Tag Archives: letters

Understanding Paul, part 5

Read 1 Corinthians 4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” (Philippians 4:12 NLT)

Probably_Valentin_de_Boulogne_-_Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles_-_Google_Art_ProjectOver the past four devotions we have explored the Apostle Paul, we discussed how he is the most influential person in Christian history, discussed how he was practicing “situational theology” in order to address specific issues that had risen up in his church communities, how he sacrificed his life in order to unify the church in the midst of divisive opposition, and how he more than likely did not write all of the letters in the New Testament that are attributed to him. At this point, one may be still trying to understand what all of this means for us today. What can we actually know about Paul if we are not even sure what he did or didn’t write? Also, how do we know what Paul actually believed if his letters are merely responses to specific and contextual situations as they were arising in his church communities? In the end, I believe the best way to understand Paul and what he believed is to look at the undisputed letters, the ones that are universally accepted as being his, and see what key recurring theological components make themselves known to us.

When we read Paul’s undisputed letters of 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians we notice certain things that are central to Pauline theological understanding. Paul believes that his authority as an Apostle comes from a private revelation of the risen Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17) and not from the approval of any other human being. Paul believes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to bless the world through Abraham. Through faith in Christ, the whole world can now  be included in the Jewish covenant. What this means is that God, through Jesus Christ, brings about the salvation of the whole world (Galatians 3:3-9, 14; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10-11). What’s more, Paul believed that Christ would return and bring with him the reign and eternal presence of God (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). While all of this is now taken for granted, or completely overlooked, this is the beginning of the more profound and radical views that Paul held.

Paul is often held up as the conservative icon of the church, as partner in ministry with Peter, the reality is that Paul was pushing the envelope in ways that often set him apart from and in opposition to Peter (Galatians 2:11-16). He believed that God created all people equal. Where the world segregates and divides, Paul believed that in Christ was freedom and equality (Galatians 3:25-29). In an age that accepted slavery, Paul challenged a church leader to release his slave and accept them in an equal (Philemon 1:16). In an age where women were property, Paul viewed women as co-workers, deacons, and leaders in the church. He even acknowledged being personally supported by Phoebe (Romans 16:1). Most important, Paul believed in the unity of believers and he literally died trying to make that a reality (Romans 15:30-32). He believed that the spirit of Christ is the spirit of love, and that we Christians have been filled with that spirit (1 Corinthians 13). He saw all believers as making up the resurrected body of Christ. He also believed that, as the body of Christ, all Christians are called to serve the poor, heal the sick, and carry on the ministry of Christ in the world.

If we as Christians are going to take Paul seriously and take his writings as Scripture, we need to open ourselves to the kind of transformation he advocated. We need to begin to work for hope, healing, and wholeness in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. We need to start working toward the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed to us by Christ through his servant Paul. As can be seen, there is no doubt that without Paul, Christianity would not be the same. With that said, the truth is (and I believe Paul would agree) that the same is true about you and me. Without us, the body of Christ, there would be no church. Let us realize this, pick up the torch, and carry it forward brining the light of Christ into the darkness.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord, strengthen me in my faith so that I may, like your servant Paul, bring your light into this dark and broken world. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 3

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stay true to the Lord. I love you and long to see you, dear friends, for you are my joy and the crown I receive for my work.” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)

SAN PABLO10When we read the Christian Scriptures, what has become known as the New Testament, we tend to read it as one narrative written either by the hand of God, or by hands that were dictated to and put into motion by God. In fact, all of the Bible is really read that way. While it is certainly true that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God and by there relationship with God, I think that the way we typically read the Bible takes away from the richness of the individuals who wrote it, as well as their individual contexts and communities. This is no more true than it is with Paul and his letters.

When we read Paul’s letters we read them as Scripture. We look to them for authoritative doctrine and structure for the church. We read them looking for how God wants us, as the church, to live and act. We look to them for the boundaries that make up “the church”, and we look to define what is Christian and contrast it to what IS NOT Christian. When someone says or believes something that seems to go against the rubric of the Pauline Scripture as we interpret it, we tend to distance ourselves from that person and his or her beliefs. Often time the word “heresy” will get thrown away and the label of “false teacher” or “false Christian” will get thrown around.

While I am not saying that we shouldn’t be looking toward Paul’s letters for spiritual guidance, and I am not saying that Paul’s writings aren’t authoritative or useful as a rubric against false beliefs, I am also cautious about using any Paul’s writings, or any Scripture, that way. Paul, at the time, was doing what I like to call “Situational Theology”. He had started a number of Christian communities around Asia Minor and other parts of the Roman Empire and, like in all churches, conflicts and theological disputes arose between different factions (aka cliques) in the church. In the Galatian church, he had Jewish Christians not wanting to accept uncircumcised Gentile Christians into their church community. In the church in Rome, he was dealing with Gentile Christians who were being inhospitable to the Jews in their community, among other things. In another letter, Paul is letting Philemon know that it is not cool to own slaves and that Philemon should let his slave, Onesimus, go free.

Paul, in essences, is writing Christian theological responses to specific situations within specific circumstances. As a Pharisee-turned-Apostle, he is using his understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to address the behaviors, conflicts and situations in the local church communities he established. I do not, for one minute, believe that Paul ever foresaw his letters being called “Scripture.” Nor do I think he’d be comfortable with that, especially in light of how his words have often been interpreted.

Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that Paul’s letter’s aren’t Scripture. They are because Christians have and continue to be divinely guided by Paul’s words. Nor am I saying that Paul’s words have no relevance to the church today. They obviously do, and they will continue to for all time. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to understand the context of Paul’s letters, we need to understand the key theological components of Paul’s central and core beliefs as a Christian Apostle, in order for us to be able to appropriately interpret them in today’s time and context. As with all Scripture, it is not enough to just take the word’s of Paul literally and apply them in heavy-handed and graceless ways; rather, we need to be prayerful and open in our approach to understanding the divine wisdom in the words of Christianity’s most influential theologian.

“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” (Galatians 5:25 NLT)

Lord, raise me up into a messenger such as Paul. Fill me with your hope and send me to proclaim that hope, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who are hunger and thirst for it. Amen.