Many Christians feel a tension between the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and that of Paul in his Epistles. The central theme of Jesus, it would appear, was ‘the kingdom of God’, and the main focus of Paul was ‘justification by faith’. These themes are so different that any attempt to reconcile them seems futile. We then allow Jesus and Paul to be set up in opposition to one another, and end taking sides in favour of one or the other.
But perhaps there is a way of reconciling the teaching of Jesus and Paul that can do justice to both Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and Paul’s teaching about justification. The unifying theme would be that of ‘gospel’. Here we need to be careful, however. Some kinds of modern evangelicalism have confused ‘the gospel’ with ‘the plan of salvation’, such that many believers assume that ‘the gospel’ equates to ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’ or something similar.
But that’s not how the New Testament uses the word ‘gospel’. ‘The gospel’, in New Testament terms, is the story of Jesus – who he is and what he has done. So the question is: did Paul and Jesus both preach Jesus?
The best place in Paul’s writings to look for an answer to this question is 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Here, we find Paul passing on an early tradition (v3), which is about how the gospel saves people from their sins (vv2f), and which presents the story of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s story (vv3-8).
When Jesus spoke about the kingdom, it was often with a strong emphasis on his own identity. In his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth he presents himself as the ‘anointed one’ of Isaiah 61:1-2). When, in Luke 7:20-23, John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is ‘the one who is to come’, Jesus replied with a mosaic of texts drawn from Isaiah. He clearly sees himself as fulfilling those scriptures. Then there is a set of texts that raise the question ‘Who am I?’
Who did others think Jesus was? Matthew 16:14. Who did others think John was? John 1:19-28. Who did John think John was? John 1:22-23. Who did John think Jesus was? Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 7:18-23. Who did Jesus think John was? Mark 9:9-13. Who did Jesus think Jesus was? Luke 7:22-23.
Although different people have different ideas about who he is, Jesus himself is always certain.
Jesus may have spoken much about kingdom, and Paul about justification, but underlying both is the story about Jesus, who is Lord and Messiah and who brings both kingdom and justifies sinners by faith.
Look at it this way:-
- What kind of person says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17)? And is that not what Paul means when he says, “according to the Scriptures”?
- What kind of person chooses the symbolic number twelve, which connects to the twelve tribes of Israel, and yet does not include himself in the twelve, because he understands himself to be their Lord? And is that not the gospel of Paul and the other apostles?
- What kind of person predicts more than once that he will not only die but also rise, Mark 9:31?
- What kind of person sums up his life as the Son of Man who came to give his life as a ransom for many, and in ways that combine Daniel 7’s Son of Man vision with Isaiah 42-53’s servant image? See Mark 10:45 and 14:24.
- What kind of person sees himself as the Passover, as Jesus does at the Last Supper? And is this not utterly consistent with 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says Jesus died “for our sins.”
If we begin with kingdom, we have to distort Paul’s teaching. If we begin with justification, we have to twist the teaching of Jesus. But if we begin with gospel, with the story of Jesus as taught in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, then we find that both Jesus and Paul witness to the story of Jesus. Telling that story will lead to the kingdom and to justification, but only if we begin with Jesus.
Based (with a few verbatim correspondences) on this article by Scot McKnight.