November 6, 2021 - Paul

Click here for:  Audio file of this message


Today we’re going to take a look at the apostle Paul. Paul comes from a family of Pharisees. He is born in modern-day Turkey, but goes to school in Jerusalem with Gamaliel the famous rabbi. As a young man, Paul becomes convinced that the Jesus movement has to be shut down. They are giving Jesus worship that belongs to God alone. But on his way to arrest believers in Damascus, Paul gets a personal visit from the risen Jesus, and Paul is blown away. As soon as he gets to Damascus, he goes to the synagogue and proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. He is forced to flee, and soon believers in Jerusalem send him safely back home to Tarsus.

After 14 years of silence, Barnabas recruits Paul to teach at Antioch. Then God sends Paul on tour to plant churches from Galatia to Philippi to Corinth to Ephesus. Paul is arrested on false charges back in Jerusalem. 2 years in jail, Paul appeals his case to Caesar, and he spends 2 more years in Rome before he is apparently released, only to be rearrested by Nero and put to death (65 AD). In this time, Paul writes 13 letters to churches that become half of our NT.

Paul is not our authoritative Lord. However, Paul is our canonical Messianic rabbi, so what he thinks does matter. What have been Paul’s most unique contributions to theology?

Paul is responsible for the classic definition of love, the fruits of the Spirit, his concept of Christ as the Second Adam, and his teaching of salvation by grace thru faith and not by works or merit of any kind. And although Paul certainly did not invent the atoning death of Christ, Paul did more to explain the atonement than anyone who had gone before him; only the author of Hebrews takes it further. Paul also does the same for the deity of Christ. Paul was also the leader who made it Jewish to be pro-Gentile.

What was central to Paul’s theology? If we ask Paul, he tells us in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that here he is reminding them of the basic Gospel by which they were saved: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to…” followed by a list of well-known witnesses.

Another place where Paul boils it down even further is at the beginning of this same letter, where he sums up his whole message (I’m gonna preach this and nothing else) as, “But we preach: a crucified Messiah.” As N T Wright formulates it, “the crucified and risen Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord.” That was the message that propelled Paul around the empire, enduring stones, scourging, and shipwreck like the Energizer Rabbit. That’s what turned an orthodox Jew upside down. But Paul believed that what he had found was the fulfillment rather than a contradiction of everything he believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew.

We can’t appreciate how goofy that message sounded to both Jews and Gentiles around him. But we can’t say that Paul simply had a few strange ideas on the side about the meaning of somebody’s crucifixion and resurrection; these were at the very center of his theology. For Paul, the huge puzzle of faith comes together with Jesus, but without the resurrection, the whole picture falls apart.

Paul uses the word God 480x, 135x in Romans alone. The problem is that Paul’s convictions about God are all standard Jewish beliefs. They belong to the foundations of his belief, so he doesn’t take much effort to spell them out or explain them, he assumes them. Paul already believed what all other Jews believed about God. It was Jesus that he had to explain.

Paul was a thoroughly monotheistic Jew. That never changes. Paul knows that the Olympians are fiction, and the claims of Caesar are false. But suddenly Paul discovers Jesus at the heart of the one God in whom he believes. Paul can never bring himself to say it as crystal clear as John does, but what he does see and put into words makes Paul just as vulnerable to the charge of blasphemy as the believers he condemned before he met Jesus for himself.

James Dunn says that “the concept of God’s kingdom as it appears in Paul seems to lack all national features and to have become a universal expression of God’s rule.” Jesus mentions the kingdom of God/heaven 106x. Paul only does so 19x. 4 of these are in warnings attached to his sin lists. We also find short, pithy sayings that might be lines from Jesus, such as “Thru many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” “The kingdom of God is not about talk but about power,” and “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Maybe Paul deemphasizes kingdom language because he doesn’t want God’s kingdom confused with a political kingdom by his Greek and Roman audience.

The Jews saw the coming of the kingdom of God as being totally in the future. N T Wright says, “For Paul, it lay in the past… For Paul, as for the gospels, the Messiah is already reigning… Instead of the long wait for the one God to judge sin, death, and all human wickedness, judgment has already been passed… Jesus is already in charge, and every knee is to bow at his name.”

Paul mentions the Spirit of God 39x. Paul’s theology of the Spirit (“the Lord is the Spirit” – 2 Cor 3:17) gives us what we need to complete a slowly-emerging picture of a triune God. The Hebrews correctly saw the Spirit not as another divine being, but an extension of the one true God. When Paul and the Church begin approaching Jesus this way, we have the makings of Trinitarian monotheism. The Spirit is the One thru whom Christ dwells inside the believer, and anyone who does not have the Spirit does not belong to the Messiah. The Spirit empowers the believer to obey, which the fleshly human nature cannot do. The Spirit also gives gifts that build up the body of believers, and produces a joy that can only be experienced.

What other powers are there? Paul mentions Satan by name 10x. He also refers to him as “the devil” 5x, once as “Beliar,” twice as “the evil one,” and he calls him “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). Paul uses the term “demons” only in 1 Corinthians 10 (4x) and in 1 Timothy 4:1, and he never discusses exorcism, although he performs one in Philippi. Paul names other heavenly powers, including angels. But Paul says nothing specific about the heavenly powers other than that Christ has power over them.

What does Paul say about the creation? He believes there are at least 3 heavens: the sky, outer space, and the third heaven is what we would call Heaven. Paul believes that the earth belongs to God, and that everything created by God is good. Paul definitely rejects the idea that the material world is evil.

What does Paul believe about human nature? Paul believes that “flesh” cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but the “body” can and must be raised. Flesh is corruptible; a body is simple a base of operations for the person, an embodied existence. A body gives us a location: to be present in the body is to be absent from the Lord (2 Cor 5:6, 8). Paul is not sure whether he was in or out of the body when he saw the third heaven. He says that sins other than illicit sex are outside the body. The location sense of the word “body” in Paul’s letters leads to the idea of the body of the Messiah: we are, in a sense, his physical presence on earth at the moment.

"Flesh" is used 77x by Paul, 22x in Romans alone. Paul personifies the flesh to an unusual degree. It becomes a hostile force that is at war with God and absolutely cannot please God. The flesh is weak and frail compared to the Spirit; the Spirit can empower us to do what the flesh cannot do. Therefore, Paul writes, “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14). emphasizes mortality; flesh is headed inescapably toward death.

Paul uses the word “sin” 54x, 39x in Romans alone. In Romans, personifies sin to an unusual degree as a power that rules people’s lives. For this meaning he uses the singular, although in the rest of his letters he speaks of sins in the plural. Sin produces misdirected religion, self-indulgence (“the desires of their hearts”), followed by all sorts of sins (plural), and consequently death.

What about the Law? Paul insists that the Law is good and is a gift from God, but he also describes it as a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9). “Thru the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20), so “law came that the trespass might increase” (Rom 5:20). Paul says the Messiah is the end/goal of the Law, and that the Law is our schoolmaster to lead us to Messiah. Gentiles can do what the Law requires to some extent (Rom 2:14), but no one can be justified by doing what the Law requires (Rom 3:20), because all the Law can do is prove to us that we are sinners. Paul agrees with the writer of 4 Ezra that God expects sinless perfection to avoid the curse on all those who do not continue to do everything written in the Law (Gal 3:10). And Paul insists in Rom 3:31 that we do not overthrow the Law by our belief in salvation thru faith alone.

What is the answer to our problem of sin? The answer is the Gospel or “Good News.” The term for “gospel” or “good news” is usually plural in pagan texts, but it is always singular in NT. N T Wright explains that this word ‘good news’ “is not merely a nice piece of information to cheer you up on a bad day, but the public, dramatic announcement that something has happened through which the world has changed for ever and much for the better.”

One of Paul’s most famous trademarks is his doctrine of grace. As is the case with agape, Paul takes “grace” and gives new meaning and unprecedented prominence to the word. Perhaps no one has made grace so central to their understanding of salvation than Paul has. Paul insists that faith alone is consistent with grace. Salvation by good works is a direct contradiction of grace (Rom 11:6). So that may explain why “repentance” is so rare in Paul.

Paul is the one who made the Gospel all about the cross, the saving death of Jesus. Paul had to explain the cross! The Jews of his day would have had less of a problem with the resurrection than they did with the crucifixion of their Messiah. In 150 AD, Trypho the Jew says to Justin Martyr (Dialogue 90.1), “Prove to us that [the Messiah] had to be crucified and had to die such a shameful and dishonorable death, cursed by the law. We could not even consider such a thing.” What could the cross possibly mean?

Jesus said it, but Paul unpacked it: “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Paul uses at least 5 different kinds of language to describe how ’ death saves us from sin: 1. Redemption: “Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Law” (Gal 3:13). 2. Reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). 3. Courtroom: “we are justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9). 4. Sacrifice: “whom God put forward as an atoning sacrifice by his blood” (Rom 3:25). 5. Conquest (Col 2:15). Paul makes it clear that Christ “died on behalf of all” (2 Cor 5:14). Paul says the Messiah is the second Adam, whose one act of obedience undoes all the damage done by Adam’s solitary sin. (Rom 5:18)

Paul calls Jesus “Messiah” so often (358x out of 529 in the entire NT) that he is responsible for making “Christ” his last name, as it were. He uses the term “Lord” 246x, mostly referring to Jesus, although he may mean God the Father (like when he’s quoting the OT). By contrast, Paul calls him Son of God or Son only 16x. Colossians is where he uses his loftiest language about who Jesus is: all the fullness of God “dwells bodily” in Christ.
Paul uses the term “in Christ” 83x (plus at least 12x “in him/whom”). He uses the term “in the Lord” 43x. What does he mean by such language? He’s talking about our union with Christ. Paul shows how our union with Christ is like our union with Adam, only better. We have been crucified with Christ, raised with him, and are seated in heaven with him, and he lives within us. 2 Cor 5:17 sums it up: “If anyone is in the Messiah, he/she is a new creation.”

Paul logically proceeds from salvation to sanctification: “How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” Sin is a contradiction in the life of a believer. We are to become what God already says we are on the books, and the power of the Spirit is God’s provision to enable us to root sinful deeds out of our lives.

Amazingly, Paul never uses the word “church” in the entire book of Romans (or in Galatians), but he uses it 23x in the rest of his writings. For Paul, the Church was God’s temple, even while the Jerusalem temple was still standing. The Church was a community without a cult, a religion without priests or sacrifices, which must have seemed weird to the pagans.

As important as the sacraments are to us, Paul only refers to baptism 15x, and he only mentions the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. He uses baptism 3x in Romans 6, once in Ephesians (“one Lord, one faith…”), once in Galatians 3:27, and the other 11x are in 1 Corinthians, where he says that doing baptism was not high on his list of priorities. For Paul, baptism is how we become part of the one body of Christ, and become totally identified with Christ. We die with him, are buried with him, and are raised with him. All we learn about Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is in 1 Corinthians 10-11: the bread we break and the cup we bless is a koinonia (sharing) in the body and blood of the Messiah.

Paul's attention to the return of the Messiah is found mostly in his letters to Thessalonica, where he refers to his “coming” 6 out of 7 times (the 7th is 1 Cor 15:23). In the Pastoral Epistles, he prefers the term epiphaneia (5x). Paul makes no reference to Messiah’s return in his earliest letter, and he refers to it 3x in his final letter. He tells the Philippians, “The Lord is near.” He tells the Corinthians and the Romans that time is very short. He speaks frequently of the “day of the Lord,” a day when the dead will rise, the living will be transformed in an atom of time and rise to meet the Lord in the air, and all will be rewarded by what they have done. And he closes 1 Corinthians with the prayer Maranatha! (“Our Lord, come!”)

The day of the Lord will be the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts by the Messiah Jesus (Rom 2:16). On that day, he says, Christ “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Cor 4:5) And surprisingly enough, he says even believers will get to share in the judgment. So how do we reconcile grace with 2 Cor 5:10 (“we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ”)? Salvation by grace is not inconsistent with reward for deeds we have done, nor is it inconsistent with judgment of sinners who have refused to accept that grace.

Speaking of those who refuse to believe, what about Israel? Paul has not ceased to be Jewish in his beliefs. In fact, he insists Christ is the only faithful way to be Jewish. Like other groups in his day, Paul has bet his life and pinned all his hopes on a Messiah. If he is wrong, he loses the whole farm, but if he is right, he has to bet the whole farm. Like Qumran, Paul believed that most of Israel had rejected God, but unlike Qumran, he held out hope that more of Israel would yet come to believe. It is on this issue in Romans 9-11 that Paul makes some of his strongest affirmations that no one resists God’s will. God “has mercy on whomever he chooses, and hardens the heart of whomever he chooses… Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

The apostle Peter writes that some of Paul’s teachings are easy to misunderstand. What about Peter’s life and beliefs? We’ll talk about Peter next time on Biblical Words and World.