INTERLUDE: Today’s blog is an attempt to discuss the difference between Jesus and Paul. Tomorrow I will continue with Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian assembly, reading 2 Corinthians 10-13. As always the news headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
During my examination of 1 Corinthians, I promised to return to an issue raised by Kostas, one of my attentive readers, who suggested that I had slid too easily out of the question as to whether there were serious differences between Paul and Jesus as regard the content of the gospel.
Of course there is a very obvious and important difference:
For Jesus, the content of the glad tidings is that God’s Kingdom, that is, God’s personal rule of the earth, is arriving in his ministry in Galilee. The signs of its arrival are his healing of the sick and his announcement of the good news to the poor. In the face of the Rule of God, Jesus asks people to change their lives and trust the good news.
For Paul, the content of the good news is the life, death and rising again of Jesus the messiah, envisaged as a supreme act of God’s kindness, by which God has begun to establish his rule on earth, by means of uniting all people, in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus.
In both cases, there is evidently an “already” and a “not yet”.
For Jesus, the kingdom has already arrived (“If by the finger of God I cast out evil spirits, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”) but is has not yet come in its fullness, as witness Jesus’ parables of judgement and reward, his prophecies of the coming of the Son of Man, and his references to the “age to come.” Jesus is also aware that one of the things that is still to come is his own “baptism” and drinking of the “cup”, both references to his sufferings and death, which by the time the gospels were written, had become a central part of the good news.
For Paul, writing many years before the four evangelists, God has already acted decisively to establish his kingdom in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Messiah.These events have revealed God’s eternal plan for his creation, which has not yet been completed, but soon will be, with the return of Jesus. In the interim there is God-given time for the good news to be announced to all nations and for all believers to be included in the “body of Messiah”. Paul’s word for the tension between the already and not yet, is “spirit”, known both as the Holy Spirit and the “Spirit of Messiah”, which offers gifts to believers that enable them to “live tomorrow’s life today.”
In Paul’s writing, this spirit is often opposed to “flesh” which means “mere flesh and blood”, the condition of humanity without God. To live “according to the flesh” is to close oneself to all but biological life, leading to sin and death. To “live according to the spirit” is to be open to God’s creative presence in Messiah Jesus and to look forward to the transformation of flesh and blood in God’s kingdom.
As far as we know, Jesus did not much use this contrast between spirit and flesh. He contrasted those who trusted in the rule of God with those who participated in the Rule of the Enemy, The Satan. Those who trust in the kingdom become followers, disciples, of Jesus, whereas The Enemy’s people are known by their hardness of heart. Jesus promises that followers of his way will be rewarded by the new shared life of his disciples in this world and by “eternal life” in the world to come. Would he have agreed with Paul that “flesh and blood cannot hold a share in the kingdom of God”? I think he would have insisted that flesh and blood people, by trusting what they saw of God’s Rule in him, could challenge the rule of evil in this world and establish clear instances of God’s goodness in the land of the living. This note of confidence in what Jesus called the “binding of the strong man” (the defeat of the power of evil) is lacking in Paul.
But we can note that on the one hand, Jesus saw what was going to happen to his own flesh and blood on the execution stake, offered up his body for God’s Rule, and asked his disciples to do the same; and on the other hand, Paul saw the flesh and blood Messianic Assemblies, with all their faults, as God’s way of challenging the evil powers that ruled the world.
My own conclusion is that although there are differences of vocabulary, emphasis, and at times theology, between Paul and Jesus, Paul’s mission and gospel are an astonishingly faithful representation of Jesus Messiah for both Jews and non-Jews. His grasp of essentials and his creativity in developing them, while personally carrying the gospel to new people, is worthy of the one he calls Messiah.