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For Such a Time as This: The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul had a powerful impact in the world known for its time, bringing Christianity beyond the geographical confines of Israel. His life and ministry is a model for our current mission. (The Sabbath School Bible Study Guide)

The Christian message of Paul is certainly different from that of Jesus. It could not have been otherwise, because Paul was not Jesus. Furthermore, Paul lived in different circumstances. Jesus moved into Jewish lands and spoke mainly to Jews; Paul, however, mainly preached to Gentiles.

Paul had deep Jewish roots and was proud of it (Phil.3 :4–6). He was a Jew from birth; he had been “circumcised on the eighth day.” He could trace his family tree, arriving at its roots, even Israel itself. His family came from the tribe of Benjamin, which had given Israel its first king. He spoke Hebrew. He was a Pharisee (the most nationalist and traditional party), and a son of a Pharisee. He was perfectly obedient to the Law of Moses, to the point of being “faultless.” And if that were not enough, he had persecuted the church of Jesus with ferocious and active zeal.

But his personal encounter with Jesus altered his paradigm.1 His worldview had been transformed. He had changed from his fanatic Phariseeism. He became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah for which he and Israel had waited for centuries. This meant, firstly, that the Jewish community of followers of Jesus—of which he was a representative— were really Jews “in the interior,” and not superficially (Rom. 2:28–29). Secondly, it meant that non-Jews who followed Jesus had been “grafted in the good olive” (Rom. 11:17, 24), namely, the people of the covenant, Israel.

I think the first point that we should take from Paul as a model for our current mission is our way of understanding the Jewish people. In this regard, we must change our paradigm. We have become accustomed to repeating, without reflection or criticism, that God rejected Israel. This is totally opposite to what Paul taught. “Has God rejected his people? In no way, because I am Jewish, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom. 11:1). There should be no doubt that Paul refers in this text to the Jewish nation, to “ethnic Israel,” and not to so-called “spiritual Israel,” as can be seen when the previous verse speaks of “Israel…rebel and contradictor people” (10:21). Leaving no doubt that he refers to his Jewish nationality according to the flesh, Paul identifies himself as coming from the tribe of Benjamin; he was a descendant of Abraham.

For Paul, the Christian church is not an entity separate from Judaism, nor its replacement. For the apostle, God made the New Covenant to the Jews who believed in Jesus, who numbered several thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4, 21:20), and “Gentiles” who had been “grafted” to Israel. If we share the vision of Paul, our mission regarding the Jews will not be derogatory or boasting (see Rom. 11:18). Although we may not be Jewish—and we may not feel the same love for his nation as did Paul (Rom. 9:3)—our attitude toward the Jews should be one of humility and gratitude.

The second way in which we should take Paul as a model refers to his nonsectarian attitude. For those baptized in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28), Paul wrote. Obviously, ethnic differences do exist; however, they do not matter to God. Gender differences are not important, either: “there is no male nor female.” Privileges of any kind that put a man above the women—in society and the church—violate this principle. The same applies to social differences: “There is no slave nor free”—we are all one in Christ Jesus.

The implications of this teaching are of central importance. “Equality, fraternity, and liberty” should have prompted the Church to transform the world long before the French Revolution started to do so. Furthermore, the change could have been done based on Christian principles, based on love for humanity and its Creator.

To obtain this nonsectarian perspective, Paul had to recognize the spirit that moved Christ. When he understood that “Christ died for everyone,” he realized that he could not maintain an attitude of fanatic denominational exclusivity. His physical blindness, which was a product of the encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, probably made him think about his stubborn spiritual blindness. Then he ceased persecuting and devoted himself to preaching Christ crucified for our sins and resurrected for our glory.

As Seventh-day Adventists, it will not be easy for us to abandon our denominational exclusivity. Nor will it be easy for us to abandon traditions that call for us to follow the teaching of the Bible strictly. But if we decide to follow the example of Paul, as written and not as we interpret it to favor our tradition, it is possible that scales will fall from our eyes and we will have a powerful impact in our world. Otherwise, this Sabbath School lesson will be simply one of many that accommodate us as we feed our self-righteousness.

Notes and References

1. In 1962, Thomas S. Kuhn published his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he stated that, from time to time, certain discoveries have revolutionized knowledge in the scientific community, which have required profound changes in assumptions, theories, methods, scientific language, and so forth. Kuhn called these changes “paradigm shifts.” Upon discovering Jesus, Saul of Tarsus became Paul, which also changed his understanding of reality.

Carlos Enrique Espinosa writes from Argentina. He holds a doctor of philosophy from Andrews University and is a professor of theology and philosophy.

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