In an era in which the Law of Moses had been corrupted as political tyranny and religious hypocrisy, Jesus would not have been expected to write a Gospel. Scripture is offered to us as a method to open ourselves to the love of God, but words change meaning over the course of time, and eventually the weight of our cultural prejudice stands as a barrier against the Divine Presence. As Jesus experienced, even worse can occur when the meanings are manipulated intentionally.
It was in recognition of this outcome that God proclaimed through Jeremiah [NIV 33:34]:
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.
Jesus was the implementation of this promise. The proof was not in his words, which are always ambiguous, but in his actions.
In The Soul Comes First, I explain Jesus’s promise that his generation will see the fulfillment of his prophesy: On the cross, Jesus was unbound from time, and worked his way through the future until his will for Humanity is manifested. Then he returned in the glory of his realm to return to the Father. In that process, Jesus had no need for words – it was through his flesh itself that the work was done.
But, for those stuck in the flow of mortal time, how were those moments to be bridged? That requires propagation of the message of salvation. The original Apostles, fishermen and tax collectors, simple men of Galilee, had limited reach for this purpose – but they had direct experience of Christ, and had been humbled by their lack of faith. This is reflected in the kindly advice of Peter, in his second letter [NIV 2 Peter 1:5-9]:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a message of personal redemption through direct relation with Christ.
How was such a message to spread in the face of a culture of tyranny and hypocrisy? Long and slow it would have been. So this is where Saul of Tarsus comes in. Roman citizen and temple persecutor of the Christians, like Moses, Saul understood the mindset of the ruling classes, and the processes that would avail to bring him into direct dialog with them. As a Temple priest, he also understood institutional practices. Reborn into faith as Paul, this apostle was a traveling consultant to Christian communities in formation. As a philosopher, Paul also provided the early Christians with a framework for understanding the events that had transpired in the Holy Land, including clear statements regarding the implications with respect to past teachings.
Obviously, these are incredibly powerful works, and a source of rich guidance for pastors trying to manage diverse congregations and reconcile Old and New Testaments. In many non-denominational congregations, I find that Paul’s writings are preached more often than the parables of Jesus. Paul is clear and direct, while the parables of Jesus often leave me wondering “WTF?” (until I work out that Jesus wove in three meanings for three different audiences).
But is the voice of Paul the voice of Christ?
I would argue “only mostly.” Paul has a terribly serious defect: his religious roots rest in a framework dominated by sin, and his personal redemption occurred as a result of his sin against Christianity as a whole. Paul carries a guilty past around with him, and so his theology is dominated by a concern for forgiveness, and the miracle of redemption.
Peter, on the other hand, offers this promise [NIV 2 Peter 3:8-9]:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
I much prefer the simplicity and directness of this promise. It is echoed in Paul’s writings, but as Peter says [NIV 2 Peter 3:16]:
His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Sometimes less is more. I’d lay aside the rules offered in Paul’s letters, and focus on the progression defined by Peter. Leaving much to be discovered, it is harder work, but comes from one who learned most painfully from a more immediate experience of Christ.