Paul, Part 1

March 19, 2006



Paul, Part 1: The Great Adventure (3/19/06)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

There is a tension that runs through Christian history. This tension is between the teachings of Jesus, and the teachings about Jesus—between what Jesus himself said, and what others said about him. The teachings of Jesus tell us to love one another without condition, to forgive our enemies without condition, and to surrender to God without condition. They set forth a moral code that is amazingly strict. On the other side of the spectrum are the teachings about Jesus. These teachings tell us that Jesus is the one unique Son of God, and that through him one can attain salvation. These teachings about Jesus are not concerned with how to live as much as they are concerned with what to believe.

To learn the teachings of Jesus, we turn to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These are called the synoptic gospels, because they tell similar stories about the life and teachings of Jesus. The differences between those three gospels make it is impossible to claim any of them is an accurate historical account of Jesus’ life. But they form similar sketches of the great man from Nazareth, and by reading those three gospels we can get a relatively good indication of the type of ministry Jesus had.

To study the teachings about Jesus—not about what he said and did but about his person—who he was in a religious sense—we turn to the Gospel of John and to the writings of the Apostle Paul. John and Paul do not concern themselves with the facts of Jesus’ life. They are all about the theological implications of Jesus’ life.

We have no record that Jesus ever wrote anything himself. Further, nobody followed Jesus around writing down everything he said—there are no writings to be found concerning Jesus that were written while he was alive. The first story of his life—the Gospel of Mark—was not written for nearly forty years after Jesus’ death.

The first writings we have from the “Christian era,” predating all four of the gospels, are the letters of a man who never even met Jesus—Paul. If you examine the 27 books of the New Testament, you will discover that 13 of them claim to be written by Paul. That would mean that almost half of the New Testament is under the authorship of this single person. That, however, is not true. It is a testament to the respect early Christians had for Paul that those who came after him often signed his name to certain documents in order to give them authority. I could compare this to me writing a letter and sending it out over the internet. If I sign it “Reverend Gary Cox,” a few people will read it. If I sign it “Billy Graham,” it is likely to receive a wider reading.

Scholars now credit 7 of the 13 books attributed to Paul as actually having been written by Paul himself. The other 6 were written well after Paul’s death. If this bothers you, you are certainly free to believe Paul wrote all the books attributed to him. For myself, I have been convinced by the scholarship that Paul wrote no more than 7 of the books we find in our Bible.
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Today, and over the next few weeks, I want to examine Paul. The fact is Paul started a religion. We call it Christianity. And traditional Christianity, based on the writings of Paul, has little to do with what Jesus said and taught. Traditional Christianity isn’t about a set of teachings; it is about a person. It is about who Jesus was. I really should reiterate that, because it is this fact that makes Christianity unique among the world’s religions. Historically, Christianity is about who Jesus was—not what Jesus taught.

And the first person to define who Jesus was, and the first person to travel around establishing faith communities called “churches” based on who Jesus was, was the man named Paul. Make no mistake: if not for Paul, you and I would not be Christians today.

Today we will take a look at his life—at the man himself. In the next few weeks we will look at his writing, and the impact it has had on our lives. When I began seminary I came to realize that Paul gets mixed reviews in the academic community. The more traditional scholars love him, and the feminist, liberationist and more liberal scholars don’t give Paul a lot of respect. As you will discover over the next few weeks, this has a lot to do with some of his statements about women, same-sex relationships, and slavery. We’ll try to unpack his thinking on those subjects next week. But for now, let’s look at his life, which, whatever else we may say about it, was a great adventure.

Paul was born and raised in the city of Tarsus, a thriving commercial center which was located just ten miles off the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey. Tarsus was a regional capital for the Roman Empire, and by all accounts Paul was a highly educated man. He was born both a Jew, from the tribe of Benjamin, and a Roman citizen, which was a bit unusual. His family would have had to have performed honorable and meaningful service to the Roman Empire for him to be born both Jewish and a Roman citizen. When he reached adulthood he was a member of the Pharisaic party, and like most rabbis and Pharisees was well educated and had a mastery of Greek.

Prior to his conversion Paul was a true hater of the religious cult that had developed around Jesus of Nazareth. This small group called itself “the way,” and insisted that the man the Romans and the Jewish authorities had collaborated to kill—Jesus of Nazareth—was in fact the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

The Book of Acts—which was not written by Paul—tells of how Paul viciously persecuted the followers of Jesus. He laid waste to the places Jesus’ followers gathered, dragged men and women off to prison, and persecuted followers of “the way” even in foreign cities. He watched approvingly as Stephen—the first martyr of Christianity—was stoned to death for claiming the Jews and Romans, in killing Jesus, had killed the Righteous One for whom the Jews had been waiting.

Paul was so successful in his attempt to rid the world of this small, new, Jewish religious movement that the high priest in Jerusalem gave him the authority to go to Damascus and bring back the followers of “the way” for punishment. This would have been around the year 35—just a couple of years after the death of Jesus.

Something happened on the way to Damascus that not only changed Paul, sometimes called Saul, but which also changed the world. On the Damascus Road a light from heaven flashed around Paul and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice ask him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asked whom it was that was speaking to him, the answer came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul was blind for three days following this epiphany, but when he regained his vision he was a different man.

The entire account is found in the 9th chapter of Acts, but to make a long story short, the followers of Jesus—the people of “the way”—are a bit skeptical when the man who has been persecuting them starts preaching the good news on their behalf. But the fact is, Paul was by far the most educated person to start preaching about Jesus Christ. Paul was a master of the logical argument, could argue in Greek with educated men, and he started going from synagogue to synagogue using the Hebrew scriptures to prove that Jesus of Nazareth—the crucified one—truly was the Son of God.

At this point, the people of “the way,” who were starting to be called Christians, did not trust Paul, and neither did the Jewish authorities he had once served so faithfully, and whom he had now betrayed with his conversion. The Apostles back in Jerusalem—especially James and Peter—were constantly at odds with Paul. For one thing, Paul had never even met Jesus! Peter and James had been there the whole time. Remember, Jesus had given Peter the “keys to the kingdom.” They had learned from Jesus, followed Jesus—even seen him killed. How could this man who never even laid eyes on him be going around telling everybody about Jesus?

And even worse, Paul didn’t seem to be concerned with the Jewish laws. He seemed to be telling people that it didn’t even matter if you were circumcised or not. He was telling everybody who would listen that faith in the Risen Jesus Christ was all you need. Don’t worry about those 600+ religious laws from the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—just commit your life to Jesus.

And it was at this point that Paul started inviting people who were not Jewish into this new faith. Jesus’ original apostles back in Jerusalem could hardly believe their ears. But Paul traveled extensively, establishing churches in the communities he visited, inviting Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and masters into the new faith.

Paul was as methodical in establishing new centers for the Christian faith as he had been a few years earlier in eliminating all memory of Jesus from the face of the earth. Paul’s routine was to go into one of the major commercial cities in a region, such as Corinth, or Thessalonica, or Philippi. He would set up his business in the marketplace. Paul was called a “tentmaker,” and it is believed he was a maker of leather goods. He would establish his business on the main street of the city, and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to anybody who would listen.

It seems that he typically stayed in a city for about two years. During that time he would probably move about the area, visiting the smaller villages near the major city. But for the most part his was a metropolitan ministry, as opposed to Jesus, who favored small villages.

After establishing a local church over a period of a few years, he would move on to another region. Some of the friends he made in each city traveled from region to region, keeping Paul updated on the churches he had started. It was not unusual for these new faith communities to have problems—this was a new religion, after all. Look at all the differences of opinion we have today, after two thousand years of trying to sort things out! It wasn’t any easier in the beginning. And Paul wrote letters to those churches, encouraging them in their faith, and attempting to resolve some of their disputes. What remains of those letters are found in the Bible. The seven books of the Bible which Paul wrote are for the most part letters, or compilations of letters, Paul wrote to the churches he had started.

Paul had a very difficult life. His message was not received with open hearts by most who heard it. The Jews rejected him, the gentiles were suspicious of him, and the Romans found him to be a dangerous nuisance. Those ancient Roman cities had their own gods, and they had systems of commerce developed around the worship of those gods.

A good example of Paul’s difficulties is a story from the Book of Acts about his time in the city of Ephesus. The goddess of Ephesus was Artemis. A thriving industry was built around the crafting of silver gods—hand-made gods formed in the image of the shrine of Artemis. Demetrius, one of the local silversmiths, recognizes that if Paul convinces people that, quote, “gods made with hands are not gods,” Demetrius’s business will be destroyed. Demetrius rallies his fellow silversmiths, and a riot ensues with the Ephesians running through the streets and shouting out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”

It should come as no surprise that Paul wrote a great deal of his letters from jail. Over the course of his ministry he was repeatedly imprisoned, beaten, whipped and tortured. Finally, the Roman government had enough of Paul, and after a series of arrests, he was finally chained and put on a ship that was destined for Rome. The ship was caught in a storm and shipwrecked on the island of Malta. Three months later Paul arrived in Rome, and was imprisoned. This was about 25 years after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road.

Sometime around the year 62—about thirty years after Jesus’ death and about ten years before Mark would write the first gospel—Paul was martyred in Rome. After his death he became the most famous and respected person in Christianity, except for Jesus himself. But Jesus had never written anything, and Paul had written lots of letters. The Christian communities started making copies of the letters they had received from Paul, and these letters were circulated throughout the churches. And it was the content of those letters that served as the foundation for the church.

Our next step, of course, is to examine the content of those letters. What we find may be surprising to some. For example, there is not a single instance in all of those letters that Paul claims Jesus was born in a miraculous fashion. In fact, he specifically states that Jesus was, quote, “Born of a woman, born under the law.” This certainly does not mean Paul thought that Jesus was just another everyday person. Remember, Paul believed with everything within him that he had personally met Jesus Christ years after Jesus died on the cross. Paul believed Jesus was unique in all of creation—he simply didn’t base that belief on a virgin birth. That doesn’t mean there was no virgin birth. It simply means it is not a part of Paul’s theology.

And isn’t it interesting that there are no teachings of Jesus in any of Paul’s letters. The fact is, what Jesus said and did were not nearly as important to Paul as who Jesus was—the Son of God who died on the cross to reveal God’s immeasurable love and take upon himself the sins of the world; and who then spiritually rose from the dead to take his place in eternity, one with the creator of the universe.

But enough of Paul’s theology. Today we set out to look at the man himself, and I hope we did an adequate job. In week three of this little series we’ll take a look at Paul’s theology, and look for the places where Paul and Jesus might have had some differences of opinion. Next week, we’ll look at the way his writings have shaped much of the church’s attitudes toward women and sexual orientation, as well as the way those writings have come under attack in the modern world. I remember when I first went to seminary, one of the soon-to-graduate students saw that I was carrying a book on the theology of Paul. She literally held her nose and said, “Oh, don’t you just hate Paul!” Being a bit of a novice at the time, I went outside to make sure I was in the right place. Yes, it really was a seminary, and I would soon learn that her words reflected the thinking of many students and faculty.

I admit that I struggle with Paul. There are times when I read something he wrote and think he was undoubtedly the most inspired Christian who ever lived; and in the next paragraph he will say something that I think is absolutely ridiculous. Like many in the modern church, I have a love-hate relationship with Paul. But one thing is certain. There has never been a more committed Christian than Paul. Convinced he had seen and heard the Risen Christ, there was nothing the world could throw at him—not stoning, not whipping, not shipwrecks, not imprisonment, not torture, not death—that could make him turn away from his mission of proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.

I for one cannot imagine what this world would look like, two thousand years later, if not for the courage and conviction of that single man.