Paul As Preacher

Paul as Preacher: The Gospel Then and Now (2007)

This was a lecture given by Michael Devlin delivered on October 19, 2005 at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. Michael Devlin is a bishop in the British House of Lords.

His lecture began by commenting about a conference he had in Atlanta Georgia, when England won the Rugby Union World Cup. He was so excited and eager to share the good news to the people in his hotel and conference…. But nobody in the hotel or conference attendee’s had the slightest idea what Rugby was, let alone how important England’s victory was. Michael commented on their blank look’s. “I might as well have walked out onto O’Connell street in Dublin and announced to a startled audience that Hang Chow province had just won the Chinese inter-provincial table tennis tournament”.

 This analogy the author thought would paint a picture for his audience an idea of what Paul was doing in his preaching and cultural differences. “When Paul arrived in, Thessalonica and announced that Jesus was Lord, it must have felt like someone telling an audience about a game they did not play, being won by a team they did not know. Announcing that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s true King and therefore the World’s true Lord. This would not have made any sense at all to a first-century pagan. To suppose a Jew would become Lord of the world was ridiculous to a citizen of Rome”.

Paul saw that what the non-Jewish world needed was a Jewish message about the one true God and what this God had done in Jesus the Messiah. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he insisted, was the one true God, the world’s creator, who revealed Himself to Israel. Then God acted through Jesus for the whole world.

Paul was a pioneer missionary, He was telling a story and making a royal proclamation. The word “Gospel” was used in this time frame proclaiming the good news about the emperor of Rome, the Caesar colt, the fastest growing religion. Paul used the word “Gospel” when he was summoning all people to join in the community that hailed Jesus Christ, not Caesar as the true lord. To announce this gospel in today’s world means confronting postmodernity, post secularism, with the same challenging word, to let today’s Caesar’s know that Jesus is Lord.

Michael Devlin lecture of Paul’s preaching of the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ as lord had four main points:

  1. Paul’s proclamation was challenging news to people who were not expecting it.
  2. His message belonged within the storied world of Jewish apocalyptic and eschatology, and can only be properly understood there.
  3. Paul believed that this message went to work in human hearts and lives to generate new community.
  4. His preaching of Jesus, and the communities it generated, posed a deliberate challenge to the empire of Caesar.

My overall view of this speech from a person claiming to be a Pauline scholar was weak and very wordy. Not once did he mention the letters of Paul that were read to the various communities. The genre for Paul is his letters dealing with the communities’ respective issues, I thought would be critical to highlight or introduce. His topic,” Paul as preacher” and his forced metaphor of a rugby game to get his audience to focus on the cultural difference of England, Atlanta Georgia, and China. In 2003 most of the world would have known of the game of rugby. We need to go to the century and culture to understand Paul. Again the author does not identify the category of rhetoric Paul used in his writing or preaching. In fact, he states “the gospel itself must carry its own power and human rhetorical skill must stand back and give it room to operate”. The author calls his narrative a “love” story in the various” gospel speaking communities”. I believe the arguments were different in the various communities and Paul would have summarized his letters to his targeted audiences.

Chapter 7

This Chapter discusses how St. Paul reworks or rethinks the Jewish views of eschatology. The author shows that Paul makes Jewish eschatology come to pass in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He writes, taken from Romans 8.17, 28-30, “the spirit conforms the Messiah’s people to his suffering and glory, so that the Jewish expectation of the coming of the Messiah is not just fulfilled in the Messiah himself, but, extraordinarily, in His people as well.” Jewish eschatology thinks God will put all things right. They are the chosen ones, they have covenants with God and if God doesn’t make all things right, and paganism not defeated, then even God is in question. Paul reshapes Jewish views by showing that though Jesus Christ and His death, resurrection and ascension, all is fulfilled. Paul paints a vision that the end of all things is derived from the Old Testament and is in two stages. He redefines the Jewish doctrine using both the Messiah and the Holy Spirit.

I most enjoyed the comparison to the exodus and the two comings of Jesus Christ. First we are baptized into the Messiah as when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Now we live in between times like the wandering in the desert. We sin and suffer, but still are walking with God. We are no longer slaves of the Torah when we walk with the Holy Spirit and keep Him as our guide. Till the second coming when there will be a new heaven and new earth, we then will reach the Promised Land.

Chapter 6

This Chapter 6, “Reworking of God’s People” focuses on Paul’s emphasis and convincing argument that ALL people belong to God’s family.  N.T. Wright points out that throughout the Old Testament, it is shown that God chose Israel as His chosen people and it was the belief of the Jews that because of this, only Jews were the selected people, the special people, of God, who were to be His royal nation, His holy priests and the light of the world.  Paul takes this thought and shows how election is redefined through the Messiah.  As seen in Galatians 3, God desires a family of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, and this is very difficult for the faithful Jews to accept.  Wright shows that Paul preached unity of God’s people through this redefinition of election and that God has one family, not two.  His family consists of all those who believe in the gospel.  This family is defined as the people of the Messiah, no longer Jew or Gentile.

Wright shows that the “Messiah represents His people so that what is true of Him is true of them.  He has been crucified; therefore they have been crucified with Him.  They share His new life, not in terms of fleshly identity, that is, of Jewish ethnicity, but in terms of the Messiah’s own new life, a life in which all nations can share equally (p. 113)”. This is not an abandoning of the Jewish ways, but a reworking of God’s people in the Messiah to unite His family as one people.

This is a beautiful way to express the intense love that God has for all His people.  In Christ, we are united as faithful believers.  The Messiah came not to divide but to unite and those who participate in both faith and works are called to become one family in Christ.

Chapter 5 – Rethinking God

In Chapter 5 of “Paul, N.T. Wright reviews the way that St. Paul puts forth a fresh new way of looking at God, steeped in Jewish tradition but redefined in terms of the reality of Jesus of Nazareth as the long awaited Messiah.  He covers the Jewish theology of Monotheism (one God), Election (one People of God) and Eschatology (one future for God’s world), but in the light of Christ. 

Wright reviews the Jewish foundational theology of the one God of Israel as the God of both creation and covenant.  He then explains the Christological dimension, equating Jesus with God the father, often in the redefining of the Shema prayer with God the father/creator and Jesus as Lord.  The second phase of the redefinition of God is expressed in terms of Jesus and his Spirit together.  Paul famously explains that there are many gifts, but one Spirit, many types of service, but one Lord in Jesus, and one God and Father who accomplishes all in all. 

Finally, Wright shows how Paul uses Old Testament passages to show their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah.  Paul continues the Jewish theme of the people of God against the pagans found throughout the Old Testament, but now meaning both Jews and Gentiles who accept Jesus as Messiah and savior.  Paul goes on to show how this new people of God must necessarily be set apart from the pagan communities around them and live in a certain way of Christian love and service.

This reader found Wright’s analysis to be thorough and convincing.

Paul – Gospel and Empire Chapter 4

Gospel and Empire

This chapter deals with the power and influence of the Rome within the world of St Paul at the time of his letters.  Wright points out that St Paul’s mission was a dangerous one since it took shots at Roman ideology.  Wright also reminds us of Paul’s faithful assertion of Jesus’ divinity and His role as redeemer.  It is interesting to realize the very “Christian” words like “savior”, “good news”, “lord” and “son of god” were used by the Roman emperors and therefore Paul’s use of those words would have spoken to those reading his letters at the time that Jesus was more than the emperors of Rome.  I did not realize that the religion of Rome’s (emperor divinity) was the fastest growing religion at that time due to Rome’s military might.

Paul’s world would have been comfortable mixing religion, politics, and culture into the belief system – not separating these categories.  The Jewish people of the time would also have been comfortable seeing God as the one who used pagan rulers or nations to do His divine will, being the actor to do God’s bidding as well as receiving punishment for their actions.  This view would have relevance in their present (Rome) as well as from History (cf. Babylon or Assyria). They would have been accustomed to working within the confines of Roman rule by making the best of it versus anarchy and rebellion. 

Wright lists some very interesting exegeses from various letters with respect to Rome and its imperial force.  He helps give context to some of the letter such as Corinthians where he states that Corinth was more Roman than Rome.  Another example is from Thessalonians where “peace and security” are mixed in travail and destruction – a reference to Rome’s promise of peace and security. Jesus conquers death – much more powerful than simple military conquering.  Wright suggests that woven within Paul’s writing are words that would have evoked recognition of Roman signals –of Rome’s expected support and/or Rome’s reliance on military power and the emperor’s role. 

Creation and Covenant (Chapter 2)

The first section of Chapter 2 addresses “creation and covenant” in the Old Testament.  Two very different Psalms, Psalm 19 and Psalm 74, are used to show how God is the God of creation, but also a God that is just, all-powerful, and conquers evil.  Wright draws on certain covenants of the Old Testament such as: Abraham.  He points out that God is the creator, yet he is the God of covenant.  He will rescue and deliver his people from the enemy and from all evil.  Through Israel, God will address and solve the problems of the world, bringing justice and salvation to all people and how creation is “invoked” to solve the problems within the covenant.  God is FAITHFUL, but He is righteous.  

 

The second section of Chapter 2 focuses three new passages: Colossians 1: 15-20, 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 1-11.  This section, as well as the third, seemed similar in the fact that the emphasis was on Jesus Christ, the Messiah, being the NEW creation and the NEW covenant.  Wright states that Paul goes back to Genesis and makes it evident how God fulfills his covenant promises through Christ and renews creation.  

 

There is one particular line that struck me from the third section that I want to share.  It reads. “When God fulfills the covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the spirit, thereby revealing his faithful covenant justice and his ultimate purpose of new creation, this has the effect both of fulfilling the original covenant purpose (thus dealing with sin and procuring forgiveness) and of enabling Abraham’s family to be the worldwide Jew-plus-Gentile people it was always intended to be.” Therefore, God never leaves anything unfinished.  He fulfills, completes, and makes his covenant even greater, in His timing.    

St. Paul’s World and Legacy

The first section of Chapter 1 addresses St. Paul’s worldview and his use of narrative. I like the way Wright posits that St. Paul uses elements of each of the three worlds in which he lived, Jewish, Greek, and Roman, to propose to his readers a unique fourth world that pre-existed his conversion: the newly developing world of Christianity. This perspective clearly counters the notion that St. Paul “created” Christianity. Wright also addresses the narrative techniques found in the Pauline letters, emphasizing that they are not just literary devices that add decoration to separate theological content, but that narrative is the vehicle for the theological content that makes it accessible to all audiences, both Jewish and Gentile, ancient and modern. This is consistent with the technique of reading Scripture with an eye to all four senses that has been emphasized in other Scripture classes I have taken.

The second section of this chapter is devoted to what Wright calls St. Paul’s “legacy,” that is, the research on St. Paul that has been performed over the past two centuries. He goes into some rather particular details, but his main point in this section seems to be that, while a reader should always approach a text as objectively as possible, it is not possible to remove oneself completely from the context of the world in which one lives, and so reading of Scripture will always have an eye to its relevance in the current age. I particularly appreciate in this section that Wright does not propose an “impossibly objective” reading of St. Paul, but rather assures the reader that it is natural to read a text within one’s own historical context, and that one can never discredit the working of the Holy Spirit as scriptural texts are re-read with fresh eyes. In comparison with some of the positions we discussed in class and some that he mentions in this chapter, Wright seems to have a balanced perspective on the writings of St. Paul.