I pointed out a while ago, in part one of this post, that the great Apostle Paul is sometimes treated as though he had a gospel that differed from what Christ taught.
Some have gone so far as to argue that it was St. Paul who actually established Christianity as we know it historically, while Jesus had something more pure and heavenly in mind.
Others think that perhaps Christ was teaching the doctrines of the Millenial kingdom, while Paul was teaching the doctrines of the present church age.
I believe that St. Paul fellowshipped deeply with our Lord. He met Him, after all, on a road, where the Lord threw him to the ground with his blazing glory. Then the apostle disappeared into the wilderness for many years where he was doing much more than comparing texts.
Paul understood that when Christ came, He brought heaven to earth in himself. After all, what is heaven, if not the presence of our Lord.
This is important, because there is an unending tendency for all of us to divide the good from the bad into the spiritual and the physical or the heavenly and the earthly.
For Paul, there was no great chasm between the heavenly and the earthly. It wasn’t a matter of a spiritual vs. a physical realm. Christ was as heavenly as one gets, but He was also as earthly as one gets. Nothing proper to human nature, including the physical body, was alien to Him.
The book of Ephesians, for example, is all about “the heavenly places,” describing for three chapters how we sit there, for two chapters how we should walk on earth because of how we sit there, and concluding by showing us how to stand given that heavenly battles are being fought here on earth.
We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, he says, but “against … spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies.”
It is no great praise to call someone “spiritual.” At least not if the Christian tradition has any insight into reality. The Evil one himself is a spiritual being, perhaps even one who resents the physical.
So when Jesus says to Nicodemus, in John 3, “if I have told you earthly things and you believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things,” the contrast is not between the physical and the non-physical, but between things that are true on earth and things that can only be known by those who inhabit the heaveny realms.
This is not a particularly easy idea to grasp, in part because most the categories we have inherited are too Greek or too modern. We need to learn to think with more Judeo-Christian categories, but that takes time.
We also have to remember that the ancient Jewish leadership did not receive the Lord of glory, so to go back to their thinking isn’t the solution either.
I and II Corinthians can help.
Both epistles to the Corinthians seem to me to be extended meditations on the truths of John’s gospel, in particular the discussion with Nicodemus. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if St. Paul didn’t know Nicodemus. Perhaps they were in different sects of the Pharisees, but unless Nicodemus died between John 20 and Acts 10, it would make sense that they at least met and talked about their Lord.
In I Corinthians, Paul addressses the Greek and Jewish errors that led them to crucify the Lord of glory. “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom,” says Paul, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”
Christ crucified was not the sign the Jews were looking for in the first century. But they should have been. Nothing better reveals the character, that is to say, the glory, of our Lord than His patient endurance of the mockery, scourgings, and cross that He accepted on our behalf.
After he finishes describing the error of unbelieving Gentiles and Jews – that they seek for signs and wisdom of the wrong sort – Paul gets down to the oh so serious business of showing the Corinthian Christians that they are not thinking much better than the unbelievers.
He does so by dividing the broad category of judgment into three sub-categories, showing how they think from the wrong perspectives, and then giving chapter after chapter of specific instances of how they are thinking like children.
In the next post on this topic, I’ll outline the three possible perspectives, try to clarify all the confusion I’ve created in this one, and prepare for a discussion of how to learn how to think correctly. Here’s a hint: it’s a more excellent way.