I am continuing with some Zooms going through the various volumes of ‘Explorations in Theology’, seeking to emphasise that they are no more than that, and hope that they provoke whoever comes on the Zooms to continue in their journey and convictions. I am convinced that the key for us all is to be connected to Jesus not to a set of beliefs. As I state ‘all theology leaks… I just pretend my leaks less than all others!’ Last night I had (at least for me) a very productive Zoom on chapters 5 and 6 of ‘The Lifeline’. Below I copy Chapter 5 of that book… (All available at https://bozpublications.com in hardback or eBook format).
Paul is considerably different to the likes of you and me! (I trust I did not hear any dissent to that statement.) The writer of so much of the biblical material that has shaped Christian faith and practice, a person who encountered the Risen Christ in a most dramatic encounter, who spent years fashioning the Gospel and its implications for his society and beyond. We gladly follow his lead. He carried an authority with regard to the Gospel and that authority meant he could describe certain proclamations as being a ‘different gospel’. We have to tread carefully when seeking to make statements of a similar nature, though it seems clear that not all ‘gospels’ can be harmonised one with another. There are different ‘gospels’ and when the differences are extreme those gospels represent different versions of God, or perhaps they even represent different gods. We are to find unity with all who are of faith, but when a person denies the Gospel by deed or presentation it becomes hard to recognise them as a family member. We should be cautious in coming to a decision, but I have to confess that increasingly with some presentations of ‘truth’ that, by design or by default, dehumanise those being addressed, I find it hard to reconcile the ‘god’ they speak of as being the God that I discern through my understanding of Jesus. If the ‘gods’ are different, are the ‘gospels’ not different? And the inevitable question pops up – are we actually brothers and sisters? Perhaps we are more like estranged family members and in that great age to come when we will see clearly we will see that we were both in part wrong, both advocating a ‘different gospel’. Conviction (my beliefs that I hold to in the light of how I read what I read) and humility (I am more self-critical than critical of others) are needed.
In 2001 I was participating in a conference in Hannover, Germany. At the end of the session in which I had shared, a number of believers from Spain came to me and through an interpreter said that in Spain there was not the history of revival such as could be claimed by the UK, and as I had spoken about the re-digging of the wells of historic revival what should they do. This was not a question I was prepared for and surprised myself when my response to them was:
In Spain you do not need a history of revival. What other nation on the face of the earth can, on the basis of biblical authority, claim to have first century unanswered apostolic prayers sown into the land. Go dig them out.
After the session I had to think about the response I had given and quickly came to understand that Paul’s desire to get to Spain was to proclaim in the Western end of the empire (the ends of the earth?) the Gospel. He was not looking for a holiday on the beach but somehow to make a proclamation in the land. Opinion is divided as to whether he made a trip to Spain. I like to think not, but irrespective, the prayers of Paul are in the land. This does not mean that his prayers are only present in Spain, nor that only in Spain can the Pauline Gospel be recovered, but that something can be done in this peninsula in order to help facilitate the recovery of that Gospel. At one level all other gospels are at best a variation of the one he proclaimed, or at worst they are indeed ‘another gospel’.
In Acts we read Scriptures concerning the early apsotolic proclamation and there are often summary statements of what they proclaimed. We read (emphases added):
Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus (Acts 8:35).
Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20).
A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18).
When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:5).
For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28).
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Acts 19:13).
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jewsh and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:20, 21).
They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28:23).
He proclaimed the kingdom of Gods and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28: 31).
In these summary statements of the early Christian proclamation we do not find some of the big salvation words: justification, reconciliation, redemption, substitutionary atonement. What we do find is that the proclamation was about Jesus. When the content is expanded it might include the resurrection (the whole basis on which there is a new world order) or a proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah (when addressing Jews). The summaries are not the totality of what was proclaimed but are a description of what (or who) was at the core of what was being proclaimed. In the context this proclamation of Jesus is best understood as an announcement that the possibility of a different world had opened up through the vindication of Jesus by the resurrection. As outlined in previous volumes this was the true Gospel of which all others, and in particular the Caesar version, were sad parodies.
The Pauline Gospel
In later volumes I plan to look at the biblical perspective on eschatology (or maybe better put ‘my take on it’!) and I have always found it strange the theology that insists on God as creator and also as the one who will destroy it all. As creator he could of course do just that, but the Incarnation (taking on flesh) and the resurrection (of flesh), and the value God places on ‘dust of the earth’ surely indicates that there is a wonderful future for creation. Humanity’s commission for the creation and Israel’s (failed) commission for the world are the reasons for the Incarnation, an intervention in order to get everything back on track.
Everything centred in on Jesus; Paul says ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ’ (2 Cor. 2:20). Little wonder Acts presents the summary as ‘they proclaimed Jesus’. In Jesus a new world becomes possible; this new world being the current world brought to maturity, not simply through growth toward, but by a final transformation ‘at his coming’. At the resurrection of Jesus a radical ‘time-warp’ occurred. This is not a great surprise as the Jewish hope for the resurrection of the body was that it would take place at the ‘end’. Jesus was raised before the end, and so we might say, in the middle of time. Matthew’s Gospel records that the event was so eschatologically significant that other saints also obtained resurrection ahead of time.
The time-warp means that this new world, though still future, is now also present. It seems to be this that is behind Paul’s language of ‘new creation’. For those who are in Jesus, there is a change of perspective. The old has gone, the new is here. It appears that Paul is suggesting this is more than a way of thinking but that it points to a reality. Experiencing and believing that reality is to be seen in the lives of those who are in Christ and reflected in how they see others. Paul was not simply looking for decisions based on a gospel message that ended with the appeal verbalised as ‘hands up all those who want their sins forgiven and be born again’. The proclamation of Jesus carried much more weight than that, and a response meant a submission to being discipled in the values and ways of heaven. Thankfully this was more than a call to adhere to the teachings of Jesus as opposed to the ideologies of Rome, for those who committed to the Lordship of Jesus received the Spirit of God that connected them not to a set of values but to the very life-source of the universe.
In the Imperial context of the first century those early disciples were challenged ever so deeply concerning their morals and ethics, and they were often opposed and marginalised. They knew, all too well, that, although there was a ‘new creation’, the old was not simply disappearing. Knowing that the final transformation would take place when the same Jesus who ascended to heaven would descend again, they understood that their (at times) small contributions were in fact like seed in the ground that would bring that final irruption of heaven ever closer.
This expectation of this world being transformed, and the language consistently used in the New Testament within the Imperial context of Rome, inevitably meant there was a political element within the message. Not a message that called for allegiance to a party, but a message that shaped how those who believed the proclamation lived and what they wanted to work toward. If, in our setting, the proclamation of the Gospel becomes nothing but politics we can say that is not the Pauline Gospel; but when the message we adhere to speaks out against all kinds of injustices and carries the creative hope for the flourishing of all we are indeed being faithful to Paul’s Gospel.
On the road to Damascus Paul had had his encounter with the One he was previously opposed to. His previous framework of reference was totally blown away. Prior to this he could genuinely categorise himself as ‘righteous’.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Phil. 3: 4-6).
From his post-Damascus perspective he gave no value to what was previously thought as credit-worthy. For Paul, Jesus was not an add on to his previous faith, but the means by which his faith was transformed. That being his experience it is understandable why he was unwilling to shackle any Old Testament stipulation on Gentile converts. Everything was centred on Jesus, and he was the lens through which everything pre-Jesus now had to pass. Righteousness now came through being in him, not through being in ‘Israel’.
Paul, faultless according to the law, but once he was in Christ, ‘the worst of sinners’.
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Tim. 1: 12-17).
Zealousness and righteousness previously were interpreted as requiring a persecuting of those (Jews) who adhered to faith in Jesus. Post-the-Damascus-encounter he no longer understood that his faith demanded he did God’s work by making sure everything was clean and therefore pleasing to God. He now understood to do so was wrong and if he was a sinner then so were his fellow Jews and, of course, the Gentiles. But as chief of sinners he knew that God could save anyone. As a sinner he was a blasphemer, one who took the name of God in vain, claiming to act for God. He now understood he was opposing God as he had misrepresented the God he believed he was serving; speaking and acting for him, he now understood, was acting on behalf of another ‘god’. The ‘conversion’ at the gates of Damascus did not bring about a minor tweak to his beliefs and practice!
He explains that he now understood that formerly he was a blasphemer because in the name of God he was a persecutor and a violent person. Previously he had no need to ask God (as Joshua did), ‘are you for us or for our enemies?’ The answer was clear! However, what wisdom and insight there is in Joshua’s question. Is God for us or for our enemy? If we align with Jesus, understanding the requirement to love our enemy and even death on their behalf will be sufficient to bring us to a place of humble silence. God is for our enemy!
The Pauline Gospel opens the door to all. Without doubt the whole world is locked in the prison of sin, but God is rich in mercy. Failing to be human might bring about condemnation, but God saw Paul’s activity as due to ignorance and unbelief. Understandably Paul had a desire to proclaim Jesus and present the call to believe in him.
Belief in Jesus is not an automatic response to hearing about him. There is a huge resistance to this taking place.
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4).
Ignorance about God, for the work of the god of this age is to keep God as the ‘unknown god’, and the one who cannot be known, is something that the Gospel addresses. The God that Paul proclaimed was the God who saves sinners. No one beyond the scope of salvation (not Judas who betrayed Christ, nor Peter who denied him, nor Paul who blasphemed him). God, though not human, has a human face, for it was Jesus who met Paul and addressed him personally. God, though in heaven, comes close, so close that the Spirit enters a person. Signs, wonders, miracles all being evidence of the relative ease and frequency of heaven spilling out into this world, of the future invading the present. Exorcisms breaking bondages to the god of this age, for there is only one God present in the ‘new creation’ age.
The Gospel Paul was gripped by started with an explanation of who this God was. Not a God that could be invented, not even one who could be found through the pages of a book, but had to be ultimately discovered through an encounter with the Person who was the ‘image of God’ who truly carried glory. The response to this Gospel was one of faith. The good news had to be believed for transformation to take place.
‘Ignorance and unbelief’ was the soil from which all manner of anti-God behaviour sprang forth. True enlightened knowledge and faith became the soil that would produce fruit that resonated with heaven’s values.
The Gospel was a leveller. What Paul counted as something that he could chalk up on the credit side of his life was eventually valueless. The Gospel did not come with a respect of status and once responded to any such status did not position someone hierarchically in the community of faith, hence the total resistance to Peter, and the freedom with which Paul felt to label him a hypocrite.
The mountains were levelled, the valleys raised. All (Jew and Gentile) sinners alike; all called to repentance, to believe the Gospel that was the power of God to salvation (to the Jew first, and to the Gentile). All of humanity having failed to attain and reveal the glory of God; and all of humanity invited to come through the door to a new creation reality, and to be engaged in a co-operative work with God within the new creation developing. To reduce the Gospel to a set of laws; to fail to understand how it carried a vision for transformation through challenging the status quo; to use the Bible as a set of timeless truth texts; to fail to err on the side of including the formerly defined as ‘unclean’; to consider that we are doing God’s work for him; the list can probably go on. We might never be able to stand alongside Paul and say, ‘we too understand the Gospel as you did’, but the more we align to one or more of the above phrases the more likely it is that we have deviated from the Pauline Gospel, the more likely we have embraced ‘another gospel’, and the more open we will be to be defined (as Paul self-defined his previous righteous life) as a blasphemer.