The Apocalyptic Prophet
The only way to know what St Paul is saying is to read him. His letters are the oldest Christian documents we possess, and they are part of Scripture. We hear excerpts read aloud at almost every Divine Liturgy. On the one hand, reading St Paul is not difficult. He is quite a character! He certainly lived in “interesting times,” as the saying goes. He has plenty to say to striving and struggling Christian communities very much like our own. We would do well to hear him and, when possible, heed his wisdom. On the other hand, as St Peter says, Paul is not always easy to understand:
“Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him… There are some things in [his letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 2.15-16)
It seems, though, that Paul’s writings are more accessible when we ask some basic questions about the author: who Paul thought himself to be, what kind of mission he thought he was on, and in what sort of “interesting times” he was living.
Above all, Paul was a Jew. (Jesus was a Jew, too.) It’s so easy to forget this. There were no “Christians” – as in, a group of people adhering to another religion – during Paul’s lifetime. In the first decades after Christ there were Jews who believed in Jesus, and there were Jews who didn’t. And then there were Gentiles – pagan polytheists – some of whom also came to believe in Jesus, that is, in the Jewish Messiah, in “Christ,” which means “anointed.” For centuries the Jews had anointed (poured oil on) their prophets and kings to commission them, to consecrate them to a particular work. In times of trouble, they trusted God and looked for a savior – a prophet, judge, or warrior-king – someone who would be “the anointed one,” chosen by God and sent to save the people.
By the time of Jesus and St Paul, the need for a savior was very great, and the Jewish people were more than ready to receive from God their anointed King, a holy Priest, the One who could save them: the Christ. He would be the Messiah. According to the Jews who believed in him, Jesus was (is!) the Messiah. The arrival of the great and final Savior sent by God was such a tremendous event that it affected the Gentiles, too. For his part, Paul started out as a unbelieving Jew. He even persecuted the Jewish Christ-believers. But then something happened. He had an encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and from then on he became a fervent believer. For Paul Jesus was Christ, Messiah, the Lord. Part of Paul’s own commission by God was that he should go and preach precisely to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, that this Messiah was for the salvation of the whole world.
Which brings us to the kind of “interesting times” in which Paul lived. The Jews were so ready for the Messiah that their thinking had grown downright apocalyptic. Today when we hear “apocalypse,” we think doomsday, the end of the world, but the word literally means “revelation” or “uncovering.” There is indeed in apocalyptic thinking a sense of the culmination of time, of the coming to an end or fruition of the current “age,” but there is even more a sense of 1) a mystery or secret finally being revealed, 2) the power of evil finally being defeated, and 3) the very nature of all reality, the entire created cosmos, being changed. This is what apocalyptic means for messianic Jews, and Paul was steeped in apocalyptic thinking. For Paul, Jesus as the very Son of God appearing on earth revealed the mystery of the ages, the long plan of God for the salvation of the entire world. Jesus as the conquering Lord defeated the power of evil, sin, and death that had held sway on earth since the time of Adam – trampling down death by death. Finally, Jesus as the anointed bearer of God’s Spirit provided for the enlivening transformation of the entire creation.
When we read about Paul’s so-called “conversion” in Acts 9, we need to be aware that it was probably less a “conversion” (to what?) than a revelation and a call. Paul had not seen Jesus in person like the other apostles. For God to reveal his Son, the risen Christ, to Paul meant that Paul had to be approached in a special way, as a prophet, in a way similar to the visionary callings of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who also had profound experiences (Isa 6, Ezek 1). The blinding light and the opening of Paul’s eyes by Ananias confirms that a revelation occurred and that one formerly blind has now come to see. (Where else in Scripture do you find this motif?) Paul is also “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9.17), and he will “carry the Lord’s name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9.15), much like the prophets of old carried the word of the Lord (“thus says the Lord!”) to all the people.
Paul is nothing less than the ultimate apocalyptic prophet. He has a message, a gospel, for the whole world. He will preach the revelation of the Messiah, the Lord, God’s own Son. He will proclaim the defeat of evil and freedom from the slavery of sin. He will show in himself, even in his own flesh, the coming of the Spirit – “power in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9-10) – who changes everything, even death into life. And, just like his Lord, how he will suffer in the process!
At one point, Paul writes to the Philippians to warn them that now things have changed, and they must watch out for anyone who says believers from the Gentiles have to be circumcised “in the flesh.” (Compare also the letter to the Galatians.) The Jews had always practiced circumcision since the time of Abraham, long before the coming of the Messiah, long even before Moses had given the Law. Now, with the coming of the Messiah and the blessing of the Gentiles (the nations) in Christ, the promises to Abraham – who himself had been willing to sacrifice his own son – have been fulfilled (Gen 22). Circumcision as a sign of a fleshly covenant between God and Abraham, to the multiplication of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17), is no longer necessary, certainly not for the Gentiles, who share not Moses’ law, but Abraham’s faith. Paul feels all of this keenly, both the glory of the whole mysterious process of God’s salvation and also, especially, what he has now gained in Christ. “Look out!” he says to the Philippians,
“… for those who mutilate the flesh [circumcise]. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3.2-11)
Here is Paul in his own words describing who he was, what he has become, and what Christ means for him: nothing less than the loss of everything he had known and boasted about from his previous life, nothing less than sharing (joyfully!) in Christ’s suffering and death, and nothing less than the hope of “being found” in Christ and attaining to the power of resurrection from the dead.
If we keep in mind Paul as an apocalyptic prophet, called by God to preach the gospel of the coming of the Messiah, in whom there is fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham after a long process of salvation since the defeat of Adam; if we keep in mind the radical power of the Lord to defeat evil, even death itself, in his great rescue of all creation into the resurrection of the Kingdom; if we keep in mind who Paul is and how he has accepted God’s prophetic call to live out his life in “interesting times,” we’ll be better able to understand his letters.
To return to what St Peter said about his beloved brother Paul, it’s striking that Peter, too, was speaking apocalyptically right up to the words cited above. Paul wasn’t the only one called by the Lord. Peter was, too. And we, too, if we follow the resurrected Christ, are also zealously waiting to “be found” by him.
“According to [God’s] promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.” 2 Peter 3.13-16