The introduction of Saul of Tarsus is a unique one in scripture. It is not pretty, but rather brutal, bloody, and unforgettable. Saul is first depicted, not as an inspirational figure, but as a murderous fanatic, expressing his approval of the stoning of the believing Stephen. Charles Swindoll puts it well when he says “the man [Saul] looks more like a terrorist than a devout follower of Judaism.” Some time after this, however, the L-rd appears to Saul as he is riding horseback to Damascus, blinds him, sends him to Ananias to restore his sight and he eventually becomes one of the most important figures in formulating the theology of what started as The Way.
How does a brute become one of the most influential figures in Biblical history? To answer this in one word, grace. Paul’s theology is one of grace. The theology of Paul has been examined, debated, refuted, and picked apart for over a thousand years. He has been labeled a saint, a traitor to Judaism, and the founder of Christianity among other things. But who was he, and what was his theology, namely his understanding of the Torah?
First of all, t is important for me to explain what I mean by Torah. Although commonly translated as “the Law,” its understanding is really much broader than this. The Hebrew word torah comes from the verb yarah, meaning ‘to cast, throw, or shoot,’ and is used as an archery term for ‘to take aim or shoot.’ The essence of the word is “to hit the mark.” Torah is more than laws and regulations. Torah is more than the five books of Moses. Torah is essentially God’s mark that He desires us to shoot for. Saul of Tarsus seems to have understood this well. For him, with his impeccable knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and of what is called the Oral Law as well, Torah was internal. Torah was grace. Unfortunately, this understanding seems to get lost in most theology studies today. When readers today read “the Law” in Paul’s writings, their mind automatically goes to Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In many cases, this is not what he is referring to. At times, he says “in the law it is written” and then he quotes from a book outside of the five books of Moses, such as the Psalms (See I Corinthians 14:21). A monotone understanding of what Paul means when he says ‘the Law’ is simply insufficient to truly grasp what he is saying in his letters and what is said about him in the book of Acts. In my reading of the writings of Saul of Tarsus, I have learned not to settle for this monolithic understanding.
I have always been a very logical person, perhaps too logical at times. But this drive to make sense of whatever I possibly can in the world around me and within me has led me into some great opportunities. One of the most memorable, seemingly illogical things that I have ever done in my life happened on the day that I accepted the L-rd Yeshua as my Savior. My mind could not grasp what my heart felt. I did not fully understand the implications of what I was doing. All that I knew is that it was true, and that it was the right thing to do. It has been one decision that I don’t remember ever regretting. On that day, I became a new person. Although I can’t explain what happened to me, I don’t view it as illogical anymore. My faith in G-d and the reality of G-d are as real to me as anything else that I have ever experienced.
When it comes to learning, I want to describe myself as a sponge. (However, I don’t retain as much water as I would like). When I became a believer, I begin to soak up the Scriptures. They were all I wanted to read and all I wanted to study. If I was going to become a student again, a college student, then I was going to study the Scriptures. I went to church services, Bible studies, outreaches, and I began to serve in middle school ministry every week. I could not get enough. I had great teachers, an amazing pastor, and many individuals that poured their life into me. But something was missing. There was a discontinuity between my life, the church, the teachings, and the Scriptures. I was learning, but I wanted to know more. I grew weary of reading and learning the Bible. I longed to feel it, to live it out…to make sense of it.
One day, something happened. I heard from someone at church that there were Jews who also believed that Yeshua was the Messiah. My mouth nearly dropped open. It’s almost as if my heart skipped a beat at that moment. I had to see this for myself. The teacher of the Jewish Roots Bible study was possibly the first Jewish person I met who believed in Yeshua. He taught Scripture in a way that I had not yet experienced, and I praise G-d for bringing me across his path. He made the New Testament make sense to me. I had found what I was looking for.
What about Paul? Did he make sense? I still remember thinking that Paul and Saul were two different men, and I would venture to say that I am not the only one who has thought this. In my mind, there was Saul the Jew and Paul the Christian. This was a misunderstanding on my part, however, and a failure to read through the book of Acts slowly and carefully. As far as I can tell, Saul’s name was never changed to Paul in the Scriptures. Both were his names from his childhood, which was customary amongst first-century Jews. Why is this important? I think it furthers the divisions that exist between Saul the unbeliever and Saul the believer. Granted, he became a new man, indeed a new creation, after meeting the L-rd on the road to Damascus, but the fact remains that he was still Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee. And he describes himself as such. (Acts 23:6) It is interesting that today the term Pharisee has such a negative connotation, despite the fact that our beloved Apostle Paul was one. It is important to keep in mind that his understanding of Scripture, even after he became a believer, was shaped and molded by his education as a Pharisee, and by his love for and internalization of the Torah. His messianic faith did not cause him to forsake the Hebrew Scriptures. His writings are embedded with commentary after commentary on them in light of his new faith in the Messiah. He understood that believing in Him was in all regards the natural outcome of truly believing what Moses and the prophets had said about the coming of the Messiah. Yeshua was the fulfillment, and not the cancellation of the Torah. It is heartbreaking to me that many believers don’t study the Hebrew Scriptures like they should. Some feel that they are irrelevant, and others don’t even own a copy of the Old Testament because there are so many Bibles being printed without it these days. An incomplete Bible leads to an incomplete faith.
Beginning to be taught the Scriptures by a Jewish teacher opened my eyes to the richness and fullness of the Bible as it is slowly understood in its proper context. It is this richness and fullness that is so evident in the writings of Paul. Paul was known to be a student of a well-known rabbi, Gamaliel. He was a great teacher and rabbi himself. He was a emissary, traveling all over the ancient world for the sake of the Gospel. With these qualifications, it is crucial to let the man speak for himself. How did he feel about the Torah (Law)? In Romans 3:31, he asks and then answers his own question: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” In Romans 7:12, he calls the law “holy and the commandment holy and just and good”…and later he calls the law “spiritual” (v.14). To sum up Paul’s feelings towards the Torah in one verse, he proclaims that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Perhaps all Scripture includes the Old Testament. Perhaps the Old Testament is profitable in equipping the man of God for every good work.
The biggest misconception concerning the Torah is its relationship to salvation. Well, the truth is that the Torah has never saved anyone. Anyone who teaches that the Torah produces salvation or that the Torah is necessary for salvation is directly contradicting Scripture. Saul had a big problem with these “teachers.” In the letter to the Galatians, he warned the Gentile believers to not be ‘bewitched’ by those who were trying to convince them that they needed to be circumcised, in accordance with the traditional mode of conversion to Judaism, in order to truly be saved. Paul rebukes the teachers very harshly, and explains to the believers that their faith is what has saved them, and to go through with the rite of circumcision might please these close-minded humans but it would not give them any other standing in the eyes of G-d than what they had obtained already through their faith in Yeshua as the L-rd. If anything, it would be redundant and an insult to the grace of G-d. Paul consistently and passionately rebukes his peers whenever they attempt to connect salvation with the works of the Torah. As my rabbi often says, “Works will never produce salvation, but salvation will always produce works.” The difference between legalism and obedience is that legalism says, “I must obey God in order to be saved”, and obedience through grace says, “I must obey because I am saved.” Saul of Tarsus seems to emphasis the latter.
Saul’s love for the Word of G-d and his unquenchable zeal to spread it has been very contagious for me. His zeal, however, was not without knowledge as was that of his brothers of whom he speaks of in Romans 10:2. Knowledge without zeal can also be a bad combination. I desire to have both. Saul of Tarsus had both. As a messianic believer, I strive to make Paul’s teachings real to me. Working in the presence of, reading about, and being exposed to countless different forms of Judaism, I follow Paul’s example in directing my zeal to Biblical Judaism alone, while striving to be sensitive to and be able to interact with the many other Judaisms that are out there. Paul dealt with many Judaisms in his day as well. To this day, I have not met one Jew who desires to be a “Christian”. In fact, the word leaves a bad taste in many mouths. In studying Jewish history, I am beginning to realize why that is. We have to be careful not to build walls, but bridges. Being able to invite Jewish people to my congregation for services and feasts, such as Passover and Hanukkah, with the deliberate intention of exposing them to the Messiah is priceless. If a question about the Bible comes up at work, it is usually directed to me, because I am a student of the Bible. Modern day traditional Jews, for the most part, have no idea what the Scriptures say, and many religious or orthodox Jews place more emphasis on the Talmud than on the Word of G-d. This is not the Judaism that I follow. My ministry is to help the Jewish people understand that accepting Yeshua does not mean turning their backs on who they are, their heritage, their culture, and their families. It means that they experience what it means to be a Jew when they come to the One who is the fullness of the Torah and all that is written in it, The Messiah. “My heart’s desire and my prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” (Romans 10:1) I have made three trips to the nation of Israel. Every time, I have returned with a broken heart. I know as much as anyone that they need to be saved…
Paul never turned his back on the Word of G-d or on the nation of Israel. He understood that Yeshua was the fulfillment of everything he had learned in the Torah. As believers, let’s take a step back and consider the possibility that Paul has been taken out of his context. Let’s reconsider what Paul meant when he said that we do not support the root, but it is the root that supports us. Let’s reconsider the importance of Jewish evangelism. Let’s reconsider the place of the Torah in our lives.