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"Is Paul basically a reflective theologian, a pastoral leader, or a missionary?"
"Is Paul a Jew for whom the Church is an emerging, new 'Jewish' reality or is Paul a 'Christian' who is very conscious of his distance from Judaism?"
"What is the center and 'organizing structure' of Paul's thought?"
First we will consider the call Paul received to be a minister to the Gentiles. Paul calls himself the "apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom 11:13). In Galatians 1:15-16, Paul states that God revealed his Son to him so that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles. This is further demonstrated in his letter to the believers in Rome, "…the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit" (Rom 15:15-16). This call is confirmed by Luke in Acts, when the Lord says to Ananias, "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel" (9:15). Although not excluding ministry to the Jews, Paul is clearly called by the Lord as a missionary to the Gentiles (see also Acts 20:24).
It is that mission and ministry that is the main narrative of the latter half of Acts, which describes Paul's many travels and exploits as a missionary (see for example 18:23, 19:10, 28:30). Even though a detailed chronology cannot be completely confirmed, the historicity of Paul's various visits and stays are confirmed in his own writing in passages such as the following.
After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you--for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you awhile, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me (I Cor 16:5-9).The very existence of many different letters addressed to groups of believers throughout the then known world is also proof of the cosmopolitan nature of Paul's missionary work.
Paul was sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit as a missionary. It was the Spirit who prompted his original missionary journey from Antioch:
While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent hem off (Acts 13:2).The same Spirit guided Paul when he was traveling, first keeping him from going one direction and then leading him in another (Acts 16:6). Near the end of his ministry, Paul was warned by the Holy Spirit that he would face very hard times ahead. His response was that his own life was worthless - his one desire was to "finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to God's grace" (Acts 20:22).
Paul's mission as seen in the New Testament is two fold. "It's purpose is first the preaching of the gospel and the founding of churches, and then the provision of assistance so that they may reach maturity" (Banks 1994:169). In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes how "it has always been [his] ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known." From his perspective, he has communicated the gospel throughout the entire world. He now wants to go to Spain as well and asks for Rome's support (Rom 15:19-24). He believed that missionary work was of vital importance in order for people to believe in and call on Christ. To accomplish this, both the missionaries and those who send them are important (Rom 10:14). Paul's concern for the churches he had planted is evident in Acts 15:36: "Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.'"
Also important in Paul's career as a missionary were the signs and wonders which encouraged belief in his message. "So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders" (Acts 14:3; cf. Acts 15:12). "The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance" (II Cor 12:12).
Finally, as a missionary, Paul's desire was to be relevant among those to whom he ministered. Here he models Christ in an incarnational style of ministry which identifies with receptors of the Gospel:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…, so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (I Cor 9:19-23; italics mine).This is not mere manipulation or false pretenses in order to win converts, but a true relational identification with the receptors, in order to be Christ to them.
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Despite Paul's personal identify as Jew (a Christ-believing Jew!), the church for him is much bigger than just its roots in Judaism. The majority of his preaching is to Gentiles and his letters imply that the majority of the readers of his letters were Gentiles (Cousar 1996:72). The argument that the Gentile believers are not subject to the Judaic law is key in Paul's writings to these Gentiles. He argues that righteousness comes apart from observing the law (Rom 3; Gal 3; Phil 3). He believed this so strongly that he openly confronts Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians who decide not to eat with Gentile Christians in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). Paul sees this act as "ethnic imperialism and a violation of the gospel" (Cousar 1996:73). He goes so far as to say that he wishes those preaching circumcision (which is representative of upholding the law) to the Gentile believers would emasculate themselves in the process (Gal 5:12)!
As part of a defense of the faithfulness of God in Romans, through what seems to be (but actually is not) the abandonment of Israel, Paul takes occasion to validate his missionary career among non-Jews. "The mission to the Gentiles is and always has been a part of God's intentions, but it does not suggest that God has forgotten the Jews" (Cousar 1996:112). He begins with a description of how the whole world has clearly understood God through creation since the beginning. Especially in chapters nine through eleven, Paul argues how the Gentiles are included in God's promise. Both Jew and Gentile alike are included if they call on the name of Christ: "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him" (Rom 10:12). There is only one God, God of both the Jews and Gentiles who are justified through the faith of Christ (Rom 3:26-30) In this sense the new church is distant from Judaism because it encompasses much more than just the Jews.
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Paul's relationship with Christ is very intense and personal. He reminds the Galatians that the gospel he preaches is not something he made up, but that he received by revelation from Christ (1:11-12). Paul tells the Thessalonians that Christ died for the believer so they may live together with him (5:10); Paul preaches Christ crucified - the Lord of the universe hung on a tree to die. This seems foolishness to men, but is the wisdom of God (I Cor 1:18-30). Perhaps the most powerful are passages that speak of sharing in Christ's death: "…all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into death" (Rom 6:3). Paul wants to "know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:10-11). By participating in Christ's death, the believer also participates in his resurrection and receives new life.
Upon this general basis of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul's framework is built. One of the buildings that rises from the framework is the eschatological awareness of the Christian community. In Galatians, Paul contrasts the earthly city of Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem (4:25-27). He tells the Phillipians that the believer's citizenship is in heaven, as they await Christ's return, although the "enemies of the cross of Christ" have their minds on earthly things (3:18-20) (Banks 1994:39). Paul teaches that in the end, God will destroy every enemy and everything will be put under Christ's feet. Christ is the "firstfruits" of the resurrection of the dead which the believers will also share in through him. Death itself will be destroyed (I Cor 15:20-26).
Very prevalent themes in Pauline literature (especially Galatians and Romans) are the contrasts between the insufficiency of the law and saving faith in Jesus Christ and between the old life and the new. "We … know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified" (Gal 2:15-16). These verses were the rallying point of the Reformation's justification by faith (Cousar 1996:1983). Recent scholarship has however seen the phrase "faith in Christ" as better understood as "faith of Christ." The faith whereby a believer is justified, then, is not human faith but Christ's faith. It is because of Christ's faithful obedience in life and his death and resurrection that mankind may be saved. Human faith participates in Christ's faithful obedience (Cousar 1996:129-131).
Closely related to the old and new life is the concept of reconciliation. I can describe it no better than Paul himself:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17-21).Through Christ's death and resurrection, God reconciled the world to himself, overcoming the barrier of sin that had separated it from him. Furthermore, God has given believers the ministry of reconciliation! This concept is one of the foundations of Paul's ministry. He has both received reconciliation and become an agent of reconciliation. "…we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom 5:7).
Unity in Christ is another motif found throughout the letters of Paul. "There is neither Jew nor Greek , slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 14:5-6; italics mine). Unity is a key to both Galatians and Romans, where Paul is specifically addressing the controversies concerning Jewish and Gentile believers. The solidarity and interdependence of the church as the body of Christ is very prominent in I Corinthians, where in the context of spiritual gifts Paul addressed the discord in that community (12-13) The famous "love chapter," 1 Corinthians 13, is in this context of unity.
Another theme which gives structure to Paul's focus on the person of Jesus Christ is that of suffering. This suffering is part of becoming like Christ in his death (Phil 3:10) and is necessary in order to also share in his glory (Rom 8:17). Suffering also produces perseverance, character, and hope. Best of all, the believers are not left alone in their suffering. They have the opportunity for both comfort from Christ's love and fellowship with the Spirit (Phil 2:1). "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (II Cor 1:4).
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Cousar, Charles B.
1996 The Letters of Paul. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Meeks, Wayne A.
1983 The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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