In AD 27 he even moved to
For Paul, it didn’t mean much. Regardless of Gamaliel’s wisdom, Paul remained thoroughly conventional. He may have understood himself to be wholly committed to God but, in truth, he was committed to the six false but conventional gods of Olympianity and especially to Jupiter god of politics.
How do we know? Do we need to peer somehow into his heart? No. Our good Lord Jesus points out that we can tell a tree by its fruit. We can identify Paul’s loyalties simply by observing how he acts.
How does he act? First, he takes ranking, conformity, and moral codes very seriously. He believes there is only one god. He believes this one god has revealed to us an absolute moral code. He believes that we may measure an individual’s devotion to God in terms of their conformity to this moral code. The greater one’s conformity to the moral code, the greater one’s virtue. The greater one’s virtue, the closer one is to God and the higher one ranks in relation to others.
This understanding has implications. The greater one’s conformity, the greater one’s virtue and the closer one is to God. The closer one is to God, the greater the identity between God’s will and one’s will. Beyond a certain point, God’s will and one’s will become virtually the same.
The closer one is to God, the higher one ranks in relation to others. One has the privilege of being master of others lower in rank. Others lower in rank have the burden of being servants of those higher in rank. Because of their intentional lack of conformity to the absolute moral code revealed by God, some individuals rank so low that they deserve to die. Because of their intentional fullness of conformity, some individuals rank so high that they deserve to kill them.
This was Paul’s very Olympian, very conventional, way of understanding gods, moral codes, conformity, and rank. This was his understanding regardless of Gamaliel’s wisdom and example. Paul, then, was not acting like a witness to God at all. Instead, by his actions he witnessed to his great enthusiasm for Jupiter the god of politics.
Paul understood himself to be flawless in his conformity to the one true god’s absolute moral code. He understood himself to rank above all non-Jews, above all non-Pharisaic Jews, and above all Pharisaic Jews his age as well as all Pharisaic Jews of any age not showing emotional intensity and moral conformity equal to his own. Consequently he understood God’s will and his will to be remarkably similar. He understood himself as one ranking high enough to be responsible for imprisoning Jews ranking low enough to deserve it. He went about imprisoning Jews participating in the new Jesus movement, who deserved it, with great enthusiasm.
He did this as long as his very conventional Olympian understanding lasted. It lasted until the extremely unconventional Jesus confronted him on the road to
All Jesus did was to ask Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Yet with these five simple words Jesus liberated Paul from his very Olympian understanding of God, the people of God, and himself.
Out went Paul’s thinking of his relationship with God in terms of moral codes, conformity, and ranking. Despite his tremendous conformity to the best possible moral code, despite his high ranking and imagined closeness to God, Paul suddenly learned that he wasn’t witnessing to the one true god at all. His thinking had been all wrong and his behavior had been evil.
This problem is not unique to Paul. It is common to all Olympians, to all of us, today. This problem of moral codes, conformity, ranking, and imagined superiority was not unique to Judaism or to Pharisaism. It is the way Christianity, across denominations, is practiced today.
What we may learn from Paul is that this whole moral-code way of thinking and living is Olympian. As with Paul, we may expect that any time Jesus speaks to us today he will free us, that much more, from this whole way of thinking in favor of one more spontaneous, loving, and vital.
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