Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Not To Imitate The Apostle Paul

Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1

I love the apostle Paul. There are few, if any, people in the Bible that I think more highly of than the apostle. When my pastor often refers to him as “that great apostle,” I couldn’t more wholeheartedly agree. So when Paul instructs the Christians he writes to imitate him (in more places than one – 1 Cor. 4:16, Philippians 3:17), I am more than happy to oblige. In fact, when I read Paul’s letters I am not just looking to act the way he acts. Even more so, I want to think the way that great apostle thinks. I want the life I live as one who is saved by grace, yet still a sinner, to look like the life of the man who being saved by grace, yet still a sinner, was the most mightily used of God in the history of the Church. Perhaps God would be pleased to use me to bear a fraction of the fruit Paul did. Is this not the command issued by the author of Hebrews when he tells us to remember our leaders, those who spoke to us the word of God, considering their way of life and imitating their faith because the same Christ who worked mightily in them is the same Christ who can work mightily in us and will work mightily in the generations to come after us if He should tarry (Hebrews 13:7, 8)?

But I must be careful here. And the apostle Paul knows this. That’s why he offers a qualifying statement when he, for a second time, tells the Corinthians to be imitators of him. And the condition is this: only in so far as I imitate Christ. Otherwise, don’t so much as give me a moment of your attention. As I consider the opinion I have of the apostle Paul when reading his letters, I must confess that I take for granted that in everything Paul says and does he is imitating Christ. I implicitly assume that Paul always imitates Jesus. After all, he can do no other because he is literally controlled by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14), a slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1) who always does what his master tells him, right? Is this not why God is always present with Paul and mightily working His grace through him?

Wrong. Yes, God is always present with Paul and mightily working His grace through Him. But Paul does not always imitate Christ. And in this, grace is actually magnified when God continues to show Paul favor. I was struck by this as we were going through the end of Acts in Sunday School this past weekend.

As Paul completes his third missionary journey, he is unwavering in his determination to reach Jerusalem even though many of the brethren try to convince him otherwise because of the persecution that they know awaits him there (Acts 21). Once he gets to Jerusalem, it isn’t long before Paul is undeservedly arrested because the Jews can’t stand the fact that he is preaching a gospel that opposes their law and, even worse, he embraces the Gentiles. When they prepare to have him flogged, Paul reveals that he is a Roman citizen because it is illegal for them to flog a Roman without giving him a fair trial. So Paul is then brought before the Roman tribune, who eventually brings Paul in front of the chief priests and all the council to speak his case.

Does this sound familiar? Those who were with Jesus didn’t want Him to go to Jerusalem and die, yet he was resolved. Jesus Christ in the events leading up to His death was undeservedly arrested because the Jews couldn’t stand the things he said and taught and because He embraced “sinners.” And He was brought before the high priest and officials to speak His case.

Let’s now set Paul and Jesus side by side as they each stand before the officials.

Paul’s initial words:

Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.
Acts 23:1

Jesus’ initial words:

I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.
John 18:20, 21

Both Paul and Jesus speak of their having a clean conscience, living openly before men and, more importantly, God.

The officials’ response to Paul:

And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
Acts 23:2

The officials’ response to Jesus:

When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”
John 18:22

Both Paul and Jesus are struck after speaking.

Paul’s response to being struck:

Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?”
Acts 23:3

Jesus’ response to being struck:

Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”
John 18:23

Up to their responses to being struck, the experiences of Paul and Jesus are mirror images. But at the point of being struck, Paul and Jesus respond in completely opposite ways. The aftermath for Paul is that he is charged with reviling God’s high priest and then realizes that he has broken the Jewish law. The aftermath for Jesus is that the mouths of the officials are stopped and they can do nothing other than to send Him from their presence because they are the ones who stand condemned. Where Paul is found guilty, Christ is found innocent. And this is the difference between that great apostle and his Master who called him. The perfection of the One who bought him—and not his own life—is the only reason that Paul is a man worthy of our imitation.

So what’s the lesson here? If we will imitate Paul as he imitates Christ, the only way we can know whether Paul is imitating Christ is if we know how Christ walked, how Christ lived, how Christ talked. So more than we fix our eyes on Paul, let us fix our eyes on Christ. Let us behold Him in the Gospel accounts. Let us know Him. Let us study Him. Let us saturate ourselves with His way of thinking, His way of receiving criticism, His way of handling falsehood, His way of submitting Himself to evil rulers. And may the final result not be that our lives look like that great apostle, but rather that they look like that great Shepherd of the sheep become Lamb that was slain. I think this would make Paul happy. Don’t you?

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth… he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Isaiah 53:7, 9


Lee said...

Chris - good stuff! This isn't a rebuttal - because I definitely agree with your conclusion - but merely a question: Paul was working with the knowledge he had, right? So his response was born out of the fact that he was human and, unlike Peter w/ Ananias and Sapphira, he was not given special insight by the Holy Spirit. So in this case, wasn't he guilty of simply not being divine (or not being divinely inspired at that moment)?

(Lack of the complete knowledge that God has - it causes us many, many problems, for sure!)

icet402 said...

Yea, that's a good point. And, you know, I hadn't really even thought about it. You are totally right.

I think what I was struck by is what the seeming heart posture is in Jesus and Paul. We know that Jesus prayed for those who were beating and crucifying him that His Father would forgive them because they knew not what they did even though the Jewish law didn't oblige him to do that. So I wonder if Paul not knowing that the man whom he was reviling was the high priest actually gives us insight into what's really in his heart (wanting this man to suffer punishment) and how it's not like Jesus' heart, knowledge that we wouldn't have otherwise known had Paul known this was the high priest.

Does that make sense?

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin said...

Amen Chris. I really enjoyed how you placed the apostle Paul with Jesus and went through the two scenarios. Even when Paul seems so perfect, Jesus is still on another level.

Lee said...

Chris - I think so. Are you saying that it may be that God purposefully didn't reveal the identity of the high priest to Paul so that we might get a peek into Paul's heart and be able to see the contrast between Paul and Christ?

This discussion reminds me of the end of The Weight of Glory (the actual sermon, not the book) where Lewis talks about having an eternal perspective when we look at any given person we see; if we could see them in glory or in torment in hell, we would either see something we would be strongly inclined to bow down and worship, or something we would turn away from in horror... but we would not treat that person with indifference (or worse), that's for sure!

icet402 said...

Yup, Lee, that's what I was trying to say.

That's a great quote you mention. In this case, the one who it's easy for me to be inclined to worship, is at the same time one I would turn away from in horror if I really saw the fullness of what was in his heart. Yet when in glory, there will be no horror in his heart (which of course is true of him now) and no temptation in me to think too highly of him. Hasten to come Lord Jesus!

Thanks for more to think about Lee!

Lee said...

You're welcome!

That's a good reminder of a third option we have - hero worship in this temporal plane....

Yes, it's such a great quote, that I'm going to add it here, with your indulgence:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner--no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory