Understanding Paul

(Number One)

The failure to understand the writings of Paul is due to ignoring the Gospels, the book of Acts, the General Epistles, as well as presuming that Paul’s Epistles represent the final revelation of the Word of God — a revelation that detaches itself from Old Testament “Jewish teachings.” The result has led to countless contradictions of Scripture.  Most church historians admit that the “primitive church” kept the Law of God, the Sabbath, and Holy Days, but disregard these by teaching that Paul was the Apostle who freed the Church from its Jewish cocoon. Accordingly, Christians have now been delivered from the Jewish yoke. There is no need to be concerned about what Jesus or the Apostles said about the law.  The law is supposedly “done away.”  But the fact is:  Nothing could be farther from  the truth.

There is a revealing statement by the Apostle Peter regarding Paul’s writings.  Peter wrote:  “. . . Account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16).  We can be certain that if Peter, a contemporary of Paul, said that Paul’s writings were difficult to understand, there is little chance that later theologians disposed to disregard the Law of God would be able to understand them at all.

Several important principles of Bible understanding are found in the Scriptures.  Jesus said:  “. . . It is written,  Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).  How then can the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the General Epistles be disregarded for understanding Bible doctrine?  Another text is John 10:35.  It states:  “. . . The scripture cannot be broken.”  The word “broken” means “to annul,” “to subvert,” “to do away with,” or “to deprive of authority.”  Yet this is exactly what has been done by those who assure us that there is no need to pay attention to what is written in the Gospels, the book of Acts, or General Epistles.  Consider also Matthew 5:17-19.  Jesus said:  “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  This text does not infer that those who break the commandments and teach men so will be in the kingdom of heaven, but they will be called the least by those who are there.

Based on the above texts, as well as others, there is only one way to understand Paul’s Epistles.  They must be interpreted by the clear texts in the Bible, texts that are not difficult to understand.  All Scripture must be considered, as Paul himself stated:  “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 perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Indeed, Paul’s “difficult” Scriptures were inspired by God and intended to be understood by those whose hearts are right.  Another important principle of Bible understanding is that Scriptural interpretation must be based on other Scriptures that make the meaning plain.  They are not to be interpreted privately.  The Apostle Peter wrote:  “Knowing this first,  that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet.1:20).  The word “prophecy” in New Testament usage refers to any inspired utterance and is not limited to forecasting the future.  The meaning of the above text is that all Scriptures on a given subject must be considered before a proper interpretation can be rendered.  Any attempt to do otherwise will lead to biblical contradictions and false doctrine.

Jesus spoke to the public in parables.  When asked why, Jesus told His disciples: “. . .  Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Matt. 13:11).  And why was it given to His disciples?  The answer:  “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts” (Isa. 28:9).  Many have assumed that Jesus spoke in parables in order to help people understand.  Not so!  Jesus spoke in parables in order to hide the meaning.  “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15).  “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” (v. 34).  To His disciples He said:  “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (vv. 16-17).

To whom does God give understanding?  The text in Isaiah 28:9 speaks of milk and breasts.  What did Isaiah mean? Jesus told the Father:  “. . . I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. . . ” (Luke 10:21).  He told His disciples: “. . . Verily I say unto you,  Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4).  “. . . Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.  Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:16-17).

The foregone conclusion should be obvious.  One cannot understand the Scriptures, and especially the Epistles of Paul, unless it is given to him.  And it will not be given to him unless his attitude is one of humble submission to the Word of
God.  The Scripture does not contradict, and it cannot be annulled.  All Scriptures on a given subject must be considered, and no private interpretation is acceptable.  In brief, the writings of the Apostle Paul can be understood in the light of other Scriptures.

With these facts in mind, let us consider Romans 2:12.  The verses preceding this text address the hypocrisy of the Jews.  They were the ones who had the law, made a pretense of keeping it, yet practiced things contrary to it. These were things the Gentiles practiced – men and women who were without the law.  Romans 2:12 states:  “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.”  It seems a  paradox appears here. We find that the ignorant will perish in their ignorance, and the knowledgeable who sin will be judged.  In both cases the result is the same.  Paul is not considering the ultimate fate of either party.  Salvation is not the issue here.   Paul is simply considering the consequence that sinners experience in this life whether they know the law or not.  God holds the Gentiles accountable for what they should have known.  “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).   To the Jews Paul says:  “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13).  “Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile” (Rom. 2:9).           Paul tells the Church at Rom that whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, the consequences for sin are the same.  But there is a far greater accountability for those who know the law.  Paul affirms what Jesus stated in Luke 12:47-48.  “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

Jesus spoke of accountability when He berated the Jews of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.  And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. (Matt. 11:21-24)

In James 1:22-25, the Apostle James emphasized the consequences of doing what is right: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.  For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:  For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.  But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”  Paul underscored the same thing, “But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God” (Rom 2:10-11).

Because they had been given the law, the Jews had supreme confidence that they were superior to the Gentiles.  But again notice carefully Romans 2:13.  “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. Does this text remotely imply that the law is done away?  Of course not!  In fact, Paul says we must keep the law.  The Jews had no superiority over the Gentiles.  Paul explains that the Gentiles who keep the law are, in fact, spiritual Jews and Jews that do not keep the law are spiritual Gentiles.

For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.  Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?  And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?  For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:  But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Rom. 2:25-29)

Was there an advantage in being a Jew (Rom. 3:1-2)?  Yes, indeed, but as we have seen, only if they kept the law. On the other hand, the Gentiles by nature kept elements of the law and benefited from doing so.  “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts. . .” (Rom. 2:14-15).  So Gentiles who keep the law are just as acceptable as the Jews.  Paul states, “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9).  “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (v. 23).

In Romans, Chapter 2, Paul makes it plain that the Jews have no moral superiority over the Gentiles when they break the very law that sets them apart, and that furthermore, the Gentiles who keep the Law of God are fully accepted by God.  As the Apostle Peter stated: “. . . Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Consider now Romans 3:7-8.  The false accusation made against Paul that he taught God is glorified by the more we sin is addressed as follows:  “For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?  And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just.”  The accusation is that Paul taught because we are evil, the more evil we commit the greater God is glorified, and that the more evil done the more good will come.  This accusation is repudiated by previous statements.  Notice particularly verses 4-6: “. . . Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.  But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)  God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?”  So if Paul, as they say, glorifies God by telling lies, why should God judge him for doing so?  Obviously, one who sins by lying cannot glorify God because only righteousness glorifies Him.  And righteousness is defined by keeping the Commandments of God (Ps. 119:172).   “And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us” (Deut. 6:25).

Those who keep the Commandments of God are often accused of trying to gain salvation by works.  These accusers quote Romans 3:20.  “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight. . . .”   The problem here is the failure to understand the meaning of the word “justified.” Justified does not mean “to be saved.”  Justification means “to be made free,” “to be made righteous,” “to be made just.”  But made free from what?  The answer:  free from the sins of a guilty past.  Justification means the slate has been wiped clean from past sins (Rom. 3:25).   The deeds of the law cannot free one from a guilty past.  Why?  The purpose of the law was to reveal sin, not to expiate it.  Paul says:  “. . . Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom 7:7).  The only thing that can atone for past sins is the blood of Jesus Christ.  “But now the righteousness of God without [apart from] the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe. . . .” (Rom. 3:21-22).  The Jews had perverted the purpose for the law.  In the Old Testament period certain sins could be expiated, others could not.  Those that could be expiated required a blood sacrifice, as a type of the coming sacrifice of Christ.  But this merely reconciled them to the community.  There was no expiation for what could be called capital offenses.  Paul tells us:  “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4).

How is it possible that only the blood of Christ could expiate our past sins?   The answer:  Christ was the Creator (Eph. 3:9).  As the Creator, His sacrifice for our sins was of a greater value than all humans present, past, or future.  That sacrifice was made in our stead, for payment of our sins.  By accepting this sacrifice and repenting of sin, we are justified, that is, the guilty past is erased.