Paul Vs. Jesus
Christendom’s Idolisation of Paul
In this article, we discuss the Paul vs. Jesus tension, consider how the tension arose, why it’s so unnecessary, and suggest a better way forward.
Cards on the Table
Over the last few centuries, Christendom has tended to favour the Epistles over the Gospels, a focus that has unintentionally pitted Paul against Jesus.
So, a confession first. Yes, I admit that saying Paul vs. Jesus is a little naughty. However, because of the way we interpret the New Testament, it’s often closer to the truth (in our minds and practices) than we might care to admit. Let me explain.
The New Testament is typically considered in three different sections: the Gospels, the Epistles, and Revelation. There is an obvious logic to this; however, it’s in the prioritising of these sections that contrasting views throughout Christendom emerge.
Many prioritise the Epistles, most notably Paul, and interpret both the Gospels and Revelation through his teachings. (The same could be said of the way some use John’s Revelation as a key to interpreting the Gospels and the Epistles when it comes to eschatology, the study of the end-times.)
For more on the end times, see the article entitled, Hopeful Eschatology.
However, it seems self-evident that the Epistles and Revelation should, in fact, be interpreted by the Gospels; that is, Paul’s teachings and John’s Revelation should be seen in the light of Jesus’ message. Why?
For me, logic determines this. Did Jesus expect His audience to wait as long as two or three decades for Paul to clarify the things He taught? Did Jesus expect His audience to hang in until John wrote Revelation nearly half a century later for answers to their end-times’ questions—when most of them had already passed away?
That’s ludicrous. It is only reasonable to assume Jesus meant to be taken at His word, and the revelation of God’s nature and His Kingdom purpose in the Gospels ought to provide the light in which we interpret the Epistles and Revelation. Of course, God’s purpose is revealed through the three collectively; however, Christendom has tended to elevate Paul over Jesus concerning doctrine (and John over Jesus in matters of eschatology).
In some cases, there’s a good argument to make that we’ve even idolised Paul.
Epistles Vs. Gospels
It goes without saying that any Paul vs. Jesus tension was certainly not Paul’s intent. The problem isn’t Paul.
It’s not you, Paul, it’s us.
Due to our Greek-centric lens, Christendom has favoured Paul’s teachings, and too often relegated the Gospels to dusty first-century Israel, or kicked it into some dispensational future age.
Many believers think of Paul as “deep” and the Gospels as, well, less deep. Jesus spoke in plain terms for the benefit of uneducated fishermen and farmers, the academically minded Paul unpacked the meaty stuff. Right?
That’s a terrible oversimplification. This deduction is actually a reflection of us and our conditioning.
Paul’s style of writing appeals to our Greek-conditioned impulses and educational approaches. We prefer systematic theology, where everything has its neat grid-and-box place over parables and stories that contain too much ambiguity, too many paradoxes, too many loose ends (read: too many matters that require barefaced trust and leave us with too little control) for those seeking a cast-in-concrete, air-tight orthodoxy.
Again, this is not to negate Paul’s critical contribution to the Scriptures or imply he wore Greek-tinted lenses. He was Jewish, of course, and not detached from the Hebraic roots of the Scriptures as we are. Moreover, his style of writing best suited a punchy letter to a community that was in need of a spiritual father’s appeal or admonishment.
Many believers view the Gospels as more meaningful to children—who, when they’ve matured enough, might be able to handle the ‘meat’ of Biblical instruction we are served in the Epistles. This may almost sound right until we think more deeply on just how profound, and at times disturbing, Jesus’ teachings were. Paul didn’t, for example, tell people to hate their parents, poke out their eyes or cut off their hands.
[Quick sidebar: By the way, I do think the Gospels are more meaningful to children; who, in their innocence don’t see the deep, disturbing elements. Certainly, following Jesus through the streets of the first century is easier to picture and process than interpreting letters that often correct errors in communities the early reader knows little about. However, as our children mature, they should be encouraged to begin to fuss with these very elements—truths that shape our views on God’s nature and the Gospel of the Kingdom—while also learning to see Jesus and His Kingdom through the instructions found in the Epistles.]
Paul’s Primary Passion Vs. Primary Concern
Getting to grips with Paul’s primary passion versus his primary concern is critical to understanding his intent.
Paul’s Primary Passion
Paul’s primary concern was shaped by his primary passion. And his primary passion was the advance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God—a passion not just for the proclamation of the message but for the visible demonstration of the message manifest in a new society centred on Jesus (see Ephesians 1:22, 23; 1 Timothy 3:15). A new society that would serve as a tangible witness of the heart and mind of God, both validating the message and enabling further advance of the Kingdom.
Paul’s Primary Concern
Moved by his primary passion, Paul’s primary concern then lay in the public standing of the church to a watching, curious world. The advancement of the Kingdom, even its very integrity, was dependent on the authenticity of this new society in Christ.
Throughout his many letters, his consistent appeal was for a faith expression that modelled the peace, unity and harmony found in Christ. In fact, even his ‘evangelistic strategy’ for the church, for a lack of a better phrase, centred on living as upright, model citizens who, collectively and individually, testified of God’s wisdom and order. His constant appeal was for believers to excel in love, unity and service. In this way, he hoped to provoke the world to jealousy.
For example, after reminding the believers in Thessalonica to excel in brotherly love (one of his frequent admonitions), he then urged them,
…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12, italics added)
What? A quiet life? Mind your own business?
Obviously, “outsiders” refer to those who don’t know Christ. Yes, unbelievers. What does Paul urge the believers in Thessalonica to do? Preach to the lost? Press them about their eternal destiny? No. Does the man who blazed a path into Gentile worlds call for a loud, demonstrative display, a signs and wonders fuelled trumpet call to salvation? No.
Paul urged them to lead a quiet life, to mind their own business and to work with their own hands. In a nutshell, live simply, work hard and be an example.
The goal? To win the respect of outsiders.
…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…”
(1 Thessalonians 4:12)
[Quick sidebar: If you’re taking notes, underline that phrase 😉 ]
Why would that be so important?
As mentioned, not only did Paul want to demonstrate the beauty of this new society in Christ, but it was also crucial for the flourishing of the Gospel of the Kingdom. If the church was divided, self-indulgent or unnecessarily controversial, the Gospel would hold no appeal and appear to lack integrity. To win the respect of a watching, curious world, Paul knew the community of Christ needed to be above reproach and this included picking the right battles at the right time.
Paul’s primary concern was the good standing of the church in the eyes of the public in order for his primary passion, the Gospel of the Kingdom, to flourish.
Stated plainly, winning the respect of the world in the first century allowed the Gospel of the Kingdom to advance.
If we don’t understand how Paul balanced his primary passion and his primary concern, we’ll misrepresent him.
And misrepresenting him often loses the respect of a watching world today.
Paul had a tough gig.
Blazing a trail into the Gentile world, hounded by the Judaizers at every step, he didn’t have Zoom, phone, email, text or socials to help him keep in touch with the new Kingdom communities that emerged behind him.
All he had was quill and parchment, and the slowest version of snail mail.
Plus, in many cases, he had to correct their abuses and excesses that undermined the unity of the church and discredited their public testimony. And in some cases (like the Corinthians), he had to also win over his readership before they’d hear him.
Paul wrote open-hearted letters of appeal to believers he often knew; he did not set out to write a doctrinal textbook. So, surprise, surprise, he offered his personal opinions in his letters. This made it personable to his audience, but it muddies the waters for us 2,000 years later.
For example, sometimes it’s clear when he’s opining. “Yet I wish all men were even as I myself am [single and celibate]” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Other times, it’s less clear: “Now I wish you all spoke in tongues…” (1 Corinthians 14:5). No one takes the first statement as authoritative and binding but I‘ve personally heard more than my share of those incorrectly making a case for the second—implying that not speaking in tongues makes one a second-class believer.
Moreover, all Paul‘s letters were addressed to a specific group of people in a specific and unique context—settings of which we only have limited knowledge.
In other words, misrepresenting Paul is easy to do, and a good dose of humility is required when drawing conclusions, especially around passages that are clearly rooted in the cultural context of his first century audience.
There are times we just have to shrug our shoulders and admit we don’t have a clue what he meant. Two obvious examples here are “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10) and those “baptised for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). Of course, we all have our opinions on these passages (and may have a good idea of what they didn‘t mean), but that’s all they are—opinions. Because we do not know.
Tone & Intensity
Firstly, all this means that many of his epistles are corrective—even negative—in tone. And given Paul’s unique calling, his measure of grace gifts and his intense personality, it’s sometimes a heavy tone, too.
That’s important to note. Personally, after a six-month deep dive into Paul’s epistles several years ago for a writing project, I found I came out of it more judgemental and critical than before the project. Again, that was not Paul’s doing, but mine. I failed to factor in the tone of his writing and intensity of his personality, and I needed an attitude adjustment. (Immersing myself in the Gospels helped.)
[Quick sidebar: reading each epistle through several times before focusing on individual sections is good practice, as it helps us better grasp the flow of thought through the epistle. Without a reasonable grasp of the historical context and the contextual flow, we’re bound to interpret passages from our own preconceived ideas.]
Passion & Concern
Secondly, remembering the tension between Paul’s primary passion and his primary concern provides a helpful guide.
Because here’s what’s at stake.
Without grasping Paul’s primary concern, we will fail to contextualise his writings properly AND fail to apply them correctly today.
Paul, as mentioned, picked his battles. He accommodated things like first century patriarchy and slavery in society because to fail to do so would have undermined the fledgling church’s public testimony.
[Quick sidebar: It’s worth noting that while he reluctantly accommodated these societal ills for the Kingdom’s sake, he also helped sow the seeds of their destruction (Galatians 3:28).]
Firstly, confronting these two societal evils in the first century would have provoked retribution the early believers were not yet ready for, stoking the fires of imperial persecution prematurely. The result? The Gospel of the Kingdom may not have reached the Gentile world, becoming instead a small Jewish sect.
Secondly, bringing down these two societal constructs would have pulled the proverbial roof down on the vulnerable; the church was not strong enough to provide society-wide relief to the women and slaves who would’ve borne the brutal brunt of it.
Said another way, like all Biblical accommodation, Paul worked with what he had. These societal evils were not a battle the early church was called to fight.
That the exact opposite is true today cannot be stated loudly enough.
Today, if followers of Jesus do not contend against societal evils that exploit, oppress and marginalise people, we’re not only failing to apply Paul’s wisdom, but we also undermine the Gospel. We obscure the Message of Jesus. We put up roadblocks that slow the spread of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
And the verdict is sadly in: by consistently failing to advocate for human rights and minorities (or doing so reluctantly or coming late to the party), Christendom has lost the respect of a watching world.
We have so much work to do.
In short, Paul was being missional in his generation. We honour him by being missional in ours.
Representing Paul Well
Paul received his revelation from Jesus Himself (Galatians 1:11-17). To his credit, he then laboured hard to ensure his message was consistent with the other apostles (Galatians 1:18-24; 2:1-10). Moreover, Paul consistently points to Jesus through his letters, an intent captured in his exhortation, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Peter then equated Paul’s writings with Scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16)—a quite remarkable statement.
To neglect Paul in any way would be a terrible error and a tragic overreaction to the supposed Paul vs. Jesus tension, a tension that’s of our own making.
So, how do we find a way forward?
The Gospels & The Epistles
I find it helpful to remind myself of the difference between the Gospels and the Epistles.
In the Gospels, Jesus essentially tackles the big picture of the Kingdom of God and plants within us the Kingdom seed, or DNA, from which a Christ-centred life is possible. The Gospels infuse us with a Hebrew worldview, one that is concrete, practical, and earthy; poignant with a “down here and right now” urgency—it’s therefore immensely spiritual and downright gutsy.
The Gospels urge us to prize wisdom over knowledge, taking cognisance of the immediate and long-term consequences of our everyday choices, ramifications that have bearing on us, those we love and the world, too. And they, therefore, profoundly define and shape the Gospel of the Kingdom message we live by, and the message we proclaim.
The Epistles supplement this process and enrich our faith giving us beautiful and alternate ways of seeing the Gospel of the Kingdom, urging us on to Christlikeness as communities and individuals (in that order), and most importantly, in our collective witness to the world as the foundation upon which the Kingdom of God advances.
In my opinion, Paul’s comment to Timothy in his first letter captures this in one verse better than anywhere else.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul speaks of the “pillar and support of the truth”.
If you asked most believers what the pillar and support of the truth is, you’d probably get either the Bible or Jesus as your answer.
To Paul, however, the family (Greek: oikos) of God—the church communal, an expression of the ekklesia—is (supposed to be) the pillar and support of the truth.
…I write so that you will know how one should act in the household [oikos] of God, which is the church [ekklesia] of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”
(1 Timothy 3:15, emphasis added)
Wow. Think about this for a moment. It almost sounds heretical.
Our communities of faith—through our unity, love, kindness, generosity, servanthood and good deeds—are to bear witness to the truth, the foundation upon which the Gospel of the Kingdom advances in love and power.
This is so important to grasp. Without this understanding, we won’t represent Paul well.
For more on the meaning of ekklesia and the origin of the English word “church”, see What Does Ekklesia (Ecclesia) Mean?
False Finish Lines
As mentioned, Christendom has by and large favoured the Epistles over the Gospels, unintentionally pitting Paul against Jesus. It’s an entrenched default that’s hard to shake.
The answer, however, is not to err by minimising Paul’s critical contribution .
While it’s not one over the other, I do think there’s wisdom in viewing Paul through the lens of Jesus, and the Epistles in the context of the Gospels. This is the logical order in terms of both linear time and revealed truth.
Yes, both the Gospels and the Epistles point to Jesus, but unless we first grasp the Message of Jesus, specifically the Father-heart of God and the Gospel of the Kingdom, history has shown that we tend to settle for at least two false finish lines: the gospel of salvation and the gospel of the church—both pale imitations of Jesus’ panoramic Gospel of the Kingdom.
- The gospel of salvation (a non-biblical, comparative phrase) truncates the Gospel of the Kingdom to solely “getting saved” and “going to heaven”, missing the in-between part the Gospel actually addresses: God’s purpose for all creation through a redeemed humanity.
- The gospel of the church (another non-biblical, comparative phrase) truncates the Gospel of the Kingdom to solely the domain of the church, missing God’s purpose for all creation and every domain of society.
For more on the difference between the Gospel of the Kingdom and the gospel of salvation or the gospel of the church, see God’s Purpose, False Finish Lines.
To stress again, any Paul vs. Jesus tension is a problem of our own making. We’ve favoured the Epistles over the Gospels and in some cases, even idolised Paul. (In this latter case, repentance is the starting point.)
The answer, however, is not to minimise Paul’s contribution but to cherish it in the context of Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom message.
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood, restoring our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
Restoring humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.
Restored to the Father as His children, the Message of Jesus restores humanity’s destiny as custodians of creation. We’re commissioned to partner with Jesus in His restoration plan for the earth.