Paul Interprets Jesus

by Berry Friesen (September 3, 2015)

Paul of Tarsus embraced and embodied Second Temple Judaism—its confidence that YHWH had made an eternal covenant with the Jews, its understanding of salvation as a status, the rigor of its religious and ethical demands, its strategic collaboration with secular power, its conviction that YHWH would raise the righteous from the dead at the end of time.

Then he encountered Jesus, both in the voice along the road to Damascus and in the healing touch of an enemy, a Jesus-follower named Ananias.  Convinced Jesus had been resurrected, Paul became our leading example of Second Temple Judaism transformed by Jesus.

Yet the remnants of Second Temple verities are easily spotted in Paul’s writings.  All of his life, Paul remained a devout Jew who embraced the Law of Moses as YHWH’s clear and truthful revelation.  Always he carried in his head a map of humankind consisting of only two people-groups, one Jewish and the other pagan.  He never lost his attraction to secular power and relished the opportunity to engage powerful people.  He remained demanding and rigorous in his understanding of what YHWH required.

So how exactly was Paul changed by his encounters with Jesus?

He became convinced that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the long-awaited “day of the LORD” predicted by the prophets had arrived.  This meant the reign of YHWH as king of all the Earth had begun, bringing justice and shalom.  It also meant that the pilgrimage of pagan peoples had begun, uniting divided humanity in one nation seeking to know and follow the wisdom of YHWH.

History had entered a new era, in other words; the power of human empires had been broken and the Empire of YHWH had begun.

Of course, most people regarded this to be an absurdity.  The violent and oppressive Roman Empire remained in firm control, slavery and exploitation continued unabated, and Jews and Gentiles remained estranged.  Apparently, nothing had changed as a result of the crucifixion of this hapless Jew from Nazareth.

In effect, Paul said in response, “We will make visible the invisible change we believe has happened in Jesus.”  He and his “assemblies” did just that.

This required Paul to shelve the strategy of imperial collaboration and pursue instead grassroots transformation and organizing. It required him to curb the rigor and elitism of his training and live with patience and forbearance among people whose lives were filled with impurity, selfishness and sin.  It led him to be utterly uncompromising on the full inclusion of pagan believers into Jesus-following synagogues.

And it led him to extended discussion of the metaphysics with which we so often associate Paul: how YHWH—the source of all righteousness and justice—had come to regard pagan people as “justified,” no longer condemned to perish, but among those YHWH would bring back from the dead at the end of time.

As suggested by my previous post, Jesus readily perceived pagan people to be included in YHWH’s compassion and forgiveness.  For Paul it was not so easy, and yet in his struggle the point became absolutely clear for us.  In Messiah Jesus, there is no longer Jew and pagan, male and female, free and slave, but one humanity committed to the justice and shalom of YHWH.