Saturday, 26 July 2014

Paul the Myth Versus the Real Paul

      The apostle Paul gives his readers a very lofty admonition: “Imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1 NKJV). The problem is, we tend to have such a distorted view of Paul that this seems to be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. One of the reasons this is such a challenge is because numerous misconceptions about the apostle have been generated over the centuries. Sometimes he is referred to as “Saint Paul” to distinguish him from the ordinary Christian. He is commonly viewed as an inaccessible authority figure, high up on a pedestal with a halo encircling his head. We hear of “Pauline theology” and “Pauline churches,” as though he were a lone maverick who developed his own brand of Christianity distinct from that of the Jerusalem apostles. He is often regarded as a fearless missionary who boldly marched into unknown territories, bravely confronting religious error and conquering men’s souls without the slightest apprehension.
     With such an inflated view of the apostle Paul, how can any of us mere mortals ever hope to comply with the apostolic directive to imitate him? Few can live up to such a high standard, and since I am no “Saint Paul,” I have an excuse for not doing more for the Lord, for not being more involved in the church, and for not being more faithful in my Christian walk. However, to be fair to Paul, to give credit to God (who is the real reason for the apostle’s success), and to counter some of our flimsy excuses, we need to have a more realistic view of Paul. The purpose of this article is not to take anything away from the apostle that is his due but simply to dispel some of the mistaken ideas about him.
Paul the “Theological Genius” is a Myth
     Is it legitimate to speak of “Pauline theology” as though the apostle developed his own doctrine and his own brand of Christianity? What does Paul himself say? “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). The message that Paul preached was something he himself had “received” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3), and the directives he recorded were ultimately “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37).      
     Whether or not Paul was highly intelligent, talented or creative is beside the point. Everything he believed, taught, and stood for did not originate with him. It all came from a much higher source. Rather than promoting anything about himself, he hid behind the message of a crucified and risen Savior. How, then, do I imitate Paul in this regard? “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God . . .” (1 Peter 4:11).
Paul the “Fearless Warrior” is a Myth
     Is it realistic to think of Paul as a man without apprehensions, trepidations, or fears? If so, it makes it much more difficult for most of us to imitate him. But is this what the apostle was really like? During their first missionary tour, Barnabas and Paul were working in areas familiar to them, namely Cyprus and Southern Galatia (Acts 13–14). On the second tour it seems that again Paul was wanting to stay fairly close to home, namely in Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7). However, the Lord wanted him to go even further a field (Acts 16:9-10). While Paul obeyed this missionary call, it was anything but easy for him.
     In Achaia the Lord reassured him: “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent: for I am with you . . .” (Acts 18:9-10). Paul later admitted to the Corinthians, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). He also wrote, “when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears” (2 Corinthians 7:5). Apparently the apostle Paul was just as human as the rest of us!
     Simply based on the information available to us, there does not appear to have been anything all that remarkable about Paul as a man. Both his bodily presence and his speech were considered unimpressive (2 Corinthians 10:10). A second-century description of him portrays him as a man of small stature, with a bald head, hooked nose and crooked legs (Acts of Paul and Thecla 1.4-7). Considering the extreme maltreatment he endured through the years (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28), it is not surprising that his body bore visible scars (Galatians 6:17). On top of all that, it has been suggested that what he describes as his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) may have been some physical malady that he struggled with for most of his life.
     If Paul were such a pitiful and unimpressive specimen of humanity, how does one explain his phenomenal success as a missionary? First and foremost, credit must be given to the mighty working of God (1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 15:10). Secondly, one cannot discount the invaluable assistance of Paul’s co-workers (Acts 20:4; etc.). But as far as Paul himself is concerned, what made the difference in his life was a convicted heart and the burden he carried for a lost world (1 Corinthians 9:16). No matter how untalented, inadequate, or fearful you might feel, if your heart is convicted by the message of Christ, you will be compelled to step out in faith and allow God to powerfully accomplish his will despite your imperfections.
Paul the “Individualist” is a Myth
     The lone maverick and solo missionary are not the images of Paul we get from the New Testament. Of the thirteen letters bearing Paul’s name, only five begin with his name alone (each for a special reason). However, the normal practice was to include references to co-senders: Sosthenes (1 Corinthians), Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), “all the brothers with me” (Galatians), Silvanus and Timothy (1, 2 Thessalonians). In addition, there are numerous co-workers mentioned in the body of Paul’s letters as well as those who send greetings at the end. The apostle was anything but a loner.
     On his first journey he worked in partnership with Barnabas and for a time with John Mark (Acts 13–14). On the second expedition he labored with Silas, Timothy, Luke, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 16–18). On the third tour at least ten companions are mentioned in the biblical record (Acts 19–20). Of course the chief partner in Paul’s lifelong ministry was the Lord himself (cf. Acts 14:27; 15:4; 21:19; 1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
     Paul the so-called “theological genius,” “fearless warrior,” and “individualist” are myths that have no basis in scripture. The apostle did not give an impossible directive when he said, “Imitate me.” To truly imitate Paul, as he imitated Christ, we must: (1) hide behind the message of a crucified and risen Savior; (2) step out in faith, confront our fears, and do what the Lord has commissioned us to do; and (3) understand that we are called upon to work within a community, in partnership with one another and ultimately with God.
–Kevin L. Moore

Originally appearing in The Voice of Truth International (58:97-99) and republished in The Summit Chronicle 11:1 (June 2008): 3, 6, 9. 

Image credit:

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Church of the New Testament

     In the English Bible the word “church”1 is translated from the Greek ekklēsia, a combination of the preposition ek (“out of”) and a derivative of the verb kaleō (to “call”). In secular Greek the term was used to describe an assembly of persons who had been called out (of their homes) or summoned together by a public herald (cf. Acts 19:39; Josephus, Ant. 12.164; 19.332). Many dispute the “called out” connotation of ekklēsia in the New Testament and insist that “assembly” or “gathering” is the sole meaning.2 But let us not be too hasty to climb aboard the scholarly bandwagon. While etymology does not necessarily determine a word’s practical sense, to exclude it from the conversation is to miss out on helpful information about language development and usage.
     We acknowledge that the term ekklēsia is not inherently endowed with spiritual significance and can readily apply to any gathering of people, whether secular (Acts 19:32) or religious (1 Corinthians 14:23). However, we must not overlook the concept of word play in the New Testament and the fact that certain expressions did acquire special meaning within the context of the Christian movement.
     Note, in particular, the interplay and high concentration of the kaleō word group in the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul is a “called” [klētos] apostle (1:1), and the Corinthians are “called” [klētos] to be saints (1:2) and counted among those who are “called” [klētos] (1:24). The letter is addressed to the ekklēsia (lit. “called out”) at Corinth (1:2), in relation to all who “call on” [epikaleomai] the name of Jesus Christ (1:2). They were “called” [kaleō] (1:9; cf. 7:15-24) and should consider their “calling” [klēsis] (1:26; cf. 7:20). Is there a theological connection here? Although lost in English translation, the original Greek readers would surely have noticed the repetition and etymological composition of these words and recognized them as belonging to the same word group.
     There are numerous occurrences of ekklēsia in the New Testament where the idea of “assembly” or “gathering” is just too restrictive (cf. Matthew 16:18; Acts 8:1, 3; 12:1; 15:3; 1 Corinthians 10:32; 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 25, 29, 32; Philippians 3:6; Colossians 1:18, 24; 1 Timothy 3:15). Moreover, when a prepositional phrase like “of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16) or “of Christ” (Romans 16:16) or “of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:22) is appended, the expression has a special Christian flavoring that is clearly distinguished from customary usage (cf. BAGD 240-41). While the idea of assembling cannot be discounted, neither can it be regarded as the word’s exclusive function. God’s universal ekklēsia does not and cannot assemble together, and God’s local ekklēsia does not cease to exist in between corporate meetings.
     Paul employs the word ekklēsia to designate the recipients of five of his epistles,3 whereas four are addressed to hagioi (“saints” or “set-apart ones”).4 Although the former alludes to the collectivity of individuals and the latter references the individuals themselves, for all practical purposes the Lord’s ekklēsia is inseparable from the Lord’s hagioi (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 14:22; 2 Corinthians 1:1). This further underscores the unique function in the New Testament of otherwise conventional terminology and the distinctiveness of God's people.
     The fact remains that Christians (who comprise the ekklēsia of Christ) have been called out of the world of darkness into the community of the saved (Acts 2:39, 47; Ephesians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; etc.). The word ekklēsia, all by itself, has no theological implications, but the way in which it is consistently used in the New Testament certainly does.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 The English word “church” can be traced back to the Greek kurios (“Lord”). The adjective kuriakos (“of the Lord”) was used in the phrase “house of the Lord,” which led to its application as a noun, kurikon. The medieval Greek form kurkon (“house of worship”) was borrowed into West Germanic as kirika, eventually producing the German kirche and the English “church” (J. Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins 113-14).
     2 See Rob Redden, “Ekklesia and Etymology,” Gospel Advocate 152 (April 2010): 30; also Nicholas McDonald, “7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study,” <link>; contra Wayne Jackson’s “Ekklesia Revisited,” <link>.
     3 The Corinthian and Thessalonian letters and Galatians. In the LXX the term ekklēsia is regularly used to translate qahal in reference to the assembly of the Israelites, especially when gathered for religious purposes (Deuteronomy 31:30; Judges 20:2; cf. Hebrews 2:12; Acts 7:38; Josephus, Ant. 4.309). Gordon Fee suggests that the word was ready-made for the Christian communities because “Paul saw the church not only as in continuity with the old covenant people of God, but as in the true succession of that people” (First Corinthians 31-32; cf. Paul, the Spirit 65).
     4 Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. This terminology may have been drawn from Israel’s description as a “holy people” (e.g. Exodus 19:6; Psalm 16:3; 34:9; 74:3; Isaiah 4:3; Daniel 7:18, 21-22), perhaps indicating Paul’s belief in the continuity between the “saints” of Israel in the past and the Christian “saints” (cf. J. Dunn, Theology of Paul 44 n. 90, 330, 502, 708).

Related PostsThe Kingdom of God Part 3

Image credit:

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Part 2)

Literary Integrity of Philippians
     A number of scholars regard Philippians as a collection of two or three separate letters.1 In some places there is an awkward break in the sense, e.g. 2:19; 3:1-2; 4:9-10. Epaphroditus is reported to be very ill in 2:25-30 but not in 4:18. The attack on false teachers in 3:2-4 is unexpected and does not fit into the positive thrust of other parts of the letter. Appropriate endings are discernable at 4:1-9, 20-23, indicative of separate missives. Polycarp (Phil. 3.2) made reference to “letters” (plural) that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and distinct writings have since been identified as (a) 4:10-20; (b) 1:1–3:1; 4:4-7, 21-23; and (c) 3:2–4:3, 8-9. Nevertheless, how and why these hypothetical letters came to be joined together in the present form of Philippians is inexplicable.
     Seemingly awkward breaks are not unusual in a dictated letter from someone like Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17–5:1; 5:13–6:1; 8:13–9:1; 16:12-13; 2 Cor. 9:15–10:1; Gal. 5:15-16; 6:10-11; et al.). It was not necessary to refer to Epaphroditus’ illness every time his name was mentioned, and the letter could have been written over an extended period of time. Varied topics and tones are not uncommon in Paul’s writings (cf. 1-2 Corinthians). The apparent conflict between Eudia and Syntyche (4:2-3) shows that even in Philippi there were negative situations to face. Discerning potential endings does not mean that they were intended to be endings, and even if they were, Paul may very well have decided to say more after these words were penned. While 1 Cor. 4:16-21 may sound like an ending, it certainly does not conclude the letter in which it is written!  
     While Polycarp is not an infallible source, assuming the observation above is true and has been accurately transmitted (cf. Phil. 3:1), Paul wrote letters that are no longer extant (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16),2 but this does not suggest that any were combined to form a single document. The various compilation theories, while interesting to consider, are less than convincing and offer no rational explanation for the letter’s current form. There is no legitimate reason to regard Philippians as anything but a literary unity.3
     The ancient document we call “Philippians,” addressed to a group of first-century Macedonian Christians, has remained especially relevant and practical to all who have encountered it through the centuries, even to this very day. “Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are right, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovable, and whatever things are commendable, if there is anything virtuous and praiseworthy, reflect on these things” (Phil. 4:8).4
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Among those who view Philippians as a collection of up to three letters are C. J. Pfeifer, “Three Letters” 363-68; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Letter-Writer 8, 32; B. D. Rahtjen, “Three Letters” 167-73; P. Sellew, “Fragments Hypothesis” 17-28; “Revisited” 327-29; and J. Veitch, Origins 123-28, 193-204. For a concise overview of the discussion, see E. D. Freed, Introduction 300-301; D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and L. Morris, An Introduction to the NT 325-26; L. A. Jervis, Purpose 65-68; R. E. Brown Introduction to the NT 496-98; cf. L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 189-94.
     2 See The Missing Letters of Paul.
     3 Those who argue in favor of the letter’s integrity include M. Bockmuehl, Philippians 20-25; F. F. Bruce, Philippians 16-19; W. J. Dalton, “Integrity” 97-102; G. D. Fee, Philippians 21-23; H. Gamble, Textual History 145-46; D. Garland, “Composition” 141-73; K. Grayston, Letters 1-4; G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians xxix-xxxii; W. Hendrikson, Philippians 31-37; P. Holloway, “Apocryphal” 321-25; T. E. Pollard, “Integrity” 57-66; R. Russell, “Pauline” 295-306; M. Silva, Philippians 14-16; R. C. Swift, “Theme” 234-54; and D. F. Watson, “Rhetorical Analysis” 57-88.
     4 Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

Image credit: