So how do we reconcile Jesus’ teachings with Paul’s? It has often been said that Paul taught the real gospel, while Jesus was mainly to do with preevangelism. This means Jesus spoke on the law, showing how all had fallen short, but that Jesus didn’t really carry the gospel message. This was left for Paul, who ministered after the resurrection, when the gospel was in force. This means we take a gospel of justification by faith from Paul as the main message of the church. This also means that much of Jesus’ message falls out of our focus.
But this is a very wrong way of reading the scripture and the gospel. It is a wrong way of reading both Jesus and Paul. Our starting point in the gospel message should be Jesus, not Paul. When we read Paul through Jesus, Paul makes a lot more sense. So where does the gospel message start? It starts with Jesus, who announced the coming of God’s kingdom. Or, as Jesus said in Matthew 24, the “gospel of the kingdom.” This is the good news about the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ primary message was about the coming of God’s kingdom. This was the promise of the Prophets. This kingdom would be a new community, a family of people from all classes and backgrounds, that would renew the world through the love teachings Jesus laid down and demonstrated in his own life.
This was also the central focus in the teachings of Paul. When we view Paul’s letters through this kingdom/community gospel, and not as merely a teaching about justification by faith, we get the correct balance in what Paul was teaching. If we regard his teaching as merely about justification by faith, as important as that is, then the message is reduced to a mere individualism, about my own life and salvation. It ceases to be about the world, the neighbour, the enemy being reconciled, about the community, and about creation and its renewal. That’s how we get the wrong idea about the world, as something that God is going to destroy, rather than something he is now renewing through us. We turn away from the world and don’t care about it, except for how we can use it and its resources for ourselves.
So then, why did Paul teach on justification by faith? In Romans, and in Galatians, we see what Paul was doing. He was speaking of this new community, that reconciles Jews and Gentiles into one new people. Faith is the way we become one. Because we are justified by faith, and not by our different ritual works, then our differences shouldn’t divide us anymore. This way, we can accept each other with our differences, and not claim that these differences are so important that we reject one another. So the pinnacle of Paul message to the Romans is chapter 14, where we all receive each other at one table, caring for each other, because God receives us all in Christ. This is the same with Galatians. There, Paul is writing about table fellowship between Jew and Gentile. It is the same with Corinthians. There, the table of the Lord is where we receive rich and poor, sick and well, slave and free, and care for each other as brothers and sisters. This is what was motivating Paul, and it’s the same things that are at the centre of the message of Jesus, in all his teachings and parables. Love and forgiveness freely received through the grace of Jesus eradicates enemies because it puts us all on the same level. This is what Jesus taught: “Freely you have received, freely give.”
The reality of Paul’s community focus puts the teachings of Jesus back into the centre of our worship as Christians. His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of the Good Samaritan, of the enemies (birds) resting under our branches, of our receiving people outside our circles at our feasts, return back into the centre of our Christian lives and actions. Paul’s teachings are given their proper perspective, not promoting individual faith as the final end of our worship, not highjacking the message of the cross into a selfserving righteousness, but bringing us into the kingdom life that Jesus spoke of. The grace of God is the means, the love for neighbour and enemy is the fruit. The actual centre of Paul’s teachings wasn’t an individual salvation by faith, but it was a new life that would bring about in us the life of Jesus towards our community and world.
People have used Paul to teach a kind of fascism, where we divide from others because of our differences, and then divide from nations because of our faith, and ultimately have a destructive stance towards these others. This view teaches us as Christians to be oppositional towards the things we perceive as wrong, rather than to overcome evil with good, with service to others, with suffering, as Jesus and Paul, and Peter, really taught us. This couldn’t be further from what Paul 39 was intending. This brings into our lives a “Jesus” very different to the one we see in the incarnation. It gives Paul a bad reputation, as “divider in chief”, against women, against Jews, against Catholics, against anyone else we disagree with. This puts him entirely at odds with Jesus and his ministry. It is reading Paul entirely wrongly, through the fallen eyes of divisions and worldly power. This is exactly what Paul wrote to overthrow in the Roman communities, introducing a new serving people. Paul is not against others in his letters, but his focus is us, everything in our lives that hinders this outward service.
We are against evil, but first in our own lives. We judge ourselves first. Then we serve. We can only overcome evil in the world when the Spirit of God overcomes it in us and he reigns in our hearts, lives, churches and communities. The kingdom of God starts within and then spreads outward. It doesn’t start by reigning over other people, like the kingdoms of the world, but by the cross, inviting people into renewal and life.
Central to Paul’s teachings is how this new community transforms the world. God’s eternal purpose is that through the church he shall reveal his manifold wisdom to the powers of the world. This wisdom is the cross, through which Jesus overcame the world. This is where God demonstrated his nature, his unusual wisdom. This is the wisdom and way of life of the church, our salt/light witness to the world. Paul’s objective? The transformation of the governments, rulers, corporations, and social customs of our world. The vision of Isaiah about a new creation and the glory of justice, kindness and mercy, filling the earth. The means? The kingdom of God Jesus introduced by his resurrection and depicted by his teachings. This is Christ walking on the water, stilling the raging powers of human fallenness in our nations, bringing about a new nature, a new creation. This is exactly Paul’s message. “God has chosen those things that are not, to bring to nought the things that are.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Or to put it this way, Paul’s primary motive wasn’t soteriology (presenting a theology on personal salvation), but ecclesiology (about the church), presenting the fulfilment of God’s promises in raising up a new messianic community to renew the world. This was completely in line with Jesus’ teachings.