Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why Jesus Needed Paul (And We Do Too)

I saw another silly meme the other day and while I try really hard to not give much credence to this form of "discourse", I still get riled up by them because a lot of people think that they actually do represent serious thought. I guess it comes from a social media, tiny attention span world. Anyway the gist of the meme is that somehow modern Christians have figured out that a) Paul didn't really mean what he wrote in any number of places about gender in the home and church and b) what he wrote somehow didn't match up to what Jesus taught about gender. The meme itself isn't important at all because it was pretty dumb but it did bring back to light the serious danger I have observed in religious circles of pitting Jesus against Paul.

In the New Testament, Jesus of course dominates every page. The whole book is about Him, points to Him and refreshes and encourages His followers. Apart from Jesus though, the New Testament is hard to read without seeing Paul as a towering, critical figure in the preserved revelation of God, a man that was specifically chosen and who's writings make up so much of the New Testament. Without the writings of Paul our New Testament would be more like the New Pamphlet and we would as the church be largely lost in many matters that Jesus didn't speak much about but Paul did.

Paul makes some people uncomfortable. He speaks in words of doctrine, he specializes in boldness, he seems completely unfamiliar with nuance, he speaks about topics in ways that make our modern sensibilities get all out of whack. So for some people it is easier to just pretend Paul doesn't exist or to place the preserved writings of Paul on a lower level than the Gospels, as if the Gospels were handwritten by Jesus Himself. "Just give me Jesus!" is their cry, foolishly forgetting that much of what we know about Him we know thanks to the writings of Paul as well as the Gospel writers.

Why don't we have 20 Gospel accounts and call it good? If what Jesus verbally taught is all we really need, wouldn't that make more sense? We need to try to think about the writings of Paul from the perspective of the intended audiences. If you read the Gospel accounts and then the rest of the New Testament you have an advantage the Gospel audiences in place when Jesus taught did not have, namely you know what the whole point of the earthly ministry was, the cross and the resurrection. Jesus didn't come primarily to heal people and deliver ethical teaching. He came to live, be crucified and buried and then to rise again. Paul fleshes this out and helps to explain and apply those precious truths.

Knowing this, can we categorize the New Testament canon, which reveals sufficiently and completely the preserved revelation of Jesus Christ, into two main categories?

The Gospels tells us what Jesus did, who He is and what He taught

The Epistles tell us what all of that means and how we should respond.

It is pretty obvious from what we can glean from the Epistles and other non-Gospel writings that it was critical to go from description to application, and do so in the right way, in the very earliest days of the church. The basic Gospel proclamation is pretty simple but it leaves you with the question of "OK, I am a Christian. What do I do now?" and while the Gospels are long on sweeping themes they are kind of short on specifics.

When I read the New Testament, the calling of Saul into Paul, the persecutor becoming the servant, the bane of Christians becoming the greatest church planter ever, is the single most powerful event after the ascension of Jesus in the Scriptures and indeed in the history of the church. Nothing else comes even close, not even the Reformation. Paul, it bears repeating, was a recognized apostle and a man who communed directly with Jesus. He knew the intent and heart of Christ better than any of the contemporary mumbo-jumbo spewers that dominate the interwebs. It is plain that Jesus called Paul to be a voice among the nascent church, to settle disputes and answer questions, to spread the Gospel far and wide. It borders on criminal malpractice when people who presume to be teachers in the church try to put Paul in the corner and shut him up.

Let me put it more forcefully. The church without Paul has no idea how to be the church. Jesus told us to break bread and share the cup. Paul tells us how and why. Jesus said to baptize all the nations. Paul tells us what baptism means. Jesus said to make disciples. Paul explains what a disciple is. Jesus said that whosoever believes in Him has eternal life. Paul tells us why that is necessary and how it happens. On and on. On so many topics and issues Jesus uses Paul as His spokesman, speaking the truth to the church and exposing the lies spread by so many.

Paul is a rich trove of wisdom that the church needs to heed him more, not less. The only explanation I can think of for people trying to diminish or even dismiss Paul is that he lays bare the error of their contemporary theological innovations. Paul is inconvenient and uncomfortable for some so he is relegated to a second class status in the church, his writings placed under glass like an ancient artifact, nice to look at but certainly not to be touched. This is especially true now as the culture the Western church is living in looks more and more like the pagan dominated culture Paul ministered in. These are days when the church should be crying out more for Paul, not less. Jesus called Paul and sent him out as an apostle. We should be eager to hear what he has to say, now more than ever.

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