Getting near the end of Michael Bird’s excellent book A Bird’s Eye View of Paul which offers a first class introduction and overview of Paul’s thought [bout time I put up a picture of the red-headed Ozzie author]. There is a lot of stuff packed into this chapter on Paul’s ethics. Some big points Bird makes are:
1. The Law
Being a Jew, Paul’s Christian attitude to the law is radical and complex. Complex because it has elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Radical because it is revolutionary in relativising the unique status of ethnic Israel as the God’s nation.
-The Law highlights the holiness of God and severity of sin
-Is a temporary administration of God’s grace to govern his people
-Foreshadows and prepares the way for the coming of Jesus
-Romans 7 is best understood, NOT as Paul the Christian’s internal anguish about his battle with sin, but Paul picturing the pre-Christian experience of utter inability to keep the law. Or better, the law’s inability to produce a life of righteousness.
But ‘liberty from law is not licence to sin’.
2. The motive and framework for the Christian life comes from 4 areas:
– The example of Jesus: Christians are to live to serve others. They are to be generous, hospitable, reconcilers and forgivers.
– The teaching of Jesus: Bird interprets the ‘law of Christ’ mentioned in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21 as referring to Jesus’ whole teaching programme on life in the kingdom of God.
– Life in the Spirit: This is the empowering for the Christian life. For Paul the transforming presence of the Spirit in the life of a Christian will be evidenced by the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Not being under law does not mean lawlessness, but a fulfilling of the law by a life marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
– The law of love: Love is central to Paul’s ethics. All of the law is summed up by loving God and loving neighbour. Christians are to love one another, walk in love, build one another up in love, do everything in love, work out their faith in love. Love is what being a Christian is all about. The sign of authentic Christian faith is a ‘life of love’.
At the heart of Paul’s ethics is this tension between freedom and the imperative of love. Christians are set free in Christ [Galatians 5:1]. But free to love others with sacrificially, seeking their best and serving joyfully. Free not to do whatever they wish, but free to honour God with their lives, bodies, and thoughts.
Again and again while reading this book, it has struck me afresh what a distance exists between popular perceptions (and expressions) of what Christianity is (obligations, moral straitjacket, duty, conventionality, institutionalism) and Paul’s revolutionary gospel of Spirit empowered boundary-breaking love, graciousness and service. And how Christian spirituality is measured in the quality of our love – love for one another, for others and for God.
He has some comments on Paul, Sex and Women which I’ll come back to in the next post.