Reading the Bible like Paul (Luke 18.9-14; Gal. 1.13-17; 2.11-21) [sermon 5-21-2017]

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May 19, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday May 21, 2017. From our ongoing series, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Texts are Luke 18.9-14; Galatians 1.13-17; 2.11-21.

The primary inspirations and sources for this sermon were the chapter, “Paul’s Conversion from Violence,” in Derek Flood’s Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need To Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014), 47-70; and the chapters, “God’s Answer to a Question No One Was Asking”; and “‘Torah? Oh That. It Was Only Temporary’–God (As Told By Paul,” in Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 215-23.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Saul versus Paul

A few weeks ago, we heard the story of how Stephen, a leader in the early church, was stoned to death by an angry lynch mob.

Among the witnesses was a young Pharisee named Saul, who held the killers’ coats for them.

Saul became a leading persecutor of the young church. As the eighth chapter of Acts began, Luke reports: Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder … Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.

Last week, we heard the story of how the church argued their way into including uncircumcised Gentiles as as full members of the people of God. Just as they were. One of the leading advocates of this open-minded policy toward non-Jewish people in the church was Paul. Formerly Saul. The same Saul who had egged on Stephen’s murder, and declared holy war on the church.

As Saul, he was so zealous for his people and their traditions, for his understanding of God and scripture, that he was willing to use intimidation—threats of prison and even violence—against any of his fellow Jews he saw stepping out of line. That’s why he persecuted the church. But as Paul, he was open-minded. He downplayed the purity codes and religious ceremonies of the Torah. He even said things like: Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything (Gal. 6.15). Old Saul would have had his later self Paul locked up over saying something like that.

But far from advocating threats and violence against people who saw things differently, as Paul he would counsel other believers to: show respect for what everyone else believes is good; and, If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people (Rom. 12.17-18).

As Saul, he persecuted the church. As Paul, he was willing to undergo persecution for the sake of Christ and his church.

Last week, we saw how Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James had learned to see God differently because of Jesus. And this new perspective on God caused them to read and apply scripture in bold, new, and challenging ways. This week, I want to zero in on Paul. How his experience of God’s grace through Christ changed everything for him. Especially how he read the Bible.

I think this is incredibly important for the church now, because a lot of the issues and arguments we have are really arguments over how to read, understand, and apply the scriptures. But my friend Michael Hardin has helpfully pointed out how New Testament authors like Paul used the scriptures of their time, what we now call the Old Testament: “The apostolic church read the scriptures in light of Jesus before they read Jesus in light of the scriptures.” [1] Jesus reveals a loving, generous, open-hearted God who through the cross shows that he is willing to die for his enemies rather than destroy them. Paul learned to filter all scripture through the story of Jesus.

And who better to teach us to read the scriptures than someone like Paul, who ended up writing a big chunk of them?

Saul’s conversion

Those of us who know the story of how Saul became Paul most often call it a conversion. But we need to be careful how we use that phrase. Most often, when we speak of someone being converted, we mean someone who had no religion got religious. But you can’t say that about Paul. In our readings today, we heard Paul say this: I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors (Gal. 1.14). Paul already had religion when he was converted.

Another common meaning of conversion is that someone moves from one religion to another. So we might think Paul left Judaism to become a Christian. But that’s not quite right, either. For one thing, people who followed Jesus weren’t even called Christians until after Paul was converted. And up until Paul, all Christians were Jewish, and considered themselves still to be Jewish. And even Paul—well after his conversion—would say:

I was circumcised on the eighth day.

I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.

I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.

With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.

With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless. (Phil. 3.5-6)

Notice that Paul didn’t say, I used to be a Jewish Pharisee, but now I’m something else. He said: I am an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew. I am a Pharisee. I am blameless under the Torah. Paul didn’t think of himself as having moved from one religion to another. Paul would have said, I’m a follower of Christ who happens to be a Jew and a Pharisee, by the grace of God. See the difference?

So in what sense was Saul converted, making a way for Saul the persecutor of the church to become Paul, one of the church’s greatest apostles?

Saul’s conversion was one away from seeing God as mostly interested in ritual purity and rules; to a God who loves strangers and even enemies.

In the readings we heard today, we heard Paul say in his former life, as Saul, he was … militant about the traditions of [his] ancestors. That meant his heroes would have been men like Phinehas. Numbers 25 tells the story of Phinehas the priest, who was so militant about the purity of his people that, when he saw an Israelite man married to a Moabite woman, he took a spear and rammed it through both of them at once. Or Elijah, who in 1 Kings 18 slaughtered 450 of Baal’s prophets in a day. Or even the Maccabean heroes of a couple of centuries earlier, who poured out their wrath both on wicked Gentiles and unfaithful fellow-Jews. Paul, back when he was still Saul, would have seen himself as following in their footsteps. In his mind, that was the only way to be faithful to God.

But after Jesus got hold of him, Paul came to see God in the Messiah who died for his people, even his enemies. And that made him rethink how he read, understood, and applied the scriptures. Paul didn’t throw away the Torah and Prophets. But he did learn and teach a better way to obey the scriptures. For example, in Rom. 13.8-10, he said:

Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

Paul’s conversion was a conversion of the heart and spirit. It was a conversion of how he perceived God and God’s will as expressed in the scriptures. Before, Saul had believed God wanted him to take a hard stand, even if it ended up hurting someone else. But now Paul had learned, from Jesus, that obeying God’s Law meant loving others well.

How had Paul come to see things so differently?

Saul’s vision is healed

Paul tells a little about his conversion in our readings today. He said: God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles (Gal. 1.15-16).

But Luke tells the story more fully in Acts 9. Saul was on his way to Damascus, spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (Acts 9.1). He’d gotten permission from the high priest to round up anyone who belonged to the Way (Acts 9.2)—that’s what the church was called back then—and bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. While on the road to Damascus, Saul was encircled by a bright light from heaven, and a voice came from on high, asking: “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. (Acts 9.4-5)

This must have been a horrifying moment for Saul. To realize that he hadn’t been obeying the scriptures by rounding up Jesus’ followers for prison, or cheering for the people who killed them. He’d actually been disobeying God and hurting people for no reason. By persecuting Jesus’ followers, Saul had actually made himself God’s enemy.

But this is how Saul learned the Good News of God’s salvation, that God even loves his enemies. For three days, Saul was blind. Until the Lord sent a disciple named Ananias to him. Ananias told him Jesus sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s when the scales fell off Saul’s eyes, and he was baptized, and converted from being a persecutor of the church to a follower of Christ (Acts 9.17-18).

Well, one of the things that Jesus promised from the beginning of his ministry was recovery of sight to the blind (Luke 4.18). That’s what happened to Saul.

Saul’s three days in darkness makes us think of Jesus, in the grave for three days. Like Jesus, he experienced a sort of death and resurrection.

But it should also make us think of another chosen prophet from the scriptures, Jonah. Who, after three days of darkness in the belly of the great fish that had swallowed him, went out and preached to Gentiles. Just as Saul would be sent to do. When God sent Jonah to preach to the wicked, oppressive city of Nineveh, he demonstrated love for enemies and compassion for strangers. And that would become the theme of Paul’s life as an apostle.

It wasn’t just Saul’s eyes that needed to be healed; it was his vision. How he saw God, the scriptures, other people, and the world around him. His entire worldview was converted. What changed the way he saw God and the scriptures and others was that he learned firsthand through his encounter with Jesus that God loves his enemies. And if God demonstrated that through Jesus, it must always have been true. As James would later write, we worship a God in whose character there is no change at all (James 1.17).

Saul learned that he’d gotten God all wrong. But through the grace of God, Jesus had shown him the right way. And that’s why he could say, as we heard in our readings today:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Jesus’ faithfulness is that he loved even his enemies and welcomed people who weren’t like him. So, the opposite of what Paul, as Saul, had believed the scriptures taught. Because Paul learned that Jesus loved him, and gave his life for him—even as an enemy—he spent the rest of his life loving others and giving himself for them. And teaching us to do the same.

How Paul read scripture

Now, Paul said things like the law was powerless … because it was weakened by the flesh (Rom. 8.3); and, All those who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse (Gal. 3.10). I’m about to say something shocking, but it’s a truth that’s hidden in plain sight. The Torah, or Law, is part of the Bible. It’s the first five books of it, in fact. Imagine Paul saying, the Bible is powerless. Or, those who rely on obeying the Bible are under a curse. But that’s sort of what he did say.

On the other hand, in Rom. 7.12, Paul said: the Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. He didn’t throw away the Bible. He didn’t say, We have Jesus, we no longer need the scriptures. Instead, he said this: we know that the Law is good if used appropriately (1 Tim. 1.8). And what did Paul consider the appropriate use for scripture? Paul says in Gal. 3.24: the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. The appropriate use of the Law, and all the scriptures, is to lead us to Christ, who fulfills the scriptures and saves us.

And for Paul, that changed everything. He had a new understanding of God’s will. His experience of God’s welcome and love—even for enemies—led him to read the Bible in a totally new way. Here’s an example.

How many of you have ever heard this phrase from the Bible? O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Most people know this as something Paul wrote. 1 Corinthians 15.55 in the New Testament. And in that context, Paul is mocking death. They’re words of hope for the saints. Paul is saying even Death can’t defeat us, because one day, Death itself will be destroyed.

What many don’t know is that Paul was actually quoting a passage from the Old Testament. It’s Hosea 13.14, but I want you to hear it in context. Listen really closely to what Hosea said:

Will I ransom them from the power of the grave

        Will I redeem them from death’s hold?

    Death, where are your diseases?

        Grave, where is your destruction?

        Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

The way Paul used this passage is pretty much the exact opposite of how Hosea meant it. Paul used these words to mock death. But Hosea is actually calling for death and destruction upon the wicked. Hosea went on to prophesy:

by the sword they will fall—

        their babies will be dashed,

    and their pregnant women ripped open. (Hos. 13.16)

In other words, when Hosea first preached these words, it wasn’t good news. It was a call for God’s wrath to be poured out on the wicked. It’s the kind of passage that might make a religious militant like the young Pharisee Saul feel justified in condemning, persecuting, and even killing others. But now, as author Derek Flood puts it,

Paul has turned it around. He has taken a passage which in its original context was about violence and death being poured out on others, and transformed it into a declaration of how humanity has been liberated from death because of the Resurrection, where Christ overcame and defeated death. [2]

Paul’s conversion transformed everything for him. Even how he read the Bible. After Jesus got hold of him, whenever Paul read the Bible, even passages that once proclaimed God’s wrath were transformed into hopeful words of grace. Even passages that had once been bad news now preached the Good News of God’s salvation.

Probably we should learn to read the Bible more like Paul.

The Pharisee confesses his sin

Our Gospel lesson today—Luke 18.9-14—I think helps us understand Paul’s transformation. How Paul learned to see God and the scriptures and the world around him differently. Luke says Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust. Wouldn’t you say that pretty much summed up Saul the Pharisee’s worldview?

Here’s the story Jesus told:

Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. In Jesus’ day and time, the Pharisees—people like Paul had been—were considered the best and brightest, the godliest, the upstanding examples everyone should look up to. They were honest, hardworking church folk. The tax collectors were considered scum, traitors, and the worst kind of sinners. First century Jews would have looked at tax collectors the way people now view drug dealers.

The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’

Pharisees often did pray this way, and no one thought twice about it. After all, they were just thanking God for their blessings. Including having the good sense to live right and obey the Bible.

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’

Most of Jesus’ audience would have agreed with this, too. After all, that tax collector didn’t deserve to be in the temple, asking any favors from God. He ought to be beating himself up over all the bad stuff he’s doing!

But here’s where Jesus threw his audience for a loop: I tell you, this person—that no good tax collector—went down to his home justified—that means right with God—rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Saul the Pharisee had been the kind of person who lifted himself up as cop, judge, jury, and executioner over those he viewed as bad or wrong. But on the road to Damascus, by the grace of God, he was brought low. Living three days in blindness. I wonder if, in those three days of darkness, he ever prayed: God, show mercy to me, a sinner?

I that’s almost exactly what happened. Later on, Paul looked back on his life as Saul and declared: I’m the biggest sinner of all. Because: I used to speak against [Jesus], attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy. Paul’s story is a story about a sinner who was shown mercy. And he went on to say: this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Tim. 1.13-16).

Paul said he was chosen by Christ as an example for those who would believe later on. That includes you and me. Among other things, he’s an example for how we ought see God’s will, ourselves, and other people. And how we ought to read the Bible.

From Paul, we learn to read the Bible through the filter of Jesus. We learn to read as people who were wrong about God, but have now been made right with God. As sinners who have been shown mercy. As enemies God has loved. And we start to see other people through that filter, too.

Sisters and brothers, in light of God’s love for us in Christ, is there really any other way to read the Bible?

[1] Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus, 2nd ed. (Lancaster, PA: JDL Press, 2013), 33.

[2] Disarming Scripture, 60.


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