‘I did all that for nothing?’ Do you ever find yourself asking that? Some 1st century Jews felt that Paul led them to do so. They heard that he now taught Jewish culture was dead and Israel’s past was worthless (Ac 21:21 cf Ro 3:1). Indeed, some Christians today appear to think the same thing, given the limited use they make of the OT. This, however, was not Paul’s view.
Paul is visiting the Jerusalem church when these concerns are raised. Now the church already has a deal in place to cope with Gentile Christians (Ac 15). The agreement says that the converts: (a) do not need to become Jews (Ac15:7-9, 19); (b) can worship with Jewish Christians, as happened in King David’s day (Ac 15:15-18; 2Sa 6:10-17; 1Ch 15:24,25; Am 9:11,12); and asks (c) that they abide by a few rules to facilitate their interaction with Jews (Ac 15:20). The rules stem from Le 17 & 18, and request that Gentile Christians: (i) stop buying food from pagan temples; (ii) restrain their sexual behaviour; and (iii) prepare meat in the Jewish way so that blood isn’t eaten (Ac 21:25). But though this deal helps the two groups to interact, Paul knows it isn’t enough to answer all the questions raised by the conversion of Gentiles. So he has, with the Spirit’s help, formulated a more comprehensive answer which, certainly, does not make Israel pointless! The details of his answer are found in his letters; here we can only list off three key points.
Firstly, Paul believes that God’s chosen people are the family of Abraham, since God promised to grant blessing through him (Gn 12:3) and God’s promises do not fail. What Jesus has brought is not separate from Abraham but is the fulfilment of all God said to him. Thus, Gentiles can also be regarded as Abraham’s children, if they belong to Christ (Ga 3:7-9, 14). The OT leads to the Christian church; its promises, prophecies and laws are ours. Christians must value the OT as the story of God’s work in the world. Yes, we see our forefathers’ sins within its pages and have to learn from them. But we also find wisdom and truth in its pages, for our edification. Especially, we see God throughout, showing himself reliable and unchanging, giving us great hope.
So Paul clearly does not regard Israel’s story as pointless. However, he, secondly, also believes that Abraham had two types of family. That was seen early on, in his two oldest sons. Ishmael was conceived in the ordinary way with a slave wife (Ge 16:4) whereas Isaac came through a miracle done by God (Ge 17:17-19). But Paul recognises that pattern repeats right through the OT. It was visible in Abraham’s grandchildren Jacob and Esau (Ro 9:11-13) and continued to be seen throughout the nation which became a mixture of those chosen by God and those not (Ro 9: 6-8). Which raises this question for Paul: how do you recognise the children of promise? Answer: by their faith (Ga 3:7; Ro 4:12), which is why Gentiles can be Abraham’s children too (Ro 4:16). As Jesus said, believers are those who are born from above (Jo 3:3). We become God’s people through repentance and faith, shown in baptism, not simply by dint of our ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Being born to Christians is a great blessing because you spend your childhood amongst the people of God, learning of Him, but it doesn’t automatically make you a Christian.
It should be clear, then, to those around him that Paul does not regard Israel’s history as pointless. But what about her law? Does he regard that as obsolete? No: he says the very opposite (2Ti 3: 16,17). Of course, Paul makes criticisms of those who do not let the law do its proper job since anyone truly hearing the law will discover themselves a sinner in need of a saviour (Ga 3:22-24). Sadly, many Jews – including Paul in the past – find pride in their law-keeping, not shame. Jesus used the law to expose this in his hearers (Mk 7:9-13), to call them to repent. Some, however, reacted by breaking the sixth commandment (Jo 8:37-40) thus proving the very point he was making. Likewise, Paul knows very clearly that though the law is holy and good, we are not (Ro 7:12,22-25). So to those who insist they can keep it and be blessed, he warns that the reality is that they are cursed because they will always fall short of the law’s requirements (Ga 3:10). But for those of faith whose hearts have been cleansed by Christ, the law becomes our guide. Of course, we do not simply live like the Israelites of 3000 years ago since ours is a new situation under Christ. But that does not mean we ignore the law; rather we seek to understand its deeper principles and live them out in our circumstances (Mt 5:16-20). That was how Paul lived.