Paul and the Judaizer

Paul and the Judaizer

Paul did not write to answer the hedonist, humanist, secularist or pagan. His primary opponent was not a Calvinist, “Faith-Only”-ist, Catholic, or any flavor of Protestant. The opposition to his mission came from one primary source – the Judaizing teacher. They were the church’s early Pharisees. Many of them had been Pharisees before becoming Christians. Acts 15:5 identifies their origin with converted Pharisees. Their rule and works based theology did not change when they became Christians. Jewish Pharisees simply became Christian Pharisees. It is their works-based theology that Paul is denouncing in most of his writings.

Who was Paul's opponent?

Who was Paul’s opponent?

The primary imagery he uses to draw the distinction between the true gospel he was preaching and the counterfeit gospel of the Judaizers is his use of the couplet “flesh/spirit.” Just as Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their focus on the “cleansing” of the outward man while neglecting the inner man (Matthew 23:25-26), so Paul understood the Judaizer’s Pharisaical doctrine was rooted in the control of the flesh. However, the true gospel brought by Paul and confirmed by the signs of the Holy Spirit required the engagement of the human spirit to effect lasting spiritual transformation and freedom.

Fleshly Christians and Spiritual Sinners

Many interpretive approaches create a barrier between flesh and spirit that is either identical to or coincides with the barrier between saved and lost.  The Calvinist has the “fleshly” man as the depraved, unregenerate man and the “spirit” man as the man upon whom the Spirit has directly quickened and illuminated his heart. Inside the church, many of the understandings of the influence of the Spirit place the fleshly man outside the church and the spiritual man inside.  Romans 8:9-11 is the most common passage used to support this understanding.

However, both approaches have difficult passages with which they must contend. Throughout the New Testament examples abound of “spiritual” people who have no contact with the Holy Spirit and “fleshly” people inside the church who possess all His blessings.

Consider the “fleshly” people in the church:

  • The saints of 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 were acting as “people of the flesh” for they were “still of the flesh.”
  • In Galatians 5-6 the saints of that region were turning to a “fleshly” life. Paul’s warning to them is not to “be deceived” by that path of life.  If they sowed to the flesh, they would from the flesh reap corruption (Galatians 6:7-8). Galatians describes Christians living after the flesh.
  • Even in Romans 8, the same warning is given. The Roman Christians are being warned not to live as “debtors to the flesh” (Romans 8:12-13).

Paul attributes the jealousy and strife in Corinth to the immature, fleshly approach of the saints there.  That fleshly-based strife and/or immaturity is also described throughout James, Hebrews, and other epistles.  The New Testament is full of “flesh-minded” Christians. By most interpretive approaches that should not be possible.

Consider also the “spirit-minded” sinners in the New Testament:

  • In Matthew 13, the “good soil” in parable of the Sower is “good” before the seed (i.e. the word of the kingdom”) ever touches it.
  • In Luke 7:9, the “out of covenant” Roman centurion had a faith that Jesus had not found “even in Israel.”
  • In Matthew 15, the Canaanite woman is told by Jesus that her faith was “great.”
  • Cornelius is called a “devout, upright, and god-fearing” man well before his hearing of the gospel (Acts 10:2, 22).

In both lists, each one of these people is an outlier to either the Calvinistic model or many “personal indwelling” models of interpreting “flesh/spirit.”  If “flesh” means “out of covenant” and “spirit” means “in covenant,” then none of these people should exist.

But since they do all exist in scripture, it demands that both of those interpretive approaches should be reconsidered.

Flesh/Spirit in Romans

Recognition of Paul’s true opponent in his writings has the largest interpretive impact in Romans. Most every commentator approaches Romans as if Paul is discussing the alien sinner vs. the Christian (Franklin Camp’s excellent essay on Romans 8 in his book “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption” being a notable exception). That is not his argument. His argument is against the Judaizer. It is the works-based theology of the Judaizer that, in the first-century, would have been the voice complaining about Paul’s preaching of righteousness “apart from works” (Romans 4:6). Paul’s inclusion of the Gentile’s within the scope of “his” faith-based gospel struck right at the heart of the Judaizistic gospel. It is they who sought to place a works-based burden upon the Gentiles about which Peter says:

Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (Acts 15:10-11).

He viewed the Judaizers theology as a yoke, a bondage, being placed upon the Gentiles that even no Jew had been able to bear [In passing, one should carefully note how heavily Paul relies on the yoke, bondage, and slavery imagery throughout Galatians and Romans. That is no coincidence.]. The Judaizers viewed Paul’s message as one of loose morals and easy salvation.  It is they who are the most logical opponent of Paul who would argue that he was preaching that men should do evil that good may come (Romans 3:8) or that he was encouraging men to continuing in sin (as opposed to submitting to their interpretation of the Law of Moses) that grace may abound (Romans 6:1).

Our exposition of Romans will find more truth when we see Paul’s defense of the gospel against a first-century false doctrine than to apply it universally to modern errors. This is especially true in Romans 7-8. Paul’s description of the war of the flesh and spirit is not addressing Calvinism and Arminianism or any like thing.  His man of the flesh is not a hedonist and his man of the Spirit is not a reference to the nature of the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The “two men” of these chapters are the same two men one finds in 1 Corinthians 2-3 and throughout the book of Galatians. Paul is using the same imagery to defeat the same doctrine in all three books. That man is the Judaizer. The man of the flesh, the carnal man, and the natural man are all the same person. He is the man who lives after the works-based philosophy embodied by the Pharisaical Judaizer. The man of the spirit is the man who had understood the teaching of the gospel brought by Paul and has rejected that philosophy of works.

Sometimes “Spirit” Means “spirit”

It has been my experience in teaching on Galatians and Romans that the biggest obstacle I have encountered is every time a student sees the word “spirit,” he/she immediately assumes the reference is to the Holy Spirit. This tendency is only strengthened when the editors/translators of the student’s version of the Bible decide to capitalize the word “Spirit” [That is always a translational choice as the early Greek manuscripts provided little guidance parallel to the English practice of capitalization.].

One must be open to seeing that sometimes Paul is not speaking of the effect of the Holy Spirit’s work, but of the ability of the human spirit to be holy. Admittedly, properly identifying Paul’s meaning in each instance of the word “spirit” is challenging.  However, simply taking the word “spirit” every timeit occurs as a reference to the Holy Spirit is an approach that is too limited to provide a reliable and consistent exposition of the text.

Galatians 3:2-5 – A spirit/Spirit Example

While this article is too brief to address individual examples, it will look at one passage to provide an important reminder about Paul’s appeals to the Holy Spirit. Paul’s “trump card” over the Judaizers was the visible manifestation of the Spirit’s gifts in his ministry and in the lives of those would obeyed because of his preaching. Notice the structure of Galatians 3:2, 5:

  • 3:2 – Receive the Spirit – Works of the Law |Hearing of Faith
  • 3:5 – Supplies the Spirit (Works Miracles Among You) – Works of the Law |Hearing of Faith

In both questions there is a distribution of the Holy Spirit that the Galatians would know when and how that distribution began. Verse 5 provides insight into what that manifestation of the Spirit was – “And works miracles among you). Paul “supplied” the Holy Spirit to the Galatians and they “received” the Holy Spirit from him. That transaction was evidenced by the ongoing presence of the spiritual gifts among the Galatians. Paul then provides them two options as to the source of that demonstrable power among them: 1) The Works of the Law (That is, the counterfeit gospel of the Judaizer); or 2) The Hearing of Faith (That is, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ taught by Paul).  Paul is certain the Galatians would be able to know the true answer because the presence of the prophetic Spirit among them was providing the spiritual gifts the early church needed. The gospel of the Judaizer provided no such evidence.

However, notice the question in between verses 2 and 5: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh?” Most Bibles capitalize the word “Spirit” here and most students understand this also to be a reference to the Holy Spirit.  But at least two things are different about verse 3 than verses 2 and 5:

It Is “Spirit” not “THE Spirit.”

In verses 2 and 5 the Greek text has a definite article present before the word “spirit.” That definite article is missing verse 3. As one looks more closely at that structure throughout Paul’s writing, he will find that to be a common structure.  For example, several times in Romans 8, Paul will use the word “spirit” twice in a sentence – once with the article and once without.  While it would be overly simplistic to make a blanket assertion about that tendency; at the least, it should cause expositors to stop and examine if it is possible that Paul might be speaking of two different “spirits” in the same context. Could he be speaking of the human spirit’s ability to follow the teaching of the Holy Spirit – “but those who live according to the [definite article is absent in Greek text – jj] Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5).

It Has Two Parts Not Three Parts

There is also a structural difference between verse 3 and verses 2, 5.  Verses 2 and 5 have three parts.

  • A Result: Receive/Supply the Spirit
  • Option #1: The Works of the Law
  • Option #2: The Hearing of Faith

Verse 3 has only two parts.  There is no result upon which the question is based.  Additionally, the two options have changed.  The “works of the Law” and the “hearing of faith” are missing.  It is a simple choice of spirit/flesh.  Again, most commentators and students conclude that verse 3 is also a reference to the Holy Spirit. Then, depending on their broader doctrinal beliefs, they described the “flesh” in varying degrees of depravity.

However, that not only fails to address the grammatical difference just noted, it also does not fully account for the context surrounding the passage. The Galatians were being “bewitched” to turn away from the gospel – but by whom?  It was the Judaizer.  As the Galatians struggled against those false teachers they were being persecuted and manipulated (Galatians 4:17, 5:10-12). It is that persecution that Paul addresses in 3:4: “Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?” Verse 4 is the follow-up question to verse 3. The choice they made in verse 3 led directly to the persecution they were suffering in verse 4. Paul’s point is that by turning to a system of being “perfected by the flesh,” they were invalidating the choice they had made to “begin in the Spirit.”

But what was that choice?  It was to obey the gospel that was brought to them by the apostle who supplied the Holy Spirit to them? But then, how does one make that choice – what part of man must respond in faith to the preached gospel?  It is his spirit.

One’s turning to the gospel is never a choice of the flesh.  It is always a choice of the spirit. Paul’s gospel focused on a transformation of the human spirit.  That is its beginning and ending point.  The spirit’s transformation will lead to a reformation of the deeds of the flesh.  The Pharisaical doctrine of the Judaizer sought to “perfect” the flesh by a works-based righteousness appealing to the works of the Law. According to Paul, that approach is of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23).

In summary, Galatians 3:3-5 shows us both uses of “spirit” in the writings of Paul.  The “spirit” of man is the beginning point of his walk of faith.  That spirit must be engaged and seeking to be transformed.  It must be “sown” to and cultivated (Galatians 6:8). Most often, Paul appeals to the Holy Spirit to provide evidence to the validity of this form of spiritual growth taught in the gospel.  The presence of the Holy Spirit’s power among the early Christians demonstrated that Paul’s approach to spirituality was the God-endorsed approach.  The fact that the flesh-focused efforts of the Judaizers lacked that endorsement from the Holy Spirit proved to the early church – especially in Rome and Galatia – that it was safe to turn away from the efforts of the Judaizer.


It is critical never to lose sight of Paul’s opponents in his writings. So often, we pull his writing forward to us so quickly we lose sight of the first-century battle he was actually fighting. In so doing, we rob ourselves of important expositional tools to make sense of his words.

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