Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Paul: The Unknown Years 3

The previous posts in this series were:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1
1b. Born at a Time and Place 2

2a. A Change in Life Direction
2b A Change in Life Direction 2
2c A Change in Life Direction 3

3a. The Unknown Years 1
3b. The Unknown Years 2

And now, the final installment of chapter 3, the application:
Paul's ministry, even in his earliest years, provide us with so many lessons for life and the church, it is hard to know even where to begin. His turn to faith in Jesus as the Jewish messiah in itself is a warning never to write off anyone. The person who seems most hardened, whom we could hardly imagine believing, might one day majorly surprise us. It must have been hard for those early Christians to believe that Paul was truly a believer, that his supposed conversion was anything but a trick

At the same time, look at what a radical change it was! Paul not only went from pursuer to the pursued. He soon found himself with opponents among Christians themselves. He went from not going with the faith to going too far with the faith--at least that is what some Christians came to think. In the same way, watch out for new converts who have so fully turned to Christ! Somtimes they change so radically that they soon make the rest of us uncomfortable.

Of course the radical convert is not always right on everything. Did Paul have to do whatever it was he did to get himself in trouble with the Arab ethnarch in Damascus? Should Paul have accused Peter of hypocrisy at Antioch in front of the whole church (Gal. 2:14)! Maybe Barnabas' approach, likely an attempt to find middle ground and a more conciliatory way, is sometimes more prudent or even effective. But radical converts also have a way of showing us our own inconsistencies and complacency. If the goal is to be more Christ-like, we should welcome their observations and see if God is trying to speak to us through them.

Paul was a person before he was in Scripture. In his first century context, he was obviously a person of great influence, a significant figure. But any Christian might have felt free to disagree with him. They did not know the Holy Spirit would steer his writings into Scripture, while leaving the champions of their perspective strangely silent.

And different people have different personalities, and different God ordained goals. God does not want us all to take on the personality of a Paul or necessarily the tasks of a Paul. Paul seems to have been a sometimes fiery, very demanding person. From what we see in the New Testament, he was an intelligent, passionate, forthright person. Sometimes his mouth got him into trouble.

God did a special thing though him. Christianity as most of us in the West know it seems to have grown significantly out of his ministry. Certainly a vibrant church grew in the East, pockets of which are still with us today in churches like that of Ethiopia. The Coptic Church in Egypt today was not a by-product of Paul's ministry. Even the church in Rome was not founded by him, although his letter to it stands as one of the most important Christian documents of all time.

We can question whether God has in store for any of us alive today as big a task as Paul's ministry would prove to be. Paul sometimes told his churches to imitate him (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17), but he did not mean he wanted them to become full blown apostles like him. Such was not in God's design for everyone. God had a special task for Paul, just as he sometimes has for us--or at least makes out of what we already are.

Paul's relationship and disagreement with some of the Christians in the Jerusalem church is also instructive. Many people like to think of the early church as a time when everyone agreed and there were no denominations. Everyone was truly full of the Spirit and lived the ideal Christian life. Oh, if we could only go back to those days, they might say.

But in reality the early church was diverse as well, with groups that were different enough from each other that we might almost call them different denominations. Paul's authority was not always recognized by his own churches, let alone by "church headquarters" back in Jerusalem. Peter and James might very well have preferred that Gentile converts become circumcised and fully convert to Judaism. They to not "compel" Titus to be circumcised, which leads us to believe they might have preferred it (Gal. 2:3). They do not allow Jewish believer to eat with Gentile believer unless that Gentile is willing to follow certain rules of purity.

Meanwhile, other Christians in the Jerusalem church do not think Peter and James have gone far enough. They do insist on full conversion, that Gentiles must become circumcised and fully convert in order to be saved (Acts 15:5). Paul may think of them as "false brothers" (Gal. 2:4), but Acts doesn't. Acts seems comfortable to call them "believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees" in the present tense, just as Acts will later allow Paul to call himself a Pharisee in the present tense (Acts 23:6). When Paul returns to Jerusalem near the end of his ministry, less than ten years before the Jewish War began (AD66), he would come to a Jerusalem that was extremely zealous with nationalistic fervor, full of Christians of this stripe (Acts 21:20). The church of Jerusalem very likely had many members who participated militarily in that war for the full political independence of Israel. [1]

At the same time, the early church had individuals more "liberal" than Paul. At Corinth he faces believers who "have knowledge" that makes them bold to eat at the temples of other gods (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:10). These individuals seem to have had a preacher named Apollos as their hero (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4; 4:6), which means they may in part be reflecting Apollos' greater openness to such things than Paul.

In short, the early church had its disagreements, and different groups within the church did things their way without interacting much with the other parts. The believers at Jerusalem were "conservatives," and they had a hard time distinguishing their nationalistic fervor from their faith. Probably it is only American Christians who might have this temptation today, confusing patriotism and the American flag with the Christian gospel and "flag" (even though we have much less a claim than the Jewish Christians of that day might have). British and German believers would not consider their nations to have some sort of divine right, and no African or South American church would confuse itself with Israel in the Bible.

Paul was quite the "liberal" for his day, although there were "ultra-liberals" he sparred with also. Even though the Bible said that Israel was God's chosen people and laid down rules about purity and Israel's separation from the world, Paul dared to teach that the gospel was for everyone. He taught that non-Jews could be saved without fully converting to Judaism and thus fully following the only Scriptures they had.

But there were those more radical than even he was. One church may even have been proud of the fact that they had a man who was sleeping with his step-mother (1 Cor. 5:1-2). How's that for not being under the Law, Paul? At one point this church so incensed Paul that he wrote a letter so stern he regreted for a short time that he had even sent it (2 Cor. 7:8). Not surprisingly, no one preserved it, and it did not make it into the New Tesament.

What we are seeing here is that the early church was much like the church today. There were more conservative and more liberal denominations. There were traditionalists who resisted change, and there were progressives who may have gone too far. There were disagreements over doctrine and practice. We know which groups God ended up rubber stamping because their writings have ended up in the Bible. But it would not at all have been obvious at the time to a neutral observer. Indeed, probably the Jerusalem Church would have been the best guess, with the dubious Paul as some radical out there on the fringes.

In our day to day life, we don't have the benefit of looking back in hindsight. We have to make decisions today on what to believe or do. So we make those decisions as best we can. We talk to as many other believers as we can as we go along. We pray. And we do our best as groups of believers to find our way through new territory. We have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight.

And we must have faith that God will eventually lead things where they need to go. Our efforts will not undermine God's ultimate plan, nor does God need us to get the world where He wants it. Use us He will or use us He won't. Part of faith is to realize that it does not all depend on us.

[1] It is hard to know what to do with the subtitle, Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

1 comment:

Keith Drury said...

A delightful story with wise application--thanks!