Paul is one of the least understood figures in history. There are a number of tragic missteps of history that led to Paul being understood as an opponent of Judaism and an advocate of lawlessness.
First of all, there was the flood of non-Jewish Romans into the church, many of whom came with anti-Jewish prejudices (read the satires of Juvenal and you will know what I mean). Then, there is the fact, plainly spoken in the New Testament but virtually ignored by Paul’s interpreters, that Paul led the Gentile movement in the early church, not the Jewish movement. That is, Paul’s words should be interpreted as his teaching for Gentiles. I do not mean that Messianic Jews have no teaching available in Paul. I just mean that certain themes and trends in Paul should be seen as aimed at a Gentile audience. Paul does not address the kind of issues a Jewish believer today needs addressed.
If there is any verse in the Bible that gets thrown in our face as Messianic Jews, it is 1 Corinthians 9:20-21: To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
Here is the fantasy version of what Paul meant: When I am around my Jewish buddies, I like to wear my tzit-tzit long and eat a good Hebrew National with sauerkraut. I am free to ignore the Torah, but I keep it around them so that I can introduce them to Jesus and then free them from the burden of Torah and Jewish identity. If I were to ignore the Torah, as is my hard-won right through the sacrifice of the Jewish Messiah, my Jewish peers would see Jesus as an idol pulling them away from God. I have to tread slowly with them so that when they are pulled away from the Torah and asked to forfeit their Jewish identity, they will be so in love with Jesus it will not be difficult. Meanwhile, when I am around non-Jews, I enjoy a good pork chop and laugh it up with them. Heaven knows there are enough people pushing the Law on them. The last thing they need is a stuffy Jewish apostle giving them false impressions. So around the Gentiles, I can be myself, a man set free from Jewish identity and Torah, a man of freedom and the new Law of Christ (found in the New Testament which has not been written yet — but I got an advance copy!).
Here are some problems with this fantasy:
1. This interpretation would make Paul a hypocrite, pretending to be one thing with Jews and another with non-Jews.
2. If Paul believed the Torah was no longer important, then he was not agreeing with Yeshua (Matt 5:17-19).
3. Yeshua died because people are separated from God and need a cleansing to bring reconciliation. He did not die because the Law was oppressive and needed to be repealed.
4. If Yeshua came to bring a new message — do not follow the Law or the Covenant God made with you, just believe in me — then he is asking Jews to transgress God’s commandment.
5. If people want to give an extreme interpretation of what Paul meant by putting himself “under the law” around Jews, why not an extreme interpretation of Paul making himself “not under the law” around Gentiles? That is, why not say that Paul got wasted on Corinthian ale and patted a few Corinthian babes on the tukhes to seem relevant to his pagan audience!
6. Under the Law is an expression in Paul about our status before salvation; we are under the curse of the law as lawbreakers. We are not under the law after salvation because Yeshua took away the curse (he did not take away the commandments!).
So what is the reality of what Paul meant? I become the servant of all. I desire to see all men, Jews and non-Jews, discover the freedom we have in Yeshua: freedom from curse and death. With regard to those under the Torah, the truth is I am not under the authority of their synagogues. I have a fellowship that is greater. But I submit to the Jewish leaders, I live among them and relate to them as an equal and not a superior. Also, when I am around non-Jews, I do not practice table-separation as is the custom of many Jews. I relate to them as an equal and not a superior. I am a servant to all, Jew and non-Jew, so that by humbling myself and loving them, I might win them to faith in Yeshua.
The principle of 1 Corinthians 9 is not hypocritical evangelism, pretending to be what we are not to win people, but servanthood and dealing with people as an equal and not a superior. How much success have Christians had with the I’m-better-than-you-because-I’m-saved approach?