I recently made the comment here that Romans 12-13, in which Paul is outlining the rule of life for the household of God, is the part of Paul’s writings where he sounds most like Jesus. It is a strange quirk of Christianity that its first major advocate sounds so little like the man Jesus, around whom this faith is based. While Paul’s writings make it clear that he understands everything in his life to relate fundamentally to Jesus, these same writings often feel like they’re from a different universe altogether from what we know of Jesus’ message as recorded in the four canonical Gospels. Indeed, it was trendy last century for scholars to treat Jesus’ religion and Paul’s religion as separate faiths altogether. While few people would argue for such extreme ideas today, it is a valid and helpful question: How does “the Gospel of Christ” of which Paul speaks relate to Christ’s gospel?
As we think about this, let’s first look at the content of Jesus’ gospel. From the start, Jesus’ message echoed that of John the Baptist: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Mt 4.17). It could be said that his healing and teaching ministries were simply extensions of this simple message: they were demonstrations in word and deed of what the Kingdom of God looks like.
When he addressed his home-town synagogue in Capernaum (Lk 4), Jesus identified his mission with the words from the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isa 61.1-3)
This prophetic identification with the cause of justice is typical of Jesus’ ministry — the theme of mourning in Isaiah’s oracle is echoed in the Beatitudes, for example, and Jesus regularly acts to heal the sick, release people from their spiritual and psychological burdens, and call out the hypocrisy of the political and religious establishment, while welcoming those commonly despised as “sinners” into his inner circle. In his parables and “hard sayings” about the Kingdom, Jesus radicalizes the Law, pushing the sphere to which it applies back from actions (e.g., “Do not commit adultery”) to the thoughts and motivations of the heart that inspire actions (e.g., “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Mt 5.28).
And so, Jesus’ gospel represents a simultaneous opening up of the Kingdom to those who would have been considered outsiders and a radicalization of what righteousness — the embodiment of God’s justice in one’s life — looks like. This is in essence a gospel of radical humility. It is a call to de-centre oneself — one’s ego, attachments, and desires — and to centre instead the just, compassionate, gracious, and loving ways of God.
But, as central as Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry is, it’s telling that the four Gospels are not simply collections of these things, but are tellings of the story of his life: Jesus’ whole life — his birth, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection — was an embodiment of his gospel. He didn’t just preach good news; he was good news.
And this is where Christ’s gospel and Paul’s “Gospel of Christ” meet up.
Paul is living on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, events which he believes changed everything. The old order is over and the new order — that order that Jesus was proclaiming and living out in his earthly life — has come. The way of Jesus that led to cross has been vindicated by God through the resurrection, and the lives and deaths of all of history’s martyrs at the hands of the powerful have been vindicated along with it.
If we look at it through this lens, Paul’s Gospel and Jesus’ message start to coalesce.
Jesus taught and lived out a way of humility in the world; Paul urged the faithful to live together in humility, using the way of Jesus as the new paradigm for life:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2.4-11)
This first-century hymn makes references to Jesus’ incarnation, sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension, all of which together embody his message of radical humility and non-attachment.
Elsewhere, as we’ve seen in the time we’ve spent lately in Romans 12-13, Paul articulates a vision of what life in the household of God looks like, and again, it’s here where he sounds most like the Jesus of the Gospels. This vision is the same way of humility, grace, faithfulness, and love that Jesus taught. Jesus’ message opened up the Kingdom of God for those traditionally on the outside; Paul insisted that the Church be a community that crosses the old boundaries of the old order, whether of race, class, or gender. Jesus’ message radicalized the Law, turning it in on the heart and mind; Paul similarly insisted that being faithful meant a complete transformation of the heart and mind such that Love is the only Law that matters.
All told, the Gospel that Paul preaches is that there is a new life available for everyone, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they’ve done, and the beginning, end, and content of that life is nothing other than the way of Jesus.
And so, as different as Paul often sounds from Jesus, ultimately, there is no division between Christ’s gospel and the “Gospel of Christ” that Paul preached. Although viewed from two different perspectives, before and after the universe-shifting resurrection of Jesus, it’s the same simple message that resounds for us still today:
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.