Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Paul the Apostle: Years of Transition (32-49)

Until confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul led a thoroughly conventional life. Because he was a Pharisaic Jew, he thought of himself as a faithful witness to God. In truth he was simply an emotionally intense if smart Olympian.

As an Olympian, he focused on rank. He compared himself with others using conformity to a moral code as the standard of measurement. Since his conformity to the code was greater and more intense than that of others, he ranked himself higher than others and looked down upon them with contempt.

As an Olympian, he believed in Jupiter and in using power to enforce conformity. If Jews of the new Jesus movement wanted to challenge Pharisaic Judaism, he would be happy to attack them.

Then in AD 32, while Saul was on his way to attack these unconventional Jews in Damascus, something happened which he hadn’t expected. Jesus himself confronted him. The confrontation, however, was not a violent one. Jesus simply asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus is the truth who sets us free. With that question he freed Saul from the spell of Olympianity. He freed him from his entire way of thinking and living to that point. He even set him free from the Jewish and Roman cultures which he had taken completely for granted.

With that freedom, Saul entered a period of transition of uncertain length. He’d lost his old way of living but had no new way to replace it. Jesus was the center of this new way but Saul did not yet know what that meant in all its profound depths and daily details.

Saul had planned to return to Jerusalem, but he didn’t. He had assumed he would always be a Pharisaic Jew, but he wasn’t one anymore. Instead he started living as one of those new unconventional Jews and, from 32 to 35, spoke with people in and around Damascus about Jesus.

Only in 35 did Saul return to Jerusalem for the first time since his radical transformation. Rather than rejoining his old friends, he stayed with an important Christian Jew named Peter for 15 days and met with James the brother of Jesus. Then, since Jerusalem was no longer the center of his world, he returned to his hometown of Tarsus and lived there for the next eight years. During that time he continued to talk with others about Jesus and to develop a whole new way of thinking and living as a witness to him.

In 43, leaders of the church (assembly of Christian Jews) in Jerusalem sent an important member named Barnabas to the church in Antioch. From Antioch, Barnabas went to Tarsus looking for Saul, found him, and returned to Antioch with him. It was Barnabas, then, who unknowingly pulled Saul out of obscurity and into world-historical significance.

In 44, Herod Agrippa 1st, ruling as king in Jerusalem (41-44), decided to persecute participants in the Jesus movement. He had James son of Zebedee executed and Peter thrown into prison. With James’ death and Peter’s arrest, James the brother of Jesus became leader of the church in Jerusalem.

Since AD 30, the church in Jerusalem had been the center of the movement started by Jesus. To be the leader of that church meant being the leader of that movement. At first Peter had clearly been the most important leader. James and John, both sons of Zebedee, had also been important leaders.

Now, with James son of Zebedee murdered and Peter arrested, primary leadership passed not to John son of Zebedee but to James the brother of Jesus. Strange. While Jesus was preaching, James had tried to restrain him because he thought his older brother was becoming mentally ill. When told his brothers wanted to see him, Jesus had replied that his true brothers weren’t relatives but those who did God’s will. What was James’ qualification for leadership now? He was the brother of Jesus. Already, then, even the church in Jerusalem was moving toward a typically Olympian way of ranking people and choosing leaders.

In 46 the church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul to Cyprus to share the good news about Jesus with Pharisaic Jews there. Unknown to anyone at the time, with this decision the church in Antioch became the center of the Jesus movement. The church in Jerusalem, previously so important and despite the leadership of James the brother of Jesus, started slipping toward the margins. Within 25 years it would be gone. Gone!

Then another unexpected event occurred. Until this point, Barnabas had been a leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem as well as benefactor and mentor to Saul. During their preaching on Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, the Roman ruler there, asked Barnabas and Saul to share their good news with him. When a Pharisaic Jew tried to dissuade Paulus from believing them, it was Saul who took the lead. Remembering his experience near Damascus, Saul told his opponent that he would become blind for a short time. When this happened, Paulus believed Saul. After that, Saul always referred to himself as Paul. And after that, it was Paul who remained leader of the missionary movement while Barnabas started slipping toward the margins.

When Paul and Barnabas finished speaking on Cyprus, they traveled through Anatolia. There too they continued to speak of Jesus and to encourage Pharisaic Jews to join the growing Jesus movement.

There too they continued to encounter persecution from more established and powerful religious authorities. These leaders sincerely believed they had a clearer understand of God’s will. They certainly had a greater commitment to the status quo. At one point Paul’s opponents even managed to get him stoned and left for dead.

There too Paul and Barnabas continued to speak to non-Jewish sympathizers about Jesus. Paul organized non-Jewish sympathizers joining the Jesus movement into congregations. Most importantly, he didn’t first require them to conform to a Jewish moral code of conduct.

It was this last practice that got Paul into trouble with James the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem. James conformed to a Jewish moral code of conduct and so did other important members of the church in Jerusalem.

In contrast, even the church in Antioch did not require non-Jewish sympathizers to conform to a Jewish moral code before becoming members. Consequently, Jewish and non-Jewish members could come together each Sunday and share a meal in memory of Jesus.

In 48 Peter traveled from Jerusalem to the church in Antioch. He too shared this memorial meal with non-Jewish members of the church. When James sent representatives from Jerusalem to Antioch to find out what was happening, however, Peter and even Barnabas stopped eating with non-Jewish members of the church. They did this in conformity with the Jewish moral code of James and in fear of him.

Paul exploded. At the very next meeting and meal, he publicly confronted Peter. Now the representatives of James knew that Peter had been eating with non-Jews in violation of the Jewish moral code. Now everyone in Antioch also knew that Peter was afraid that James would find out. The Jesus movement split and Paul got blamed for it.

In 49 Paul wanted Barnabas to return with him to the churches they’d previously started. But Barnabas still saw conformity to a Jewish moral code as an essential part of the Jesus movement. He chose to go to Cyprus without Paul. By doing so, he unknowingly abandoned world-historical significance and plunged into the obscurity from which he had previously snatched Paul. Paul headed for the non-Jewish congregations he’d started in Anatolia. He did this without Barnabas and even without being sent by the church either in Jerusalem or Antioch. He was on his own.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.