Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Apostle Paul - Why should we listen to him?

I ask this question because some people do not like Paul.

Do any kind of research on contemporary issues and the Bible and you will find heavy criticism of Paul.  Detractors will say he is the true founder of what we know as Christianity.  They will charge that Paul significantly deviates from Jesus’ teaching, that he is too opinionated and blind to his cultural biases on issues of women and sexuality.  Those with these perspectives argue that Paul is not a reliable source of truth.

In essence, such detractors create separate classes or levels of Scripture.  For them, there are the words of Jesus in the Gospels, there are the other writers of Scripture like John and Peter, then lastly and most questionable are Paul’s writings.

I would say in the majority of cases, these detractors have a misunderstanding of Paul and his positions and/or have their own agenda and issues for which Paul’s writings frequently frustrate so they have to find ways to dismiss them.  But while such criticisms may be modern opinions, they are by no means reason to discredit him.

I believe it is important to look at how Jesus and the Apostles viewed Paul and his ministry.  Early on, the Church was unsure of Paul as well.

Paul relates his background several times in his letters and his story is told in Acts.  In Acts 22:3-5 Paul relates his training and persecution of the church; persecution which resulted in people being thrown in prison or killed, like Stephen. 

Then Jesus directly confronted Paul on the road to Damascus.  Listen to Jesus’ words as he describes His call on Paul’s life.

Acts 9:15—“This man is my chosen instrument to carry My Name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for My Name.”

Acts 26:16—“I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of Me and what I will show you.  I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”

These are serious commendations of what Jesus was going to do through Paul.  Jesus’ words do not mean Paul was perfect, but it does mean he too is appointed as a representative of Jesus with a unique calling and apostleship. 

He had God’s approval.  This holy God continued to do “extraordinary miracles through Paul” – Acts 19:11.  This would be a strange thing to do if Paul was so unreliable or was fundamentally transforming the faith into something Jesus never intended.

The Holy Spirit spoke to the Church in Antioch and told them to “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” – Acts 13:2

Even the demons knew who Paul was; they knew that he was a powerful representative of God’s Kingdom.  While others were trying to invoke the Name of Jesus against a demon without really knowing Him, the demon responded, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” – Acts 19:15.

The early Church, while initially nervous about Paul because of his past behavior, eventually accepted him.  In Acts 15 when there was a dispute about salvation of Gentiles and whether circumcision was to be mandatory, Paul and Barnabbas went to Jerusalem, “they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.” – Acts 15:4.  Later at that meeting Paul related all the “miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” – 15:12.  In the end, the leadership at Jerusalem sided with Paul’s position and wrote a letter to the churches calling him, “dear friends.” – 15:25.

Galatians relates Paul’s own memory of meeting the Apostles after his conversion and during those events surrounding the debate about circumcision:

Galatians 1:18—“Then after three years [from his conversion], I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days.  I saw none of the other apostles, only James, the Lord’s brother….
Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas [for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15]
vs. 7—“they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.  For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. [notice Paul is not only equating his ministry with Peter’s but so are the other Apostles] 
vs. 9— “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars gave me and Barnabas the fight hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.  They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.”

So Paul and his ministry was accepted and validated by other Apostles and the early church.  Apparently Paul was so accepted as an equal, even to Peter, that he was confident enough to rebuke Peter publically in Galatians 2:11-21:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

This is not a pleasant conversation.  It is confrontational, it is stinging.  And it was directed to Peter, one of the most prominent and respected disciples of Jesus.  By all indication, Peter received this rebuke, repented and realized his error.

What’s more, this incident did not seem to lower Peter’s opinion of Paul or his writings.  Look at these endorsing words from 2 Peter 3:15:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him.  He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.  His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

Peter recognizes that God has given Paul wisdom and that wisdom is applied in the letters he has written.  Peter acknowledges that some of the things Paul talks about are challenging and that false teachers, the ignorant or unstable are able to distort what Paul says.  Then, most importantly, Peter says these people distort Paul’s letters, “as they do the other Scriptures.”  So in Peter’s mind, what Paul had written in his letters is equivalent to his own writings, the other Apostles, and the established Jewish Scriptures, which we now call the Old Testament.

 So Paul’s writings are worth studying because Jesus, the Apostles and the early Church all voiced their acceptance of him and his ministry.  You may not like Paul, you may not like or agree with what he wrote but that doesn't change the fact that the he didn't just make stuff up, he was led and inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

Next up will be a brief discussion of the nature of Inspiration.