out and making this connection? Widespread misunderstanding and negativity regarding the Pharisees among Christians today has roots in unstable widespread Christian anti-semitism of the past, which I believe grew in large part as the result of misunderstanding Paul’s writings.
When it comes to the Bible, it’s very dangerous to take a single verse out of context and try to understand and apply it. Actually, the book of Proverbs is the only book of the Bible you can safely take a single verse from and understand and apply it to your life. With every other book in the Bible, you at the very least need to read the verses which came before and after any single verse. Because we know from Peter that Paul can be hard to understand, we need context from all of Paul’s letters to understand a single verse from one of Paul’s letters. Further, we need context from the book of Acts to understand who Paul was.
In our Bibles, we have the inspired words of God communicated through human prophets and apostles and passed down to us through numerous authors, scribes, scholars, linguists and translators. Additionally, these words are written in multiple literary genres including what we would recognize today as being history, law, poetry, biography, genealogy, songs, letters and theology. All of this tossed together means single verses and even words are often rich with meaning. What a single verse or word means to us in 21st Century America may not be what it meant to a someone like the Apostle Paul (a.k.a, Rav Sha’ul), who was a devout Torah observant Jewish Pharisee trying to communicate Hebraic words, traditions, ideas and idioms in a foreign language (Greek) to a primarily pagan Gentile audience with the goal of sharing the gospel of the Jewish Messiah. When it comes to Rav Sha’ul, we need to be careful to heed Peter’s warning and be like the Jews in Berea (my emphasis underlined):
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men (Acts 17:10-12, ESV).