After Paul stopped murdering Christians, he went away and apparently learned how the Gospel of Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses. He became an ardent advocate of this amazing and strange truth. He journeyed through the regions between Rome and Palestine, enduring persecution so he could tell people about this truth that brings hope. After starting groups of Jesus followers in various cities, he wrote letters to them. Some of those letters survive to this day and we have them gathered into a large part of the New Testament.
In most of the Letters of the Apostle Paul, he uses a similar approach when bringing instruction to the rapidly growing churches that had started from his actions. These churches are regional groups of believers in Jesus, believing that Jesus is the Promised One, the Christ. The Greek word “christianos” was and is used to describe these groups: it means “followers of the Christ”. These groups are mainly comprised of people whose world view is Greek and Roman. As discussed earlier, this world view has significant differences from the world view based on the strict set of rules derived from the Law given to Moses by God Most High. When discussed earlier, we did not compare the ethics of the Greco-Roman society with that of the Hebrews, we simply looked at some aspects of the Greco-Roman ethics. I assume the reader has enough background in the Law of Moses to easily see significant differences. Far above all is the identity of the deity to be exalted as Lord – the one who is supreme in authority – God Most High. But within rules governing conduct, the Law of Moses differs in many ways from the Greco-Roman rules.
The Greco-Roman churches were predominantly filled with people whose concepts would be moving from the Greco-Roman ethics to ethics based in the Gospel, the Good News of forgiveness and love. The people in these dynamic and vital groups met every day to fellowship. They experienced a constant immersive experience in an intensely human community, with all the issues that are always present in human community.
The Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Gospel, is that relationship with God and each other is possible because the destructive power of offense is removed.
The Gospel is NOT the solution that all seek through governance and Law, Right and Wrong. It is not the solution that our conventional wisdom tells us is the way for a person to live in harmony with God and people.
Wisdom (the elemental principles of this world, as we will see Paul describe it) tells us that people must behave properly in order to live in harmony. The Gospel was described as “not a wisdom of this world (age)”, but instead the hidden wisdom of God, only revealed to those with ears to hear as Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 2: 13We also speak these things, not in word taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. 15The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone.
The Gospel does not follow the wisdom all people normally expect. The Wisdom of this world, the fruit of that most famous tree, is that human behavior is the problem. And it clearly is. Controlling human behavior is the focus of the majority of human activity, religion, government, schools, etc. The Gospel does not argue against that. The Gospel changes the subject.
15The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. The spiritual person, the person born again by the Spirit of God, can clearly see the severe human problems of this world. Yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. Because the spiritual person knows that the Gospel is not focused on elimination of bad behavior, but is the Good News of Forgiveness and Spiritual Life. The spiritual person, the born again person, does not live focused on controlling behavior. Instead the spiritual person is focused on Jesus, the Christ. As Paul encouraged the Corinthians to “Imitate me, as I imitate the Christ”. And then Paul went on to describe Love. Jesus showed us Love when he was being tortured to death: “Father forgive them”. This request of Jesus either happened or it didn’t; your perspective reflects your ability to understand the Kingdom of Heaven. From this lesson Paul taught the Corinthians “Love keeps no record of wrongs done”. And earlier in the same letter he instructed them to not prosecute misbehavior – “should you not instead allow yourselves to be wronged?”.
The wisdom of this world demands recompense. The Gospel changes the subject. To the person carrying the Kingdom of Heaven concepts, the focus of life is not behavior: to focus on behavior is to focus on death. The focus of life is Love. People always want to immediately change the focus back to behavior: “If we Love THEN we will behave”. Maybe. If we can change our focus then we will bear fruit, love joy peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Most of which are emotions. So when we act like Jesus and forgive the sins of the world, we will bear fruit.
But then we are drawn again into changing the subject back. Because if we act like Jesus we will not sin. He did not sin. Yes, he was and is perfect. How many others will join him in this sinless perfection? Once again, we find ourselves focused on behavior. Jesus, The Perfect One, knew the endless circle of changing the subject, and knew it would be based on the goal of behavior in compliance with the rules. So he said many, many things to ensure that when we pursue that path of perfect obedience, we end up back at the foot of the cross. “Heaven and Earth will pass away before the least part of the Law of Moses passes away.” Followed immediately by slamming some of the doors left open by the Law: “Nope, even divorce allowed by the Law will earn you condemnation before God.” (Luke 16). Add to these the many statements that indicate that your behavior will never be good enough. “Cut off your hand to have any hope of pleasing God through your own power”, which Jesus said among many other similar statements in the sermon on the mount. The wisdom of this world leads you to realize you are doomed. Doomed people cry out for mercy. God, who is Love, always gives mercy. Subject changed. Life is about mercy, which is ONLY found in Jesus. Don’t go back to life being about behavior. Don’t do it. Death lives there.
But you will.
And so did those living in the first century, Greco-Roman, vibrant, Jesus worshiping, churches. Why would they go back to behavior focused living? The same reason most people won’t even try: because we all know people will continue to misbehave.
Especially in certain ways depending on the circumstances. Let’s build a model of the Corinthian group.
We have numerous people flooding in all the time, drawn by the deep love shown in the foolish, love-each-other, people, drawn by the forgiveness that dominates the culture, drawn by the focus on the pure things of life, and above all, drawn by the promise of Knowing the God Most High for all eternity.
The people gather often, sometimes every day. They eat together, drink together, sing songs all night, laughing and loving.
Sounds idyllic and it was. But humans are not perfect and soon conflicts and other behavioral issues would develop. The subject would change back to rules. Paul would write letters to instruct them on practical issues. But Paul would also remind them that the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is not through the rules. The subject needs to change back to Jesus, the Christ promised from the beginning to undo the Good and Evil problem – through forgiveness.
Which problems would you expect from any group of humans living in close intensive relationship? We can expect anger, strife, pride, gossip, slander, selfishness, sex, etc. We would not expect too much murder because of the focus on brotherhood. But we can expect murder’s close associate, destruction via prosecution. For the Greco-Roman culture, we would expect people be at various levels of leaving behind their intrinsic dependency on the Olympic gods that is so prominent in that culture. Sex is always an issue, but even more so in a group where people are focused on Love and believe in 100% forgiveness. Especially when the people come from a culture where sex is part of religious worship. As humans become deeply connected on the emotional level, deeply connecting on the physical follows with great impulse.
All of which once again changes the subject back to behavior.
So Paul writes his letters in view of this human wisdom dilemma. It is not a dilemma for the Kingdom of Heaven, because in that Kingdom, Jesus the Christ is all.
In the following sections of this essay (or series), we will briefly look at several of Paul’s Letters to gain a concept of his approach to teaching these people.