How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul? (Part 3)

Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.

In my first post in response to this question, I suggested that Jesus’ teaching represented a “transformed dualism.” His Jewish contemporaries envisioned a world in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was the possession of a particular ethnic group, that was based on law-keeping, and that was expected in the future. Jesus replaced that vision with one in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth, that was based on faith, and that was already present, in addition to being expected in the future. In my second post, I showed how the apostles came to share and confirm the understanding of the “kingdom” that Jesus had presented.

In this post I’d like to show that the teaching of Paul constitutes the transformation of a different dualism, but that it ends up articulating the very same vision of what God is doing in the world with the coming of Jesus.

I should note that in his letters preserved in the New Testament, Paul, since he was Jewish himself, actually did address many of the same issues that Jesus did. He insists, for example, that righteousness (understood as right standing with God, more relational than legal) cannot be based on keeping the law; it must be based on faith (implicit trust in God). He says in Romans, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law . . . but now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known . . . This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” This assertion leads Paul directly to affirm another key teaching of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is not exclusively hereditary, but rather open to anyone, Jew or Gentile: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”

However, because Paul also moved in Greek circles—he was uniquely equipped to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” because he was trained in Greek language, culture, and philosophy in addition to being educated as a rabbi—he expanded the discussion to address a further dualism. Greeks thought in terms of a distinction between spirit and matter. They envisioned people as spirits that had trapped in physical bodies. These spirits would ultimately be released at the time of death, but in the meantime people needed to do everything they could to overcome being dragged down from the heights of spiritual experience by their bodies. For example, they might attempt, through ascetic practices, to mortify their bodies to weaken their influence, or they might try to empower their minds and spirits through knowledge and philosophy or through visionary experiences.

Paul offers a different perspective on the dualism between “spirit” and “flesh.” He conceives and explains both of those things not as parts of the human being but as ways of living. The “flesh” is a way of life that is self-assertive, self-indulgent, and rebellious against God. The “spirit” is a way of life that is completely submitted to God’s influence and direction. (Accordingly some versions of the Bible say “Spirit” in various places, meaning the Holy Spirit. Translators and interpreters of the Bible have a difficult time knowing whether, in any given place, Paul is referring to a person’s spirit or to God’s Spirit influencing that person.)

Paul’s teaching that the “flesh” and the “Spirit” are two ways of life, while dependent on Greek conceptions, actually enabled him to answer a question that arose from the discussion within Judaism about faith and the law: If people are not required to keep the law, but simply to have faith, what’s to keep them from running wild? Paul explains, once again in Romans, that the “righteous requirement of the law” can be “fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God,” he says; “it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” But “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires,” and so they spontaneously do what the law requires—not just avoiding what it says to avoid, but doing positively the good things it is designed to promote.

Just as Jesus transformed the understanding of the kingdom by explaining that it was something that was in one sense already present, not something that would arrive exclusively in the future, so Paul transformed the understanding of living in the realm of the “Spirit” by explaining that it was something that was not entirely present yet, but whose ultimate realization was still in the future. Paul devoted much attention in letters such as 1 Corinthians to correcting misinformed practices that were based on a belief that people can already live in the realm of the Spirit to such an extent that what they do in our bodies doesn’t matter—indeed, that they should flaunt their freedom from their bodies’ downward drag by engaging in all sorts of activities that would otherwise be immoral or idolatrous. In theological terms, this was “over-realized eschatology.” That is, it was too much “already” and not enough “not yet.” Paul corrects this presumption of an already-realized kingdom by saying ironically to the Corinthians, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!”

But Paul also had to correct others, in letters such as Colossians, who were still trying to mortify their bodies through ascetic practices. “Since you have been raised with Christ,” he told the Colossians, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” In this case it was too much “not yet” and not enough “already.”

Either way, however, Paul made clear that the way of life that he called “the Spirit” had begun with the coming of Jesus. “When the set time had fully come,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” In this sense, the “flesh” and the “Spirit” are also two periods of time. The “flesh,” the time of rebellion against God, began with humanity’s first disobedience. The “Spirit,” the time of return to living under God’s authority and guiding influence, began with Jesus’ incarnation. When God’s purposes are fulfilled, ultimately life in the Spirit will completely displace life in the flesh. Gordon Fee brilliantly captures how these two ways of life can also be periods of time in a statement he makes about followers of Jesus: “Marked by Christ’s death and resurrection and identified as God’s people by the gift of the Spirit, they live the life of the future in the present.”

So Paul engaged a dualism between spirit and matter that believed both were parts of the human being; that saw freeing the spirit from the body as the means of salvation; and that believed this deliverance could be accomplished comprehensively in the present. Paul transformed this dualism by teaching a new understanding of the “spirit” and the “flesh” as two different ways of life; by holding that “spiritual worship” consisted of offering one’s body to God as a “living sacrifice” (this must have made some Greeks’ heads spin); and by cautioning that the life of the Spirit had not yet fully arrived: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

In my final post in this series, I’ll discuss how the gospel and letters of John and the books of Hebrews and Revelation, though they seem to reflect divergent theological streams, nevertheless contribute to a harmonious New Testament understanding of these issues.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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