Fulfilled in Jesus

Our pilgrimage with our Beloved in Japan -- Yoko & Ramone on the journey with Jesus!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Paul vs. Jesus??

Click to read the the story of this picture: The Body is CHRIST!

Recently one of Clay Peck's studies was posted on Facebook (link) and a commenter brought a challenge against Clay, arguing that he used only Paul and did not reference Jesus (the commenter admitted Clay had cited Luke as well, but wrote that off since Luke was one of Paul's friends — forgetting of course that Luke gave us 1/4th of the words of Jesus). The comment reminded me of a blog post I had written two years ago...

I wrote a blog post originally in 2006 entitled "Paul vs. Jesus?" because having been raised and educated in Adventism, I had learned a sort of disconnect between Jesus and Paul, mostly the result of not allowing Paul's statements about the law to actually *mean* what they said. We couldn't take them literally because if we did, it would invalidate everything we had staked ourselves on and would seem to also pose grave moral danger. We didn't know the power of the Spirit that Paul spoke of, and having nothing but the sense of sight, indeed it made better sense (in our logic) to re-interpret whatever Paul said about law. Truth is we actually couldn't imagine what taking Paul literally would look like, because we couldn't see the superior power of the ministry of the Spirit over the ministry of the letter (the ministry of death).

Did Paul and Jesus speak differently? Did Paul misunderstand Jesus?
Or were we corrupting Paul by taking him at his word?
Was there something we were missing seeing?

Paul vs. Jesus?
Sunday, July 23, 2006 (edited July 16, 2009)

Recently in the FAF magazine, Proclamation!, Dale Ratzlaff wrote an article entitled, "Did Paul Misunderstand Jesus?", in which he addressed how sometimes people look at Paul's writings less authoritatively than the other parts of the New Testament. It got me thinking of how God helped me see the continuity between Christ and Paul, and how He used a few non-traditional sources along the way.

The faith of the denomination I was raised in was based largely on the Ten Commandments (the words/tablets of the old covenant), and it was basically their emphasis. Many churches in the denomination put the Ten Commandments in stained glass above the pulpit. Most Christian churches would display the Cross, Christ, or the dove of the Holy Spirit. Catholic churches might choose a nativity scene, the virgin Mary, or the Cross with Christ still on it. Consciously or unconsciously this front and center position can show what is at the center of not only our sanctuary, but our heart and thought.

Growing up, however, I didn't realize that we had an unnatural focus on the old covenant law. I learned that God wanted me to obey the Ten Commandments (the words of the old covenant!) before I learned that God is love. Basically, having learned the way of the Old Covenant from a very young age, I viewed the whole of the new covenant (and the whole the New Testament, actually) through the lens of the old! This is backwards; the new covenant is larger and more wonderful than the old. The old has a fading glory, while the new has a surpassing glory that never fades. Viewing things in this backward way would be like trying to see a full-color picture through a black & white lense—it's going to severely distort the reality of the color picture. Likewise there were many side effects and misunderstandings that resulted from reading the New Testament through the lens of the tablets of the old covenant.

One of the side effects was that we tended to overlook things Paul said—or more often we tried to re-explain what he said so that it meant something different from what it obviously meant. Even in our most frank moments of admitting that Paul really meant what he said, we couldn't accept what he wrote because it didn't seem to mesh with what James wrote. We liked the book of James much better because it seemed to make more sense to us when we were reading through the lens of the old covenant law.

As I continued to grow and read Scripture through the lens of the old covenant law, I noticed that Jesus in the gospels seemed to talk a lot more like James than Paul. As I read the gospels (in particular the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark & Luke) with the 'Law' focus as I had been taught and raised under, the bold statements of Paul began to seem very alien to the Jesus in the gospels. Paul's words talked of grace and faith, but it seemed that Jesus' words were more based on 'Law'. There seemed to be little harmony between the two.

Even after I came out of the denomination and was set free from the old covenant bondage, a little doubt lingered about the apparently different tones of Jesus and Paul. I prayed and surrendered to God, asking Him to help me understand and see things the way He sees them.

I'd like to share three or four things that helped me see and understand.

Praying to see the Gospel in James

I asked God to see the Gospel—the Good News—in the book of James. Somehow I had never done that. Often we run across things in Scripture we don't understand, but we don't do what ought to be obvious: ask God to explain! Instead we run all over the place and rack our brains trying to figure it out. Finally I laid down my ability to understand and asked God to show me His good news in the book of James. Several Gospel phrases immediately began to pop out:

"God gives generously to all without finding fault." (1:5)
"Mercy triumphs over judgment." (2:13)
"The Lord is full of compassion and mercy." (5:11)

Over time the larger message of the book became obvious as well. The key verse is "Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (1:21-22)

The context of James became clear: James was writing to people who were claiming Jesus' name but were living apart from His Spirit. They did not know His love nor those whom He loved—the poor, for example—and those most in need of His grace. The people Jesus had liked to hang out among were becoming shunned by the Christians that James wrote to. In a nutshell, these Christians knew Jesus' name but they did not know His heart. They knew of Him but they did not know Him.

The "faith and deeds" section was often used by legalists to subvert everything Paul wrote, yet as I looked closer at the example James gave of "obedience", I noticed that James was clearly not putting people back under the old Law. While he did speak to people who obviously knew the Law (and who still prided themselves on keeping it), the example of "deeds" he cited was Abraham sacrificing Isaac—something that the Sinatic Law would expressly forbide! (Not to mention the prostitution Rahab did and the lie she told to the Jericho authorities!) It became clear that James was talking about listening to God and following the voice of His Spirit in your life.

And the command of this voice, James argues, is love. The great commandment Christ gave us was "love one another as I have loved you", and it was this that James wrote about. If they did not know that love, John would've said they didn't know God at all. If they esteemed themselves better than the poorest among them, they had lost sight of the grace that had loved them—God had loved them even while they were His enemies!

"Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom" (2:12). James obviously was referring to the law of Grace—which is not to be found dictated in the Torah. Instead it is the clear teaching of Jesus in the Lord's Prayer and in His parables, particularly the parable of the Unmerciful Servant. The law of Grace has set us free, so in turn we're not to act superior as if we've been set free because of something we have done. Instead we are to humbly see people through His eyes and love them just as He loved us.

(For more on James, I did a series of three pictures which I hope helps illustrate what he means by "faith and deeds" --that is, the deeds of faith-- here: The Believe On Jesus Series)

Sophie's World

I was in a bookstore one day and flipped through Jostein Gaarder's popular history-of-philosophy novel, Sophie's World. When I came across the section about Jesus I expected to see some kind of minimizing treatment of Him in keeping with the general unpopularity of Christianity in philosophical circles that I'd seen. What I found instead was something shocking. Here's a passage from the book:

Jesus himself demonstrated that he was not above talking to harlots, corrupt usurers, and the politically subversive. But he went even further: he said that a good-for-nothing who has squandered all his father's inheritance or a humble publican who has pocketed official funds is righteous before God when he repents and prays for forgiveness, so great is God's mercy.

But hang on—he went a step further: Jesus said that such sinners were more righteous in the eyes of God and more deserving of God's forgiveness than the spotless Pharisees who went around flaunting their virtue.

Jesus pointed out that nobody can earn God's mercy. We cannot redeem ourselves (as many of the Greeks believed). The severe ethical demands made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount were not only to teach what the will of God meant, but also to show that no man is righteous in the eyes of God. God's mercy is boundless, but we have to turn to God and pray for his forgiveness.

In this "secular" book I began to finally see something that I felt I should've known all along: Paul wrote the meaning of what Jesus lived in His life! Jesus' life and actions taught the things that Paul expressed with words.

Having been raised under the old covenant law I could not see this simple fact, and because of it I thought that Paul & Jesus had different teachings! The legalist made his argument with "the Law" and with many of Jesus' harder sayings in the synoptic gospels yet totally missed the message of His actions and their implications.

So strong was the legalist's argument to my veiled eyes that I began to wonder whether Jesus had originally meant Christianity to be something of obeying the right laws fully. Christians today seemed to speak of a "personal relationship" with God, but looking through the eyes of the old covenant law, I couldn't see this taught in His life. This doubt, too, was helped into oblivion by something found a few pages later in Gaarder's book, when he wrote of Paul's visit to Athens and his confrontation with philosophers at the very heart of the philosophical world. About his speech, Gaarder wrote:

Paul in Athens, Sophie! Christianity has begun to penetrate the Greco-Roman world as something else, something completely different from Epicurean, Stoic, or Neoplatonic philosophy. But Paul nevertheless finds some common ground in this culture. He emphasizes that the search for God is natural to all men. This was not new to the Greeks. But what was new in Paul's preaching is that God has also revealed himself to mankind and has in truth reached out to them. So he is no longer a "philosophic God" that people an approach with their understanding. Neither is he "an image of gold or silver or stone"—there were plenty of those both on the Acropolis and down in the marketplace! He is a God that "dwelleth not in temples made with hands." He is a personal God who intervenes in the course of history and dies on the Cross for the sake of mankind.

Philip Yancey's comment about Paul

I had marveled at Paul's deep theological writings without ever really wondering where his concepts came from. Of course Paul spent much time with God, so I—and likely many others—assumed that what Paul wrote was all given him through a vision or revelation. While that is possible, I learned something very important from a comment that Philip Yancey made in his book, What's So Amazing About Grace?

Paul knew better than anyone who has ever lived that grace comes undeserved, at God's initiative and not our own. Knocked flat on the ground on the way to Damascus, he never recovered from the impact of grace: the word appears no later than the second sentence in every one of his letters. As Frederick Buechner says, "Grace is the best he can wish them because grace is the best he himself ever received."

Paul harped on grace because he knew what could happen if we believe we have earned God's love. In the dark times, if perhaps we badly fail God, or if for no good reason we simply feel unloved, we would stand on shaky ground. We would fear that God might stop loving us when he discovers the real truth about us. Paul—"the chief of sinners" he once called himself—knew beyond doubt that God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are.

... [This] man who led a campaign of torture went on to set a missionary standard that has never been matched. Paul never tired of describing that miracle of forgiveness: "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."

Somehow Paul's conversion story had been something that I never connected with the teachings in his epistles! But now that I looked at it, the connection became obvious and visible all over his writings. Even more wonderful for me was how it brought to life the reality of what Paul wrote. I had seen what Paul wrote as though it were "theology"—that is, truths. Yet now I have begun to see that he was excitedly writing about the reality of what he himself was experiencing! He was discovering more and more meaning day by day from what Jesus had done for him, and he was sharing it with everyone he met. When Paul wrote that we "have died and have been raised with Christ and seated in heavenly places in Him", he was not writing some theoretical concept—no! Instead he was writing a reality that he himself knew was true!

I then began to notice that what other apostles wrote was also born out of their experiences with Jesus. Simon was called a "rock" by Jesus, and so he began to realize and preach that Christ is THE rock, and in fact each person is a precious stone to God (see 1st Peter chapter 2). John saw himself above all as "the one whom the Lord loved", and so he spent his breath telling as many people as possible that God is love and He has loved them. (Perhaps even "James the lesser" arose to champion the poor because he was often in the shadow of the other James, "James the great" —that is, John's brother. Even though the other James was apparently closer to Christ, maybe James the lesser knew he was equally the object of God's love and that God did not play favorites between the James', nor did He play favorites between any one man and another.)

Seeing "grace" as an actual substance

In reading Yancey's book I began to taste grace. Grace began to become a force or substance that I could feel. I could look back into my life and see it. And I could see when it walked into the room. When He speaks, grace comes to me. When He moves, there is grace. We can't always define grace, but once we receive it, we can learn to identify it when it comes our way. "That's it!" Perhaps we only need to learn to recognize its smell.

The rock group U2 has a song called "Grace", with words written by the group's Christian lead singer, Bono:

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it's the name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she's got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries the world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stains

Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty in everything
Grace finds goodness in everything


  • At July 08, 2010 1:02 PM, Anonymous daylee05 said…

    Thank you for your story. My journey through Adventism has been short (6 years) and extremely painful. However, due to the inconsistencies it forced me to study HIS Word which brought me to Christ and the foot of the Cross. For that I am truly grateful. I would have never experienced such an intimacy with Christ if it hadn't been for this painful experience. I am coming to the understanding that I need to leave the Adventist church completely and protect my children from these dangerous teachings. God warned me about this religion, I didn't listen and consequently lost a lot of time, money, peace and security. I will never ignore a warning from HIM again. Thank you for being able to so eloquently and kindly share your story.


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