We are nearing the end of our study in Acts as we head into chapter 21. In this chapter we see the Apostle Paul wrap up his travels as he approaches Jerusalem. Over and over his friends beg him not to go to Jerusalem, because the Holy Spirit had imparted in every city, knowledge of Paul’s future imprisonment. However, their pleadings did not waver Paul’s confidence in the will of God. Imprisonment would fulfill his assignment.
When he arrives in Jerusalem, he quickly joins James and the elders of the Jerusalem church. The elders make him aware that there’s quite a controversy over him and his teachings. These Jewish Christians are very zealous for the law and believe Paul has been encouraging Jews throughout the region to abandon Moses and the law. To arrest any further controversy they suggest that Paul join a few other brothers in a purification ritual to prepare for sacrifices in the Temple. Paul does not seem to hesitate, and it’s during these activities that Paul is arrested.
We’ve seen a pattern in Paul’s ministry as we’ve studied Acts this year. In every town he visits, he goes first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. And he himself admits to this intentional strategy when he writes his letter to the Romans.
We also see him adamantly oppose Judaizers in Antioch, who follow his trail, attempting to persuade Gentile believers to adopt circumcision and other Mosaic practices. He vehemently argues, before the Jerusalem Council, his wishes not to burden the Gentile believers with these customs. He admits the Jews, likewise, couldn’t carry the burden, but yet he doesn’t ever make a case for the Jewish believers to be unburdened.
When he writes his letters to the Romans and Galatians, he’s quite clear that there’s no difference between the Jew and the Greek (Gal 3:28) and that even the Gentiles have been grafted into the branches of Abraham, receiving the full inheritance promised to Abraham. (Rom 11:17)
So why does Paul seem to make a distinction between Israel and the rest of the world on one hand, and on the other say there’s no difference? I’m sorry there’s no super simple answer, but it relates directly to how God manages his heavenly household and how he manages his earthly household. Seemingly disparate, but wholly congruent. Let’s start with understanding Israel.
ISRAEL FROM PERSON TO NATION
Israel is a man, Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the Hebrews. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel during his life’s journey, and his 12 sons would become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. When Jacob moved down to Egypt to survive the intense regional famine, it was with his family of 70, which grew into a nation during their time in Egypt. The actual number of people during the exodus from Egypt is of some debate with some scholars estimating it to be as much at 2 million and some as little as 50,000. (More info here at The Prophecy Society)
God made a covenant with Israel, before Israel the nation ever officially existed, when he promised Abraham descendants that would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands in the sea. He set Israel apart as a nation when he brought them out of Egypt. He gave them laws and practices that were drastically different from the surrounding nations and he resided WITH them to show the world his abiding presence. So while he set Israel apart as holy, it was never merely about Israel; it has always been about the world. I’ve nursed the idea most of my life that Israel was something quite special and therefore on a level above me. But that’s not true; God pulled Israel aside to show me a picture of himself so that I might know him. Every detail from Israel’s history to her social structure was to be a picture of the heart of God and his purpose for those who love him. The pictures we see in Israel are almost countless, so I will only elaborate on a few today.
THE PICTURES THROUGH ISRAEL
POWER TO SAVE
God demonstrated his power through Israel from crippling plagues in Egypt, to the parting of the Red Sea, to his provisions for Israel in the desert. God told Pharaoh that he could have wiped Egypt off the face of the earth in an instant, but chose to spare them.
“But I have spared you for a purpose – to show you my power and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” (Ex 9:16 NLT)
And indeed his fame spread. By the time Israel arrived at Jericho, the nations of Canaan were shaking in their boots. Rahab said,
“We are all afraid of you…For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt…For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.” (Josh 2:9b-11 NLT)
I believe the Lord became Rahab’s God in that moment. Not only did God have the power to save Israel, he had the power to save the rest of the world by working through Israel.
The ultimate demonstration of his power to save, through Israel, was when he sent his son, born a Jew, to die and save the world.
PURE AND PERFECT HOLINESS
God’s perfection and sinless nature is both comforting and confusing at the same time. I love that God is perfect because I know I can trust him completely. Yet at the same time I have struggled to understand him over the years, because, honestly, so much of scripture seems to contradict itself. The lack of reconciliation in my mind subtly built a silent bias within my heart.
First he makes a covenant with Israel (which he promises not to break), but then he burns with anger over their sin and threatens to destroy them on a regular basis while they wander the desert, and seems to only calm down when Moses pleads with him “to come off the ledge.” If he’s a God of love, why so much anger, and judgment through death? Why does he tell Israel to have absolutely nothing to do with the other nations around them if he loves the rest of the world so much?
You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, no shall you take their daughters for your sons… But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:2b-5 NLT)
The fact is that God uses every one of these stories and every instruction to provide a very clear picture of holiness. There can be no sin in or with God.
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 7:6a NLT)
Holiness is not a standard that is of human derivation, nor is it something we can ever hope to attain within ourselves. All throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers we see God establish a crazy amount of rules and regulations around life and worship to give us a glimpse of the impossible standard. Did the priests actually achieve perfection by wearing the holy garments and cleansing in the baths? No, of course not. But we needed a picture of the priests so that we would one day recognize the perfect High Priest in Christ.
I have three children, seven years old and under. A couple of years ago I thought I’d try to teach grace more effectively, so as to spare them from the pain and agony of coming out from under all the rules and regulations of Christianity. You see, I spent a lot of years “working” for God’s approval and I didn’t want my kids to go through that. But you know what? They just cannot understand it. They lack the maturity to understand. When they’re little, they need to simply be taught the rules of living; rewarded for following the rules and punished when they don’t. Paul puts it this way in Galatians,
“The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.” (Gal 3:24b-25 NLT)
Maturity comes through the discipline of the law, and each and every one of us needs to understand holiness before we can truly understand God’s grace. There’s really no way around it.
GOD’S DESIRE FOR OUR HEART
It’s easy to see the law of the Old Testament and think that God’s primary concern was that Israel keep the letter of the law. After all, Moses tells them over and over and over to keep the law. But really, God has always been interested in our heart first and foremost. That’s confirmed by the fact that he saved Rahab in Jericho before she ever kept a single Hebrew law. And also by the fact that he befriended Abraham centuries ahead of the law.
There’s a beautiful exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 33. It shows God’s heart for Moses himself, and additionally for each of us whose heart is humble like Moses.
One day Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Take these people up to the Promised Land.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. You have told me, ‘I know you by name and I look favorably on you.’ If it is true that you look favorably on me, let me know your ways so that I may understand you more fully and continue to enjoy your favor. And remember that this nation is your very own people.”
The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest – everything will be fine for you.”
Then Moses said, “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people – if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.”
The Lord replied to Moses, “I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and know you by name.”
Moses responded, “Then show me your glorious presence.”
The Lord replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” (Exodus 33:12-19 NLT)
Now read that section of scripture again and replace Moses’ name with your own. This is the character of our God. This was our God in the Old Testament and this is our God today.
BACK TO PAUL
When the Apostle Paul told the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he is representing God’s view, and how God has always viewed humanity. (Gal 3:28) His purpose for separating Israel was to provide a picture of his power, holiness, and desire for us.
Paul understood God’s Old Testament pictures. He also understood God was introducing grace through a new picture of Jesus on the cross. For a while, Paul maintained a distinction between Israel and the Gentiles by going to the Jew first in every city, and by undergoing the purification rituals in Jerusalem to validate, fulfill, and complete these pictures even as they faded into the background. Paul didn’t request that Israel be unburdened immediately, because Israel shouldered the burden to prove Christ to the world.
As for all the pictures God has provided through Paul’s life…well, that’s for another day.