Saul of Tarsus developed quite a reputation in the world of the early Christian church, zealously hunting down those who taught and preached in the name of Christ. He was on his way to Damascus, with arrest letters from the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in hand, when he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul he became one of the most prolific church planters and writers of the first century; 14 of the 26 New Testament books are his letters (epistles) to various individuals and churches.
But here’s the rub: Do we today make too much of Paul? Does our attention become Paul-centered rather than Christ centered? Just because he wrote many epistles that become a major component of the New Testament, is everything Paul wrote the Word of God? Which is why I propose a defense of Paul to consider and respond to these criticisms.
It is human nature to pick favorites. And just like baseball fans have a favorite team, a favorite pitcher, or a favorite park, Christians become “fans” of particular leaders. I would rather listen to John Piper than Joel O’Steen (but that has more to do with theology than fandom). In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul responds to reports that some in the church are saying “I follow Paul” while others mention Apollos, Cephas, and even others proclaim “I follow Christ.” In a sense Paul has already responded to the Paul-centered argument when he asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” He urges all believers to be united in the same mind and judgement and that there be no divisions. He further says that he was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Which brings me to my second point:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
The primary goal of all of Paul’s ministry was to proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. He wanted the faith of his listeners to rest not in his wisdom or in any other person but in the power of God. He was preaching Jesus and the resurrection in Athens when he attracted the attention the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and later reasoned with them concerning their altar dedicated to the unknown god. He proclaimed, in the Aeropagus of Athens, that The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. Acts 17:24-25
Paul desires we have the same mind in us as was in Christ in Philippians 2, who took the form of a servant obedient to the point of death. He proclaims the preaching of the cross foolishness to those who perish (1 Corinthians 1) but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation in Romans 1. The word Christ is referenced in the writings of Paul 364 times. There are guidelines for selecting leaders and instructions for members of the family written by Paul, but the overwhelming majority of his letters (and travels, and sermons) is focused on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament books of Paul are so Christ-centered that studying Paul becomes in and of itself a Christ-centered act.
Paul himself warned us not to make too much of Paul. What about his writings? What makes his letters scripture? One of the key facets of the Bible is that it does not contradict itself. In the first and second centuries there were many accounts of the life of Jesus and church leaders made decisions about biblical canon, what would be included as scripture in what was becoming the New Testament. The accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke have many identical accounts that corroborate each other and paint a certain character portrait of Jesus. Other accounts, such as the Gospel of Judas or Gospel of Mary, paint a portrait that is out of character when compared to the others. The 14 letters of the Apostle Paul share the Gospel of Jesus that is in character with 1) what we know about Jesus from the 4 Gospel writers and 2) in line with what we know and understand of the Old Testament. Paul warns his listeners to not accept doctrine that does not agree with the words of Jesus Christ. (1 Timothy 6:3-4) That is possibly the strongest argument I can make. As a Pharisee, Saul had been a diligent student of the Law. He could read, write and probably speak at least four languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin. As one called of God (Acts 9) Paul was uniquely qualified to proclaim the Gospel message to Jews and to Gentiles. Look at his comparison of Adam and Jesus as types of first men (Romans 5) and the use of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory for two covenants (Galatians 4).
Did Paul make some mistakes? Did Paul sin? Absolutely. So did Abraham, Moses, King David, the Apostle Peter and every other significant character of the Bible, Old and New Testament (with one obvious exception). Many of those Old Testament figures, despite their well known faults, are spoken of highly by Jesus and the writer of Hebrews for their faith. Peter, who famously denied Jesus three times, was later charged with leading the disciples. Saul of Tarsus had a personal encounter with Jesus the Christ on his way to Damascus and became a changed man who suffered much and did much in establishing the New Testament church in its early history. The same God that inspired the Old Testament writers and the Gospel accounts gave us the rest of the New Testament. He did not suddenly become incapable of doing so early in the first century. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The Bible tells one story, about how a holy God relates to a sinful, fallen and broken people. At the center of that story is Jesus. The goal of this blog, and hopefully every Christian endeavor, is to be God-honoring and Christ-centered. The work of the Apostle Paul, including the 14 surviving New Testament epistles, do that and can help us do the same to the glory and honor of God.