Chapter 1 of A Bird’s Eye View of Paul asks the question ‘What is Paul?’
He begins by warning that too easily we can make Paul into whoever we want him to be. Yet he defies neat categorization and tidy theological systems. We need to see is letters as windows into his world, rather than systematic theological treatises. We need to let him speak on his terms and for his purposes.
His is the towering voice of the NT. His is the heart of a pastor combined with profound theology as he writes to help and encourage Christians in their corporate life. His letters continue to speak right into our world – a world becoming closer again in many ways to that of the apostle. His voice continues to cause spiritual revolutions, to quicken faith, to shake assumptions and to deepen love for the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Bird uses 5 words to introduce Paul:
Paul, militant Pharisee, committed to the law of Moses, the purity of Israel, and relentless persecutor of the deviant sect of Jesus followers in the name of God, willing to kill for righteousness’ sake. Without keeping in mind how his dramatic experience of God’s grace utterly transformed him from persecutor to proclaimer, we will never truly understand the man from Tarsus. Grace compels him to win as many as possible for Christ.
Paul is firstly the missionary to the Gentiles.
Paul’s conviction that the gospel is first to the Jew then the Gentile, shapes both his missionary strategy and geographical focus (beginning with Jewish communities in Gentile regions). He is the apostle to the Gentiles, passionately convinced the gospel is for them and Jews and Gentiles alike belong in the promises of God and this unity is to be reflected in the churches he was planting. It is this passion which draws him into repeated conflict with Jewish Christians and Jews alarmed at the implications of his inclusive gospel.
Paul was a brilliant thinker who continues to be debated and argued about to this day. Bird proposes several things here:
i. The source of Paul’s theology is likely:
– Jesus’ teaching
– The Jewish Scriptures, read in light of Christ
– Constant theologising on the move, applied to situations that arise in the context of mission
ii. The shape of his theology is both eschatological (the future breaking into the present) and the story of Israel’s fulfilment in Jesus.
iii. The centre of Paul’s theology has been much debated. Bird locates it in the death and resurrection of Jesus – everything flows from these events.
iv. The development of Paul’s theology: Bird makes the fair point that we should expect a development in Paul’s thinking and understanding of the gospel, especially as he encounters all sorts of diverse situations in his travels. But its basic structure remains consistent.
Paul is no dry academic theologian. He is a passionate preacher, apostle, pastor, encourager, exhorter, sympathiser, caring ‘father’, advisor, teacher – consistently focused on the spiritual development and well being of people he loves.
And of course Paul is also a martyr who suffers beatings, imprisonment, persecution, hostility, reputational attack, house arrest, trial, and execution. He does all this while able to thank and praise God that he is considered worthy of suffering for Jesus. Suffering forms an integral part of his theology and experience
To these characteristics, Bird adds ‘maverick’. Paul, [like Jesus let it be said] was a controversialist. To Jewish Christians a ‘meddlesome nonconformist’. To Jews a blasphemous apostate. To Roman authorities a mischievous nuisance who proclaimed a greater Lord than Caesar and died for his impudence.
Paul believed in and served Jesus Christ wholeheartedly without reservation or hesitation. His identity is bound up with the cross of Christ (Gal 2:19-20). He would give his life to proclaim that “the one who is to come again, the Messiah, is Jesus, who has fulfilled Israel’s hopes by being cursed on a cross and raised from the dead.”
Some questions arising from these last observations:
Would Paul fit in much modern church life? Does this sort of passion characterise your life? My life?
A passion to serve Jesus. A passion to be a messenger of the gospel. A passion to see communities where people are being formed into the likeness of Christ. A passion that willingly endures opposition, hostility and suffering. A passion that is full of hope in the risen Christ.
Is all our planning, strategising, conferences, study and talk about mission a waste of time without this sort of Pauline passion?