Chapter 8

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The Model for the Messianic Community
by
Ari Levitt*

Chapter 8.
Rabbi Sha’ul of Tarsus

A few months after the coming of Ruach HaKodesh, a young Rabbi named Sha’ul [a.k.a. Paul] enters the picture. The Scripture record tells us that he was a Pharisee who trained “at the feet” of Gamli’el, President and Nasi (Prince) of the Sanhedrin (Israel’s Supreme Court), who was without a doubt one of the greatest Rabbis of all time.[83] Born in Tarsus into a family that was wealthy and influential enough to be Roman citizens, Sha’ul was either brought or sent to Jerusalem at a very early age to be trained, and perhaps even raised, by Gamli’el, probably at great expense to his family. The fact that the Sanhedrin so readily gave him a “warrant” to eradicate this new Messianic sect suggests strongly, at least to me, that Sha’ul was certainly well-known to the members of the Sanhedrin, as Gamli’el’s star talmid (pupil or disciple) most certainly would have been, and even that he was himself probably a member of the Sanhedrin. In fact, I should think that he was extremely likely to have been considered as Gamli’el’s successor.

His comment in his first letter to his talmid Timothy that he considered himself to be “the foremost sinner of all” (1 Timothy 1:15) suggests that there was something in his life that he considered a terrible crime against God. This may possibly have been his persecution of the Messianic Community (1 Corinthians 15:9), or it may possibly be because he was one of the members of the Sanhedrin who voted for Yeshua to be executed. If he were, in fact, actually a member of the Sanhedrin, his zeal before God to keep his religion pure may well have placed him among those who conducted the patently illegal late-night sessions at which Yeshua was illegally condemned to be executed. The fact that he apparently officiated at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60) lends additional support to the idea that he held at least some official position on the Sanhedrin.

Another interesting aside: If you read the Apostolic Scriptures very carefully and are looking for it, you will find that the primary objection that the Sanhedrin had to the message of the Gospel was that it was based entirely on the resurrection of a dead rabbi. Since the majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees [Tzedukim] who rejected the concept of resurrection of the dead, if the Gospel were true, it would mean that their entire belief system was false! That simply could never be permitted. See Matthew 22:23, Matthew 27:53, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27, John 5:29, Acts 4:1-4, Acts 4:33, Acts 17:18, Acts 23:6, Acts 24:21, Acts 26:23, and many more.

Because of Sha’ul’s persecution, many of the Messianic Jews fled Jerusalem, carrying the Gospel with them out into the Diaspora, where they would continue meeting in the synagogues of every city into which they fled (Acts 8). Shortly after he officiated at Stephen’s execution, Sha’ul received his warrant of persecution from the Sanhedrin, and left for Damascus to continue his persecution there. It was on his way to Damascus that the resurrected Yeshua appeared to him and called him to be the Emissary “to bear My [Yeshua’s] name before the nations and kings, and the children of Yisra'el.” (Acts 9)

After recovering from this supernatural encounter with Yeshua, Sha’ul went to Arabia for a while, then returned to Damascus in Syria, and began proclaiming the Messiah in the synagogues. After he had been preaching in Damascus for about three years, many of those who rejected his message plotted to kill him, and when the Talmidim in Damascus heard about it, they took him to Jerusalem, where he stayed with Kefa for 15 days and met Ya`akov, Yeshua’s half-brother.[84] Kefa and Ya`akov then sent him away to Tarsus, where he stayed for 14 years (see Galatians 1:15-2:1, Acts 9:19-22; Acts 9:23-31).

For the 14 years that Sha’ul was in Tarsus, Kefa was traveling throughout Judea, the Galilee, and Samaria. While Kefa was in Joppa, on the coast of Samaria, God sent an angel in a vision to a God-Fearer named Cornelius, who was a Roman Centurion living in Caesarea, just north of Joppa on the coast, and told him to send for Kefa. At the same time, God sent a vision to Kefa in which he was told that God would accept Goyim into the Messianic Community (Acts 10). And so it was apparently Kefa, not Sha’ul, who was called by God to actually be the first Emissary to the Goyim (confirm at Acts 15:7), though Kefa’s primary ministry was to the Jews and that of Sha’ul was to the Gentiles.

While most of the Messianic Believers who had fled the persecution following Stephen’s execution delivered the Gospel only to Jews, there were a few who, following Kefa’s example, also delivered the Gospel to Goyim who were not already God-Fearers. It was apparently at Antioch that the first significant group of Goyim entered the Messianic Community (Acts 11:19-26).

Josephus tells us that the Jews at Antioch were well-known for their proselytizing activities:

For as the Jewish nation is widely dispersed over all the habitable earth among its inhabitants, so it is very much intermingled with Syria by reason of its neighborhood, and had the greatest multitudes in Antioch by reason of the largeness of the city, wherein the kings, after Antiochus, had afforded them a habitation with the most undisturbed tranquility; for though Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes, laid Jerusalem waste, and spoiled the temple, yet did those that succeeded him in the kingdom restore all the donations that were made of brass to the Jews of Antioch, and dedicated them to their synagogue; and granted them the enjoyment of equal privileges of citizens with the Greeks themselves; and as the succeeding kings treated them after the same manner, they both multiplied to a great number, and adorned their temple [their synagogue], gloriously by fine ornaments, and with great magnificence, in the use of what had been given them. They also made proselytes of a great many of the Greeks perpetually, and thereby, after a sort, brought them to be a portion of their own body.[85] (Emphasis added.)

The biblical account continues (Acts 12) that King Herod also began a persecution of the Messianic Believers, and had Ya`akov ben Zavdai[86] executed and Kefa imprisoned. An angel released Kefa from prison and he went from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Then sometime after Herod died, Sha’ul returned with Bar Nabba[87] to Jerusalem.

Sha’ul tells us that this visit to Jerusalem came some 14 years after his first visit to Kefa, which was about three years after he returned from Arabia, where he had gone right after his encounter with the resurrected Yeshua. Although we don’t know how long he was in Arabia, we can calculate the time for this visit as about 17 or 18 years after his Damascus Road experience. (This establishes the approximate time frame for the Jerusalem Council, next chapter.)

Acts 13 describes how Ruach HaKodesh instructed the leaders of the Messianic Synagogue at Antioch to “Set aside for me Bar Nabba and Sha’ul for the work to which I have called them,” and that it was from there that they set out on their first missionary journey.

From Antioch they went to the synagogues at Salamis, Paphos, Perga in Pamphylia, and Antioch of Pisidia. In Antioch of Pisidia they presented the Gospel in the synagogue, and many of the synagogue members, both Jews and non-Jewish God-Fearers, asked them to come back the following Shabbat and tell them more. On the following Shabbat, nearly the entire city came to the synagogue to hear them, but the leaders of the synagogue became jealous because the crowds were so great, and started contradicting them and blaspheming.

Bar Nabba and Sha’ul told those in the synagogue who rejected their message that it would be then offered to the Goyim in their city, and “They honored the message about the Lord, and as many as had been appointed to eternal life came to trust” — including Jews, non-Jewish God-Fearers, and apparently some pagan Goyim (Acts 13:48). But those who were more concerned with their position of influence than with their position with God finally drove the Shliachim out of town.

Now, I feel compelled at this juncture to point out that in my opinion the Gospel was absolutely not “rejected by the Jews and received by the Gentiles” as is commonly taught (and as I myself taught for many years). As will be explained later, a huge percentage of the population of Jerusalem had come to faith in Messiah long before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

The truth is, rather, that the Gospel was rejected by those, both Jews and non-Jews, whose confidence was in “Tradition,” and was received by those, both Jews and non-Jews, whose confidence was in “Truth.”

Acts 14 describes a very similar experience in Iconium where believing Jews [Yehudim] and believing non-Jews [Goyim] received the Gospel, and the “disobedient Goyim and Yehudim” rejected the Gospel and ran the Shliachim out of town.

From there they then went to Lystra (where some of the disobedient “Yehudim from Antioch and Iconium” persuaded the people to stone Sha’ul) and Derbe, then returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where they appointed Messianic Zakenim[88] in each of the synagogues, and then to Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and then back to “Antioch, the place where they had been handed over to the care of God for the work which they had now completed.”

It is terribly important to note that they didn’t “plant” a First Baptist Church of Lystra, a St. Paul United Methodist Church of Iconium, a Fellowship Community Church of Attalia, or even a First Christian Church of Antioch. They simply went to the synagogues in each town and presented the Gospel, and for those who accepted the message of Messiah they appointed Messianic Jewish leaders to shepherd them.

It is now approximately 17 to 20 years after the resurrection of Yeshua, and at this time the Scriptures tell us that just now God “had opened the door of faith to the Goyim.” Now for the very first time there were coming to faith in Messiah non-Jews who had not previously been part of the local synagogue (Acts 14:27).

_______________

83. “Son of Simon and grandson of Hillel: according to a tannaitic tradition (Shab.15a), he was their successor as nasi (prince) and first president of the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem.” Article “Gamaliel I,” JewishEncyclopedia.com. Many have claimed that Sha'ul changed his name to Paul when he “converted to Christianity.” I totally reject that position out of hand. First, Rav Sha'ul never “converted” to any other religion than Judaism, Christianity or otherwise. Second, “Christianity” did not come into existence until well over 200 years after the death of the great rabbi. Sha'ul was born, lived his entire life, and died as a strictly-Torah-observant Pharisee. He was born in Tarsus, Cilicia, in what is now south-eastern Turkey. As with most Jews who lived (both then as now) in the Diaspora, he had his Jewish name, Sha'ul, as well as a secular name, Paul, in the vernacular of his place of birth. [RETURN]]

84. Ya`akov was Yeshua’s half-brother and Rabbi/Pastor of the Messianic Community in Jerusalem. Apparently in an effort to flatter the king who was paying for the project (so he could see his name in the Bible), the translators of the King James Version arbitrarily changed the Hebrew name Ya`akov to “James” when referring to Ya`akov the brother of Yeshua or to Ya`akov the brother of Yochanan (John). In all other instances, the name is more appropriately rendered as “Jacob.” This gross misrepresentation for what I consider to be obvious political motives is but one of the many reasons that I personally consider the King James Version far less than trustworthy. [RETURN]]

85. Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, VII, 4, § 3. [RETURN]]

86. Rendered as “Zebedee” in most English translations (see Matthew 4:21). [RETURN]]

87. Literally, Son of Encouragement. Rendered “Barnabas” in most English translations. [RETURN]]

88. Elders. [RETURN]]

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