Did Jesus and Paul have different focuses in their teaching–the kingdom of God vs. salvation by grace?

Q. Why does Jesus seem to focus so much on “the kingdom of God” while Paul seems to focus on “salvation by grace”? Are they two sides of the same thing, or are they different focuses?

I think it is fair to say that Jesus’ teaching was essentially about the kingdom of God.  That’s how Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually summarize his teachings in their gospels—in Luke, for example: “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”

But I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that Paul’s teaching is essentially about salvation by grace.  As Gordon Fee has shown quite convincingly in his book God’s Empowering Presence (abridged in Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God), we actually have that impression about Paul because we read him through the eyes of the Reformation.

The Reformers were trying to respond to a situation in which salvation was being depicted, explicitly or implicitly, as the result of works.  Beginning with Luther, the Reformers found in the opening parts of epistles such as Galatians and Romans a strong insistence that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and they made this the centerpiece of their response.  All Protestants are heirs of the Reformation and so we see Paul through this lens.

But Paul was not actually writing to counter people who taught salvation by works.  Rather, he was correcting the teaching that salvation was by grace and sanctification was then by works—specifically works such as circumcision (the main issue in Galatians) or keeping kosher and Jewish festivals (as in Colossians).

So Paul emphasizes salvation by grace, not works, in the earlier parts of such epistles so that he can make the argument that sanctification should and must come by similarly by God’s work in us, not our work for God.  As he challenges the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

This reference to the Spirit is the key element.  Paul’s opponents said that people, once saved by grace, needed to be trained and restrained by the law; otherwise, what would keep them from running wild?  Paul countered that the transforming influence of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives would change them into people who desired and delighted to obey God.

But the very fact that the Holy Spirit was and operating in this fashion was, for Paul, evidence that the “age to come” or the “kingdom of God” was breaking into human history.  In other words, the essential incentive to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh is that we are already citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God.

Towards the end of Romans, for example, Paul turns aside a legalistic concern for sanctification through keeping kosher in favor of the transforming influence of the Spirit by explaining, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  And he warns the Galatians against the “deeds of the flesh” by reminding them that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—in other words, those who will inherit the kingdom of God do not do such things.

So we see that the notion of the “kingdom of God” is not an emphasis that’s central to Jesus’ teaching but missing from Paul’s.  Rather, for Paul the presence of the kingdom is evidenced in the coming of the Spirit and in the Spirit’s transforming influence, which allows people not only to be saved by grace rather than works, but also to be sanctified by the Spirit rather than by works.

(This is only a brief overview; I develop this understanding further in my study guides to Paul’s Journey Letters and Paul’s Prison Letters.)

(Also see the series of four posts that begins here for a further discussion of how the teaching of Jesus compares with that of Paul: “How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul?”)

An icon depicting Paul receiving his apostolic commission from Jesus.

Was Paul wrong to have Timothy circumcised?

Q.  In Acts it says that when Paul wanted to take Timothy along on his travels, “he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, because everyone knew his father was a Greek.”  That’s not a very detailed explanation. I’m interested in more details on what the reasoning might have been and whether we might consider this to have been a mistake on Paul’s part. Was he giving in too much to the circumcision group?

This is an excellent question and it’s fair game to ask whether Paul made a mistake here. I don’t actually discuss this question in my Luke-Acts study guide, so I’d like to share some thoughts about it here.

One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is, “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  Just because the Bible describes, without negative comment, how a leader like Paul did something, that doesn’t automatically mean it was the right thing to do.

In fact, elsewhere in the book of Acts Paul makes a mistake and then later admits it.  After his arrest in Jerusalem, during his preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul realized that the council was made up half of Pharisees and half of Sadducees (who denied the resurrection). In order to split the opposition, he called out, “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection.”

The ploy worked, but Paul later regretted resorting to such devious means.  In his subsequent trial before Felix, he insisted that he’d done nothing wrong so far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, “unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

So it is possible that Paul had Timothy circumcised out of fear of the Judaizers, who insisted that circumcision was necessary for good standing before God.  We can’t know for sure what Paul’s real motive was.  But we can at least ask, “Could he have done this for a good motive?  If so, what might that have been?”

The possible good motive is this:  Paul might have been encouraging Timothy to use his freedom to be circumcised.  Paul wasn’t opposed to people becoming circumcised in general, but only if they thought this was necessary to put them in better standing with God.  At the end of Galatians, Paul wrote, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”  So it doesn’t matter if a person is circumcised.  They can do so for a good reason.

Timothy had a good reason.  His mother was Jewish, and now that he was a young adult who could make his own decisions about such things, he could be circumcised as a way of embracing and expressing that part of his heritage.  This would give him the added advantage of being able to work with Paul among Jews who wouldn’t have the obstacle of seeing him as an “unclean Gentile.”  In other words, this expression of freedom (freedom to rather than freedom from) would open doors of ministry for him.  In that sense, it would be legitimate and well-advised.

To offer a contemporary analogy, suppose you’re a female follower of Jesus who’s living in a Muslim country.  You want to get to know your neighbors so they can hopefully see from your life what a follower of Jesus is really like.  You could choose to wear a head scarf so that your uncovered hair wouldn’t be an obstacle to the people around you.  If you did, would you be giving in to legalism?  Or would you be using your freedom to wear a scarf to open potential doors of opportunity?

I personally believe that was the same choice Paul was helping Timothy make in Acts.

Paul lays hands on Timothy