The New Testament Letters: Paul

PaulWe’ve looked at the Gospels and Acts, the Book of Moses or the Torah, and the apocalyptic literature; this week I want to look at the collection of Christian letters, or Epistles, that come in the New Testament after the gospels and Acts and before the book of Revelation. The letters were written by some of Jesus’s earliest followers, and considered as a whole are a remarkable witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. Quite apart from the fact that the Holy Spirit gave them the words of the letters, the very fact that they exist has a lesson for us. In the gospels Jesus’s followers were hesitant, confused and slow to get the point of Jesus’s teaching; after the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit we see in these letters power and confidence as they win people to Christ by explaining His significance. And explanation is a big theme in all the epistles. They answer the questions ordinary people have about Jesus’s place in the ultimate meaning of life. The other big theme is how to live by Christian standards, especially when the world is indifferent or hostile to them. This morning I want to focus on Paul’s letters; we’ll look at the others later in the semester.

First, there are two statements about Paul that are often made that can undermine our confidence in what these letters say, and I want to tell you why they don’t undermine my own confidence in them. One is that not all the letters are by Paul, the other is that Paul is teaching something other than Jesus taught. The reason why people think that some might be forgeries is because there are differences between them in style of language and a few other things, but the overwhelming objection to the idea that Paul didn’t write them is the blunt claim in every one of them to be from the lips if not the hand of Paul. The idea that using someone else’s name was an acceptable practice in the early church, as some scholars have claimed, is unlikely on the face of it, and no convincing argument for it has ever been given (except in the case of the apocalyptic literature, which is so different that its characteristics can hardly be applied generally). The idea that the earliest Christians were too unsophisticated to recognise forgery is also without merit: they actually had a far better eye for forgery than we do, since they were at greater risk of them due to the technological limitations of the time. Dozens of forgeries were repudiated in the early days of the church, and for no other reason than that they were forgeries. People didn’t like being deceived then any more than they do now, and they considered using someone else’s name deception. In the 2nd century a priest invented a correspondence between Paul and Thekla, the first woman to be martyred, but his conscience troubled him so much that he eventually confessed, and he was deposed from his ministry for dishonesty. No one has, to my knowledge, ever explained why 1st century Christians would be less concerned by a similar dishonesty, and until they do, other explanations for the differences between the epistles must be preferred. Remember that Paul specifically says that he dictated some of his letters to others, and the same is true of his scribes as is true of Moses’s; they considered it part of their job to put Paul’s words in the proper form, and different scribes had different ways of doing that. And the academic pendulum does seem to be swinging back towards acceptance of Paul’s authorship of many of the disputed epistles, I’m glad to say.

The idea that Paul was presenting a religion of his own, a version of Christianity that is totally different from that of Jesus, is very common. There’s a book in the Pitt library called ‘Paul Was Not a Christian’, for instance, and another, which is about Paul’s view of Jesus, called ‘How Jesus became a Christian’. But this idea also doesn’t stand up to examination, as we’ll see if we look at what Paul actually said and compare it with Jesus’s own words.

The good news that through Jesus Christ people could be reunited with their creator no matter what their mistakes and failings was spreading so rapidly that misunderstandings of Jesus’s teachings were being taught and believed, even in churches that had been brought into being by Paul’s or some other apostle’s own preaching. For instance, some people had got the idea that you had to become a Jew before you could become a Christian; some thought that you still had to atone yourself for the things you had done wrong by doing everything right; some said there was a special secret teaching of Jesus that he hadn’t given to all the apostles, and which they knew and were willing to share. These were all what we might call doctrinal issues, in that they depend on a right understanding of what Jesus has done and how it changes our relationship with God, and Paul says a lot about them. But there were also ethical issues. Some of them arose because of misapplying the doctrines, others were there because an increasing n umber of non-Jews were coming to the faith, who had never been taught the Ten Commandments. Some people thought that now you were right with God it didn’t matter what you did and the commandments no longer applied to you. Others continued to live by standards current in the culture of the day in matters like sexuality, money, attitude to other religions and so on. Paul’s letters were written to address these kinds of issue. Paul’s letters are bound to seem different from Jesus’s teaching because Paul wrote his letters not to repeat Jesus’s teaching, but to correct misunderstandings of it. The great value of them today is that in dealing with these mistakes he shows us how to make sure we aren’t making similar mistakes, or even brand new ones, and how to deal with them when we do. He and the other letter-writers shows us how to apply what Jesus taught to the decisions we have to make every day.

One of the most important ways in which Paul dealt with the doctrinal issues was by developing Jesus’s teaching about salvation by faith alone. Paul talked about this so much that some scholars have said he invented the idea. But Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father but by me. There’s no other way but Jesus, and that way is through believing in Him, trusting Him. To say that Paul made up the doctrine of salvation by faith alone just doesn’t make sense to me. Paul even uses the same word for faith that Jesus did; the difference between them is that Jesus tends to use the verb, ‘believe’, and Paul tends to use the noun, usually translated ‘faith’. But they are talking about the same thing. Even when the words are different, they’re talking about the same thing: Jesus calls the goal ‘coming to the Father’, being restored to God, Paul calls it ‘salvation’, but it’s the same thing. Paul says what Jesus says, and then applies that to some of the mistakes people were making. Believe in Jesus, have faith in Jesus, and everything, everything Jesus came to give humanity is yours. Nothing else is necessary; you don’t have to convert to Judaism, you don’t have to be perfect, there’s no secret teaching you have to know in addition. It’s just Jesus, as Jesus Himself said.

Paul also answers the questions that were bound to be asked, who is Jesus, and how can He make a difference? Paul’s answers to these questions are a major theme of his letters. He comes back to it in almost all of them. In some of them it’s the biggest subject of the letter, in others it’s something he mentions in passing, but he never writes without saying something about it. His basic answer to the question about who Jesus is, is that Jesus is the One promised by God in the Old Testament, the Son of God, the Lord. In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes himself as set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand… in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son,… descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God… according to the Spirit…Jesus Christ our Lord. And again he is simply expressing in different terms what Jesus Himself taught. John 5.16, Jesus  said My Father is working still, and I am working. And John adds, This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God. In John 13, Jesus says to His disciples, You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. Nothing new from Paul here, just a determination that no one who knows Paul will ever forget what Jesus said about Himself.

Paul’s basic answer to the question what difference Jesus is contained in the idea already quoted in Jesus’s words and in Paul’s—when we have faith in Jesus as Son of God and Lord, we are saved, restored to the Father by adoption as God’s own children. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith… by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the letter to the Romans. In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith, the letter to the Galatians. You have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast, in the letter to the Ephesians. I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith, the letter to Philemon.

Paul also answers many other questions that people naturally have when they first hear about Jesus, and I urge you to read his answers in his letters. I’d be here all day if I tried to tell you everything that Paul says gets better once you have put your faith in Christ, but let me just give one example, concerning something that people today care a lot about. One of the things people worry about in the society we live in is the way that certain people are walled off from some things because of their place in life; because they are poor, because they are a certain race, because they are women, or for some other fact about them over which they have no control. Paul says that faith in Jesus Christ destroys these barriers. In Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus, he says in his letter to the Galatians. Our society has laws that try to prevent there being barriers because of those things, and the laws help a bit, but we all know that the laws haven’t achieved the kind of unity between human beings that Paul describes. No law can achieve it, actually; Paul says that explicitly. He says that God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son… in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. He’s talking about the Jewish law there, but it applies just as much to any law passed by Congress; laws restrain us, some of the time, but they change us none of the time. For us to experience the fellowship we all know is God’s will, we have to turn to Christ in faith, and when we encounter others who don’t want to live in that unity, the most effective thing is to invoke not the law, but faith in Christ. Proclaiming Christ as Son of God and Lord is as essential for a just society as any law that we have, and more effective than any law can be. In another letter Paul makes the same point, but adds something that shows us how it works: In Christ there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience… forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you. The law can tell us not to make distinctions, but only in Christ are we given a way to love one another, be patient with one another, forgive one another. And it is only as we live as followers of Christ, rather than as good citizens, that we can begin to experience what God always intended for us. The law restrains us from living according to our lower nature, but only faith in Christ leads us to a better nature.

Not that we become perfect immediately. Paul is pretty clear about that, too, and uses himself as the example. I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? And then gives the answer: Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Christ delivers us from our old nature and brings us to a better one. Since we are adopted children of God, and adopted not when we were babies but when we made our own real commitment to Christ, it takes a while before we start to live like the family who adopted us. We bring some of our old ways with us. But through the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s commitment to us and the Father’s love for us, we are gradually being remade. Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness, he says in the letter to the Ephesians, and put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator, he says in the letter to the Colossians.

So the ways in which God spoke to the first Christians through the Holy Spirit, and which have been kept for us in the New Testament, show us the way forward today. Paul’s epistles, and the others that we’ll look at when we have the opportunity, apply Jesus’s teaching about life to the world we live in, as we answer Jesus’s call to have faith in Him.

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