In my last article I sought to show how it was that the Christian apostle Paul originally came to be thought of as a heretic (or apostate) by some of the followers of the way of Jesus Christ (Peace be with him). It was because he insisted that Gentile believers in Jesus as God’s anointed did not need to be circumcised and commit to keeping the whole law of Moses (with all of its rituals) in order to be welcomed into the community of Christians.
Jesus (peace be with him) himself, although stating that his message was ultimately for all people, had not left instructions concerning how the non-Jewish people who received his message should be treated. But as he himself had said, as recorded by the apostle John in John 16:12 and 13 (English Standard Version): John 16:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. John 16:13 When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (“The things that are to come” are not necessarily predictions of future events; rather, this simply refers to the things which Jesus left unsaid because the disciples weren’t ready for them yet.)
This coming messenger, as I have pointed out in articles here and here, I believe to be Muhammad (peace be with him and his family). However, he would not be born until 570 C.E., and he would not receive his first revelation until 610 C.E.; so Jesus promised that he himself would be with his disciples “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Jesus’ continued presence with his disciples was seen in various ways, such as dreams, visions, angelic appearances, and even personal appearances such as to Saul of Tarsus. In this way, God and His Prophet gave the Christian believers partial, step-by-step directions as required during the interim.
I’m stepping out on a limb here – as I don’t believe I’ve seen this interpretation in any of my reading – but I believe this is what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 when comparing the partial revelation with “that which is perfect/complete”: 1Co 13:9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 1Co 13:10 but when the perfect [complete] comes, the partial will pass away (English Standard Version). In the Qur’an (5:3, toward the end of the verse – Yusuf Ali’s version), God said to and through Muhammad (peace be with him and his family) shortly before his death (a few months, I think it was): This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam [submission or devotion to God] as your religion.
The various visions, appearances of angels, and miracles relating to the conversion of Gentiles to Jesus (PBUH) as God’s anointed led up to the decision of the apostles and elders (and the whole church) at Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15: that the Gentiles should be welcomed without troubling them with requirements to accept circumcision and the ritual regulations of the Law of Moses. In this way, Paul and Barnabas were absolved from any charge of heresy or unlawful innovation in their teaching and practice.
However, the peace that resulted from this decision was not to last. Unfortunately, some of the Jewish believers soon found the Jerusalem Council’s decision to be unacceptable, and they proceeded to stir up schism among the believers. The letters of Paul frequently refer to the attempts of the preachers of circumcision to sow discord in the Church and draw away the Gentile believers from the message of God’s free kindness.
The letter to the believers in Galatia in particular concerns this issue. These Gentile believers were being troubled by ‘Judaizers’ (those Jewish Christians who couldn’t be satisfied with the decision of the “Jerusalem Council” concerning the Gentiles), so Paul wrote this letter to counteract their divisive effect.
In chapter 2 of the letter called “Galatians” Paul told them about an occasion – apparently after the Council in Jerusalem – when Peter himself visited Antioch (where Paul and Barnabas were ministering). Peter was eating and associating freely with the uncircumcised Gentile believers, until some of those ‘Judaizers’ came down from Jerusalem (claiming to represent James). Then the unthinkable happened: Peter himself succumbed to their divisiveness and started separating himself from the uncircumcised believers in Antioch! Here was one of the foremost of the apostles of Jesus Christ, who had himself been a leader in acknowledging that God was accepting Gentiles without the requirement of circumcision. He had told the household of Cornelius that God had shown him that no person was to be considered ‘unclean’, and that people in every nation who believed in God and did righteous deeds were accepted by God. He had been criticized by the Jewish believers for eating with the uncircumcised, and had responded that he couldn’t resist God! At the Council, he asked why some of the Jewish brothers were putting God to a test by seeking to put this “yoke” of circumcision and other rituals on the Gentiles. God had made very clear that He was making no distinction between the Jewish and Gentile believers; it was pure arrogance on the part of those ‘Judaizers’ to assume they were more pure than God!
But now here was Peter, turning his back on everything he had been shown by God concerning Gentile believers; and even Barnabas was being carried away by this hypocrisy. So Paul openly rebuked Peter for his actions. He pointed out that Peter was building again what he had torn down (the division between circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles), and thus making himself into a transgressor before God (Galatians 2:18). Paul sought to ease the rebuke by using himself as an example: For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor; but it is clear that this is just an indirect charge against Peter. If there was any charge of ‘apostasy’, to be made, it would have to be against Peter and Barnabas instead of Paul.
I believe, though, that we can charitably say that this defection (which I believe to have been very temporary) simply is an illustration of how difficult it is to completely separate oneself from convictions in which one has been raised from a child. And I believe, as I said, that it’s fairly certain that this defection was very brief.
Concerning Barnabas: after Paul and Barnabas had been in Antioch for some time following the Jerusalem Council – and presumably after the episode of Peter and Barnabas being swayed by the Judaizers – Acts 15:36 tells us that Paul asked Barnabas to go with him to visit the churches they had established on their previous “missionary” journey. Paul almost certainly would not have asked Barnabas to accompany him if Barnabas had actually defected to the viewpoint of those preachers of circumcision. Paul considered the freedom of the Gentiles from those rituals to be an essential part of the gospel message he preached, and he would have considered Barnabas an apostate enemy of the gospel if he disagreed on that point.
They did have a falling out; but that was concerning whether or not they should take Barnabas’ relative (cousin or nephew), John Mark, with them on the journey. Paul didn’t want to; Barnabas did want to. They decided to split up; Barnabas took John Mark with him, and Paul took Silas. Whatever bad feeling existed between them was later healed, though. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark with him when he (Timothy) came to visit Paul in prison: for he is very useful to me for ministry. And in Colossians 4:10, Paul spoke of Mark being present with him, and told the Colossians that if Barnabas should come to them they should receive him.
Peter, in 2 Peter 3:15, commended the writings of Paul, and spoke of him as “our beloved brother”. This I consider would not have been possible if they had remained divided over something which Paul considered so basic a part of his message of good news to the Gentiles. (And yes, I accept the letters attributed to Peter as actually being written by him. I have never trusted the ability of our modern scholars to be able to discern the style and vocabulary of a writer from one or two very brief letters or ‘gospels’. And due to the content of the letters, they appear to me to have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 C.E. Peter, in this second letter, spoke of that event as being very near, using the highly metaphorical and hyperbolic language common to the Hebrew prophets and apostles.)
What kind of Scriptural arguments did Paul use to defend his teaching concerning circumcision? For one thing, he pointed out that the commandment of circumcision was first given to Abraham (Genesis 17); and that did not occur until at least 13 or 14 years after God was said to have declared that He considered Abraham righteous because of his trust in God (Genesis 15:6). [Of course, Abraham was a righteous man considerably before that – for instance consider God’s promise to bless Abraham, and to bless all the world through his offspring, given in Genesis 12:1-3. And there were many other righteous men before Abraham (Noah for instance). Then there was that very interesting and mysterious man named Melchizedek, who was king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God. He is said to have blessed Abraham in the name of the Most High (Genesis 14:17-20). And he was a priest of the Most High, and blessed Abraham, before the command of circumcision. But he was not of the household of Abraham, so presumably he was not included in the command to Abraham to circumcise all the male members of his household.]
Obviously, therefore, circumcision was not necessary to be considered righteous before God and be blessed by Him. Again obviously, if it had been necessary, women would have been excluded from God’s blessing!
If physical circumcision was not necessary to be considered righteous before God, what then was its purpose? It was a symbol or metaphor of the inner purity and cleanliness – characterized by love for God, trust in Him and obedience to Him – which is necessary to be righteous in God’s sight. This spiritual meaning of the outward sign was emphasized in the Torah (Law of Moses) itself. For instance, consider these 2 verses in Deuteronomy:
Deu_10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
Deu_30:6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
The Hebrew prophets proclaimed the spiritual meaning behind the outward sign. For instance, Jeremiah made this statement:
Jer 9:25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh (or as the Revised Standard Version renders it more literally, who are circumcised but yet uncircumcised)– Jer 9:26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”
And the disciple and “deacon” in the early Christian Church, Stephen, is quoted as making this accusation against his Jewish hearers:
Act 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.
So Paul was by no means inventing some novelty when he insisted on the spiritual meaning of circumcision, and that it was quite possible for the Gentile believers to have the reality without the sign.
Romans 2:25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. Rom 2:26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Rom 2:27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. Rom 2:28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. Rom 2:29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul, recognizing the symbolical and spiritual meaning of the outward signs and rituals, called them “school teachers”. The purpose of those rituals was to ‘instruct’ people until they grasped and put into practice the meaning. After the meaning has ‘come alive’ within us, the teacher is no longer needed to instruct us.
Gal 3:24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Gal 3:25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster (King James Version).
And God is certainly free to move beyond the physical signs and impart the reality directly to people without the outward signs. This is what Peter, James, Barnabas, and Paul had all seen made manifest in the works of God and His Prophet, Jesus Christ.
In the late 19th century, an English Baptist Pastor and Evangelist, named Charles H. Spurgeon, wrote a hymn about the Christian rite of “the Lord’s Supper” (“Communion”) which contains these words:
“If now with eyes defiled and dim,
We see the signs but see not Him,
Oh, may His love the scales displace,
And bid us see Him face to face!”
This is the problem the ‘Judaizers’ had concerning the ritual practices of Judaism: they were so focused on the outward symbol, that they lost sight of the inward meaning. And this outward focus led them to miss or reject the “surprising” work of God among the Gentiles. If we must speak of “heretics” or “apostates”, it was these Judaizers who were the guilty parties, not Paul/Saul of Tarsus.