Paul, called to be an apostle by the will of God… (1 Corinthians 1:1, NIV)
The name Paul appears as author at the top of thirteen letters of the New Testament. We are reading one of them, 1 Corinthians, as a church this term. But why should we listen to him? Sometimes people suggest that while they’re glad to listen to Jesus, they don’t see why they should listen to Paul. After all, Paul isn’t one of the Twelve whom Jesus picked, and there is no sign of him in any of the four gospels. Is he some sort of impostor? Or, at least, a figure largely independent of Jesus: a “co-founder” of Christianity?
Paul’s own description of himself in his letters is a good place to start. In no fewer than nine of them he introduces himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. The word “Apostle” means “one who’s been sent”. So his understanding of himself is never that he is an independent figure. Far from it. He sees himself as sent by Christ, a man under orders: indeed, he is a slave of Jesus (Philippians 1:1 - the word translated ‘servant’ is the Greek word for ‘slave’). And, of course, his letters are overflowing with Christ. He is not a religious genius doing his own thing.
It is, however, the book of Acts which does more than anything to show us how Paul is connected to Christ. This unique history of the early church introduces us to Paul and shows us his place in God’s plans. No fewer than three times, we read of his conversion; the second half of the book is entirely given to following Paul around on his missionary journeys.
It is the fact that Acts is by the author of Luke’s gospel which makes the connection between Paul and Jesus so strong. Luke introduces Acts by referring to his former book (Acts 1:1). Paul is no impostor, but part of the story which starts in Luke’s gospel.
In Acts, the risen Christ says this about Paul: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15).
This means that when Paul himself speaks in terms of his apostolic authority, we are not just taking his word for it. Luke has us know clearly that Paul was appointed by Christ to speak for Him. No wonder, then, that Paul wrote his letters for circulation (Colossians 4:16) and conscious that his gospel was - and is - God’s gospel (Galatians 1:11-12).
There is more to say. There is evidence that from the earliest days of the churches, Paul’s letters were accorded the status of Scripture. In his second letter, the Apostle Peter speaks of Paul’s teaching on grace. He says of Paul’s letters: ’His letters contain some things which are hard to understand, which ignorant and unable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’ (2 Peter 3:16) Here are Paul’s letters being called Scripture!
It should not surprise us, then, that Paul’s letters were also received as Scripture in the early church beyond the New Testament era. For example, we find Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor in the early 2nd century, quoting 1 Corinthians as if Scripture.
And so it is! We continue to hear God’s Word to us through Paul this Sunday.
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