Paul's Strategy: Heavenly Deception?

According to Jewish and Islamic anti-missionaries the apostle Paul was, by his own admission, a liar, a deceiver and a confidence trickster. The evidence, they claim, is to be found in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 where Paul says, “To the Jews I became a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law … that I might win those who are without law”.
Nor has 2 Corinthians 12:16, where Paul sarcastically refers to having taken the Corinthians by craft and cunning, escaped the notice of Paul’s enemies. Strangely, those who condemn the apostle by his own words never appear to consider that he would have been very stupid to boast of his lies to the people he had taken for a ride.

But if Paul’s evangelistic policy was not a strategy of deceit, what did it mean for a man whose former life in Judaism had been blameless, to put himself “under the law”? A clue can be found in 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul says, “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.” We know that Paul and Silas were flogged by Gentile city officials in Philippi and that Paul avoided a further Roman whipping in Jerusalem when it became known that he was a Roman citizen. Nothing, however, is told us of the five floggings that he received from the Jews.

In the ancient Roman world the Jewish communities of the Diaspora enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy and were free to manage their own affairs, including the infliction of punishments on those members who transgressed the rules of the community. A Jew who was judged to have broken the law could be tried by the synagogue and be punished appropriately. To remain a member of the community, a Jew had to submit to his punishment. On the other hand, he could refuse to accept the punishment and then walk away from the covenant community. Until he returned to the community and accepted his punishment, he was to all intents and purposes “without law”.

The thirty-nine lashes could be imposed for profaning the Sabbath, working on Yom Kippur, or offences connected with food and ritual cleanness, the kind of offences Paul would have been liable to commit by associating with Gentile Christians. These were probably the cause of his floggings.

It cost Paul dearly to win “those without law”. Few Gentile Christians can imagine how repellent non-kosher table fellowship was for a man who had lived blamelessly according to the law; but for him then to suffer the consequences, by enduring the maximum sentence (apart from stoning) that the synagogue could impose, reveals something of the heart of this wonderful man. Acts 22 shows that Paul could escape a Roman flogging when it suited his purpose. He could also have escaped the Jewish lash by turning his back on the synagogue. But by remaining under the authority of the synagogue he remained “under the law”. Thirty-nine stripes were nothing to a man who was willing to be accursed from Messiah for the sake of his own people.

In the light of this we must surely ask ourselves how much we love the lost and how far we are prepared to go to win them.

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the June 2005 edition of the Herald

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