Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World


The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950s the Student Christian Movement series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts that highlighted the pluralistic environments of the Old and New Testaments respectively, the one written by G.E. Wright, the other by F.V. Filson.  Each pointed to the distinctiveness of the faith of each testament against the religious culture to which it came.  More recently, and based on up-to-date data, a collection of essays, One God One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism (ed. B.W. Winter and A. Clarke, Cambridge: Tyndale Press, 1991), has contributed further to this subject.

Religious pluralism, which has become new to us in western culture in recent times, was not new in the broader historical background of the New Testament era.  It was, in fact and in particular, a distinguishing mark of the Graeco-Roman culture of the world in which the heralds of Jesus went forth to proclaim him as the unique Lord and Christ.

 Paul’s History: from Pharisee to Apostle

I suspect that for his first thirty or so years Paul had limited exposure to the religious pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world.  True, he spent his first years in Tarsus in Cilicia but seems to have been shielded from Hellenistic influence in a conservatively Jewish family, perhaps through home schooling by a tutor.  His practical world was probably the home and the synagogue with little exposure in Tarsian culture.  By his mid-teens Paul was living in the holy city, enrolled in the academy of Gamaliel the foremost rabbi of his generation, where he would have been immersed in the judgments of the scribes.  Jerusalem was indeed the ‘holy’ city, free from the evils of the Hellenistic world.  Paul’s letters, written considerably later, whilst displaying a preacher’s gift for a rhetorical turn of phrase, inhabit the intellectual universe of the Greek Bible.  There is no trace of the literature of the Greek classics in the letters of Paul but echoes from the Septuagint abound.

His radical redirection from attempted destroyer of the faith to its passionate preacher began to bring him into contact with Gentiles.  During his so-called ‘unknown years’, the fourteen years between the Damascus ‘call’ and the Jerusalem ‘agreement’ that he should go to the Gentiles, there is evidence of his foundation of gentile churches – in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41).  Titus, the uncircumcised ‘Greek’ who accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem, is a prominent example of a Gentile who had become a Christian during the decade or so that Paul spent in the ‘regions of Syria and of Cilicia’ where his proclamation of the faith he had formerly attempted to destroy had come repeatedly to the attention of the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:21-23).

The big question, though, is: Were Titus and the members of the Syrian and Cilician gentile churches  God-fearers or idolaters?  Francis Watson argued that Paul did not begin to evangelize outright Gentiles until the journey to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia recorded in Acts 13-14, having concentrated to that point in his ministry to Jews, a conclusion readily based on evidence from the book of Acts.  The early chapters of Galatians, however, strongly imply that throughout the ‘fourteen years’ Paul had been preaching the Son of God to the uncircumcised.  For their part, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer incline to the view that these Gentiles were synagogue-connected God-fearers.  This would help explain why Paul was repeatedly beaten in the synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24).  He asserted that the crucified Messiah, not the Law, was the true and only route to ‘life’ with God.

The evidence from Acts 15:23, 41 points conclusively to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles through his decade in Cilicia (based in Tarsus) and Syria (based in Antioch).  If Hengel and Schwemer are correct – that these Gentiles were mainly God-fearers – it would mean that the Gentiles Paul met were those who had already separated from pagan pluralism in their attendance at the synagogues, adopting instead the ways of Judaism.

In this case it would mean that Paul’s first missionary foray – which was in Cyprus and Southern Galatia – was the first occasion when Paul encountered outright pagans in any number, front on.

Paul and Idolaters

Paul’s mission letters, written during the decade of the westward missions (AD 47-57) in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, give abundant evidence of former idolaters who were now members of his mission churches.

In Pisidia and Lycaonia (ca. 47/48)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (theoi); but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11; cf. 5:20 – ‘idolatry’/eidolatria)

In Macedonia (ca. 49)

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols (eido|la), to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come  (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

In Corinth (ca. 50-56)

Therefore, my beloved brothers, flee from the worship of idols (eidolatreia) (1 Cor. 10:14; cf. 1 Cor. 8-10 passim).  What agreement has                   the temple of God with idols (eido|la)?…Therefore. Come out from them, and be separate….(2 Cor. 6:16,17)

In short, the documents of Paul from the missionary decade (AD 47-57) reveal that he gathered into his churches significant numbers of idol-worshippers as well as those ‘God-fearers’ who had already left the temples to join the synagogues.

Mixed Churches

In Paul’s letters we are able to pick up references to Jews and Gentiles within the congregations of the Pauline mission.


From Galatians the many references to ‘you’ are directed to those Gentiles who have been negatively influenced by the Jewish-Christian ‘agitators’, for example, ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you’ (1:6); ‘O foolish Galatians who has bewitched you?’ (3:1);  ‘Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods’ (4:8); (5:7); ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves’ (5:12).  In Galatians the ‘you’ are Gentile Galatians.

Nonetheless, buried within the text of Galatians we also find oblique references to Jews.  Paul’s review of Old Testament history and promises in chapter 3 is directed to Jewish readers, as summed up in chapter 4: ‘In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (4:3-4).  ‘We’ in Galatians are Jews like Paul and Cephas (‘we ourselves are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners’ – 2:15) but also the Galatian Christian Jews.

First and Second Corinthians

We know that the foundation members of the church in Corinth were God-fearers and Jews.  We would expect that First Corinthians would address issues that affected them, but apart from the reminder that he originally preached ‘Christ crucified’ in the synagogue – as in ‘the “Christ” [Messiah] who ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3) – it is difficult to find passages that reflect Jewish issues.  Wisdom from speech, porneia, idolatry, denial of end-time resurrection were issues for Gentiles.  It is otherwise in Second Corinthians where part of the excursus on New Covenant ministry (3:1-18) appears to be directed to Jews who were being influenced (by the ‘peddlers’) to think that the former covenant remained in place, unabrogated.  On the other hand, however, the appeal to ‘come out’ applies to those Corinthian Gentiles who continued to frequent the temples of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


In Romans Paul specifically addresses Gentiles (‘I am speaking to you Gentiles’ – 11:13) and they probably were amongst ‘the strong’ in 14:1-15:7.  On the other hand, he addresses those who ‘know the law’ – that is Jews (7:1) – whom also he addresses in symbolic terms as the ‘weak’ (Rom. 14:1-15:7).  The greater part of Romans is Paul’s response to criticisms that emanate from from a Jewish source or sources (e.g., 3:8; 6:1; 9:1-3).


Passages in Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans indicate the presence of Gentiles and Jews as members of the churches of the Pauline Mission.  These remind us of the pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world where Paul preached his message of Christ crucified and risen, whose members have been included within the churches (cf. Gal. 3:27-28 – ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…’).  Paul does not necessarily signal that his readers for the moment are Gentiles or Jews but they would understand who he was addressing in various parts of his letters.  Today we easily miss the nuanced references to Jews and Gentiles but the original hearers of Paul’s letters would not have been in doubt.[1]

Pluralism in Corinth

As already mentioned most references in First Corinthians relate to Gentiles.  From these we have a series of social snapshots of the kind of pluralism that marked gentile behaviour in the Achaian capital.   Chapters 1-4 focus on the wisdom that comes from rhetoric; from chapters 5-6 emerge of picture of Corinthian toleration of porneia and litigiousness; from chapters 8-10 the language of temples and sacrifices takes us into the world of Graeco-Roman temple worship; the prophesying and tongues-speaking in chapters 11-14 connect us with the oracular language of Delphi and the Pythian priestess; and the denial of resurrection in chapter 15 brings us into contact with Greek soul-based eschatology; chapters 1, 4 and 11 point to the deep social stratification between the ‘not many’ who were ‘haves’ and the great majority of poor free people and slaves who were the ‘have nots’ (with whom Paul identified himself).   First Corinthians reveals a pluralism of beliefs and attitudes amongst the Corinthian Christians, a pluralism that mirrors the pluralism of the city.

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations like Corinth or Ephesus easily have the impression of ancient societies marked by order and beauty.  However, in the course of his travels in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia Paul would have addressed people who worshipped rocks, believed trees could be gods, owned sacred animals, accepted ritual castration and participated in temple prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.[2]   Moreover, these were societies that crucified ‘difficult’ slaves, sanctioned bloody combats in the arenas, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children like cattle.  The world to which the apostle Paul came preaching the gospel of Christ was a pluralistic world, both in religion and ethics.  In reality it was by no means in all matters morally elevated or spiritually enlightened.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with ‘many “gods” and many “lords’” (1 Cor. 8:5).  Pausanias, the travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in Corinth’s public square (agora) – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[3]

Paul adapts the Shema’

Paul’s proposition of the uniqueness of God and of Christ that he makes in 1 Cor. 8:6 is based on the great confession in the Shema’:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and

with all your soul, and

with all your strength

(Deut. 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities.

In First Corinthians Paul adapts the Shema’ to encompass Yahweh’s revelation of himself as the Father of Jesus his Son who is Lord.

there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for    whom we exist


one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

Paul applies his adapted Shema’ to the pluralism of Corinth.   In First Corinthians chapter 8 he reminds them of his catechesis when he established the church in Corinth.

We know that             ‘an idol has no real existence’ and

‘there is no God but one’.

Paul and the Corinthians ‘know’ that no reality exists behind man-made gods; they ‘know’ that there is ‘no God but one’.  Clearly, ‘There is no God but one’, is adapted from the Shema’, and is also found in various other statements in the New Testament, for example, ‘There is one God and Father of us all’, and ‘There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

‘There is no God but one’ also echoes Yahweh’s own self-revelation of his uniqueness in, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5).  There it is affirmation clinched by denial, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’.  In the Pauline catechesis it is reversed, ‘there is no God but one’.  In pluralist Corinth, with ‘gods many and lords many’, Paul’s denial of the gods and his affirmation ‘there is no God but one’ ruled out the worship of any other deity.

That these gods are said to be ‘in heaven and on earth’ identifies them as current objects of worship.  Later he will say, ‘Flee from the worship of idols (pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias) and ‘what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons’ (1 Cor. 10:14,19). In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples (by some Corinthians) Paul urges in the Second Letter, ‘Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17).  Paul regarded the worship of idols as defiling

The temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals, which occurred on altars outside the cultic shrine.  Large drains carried away the blood from these sacrifices.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the precincts of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘flee’ from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14).

The gods do not exist despite the Corinthians belief that they do.  They are ‘so-called gods’ or ‘said-to-be gods’.  Yet though the gods do not exist the Corinthians who worship them are connected with evil spiritual forces as they pray to the effigies of Zeus, Artemis and Poseidon.  They are offering sacrifices to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).

The assertion ‘there is one God, the Father…and one Lord, Jesus Christ’ declares that only the Father and the one Lord, who is his Son, are the ways men and women are to think of God, to serve God and to worship God.  As Paul commented to the Thessalonians, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Against the plethora of deities in Corinth and elsewhere Paul is insisting that ‘all things’, that is, in creation and redemption, are ‘from’ the one God, the Father, but that they are ‘through’ the one Lord, Jesus the Christ.  The creation is an entity because its Creator, God is a unity.

By contrast the plurality of ‘gods many, lords many’ implied not the unity of the creation, but its fundamental dissonance, its fragmented-ness.

But according to the gospel everything is ‘from’ the Father and ‘through’ the Lord.  They, who together are ‘one’, are the source and means of the unity of the creation.  They, who together are ‘one’, are also the source of the objectivity, the other-ness of the Creation.  ‘Gods many, lords many’ was implicitly pantheistic and implied that ‘things’ were gods, to be worshipped.  Polytheism and pantheism go together.  But Christian monotheism de-deified the ‘things’ and put the creation at ‘arms length’ to humankind, objectifying it, making it subject to man’s enquiry, but not his worship.  Here the seeds of modern science were sown in the apostolic preaching, which would begin to bear fruit in late antiquity. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The Unity of the God and the ethical life

First Thessalonians: Sexuality

Two passages should be connected.


you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

            and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who            

              delivers us from the wrath to come (1:9-10).


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you  received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave  you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification:  that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour (4:1-4).

The ‘turning’ to God from the ‘many gods’ demands at the same time a radical moral ‘turning’.  In the culture of ‘many gods’ there was the acceptance of many sexual partners.  The temples of the many gods were the temples of multiple sexual encounters.  But the ‘turning’ to the God who is one required the commitment to one heterosexual spouse and to the care of the children of that union.  Closely connected to this new commitment was the ‘work ethic’ by which parents took responsibility to provide for their families.

Marital fidelity for the whole of life as an ethical response to the unity of God in creation and redemption occurs repeatedly in the Pauline corpus, no doubt reflecting Paul’s preaching and catechesis.  This in turn arose from the teaching of the Messiah, Jesus.

First Corinthians: others-centred living (agape)

All behaviour now is to be others-centred, inspired by love, for the good of others and for their moral and spiritual ‘up-building’.  But this is not merely to live virtuously, as a matter of cold duty.  All behaviour, whether truth telling, marital fidelity, purity of speech, sobriety, respect for the powers that be, working to support one’s family, contentment (the rejection of the idolatry of covetousness), gentleness and forgiveness all flow from the new relationship with the one, true and living God as revealed in the life, ethical teaching, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

The plurality of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ allowed a plurality in behaviour, a lack of consistency, except that all behaviour was self-centred, not others-centred.  In Corinth each one said, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12) and ‘All things are lawful to me…” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The word agape| was then of uncertain meaning and rare use and its practice was foreign to the pluralistic world.  But in the world that was the kingdom of God this new word agape reigned supreme, based on the revelation of the One God and the One Lord.  This is the antithesis of the ‘I’/‘me’ individualism in pluralistic Corinth.

The word agape and its related words fill many pages in a concordance of the Greek New Testament.  Just as advent of the computer has generated new language and acronyms, so the incarnation of Christ has generated a new agape|-based language.  ‘God so loved the world…’; ‘a new commandment…love one another, as I have loved you’.

It is striking that the passage where Paul affirms that there is ‘one’ Father, ‘one’ Lord in rejection of the ‘gods many, lords many’ is a passage where he affirms the indispensability of love (agape|) for the other person (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

            Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.  This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If                        anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if  anyone loves God, he is known by God (1                Cor. 8:1-3). 

‘Knowledge puffs up but love builds up’, that is, ‘builds up’ the other.  The man of ‘knowledge’ in Corinth who ‘knows’ that ‘there is no God but one’ and that there are ‘no gods’ and ‘no lords’, but yet who eats food in an idol’s temple is outwardly still an idolater, still in effect an idolater, despite his theoretically true but privatively held ‘knowledge’ about God and ‘no gods’.

‘Puffed up’ by his ‘knowledge’, true as it is, it nonetheless means that he does not ‘know as he ought to know’.  For to truly to ‘know’ the One God is to express that knowledge in truly loving the other person.  A self-centred knowing of God – even if the knowledge is accurate – that does not love the neighbour is not ‘a knowing’ of God at all, despite the truth and accuracy of that theoretical knowledge.  These are scary words for theologians and their students.  The overwhelming number of German pastors contemporary with Bonhoeffer were rock solid about justification by faith but went along with the Nazis in their hatred of the Jews, in acquiescing in the ‘final solution’.

When we read First Corinthians we find there is a single Corinthian ethic underlying the many issues Paul deals with.  Underlying factionalism, fornication, litigiousness, temple attendance, the eucharistic meal, tongues-speaking and resurrection denial, there is one Corinthian foible.  ‘Each one of you says, I’; ‘all things are lawful for me’.  Life in pluralistic Corinth was all about ‘I…me’.

The theological worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-centredness’ went together. Societies that have a worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-first’ are societies with limited future, despite their wealth and technological achievement.  Dissonant plurality in theology is inevitably expressed in the dissonant ethic of selfishness and points to inevitable social fragmentation.

It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly calls his congregations to exercise ‘truth-in-love’.  The Graeco-Roman context was one of endless squabbles and discord, a dissonance that was all too easy to express in the social life of the churches of Paul’s mission, but also today.  Not only is this discord debilitating for a congregation’s mission to bring Christ to the world, equally it gives expression to the ego-centred ethic that is the accompaniment of the pluralistic worldview.  The body of people who together confess the great catholic creeds must also be a people united in others-centred love.  Not to do so is to deny the ultimate truth of those creeds.

It is striking that in Paul’s list of 15 ‘works of the flesh’ in Galatians 5:19-21, which he says are ‘evident’, no less than 8 are social sins – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.  (Philo’s vice list has 141 items!)  Paul warns the Galatians against ‘biting and devouring one another’ and he pleads with them not to become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’.  Whether Paul is addressing a congregation in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Philippi or Rome, again and again the message is the same, his plea for unity based on love and humility.  It is not just because of a shared sinful nature that he must make these pleas.  It is because a pluralistic worldview implies a me-first ethical pluralism, a worldview that they claim to have abandoned.

The apostolic message directed the hearers to the One God (unity) in place of many gods (plurality); and to a single ethic, the ethic of love (agape), a way of living that is others-centred (a source of unity) in place of me-centredness (plurality, an inevitable source of division).  The agape ethic is a corollary of the of the Christo-centric theology.

Agape underlies every ethical challenge Paul makes throughout First Corinthians.  But it is an agape that is informed by the ultimate expression of others-centredness, the others-centredness of the Lord who was crucified for others.  Agape is no mere virtue, amongst other virtues, as proposed by the ethicists of Paul’s day.  This agape| was incarnated in the crucified man, the Kyrios.

The apostolic standard agape was and is a hard standard to attain and it is never fulfilled completely.  Yet our best efforts, as strengthened by the Spirit of God, make a radical difference to the way Christians live against the backdrop of the way societies are.  That is the power of apostolic teaching and the power of the Spirit of God.

Paul Barnett


[1]For example, 2 Cor. 3, which teaches the ‘end’ of the Old Covenant, was surely directed to Jewish Christians.  The Old Covenant was a covenant with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31); it was not a covenant with Gentiles/the nations.  The ‘new perspectives’ on Judaism and Paul imply that the covenant with Israel still stands, despite Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3.  But the covenant with Israel/Judah ‘ended’ in Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  Christian Jews in Corinth should understand that culturally they may remain Jews, but theologically they may not.  A true Jew is no longer identified by a circumcised foreskin but by ‘circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [= law]’ (Rom 2:28).

[2]D.W.J. Gill, “Behind the Classical Facade: Local Religions of the Roman Empire,” in One God One Lord, pp. 72-87.

[3]Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.6-7.

September 2000

The Jesus of History is the Christ of Faith
Romans 1:3-4

Many modern scholars drive a wedge between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Lord whom the Church worships. Hundreds of major books about the historical Jesus have emerged in the past two decades that ‘reconstruct’ him very differently from the Creeds. Some say he was an ‘charismatic rabbi’ (e.g., Vermes) others a ‘fiery apocalyptic prophetic’ (e.g., E P Sanders) others again a Greek Cynic style teacher bent on subverting existing social structures (e.g., Crossan).

Several things are assumed in and are common to these various portrayals of the ‘historical Jesus.’

(1) he was not the Son of God as the second person of the Trinity, and
(2) he was not raised bodily from the dead.

Yet many who assert that the ‘real Jesus’ was ‘nothing but’ a rabbi, prophet or sage still affirm him in the church as ‘Lord.’ This is remarkable given the view of his ordinariness as a man whose remains are still decomposing somewhere in Palestine. How can such a man be called ‘Lord’? Only by the language of myth and metaphor that says, in effect, ‘Lord’ is only a word, with no meaning corresponding with that word. Thus when the congregation uses the word ‘Lord’ in a hymn or a priest uses ‘Lord’ in a prayer both have their metaphorical tongues firmly in cheeks.

This is not a religion with a great future. Most such adherents used to be proper Christians but have lost their way through postmodernism and neo-gnosticism and are just seeing out their days in the churches. Only habit and nostalgia keeps them coming. But such people do not win converts or new members. This kind of liberal Christianity is crumbling everywhere.

The relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith fascinated the theologians of the late 1800’s including Martin Kaehler who wrote the evocatively titled, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (mercifully in English translation – Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1988). Kaehler, who was orthodox in belief and devout in piety, argued that the only Christ for our faith is the Christ mediated to us by those who originally came to have faith in him. Kaehler does not attempt to get behind the Jesus of the Gospels to the ‘real’ Jesus. The historical Jesus may be investigated and found, perhaps, but he is irrelevant to ‘faith.’

Clearly, Kaehler’s thinking leads directly to Bultmann the great German theologian who dominated the first half of the twentieth century. In contrast to Kaehler, however, Bultmann was almost totally sceptical about recovering the ‘historical Jesus.’ A thorough existentialist (rather than a pietist) Bultmann rejected altogether the notion that one could have ‘faith’ in a figure of ‘history.’ ‘Faith’ cannot connect with ‘history’ and since (as a Lutheran) one is ‘justified by “faith”’ it meant that ‘history’ was not only irrelevant to ‘faith’ (Kaehler) but worse, ‘faith’ and ‘history’ are inimical.

By contrast, N T Wright, a scholar of our times insists on the importance and possibility of the recovery of the Jesus of history for ‘faith.’ See, in particular, N T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia, Fortress: 1996). Wright presents the historical Jesus as recognisable to his contemporaries as a prophet and as the Messiah of Israel.

Surprisingly, however, Wright has little to say about Jesus’ understanding of himself as ‘the Son’ and of Yahweh as his Abba / ‘’Father.’ Yet, as we shall see in a moment, it was this unimaginable sense of Jesus’ own filial identity and sense of God’s Fatherhood, revealed chiefly in private to the Twelve, that dominated the earliest Christians’ understanding of Jesus. But this Jesus, Jesus ‘the Son’ of his Abba, revealed by his careful teaching to the Twelve in private, is no less historical than the perception of him in public as a prophet. For his part, Jesus gives little support to declarations that he was a prophet (though clearly he was a prophet). When confessed at last by the disciples to be the Coming One, the Messiah, Jesus immediately redefines that Messiah in terms of the Son of his Father, a Sufferer for others (see Mark 8:31, 38).

In the opening lines of Romans where Paul is giving an apologia for his apostolate to the Gentiles he adapts an existing credal statement about Christ. Its vocabulary betrays its un-Pauline origins, though we do not know precisely the time and place of such origins. Yet (1) the Davidic reference locates these words in Palestine, and (2) mention of the resurrection and the archaic sounding ‘Spirit of holiness’ point towards an early date, perhaps as early as the thirties.

Contained in Paul’s apologia for his apostolate, then, is this neatly symmetrical creed about the Son of God.

the Gospel of God…
concerning his Son
who came of the seed of David, according to the flesh
who was set apart as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead
Jesus Christ our Lord
Romans 1:3-4

These words are extraordinarily important at these times when ‘other Jesuses’ are being found and when the connection is being cut between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen and exalted Lord.

1. The initial ‘concerning [God’s] Son’ is a freestanding statement that points to his absolute pre-existence. This pre-existent ‘Son’ is also found in the opening words of the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Hebrews.

2. This ‘Son’ ‘came’ (tou genomenou – not ‘born’) from Davidic descent. He was a Jewish man of that ‘royal’ and ‘messianic’ line in fulfillment of the prophecies of Nathan (2 Sam 7), Isaiah (Isa 11), Jeremiah (Jer 23) and Ezekiel (Ezek 34). This Davidic Messiah is the ‘Son of God…according to the flesh,’ the ‘historical’ Jesus, the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

3. This ‘Son’ continues in ‘back-to-back’ chronological sequence, and without interruption, following his resurrection as the ‘Son of God in power.’ This is ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ whom Christians worship and proclaim, to whom they plead for his speedy return (marana tha, ‘Come back, Lord’ – 1Cor 16:22).

Thus, working from the present backwards, we assert from this passage that ‘the Son of God in power,’ Jesus Christ our risen and exalted Lord, was on earth ‘Jesus, the Messianic ‘son of David,’ who before that was eternally and absolutely ‘the Son of God.’

Where did this early creed derive its content ? There can be only one satisfying answer historically, as opposed to dogmatically, must be – from Jesus himself. Jesus knew himself to be that eternal Son of God and taught the disciples that he was, indeed, that Son. His resurrection from the dead powerfully demonstrated that he was that Son. Equally he knew himself to be the Messiah, the long-awaited son of David. His messianic miracles, matchless life and stunning teaching convinced the disciples that he was the eagerly expected Coming One. His resurrection from the dead clinched that too.

This creed, as adapted by Paul in c. 57 for his Roman readers, probably goes back to the thirties. The credo adapted for the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) was probably formulated at about the same time. In other words, we are on firm historical ground in pointing to the earliness of credal statements about Jesus which were established only a year or two after the First Easter. As A D Nock, the master historian of ancient religions pointed out long ago, we are not looking at myth that developed over decades and centuries, as in Nordic cultures. Myth and brevity are inimical. The extreme brevity factor between the historical Jesus and these very early credal forms exclude mythical reconstruction. Rather, the formulators of the ‘Son of God’ creed were so close in time historically to Jesus ‘the Son’ that we can only conclude that these beliefs were the beliefs of Jesus himself. But such beliefs would have been utterly delusional apart from his resurrection from the dead. Because he did rise from the dead, everything he said and claimed as a historical person, to be the messianic and filial Son, was now incontrovertibly true.

Paul Barnett
Bishop of North Sydney

Jesus in Romans

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney

2001 — A Faith Odyssey

Lecture by Dr Paul Barnett, Bishop of North Sydney

Who, then, was Jesus?


I will base both of my talks – ‘Who, then, was Jesus ?’ and ‘Our faith’ – on Paul’s great letter to the Romans.

1. The Impact of Romans

Before I launch into my first it is worth being reminded of the great influence Romans has had, not just on ordinary people like me doing a counsellor training course, but on some of the giants within Christian history.

You will have heard of the conversion of Augustine from North Africa in the fourth century. Prayed for over many years by his mother Monica this young scholar leading a debauched life read in Romans 13:

…not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

The Spirit of God used these words of God to open Augustine’s mind and heart to the saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.

A millennium later a young monk named Martin Luther was restlessly searching for the peace of God that he could not find through religious duties and good works. Then he came across these words from Romans 1:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed,
a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written,
‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Luther wrote that, ‘When …the concept of justification by faith alone burst into my mind, suddenly it was like the doors of paradise swung open and I walked through.’

Later still John Wesley a young but probably unconverted minister in the Church of England heard preaching on Romans in Aldersgate London. Wesley reports that, ‘Suddenly my heart was strangely moved…’

Early in the last century the Swiss theologian Karl Barth changed his theologically ‘liberal’ mind through reading Romans. In 1918 his own commentary on Romans fell like a bomb into the world of liberalism that was then dominating European Protestantism.

From this great letter I will attempt to answer my question, ‘Who then was Jesus ?’

2. Why seek Jesus in Romans ?

But now you have a niggling question. ‘If Paul Barnett is going to talk about Jesus why is he looking at a Letter ?’ Why isn’t he finding his answers from the Gospels ?

Let me respond.

First, I accept that a Gospel is the logical place to find the answer. The Gospels were written as biographies of Jesus, though biographies with a difference. These biographies were written not only to inform but also to encourage a response of faith and repentance.

But the sceptical of our world have bombarded the Gospels and left many doubts in people’s minds. I am thinking of the Jesus Seminar and folk like that who keep appearing on Television and in the newspapers. Now not for one moment do I agree with their attacks on the Gospels. But it seldom occurs to them to attack Jesus in the Letters of the NT. So I am going to begin with a Letter, that is, Romans.

Second, a good reason to begin with a letter of Paul’s is the known earliness of authorship. The Gospels dates are not known for certain and are a matter of controversy. But the evidence is not conclusive.

On the other hand we can be sure that Paul’s letters to the Galatians, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians and the Romans were written in a ten year span between the late forties and 56 or 57. Romans was written 56 or 57 from Corinth in the house of Gaius and brought to Rome by Phoebe deaconess of the church of Cenchreae (near Corinth).

This means that Romans is only about 25 years later than Jesus.

This is 2001. Twenty five years or so ago, Governor General Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam (1975) and in 1976 Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon for the first time.

In the same year Jimmy Carter was elected president of the USA and Sylvester Stallone appeared in the movie Rocky.

These things seemed like yesterday to us who were around. So, too, Paul would of thought of Jesus as ‘just yesterday.’

So let us find out what Paul says about Jesus in Romans. If a Gospel’s presentation of Jesus corresponds to Paul’s presentation we would have good grounds for high confidence in the Gospel account.

Remember too that we can trace Paul’s Jesus back through his earlier letters going to Galatians written circa 48. But Galatians only embodied in written form what was being said at the time about Jesus orally. Galatians is a mere decade and a half later than Jesus himself. Paul’s Jesus, as we find him in the letters then, is a kind of template against whom we can measure off the Gospels’ Jesus.

But to remind us how close to Jesus Paul was when he wrote Galatians in circa 48 let us be reminded of some events fifteen years earlier. In 1986 Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison in Darwin, Paul Keating called Australia a ‘banana republic,’ another Paul – Paul Hogan – starred in Crocodile Dundee and Mike Tyson won the world heavyweight title. For Paul, then, Jesus was indeed, ‘just yesterday.’

3. Jesus Christ in Romans

I have selected some passages from Romans to look at very briefly.

FIRST 1:2-4 Jesus, son of David, Son of God, Lord

the gospel…God promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
regarding his Son,
who has come from the seed of David according to the flesh
and who was set apart as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead:
Jesus Christ our Lord.

This elegantly shaped passage has all the marks of an early creed or confession that would have pre-dated Romans. Four things stand out:

1. God’s word the gospel is focused in Christ who is the Son of God.

2. The gospel fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament.

3. The word ‘come’ in the phrase ‘his Son who has come…’implies the absolute and eternal existence of the Son of God.(He did not ever ‘become’ God’s Son but always was the Son of God).

4. Jesus was the Son of God in successive modes:

  • on earth, as the descendant of David
  • in heaven, as the powerful Son of God
    • through resurrection
    • as demonstrated by the outpoured Spirit

How does it compare with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels ?

  • Paul’s gospel was focused on Christ as the Son of God.
    So too do each of the four Gospels.
  • Paul’s gospel claims that Christ is the fulfilment of the OT.
    So too do each of the four Gospels.
  • Paul’s gospel says that Christ did not begin his existence when he came.
    So too do the four Gospels, explicitly in the opening lines of John.
  • Paul’s gospel claims that Christ was raised from the dead to be the Lord who poured out the Holy Spirit.
    So too do the four Gospels, explicitly in the Gospel of John.

So the Gospels measure up precisely next to this early creed or confession in Romans.

SECOND 8:3 Jesus, God’s own Son, sin-bearer

For God has done what the Law,
weakened by the flesh could not do:
having sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh
on account of sin condemned sin in the flesh

This is a shorter passage, but packed full of important truths about Jesus. Paul has been reminding Jews (in particular) of their sorry history. God gave them his Law (at Mt Sinai), but human sinfulness defeated its good purpose. Paul calls this deep rooted sinfulness within us, ‘the flesh.’ So God has now done what the Law failed to do.

1. God sent his own Son.
Jesus is not a son of God, one among many. He is uniquely God’s Son.

2. God sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh.
That is, he was truly human, but unlike others, without sin.

3. God condemned our sin in Christ’s own body or flesh.
This he did on the first Good Friday.

Once again we ask, do what the Gospels say square up with Paul’s words ?

Again we ask how does this shape up next to the Gospels ?

  • Paul teaches that Jesus is uniquely God’s Son.
    So too do each of the Gospels.
    Remember the words from heaven to Jesus in Jordan, ‘you are my beloved Son.’
  • Paul teaches that Christ was truly human, but without sin.
    So too do the Gospels.
    He hungered, thirsted and grew tired. He was tempted and tested, but he did not sin.
  • Paul teaches that God condemned human sin in Christ’s body.
    So too do the Gospels, for example,
    ‘The Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world.’

THIRD 9:3-5 Jesus, God over all

For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.
Theirs is the adoption as sons;
theirs the divine glory,
the covenants,
the receiving of the law,
the temple worship
and the promises.
Theirs are the patriarchs,
and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Christ,
who is God over all,
forever praised! Amen.

This is heart-wrenching. Paul and others have preached to his fellow-Jews but to little response. But they are God’s historic people. God adopted them, showed them his glory in the exodus and the mountain, made covenant with them, gave them his Law and temple, made promises through the prophets going back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From their race has come the Christ (the Messiah), who is God over all, forever praised.

Well, there it is. Paul has said it in simple but unmistakable words. Jesus the Christ is ‘God over all.’ Have we heard what Paul has said ? Jesus Christ is God. And he has said it in an early letter which is rock solid in its dating and place of origin. Corinth in AD 56/57.

Is this different from the Gospels ? Again. No. Paul makes a direct theological statement, the Gospels tell a ‘story,’ a story pointed like a gun at the readers. Yet on page after page of the Gospels it is clear that Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel. He forgives sins, though not personally sinned against. Something only God can do. He stills storms and walks on the waves. The creator and the sustainer of the universe was ‘with us.’ He calls himself by God’s name, ‘I am.’ A man kneels before him and cries out, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Paul calls him God and so do the Gospels.

FOURTH 9:31ff God’s ‘Stone’ in Zion

Israel who pursued the righteousness that is based on Law
did not succeed in fulfilling that Law.
Why ? Because they did not pursue it through faith,
but as it were based on works.
They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, Isaiah 28:16
‘Behold I am laying in Zion a stone
that will make men stumble,
a rock that will make them fall;
and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’

Paul is telling his Jewish readers that Jesus was the Messiah, the ‘Stone’ prophesied by Isaiah. Because they have not believed in him they have ‘stumbled’ over that ‘Stone.’

Is this different from Jesus’ words in the Gospels ? Not at all. Jesus invited the people to ‘come to’ him and to ‘believe on’ him. As he approached Jerusalem he wept at the prospect of Israel’s terrible future, because they ‘stumbled’ over him.

FIFTH 10:5-9 Jesus, who was brought ‘down’ and was ‘raised up’

But the righteousness that is by faith says:
“Do not say in your heart, `Who will ascend into heaven?’ ”
(that is, to bring Christ down) “

or `Who will descend into the deep?’ ”
(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

But what does it say?
“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”
that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming:

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.

Paul is comparing the giving of the Law to Israel with the coming of Christ into the world. The people were given the Law, but they rebelled and broke God’s commands.

Remember the bull calf they made out of melted down gold that they bowed down before in a sexual orgy. The Law was intended to be ‘close’ to them, in their mouths and hearts. But it wasn’t. They broke it immediately and repeatedly.

But now God has sent his own Son to deal with sin. Not by giving laws people without the Spirit cannot and will not keep. Rather, God sent his own Son to die for sinful people, for their forgiveness and also to give them the strength of God’s own presence to overcome evil within. As Charles Wesley wrote, ‘He breaks the power of cancelled sin. He sets the prisoner free.’

The Law was meant to be close to them, in mouth and heart, but isn’t.

The Christ is meant to be close to us, in mouth and heart, and is.

We confess him with our mouths as Lord and they believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead and so we are saved.

Christ is on my lips and is in my heart by the truth that I believe about him. He could not be closer. That is because he did not stay in heaven, but came down to us here. That is because he did not remain in Joseph’s tomb, but was raised from the dead, alive forever.

So what is Paul saying about Christ ? And how does it match up with the Gospels ?

  • Paul says that Christ came ‘down’ to us.
    But so too do the Gospels.
    Jesus told Nicodemus, ‘No one has ascended to heaven, except the Son of Man who has descended from heaven’ (John 3:13).
  • Paul says that Christ was ‘raised from the dead.’
    So too do the Gospels.
    By Sunday morning the tomb was empty. For forty days he appeared to them alive, eating, drinking and speaking.

SIXTH 11:25-27 The Deliverer will come

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers,
so that you may not be conceited:
Israel has experienced a hardening in part
until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’

As Paul looked into the future he saw a number of things happening. At the time the greater part of Israel was hardened towards the gospel. This in turn opened the way to Gentiles to respond. When their full number is brought in Paul forsees the salvation of ‘all Israel.’ This probably means those Israelites chosen by God down the ages. God will not abandon his historic people or his promises to them. Then will come the ‘deliverer from Zion,’ that is, from heaven.

Paul speaks many times of the return of the Lord including in this passage in Romans.

How do the Gospel measure up ? In exactly the same way. Jesus speaks many times of the coming of the Son of Man.

SEVENTH 15:1-3 Jesus, who did not please himself

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak
and not to please ourselves.

Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up.

For even Christ did not please himself but,
as it is written:
“The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

Paul is seeking to bring together Jewish Christians with Gentile Christians in one fellowship praising God with ‘one voice.’

Gentile Christians are more robust than their brittle Jewish brothers and sisters. The ‘strong’ need to make some concessions to the weak and to accommodate to their needs in food and drink matters. This means the ‘strong’ must be unselfish, not ‘pleasing themselves.’

The great model and example of ‘not pleasing’ oneself is Jesus. Here Paul is appealing to everyone’s understanding about the kind of person he was. He did not please himself but, like David in Psalm 69, ‘bore the insults’ of those who were angry with God. This is referring to Christ’s whole life, but in particular his crucifixion where he bore the scorn of men.

Is this different from the Gospels ?
Not at all.

Paul said, ‘Even Christ did not please himself…’
Jesus said, ‘Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.’

If even Christ did not please himself, neither should we.
If even the Son of Man came to serve, so should we.

Paul and Jesus are using different words but saying the same thing.

EIGHTH 15:8ff Jesus, servant of the Jews and ruler of the Gentiles

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews
on behalf of God’s truth,
to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs
so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy…

Isaiah says,
‘The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
the Gentiles will hope in him.

Paul is reminding the Romans of what has happened in recent times. Christ came to the Jews in fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But he knew that his salvation was to extend beyond the Jews to the Gentile nations of the world. Paul was to play a special role in this.

Paul mentions four OT texts that prophesied this. The fourth is from Isaiah 11. A man from the line of Jesse, the father of David, would ‘spring up.’ This ‘son of David’ would rule over the nations and become the hope of the Gentiles.

This is exactly what has happened. Little by little the name of Christ has been borne to the nations of the world by missionaries. He is the world’s king, the hope of many.

Is this different from Jesus’ teaching ? Again, it is precisely Jesus’ teaching, though in different words. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Go, therefore and make disciples of the nations.’

4. Conclusion

Our brief survey is finished. We have looked at eight passages in Romans where Paul makes extended reference to Jesus. Paul’s writings are very significant.

1. Paul’s writings are securely datable and they are early. Therefore they are close in time to Jesus.
They reflect what people close to Jesus thought of him. Most likely they learned these things from Jesus himself.

2. Paul’s writings are not intentionally written history. Therefore what they disclose historically is of special importance, especially in these times when the Gospels are under assault. On page after page of Paul’s letters we see the silhouette of the historical Jesus, of Jesus as he was.

By any canons of historical method, therefore, Paul’s writings including Romans are of immense importance.

What happened when we put the today much maligned Gospels alongside Romans ? Do we find another Jesus, a different Jesus ? Not at all.

In both we find the same Jesus.

  • Jesus who fulfils the Law and the Prophets.
  • Jesus who descends from the royal line of David, as the expected Messiah.
  • Jesus who is God’s very own Son, who had always been God’s Son.
  • Jesus who is truly a man, yet without sin.
  • Jesus who selflessly ‘did not please himself’ in serving God and man.
  • Jesus who invited the people to ‘come to’ him and to ‘believe in’ him.
  • Jesus who sustained God’s condemnation of our sins in his own person
  • Jesus who was raised from the dead.
  • Jesus who poured out the Spirit of God as Lord and Son of God in power.
  • Jesus who will return.

We find within the pages of the New Testament a united witness to Christ in whom we believe. But it is not a leap in the dark, a leap that is irrational or silly.

What Paul writes about Jesus Christ is historical, the more so since he does not set out to write history as such. The historical detail emerges innocently from what is in fact a series of sermons to Christians in Rome in the middle fifties, a mere 25 years on from Jesus.

How many names do you have ? I have a surname and two given names. If you took the trouble to count the names and titles of Jesus in the NT how many would you find ? In his book The Names of Jesus Vincent Taylor found no less than forty two.

For Peter the preacher in Acts he is Christ, Lord, Prophet, Servant, Holy One, Pioneer, Saviour, Rock.

For Paul he is Image of God, Firstborn, Wisdom, Saviour, Mediator, our Peace, Last Adam, Man of Heaven.

To the Writer of Hebrews he is Son of God, Great High Priest, Pioneer of Faith, Great Shepherd.

For John in the Gospel he is King of Israel, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, Way, Truth and Life. For John in Revelation he is Lion of Judah, Bright and Morning Star, Alpha and Omega.

These are but some examples of the incredible and early and numerous names his contemporaries gave to him. In later hymns the names and titles are often mawkish. But not from the NT. These names are robust and stirring. As befitting Jesus. So do we love him ? Yes. Do we trust him with our souls ? Yes. Do we believe in him ? Yes.

We need to direct our faith towards this Jesus, but it is an informed faith, a reasonable faith, a faith that we can hold in integrity and with good conscience. This I encourage us each and all to do.

But that is the subject for next time.

Paul Barnett
21 February 2001