More than any other single figure in the first century, it is Paul of Tarsus who has shaped our understanding of Christ. This is not to say that Paul’s ideas were unique, or that he invented them all. Quite the opposite. Most of what Paul says would have drawn nods of agreement from Peter, John, James, and the other leaders of that Apostolic generation. Yet it is Paul’s synthesis of the early proclamation about Jesus, Paul’s particular expression of it, that has left an indelible stamp on Christian faith ever since.
Paul’s Israelite Faith
We cannot understand Paul’s later faith in Christ, though, unless we first understand the world-view that drove the young Paul to hunt down and stamp out the first shoots of the Jesus movement. Born and raised in the cosmopolitan, Hellenized city of Tarsus, Paul would have been raised to be stubbornly different from his neighbours. As he followed his father and mother to Synagogue each Sabbath, he would have understood that he was part of a people set apart for God. As he ate the Passover meal around their table, pressed elbow-to-elbow with his family, he would have understood that his people had survived enslavement of all kinds and always continued faithful to the truth with which they had been entrusted. Even in a city like Tarsus where Greek writers brought their literature to its full flower, and where philosophers held class under the covered porticoes of the market, Paul knew that he could never fully be a part of the hum and buzz of this urban life. He had been born to preserve the story entrusted to Israel and to live out that story no matter the cost.
Israel’s story was first and foremost a story about God, the one creator of all that is. As Paul learned to read and write the Torah and prophets at the Jewish school near his home, he would quickly come to understand that Israel was called above all else to worship that one God and no others. As he walked home from school he passed the incense altar where two larger streets met, still smoldering with the day’s offering to the protective spirit of the city. He would have passed countless little shrines tucked into the walls and doorways of every shop and house, sheltering their rough clay and bronze images of household guardians and the owners’ favorite deities. He knew, though, that these were all a perversion of the worship that human beings owed their Maker. Each morning and evening his father taught him to recite the Shema’: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!” His life was framed with his people’s stubborn refusal to be seduced the idols, the craftsmen’s mockeries of the one Creator who spoke the skies into existence. And as he grew, he came to understand that his family and friends were called to be a light in the middle of idolatrous darkness, to live as a beacon and reminder of that monotheism that ought to be the basis of every human life.
One Covenant People
Why did his people play this role? Because that one God had chosen them to live in covenant relationship. They had been given a gift, a law that taught them again how humanity was meant to live. This law meant that every moment of Paul’s life could be an act of worship, a deliberate act of devotion to the Creator. When the young man washed his hands before his mid-day meal, when he refused his pagan friends’ invitations to their parties full of forbidden foods, when he crossed the street to avoid the leer of the neighbourhood prostitute, in countless small efforts to observe the commands of God Paul expressed his love and commitment to that faithful Law-giver.
Paul would also have understood, though, that this law was not meant merely for Israel’s enjoyment. Certainly, when the people lived up to these covenant obligations, God was glad to shower them with good things. Yet as Paul sat memorizing Torah his teacher would have emphasized God’s larger purpose in making this covenant with Israel. As the nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, declaring their decision to accept this covenant life, Paul noticed how God described them: “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As they allowed their common life to be re-shaped by Torah, Israel would become a nation unlike any other. God would live in their midst, and they would demonstrate to all the cosmos how human beings could return, set aside their rebellion and violence, and once again live the life Adam enjoyed in the garden. He would have felt a small leap of joy and satisfaction each time another curious gentile slipped into the doorway of their synagogue building to hear his community’s prayers, knowing that one more was being drawn by God’s truth.
Paul did not think that he had earned this privilege, any more than Abraham had earned the promises granted to him by God. Israel had not even existed before God created her out of the Patriarch’s children. This special people only existed because of God’s grace, his inexhaustible desire to see humanity rescued from the destruction they had brought on themselves. In the same way, the nation had only survived the centuries because time and time again God had forgiven their smug sins. Even when God had been forced to discipline the m with foreign oppressors and exile, the Creator had gone beyond his obligations to re-make Israel and given them a new start. Likewise, Paul’s dedication to the covenant life of his people, his passionate devotion to Israel’s God, was likely fueled by his knowledge that he had not earned the chance to be part of this priestly people. God’s gracious gifts were so overwhelming that they demanded he give his all to the Giver.
There had been some Jews for whom this life of devotion was enough reward in itself. In the synagogues of the first century, though, few were satisfied with the old goal of a quiet life and the sleep of the grave. In their daily prayers Paul and his family recalled God’s promises to Abraham and called on their covenant Lord to bring them to fulfillment. Most, including the young Paul, looked forward to a day within the space and time of this world when God’s reign would dawn again over the earth. The apocalypses that were so popular in the synagogues of Paul’s youth offered a rich variety of scenarios for the dawning of that new age. The imaginations of those apocalyptic writers extrapolated from the hints in the scriptural prophets to describe seemingly endless combinations of fiery disasters, angelic battles, famines, earthquakes, and plagues. They all agreed, though, that this time of crisis would culminate in a great day of judgment. God, or in some versions his messianic representative, would take his place on the throne of the world. From there all nations, and every human being, would be judged for their actions for good or evil. Those who had lived in defiance of God’s moral order would finally meet the just consequences of their actions. Those who had grown fat on the spoils of violence and treachery would find the tables turned and meet their own end. The cruel and self-aggrandizing kings and councils would be removed from power and in their place those who had lived faithful to God would watch over a new order of peace and harmony. Every family would have their own plot of land, their own vine and fig-tree, where they would find contentment in the simple pleasures of creation and the rhythms of true worship. From Jerusalem God would reign over the whole earth, and wealth from every inhabited land would stream to Jerusalem in the tribute and offerings brought to the Creator by every branch of a humanity living in harmony with their maker. The world would be so changed that it would be as if the heavens themselves had been replaced by a new and brighter sky.
The place of the gentiles in this new world was often a matter of much debate. One can easily imagine a grey-bearded Jew living in Paul’s childhood circle who had survived one of the spasms of anti-Jewish violence that occasionally seized the Greek cities of the east. As he hobbled through the neighborhood on a crutch, the bitterness he nursed toward all the gentiles would have been etched in his face. When he imagined the day of God’s judgment he could not see beyond his own rush of vicious joy watching these corrupt people be slaughtered by God’s armies. But others, perhaps including Paul’s own parents and teachers, would doubtless have held out more hope for their Greek neighbours in Tarsus. True, many could not hope for mercy when they approached the throne of judgment, steeped as they were in prayers whispered to dead lumps of stone and the sweat of adulterous trysts. Still, the young Paul may have held out hope that God would find many righteous gentiles and invite them to join the community of peace (see, e.g., Isa 56:3-8).
A Hope Worth Fighting For
What most in Paul’s synagogue would have agreed about is that this day of judgment would not be delayed too much longer. How could it be put off, if God were just and if he really did love his people. They had simply suffered too much. This made it all the more crucial, though, that the Jewish people be prepared for the moment when God would intervene. Now, more than ever, Israel needed to live in passionate faithfulness to her God. After all, Paul would likely have understood that it was the people’s own sin that had kept God from bringing his promises to fruition before. God could not pour his blessing on a corrupt and idolatrous people. Certainly this serious young Jew would have been raised to understand that his nation’s fiercest sufferings had been God’s discipline at times when they had grown decadent and succumbed to the temptation to be like other people. What is more, if God finally did take his throne when the Jews were living faithlessly, many could find themselves condemned as covenant traitors and shut out of Abraham’s blessings. As the time grew short Paul would have understood that it was more important than ever for Israel to live the live to which God had called her, to remain different and separate.
Paul left home with this passion for God and Torah burning in his belly. When he arrived in Jerusalem to study the law, he must have seen himself as a guardian of his people, a heroic fighter for righteousness. Paul was not content with the status quo. He tells us himself in his letter to the Galatians that he “progressed beyond his peers in the practice of Judaism” (Gal 1:14). Sitting at the feet of the Pharisee Gamaliel, Paul absorbed his master’s care and precision in interpreting Moses’ commands. And his goal, like that of Pharisaic teachers in general, was not simply his own salvation. He was training to lead ordinary Jews into the faithfulness that God required. He was preparing them for the great Day of the Lord, fighting with his arguments and persuasive skill to make sure that as many as possible would be included in that age of peace. In this fight, however, there might have to be casualties. Many like Paul looked to the figure of Phineas as their model, the hero of Israel’s wilderness era who had saved the people from God’s wrath by slaughtering a man involved with a Midianite woman (Num 25; cf. 1 Macc 2:26, 54). Centuries later, Paul knew that Judas the Maccabee had been forced to kill the covenant traitors among the Jewish people before God had given Israel victory over her Syrian oppressors. Hence we can begin to understand Paul’s quiet approval in Acts 8:1 as Stephen was stoned for his blasphemy. It was grim work, and we need not imagine that Paul enjoyed it. But the people had to be protected from these seductive traitors. This same “zeal” was what set Paul on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, around 34 CE, to root out the followers of this deceiver Jesus before their contagion spread out of control and destroyed countless simple Jews.
Paul’s Encounter with Christ
Everything changed for Paul on that road to Damascus. We will never know exactly what Paul heard and saw. The three accounts in Acts leave many questions unanswered, and through Paul alludes to his experience several times in his letters he never describes it himself. What Paul does tell us, though, is that he was stopped short by a vision of Jesus. As he rode north with his companions, Paul was suddenly confronted by the powerful presence of the same man he knew had been executed months before. It would have taken Paul weeks to begin making sense of what he saw. Yet one basic fact seems to have been clear. This Jesus, who had suffered and died so horribly, had been vindicated by God. In spite of all appearances, he must not have been a covenant traitor. He was not a deceiver leading the people away from God. Jesus must have been exactly what he claimed: God’s final herald, preparing Israel to receive the long-awaited fulfillment of Abraham’s promises. His horrific death on a Roman cross was not, as Paul had thought, the sign of God’s condemnation. That death was somehow part of God’s design all along. It must have been, as his stubborn circle of followers had insisted, a death offered “for us.”
Did Paul go through a “conversion” on that Syrian road-side? If what we mean is that Paul moved from one religion called “Judaism” to a new religion called “Christianity,” then he clearly did not. Paul’s vision changed nothing about his passionate devotion to Israel’s God. It changed nothing about his conviction that this God had called Israel to be his covenant people. He continued to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, the restoration of God’s peace throughout his creation. In short, Paul did not stop being a Jew, an Israelite. At the same time, Paul’s vision did force him to re-think the way he had understand each facet of this Jewish world view. No aspect of his Judaism was left unchanged, so that his life took a 180 degree turn. If Paul did undergo a “conversion” on the Damascus road it was a conversion to a radically new understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew, to live faithful to Israel’s covenant.
When Paul talks about this experience in his letters, though, he talks about it as a “call” to a new and surprising role in Israel’s priestly work. Where before he had opposed Jesus as a deceiver of the people, now he was called to be an “apostle” of that same man. He was called to be a messenger, a representative of the Jesus who was in fact Israel’s Messiah, who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand. No surprise that some of the early Christians in Jerusalem remained suspicious of this sudden about-face. Even more surprising, however, was that Paul experienced this call as a commission to be “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Where he had focused before on protecting and purifying the people of Israel in their covenant life, now he was set apart by God for a mission to the nations.
Paul’s Basic Message: 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Very often we begin getting to know Paul through his letter to the Romans. As we will see below, though, that letter probably does not represent the way the Apostle to the Gentiles usually framed his message. So instead, let us turn to Paul’s earliest letter, I Thessalonians. Here we listen to the missionary pastor making contact again with a tiny community of believers that he founded in the bustling Macedonian city of Thessalonica. He was only able to be with them a short time before elements in the local synagogues forced him to move on again. As Paul moved south along the Aegean coast of Greece, his concern for the fledgling community grew. Finally, in Athens, he could not stand it any longer and sent Timothy, his trusted companion, to check on the Thessalonian church (I Thess 3:1). Timothy returns with good news that the believers there are holding on to their new faith, even though they are facing harsh pressure to conform to the life they used to consider normal. It is no surprise, though, that these fresh converts, with so little understanding of Jesus’ Jewish world, also seem to have become mired in confusion over the implications of Paul’s teaching.
The main problem seems to have been their anxiety about the fate of some believers who had already died (I Thess 5:13-18). Paul had told them that the dawn of God’s kingdom was just over the horizon. Were their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, lost simply because they had not been able to hold on long enough? Paul’s answer in I Thessalonians is, of course, “Not at all!” He then goes on to explain what any Jewish child would know–that the righteous dead will be raised to life again when the Messianic age begins. In the course of the letter, though, what strikes us is how thoroughly Jewish Paul’s message still was. True, every facet of Paul’s Jewish world has been re-thought in light of the cross, in light of Paul’s vision on the Damascus road. At the same time, even in teaching these pagans unfamiliar with Israel’s faith, Paul’s message remains a call to worship the one Creator, who has created a covenant people for himself, in anticipation of the day when the Messiah would come and put his world right.
Paul gives us a rare glimpse in this letter of the message he first announced to non-Jews. He sums up their initial faith by recalling how they “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God . . .” (I Thess 1:9). This is the same message one might have heard in the synagogue of Paul’s youth. The gentiles are invited to recognize the truth about their existence: that the many gods who make their home in road-side shrines and in the epics of Homer and Hesiod are nothing. They are distractions, fabricated to help us avoid our basic dependence on the one Being who stands at the root of the cosmos, the one Maker of everything who gives us our very breath. It is this God that Paul called the Thessalonians to worship.
At the same time, Paul has already begun to re-think the nature of that one God. In his opening address to the Thessalonians he greets them “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). Calling Christ “Lord” (kyrios) is not, in itself, surprising. It can be nothing more than a respectful form of address, like “sir” or “ma’am.” In the mouth of a devout Jew, though, paired with a reference to the creator God, this way of addressing Jesus becomes far more significant. At the very least Paul seems to view Jesus as standing in some unique relationship with Israel’s God. It may even be that Paul is thinking of how the title “Lord” was used in Greek translations of Israel’s scriptures as a substitute for the name of God (YHWH) that could not be translated or spoken. Clearly Paul does not want to compromise the rigorous monotheism he imbibed with his mother’s milk. Jesus is not a second God. Paul seems, though, to blur the boundaries between Jesus’ identity and the identity of that one creator God.
One Covenant People
In the opening of his letter Paul calls them an ekklesia, an “assembly” of Thessalonians. Although the audience may at first have thought only of the civic council meetings that were called by the same name, they would soon have learned that this word ekklesia had a special significance in Israel’s vocabulary. For in the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures the term ekklesia referred most often to the “assembly” of Israel. This “assembly” was the body of God’s people, visible when they gathered in the temple to worship during one of the pilgrimage festivals. It was the gathering of God’s faithful people, an “assembly” from which the wicked and the violent would be shut out. It was the visible form of the covenant community. In addressing them as an ekklesia, Paul was continuing in his Jewish conviction that God called a unique people into covenant relationship with himself. They have been “chosen” by God (1:4) as his holy people, “loved” by the Creator just as Israel always was (1:4). Perhaps most surprising is the way Paul contrasts the Thessalonian assembly with “the gentiles who do not know God” (4:5). These former pagans are no longer part of the gentile world. They are now part of God’s chosen people, the assembly of the righteous, welcomed into covenant relationship with the Creator.
Moreover the righteous life to which these gentiles were called is very much like the life of the “righteous gentiles” recognized by so many Jews of Paul’s day. They were to live a life of constant worship, praying for one another and giving thanks to God for his gifts (see 1:2). They strive to be “holy” and “righteous” and “blameless” (2:10; 3:13). God’s will is that they keep themselves away from sexual immorality (4:3), by which Paul is probably thinking of the temptation to visit the brothels that did a thriving business in any Greco-Roman city. Rather they are to exercise self-control over their bodies, not letting their passions dominate their lives (4:5). They are to deal fairly with one another in business (4:6). All of this was familiar from the popular Jewish literature that had emerged in the Greek-speaking world. If there is anything distinctive about Paul’s vision for the Thessalonians’ common life it is his emphasis on love, agape, as the defining virtue (4:9). To a large extent, though, Paul hopes the new church will follow a pattern not unlike the lifestyle of his home synagogue in Tarsus. They should “strive to live quietly, to focus on you own affairs, and to work with your hands” (4:11). A distinct community within the larger civic life, they should “behave in a way that outsiders will respect” and make sure they are able to meet one another’s needs (4:12).
God has not merely chosen the Thessalonians as his people, but has called them “into his own kingdom and glory” (I Thess 2:12). When Paul described the Thessalonians’ initial faith, he also recalled how they turned to God “to wait for his son to come from the heavens, the one whom God raised from the dead, Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (I Thess 1:10). Paul refers to Jesus’ return as his parousia (2:19; 3:13), using the same term that often describes a king’s visit to one of his subject cities. He will arrive “with all of his holy ones,” a triumphant king with a force of angelic warriors at his command (3:13). On that day God will pass judgment on each human heart (3:13). As for those who have died as believers, Paul insists that they will not be left out of the restored cosmos. When Christ comes descending from the sky, he will give the signal and the dead will be woken from their slumber by the throaty cry of the angelic horns. The dead in Christ, Paul says, will emerge from their tombs and be lifted up to meet Christ in the air (4:15-16). Although this passage has often been understood to teach that the believers would be removed from the earth to a new heavenly home, Paul is likely thinking of a more typical scenario in Jewish expectations. As a returning king approached his city in the ancient world he would be met outside the gates by his joyful subjects, welcoming him and ushering him back within their familiar gates. Similarly Paul seems to imagine the whole world as the city of Jesus the king. As he returns to restore peace his people will rise up, not to be taken away themselves, but to welcome their long-awaited regent and join him on the last leg of his journey back to earth.
Like so many other Jews, Paul calls this moment of fulfilled promises “the Day of the Lord” (I Thess 5:2). The event will emerge “like a thief in the night,” so that many will not hear the day’s approach and will be caught unprepared (5:2-3). Those “in the dark,” who have continued to refuse God’s truth and live idolatrous lives, will be destroyed (5:3). Those who oppose God’s mission of restoration, even if they are Jews, commit “sin” and bring “wrath” on themselves at “the end” (2:16). Transgressions of God’s will, like taking advantage of one another in business dealings, will be met with God’s punishment on that day (4:6). Nor is this only a danger for those outside the church. Paul offers this warning repeatedly to the Thessalonian believers themselves. Hence he reminds his audience that they are “children of light,” who know that the Day of the Lord is coming and can “keep watch and stay sober” (5:10). They can live now in harmony with their Maker’s will, so that the returning Christ will bring their “rescue” and will welcome them into the life of that new age (5:6-11).
None of this would appear strange to the Jews with whom Paul grew up in Tarsus, except that Paul has now put a face and a name to the Messianic king. In subtle ways, though, Paul is also beginning to re-think his Jewish hopes for the future in light of what God has done in Christ. Paul, like most Jews, clearly awaits a future, dramatic change when Israel’s inheritance will become a reality for the chosen people. Yet even in this early letter Paul seems to presume that the age to come can already be glimpsed in the present life of the Thessalonian community. He is confident that God has given them all “his Holy Spirit” to drive the transformation of their lives. Yet that flood of God’s Spirit to all of Israel was always expected to come along with the day of resurrection and judgment. No Jew would have expected that eschatological gift to come years before God’s reign came in its fullness. Likewise, no one in Israel expected the Messiah to come and leave again, asking his people to wait for another triumphant return. In these cases it is clear that the reality of events–the crucifixion and the believers’ experience of the Spirit–forced Paul to re-conceive his Jewish vision of the future in subtle but fundamental ways. For the Apostle to the Gentiles, God’s newly re-constituted people are now living “between the times,” experiencing glimpses of God’s restored reign now even as they wait for its final consummation.
A Hope Worth Fighting For
Clearly the Paul of Thessalonians no longer looks to the violence of Phineas as a model of righteous struggle. This is not to say, though, that the Apostle’s drive to fight for his people had changed. The nature of that conflict would now be different. Rather than hunting and stoning his opponents, Paul now wielded the pen and the spoken word. And for all his apparent harshness in his letters, the Apostle shows a remarkable respect and patience with his scattered communities as he goes on persuading them, appealing to their reason, showing them why their practices or their preaching needs to change. Only rarely does he lapse into an authoritarian command, resting simply on his status as Apostle. Now, rather than using violence to suppress dangers to Israel, Paul follows the pattern of Jesus’ cross and willingly accepts violent responses to his message without striking back. Paul alludes to his own very real “struggle” to bring them the good news of God’s coming restoration (2:2), a struggle in which he had “suffered earlier” and been “abused” (2:2). Later on he tells the Thessalonians that the churches in Judea have “suffered the same things” that these new Macedonian believers have endured (2:14). Paul seems to understand such sufferings as the birth-pangs of God’s restored reign, part of the upheavals that in much Jewish expectation would have to come before God’s final intervention (see I Thess 3:3-4). So as they wait for Christ’s return, as they model a restored way of life, as the demonstrate and point ahead to God’s reign, Paul calls believers in Christ to struggle by standing firm in their faith and message no matter what violence they meet along the way. The sword of Phineas is traded for the cross of Jesus. But the fire in Paul’s eyes has not been dimmed.