I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter. Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books. If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well. What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres. If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts. If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts. If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty. And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.
But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique. Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul. The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue. He becomes the main character in the 12th. From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.
With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul. I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times. I have memorized a few of them. I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.” I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul. I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar. This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”
Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic sense.
And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.
And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love. The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.
Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters. I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon. So too is Paul in Athens. He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.
As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!
But therein lies the problem. You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus. At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.” Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.” In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true. None of Scripture is formational except Romans. It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.
At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us. Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.
Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies. We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets. We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father. Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.
I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure. But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”
I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus. Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)
If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount. This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around. We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings. To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.
Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives. A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.
Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”