They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Dividing Wall

“For he (Christ) himself is our peace, who has made the two one (Gentiles and Jews), and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” – Ephesians 2:14-15

“When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)” – Acts 21:27

In 19 B.C., when Herod the Great began his most ambitious building project to rebuild the Temple to YHWH, he wanted everything done on a grand scale. The Temple enclosure that he built was the largest religious structure in the world at that time by two and a half times. It was 1200′ long North to South, and 900′ wide East to West and the Temple itself was fifteen stories tall. The Temple grounds consisted of five different courts; the Gentile Court, Court of Women, Israelite Court, Priest’s Court, and the Holy of Holies. By far the largest of the courts was the Gentile Court. The Gentile Court was 1200′ in length and surrounded the entire Temple area. It was paved with marble and was surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. This court was the Jew’s way of responding to the Prophet Isaiah’s decree five hundreds years previous, in Isaiah 56:3-7, that all the nations of the world would come to Jerusalem to worship YHWH and that his House would be called a House of Prayer for all the nations. It was not called the Gentile court because Jews didn’t go there, but because this was as far as the Gentiles could go in the Temple enclosure to worship the Jewish God.

A low wall separated the Gentile Court from the Temple enclosure itself. This wall was called, ”Soreq”, in Hebrew, and had thirteen openings in it to allow Jews only to enter from the Gentile Court into the four other courts. No Gentile was permitted past this dividing wall. “No Entry” signs were posted on the wall in three different languages. In fact, one of these signs in stone has been found and is in the Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It reads, “No foreigner is allowed past this point on penalty of death”.

This fits perfectly into the story in Acts 21:27-29 where Paul is accused by the Asian Jews of taking Trophimus past the barrier and into the place that was for ”Jews only”. All this took place during the Feast of Pentecost, so the entire Temple area was packed with pilgrims coming to the Feast. A riot started and the Romans had to step in to save Paul from being killed by the mob.

Now re-read the passage in Ephesians 2:14-15. The words of Paul suddenly jump off the page as we see the picture he is trying to present. Was Paul talking about the Soreq? Jesus’ coming was intended to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles and do away with a need for the two to be separated.  This story is another great example of how knowing about the world of the Bible helps us to understand better the words of the Bible.

The Feast of Dedication – Hanukkah

“Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Collonade” – John 10:22-23

The feast that the gospel of John records Jesus attending was the Jewish holiday that we know today as Hanukkah. What is Hanukkah (also called the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication) and what information about it is in the Bible text? Although many Christians are familiar with the name Hanukkah, most of them have no idea what it is or what it celebrates. Since it occurs about the same time as the Christian holiday of Christmas, it is the best known of the Jewish holidays and consequently, it is assumed that it is some form of a Jewish Christmas celebration. Since the Bible tells us that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, perhaps we should take a closer look and see what it is really all about.

In the Hebrew (Old) Testament, God set up seven feasts that the Israelites were required to observe. Hanukkah, however, was not one of the seven. In fact, there is no mention of Hanukkah at all in the Old Testament because it had it’s beginnings in the time period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word, “Hanukkah”, means, “ to dedicate”. Hanukkah is not actually a religious holiday as much as it is an historical holiday, much like our American, July 4th. Here is the story that led to the establishment of the festival of Hanukkah.

The story actually begins with Alexander the Great and his conquering of the known world in 332 B.C., including the Bible areas of Syria, Egypt and Palestine. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided between his generals who wrestled for control over their kingdoms from both without and within. Under the thumb of their new rulers, the Jews suffered various forms of persecution for one hundred years before deciding they had had enough. Around 168 B.C., Judea fell under the control of the Greek king, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes. He outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. Circumcision was forbidden and all Torah scrolls were to be burned. A statue of Zeus was placed in the Jewish temple and Antiochus ordered his troops to make the Jews sacrifice a pig on their altar.

A rural Jewish priest named Matthathias and his five sons refused to obey the King’s orders and started a revolt by killing the soldiers that were sent to enforce the king’s decree. Mattathias son, Judah Maccabee (nicknamed the Hammer) led the uprising and within two years, relying largely on guerrilla warfare, had successfully driven the Greeks out of Israel. The victory was completed during the winter months, on the 25th day of Kislev, which roughly corresponds to our December time frame. Judah Maccabee ordered that the Temple be cleansed, the altar rebuilt and the Menorah in the Temple be relighted. Also, because of the fighting during the fall months, the Jews were not able to celebrate the September/October Festival of Sukkot. Judah declared that beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, an eight day celebration be held to remember and celebrate the great victory and to rededicate the temple. 1 Maccabees 4:53-59 records the inauguration of this event. “Judas, his brothers, and the whole congregation of Israel decreed that the re-dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness at the same season each year, for eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev.”

Approximately 200 years later, Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate this same Jewish holiday (John 10:21-22) that the New Testament calls the Feast of Dedication. Today, 2000 years later, Jewish people still set aside these eight days in December to remember this great victory. They use a nine candle menorah for Hanukkah, instead of the traditional seven candle one used the rest of the year. The nine candles are for the eight days of the Feast and the ninth one is used to light the other eight. From a religious perspective, it is a relatively minor holiday; very few restrictions are placed on work or other activities. In recent years, mainly in the U.S., it has been commercialized, trying to make it more like the American Christmas, and making it equal to the much more important Feast of Passover. However, during Jesus time, it was a celebration of independence (like July 4th) from their oppressors and the re-dedication of God’s temple that was so central to their religion.

The Temple to the Unknown God; Paul in Athens

Ref . Acts 17:16-34

The Parthenon in Athens

On Paul’s second missionary tour, he decided to go alone to the most famous of the ancient Greek cities, Athens. Named after the patron Greek goddess Athena, Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities, with recorded history of over three thousand years. During the time period that Paul would have visited Athens (50-51 CE), it probably had a population of fifty to seventy five thousand people and was home to many of the great Greek thinkers of the day. The city prided itself on being intellectual and had several buildings where the leading men of the city debated the great theological ideas of the time.

The city of Athens was absolutely full of temples to the various Greek gods. An ancient proverb said, “In Athens, there are more Gods than men”. There were temples to at least twelve different gods, plus hordes of statues to lesser deities throughout the city. The main attraction in Athens was the acropolis, the highest point in the city. On top of the acropolis stood one of the most magnificent structures in antiquity, the Parthenon. Already over four hundred years old when Paul would have seen it, it was one of the most famous temples in the world. With a height of over 50′ and 70 beautiful marble columns, it could be seen for miles in every direction. Inside the temple stood a forty foot statue of the goddess Athena.

With this backdrop, Paul began to debate with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, trying to convince them that YHVH was the one true God and that his son Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Paul was taken to a meeting of the Aeropagus, a prestigious council of the elders of Athens. Here, he was asked to present his case to explain to them about this Jewish God and the claim of His resurrected Son. In Acts 17:22, Paul stands up to address the men of the Aeropagus. What follows is one of the most amazing exchanges in all of the Bible. When you read the verses, read them as if a member of the Aeropagus had just asked Paul this question – ”We are not familiar with this particular deity that you talk about sir, tell us again what he is called and where may his temple be found?” Paul then tells them,(paraphrasing) “I perceive that you are very religious here in Athens because I have walked around and seen all the temples and statues to your gods. I even found one that had an inscription to an unknown god. Well let me tell you who this unknown god is….. It is YHVH and He is the one who made the world and everything in it and He’s is much too big to live in a mere temple like these that are made with human hands!”

Then Paul does something in Acts 17:26-28 that really gets their attention. Instead of quoting to them from the Hebrew Scriptures to try to convince them, Paul quotes from their own Greek poets to describe the creator of the universe. He gives lines from two of their well known scholars, Epimenides and Cleanthes to present YHVH as the creator of all, giver of all, and ruler of all nations and all of history. He used their philosopher’s own words to support his claims! Then to sum it up, Paul tells these great intellects that his God is not some object made of gold or marble to look like man’s image, but that He is much bigger than a mere statue and is immortal, invisible, indescribable, and His name is unspeakable! Then Paul tells them that in the past they were ignorant of this and God overlooked it, but now that I am telling you the truth, you must repent! There is a day coming and you will be judged!

What was their reaction? Some sneered at Paul and some said,”We’ll hear more later”. It also says that a few men believed. In all, Paul doesn’t get run out of town like he usually does, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of big changes in the hearts of the people of Athens. There is no other written evidence that Paul ever returns to Athens. Paul may be speaking to these same type of people when he wrote to another Greek city in 1 Corinthians 1: 20-31, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”.

A Walk Through Galatia – Conclusion

As we stated at the end of our second lesson, the key to understanding the concept of faith and how it relates to works, is found in the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated faith. As we have discussed before, Hebrew words often have so much meaning packed into one word that it is hard to use just one English word to describe it. This is definitely the case with, “emunah”, the Hebrew word most often translated faith. “Emunah” comes from the root word, “aman”, which means to support, to confirm, make firm, or make lasting. From the word, “aman”, we also get the word amen. When we say amen to something, we are saying that what was said was reliable and trustworthy and, “may it be so”. The word, ”emunah” also derived from “aman”, means faithfulness or trustworthiness. It indicates constancy, stability, steadiness, and reliability or support. In Exodus 17:12, its first use in the Bible, it is used the following way: “But the hands of Moses grew tired, so Aaron and Hur held his hands up and his hands remained, emunah till sundown.” This first Old Testament usage sets the tone for succeeding occurrences of the word. When emunah is used of God, it points to His utter dependability and unwavering faithfulness. Psalm 119:86 says, “All his commands are emunah.” Emunah is also used to describe human beings. It refers to those who have the capacity to remain stable (faithful) among the unsettling circumstances of life.

One of the most pivotal passages in the Old Testament where emunah is used is in Habakkuk 2:4. Paul later quotes this same verse in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 to explain his position that, “The righteous will live by his emunah” or “faithfulness” (See NIV footnotes on Habakkuk 2:4). In the context of Habakkuk, the Jewish people were about to fall on hard times. God was going to send another nation to punish them and these times were going to require a deeply rooted reliance on God. A person would have needed stability and support (emunah) to survive the coming days. Emunah, then, was an inner firmness and peace, the strength and constancy of a man’s soul. (See Our Father Abraham Pg. 182-185 for a more detailed explanation of emunah).

David Stern, in his New Testament commentary, describes emunah this way: “Emunah is a heart attitude of trust, that expresses itself in righteous acts. This is the only kind of faith that God honors, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. True messianic faith means acknowledging who God is and what he has done, believing his promises, relying on Him for power to live a holy life and then living that life.” (Stern page 229)

The Greek word that scholars most often translate to the English word faith is ”pistis” (Strong’s 4102). If you look up the meaning for pistis you will find that it means either a strong conviction or belief or, “faithfulness”. In fact, the Greek Lexicon shows the meaning for pistis to be faith or faithfulness.

To the Hebrew and Greek minds then, faith was much more than just believing in your heart or an attitude of trust. To have faith was to have confidence in God and to step out into life and act on that confidence. To have faith was to live a life of faithfulness. Emunah and pistis are both faith lived out or faithfulness.

If we then understand the word faith to be faithfulness, then it all starts to make sense. If you go back and start reading Paul’s writings and the writer of Hebrews and put in faithfulness where faith is used it makes very interesting and enlightened reading. For example, Hebrews 11:1-6 says, “Without faithfulness (inserted for faith) it is impossible to please Him and He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” All the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 are examples of faithfulness; they lived out a life of faith. They believed his promises, relied on Him and went out and acted on those beliefs.

Now let’s go back to Galatians and read Chapters 2 and 3. Paul says that we are not justified by keeping the law but by faith. Galatians 3:2 says, Did you get it by observing the law or believing? Then, in Galatians 3:11 he states that the righteous will live by emunah (the Hebrew from Habakkuk 2:4) or pistis Greek in the NT). The million dollar question is, what is faith? Faith lived out is faithfulness. Obedience is part of what the nature of faith is.

We know that by His unearned love (grace) that we have come to know Him, and it stems from nothing that we can do in and of ourselves (see Ephesians 2:8-9). It’ s all God, but by believing these truths, which is faith, we are to live out a life of obedience. How could we not, knowing what He has done for us? If God has truly gotten a hold of us, we will have a passion to walk as he did. Our faith will be expressed in loving God and our neighbor. James 2:14-26 says, that faith without actions is dead. 1 John 2:3-6 really puts the icing on the cake for this subject. “We know that we have come to know Him if we obey his commands … whoever claims to be in Jesus, must walk as Jesus walked”. Our faith comes from God as a gift; we can’t earn it, but living it out is the natural response to His love towards us.

This was the problem in Galatia, people were pushing the Gentiles to do Jewish things as a way of earning their spots in the community. You had to be circumcised, eat kosher, etc. Paul was saying, no! None of this is of any value. The only thing that counts is faithfulness, expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). Now read the book of Galatians, the book of grace, and substitute faithfulness where the word faith is found and see if the conflict between grace and works isn’t resolved.

A Walk Through Galatia – Part 2

In our first session, we looked at the land, the people, and the stories of the Roman province of Galatia during the time that Paul would have visited in 45-47 c.e. After visiting the towns of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra, Paul later wrote a letter back to these churches (the Book of Galatians) trying to instruct them in their new faith in the God of the Jews and His son Yeshua, the promised Messiah.

We were fortunate to be able to spend two full days in Galatia, walking where Paul walked and concentrating on the text of Acts and the Book of Galatians. Just being in the land, seeing the people and listening to the stories in their original setting gave us a unique perspective on these Bible texts. There have been countless works written on Galatians and on the concept of grace over the years.

This lesson will in no way attempt to be a scholarly presentation of all there is to know about grace or some new idea that has never been presented before. It will simply be my attempt to write down what I learned about this subject while I was there in Galatia. Hopefully, I will share something with you that might help you in your struggle with understanding the concepts that Paul presented in his wonderful letter. As my rabbi began to develop the struggle between faith and works, it started to become much more clear to me what I believe Paul was trying to say. As it turns out, the concepts of grace and works are inextricably intertwined.

First of all, there has been tension between these two ideas since Christianity began and there is some comfort in knowing that the subject was being debated even during Jesus’ day. The pendulum has swung back and forth throughout church history, from grace to obedience and back. Every generation seems to lean too far either one way or the other. The keys to this subject are this: What does it mean to “have faith”? What does it mean to be righteous?

To most present day Western Christians, faith is mainly an activity of the mind. To, “have faith”, or “to believe”, is to intellectually agree or to have a belief in some statement or idea. However, the Eastern thinking Hebrews looked at faith much differently. To a Jew, righteousness or faith was not someone in a certain condition, but an action to be performed. So they debated, “How do you become righteous?” They asked, “What does the Text have to say about righteousness?” One school of thought pointed out what happened in Numbers 25:5-13 with the story of Phineas, the grandson of Aaron. Psalm 106:28-31 speaks of this incident and says, “Phineas intervened (took action) and this was credited to him as righteousness.” Phineas got his righteousness from God by taking action. Another school of rabbinical thought, however, pointed out what it says in Genesis 15:6 as to what righteousness was. In this passage, God told Abram to go look at the stars and this will be how many children you will have. Verse 6 says, “Abram believed the Lord and He credited it to him as righteousness”. So it seemed that Abram got his righteousness from just believing. They debated back and forth and both camps had the Scriptures to back their position up. If they debated this question it should be legitimate for us to also ask, “Does righteousness come from doing something (an action) or does it come from just having a belief in what God says?” Or, is it somehow, both?

The key to understanding this concept comes from looking at what the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “ faith” in the Text. The Hebrew word is, “emunah” (Strong’s H530) and it’s Greek counterpart is “pistis”. Please carefully examine the definitions of these two words by clicking on the links. In Part 3 we will explain these words and how their definitions are such a key to understanding what Paul was saying in Galatians when he said, “The righteous will live by his faith”.

A Walk Through Galatia

Lyaconia and Galatia

Most scholars believe that the apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to the churches that he founded in that Roman province in Asia Minor on his first missionary journey in 45-47 A.D. Those churches were the ones he started in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe as chronicled in Acts 13 and 14. Also, a majority of scholars think that Galatians was the very first book written of all the New Testament canon, possibly in 48 or 49 A.D., even before any of the four gospels were written down.

The book of Galatians has always been thought of as the premier work on the gospel of grace; that man is justified and saved only by faith in Jesus Christ, and that there is nothing that he can do to earn his salvation. Galatians 2:16 says, “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So, we too have put our faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Galatians if often referred to as, ”Luther’s book”, because Martin Luther relied so strongly on this book to refute the prevailing theology of his day. It is obviously a book worthy of our study and debate. What was it like in the province of Galatia during the time Paul and Barnabas made their fist trip there? What did they find and what were the people like when they visited these first churches to give them the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Let’s take a walk through Galatia and see if we can unlock some of the secrets of this marvelous book.

It’s hard to put into words or even on paper how being in the land of the Bible widens your perspective and understanding of the gospel text. Nowhere was this more evident than the two days we spent walking through the huge rural province of Galatia. Each day we were let off our bus in the middle of nowhere and spent the entire day walking and following our guide through the rural countryside. As best we could, we tried to follow the route that we thought that Paul and Barnabas would have taken as they walked to Pisidian Antioch from the coast, and then on to Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra. Also, Paul came back through these same cities on both his second and third missionary tours. Amazingly, all four locations have been found and most have been archaeologically excavated at least to some degree. The whole area is very mountainous and remote even today and certainly even more so in Paul and Barnabas’ day. In two days of walking, we only came upon 3 or 4 rural villages. Just feeling the remoteness of the area with your boots was a real eye opener. Even the names of the land suggest how remote and rural the country side is. For example, Lycaonia, where Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes, means “wolf land” and today is the home of the world famous sheep protecting dog, the Kangel. We saw these huge canines, but kept our distance, as they tended their flocks of goats in the rugged mountains. We began to get a feel for the people and the land as we observed the native Galatians in their home environment. A highlight of the trip was being invited to eat lunch with the townspeople of a local village, by the mayor of the town himself. Seated in the one room village school, we ate a simple but wonderful meal of home grown vegetables, fruits, and breads that they prepared for us. We spoke to them through an interpreter and they seemed so happy to have us as their guests.

We also learned many other lessons of the land. We stood in the remains of the synagogue at Antioch and read from the Bible Paul’s speech that he gave to the Jews and Gentiles that had gathered there to hear him speak (Acts 13:14-48). We had a faith lesson in a sheep fold (See “Kingdom of Heaven is Forcefully Advancing”) and sat under a linden tree near Lystra and heard the story (See “The Gods are Back!”). Also, we stood on top the tel of Lystra and heard the inspiring story of Timothy (See Timothy the Unlikely Disciple, Part 1Part 2, and Part 3). All of these stories are wonderful examples of how understanding the history and culture of the area makes such a difference in understanding these Bible stories. As we walked and read the scriptures in the land they were written to we began to wrestle with the idea of grace vs. works. What was Paul trying to say as he wrote to this group of rural and remote people? In our next session we will attempt to grapple with this age-old struggle in the church. Which one is it, or is there a way to reconcile the two?