The Crucifixion of Christ and the Conversion of Paul

 

Conversion

 

Arthur and Paul

Australia’s most famous convert is the Eternity Man, Arthur Stace and the Bible’s most famous convert is Paul of Tarsus.  “Damascus Road” is international code for conversion of any kind, a radical change of world-view.

A musical and now an opera have been written about Stace, and many documentaries as well.  ETERNITY is the brand name for Sydney and even for various products – even a brand of facial tissues.

I was an office junior in the city when the identity of the nocturnal ETERNITY chalk writer was still unknown and a matter of daily newspaper speculation.  Who was this phantom chalk writer?  The Sydney Morning Herald  ultimately revealed the mystery: it was Arthur Stace, a tiny man who wore a suit and tie and who rose before dawn in all weathers for his daily campaign.  So the enigmatic ETERNITY word kept appearing, though it was now matched by an equally elegant piece of yellow copperplate writing by a local wit – MATERNITY.

ETERNITY has become a kind of symbol for Sydney, but few understand that it was  “eternity” in hell from which Stace had been delivered that was the inspiration for his conversion and his relentless passion to bring this message to a hell-bound city.

Stace was converted from alcoholism and petty crime through local preachers including John Ridley and R.B.S. Hammond and was barely literate.  Paul of Tarsus, was from a wealthy family, was highly intelligent and an accomplished biblical scholar and was converted from Pharisaism and murderous religious zealotry.  A striking contrast: Arthur Stace and Paul the Pharisee.

A new creation

In this short paper I want to concentrate on Paul and his conversion and its implication for those who study here.

Paul summed it all up in one short statement (2 Cor 5:17):

If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.

There are only six words here:             ei tis             en Christo             kaine ktisis

if any            in Christ            new creation

Here is a splendid text for the Bible teacher.  It invites him or her to explain in turn,

“if any” and “in Christ” and “new creation”.  “If any” highlights the mercy of God, rich and free for even the lowest of the low, as the grievously deceived persecutor Paul had been.  “In Christ” is shorthand for belonging by commitment of faith and repentance to the crucified but risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  “New creation” picks up Isaiah’s prophecy of the new heavens and the new earth and indicates that the person “in Christ” now has the Spirit of the living God and is being transformed from what he or she had been into what he or she will be when God’s ultimate new creation is finally revealed.  In a word: redemption.

The Christ was Jesus

In every city Paul came to he went first to the synagogue and was given opportunity to expound the Scriptures, due no doubt to his eminence as a Pharisee and disciple of the famous Gamaliel.  Luke in Acts indicates that Paul’s method was to “argue” and “reason” from the Law and the Prophets that the expected Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.  According to Luke Paul’s message to Jews was both scriptural and eschatological, that he summarised many times as the Christ was Jesus.

It was no different in Paul’s own letters where scriptural fulfilment was fundamental.  Paul himself said his Christ message was “according to the Scriptures” and that in Christ “all the promises of God find their emphatic ‘YES’”.

But a BIG problem: this Christ was crucified

There was just one problem that we modern Gentiles and probably also modern Jews can scarcely understand, something unspeakably shocking about Paul’s message.  Since the glory days of David and Solomon a millennium earlier God’s people in God’s land had lived under the heel of foreign powers – Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman.  From the days of King David the prophets had kept the hopes of the people alive by repeated promises of a “second David”, the Lord’s Anointed One, his Messiah who would defeat the Gentile world-powers and establish Jerusalem as the world-centre of God’s earthly kingdom.  Those hopes were alive and well during the disappointing years of local Hasmonean and Herodian rulers who were mere paganising puppets of foreign Gentile powers.  The inter-testamental work called the Psalms of Solomon focus on this David-Messiah, as do the prayers of the synagogue liturgy from that era.

It was one thing for Paul to assert that in Jesus the promises of God for the Messiah were at last fulfilled.  It was another to proclaim that Jesus was Christ crucified.  For us those words glow with evangelical fervour, evoking our forgiveness of sins and justification full and free from the hand of the merciful God.  And rightly so.

But put yourself in the shoes of, say, a Jew in Corinth hearing Paul preach “Christ crucified”.  What we don’t pick up is the grammar implied by the passive voice, “Christ crucified”.  “Crucified – by whom”?  Who crucified this Christ?  The Gentiles, that’s who.  Paul was saying – can it be true? – the Christ was crucified by the very Gentiles the promised “new David” was to defeat.

So Paul’s un-winning message to Jews was that the Messiah had been humiliatingly defeated by the Gentiles and in the most intentional and public way.

The defeat of God

Do we see what else this implied?  If the Messiah was defeated, then Israel had been defeated.  If Israel had been defeated then the God of Israel had been defeated.  If God had been defeated then all hope had gone – forever.  Jews must now understand that they were a permanently defeated nation, and that the Gentiles will forever hold the power and authority, and that their understanding of a thousand years of prophecy was wrong.  So Paul’s message, if true, demanded the most profound change in Jewish identity and hope imaginable.

True, Paul could easily point to Scriptures that spoke of the sufferings and sacrifice of the One who was to come.  “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures” could be seen to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecies of a vicariously suffering Servant.  But that took some believing.  I repeat.  If the Messiah was defeated by the Gentiles, then so too was the nation Israel defeated by the Gentiles, and God was defeated by the Gentiles with all hope gone – forever.  Forever.  They must now understand that they were God’s permanently defeated nation, and that the Gentiles and Caesar will forever hold the power and authority.

As history has shown this indeed has been true.  No other Messiah has come, no new David.  Since the days of David and Solomon Israel has never again been a world power.

It happened yesterday

Of course this Messiah had been resurrected, or so this Paul of Tarsus claimed. But so shocked were they by his insistence on the Christ’s crucifixion by the Romans that they were deaf to Paul’s words about resurrection.  In any case, everybody knew that resurrection was to be cosmic, universal, apocalyptic – at the end of history to inaugurate the New Age.  Resurrection was not something they associated with an individual within history.  As Paul commented later back to the Corinthians, the message of Christ crucified “is a skandalon to Jews”.  Our translation “stumbling block” hardly captures the intensity of – skandalon.

To drive home the point may I remind us that when Paul came to the synagogue in Corinth and spoke about the Messiah crucified, it was in the very recent past.  It was  less than 20 years since the Romans crucified Jesus outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  Over the centuries since, “Christ crucified” has been used as a tag for theologians’ various theories of the atonement.  But the original Jewish hearers would not have thought about “Christ crucified” theologically but historically.  Corinth was a Roman city where people had doubtless seen slaves and others crucified.  Paul, too, had probably seen people crucified, possibly even Jesus himself.  Crucifixions were by no means uncommon and the crucifixion of Jesus was a recent historical event, as recent to Jews in Corinth as the fall of the Berlin Wall is recent to us.  These events are so recent that we can reach out and touch them.  So too was the crucifixion of Jesus just yesterday to the Jews in the synagogue in Corinth to whom Paul came and preached his astonishing message.

Why would any Jew believe this?

So, however did Paul manage to convince any Jews about his message?  It’s true that the Synagogue-Leader Crispus was one Jew who accepted Paul’s message.  But, nonetheless, the Synagogue as a whole “opposed and reviled him” and drove him out and then arraigned him before the Proconsul with the intention of banishing him from the city.  Their charge was that Paul’s message of a crucified Messiah could not be Jewish at all, and that his new group was not an alternative synagogue but therefore was an illegal association.  Gallio, however, saw Paul’s group as a breakaway synagogue.  Was not the eminent Jew Crispus a member?  “Sort it out amongst yourselves, you Jews” said the Proconsul.

So how did Paul manage to persuade Crispus and other Jews about his contrarian message of a Messiah who had been crucified by the people the Messiah was expected to defeat?

The something else

I think Paul then did something else in his synagogue preaching to Jews besides point to mere scriptural fulfilment, something to convince them that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was not the defeat of God, not the defeat of Israel but the powerful demonstration the end time victory of God.

So what did Paul do?

As best as I can understand it (and this a new thought to me), Paul introduced his own story of conversion as the living demonstration that in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ that God had not been defeated but had actually triumphed.

How can I sustain this?  What is my evidence?  Simply this: the frequency with which Paul alludes to his Damascus Road conversion in his letters – about thirty times (not counting the Pastorals).  In the book of Acts Luke tells Paul’s Damascus Road story no less than three times, twice from speeches from Paul’s own lips.  We must assume that Paul routinely told his original hearers about himself and his amazing, personal conversion story.  His re-echoing of that story in his letters so many times implies that his readers know about Paul and his conversion.

Paul divides his life-story into two parts, before and after.   Before Damascus Road was his “former life in Judaism” (Gal 1:13), first in Tarsus as the son of a deeply conservative Diaspora family (Phil 3:5a) and then in Jerusalem as an eminent younger Pharisaic scholar and hate filled persecuting zealot (Phil 3:5b-6).  At Damascus Road, as he said, he was “seized by Christ” (Phil 3:12) whereupon subsequently he became a love-controlled (2 Cor 5:14) preacher to others of the Jesus he had previously “persecuted” (Acts 9:4-5; Gal 1:13, 23), proclaiming him to all people – to the Jews first but also to the Greeks (Rom 1:16; 2:9).

What point was Paul making?  In telling of his persecution of the disciples of the Messiah he was identifying himself with his fellow Jews who had rejected the Messiah and who had handed him over to the Gentiles to crucify him.  In now proclaiming that the Messiah is the rejected Jesus Paul was saying that he had been amongst those Jews who had rejected him, at the very least retrospectively, by persecuting and attempting to destroy his followers and their “faith” (Gal 1:13, 23). Understood in this way we can see why Paul was so explicit in proclaiming the crucifixion if the Christ.  Confronting and painful to Jews as this message was it was at the same time their means of escape from the holy wrath of God.

It was Paul who reported Stephen to the temple authorities; and it was Paul who participated in his stoning; and it was Paul who launched a ferocious attack on the disciples in Jerusalem; and it was Paul who went with the high priest’s warrant to extradite fugitive disciples from Damascus.

And it was Paul near Damascus who was thrown to the ground by a bright light and addressed by a Speaker from heaven who identified himself as Jesus whom you, Saul, are persecuting.  Hence, as Paul told the Corinthians in his First Letter, the risen Lord “appeared also to me” and “have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8).  The crucified Jesus, now resurrected, appeared to Paul, spoke to him and commissioned him.  And, converted him – converted him from a hate filled zealot and persecutor to a love-filled preacher of Jesus the Christ.

The converted Paul who stood before Jews as the preacher of Christ crucified and risen as the fulfilment of the Scriptures was himself the living proof of the resurrection of the crucified Christ; and that God had not been defeated but had powerfully triumphed.  The living evidence was the conversion of the Pharisee and persecutor who stood before them.

New Creation and New Covenant

Here we must recall that Paul never denied his Jewishness.  True, his opponents called that into question to undercut his insistence upon his ridiculous message of Christ crucified.  But, no, to the end he was a Hebrew, an Israelite, a son of Abraham (2 Cor 11:22; Rom 9:1-5; 11:1).  We think of conversion as from (say) Hinduism to Islam, out of one religion into another.  Paul, however, lived and died as a Jew.  Paul’s conversion was not religious or denominational but rather deeply personal, changing his very heart and his behaviour from the inside out.  He lived no longer to and for himself but for the one who died for him and was raised alive for him (2 Cor 5:15).  Love not hate now lay at the centre; Christ not the law; the Spirit not ritual.

However, Paul’s conversion was by no means merely private, personal or idiosyncratic.  Paul’s life was divided into two halves, before he was “in Christ” and after he was “in Christ”.  But so too, he said, is salvation history divided into two halves, the old covenant before Christ and new covenant since and because of Christ.  We recall that old covenant prophets Jeremiah (31) and Ezekiel (11, 36) prophesied a new covenant to abrogate the existing covenant, when God would put his law “within the hearts” of the people so that each person “knew the Lord”.  The coming of Christ, his death and resurrection and his gift of the Spirit spelt the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new covenant, what we may call the conversion of history – the macro conversion of Israel “in the Christ”.  Paul’s personal, micro-conversion corresponded with the potential macro-conversion of Israel “in Christ”.

In other words, that Paul himself – Hebrew, Israelite, son of Abraham – was a new creation, a convert from persecutor to preacher, was the living demonstration that the long-prophesied new covenant had come.  Paul was both a minister of the new covenant and the evidence of its arrival.  Paul’s message to Jews, based both on prophecy and his own conversion, was that the old covenant was now ended and that the new covenant was now a reality in and through Christ crucified and risen and in the power of the Spirit of God.  His simple message was “turn to this Christ”.

But there is more.

Paul’s message: autobiographical and representational

Paul also told his story in his letters representationally.  The new creation that God had wrought in Paul could also be true of anyone who turned to this Lord and was certainly true of everybody who had turned to this Lord, people like Paul who, he said, were “in Christ”.  Paul’s conversion depicted every believer’s conversion.  His story was also their story.

It is in his Second Corinthians letter in particular that Paul speaks in a way that is at the same time both autobiographical and representational.

Before Damascus “Moses” (= the Old Testament) was a closed book to Paul, though he heard it read week by week in the synagogue.  But when he “turned to the Lord [Jesus]” the scales fell off his eyes and the veil over his heart fell away and he saw that the old covenant from beginning to end was prophetic, pointing to its “goal” and “end”, Christ (2 Cor 3:12-16).

If by turning to the Lord Paul now understood that Christ was the goal and end-point of the Scriptures, then so too had others who had turned to the Lord come to that radical understanding.  What was now gloriously true for him was true for all Jews who had likewise turned to the Lord.  The Old Testament is a Christian book.

Paul was a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6) prophesied by Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 11 and 36 where those prophets foretold the days when God was to give his people a new heart, cleansed from sins, so that they would freely walk in his ways.  Paul the converted man was a man with a God-given new heart who taught that turning to the Christ who was made sin unleashed the life-changing power of the Spirit of God.

If Paul who turned to the Lord was being transformed by the Spirit, so too were other disciples.  “We all with unveiled face…are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, by the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).  Stay as you are, said Paul, and you remain blind and comatose.  Turn to the Lord, he said, and the Spirit of God will begin to transform you into the new creation that will one day be yours in full.

At Damascus Paul says he had “received mercy”, that is, from God (2 Cor 4:1).  If Paul had received mercy, then so too had other believers.  What was true of Paul is true of all who come to believe the gospel: mercy from God.

At Damascus, God shone his light outwardly blinding Paul for the moment.  But God also shone his light inwardly into the dark recesses of the persecutor’s heart, to give that light of Christ to others (2 Cor 4:4).  If God shone in Paul’s heart to give light to others, then so too did God shine in the hearts of other believers that they might give the Christ-light to others.

God reconciled Paul to himself through Christ and gave him peace within, but also the word and ministry of reconciliation, to reconcile others to God (2 Cor 5:18-19).  If God made Paul a reconciler of those alienated from God, then so too did God make peacemakers of all who have been reconciled to God.

So deep were the changes of heart and mind that Paul speaks of himself as a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).   No longer does he judge people and things “according to the flesh” (shallowly); no longer does he live to and for himself, but for Christ.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.  But if Paul was a new creation, then so too are all who have turned to the Lord a new creation.

So, Paul writes autobiographically and representationally.  His story is and is to be his readers’ story.

Paul’s “Christ crucified” message in itself was a skandalon to Jews.  Paul’s converted life story must have been remarkably convincing to have converted very many Jews at all.  Indeed, God must have used Paul’s own conversion to great effect.  True, most Jews rejected the very idea of Christ crucified and drove Paul out; but not all.  And they became the foundation members of the churches that Paul established.

Conversion also of Gentiles

But not only Jews.  Paul must also have applied his conversion story to gentiles, including former wrong-doers in Corinth.

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?

Do not be deceived:
neither the sexually immoral,
nor idolaters,
nor adulterers,
nor male prostitutes,
nor thieves,
nor the greedy,
nor drunkards,
nor revilers,nor swindlers                                     will             inherit the kingdom of God.

And such were some of you.
But you were washed,
you were sanctified,
you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ
and by the Spirit of our God

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

The Arthur Staces of Corinth.  These now reformed wrongdoers were amongst those in Corinth that Paul said were his “letter of recommendation from Christ” to the watching world in the Achaian capital (2 Cor 3:2).  Such radical moral reform was striking indeed.

 

My observation, then, is that Paul saw his conversion as an act of God that made him the living demonstration that in Christ crucified God had not been defeated nor had failed, but had in fact had triumphed brilliantly.  Furthermore, Paul so wrote about his own conversion as a reflection of the fact that it was as true for other believers as it was for Paul himself.

If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.

I think, therefore, that God’s conversion of Paul and of others lay close the heart of Paul’s understanding that this conversion was the evidence that the new covenant had now come.

Reflections

Let me now make some concluding reflections, which I offer for those who are engaged in Biblical study, whether in the School of Christian Studies or elsewhere.

The power of conversion

It is that all Christian scholarship and ministry should be based on the reality and power of conversion.  We study the scriptures through converted eyes.  Through converted eyes we understand that only Christ unlocks the meaning of the Old Testament.  Through converted eyes we plumb the depths of the New Testament.  Unless God has opened or is opening the eyes of those who read the Bible its true message will remain elusive, a mystery and indeed sometimes foolish.

In my visits to the Middle East I have come to know and appreciate the friendship and scholarship of various guides; some are Jews, others Muslim.  The thing really surprising to me is that these non-Christians know their way around the Bible so well, better I suspect than many church people and perhaps better even than some ministers.  I conclude that having the Bible and knowing the Bible does not of itself create Christian faith or personal conversion.  Similarly, there are eminent biblical scholars who do not read the Bible through converted eyes and whose scholarship alone has not led them to personal trust in Christ and repentance from sins.  I am reminded of Jesus’ words to learned Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).  The Scriptures are the only witness from God to his Son, yet those Scriptures remain opaque unless those who read them do so through Christ-enlightened eyes.

Likewise we teach the Bible in such way as to convert the unconverted and to confirm the converted in their conversion.  This is not a shallow decision-izing approach with endless altar calls that inevitably harden the heart.  I am thinking about the presuppositions of the reality of conversion that teachers of the word should have.  The converted approach is not interested in communicating information for its own sake.  The Bible teacher should always be intentional, addressing the heart and the will.

A pure and sincere devotion to Christ

We need to resist the temptation towards scholasticism.  Scholarship is not the same thing.  Scholasticism is information centred, for its own sake, and speculation centred, preoccupied with identifying dots and joining them up into tight systems.  We never see Paul doing that in his letters.  Paul is ever the pastor, who writes simply and directly to the heart, seeking to bring his readers back to the centre of all things, Christ.  Throughout history, however, Christians have tended to make the simple complex and the straightforward obscure.  How many seminaries began well, with clear Christological and biblical intent but within a generation became intellectualised and remote and liberal?  Paul spoke of the possibility of being led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:4).  “A sincere and pure devotion to Christ” says it all.

Paul, like Jesus, was friend of sinners

It is observable that evangelicalism flourishes among the middle and upper social and economic classes, but not among the poor.  Bible Belt churches are usually in “successful” or aspirational suburbs and seldom in deprived areas.  One reason is that more gifted preachers who are recruited to these areas feel they can concentrate on their preaching and not have to devote too much time to the practical and pastoral needs of the less well off.  Bible Belt churches tend to have strong youth programmes because busy and successful parents are keen to keep their kids off drugs and away from sexual problems.  Thankfully most such churches deliver wholesome and helpful programmes and attract large congregations.  This is encouraging.  But it’s worth remembering that Jesus was the friend of sinners, and who ate with sinners and that the apostle to the Gentiles was a manual labourer who identified with the exploited “have nots” and insisted in working through the night to able to preach by day, offering the gospel at no charge to all, including the rich.  Paul’s catalogue of sins from which some of the Corinthians had been delivered (noted earlier) tell us that he, like his Master, was the friend of the poor and of sinners.

A passion for conversions will not be limited to the relatively easy ministry to the middle and upper classes.  Where today are the John Ridleys and the R.B.S. Hammonds and where today are the Arthur Staces?

Perseverance and progress

Paul’s words that we are “new creation” teach many things.  “New creation” is what we will be but what we not yet are.  For we are still in this life “in Adam”, all too easily prone to doing the things of the flesh that belong to our former lives.  That we are a “new creation” encourages perseverance and progress in the godliness and Christ-likeness that will be ours at the end.  That we are “a new creation” engenders hope and a genuine optimism.  That we are a “new creation” challenges us to have “new creation” attitudes and to live out truly ethically converted behaviour.

Therefore, Bible teachers need to enjoin perseverance “in Christ” and the daily expression of what it means to be “in Christ”, that is, in spiritual, ethical, “new creation” attitudes and actions.  That we are a “new creation” teaches us to seek within ourselves and within others the transformation from the Spirit that is from one degree of glory to another.

ei tis             en Christo             kaine| ktisis

if any            in Christ            new creation.

Paul could never forget his conversion, nor should we forget his conversion, or our own.

 

Paul Barnett

2 March 2009.