Friday, February 07, 2014


I recently read a thought-provoking post on a friend's blog that has set me off.

My friend posted a list of the Top 10 Most Influential People on American Christianity. Top of the list was Paul the Apostle and tied for last place was Jesus (and John Wesley).

This list made an excellent point, which I must say I agree with. (Except that maybe I would have put Constantine on there somewhere, but whatever). American Christians are much more students of Paul than they are students of Jesus.

How can I say this? Well, to start with, whenever I speak to people about the words of Jesus, most look at me with blank stares, or quote something that Paul said back at me to clarify what Jesus must have meant.

A few years ago I taught a series on the words of Jesus (along with two other pastors at Soul Survivor church). It was quite refreshing and, surprisingly inspiring to spend several months meditating on the parables and the beatitudes and the radical statements of Jesus, our Lord and Savior and King. His words seemed fresh and powerful and, strangely, brand new to me.

Many of those who attended these services came up afterwards to express their shock and surprise about the words of Jesus. Several had never heard a sermon on these subjects in their life. I was among them.

As I sat down last week with several of the men from our house church we discussed this subject over coffee. I asked them why they thought American Christians were so enamored by Paul and so ignorant of Jesus (the one they are supposed to be following).

One of my friends, John, responded by saying that he felt like Paul was very methodical and logical. It was his theory that Americans want answers and love details, so Paul was more within our comfort zone in a way. Jesus, he said, was much too mystical. He told stories that were difficult to understand. He expected his followers to put his words into practice. He challenged his disciples to live radical lives of inclusive love, to be agents of change in their homes, and in their communities. In short, Jesus was a little scary. Paul was someone we could study and that made us feel as smart as he was. 

As we continued to discuss this I made an observation- American Christians would rather ask Paul to explain Jesus to them than to go to Jesus themselves. It's like sitting down with both Paul and Jesus and insisting on only speaking to Paul while ignoring Jesus the entire time.

Many American Protestants criticize Catholics for getting to Jesus via Mary or by praying to the Saints. Are we doing the same thing with Paul the Apostle?

I want to be careful to say that, in our discussion about America's fascination with Paul, we are not down-playing the importance of Paul or his teachings. Both Paul and Jesus are authoritative and their words are meant to be taken as Scripture, we are not cutting the letters of Paul out of our Bibles.

However, both Jesus and Paul are represented within our New Testament. Why would we skip those four Gospels and ignore the very person whom we claim to follow and worship? 

Paul himself argues that it is Jesus whom we should follow and obey as our Lord in his first letter to the Corinthians:

"One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas (or Peter)"; still another, "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name....For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." Paul the Apostle (1 Corinthians 1: 12-17; see also chapter 3).

If we are truly Christians - which means "little christs" - and we are serious about following Jesus, then we cannot deny that Jesus is our first and main example, and teacher and Lord. Paul is a great teacher and theologian. God certainly called him and used him to shape the early church, and the development of the Christian faith, to this very day. But let us not forget Jesus. He is God in the flesh. He is the one we are called to follow and to emulate. His words should hold weight with us. We should daily seek to learn from Jesus, to seek His face, to follow in His footsteps.

Becoming experts on the letters of Paul and ignoring Jesus is like studying travel guides for exotic tropical paradises and never actually going there ourselves.

When Jesus walked this earth he called people, one at a time, to simply follow him. He laid out very clear and specific instructions regarding what it would cost to follow him, and what he expected of those who followed him, and the scriptures themselves (including the writings of Paul, and Peter, and James and John, etc.), elaborate on what following Jesus is all about.

Let us not just read about following Jesus, let us actually follow Jesus.

"This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" - 1 John 2: 5-6

I would encourage everyone who reads this to begin studying the red letters in Matthew. Let the words of Jesus nourish your soul like warm bread from the oven. Let the wisdom of Jesus refresh your life like cool water on the tongue.

Become students of Jesus. Apprentice yourself to Him. Put his teachings into practice in your daily life. Answer His calling on your life to follow after him.

"Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." - Jesus (Luke 9:23)

At the end of your life you and I will stand before Jesus. Make sure that you have a cross in your hand when you get there.


NOTE: This article originally appeared on the [Subversive Underground] e-newsletter.


Chuck McKnight said...

I'm curious about how the list was determined. Could you provide a link to the original article? Thanks!

NoahM said...

Wonderful Keith. I think the attractiveness of Paul is that he can easily be misinterpreted as preaching effort. He more than anyone took the great commission to go and make disciples of all nations, building up churches, evangelizing, and martyring his own life. We understand this, and many Christians think they are called to build up numbers, mainly through their own efforts, sometimes martyring themselves in the process. The much harder road is to truly love others, rest in the grace of Jesus, and be attentive to whatever the Lord calls you to do. Most of us feel guilty "doing nothing" and we struggle to understand the difference between resting in earthly terms and doing God's work as He calls us, avoiding singing our own devout praises on the street corners.

Unknown said...

Keith, a great and challenging article. I have been seeing this myself for a little while, it was good to see it put down in words and to read it.
It appears that for what ever reason (perhaps as simple as our sinful nature ?) that this has been a problem with mankind for a long time. As I have been reading 1Samuel lately, and seeing how the Lord had set up judges over his chosen people, keeping Himself as King. This only worked for a while, then the people wanted a king to rule over them, why ? They had the Living God, why would the want anyone else.
Then the same with the beginning of the church age, we have Christ as the head and leader of the church. This only works for a few hundred years. Then we want to set up men as our leaders, not the Lord, why?
It seems as if there is something in us that keeps us from wanting to be the "one" that is ultimately responsible for pursuing and continually staying connected and in "right" relationship with Him, who is our Head, even though it really is not just up to us, in that he sent us a Helper.
I know I have struggled with this myself for many years, and don't really have it "all" figured out. But this much I know, since I have made it my single purpose the keep Christ first and central in my life, I have grown so much in Him, and feel so much more closer to Him. I look forward to every day to see Him more.
Sorry for the rambling, this just spoke to me again this morning what I had been feeling these last two weeks or so. Thanks again for sharing. JM.

Keith Giles said...

It was from Brant Hansen's "Letters from Kamp Krusty" blog years ago. I tried to find it again and couldn't.

Marshall said...

worthy point, and no doubt one that Paul of Tarsus would be quick to make: Jesus, no other to name.
some of the Pauline preference effect (or infatuation) seems to orbit around what English Bible translators have most often done with Paul's writings: tone him down, and lift him up. While in truth, Paul was a "wild man" who most often was writing as peer to peers.

Billy Mitchell said...

I tend to get this feeling whenever someone uses the 500 year old word "gospel" every other word and both as a noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, adverb, salutation, and declarative.