Understanding Paul the Missionary (part one)

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In my next couple posts we will be looking at Paul’s conversion and call. We will also look at what Paul’s mission and methods were.

On the Potter’s Wheel: A Zealous Pharisee

It is vital that we spend some time looking at Phariseism because whatever is said about it will affect what we say about Paul.[1] We can see from the NT witness as well as other texts that Pharisees held considerable influence.[2] Inevitably, Paul was shaped greatly by his Pharisaic training.[3]

Before Paul’s conversion he thought of Jesus in light of Deuteronomy 13:1-5. Jesus claimed to be something He was not thus He deserved to be killed. Paul thought that anyone that followed after Him likewise “shall be put to death” (v. 5). Jesus’ followers were in Paul’s mind saying, “Let us go after other gods” (v. 2).  He took it upon himself to “purge the evil from [the] midst” (v. 5) of God’s people.

He likely thought that Jesus was a false prophet or dreamer like Theudas (Acts 5:36), the Egyptian (Antiquities 20:169-172; Acts 21:38), or Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37). When Paul saw Stephen preaching about Jesus “he realized that the new movement was dangerous as well as blasphemously ridiculous.”[4]

Surely a crucified man could not be the Messiah (Deut. 21:22-23 cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24).[5] Plus, the expectation was a king in the vein of David. A Yehoshu’a that defeats Israel’s enemies not a Yehoshu’a that will be defeated by dying upon a tree. In Paul’s day “Messianic expectation married social discontent. The result was the offspring of anticipation and action.”[6] Not surprisingly many lacked the interpretive key to understand that the Davidic King would also be the Suffering Servant. That key would not come until the Christ Himself revealed it on the Emmaus road (Luke 24). It was not until after Paul received this interpretive key that he knew that Jesus was the true and better Prophet than Moses (Deut. 18:15-22). Jesus had proved Himself by raising from the dead (v. 22). Paul knew that if he did not obey the LORD it would be required of him (v. 19).

Before Paul understood the Kingdom of God was at hand he sought to bring it in with his own hands. He hunted the Crucified One’s followers like animals (Acts 8:1 note διωγμὸς; 22:4 says “to the death;” v. 19 says he even “beat” people), though he likely thought of them as lower than animals. He did all he could to bring havoc on the church (8:2) despite Gamaliel’s advice against such action (Acts 5:34-39; cf. Aboth 4.11). In this Paul acted more in the Shammaites vein than that which he was reared under Gamaliel in the Hillel brand of Pharisaism.[7] 

Pharisaism was very influenced by Nehemiah and the reforms that were sought in that book (cf. esp. chs. Neh. 8-13). For instance, Sabbath keeping was very important for Pharisees, and Nehemiah says that wrath was coming upon Israel because they were profaning the Sabbath (Neh. 13:18) and in general the Law that God had given His people. Thus “the Way’s” (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22 for “the Way”) emphasis on “the Lord’s Day” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10) as opposed to the Sabbath would have also been abhorrent to Pharisaism (Matt. 12:2; Lk. 14:3; Jn. 5:10 cf. Neh. 9:14; 10:31; 13:15-22). It appears that the Pharisees wanted to put into practice the principles laid out especially in Ezra-Nehemiah to bring about a lasting kingdom. The Pharisees like those in Ezra-Nehemiah realized that what had happened to them was a result of their evil deeds and great guilt (Ezra 9:13; Neh. 9:26-27 cf. Deut. 28:15-68; 29:16-28; 31:16-21, 27, 29), and so they covenanted and obligated themselves (cf. Ezra 10:3; Neh. 9:38; 10:29, 32, 35) so that they would stop repeating the cycle of entropy that they were so accustomed to (cf. Neh. 9).[8] They needed the circumcision of the heart, the giving of the Holy Spirit, that only Jesus could bring, though they did not know it (cf. Is. 32:14-16; 44:3; Ezek. 36:26-27; 11:19-20; Jer. 31:33; Joel 2:28; Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:17; Gal. 3:14).

A crucified man from Nazareth did not at first fit Paul’s description of the Messiah,[9] let alone his understanding of monotheism. Paul would have related to Peter when he said, “Far be it from me Lord” that you should suffer (Matt. 16:22 cf. 2 Sam. 7:13, 16; 1 Chron. 17:14; 22:10; Ps. 89:4, 29, 36-37; 110:4; Is. 9:7; Ezek. 37:25). Paul with Peter and many others were looking for the One that would deliverer them from oppression, not be delivered into oppression (see again the confusion of the time in John 12:32-34 cf. 3:14; 8:28). Even Simeon saw “the consolation of Israel” and it was revealed to him by the Spirit that Jesus was the Christ (Luke 2:25-26), yet he would not have thought that “salvation” (v. 30) and glory to Israel (v. 32) would have came through the Messiah being cut off.

Paul needed a sabbatical (cf. Acts 9:19b; Gal. 1:17; approx. AD 33-37) to search the Scriptures before he was willing to say anything like, “Though he was in the form of God…humbled himself” (Phil. 2; approx. AD 62). That was likely too radical of a concept for him. He needed to put what he had heard about Jesus together with his understanding of the sacred Writings. He would find in due course that, as Richard Bauckman has shown, there was room for Jesus in the Divine identity.[10] However, as Paul meditated on the hideousness of crucifixion that Jesus endured, Paul likely saw as Marten Hengel articulates, “This form of execution, more than any other, had associations with the idea of human sacrifice.”[11] Surely he came to see parallels with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Truly Paul echoes Isaiah 53 (cf. esp. v. 11) in 1 Corinthians 5:21.

When Paul believed and understood the resurrection, it had an enlivening effect on him. Of course, as a Pharisee Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8; 24:15) but pre-conversion he did not believe in Jesus the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead. He likely did not even think that the Messiah would die but once again after examining the Scriptures this too was laid out beforehand (cf. Ps. 16:10; Is. 53; Jonah 1:17; the sacrificial system; Matt. 12:40; Luke 24; Acts 13:35-39). Once Paul understood, he proclaimed the enlivening truth (Acts 17:31) even if some ridiculed (v. 32).[12]

Many thought that the Kingdom would come through violence (cf. the Zealots) and others thought it would come through purity (cf. the Halakhah, Pharisees). However, the Kingdom grows through the Word (cf. Mark 4:26-28) and so Paul preached the good news of the Messiah come, and in doing so he was obeying his Lord’s command (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).



[1]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God Vol. 1 in Christian Origins and the Question of God (Fortress Press: MN, 1992), 181.

[2]Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 181.

[3]cf. Ibid., 182. Later Wright says that the Pharisee’s “goals were the honour of Israel’s god, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel” (Ebed., 189). We see from the NT that this begins to come to fruition in Jesus’ angortion of the Kingdom of God yet there is a “not yet” aspect to the Kingdom.

[4]F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame vol. 1 in The Advance of Christianity Through the Centuries F.F. Bruce gen. ed. (Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1958), 83. See also Don N. Howell Jr., “Mission in Paul’s Epistles: Genesis, Pattern, and Dynamics” in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach, 68.

[5]cf. Schreiner, Paul, 75. Truly, “a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms for the Jews” (Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 292). Paul himself was among the rulers that “did not recognize him,” the Messiah, nor what the prophets said regarding Him (Acts 13:27). Yet he later was enlightened to the fact that the Scriptures were fulfilled (v. 27b) when Jesus was condemned, i.e. “cursed,” on a tree (v. 29 see also vv. 30-39).

[6]David P Seemuth, “Mission in the Early Church” in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach, 51.

[7]See John Polhill, Paul and His Letters, 30.

[8]Moses knows that Israel is going to turn away from LORD (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:16-28; 31:16-21, 27, 29), and says that the ultimate curse will be exile however after exile will come covenant renewal and the perfect keeping of the Torah (30:1-10) (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 261). “Covenantal ideas were therefore fundamental to the different movements and currents of thought within second-temple Judaism” (Ibid.). “It was the covenant that drove some to ‘zeal’ for Torah, others to military action, others to monastic-style piety” (Ibid., 262).

[9]Hengel says, “A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish” (Crucifixion, 10) as Paul himself later would say (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). See also Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, 61-62, and esp. 89. Justin Martyr Apology I ch. 13. Also the Alexamenos graffito shows how foolish many thought it was to worship one that had been crucified. The graffiti depicts a Christian worshiping an image of a man on a cross with a donkey head.

[10]See esp. Jesus and the God of Israel, 19. Bauckham gives a few passages where we can see this. Here is a sampling: Is. 57:15 see esp. 9:2-7: “a son… his name will be called… Mighty God” see also Dan. 7:13-14: “one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” [cf. Davidic promises in 2 Sam. 7; 1 Chron. 17]. He also gives Paul’s many LORD texts with Jesus as referent see pp. 186-90. Thus it is likely that Paul’s Christology grew as he reexamined the data in the OT. Later Paul’s preaching, as was Peter and Stephens’, was marked by his exposition of Jesus being the fulfillment of the OT promises.

[11]Hengel, Crucifixion, 87.

[12]cf. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 456-57.