Letter to Paul: What Really Matters?
Dear Brother Paul,
It is an honour to write this short note to you. You are one of the greatest forerunners of the faith and your single-minded devotion to Christian world domination has borne immense fruit. Congratulations.
As much as I admire your influence on modern day Christianity, I have noted certain issues that I would like to address. But before I present these thoughts, I would like to crave your indulgence in this matter. I do not write this seeking to be insolent, rude or self-righteous. I am merely fortunate to have read the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and in view of these would like to explore some of your ideas.
God is not just concerned with the end but He is more concerned with the means… as Jesus put it “not all who call me Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom.” – Matthew 7:21-23
The other day I was listening to a sermon by Pastor Sam Adeyemi (a gentile teacher of the gospel of Christ, you should be very proud), and he juxtaposed the concept of excellence according to God’s standards with excellence according to man’s standards. In his view, man judges excellence by the ends, results and evidence of one’s life or efforts, while God judges excellence by the paths taken by man to get to where he wants to go. Simply put, God is not just concerned with the end but He is more concerned with the means, and if your means are in line with His expectations, excellence ensues. If not, as Jesus put it “not all who call me Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom.” Matthew 7:21-23
This message resonated with me and it prompted a certain line of thought.
Let me start with the records of the ministry of Jesus. It is well documented that Jesus continually spoke truth to those around him and he never minced his words or made them ‘user-friendly.’ He never altered, amended or sugar-coated the messages he taught, whether to the Jew, the Gentile, the Pharisee or the Sadducee or even his own disciples. In fact, his message was not received in his home town Mark 6:1-6 and he was not received in a Samaritan village, Luke 9:51-56 yet Jesus merely shook the dust off his feet and moved on to other villages. In addition, when he sent his disciples out, he told them that they and their message would be rejected in some homes and cities. Matthew 10 They were even to expect persecution and their response to any rejection should be to leave and go to the next house or city; and keep going until they find a place where they would be welcomed. In other words, don’t compromise yourself, don’t change the message. After all, he was only instructing them to do as he did. You would agree with me if I propose that the example of Jesus is akin to Pastor Adeyemi’s definition of excellence, God’s way.
You describe yourself as one who changes your appearance to suit the environment you find yourself in. To the Jew you are a Jew, to the Gentile, a Gentile and so on, all for the sake of the gospel.
Now we come back to you, Brother Paul. We come to some of your letters that caused me great concern, one to the Corinthians and the other to the Philippians. In your letter to the Corinthians 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 you describe yourself as one who changes your appearance to suit the environment you find yourself in. To the Jew you are a Jew, to the Gentile, a Gentile and so on, all for the sake of the gospel. Also, in your other letter to the Philippians you express disregard for the means by which Jesus Christ is preached, saying that for you what mattered was that he was preached. Philippians 1:15-18 A fairly simple and straight forward concept that is consistent with your words in your letter to the Corinthians.
We also see evidence of this theological gymnastics in your approach to some biblical concepts. In one breath and to one audience, we are saved by grace alone and not works. Ephesians 2:8-9 In another breath and to another audience we are all going to be judged by the works we do, Romans 2:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:10 nullifying your argument for grace. We also see that to please the Jews, you had your companion, Timothy, circumcised, Acts 16:1-3 yet you strongly advocated against circumcision in your letter to the Galatians. Galatians 5:2-4 For you what was important was that your audience accepted your message of Jesus, and even if you contradicted yourself in the process.
You see, here is exactly where my confusion lies; because on the face of it, your actions resonate with Pastor Adeyemi’s other description of excellence.
I want to believe that you meant something different from what you said and that I have merely misunderstood your intentions. For both you and Christ laid importance on the spread of the gospel, but you only differed in methods. Or perhaps you didn’t have the advantage of reading the words of Christ like we do and as such had no appreciation of what Jesus expected of his disciples. Even then, you had the Torah, from which you often quoted, the book of Isaiah to be specific, in which it was prophesied that the zeal of the Lord would establish and sustain the ministry of Jesus. Not man’s efforts. You yourself alluded to this in your letter to the Corinthians saying “I have planted, Apollos watered and God gave the increase.” 1 Corinthians 3:4-8 In other words, the word and ministry of Christ would be spread “not by works, but by grace.” Do you see where I am going with this? Can you understand the basis of my concern?
Isaiah prophesied that the zeal of the Lord would establish and sustain the ministry of Jesus. Not man’s efforts.
From what I understand, the call to walk with Jesus and ultimately with God, has and will always be one that seeks to impact the individual first and then the community. It’s not just a belief system to teach; it’s not an esoteric phenomenon we must propagate without fully internalising it; it’s a lifestyle for both the teacher and the hearer. That’s why Jesus’ teachings on the Mount centred on how we must live and relate with our brothers and sisters, friends and enemies and that’s why Jesus himself taught by example. So that by our actions we might bring light to the world and salt to the earth. For I must return to the words of Jesus in Matthew Matthew 7:21-23 that say,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
Far be it from me to suggest that you would be refused entry into the kingdom of heaven. After all you were called and hand-picked by Jesus for the mission. What I seek to draw from this passage is the fact that Jesus felt that there was a difference between teaching his gospel and living his gospel; and for those called to the ministry to enter the kingdom of heaven there must be a confluence of both.
Your approach to teaching the gospel, Brother Paul, leaves me with this burning question: that as one who is not a Gentile or a Jew, not circumcised or uncircumcised, neither weak nor strong, male or female, but just a follower of Jesus, what really matters?