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The Teachings of Paul, Part 1

More than half the NT letters were written by Paul, the former Pharisee and the only one besides the twelve that Jesus taught personally, by revelation (Gal. 1:11-12). Since when Paul wrote is as much a part of context as what, I will go through his letters in chronological order.

The first letter Paul wrote was to the Galatians, around 48 AD. But already the believers had been turned aside to false teachings, and from the content we can see that it had to do with pressure to conform to Judaism. Chapter two is where we read of Paul’s famous public rebuke of Peter for caving in to them, and in doing so Paul forcefully draws the line between salvation and legalism. Yet in spite of this, it seems that most of the divisions believers have experienced through history have not been over whether there should be legalism, but how much or what kind.

It defies all reason that so many believers can read this letter, especially chapter three, and still not get the point Paul is making, no matter how many times they may read it. He explains that from Israel’s history we can see the sharp divide between the Promise to Abraham and the Law to come 430 years later. One did not negate the other, but both were true and binding. However, the two cannot be mixed because a contract between two parties and witnessed by a mediator is completely separate from a promise made by One. The Promise long predated the Law, but the purpose of Law was to serve as a temporary restrainer of sin until the time to fulfill the Promise had come.

And how much more plainly could Paul have put it than he did in verse 28, that the old ways are finished? These three parings— Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female— exactly parallel a rabbinical prayer that said, “Thank God that I was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman” (Talmud, Menahoth 43b-44a). Paul, trained as a Pharisee, is turning privilege and separateness on its head, defying not only ethnic privilege but also slavery and male supremacism in one stroke. This is every bit a part of the context of the purpose and limited scope of the Law, which never replaced the Promise, and was completely met in Jesus the Messiah.

I should stop and point out something that frequently goes unnoticed: Gentiles were never under the Law! We tend to forget that all of the OT was for the Jews, as well as a significant part of the NT, because the first believers were all Jews. They were the ones who needed to be taught the difference between Law and Promise, and they would naturally be the ones having the most difficulty leaving it behind. And this is why it was so critical to immediately squash the attempt to make Christians first become Jews, and why it was a problem throughout Paul’s life as a believer.

In chapter four Paul points out one of the reasons Jesus came: to “redeem those under the law”, to adopt them as children with full rights of inheritance. Yet this adoption is not limited to those who had been under the Law; as Paul said, all who have the faith of Abraham are his descendents, spiritually speaking. But again, this refers not to the Law but to the Promise.

After saying all that, Paul asks with great exasperation how anyone could want to go back to a system of slavery and bondage, treating their adoption as worthless. He mentions the observation of a sacred calendar as part of that slavery. Now as we will read in Romans 14, Paul is hardly making a ban on such a thing; rather, he is saying that they have enslaved themselves to it. Any system which becomes such a burden has crossed the line from individual conscience to legalism. Remember that Jesus even said “the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Paul’s statement in verse 16 has become the lament of any who dare to question those in control today: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” The context of this letter is one of strong criticism, and Paul could be very crude and sarcastic at times. But it is being done to combat falsehood, and this is a vital point to remember. While criticism of fellow believers should not be the defining characteristic of our lives, there are times when it must be done, and we dare not attempt to silence those who do so. Satan has deceived us into thinking it is better to keep our “swords” clean and shiny in their sheaths than to get them dirty by actually using them! And there is no better reason to use them than to drive away the wolves who would devour the flock from within.

I pray that Paul’s opening statement of chapter 5 becomes the rallying cry of a revolution in Christianity: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” And he goes on to make a strong rebuttal against an idea that has held sway for many generations, really since the apostles died: that we are under certain parts of the old Law. Remember that we Gentiles were never under it to begin with, but somehow people think we should all be held to the parts they have decided must still apply. Not only is such a distinction absent from scripture, but Paul points out that it is utterly impossible to only keep part of the Law; it’s all or nothing. And he calls it “falling away from grace” when people try to justify themselves by keeping the Law. Of course certain things are intrinsic to the nature of God and will never change, such as not lying, stealing, murdering, etc. But the only law for Christians is love, because “love covers over a multitude of sins” and “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (1 Peter 4:8, Rom. 13:10). So let us stop trying to enforce compliance with that which has been replaced by Jesus.

But some will object, “Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law” (Mt. 5:17). Yes, and then He said that He came to fulfill it. If you fulfill a contract it is no longer in effect. Also, remember what we learned in Hebrews about law and priesthood, and we will learn more from Paul. And again, it cannot be overemphasized that Gentiles were never under the old Law at all. Then of course Paul points out an obvious proof of his not teaching compliance with the Law: he is being persecuted for that very reason. His greatest enemies were always the Jews who insisted on putting Christians into bondage. There was no need for Jesus to die to free people from the Law if that Law must still be obeyed.

Now Paul brings balance to his strong argument against legalism, to counter the often-made charge that “antinomianism” (being without law) is a “license to sin”. He states point blank in Gal. 5:13 that our freedom in Jesus is not to sin but from sin. This is how we obey the law of love, which “does no harm to its neighbor”, and how we show that we belong to Jesus. The spirit and the flesh are in a constant state of war within us, and we have to know which side we’re on! And again he states that the spirit and the law are mutually exclusive. If, as Paul says, we have indeed “crucified the flesh” then we will not indulge its desires. If this earns us the epithet “antinomian”, then we who side with Paul should wear the label with honor.

In chapter six Paul brings up another common problem in Christianity: thinking ourselves to be righteous in comparison to others. But humanity is not the standard, and if none of us reach the perfect standard only Jesus could reach, then we must not “shoot our wounded” by despising others for not being as far along on the scale of spiritual maturity as we think we are. What kind of army beats its own wounded? What kind of body neglects or mistreats its own wounds? Then what kind of Christianity is it that looks down on the backslidden or cuts down the less mature? Is it not the ones doing the cutting that show their true state of immaturity and worldliness? Paul will elaborate on that in his letters to the Corinthians.

Finally, Paul points out that the ones who shout the loudest that we should go under Law are typically the worst violators of it. It would be far better for such people to heed Paul’s teachings on all this, and ask themselves how they exhibit the love of Jesus when they destroy others for whom He died and adopted by their faith. We need more speeches on hypocrisy and less on “touch not God’s anointed”.

The next two letters Paul wrote were to the Thessalonians. And like the one to the Galatians, he addresses them to the entire community of believers, not an individual elder or even a group of elders. We should also note that most such letters were intended to be read aloud due to illiteracy and the cost of materials. One aspect of context which we simply cannot recover is the exact pronunciation of the koine (common) Greek, and this can sometimes have bearing on our understanding, or at least tip us off to some plays on words. Even today in our own languages we recognize the limitations of written words as opposed to the many aspects of communication present when speaking fact-to-face. And if we have such difficulties communicating with people in front of us, in our language and culture, then surely we can appreciate the difficulty in truly grasping all that was originally conveyed by those who wrote down the words of scripture. That is why an approach to Bible study that only skims the surface (the “plain reading” method) is very limited and can lead to serious misunderstanding. Even if it worked, I have never seen this method applied consistently but only used when it suits the interpreter.

In 1 Thes. 2:6 Paul states an important principle: “We were not looking for praise from any human being, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our prerogatives.” This again is following the example of Jesus in laying down privilege and taking on the role of a servant. Any Christian who seeks to rule has not even begun to grasp what Jesus modeled for us all, without exception, and certainly without respect to race, class, or sex, which are all matters of the flesh. Notice also that Paul likens the function of Christian leaders with that of a mother caring for her children. This is so radically opposite the current movement toward the “alpha male pastor”! And it extended even to the point of not demanding a salary, just as no mother would expect her children to see to her needs.

Chapter three begins with Paul calling Timothy his co-worker. Again Paul does not pull rank or consider Timothy beneath him. In 1 Thes. 5:13 he, like the writer of Hebrews, talks about the way to treat those that instruct and warn us. They are described with the Greek word proistemi, which while including the possible meaning of ruling, also includes the care and protection of others. But Paul’s context is that these people are recognized as those who work for their benefit, and they should be held in high esteem, out of gratitude and wisdom and not out of obligation or fear. The over-arching principles of Christian love and the example of Jesus should always keep us from injecting hierarchy between believers.

The second letter to the Thessalonians begins with Paul encouraging them in their suffering, but then in chapter two he has to deal with the problem of forgeries being spread in his name. And the fake messages that were causing them such alarm are identical to some being spread today, namely, that the Tribulation has already begun. But the important point for this book’s topic is that Paul always signed his letters, a matter we examined concerning the author of Hebrews. So Paul assures the people that the alarming messages are not true, and that they must hold tightly to what he had taught them as a way to guard against being vulnerable to such things.

It is in chapter three that Paul emphasizes the need for believers to be responsible people, and he led by example by working to provide for himself rather than accept support from those he served. He laid down his rights as an apostle in order to model what he was teaching them. This is how all Christian leaders must act.

Next we come to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where we see a more fully developed body of teachings, born of problems arising in the passage of time and the change of the ekklesia from primarily Jewish to more non-Jewish influence. Now there were more falsehoods to combat than just Jewish legalism. But Paul always begins with the positive, and with the foundation of salvation. For all the criticism to follow, he still describes them as being in Jesus, as not lacking any spiritual gift, and as being kept safe to the end by Jesus Himself. It is the faithfulness of God, not of us, that will accomplish this. So what Paul is about to say to them, he will say to believers; this is the greater context of the letter and will help us to avoid taking some of Paul’s statements to mean what they don’t.

Why is it that Paul speaks of the reports of problems coming from members of “Chloe’s household”? Remembering that the believers met in homes, we can deduce that the Corinthian believers met in the home of Chloe (a woman) and that she was probably an elder in that congregation. Otherwise we would have had the names of elders instead, had they been considered “in charge” and that the homeowner was of no rank or authority. It would then be strange indeed for Paul to name the homeowner and not any of the elders.

And the content of the report is first of all that factions have formed around prominent persons. But Paul could still confront Christians today with the very same rhetorical questions as he put to the Corinthians: Is Christ divided? Did anyone but Jesus die for you? We are deservedly known by outsiders as a religion of many divisions, all because we can’t seem to keep our eyes only on Jesus (Mt. 14:30).

Paul’s statement about baptism (baptidzo, lit. “to dip or immerse”), that is, the common practice of being immersed in water as a religious or political identifcation rite, is very telling as well. For someone commissioned by Jesus Himself to preach the gospel, to say he was thankful to God for not having performed this rite surely refutes the argument that such a ritual is even “a believer’s first act of obedience” as the saying goes, let alone a requirement for salvation (Some map water baptism to the OT Law, claiming it is the NT version of circumcision. Aside from there being not one hint of such a connection in the Bible, circumcision only applied to males. And if Paul continually condemned attempts to force circumcision on believers, surely he would have the same attitude toward a requirement of water baptism or anything else besides faith.). And as if to emphasize the point, Paul repeats in vs. 17 that, in spite of the Great Commission, he was not sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel. It could not be stated any more plainly that water baptism is not part of the gospel.

In that same sentence Paul also says that polished speaking is something that would rob the cross of its power. Yet in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome, Christianity has centered around exactly that. Seminary students are trained in public speaking, in following a 3-point outline, in manipulating a crowd with forceful oratory. It draws attention to the speaker and away from the cross of Jesus, per Paul’s explicit declaration. As he will say later, there is a time and place for discussing the deeper things of God, but it should never be used as bait to get confessions out of people or a substitution for the power that raised Jesus from the dead. Who really gets the glory out of all those Sunday sermons? Who do the people come to hear? Would they still come without the speech, the music, or the program? As for Paul’s following comments on “the foolishness of preaching”, the phrase in Greek is literally “the proclamation”. It most certainly does not refer to Sunday sermons but to the message of the gospel, which every believer is capable of giving.

After that he points out what we learned in our study of the OT: God’s way is not the world’s way, which honors the powerful and sophisticated. Instead, He “chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things— and the things that are not— to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” This point continues into chapter two, wherein Paul reminds them of his own example of humility and fear when he first brought them the gospel, the simple message of the cross. This hardly means we must never discuss anything else, but that the gospel itself must be presented simply and humbly, so that it will clearly be the power of God that saves, and not human effort.

Now in chapter three Paul gets into the matter of spiritual maturity, picking up on his prior statement about the wisdom of God being for the mature. Remember that these are believers, people whose salvation is not questioned by Paul. Yet the people are still infantile in the faith, unable to digest spiritual meat, their worldly behavior being proof of that. And in addressing this problem, Paul again does everything possible to keep people from putting him or anyone else but Jesus on a pedestal. We are all servants, from the immature to the wise, and we each have our own job to do. But like the Corinthians, most Christians have been more concerned about what everybody else is doing.

When Paul speaks of building on the foundation he laid, he is talking about the gospel, about Jesus Himself. But even when the right foundation is laid, we all have to build upon it carefully, meaning we must know what scripture teaches— and what it does not. The illustration of the building tested with fire could symbolize our individual works, but it could also symbolize the doctrines given by teachers. Regardless, the important point there is that in spite of immaturity people can still be saved, even if it means they had no visible or genuine works at all. Certainly any believers who refuse to accept instruction or consistently fail to exhibit basic spiritual “fruit” should be strongly cautioned and only reluctantly expelled from fellowship, but we must not presume that such things are proof of unbelief. If what Paul says to the Corinthians is said to believers, then we need to be very careful.

But why does Paul pick this point in his letter to say that we are all God’s temple, and that anyone who destroys that temple will be destroyed? In context, we could surmise that Paul is referring again to how we build on the foundation, and that if anyone tries to knock that building down, they will suffer the wrath of God. This could refer to false teachings or various divisions that tear people down and wear away at their faith. Those who would try to interfere with the spiritual gifts of others, or make up rules to enslave them, would certainly fit the description of such a destroyer of God’s temple. At the very least, Paul is telling us that every believer is a part of that temple, so every believer is sacred to God; there are no bricks in that temple that are better than the others or more deserving of praise.

Finally at the end of chapter three, Paul just says “Stop this fawning over people! You all belong to God through Christ, so get over yourselves!” And into chapter four then, he continues to repeat that not even he and his co-workers are to be regarded as anything but fellow servants as well. And once again he holds them up as examples to follow, not like the Pharisees whom Jesus told His disciples to only “do what they say, not what they do.”

At the end of that chapter Paul begins to move to the topic of boastful people who are calling him a paper tiger, as if he is only being brave and strong from a safe distance. But after reminding them that they owed him something he warns them against underestimating him. Though he had come to them initially with humility, that will not be the case this time, if he has to come and discipline them. And what gives Paul the authority to administer this discipline? The truth, the gospel. He never claimed authority of his own, but always pointed to the power of the risen Jesus and the scriptures. Every believer has this power as well, because it never comes from us. So there is to be no hiding behind a position or rank to escape God’s discipline, no matter which vessel He chooses to bring it in. Every believer has both the right and the duty to confront falsehood, provided they know the scriptures and have a reputation of holy living.

Chapter four ends this section on boasting about leaders, and next Paul will address a particular situation that is so bad not even the pagans practice it. But to this point I hope we have at least grasped the fact that the saved can and do backslide, sometimes seriously so, but that this can be corrected with solid teaching from leaders who live the example of Jesus. Tolerance for mere differences of opinion is encouraged, but not false or worldly doctrine and practice. We must learn to know the difference.

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