One of the most misunderstood writers in the entire Bible is the Apostle Paul. The retort that I most often hear to respond to my Messianic theology is, "What about Paul?" After all, the entire basis for Christianity's rejection of Mosaic Law rests squarely on the Apostle Paul. I mean, of course Jesus rebukes a few Pharisees here and there, but the verses Christians most often quote to absolve themselves of any possible commitments to Mosaic Law are all found in the writings of Paul--especially Romans and Galatians.
In order to understand Paul, we must have a grasp of who Paul is in terms of his religious and historical background. If we don't understand who Paul is, we won't understand what Paul is saying. In the same sense, if we don't understand that Jesus is Messiah, we won't grasp the authority with which he speaks.
After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul joins an early church sect called the Nazarenes. Not only does Paul join this group, but also at his trial before Felix in Acts Paul is explicitly described as their leader.
"For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." Acts 24:5
Now, if the contemporary Christian understanding of Paul is correct, the Nazarenes could be described as Believers in Jesus who reject the ongoing validity of Mosaic Law. Rather than being subjected to the beggarly elements of the flesh (Galatians 4:9), these people are under the law of the Spirit and are therefore not enslaved according to the flesh. Paul, after all, teaches us that Christ is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4). These claims must be accurate or Paul would not be described as their ringleader.
This description of Paul and the Nazarenes is not accurate in terms of Church history, however. In the fourth century, Jerome wrote, "The Nazarenes... accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law" (Jerome, On. Is. 8:14). The Nazarenes themselves were actually a sect of Judaism. Paul himself leads this sect that actually honors Torah rather than rejecting it.
Much is made of the conflict between Paul and the Jewish people. Though the conflict certainly exists, it exists for reasons entirely apart from what most Christians believe. In order to properly understand the conflict between the Jewish people and Paul, we must understand the historical conflict between the Nazarenes and the Jews.
"Not only do Jewish people have a hatred of them; they even stand up at dawn, at midday, and toward evening, three times a day when they recite their prayers in the synagogues, and curse and anathemize them. Three times a day they say, “God curse the Nazarenes.” For they harbor an extra grudge against them, if you please, because despite their Jewishness, they proclaim that Jesus is the Christ" (Epiphanius Panarion 29).
The actual curse that was recited over the Nazarenes three times a day was found at the Cairo Genizah and is the old version of the Jewish Birkat haMinim:
"For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the Minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed are you, O Adonai, who humbles the arrogant."
The reason why the Jews hated the Nazarenes so intensely was not for their rejection of Torah. Instead, it was for their acceptence of Jesus while continuing to remain Jewish in terms of their Torah-based ethical perspectives. When Epiphanius wrote Panarian, he completed it around the year 375 A.D. At that point, the Jewish people still cursed the Nazarenes three times a day--nearly 350 years after Christ's death and resurrection.
If you consider the threat that the Nazarenes posed to the Jews, it is of little surprise that they hated the Nazarenes so intensely. Paul and the rest of the Nazarenes by honoring Torah while accepting the Gospel of Christ had the greatest ability to convert the Jewish population to Christianity. After all, the Jewish people know that the promised Jewish Messiah is not the man of lawlessness (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
Given the simple understanding that Paul is a Nazarene, we already begin to see the error in how Paul is read. Paul, by virtue of him being the leader of the Nazarenes, isn't writing to advocate a rejection of Torah by any stretch of the imagination.
Paul's epistle to the churches in the province of Galatia is seen as the foremost convincing argument against the Mosaic Law. To you, the educated reader, this should already be sending up red flags by virtue of the fact that you know who Paul is. The common error people make is viewing Galatians and Romans as being epistles on the topic of nullification rather than justification. When you actually examine the scriptures, the theme of justification is everywhere.
"You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Galatians 5:4).
Clearly, Paul is arguing that justification before God can only come through Christ. The legalists would say that it is through commandments such as circumcision that we attain salvation from sin. However, Paul argues that it is by faith alone that Christ saves us. In fact, Paul's very definition and understanding of sin is rooted in the law:
"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). Notice the ongoing theme of justification in Paul's epistles.
Paul's definition of sin reflects that of first-century Christianity. Sin is not some vague concept, but is instead concrete and can be found directly in the Torah (1 John 3:4). Thus, Paul is arguing that our sinful human nature is incapable of redeeming itself by simply not sinning "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
If Paul is a devout Nazarene but yet at the same time is arguing against justification by the law, then the question must arise as to whether the Torah fits into Paul's theological understanding.
"Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Romans 3:31).
Paul did not see faith and the law as being mutually exclusive. Instead, faith is the foundation by which we establish the law.
"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Romans 6:1-2)
Paul argues that we cannot allow grace to abound by continuing in sin. If we use the grace of Christ as a license to sin--or violate God's law--then we have disgraced the sacrifice and intent of Christ.
"For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid." (Romans 6:14-15).
Many dispensationalists hold that Romans 6:14-15 paints out a law vs. grace paradigm. This is a logical fallacy. If you consider it, you cannot have grace unless you also have law. For grace to continue to be valid, we must also have law. The reason for this is because grace is unmerited favor to cover transgressions. By admitting that transgressions still exist, we admit that grace is still a necessity. As we've already covered, the definition of sin is transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Thus, if we have grace to cover our sin then we admit sin is still binding and if sin is still binding then the law is still valid. Grace and law are complimentary and are not separate concepts. In fact, the stricter the law, the more grace is extended as transgressions multiply when law increases.
Paul's argument is that we are no longer under the curse of the law (see Galatians 3:10). The law itself is only a curse if we neglect to obey its commandments (Deuteronomy 30:19). If sin is transgression of the law--or failure to keep the commandments of God--then Paul is referring to sin and its damning spiritual consequences when he speaks of being under the law. While Christ redeems us from the consequences of our sin, the important thing to remember is that Paul and the early church recognized the law itself as being good. By choosing to honor the Torah, you come into blessing and reject the curse. By rejecting the law, you place yourself under the curse of the law. Either way, Christ is our justification, but we cannot allow Christ to be a license to sin.
"And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs" (Acts 21:21).
Towards the end of Acts, Paul is falsely accused of breaking the law and teaching others to do so. The verse above is directly after it speaks ecstatically of many Jews coming to Jesus and being "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20). Obviously, the question here is whether or not Paul is teaching people to obey the law or to disobey it.
"Then take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law." (Acts 21:24)
At this point, Paul is given the opportunity to publicly demonstrate his Torah-honoring lifestyle. If he rejected the Torah, this would have been a perfect opportunity for him to instruct his followers. Instead, Paul continues to perform the Nazarite vow as a demonstration that he "walkest orderly, and keepest the law." Of course, by now you know that Paul was the leader of the Nazarenes so this should be of little surprise, but it is a point that often goes unnoticed.
"But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets" (Acts 24:14).
In conclusion, Paul obeyed God's commandments and held to the Gospel of Christ--the definition of a Nazarene. It is prophesied that the dragon in Revelation will make war with the same people.
"Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring--those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus." (Revelation 12:17).
Bottom line: If you want to piss off dragons, honor the Torah in the manner Paul and the early Church did.
All the best,