Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul was a 1st century, ‘middle-eastern’, Jew. We can expect him to have different ways of seeing things from ours, and he doesn’t disappoint us. We have information, in the New Testament, about what’s said to have happened to him during his action-packed life. We shouldn’t forget, however, that Paul himself didn’t know what was going to happen next day or next year.
Paul, in fact, in the earliest of his letters (I Thessalonians), thought there might not be a next year, and maybe not even a tomorrow! Like the Jesus he followed, he believed that the ‘Kingdom of God’ was about to be set up on earth, in a dramatic, divine intervention. From the skies above, he tells us, there would come “the shout of command, the archangel’s voice, the sound of God’s trumpet”. He’s convinced that both he, and the recipients of his letter, will be “alive on the day when the Lord comes.” Even in the last of his letters (Romans) he still believes that, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand!”
On that “Day of the Lord”, the powers of evil, and all their human allies, would be defeated and wiped out. In a ‘restored’ Israel, its dispersed and lost ‘tribes’ would be gathered together again. All the dead would be raised and judged, some to enter the new Kingdom, but others to be forever destroyed. And the crucified Jesus would return in triumph, as the long promised Jewish Messiah, to rule over God’s Kingdom on earth.
In the meantime, Paul saw himself as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ – the non-Jews. Like Jesus, he was steeped in such Hebrew Bible books as the Psalms and Isaiah. He believed that when the Gentile nations saw the miraculous restoration of Israel, they, and their various gods, would understand that the Jewish God was the one and only universal God, and would join the Jews in worshipping him at Jerusalem, in his also newly restored Temple.
With our 21st century specs back on again, we may feel a bit embarrassed for Paul and Jesus that they got some things wrong. They were limited by the fact that they were ‘people of their time’, just as we are of ours. This doesn’t mean that everything we say is worthless and not deserving of attention, nor does it mean that for them. They got plenty of things right, that are worthy of universal and timeless attention.
Jesus has given us some of the most inspiring and radical, spiritual and ethical teaching, as well as tellingly challenging examples of how best to live. Paul has given us some of the most uplifting words ever written – “I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets .. but if I have no love, I am nothing … These three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”
To throw out the baby with the bath water can be one of the most impoverishing of all mistakes.