One Simple Verse…In Context

13 March 2011

Over the past two millenia various groups of believers have taken a verse here and a verse there out of context and developed an entire branch of theology from it. Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Messianics... we are all guilty of this to one degree or another. It is often times the consequence of our finite understanding, a short-sighted focus, or the limited amount of time we have to study the whole counsel of Scripture.

Some of these teachings are born from a need to correct a specific error or heresy being taught. For example, there are some doctrines from the first and second centuries that were born out of the need to correct certain Gnostic heresies. These doctrines resulted in a narrow focus on the humanity of Messiah almost to the exclusion of acknowledging His deity.

In other circumstances teachings are born out of good intentions but, ignoring the broader messages of Scripture and focusing on minute details, they ultimately end up in error. Sacred Name theology is one extreme example of this.

One Simple Verse: Galatians 5:3

I recently discovered a 2009 article from a group that espouses the "Divine Invitation" teaching.  The title of the article was "One Simple Verse: Galatians 5:3".

Let's take a look at that verse:

And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. (Galatians 5:3)

The article states, "We can try creative ways to spin it, but the simple, plain meaning of the text is obvious."

Here is the "plain meaning" they see in Paul's statement:

  1. There is a difference between being Jewish and being Gentile.
  2. Jewish believers are obligated to keep the whole law.
  3. Non-Jewish believers are also obligated to keep the law, but they are not liable for the whole law in the same way as circumcised (halachically Jewish) believers.

Did Paul write to the believers in Galatia because there were questions about which commandments applied to the Gentile believers? Did Paul really summarize in this one sentence the three points mentioned above?

The answer to both of these questions is no.

This "one simple verse" is taken out of context and injected with a new meaning. Let's take a look at the next verse in Galatians and put it back into the context in which it was delivered:

You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:4 emphasis mine)

Acts 15:1 tells us

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians in order to combat that teaching. Such a teaching leads to a works-based salvation that is entirely unbiblical. Paul is writing to the Galatians to ensure that they do not think they have to observe the commandments in order to be saved. Rather than the three points described above from the 2009 article, Paul's singular point in Galatians 5:3 is this:

"And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision" [in order to be justified] "that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law" [in order to be justified].

This understanding of the passage clearly fits with the verses preceding and following it.  If you want to try and be saved by obeying one commandment then you have to try and be saved by obeying all of the commandments and guess what?  It's not possible!

Come let us reason together but let us do so with the whole counsel of G-d rather than with verses taken out of their context.


Divine Invitation Theology

Let's take a brief look at the general claim of the Divine Invitation teaching. It can be summed up as follows:

All the disciples of Yeshua have obligation to the Torah but Gentile disciples are not obligated to the whole Torah.

If this were the entirety of Divine Invitation theology then I believe most Messianics would readily agree with the concept and move on to other issues. Such an idea is obvious from the text of Scripture. For example: some of the commandments of the Torah apply only to the Levites and their service in the tabernacle. Since we Gentiles are not born of the tribe of Levi then those commandments clearly do not apply to us!

Great! Case closed. Let's eat!

Wait a minute... put down your forks and keep dinner in the oven.

There's more.

The "Divine Invitation" groups say there are also other commandments that are not for Gentile believers but are only for Jewish believers. Which commandments? Well, each group seems to identify a different number of the commandments that are not required of Gentiles.

Some groups include circumcision. Other groups include wearing tzitzit: "After all," the argument goes, "the commandment of tzitzit was given to the 'sons of Israel' which clearly excludes Gentiles. It is not for them. For a Gentile to wear tzitzit diminishes the role and distinctiveness of Jews in the body of Messiah." Yet other groups exclude Gentiles from all but the "Noachide laws" which are duplicated in Torah.

Oy, vey! What's a Gentile believer in the Messiah to do?

Read Scripture.

All of it... and not just the parts that the Divine Invitationers use to bolster their claims.


Why Did the Divine Invitation Error Arise?

As noted earlier, some teachings result from good intentions gone awry.

I believe one possible intention of those who promote Divine Invitation theology was to resolve the lack of mercy and grace shown in some (predominantly Gentile) Messianic communities. These communities had teachings that held to rigid interpretations of the commandments and how to follow them.  Some folks in the DI camp mention this in their teachings.

Rather than address the true issues of the lack of mercy and grace in these communities it appears that the Divine Invitationers have chosen a different approach: eliminate the "requirement" for Gentiles to do any of the commandments. They aren't "commandments" after all... they are, uh...teaching and instruction about who G-d is.  It's OK if Gentiles don't do all of these. They aren't for you.

OK... I am exaggerating but that is where such an idea leads.

Consider these points from Scripture:

As Gentile believers in Messiah, we are "grafted in" to the olive tree that is Israel (Romans 11).

As Gentile believers in Messiah:

  • We are no longer separate from Christ.
  • We are no longer excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.
  • We are no longer strangers to the covenants of promise
  • We are no longer without hope or without G-d.
  • We are no longer two groups (Gentiles separate from the Jews) but one.

(Ephesians 2:11-16)

As Gentile believers in Messiah, we are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in the Messiah Yeshua (Ephesians 3:6).

Salvation is found in only person: the Messiah Yeshua (Acts 4:12) and He has extended the covenant of salvation to only one nation: Israel. Jeremiah 31 describes G-d's new covenant of salvation with Israel.

Messiah offers the cup of the covenant to His twelve disciples symbolically representing the twelve tribes of Israel. (1 Cor 11:25)

G-d makes believers into a "new man" (Ephesians 4:20-24) that is part of His bride, Israel. It is through this work of G-d that we as Gentiles enter into the covenant of salvation.

If these are true then we as believing Gentiles have the status within Israel that is equal to any commoner that was a natural born descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and have the same responsibilities to such commandments as apply to commoners.

Gentiles who aren't born of the tribe of Levi have no responsibilities to the commandments given to the Levitical or the Aaronic priests (contrary to the teachings of those nice but wacky Mormon folks).

We Gentiles are not ordained by G-d to be king in Israel so the commandments given to the king are not for us.

If this is true (and I believe it is) then the question now becomes this: who decides halakhah for our communities? The rabbis who reject Yeshua as the Messiah? The Pope? (Sorry... someone actually suggested that to me once!) The Spirit-led elders in each of our communities? Who?

Personally I believe that we have "freedom in Christ" to determine within our communities how we will walk out the commandents. Each group has members who are at different stages of growth and maturity in their Torah walk. As Micah so succinctly reminded us:

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)


Oh, Lord, may it be so and may You return speedily in our days to correct each of us to walk rightly with You.


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