Paul vs. Jesus: Approaches that Affect Interpretation
In this article, we look at the first of two approaches that fundamentally affect our understanding of the Gospel. And yes, I admit that saying Jesus vs. Paul 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 obvious logic to this; however, it’s in the prioritising of these sections that contrasting views throughout Christendom emerge.
Many in Christendom prioritise the Epistles, most notably Paul, and interpret both the Gospels and Revelation through his teachings.
Others use John’s Revelation as a key to interpreting the Gospels and the Epistles, particularly when it comes to eschatology, the study of the end-times.
However, it seems obvious to me 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?
This is the 12th article in our series on Messy Dogma as we seek to re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this first of two parts, Approaches That Affect Interpretation, we look at what happens when we interpret Jesus’ message via the Epistles. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2242 words (c. 5 pages) = 20 minute read
For me, logic determines this. Did Jesus expect His audience to wait as long as two or three decades for Paul to interpret 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 dilemmas, when most of them would have 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 and His Kingdom purpose in the Gospels ought to provide the light in which we interpret the Epistles and Revelation. Of course, to add a finer point to it, 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.
Let’s consider the dangers inherent to these approaches.
Interpreting Jesus by Paul – the Pauline Gospel
Let me say straight off the bat, this was not Paul’s intent; that is, the problem isn’t Paul. 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.
The reality is, most believers think of Paul as “deep” and the Gospels (and thereby, Jesus) 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?
I don’t think so. This deduction is actually a reflection of us, and our conditioning, than anything else. Watch.
Paul’s teachings appeal 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, which contains 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, or to criticise the way he teaches — that would be absolutely moronic. I’m merely pointing out our preference of style, and why we tend to favour the one over the other. (And why grasping Jesus’ message is so crucial in contextualising Paul’s teachings. Since Paul was Jewish, he didn’t see things through Greek-tinted lenses; we do).
Most believers view Jesus’ stories and parables 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 almost sounds 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 their eyes out or cut off their hands, and the like.
(By the way, I think Jesus’ stories are more meaningful to children; who, in their innocence don’t see the deep, disturbing elements. Certainly, following Jesus on His travels is easier to assimilate than interpreting letters that predominately correct errors in a community we know 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 and His purpose — while supplementing their ‘diet’ on the instructions found in the Epistles. And as a close friend correctly pointed out to me, too often we’ve become inoculated to the weighty depths of Jesus’ teachings because we unconsciously regard the parables and incidents recorded in the Gospels as nothing more than Christian fairy tales.)
So, What’s the Difference Between the Gospels and the Epistles?
In the Gospels, Jesus essentially tackles the big picture — the subject these notes are all about — and plants within us the Kingdom seed, or DNA, from which a Christ-centred life is possible. It infuses us with a Hebrew worldview, one that is concrete, practical, and earthy; poignant with a “down here and right now” urgency — and therefore immensely spiritual and downright gutsy. It urges us to prize wisdom over knowledge (taking cognisance of the immediate and long-term consequences of our choices upon, not just us and those we love but, the world too.) And it therefore shapes the message we live by, and the message we proclaim.
The Epistles supplement this process and enrich our faith giving us alternate ways of seeing the Gospel of the Kingdom, urging us on to Christlikeness as individuals, and in our relationships with others and the world. Remembering that many of the Epistles are written to correct wrong thinking and behaviour prevalent in the early believers, we can learn from their mistakes, as we always remember that the King and His Kingdom is our framing reference. (As a quick aside, the tone of the Epistles, which is by and large corrective, can make us hypercritical and judgmental, if we don’t first embrace the context of the Kingdom as seeded through the Gospels. Until I grasped this, I was more of the head than of the heart, narrow rather than generous in my interpretations, more judgmental than gracious in my conclusions.)
In a nutshell, the main problem in adopting a Pauline gospel (one that interprets Jesus through Paul), is that we truncate the Gospel of the Kingdom into a gospel of salvation (or a gospel of the church). While this comparison may be admittedly simplistic, it does serve to highlight the problem.
Misguided Expectations about Ministry and Evangelism?
So, let’s try to expand on this as it relates to our ministry to the world. Paul was a driven man with a specific gift-mix necessary to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, expound doctrine, and address the errors in the fledgling, early believers. Thus, he quickly and easily becomes our hero, the pin-up ‘poster boy’ to emulate. He is often held up as the model of a successful, fruitful Christian life, and is presented as the high-standard any eager, new believer — who wants to make a real difference — should strive to follow. Equipping courses and Bible Schools are inundated with students who want to be like Paul. (Obviously, his character is worthy of emulation, but I’m talking about his unique practice of ministry, and specifically, how we interpret this.)
Paul’s exceptional and detailed (and frankly mind-blowing) expounding of the Gospel (theologians are still wrestling through them millennia later), which he embodied and demonstrated through an incarnational life, is often reduced into quick, on-hand, formulaic ditties (e.g. the Four Spiritual Laws, the Roman Road, etc.) or developed into evangelistic campaigns (e.g. knock-on-the-door, house-to-house evangelism, street preaching, Gospel-presentation events geared to unbelievers, church-planting strategies, etc.) as we seek various ‘packages’ to present the Gospel in a way that can press unbelievers into a decision. (Why? Because we assume we must bring the unbeliever to a point of decision.)
Yet this incredible man never, in all his letters, taught us to press unbelievers with threats of eternal consequences, or inducements of afterlife rewards. And here’s the shocker: his only expectation of believers in terms of the Great Commission were:
- Pray for the advance of the Kingdom; specifically, Paul asked for prayer support in fulfilling his apostolic role (Ephesians 6:18, 19; Colossians 4:2, 3; 2 Thessalonians 3:1).
- Live worthy of Christ; it seems Paul was chiefly concerned that our individual lifestyles and communal expressions ‘witness’ of the reality of God. The bulk of his letters urge believers to flesh out the reality of Christ in daily life.
- Be ready to explain their faith when asked (Colossians 4:5, 6); just as Peter did (1 Peter 3:15), Paul was under the impression that fleshing out the reality of Christ would create intrigue in the lives of the unbelievers we interact with daily. And in all the letters he wrote, he gave this specific instruction but once.
Wow, the apostle to the Gentiles, the man who burnt with a zealous evangelistic spirit, did not advocate pressing unbelievers with eternal consequences or bribing them with post-mortem promises; nor did he urge them to undertake any overt evangelistic programs, formulas, presentations, events, and the like. (This is not to say that planning an event in which we can serve unbelievers is wrong. Of course not. Matthew held a party for his lost friends to meet Jesus (Luke 5:27-32); Peter seized the initiative on the Day of Pentecost to address many thousands publicly (Acts 2:14ff). But this understanding must surely change the way we think about such an event and the expectations we labour under.)
Paul called his audience to live life to the full, demonstrating the glory of life in Christ now. His statements in Ephesians 1:22, 23 and 1 Timothy 3:15, for instance, summarise his hopes well. And in this, his message is, unsurprisingly, entirely consistent with the message of Jesus.
It is interesting that after reminding the believers in Thessalonica to excel in brotherly love (which was one of his primary concerns), he then urges them to “aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12).
Obviously, “those who are outside” refer to those who don’t know Christ. Unbelievers. Lost people. What does Paul urge the believers in Thessalonica to do? Preach to them? 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, trumpet call to salvation? No.
Paul urges them to aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind their own business and to work with their own hands. In a nutshell, to live simply, to work hard, and to be an example.
Wow! Seriously, wow. Or is that, anti-wow? Let that sink in because it’s probably the least inspiring thing I could possibly imagine Paul saying to a group of believers. (It goes without saying that if God prompts us to do more, we should. Enthusiastically, and boldly. However, do yourself a favour. Think through this first. Ponder it deeply.)
Yes, Paul spoke about the compelling love of Christ which pressed him, and spoke of imploring the world to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:9-21), but this addresses our motive, not our presentation. And as we will see in the next section, this passage in Second Corinthians may have a far broader application in terms of the Gospel message; that is, imploring the world has more to do with revealing the amazing beauty of Christ and the extensive scope of His redemption plan.
The pertinent (and can I say, pressing) question then comes down to this:
Have we idolised Paul, and in so doing, propagated a model of ministry that the vast majority of believers can never live up to (because 99% of us don’t have Paul’s unique gift-mix), one that actually shackles us with pressures and expectations that are more a product of Christendom than Scripture?
And to press this further. Have we, in reaction to the Empires of this world, established another Empire (the Christian religion; in a word, Christendom) that has hijacked Paul to develop models of ministry for achieving outcomes we deem essential. While we will, of course, justify these ‘essential outcomes’ in terms such as converts saved from hell (or in more palatable phrases such as disciples made), does it not actually serve to validate our individual success (or worth, status) in our brand of the Empire (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc.), and ensure the sustainability of the Empire (Christendom) itself?
We can easily point fingers at Catholicism and nod our heads to this sentiment, but in all our ‘protesting’ (and reformational progress), don’t we still make the same error?
How much of church as we know it exists primarily to make converts of their expression of the ‘true church’ (whether these ‘converts’ are new believers or merely believers transferred from churches we deem lesser than ours, we don’t really mind, right?), and while there are multiple reasons for this, a Pauline model of ministry is certainly one of them. Recruit people by pressing them to make a decision, assimilate them into our system, train them in a model of ministry we extract largely from Paul … rinse and repeat.
Oh, and success in this machine-like process often leads to a sense of pride and arrogance, as accomplishing our ‘holy task’ takes precedence over the people we’re supposed to love and serve. Increasingly embroiled in our system, we become detached from reality, and people become mere ‘ministry objects’ to be used in achieving our ‘essential outcomes.’
Yes, this may sound overly critical, and there may be (much) better ways to express it. However, when stated in this manner, it becomes easier to see why our culture has become increasingly resistant to us, and often hostile towards our presentation of the Gospel.
What’s the key point to ponder?
How much of church as we know it, holds to a gospel of salvation message or a gospel of the church because they interpret Jesus by Paul’s teachings? Where do you find yourself on these issues, and what are the ramifications?
Where we’re going next?
In the next article, we’re going to look at John vs Jesus, and what happens when we interpret the Gospels (and the Epistles) through John’s Revelation.