What's Gospel and What's Culture?
At a Christian boarding school, I remember studying the Book of Acts. The teacher stressed that the Apostle Paul made a big mistake when he returned to Jerusalem and listened to James and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church and took a Jewish vow to prove he was still a good Jew (Acts 21:20-25).
The teacher argued that the Apostle who wrote, “Christ was the end of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 9:31), would never take a Jewish vow indicating that he was still under the Law. But did this teacher accurately track the Story? Did they discern the difference in audience when Paul was teaching Gentiles and the issue was whether or not they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, and when he was among his own people and the issue was maintaining his cultural connections with his ethnic group?
In his description of the end of the 2nd Missionary Journey, Luke shows us that as a good Jew Paul still went regularly to synagogues and took a Jewish vow long before James told him to.
“Paul remained in Corinth many days, and then said farewell to the brothers and sailed for Syria, together with Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae (seven miles southeast of Corinth and its port city) he cut his hair, for he was making a vow, and then they came to Ephesus where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila.
He himself entered the synagogue and debated with the Jews. They were asking him to remain longer with them, but he declined. Instead he said farewell saying, ‘If God wills, I will return to you’ and he set sail from Ephesus.
Landing at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time there, he departed and traveled from place to place in the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” Acts 18:18-23
Paul will return to Ephesus during his 3rd Missionary Journey and the response in both the Jewish and Gentile communities will be positive. But at the close of this missionary thrust when he is anxious to get back to home base and report, Paul shows that though his major outreach is now among Gentiles, he never abandons his own people and his culture.
As I try to connect across racial divides, especially when it involves seeking to get into honest discussions about Jesus, I have a lot to learn from Paul’s example.
LORD, help me to be absolutely clear in my teaching that it’s not about holy places, rituals, and obedience to a religion’s dictates. It is trust in your Son’s death and resurrection alone, but help me also to remember that Jesus gave me a new heart. He didn’t change my race or culture.
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