Understanding Paul, part 2

Read Romans 15:25-33

“From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” (Galatians 6:17 NRSV)

paulWhen you count the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles, over half of the New Testament was either written about him or by him. What’s more, every writer in the New Testament came after him and were influenced by his ministry in one way or the other. What that means is that when we read the Gospels, when we read the stories of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, we are reading accounts by people who were writing after Paul, and they were writing from a Christian perspective that was informed by Paul and his mission to the Gentiles.

Of course, this does not necessarily help us to understand who Paul actually was or what he actually believed. Furthermore, this doesn’t help us to better interpret Paul for Christianity today. Over the last two millenia, Paul has been interpreted and reinterpreted. In fact, often times, Paul has even been misinterpreted. As a result of the misinterpretation of Paul’s theology, other people will flat out reject Paul. I have often heard people say that what Paul thought didn’t matter. I have heard some say, “We should be following the teachings of Christ, not of Paul.” While I think that, on the surface, Paul would agree with that statement, I also think it comes from an ignorance of just who Paul the Apostle is, and how he came to believe what he did.

While Paul didn’t spend time writing about the life of Jesus, it would be a huge mistake to say that he wasn’t influenced by the life and teachings of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, knowledgeable in the law of Moses and steeped in traditional Judaism, who came to experience the risen Christ and believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. He spent years in Arabia (Galatian 1:17) learning of this Jesus and his teachings, before returning to Damascus to begin teaching about Christ himself. Paul felt strongly that, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the Jewish covenant had been opened up to Gentiles as well. What’s more, the Gentile didn’t have to be circumcised or follow special dietary laws. They were accepted by God by virtue of their belief in Jesus.

While many Gentiles were glad to be accepted into the Jewish covenant by virtue of their newfound belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord, many of the Jewish Christians were not so certain that this Paul’s teachings were so correct. They argued that Jesus was a Jew who came to the Jews. While they were completely okay with accepting Gentiles in should they decide to convert to Judaism, these Jewish Christians were not okay with accepting them in willy nilly, just because they “believe” in Jesus. As such, there arose a division between Paul and those Christians who disagreed with him.

Paul stood up against opposition and, in his letters, defended not only his position but also his authority as an apostle. At the same time, he also respected those who opposed him, such as Jesus’ half-brother James, and did all he could to find common ground with them. He even raised money to support the Jerusalem church and chose to deliver that monetary support of the Jerusalem Church’s ministry himself, at risk to his own life. While firm in his convictions, Paul always sought to be a uniter, regardless of the cost. The question for us Christians today is this, are we up to that challenge? Do we firmly believe in the Gospel o Jesus Christ? Are we firm in our convictions of Christ’s radical love and inclusivity of all people who accept him as Lord and Savior? Are we committed to being an agent of unity even amidst opposition? This is what Paul lived and died for, and what we are called to live and die for as well.

“I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised Him from the dead. I want to suffer with Him, sharing in His death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” – Paul of Tarsus (Philippians 3:10-11 NLT)

Lord, strengthen me to be not only firm in my convictions, but also humble enough to seek unity in mission with those who may not share in them. Amen.

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