Reading Paul, Hearing Jesus

It’s no wonder why we love to read Paul’s letters. We love to dive into the depth and the logic of Paul. We love his systematic approach to Law and Gospel. We love Paul’s passion and his steadfast adherence to the confession of Jesus Christ. Paul makes sense to us! In so many ways, Paul makes a whole lot more sense to us than Jesus! So we gravitate to Paul, build our theology around Paul and interpret Jesus through Paul so much that Christianity becomes patterned more on reading Paul than hearing Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Paul as much as the next guy. But I just wonder how much Paul would appreciate his writings having such a high standing next to Jesus.

“What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” I Corinthians 1:12-13

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” Philippians 3:8-9a

Time and time again Paul made it abundantly clear that he sought only to communicate Jesus. No more, no less. Paul’s challenge was that his audience was cross-cultural. Jesus spoke to a Jewish audience whose worldview included vivid storytelling and circular thinking. Paul was given the task to communicate this Jewish Jesus with people who were deeply influenced by the Greeks whose worldview was filled with logic and linear thinking. Paul had the unique advantage of being very familiar with both cultures so he could accurately take the teachings of Jesus from Jewish culture to Greek culture.

Today, we still think much more like Greeks than Jews. That’s why Jesus sounds kind of funny to us sometimes, with all of his parables and proverbial sayings. That said, we also have a unique advantage. Both Paul’s writings and Jesus’ teachings are translated in our language, in the same book called the Bible. So, here’s the challenge. If Paul sought only to communicate Jesus with people, then we should be able to trace back what he writes directly to what Jesus says. In a sense, when we read Paul, we should be able to hear Jesus. Here’s an example:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:17-21

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

It’s pretty obvious. Jesus is the source, Paul is the messenger. The same goes for us. Jesus is the source. We are the messengers. The choices we make and the things that we say all convey something. Do you convey Jesus? When people “read” you do they “hear” Jesus? Can people take your words and actions and put them up next to what Jesus teaches like we did here with Paul? They should. Think about that the next time you read Paul. Listen to Jesus through his words and praise God that Paul could communicate Jesus across cultures. Then pray to God that others would hear Jesus through you… regardless of the culture.


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