[Texts: Paul’s letters and speeches]
In a previous post I shared some of the fruit of a year-long study with friends in which we read the NT books in chronological order. As I went along in my perusal of the Epistles, I gathered answers to the question, “Who is Jesus in this letter?” This resulted in a chart of Paul’s collective teachings on Jesus, which can be accessed here. Earlier I surveyed who Jesus is across time; now I’ll take a look at some of Paul’s major themes as he teaches about the Savior.
What does Paul spend the most verses talking about, across all of his letters and his speeches in Acts? Any guesses? Three categories stand out to me as the fullest sections on my chart: Redemptive History, Forensics, and words about the Commander-in-Chief and His Troops. So, speaking broadly, Paul was apparently most concerned to communicate Jesus’ historical significance, the judicial aspects of our salvation in Christ, and the duties and experiences of the soldiers of this Kingdom. Let me dive a little more deeply into the details of each of these subjects.
Paul conceives of Redemptive History in its full sweep, from past through present to future, and emphasizes always the accompanying revelation that makes sense of it all. Jesus is the Long-Expected One, and Paul seems to delight in connecting the dots in Scripture and in human history to show that this is so. Much of his apologetic speech to Jews in Acts is concerned with how Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy, especially regarding the identity of the anticipated Christos. Though his letters to the churches no longer have this evangelistic purpose, Paul cannot seem to help mentioning Jesus’ historical connections; to him, they are part and parcel of Jesus’ identity and role as Savior.
Among the many details of Redemptive History, two receive special emphasis when Paul speaks or writes about his Lord. First there are all the ways that Jesus fulfills prophecies and promises, types and signs that have appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. He emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David’s line and Abraham’s family, showing how he fulfills “the promises to the patriarchs”; regarding Moses and the Law, Paul makes much of Jesus’ substantial embodiment of past “shadows” and hints, from the Passover lamb to the identity-marker of circumcision to the special Jewish holidays.
The second detail of Redemptive History that receives the most attention is the anticipation of Jesus’ return from heaven—a future event that has bearing on Paul’s (and our) present. Again and again, Paul casts the behavior and hope of the church in terms of, and in light of, the expected reappearance of the Savior. His “coming,” as Paul typically puts it, is as certain an event as his entrance into human history in the first place, and as certain as the suffering, death, and resurrection that form the foundation of our confession. In his desire to persuade Christians to suffer faithfully, Paul continually returns to this certainty. It is notable, by the way, that with one exception* he does not mention the Second Coming in his speeches in Acts: it seems that this information is most relevant to Christians who need reasons and reminders to persevere, but not yet to potential converts.
Forensics, or the judicial aspects of our salvation, comprises another major category of thought in Paul’s writings and speeches. This theological topic is probably what usually comes to mind first when we think of what Paul had to say to the church, and with good reason. Although not any more prevalent than the other two subject areas discussed here, Paul’s reasoning and teaching on forgiveness, judgment, law and faith, sin, salvation, and justification (to name just a few prominent terms!) certainly stand out as deeply important to him.
While there has historically been much debate over the exact meaning of some of Paul’s terms (especially justification), there is no question that he sees salvation in Christ Jesus as intricately bound to questions of sin and righteousness, wrath and favor. The news in Christ is always good for those who have accepted him: there is true and ultimate rescue in this Savior, a gift of innocence in place of guilt. There are also wrong ways to go about solving the problem of our standing before the Judge of all—errors that have persisted since ancient times, and that still threaten to undermine the message of Paul’s gospel.
Finally, we could probably say that the relationship between a living and powerful Commander-in-Chief and His Troops is the topic at the forefront of Paul’s thoughts in his letters. His own experience and that of his friends give Paul real-time illustrations of what it means to serve the Lord, and his explanations and exhortations provide a verbal framework for the embodiment of life as “good soldiers of Christ Jesus.” Courage, perseverance, kindness, responsibility, generosity, and faithfulness to the delivered message of the Kingdom are qualities constantly reinforced in Paul’s epistles. If you read through this section of the chart I created, I think you’ll get a sense of the nobility of our calling in Christ—something lovely to reach for, something worthy to strive after. Paul’s many words still urge us on towards the finish line, so many centuries later.
*The one exception is a mention in Acts 17 (in the Areopagus at Athens) of a resurrected man who will one day judge the world on God’s behalf.
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