When Paul described himself as a “Slave of Christ,” or “bought with a price,” he was acknowledging an urgency, a passion and a sense of divine constraint and obligation. “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel.” There’s a complete devotion here to the task of evangelism.
It wasn’t a committment to a project, however, but to a person. His was a theology of experience, and the exploration of a friendship. “My goal is to know Him …Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead…”
This passage (from Philippians 3) goes a long way in helping us understand the driving forces of Paul’s life. He was a man of two worlds.
First, he was “A Hebrew of the Hebrews” and then again he was a Roman citizen by birth. He was the educated Pharisee, able to address the crowd in Aramaic, and argue points of the law, and yet the fluent Greek and Latin speaker of Tarsus (of “no mean city“).
So where was he truly at home?
I guess he would have claimed to have been free of each because his Lord was the lord of both.
But Galatians (and Romans) show that the real key to understanding Paul is the person and experience of Abraham. You might even say that Paul came to understand himself through reflection on Abraham.
First, because Abraham too was a man of two worlds. He was a man of Ur, which we now know to have been a large and sophisticated civilisation, so one contrast in Abraham can be drawn between the life of a settled community and the life of a nomad.
And Abraham abandoned the gods of Ur to follow the call of an unknown god who summoned him to a journey,to a lifelong adventure of committment to a speaking voice. “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went….”
And along the journey he faithfully erected altars, marking the developing revelation of God’s call.
I can see how this resonated with Paul, with his sense of calling out into the unknown, and the planting of churches (like altars?) along the way.
But there’s much more. Paul had spent his whole early life in a meticulous study and practice of the Law. He was deeply patriotic and saw the Law as the rallying cry of all the prophets of old. Here, surely, was the place where a man could gain victory over himself.But it hadn’t worked out that way. It had only served to show how inadequate his self-righteousness and striving was.
In Abraham, however, he found a deeper principle at work. Here was a man, centuries before the law was written down as the foundation stone of the nation, who simply followed God and was called “the friend of God.”And he was accepted into relationship not by what he personally achieved, but by…by what?
An intimate relationship, a divine purpose, a promise of inheritance….none of this on the basis of any elaborate pursuit of goodness but simply because he was ready to trust God with his future and do what God said.
And the first thing was: Go, not knowing where you are going!
Of course, this was an act of obedience but it was somehow very different from “tithing mint and cumin” or ticking the boxes in a long list of rules and regulations.
And here’s the thing: it wasn’t in order to gain favour but in response to favour already shown.
Imagine that: a way of life built around someone who could be trusted and therefore gladly obeyed. Someone who accompanied you in your obedience, who even talked over his plans with you.
For Paul, Abraham was a man who was free because he loved, and because he loved, he gave himself to a trusting obedience no matter what.
Paul wasn’t trying to duck out of duty and obligation. He was accepting the principle of unlimited obligation which is the inner meaning of love..
When Paul (or rather Saul, as he was) watched Stephen die, he also would have listened to Stephen’s long speech (in Acts 7). At first glance, it looks like a fairly stodgy history lesson, but there’s something significant there, something which may have stuck like an irritating barb in his brain. It was this: that Abraham and his faith-obedience to God’s command was treated as the real key to Israel’s whole history, in contrast to the natural man (Israelite or any other) to settle down and then “command” God for his own convenience.
It’s the vital clue, not just to the long up-and-down journey of Israel, but to how God lives with man.
And, of course, it’s the clue to how and why God summoned Paul. He too had been challenged by God and in response had committed himselfto an uncharted journey. The Christ who halted him was vindicating God’s ways with man thoughout history. Al Paul’s arguments about saving faith flow by analogy from the saving faith of Abraham.
And this is the nub of Galatians. Abraham is THE symbol of faith-response and faith-obedience.
But do you see how significant that statement is for the argument that was raging at Galatia? Just as the first Israel was constituted by Abraham’s act of faith-obedience., so the new Israel of God (Gal 6:6) is constituted by the faith-obedience of Christ. Those who are “the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26) are “Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise“(Gal 3:29), irrespective of gender, rank or nationality, “one man in Christ“(Gal 3:28).
This is huge.
And ultimately,the experience of both Paul and Abraham only point to Christ, the archetypal “Man of two worlds.” The incarnation is the total embodiment of this principle. The life and death and resurrection, the choosing of the twelve, the commissioning, the calling, the sending, “unto the ends of the earth” – Paul and Abraham are shadows of which this is the real substance.
How shocking to lose your grasp on the meaning of Christ and turn it into a “Do this, do that” religious game. That’s what was at stake here. If you go that way, said Paul then “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you are fallen away from grace.” (Gal 5:4)
But don’t read that as if Paul had any doubt of the outcome. For Paul, the cross is the real and total victory of God for all time. But for us, the life of victory is meant to be lived now in the immediacy of faith. That’s how Christ’s victory on the cross is made actual in our lives. The believer, like Abraham, must in the now of the present moment make that decision which is all the difference between victory and defeat.
“This is the victory which overcomes the world. Even our faith.” But the battle -the decisive battle- has been won.
Jesus says: “My victory is yours.” And we say it too.