A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

“At the heart of Paul‘s message in the letter is his appeal to the Philippians to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), which we must read in light of his depiction of himself as being in humble and humiliating circumstances. He opens the letter by noting that he and his co-worker Timothy are ‘slaves’ of Christ, then points out that he is also a prisoner. Thus, Paul’s basis for his assurance is not arrogance or a feeling of success. Rather, his confidence emerges from the fact that in his own situation, God has used what seems to be a bad situation for a greater purpose: although Paul is in prison, the gospel has spread (Philippians 1:12-14); although some preach from impure motives, Christ is still proclaimed (1:15-18); although death seems preferable, life is necessary, but Christ is honored in either case (1:19-26). What seems to be a lowly and dangerous situation Paul upholds as an experience to be used for the greater glory of God. Paul intentionally interprets as positive circumstances that seem to indicated a loss of status: imprisonment, dissension with others, the threat of death. He reaffirms his role in God’s greater purpose in order to underscore his own character, which allows him to speak to the Philippians as he does.

He calls them to be like him- not to aspire to greatness, but rather to unity (humility) and service (Philippians 2:1-14). Instead of competing for honor, he directs them to pursue a vision that continues and strengthens a value that already exists in the community: mutuality.”  (Richard S. Ascough, Passionate Visionary, p. 38)


The Promise Not Through the Law

In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 4:13-27, he writes:
5512468731_22bbe5a554_mFor the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.  For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.  Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.  (Revised Standard Version)
The Revised English Bible translates 4:13 as:
“It was not through the law that Abraham and his descendants were given the promise that the world should be their inheritance, but through righteousness that came with faith.”
St. Paul’s point is clear – his reading of the Torah is that God didn’t make His promise to the Jews through Moses, after giving Moses the Law.  It was not through the Law, or in relationship to it, that God would fulfill His promise or that the Jews would inherit the world.  The promise was given long before the commandments were given to Moses.  The promise was given to Abraham and required a response of faith/faithfulness.  As St. Paul reads the Torah, the promise of God to inherit the world ultimately is a promise about the Messiah and His eternal Kingdom.  The point is clear that the promise of God, namely the Messiah, does not come through faithful adherence to the Law.  The promise is given to those who respond in faith, for it is those who live by faith who are truly God’s people and the inheritors of God’s promise.
Those who continue to try to conform to some law, whether Torah or Christian tradition, are still trying to live by adherence to the law rather than by faith – they are following Moses rather than Abraham, and for St. Paul Christ is faithful like Abraham, not a law giver like Moses.

Celebrating the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul

Celebrating the Feast of the Holy Glorious Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29 is an ancient practice of the Church.  It was already celebrated in the Pre-Constantinian Church.  As such it actually predates some of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Church.

“This feast was instituted by Sixtus II (Pope from 257 to 258) on 29 June of 258, when the relics of these two great apostles were translated to the catacomb of St. Sebastian in Rome. The Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the day is Matt. 16:13-19: St. Peter’s confession of Christ at Caesarea Philippi.” (footnote, Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p 584)


In the modern world, some scholars who reinterpret Christian history in order to discredit some of the theological claims of the Church, try to portray some of the theology of St. Paul as late developments in Christian thinking.  They discredit St. Paul, claiming he invented a Christianity that didn’t exist prior to his teaching, and that it was Paul and his followers who turn Jesus from a messianic rabbi into the incarnate God.  NEW YORK TIMES columnist Ross Douthat points out that history itself does not support this revisionist version of understanding Christianity.

“In other words, the popular revisionist conceit that the early Christians initially meditated on Jesus’ sayings and only gradually mythologized their way toward the idea of his divinity finds no support whatsoever in the oldest surviving stratum of Christian writing. As Adam Gopnik, no believer himself, put it in a New Yorker essay: ‘If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship … it’s that Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope…Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief.’” ( Bad Religion, p 165)

St. Paul doesn’t invent Christianity or distort it as some Muslims claim, as do some modern liberal biblical scholars.  St. Paul received a tradition and proclaimed it to the world, while the other Apostles were still alive.  There was opportunity for them to quash his teachings, but instead the Church embraced Paul and recognized him as one of the glorious leaders of the Apostles.  Paul didn’t change the theology or the message, he just proclaimed it more loudly and to new people.

St. Paul the Apostle and the Gospel

As our parish community celebrates its heavenly Patron, St. Paul the Apostle, here are two quotes with some thoughts about St. Paul.   First biblical scholar Peter Ellis notes that St. Paul’s faith deepened with experience.  The original Twelve Apostles didn’t like Jesus discussing his own death, but wanted to sit at His right hand in His triumph.  They learned that Christ’s death and triumph were the same event, and they were called to share in it!  So too St. Paul had his own lesson about this to learn.

“Paul’s close brush with death at Ephesus, reflected in Phil. 1:12-26 and 2 Cor. 1:8-11, had a double effect on him: it made him realize that he might not be alive for the Parousia and that following Christ meant more than sharing in his victory – it also means sharing in his sufferings and death. This latter realization was the more significant. It led Paul to a more profound conception of Christian existence and its relationship to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Growth in Christ meant sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” (Seven Pauline Letters, p 7)

As St. Paul himself wrote about this in Romans 6:3-11:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright points out that St. Paul is consistent in all his thinking about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

“According to Paul’s view of creation, the one God was responsible for the whole world and would one day put it to rights. According to his covenant theology, this God would rescue his people from pagan oppression. His messianic theology hailed Jesus as King, Lord and Savior, the one at whose name every knee would bow. His apocalyptic theology saw God unveiling his own saving justice in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. At every point, therefore, we should expect what we in fact find: that, for Paul, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” (Paul, p 69)

St. Paul: Pray to God for Us




The above hymns in praise of St. Paul are from the Matins hymns for the feast of Sts Peter and Paul (June 29).

A joyous feast of the Holy, Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, especially for all of those parishes which celebrate their patronal feast today and to all those who bear the names of Peter and Paul or have  either of them as your patron saint.  May God grant you many years!

St. Paul, Enlightener of the Nations

The Orthodox Church honors the memory of the the Holy Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul on June 29 of each year.  This also is the patronal feast of our parish, St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church, Dayton, Ohio.   You can read an excerpt from a sermon St. John Chrysostom gave around 400AD, In Praise of St. Paul.   Here is an Orthodox hymn honoring St. Paul:

O Blessed and Holy Paul the Apostle,

Enlightener of the Nations;

Your preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,

has brought salvation to the ends of the earth.

Never cease to intercede for us your children,

that within us the Love of God may abide,

bringing great joy to our neighbors

and for us the salvation of our souls!

New Testament scholar Morna D. Hooker writes concerning St. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the Damascus road which resulted in his becoming a disciple of the Lord, His apostle:

“The argument of Romans is in many ways similar to the one Paul used in his earlier letter to the Galatians. Unusually there, however, in Galatians 1:15, Paul refers to his conversion/call. He describes it in this way: God ‘was pleased…to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles’. Here too, therefore, as in Romans, Paul begins his argument from the reminder that the gospel is about God’s Son. Because what we know as Paul’s experience on the Damascus road is normally thought of as a conversion, rather than as a call, Paul’s account of what it pleased God to do is normally translated as ‘to reveal his Son to me’. Translators assume that Paul is referring to his vision of the Risen Christ. But the Greek preposition en, which is used here, means primarily ‘in’ or ‘by, rather than ‘to’, and perhaps that is what he meant! If so, then, it would seem that he is thinking, not simply of what God revealed to him , but of what God was to reveal in him – both by means of the message that he was to preach to the Gentiles and, just as important, through his manner of life as a Christian. In other words, God chose to reveal his Son to the Gentiles, not only in the gospel Paul proclaimed but also in what he himself became at this conversion – an adopted son of God, whose way of life was being conformed, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to become like the Son of God himself (Rom. 8:15,9, 29). What Paul understood by ‘the gospel of God’ was not simply something to be proclaimed, but something to be lived. The message of that gospel – love for others, and life through death – is, as it were, stamped upon him.”   (Paul: A Beginners Guide, p 61)

Biblical scholar Michael J. Gorman says of St. Paul’s theology:

“There is no completely neat, clean way to divide up the various dimensions of Paul’s spirituality, because they are all intimately interrelated. Our discussion follows a Trinitarian structure because the God Paul experiences is, so to speak, ‘multidimensional’ – known as Father, Son, and Spirit. The distinctive character of Paul’s spirituality is that it is covenantal (in relation to God the Father, the God of Israel), cruciform (shaped in accord with the cross of Christ), charismatic (empowered by the Spirit), communal (lived out in the company of other believers), and therefore countercultural (formed in contrast to the dominant socio-political values of the pagan Hellenistic world). Furthermore, since Paul’s experience of God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit in the countercultural community, takes place within the larger work of the creator God redeeming the entire creation, his spirituality is also a creational, or better, newcreational, spirituality (experienced as part of God’s reconciliation of the cosmos to himself). Finally, this spirituality, like Paul’s gospel, letters, and (as we will see in chap. 6) theology, has a narrative shape to it. Paul and his churches are called to tell a story with their individual and corporate lives, a story of self-giving faith, hope, and love as the means to embody the story of God renewing covenant and redeeming the world through the crucified Christ.”  (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg. 116)

The Gospel According to St. Paul

“In 1 Cor. 15:1-3 Paul acknowledges that the central themes of the gospel he had passed on to the Corinthians were transmitted to him by his Christian predecessors: ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ In verse 1 Paul uses the noun ‘gospel’ and the verb ‘to proclaim good news’ together […]In verse 2 Paul uses two verbs for the transmission and reception of the gospel […] which recall the semi-technical terminology  used for the careful transmission of teaching from one generation of Jewish teachers to another. The gospel which the Corinthians had received from Paul is the very gospel which he in turn had received from his Christian predecessors. The content of that gospel is set out in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 in a series of short statements […]

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

that he was buried, and

that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and

that he appeared to Cephas, and then to twelve.”

(Graham N. Stanton in The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, pg. 174)

St. Paul’s Conversion

In the New Testament we find a couple accounts of the Lord Jesus Christ’s calling St. Paul to become His servant.   The accounts do not match perfectly in detail, but give us some idea how St. Paul understood his conversion from persecuting Christians to becoming an apostle of Christ, and also how St. Paul’s supporters understood his being called by Christ.  First, we have a description from St. Paul himself which he recorded in his letter to the Galatians.

“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.  Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.  (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)  Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea;  they only heard it said, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’  And they glorified God because of me.”  (Galatians 1:13-24)

St. Luke the Evangelist is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and he was a companion and supporter of St. Paul.   He offers his own description of St. Paul’s calling.  It is from St. Luke that we learn the famous details of Paul’s conversion.  Paul offers no description or details about his encounter with Christ in his letter to the Galatians.  Modern biblical scholars point out that in Acts, Luke is the narrator, and the story of St. Paul’s conversion though being related by St. Paul himself are still Luke’s words and version of the story.  They tend to think Paul’s words in Galatians are to be considered more first hand then what St. Luke claims Paul said.    In Acts, St. Luke has St. Paul describing his conversion from persecutor of Christ to apostle of Christ in these words:

“As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’  And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.  And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,  came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him.  And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth;  for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.'”  (Acts 22:6-16)

St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) who served as the Pope of Rome for the last 14 years of his life, wrote about St. Paul’s conversion.

“Thus it is that Saul, when the bright light from heaven came upon him, did not hear immediately what good it was that he should do, but first heard what he had done wrong.  For as he was lying prostrate, he asked, saying: ‘Who are you, Lord?’  Immediately, he replied: ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’  And when Saul quickly added: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’  It was immediately related:  ‘Arise, go to the city, and it will be revealed to you what you are to do.’  Behold, the Lord, speaking from heaven, reproved the deeds of his persecutor and yet did not immediately instruct him about what he should do.  Behold, the core of his pride had been dismantled, and then, being humbled after his ruin, he sought to be built up again.  And when his pride had been destroyed, even then the words of edification were withheld so that the cruel persecutor might remain humbled for a long time and only afterwards might he be rebuilt firmly in goodness, when he had become transformed in proportion to the change from his former error.  Therefore, those who have not yet begun to do good works should first be overthrown from the stubbornness of their evil deeds by the hand of correction, so that they may rise afterwards to the state of righteousness.”   (THE BOOK OF PASTORAL RULE, p 196)

St. Gregory reads the narrative of St. Paul’s conversion to be an example for others to follow: we must overthrow pride in our hearts in order to be corrected and healed of our stubbornness and sinfulness by God.  St. Paul’s conversion is a story teaching us the importance of humility in our spiritual sojourn.  We find this same interpretation of the importance of St. Paul’s conversion in the 4th Century writer St. Ephraim the Syrian :

“Thus the heavenly King arrayed Himself in armour of humility, and so conquered the bitter one, and drew from him a good answer as a sure pledge [of victory]. This is the armour concerning which Paul said, that by it we humble the loftiness that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God. For Paul had received the proof of it in himself. For as he had been warring in pride, but was conquered in humility, so is to be conquered every lofty thing which exalteth itself against this humility. For Saul was journeying to subdue the disciples with hard words, but the Master of the disciples subdued him with a humble word. For when He to whom all things are possible manifested Himself to him, giving up all things else, He spoke to him in humility alone, that He might teach us that a soft tongue is more effectual than all things else against hard thoughts. For neither threats nor words of terror were heard by Paul, but weak words not able to avenge themselves: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? But the words which were thought not even capable of avenging themselves, were found to be taking vengeance by drawing him away from the Jews and making him a goodly vessel.” (Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc. 4704-12)

For St. Ephrem, it is humility which brings about change in St. Paul – the humility of God!  For though Saul was going forth with threats and murder in mind (Acts 9:1) against the Christians, God appears humbly to Saul and never threatens him, but rather speaks to Saul peaceably.  The Lord sees Saul as threatening not the Christians but Himself.  St. Ephrem says it is God’s humility and soft words which lead to conversion and are far more effective against pride and hardness of heart than all forms of threats of punishment.

On this the feast of St. Peter and Paul, we Christians should contemplate God’s own method in bringing about the conversion of St. Paul.   Threats of hell and damnation would best be replaced by our humility and good words to proclaim the Good News.  The Lord asks Saul, “why do you persecute me?”, but never threatens Saul with retribution, retaliation, persecution, terror or punishment.  The humility of our God, His love for humankind is beyond measure.  It is with humility and love (the incarnation!) that God endeavors to convert the hard of heart.  We are to imitate Christ our Lord as we go into the world to proclaim the Good News of salvation.

To all my fellow members of St. Paul parish in Dayton, I wish you a joyous patronal feast day.   Holy Apostle Paul, pray to God for us!

The Faith of Jesus Christ

The righteous shall live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)

I am no expert in New Testament Greek, and write this blog more as a question than a statement.

Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:37-38), which gives some indication that it was an important Scriptural passage to the earliest Christian community and its understanding of Jesus as Christ.

Following the Protestant Reformation the passage was particularly linked with ideas pitting justification by faith against a “works righteousness” but I think in the modern American Evangelical mind it probably has as much to do with confirming individualism and individual faith.

But I was intrigued by the comments of Professor Gary Rendsburg in his lectures in The Great Courses on THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS on Habakkuk 2:4.  In Lecture 9, Rendsburg discusses Pesher Habakkuk which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and belongs to the Qumran community’s understanding of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk was originally written about 610BCE.  Rendsburg says the original meaning of the text is pretty simple and straightforward:  “… the righteous person shall prosper by his own faith in  God.”

Dead Sea Scroll Pesher Habakkuk

The Pesher method of interpretation assumed that God was speaking not so much to the original audience, but prophetically.  Jews preserved the statement through the centuries without knowing what the text fully meant.  But then in the Qumran community, the text was understood as speaking directly to them in their current condition.  It was they, the Qumran community, who were the intended audience by God, and they finally and fully understood the meaning of the prophecy of Habakkuk 2:4.  The Pesher Habakkuk text interprets the text to refer to their leader, “the Teacher of Righteousness.”  Faith is directed through “the Teacher” to God.    It is as much the proper faith of the Teacher which is important as is the faith of those in the community of Qumran believers in their Teacher.

Rendsburg sees the New Testament writers as doing a very similar thing – the first Christians use the same text to refer to Christ that the Qumran community uses to refer to the Teacher of Righteousness.  It is the faith and faithfulness of Christ which is foremost.  Christians receive God’s promises through the faith of Christ, through Christ’s faithfulness and obedience to His Father.  Faith is to be directed through a single individual in Christianity (namely, Jesus Christ) as in the Qumran community (their Teacher of Righteousness).  This is a very different reading of the Habakkuk text than using it as referring to personal faith as one’s way to salvation.  It is Christ’s faith which is essential, and we by becoming one with Him, by becoming part of the Body of Christ, share in His faith and the blessings this brings from His Father.

Now the part of this blog that is my own question about understanding St. Paul.  St. Paul frequently uses the phrases in Greek “pisteos Christou” or “pisteos Iesou” which get translated into English as “faith in Christ” (see the RSV, Romans 3:22, 26  and Galatians 2:16 for examples).   But it appears to me the text is literally and actually speaking about the “faith of Christ” which would be the more natural translation of St. Paul’s phrases.  This would certainly put St. Paul’s understanding of Habakkuk 2:4 very much in line with the Qumran Pesher Habakkuk interpretation.  It is the faith of the one individual, Jesus Christ which is essential for the salvation of us all.  This seems to be St. Paul’s thrust, rather than talking about the faith each Christian places in Christ.   It is not an individualistic reading of faith, but a communal understanding of sharing in the faith of the Savior.   We place our faith in God through Jesus Christ whose own faith is ultimately the righteousness we need to become God’s children.  It is not through our personal faith in Christ that we prosper, but rather by being united to Christ we receive His righteousness which is His because of His faith and faithfulness to His Father.

It is perhaps the case (this is my question, conjecture) that our English New Testaments need to stick more closely to St. Paul’s phraseology and speak about the “faith of Christ” more than our faith in Christ.  This understanding would be more faithful to what some Jews, both those who believed in Jesus and those who looked to a different “Teacher”, understood about Habakkuk’s prophecy.  The faith of Jesus Christ becomes central to our salvation and is perhaps closer to what First Century Christians meant when they spoke of the pisteos Christou, the faith of Christ.

Go back and read the texts of Paul and replace the usual translation of “faith in Christ” with the “faith of Christ” and see how that changes the tenor of the text, and perhaps gets us back past the needs of the Reformation and to the mind of St. Paul.

See: The Faith of Jesus Christ (II)

Holy Paul, Apostle to the Nations

On June 29 each year the Church celebrates the memory of the Holy Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul.  It is also our Patronal Feast Day for St. Paul the Apostle Church in Dayton, OH.

“Paul’s experience, however, was more than a conversion; it was also a prophetic call and a commission. Paul deliberately recounts the event with echoes of the call narratives of the prophets, especially Jeremiah (Gal. 1:15, see Jer. 1:5, cf. Isa. 49:5). Like the prophets, Paul believed that God had called him to a specific task. His was to preach the good news of Jesus especially among the Gentiles – the very ones whose inclusion had stirred him to violence.

The primary title associated with this commission is ‘apostle,’ someone sent with the authority of the sender, a kind of ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20). The apostolic title appears in the first verse of nine of the thirteen Pauline letters. When Paul speaks or writes, people listen – or at least he expects them to do so. But Paul had to struggle to prove his apostolic office. He had been a persecutor, so he was suspect for years. Furthermore, he refused financial support from those he evangelized, which was probably seen as disobedience to Jesus (Luke 10:7) and contrary to normal apostolic practice (1 Cor. 9:3-14). So too, perhaps, was his singleness (1 Cor. 7:7; 9:5). Beyond that, he was not a very ‘charismatic’ speaker (2 Cor. 10:10). When he exerted his apostolic authority in absentia (1 Cor. 5:3-5), or threatened to come as a disciplining father (1 Cor. 4:14-21), he may not have appreciated as God’s envoy. But ‘apostle’ did not mean ‘bully’ or even primarily ‘authority figure.’ It meant ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘pastor’, ‘example’, and especially ‘Christ-bearer.’” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pgs. 16-17)