Why It’s Stupid to Pit Paul Against Jesus
The debates among scholars are endless. One of the more prominent debates over the last few decades has been over whether the apostle Paul understood the Christian faith the same way Jesus did. It is suggested by some that the content of Paul’s epistles show that he formed a different picture of what Jesus came to accomplish than what Christ himself pictured. Jesus, it appears, was all about the kingdom of God. He spoke of restoring God’s kingdom to earth, of serving the poor, and making love the central goal in life. Paul, on the other hand, seems obsessed with sin and the concept of justification by faith. Think of it something like this: Jesus is mainly about the here and now, creating people who reflect God’s values of justice, care for the oppressed, and loving community. Paul, however, is mainly about the afterlife, believing in Jesus as your free ticket to heaven, fearing eternal damnation, and nit-picking over details of sin.
It gets even more complicated than that. I have heard people pit Paul against the apostle John, saying that what we need more of in this day is less of Paul’s hellfire and brimstone and more of John’s message of love. And not that long ago I heard someone pitting Luke against Paul, saying that while Paul seems bent on highlighting the Christian faith as mainly about deliverance from sin and hell, the book of Acts (written by Luke) contains the earliest sermons of the church, which hardly mention sin or hell at all but mostly highlight the resurrection of Christ.
While I greatly appreciate that there are men and women far more intelligent than I discussing these matters—and there definitely is value in such conversations—it really isn’t as complicated as it is made out to be. I have a simple observation to make that ought to automatically quell a good half of the debate. Yes, there are still finer points to work out. But there is a base that we ought to be operating from, and this base should give us a significant framework for understanding these issues and help us better come to a common consensus.
What We All Need to Keep In Mind
The thing we need to remember is that these men all knew each other personally. More than that, they approved of each other. Jesus, Paul, John, Luke, and other New Testament contributors were all part of the same network of people who were on a common mission with a common vision. A basic reading of the Bible will bring you to this conclusion.
- Paul was personally commissioned by Jesus to be an apostle and witness for him (Acts 9:1-22).
- Paul met with James (Jesus’ brother, and author of the NT book of James), Peter, and John specifically for the purpose of sharing the content of his theology and preaching, after which all agreed they were on the same team (Galatians 2:1-10).
- Luke was one of Paul’s ministry companions (2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 1:24).
- Peter calls Paul his “beloved brother” and his writings “Scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
- Peter, John, and Matthew were all part of the 12 disciples together, personally trained under Jesus himself (Mark 3:16-19).
All of these men were familiar with one another and fully supported one another—which really is saying something, considering that all of them harshly denounce false teachers and would never consider partnering with one in ministry. Instead, what we see is that they seem to view themselves as brothers in a common faith, an extension of the faith Jesus came to establish.
Wouldn’t it make more sense that if Paul was highjacking the kingdom of God concept that Jesus came to bring, and distorted it into something else, that guys like Peter and John would have been all over it? They were the most immediate bridge between Paul and Jesus. Either one of them could have easily stepped in and said, “Whoa, Paul! You’ve got this all wrong. You’re misrepresenting what Jesus was all about. Listen, we were there before you, man. We heard it straight from his mouth. Let’s sit down and sort this out.” But do you see this at all? No. Instead, you see John and Peter approving of Paul’s message in Galatians 2, calling him a “brother”, and saying that his writings are Scripture.
There’s Stuff to Discuss, But Not Divide Over
I understand that there are themes that sometimes seem hard to reconcile with each other’s teachings, but we should not consider that the solution to those challenges is to assume some kind of disharmony among the New Testament authors. Rather, we should keep in mind that they all seemed to be part of a large network of Christian witness that had a central, unifying theme, while each individual author contributed their own flavour and perspective to that unifying theme. In other words, we should give these guys the benefit of the doubt, that if they were all sitting at a table together discussing theology, they would believe themselves to be sitting amongst brothers and having a good, hearty discussion that in the end would conclude with prayer, laughter, handshakes and hugs.
I believe it is the epitome of arrogance for us “sophisticated” modern elites to look back on the message of the New Testament and begin to sow division where there really is none. Pride is what drives us to think that Jesus would take issue with Paul, or Luke with Paul, or John with Peter, or any combination of the like. The Bible is a harmonized unit, and has been recognized as such by believers for 2,000 years. Yes, it is not without its challenging passages. Yes, there are things that are hard to reconcile. But overall there is no doubt that the Christian faith was clearly understood and passed on by these men, and though it has different emphases from each, there is a central cluster of truths at its core which we need not question, but only recognize, believe, and embrace.