The Shape and Reshaping of Paul’s Understanding of the Messiah (and it’s significance)

First, it is important that we spend some time looking at Phariseism because whatever is said about it will affect what we say about Paul.[1] We can see from the NT witness as well as other texts that Pharisees held considerable influence.[2] Inevitably, Paul was shaped greatly by his Pharisaic training.[3]

Before Paul’s conversion (when he was still known as Saul) he thought of Jesus in light of Deuteronomy 13:1-5. He thought that Jesus was a deceiver that was leading people astray (cf. Jn. 7:12, 32, 47; 9:22; 16:2). Jesus claimed to be something He was not thus He deserved to be killed. Paul thought that anyone that followed after Him likewise “shall be put to death” (Deut. 13:5). Jesus’ followers were in Paul’s mind saying, “Let us go after other gods” (v. 2).  He took it upon himself to “purge the evil from [the] midst” (v. 5) of God’s people. Paul was convinced that he “ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9) even though it was against his teachers’ advice (5:33ff).

He likely thought that Jesus was a false prophet or dreamer like Theudas (Acts 5:36), the Egyptian (Ant. 20.169-172; J.W. 2.261-263; Acts 21:38),[4] or Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37). When Paul saw Stephen preaching about Jesus “he realized that the new movement was dangerous as well as blasphemously ridiculous.”[5] Paul, in persecuting “the Way” (Acts 16:17; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22;), saw himself as “offering service to God” (Jn. 16:2).

Surely a crucified man could not be the Messiah (Deut. 21:22-23 cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24).[6] Plus, the expectation was a king in the vein of David. A Yehoshu’a that defeats Israel’s enemies not a Yehoshu’a that will be defeated by dying upon a tree. In Paul’s day “Messianic expectation married social discontent. The result was the offspring of anticipation and action.”[7] Not surprisingly many lacked the interpretive key to understand that the Davidic King would also be the Suffering Servant. That key would not come until the Christ Himself revealed it on the Emmaus road (Luke 24). It was not until after Paul received this interpretive key that he knew that Jesus was the true and better Prophet than Moses (Deut. 18:15-22). Jesus had proved Himself by raising from the dead (v. 22). Paul knew that if he did not obey the LORD it would be required of him (v. 19).

Before Paul understood the Kingdom of God was at hand he sought to bring it in with his own hands. He hunted the Crucified One’s followers like animals (Acts 8:1 note διωγμὸς; 22:4 says “to the death;” v. 19 says he even “beat” people), though he likely thought of them as lower than animals. He did all he could to bring havoc on the church (8:2) despite Gamaliel’s advice against such action (Acts 5:34-39; cf. Aboth 4.11). In this Paul acted more in the Shammaites vein than that which he was reared under Gamaliel in the Hillel brand of Pharisaism.[8]

Pharisaism was very influenced by Nehemiah and the reforms that were sought in that book (cf. esp. chs. Neh. 8-13). For instance, Sabbath keeping was very important for Pharisees, and Nehemiah says that wrath was coming upon Israel because they were profaning the Sabbath (Neh. 13:18) and in general the Law that God had given His people. Thus “the Way’s” (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22 for “the Way”) emphasis on “the Lord’s Day” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10) as opposed to the Sabbath would have also been abhorrent to Pharisaism (Matt. 12:2; Lk. 14:3; Jn. 5:10 cf. Neh. 9:14; 10:31; 13:15-22). It appears that the Pharisees wanted to put into practice the principles laid out especially in Ezra-Nehemiah to bring about a lasting kingdom. The Pharisees like those in Ezra-Nehemiah realized that what had happened to them was a result of their evil deeds and great guilt (Ezra 9:13; Neh. 9:26-27 cf. Deut. 28:15-68; 29:16-28; 31:16-21, 27, 29), and so they covenanted and obligated themselves (cf. Ezra 10:3; Neh. 9:38; 10:29, 32, 35) so that they would stop repeating the cycle of entropy that they were so accustomed to (cf. Neh. 9).[9] They needed the circumcision of the heart, the giving of the Holy Spirit, that only Jesus could bring, though they did not know it (cf. Is. 32:14-16; 44:3; Ezek. 36:26:27; 11:19-20; Jer. 31:33; Joel 2:28; Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:17; Gal. 3:14).

A crucified man from Nazareth did not at first fit Paul’s description of the Messiah,[10] let alone his understanding of monotheism. Paul would have related to Peter when he said, “Far be it from me Lord” that you should suffer (Matt. 16:22 cf. 2 Sam. 7:13, 16; 1 Chron. 17:14; 22:10; Ps. 89:4, 29, 36-37 110:4; Is. 9:7; Ezek. 37:25). Paul with Peter and many others were looking for the One that would deliverer them from oppression, not be delivered into oppression (see again the confusion of the time in John 12:32-34 cf. 3:14; 8:28). Even Simeon saw “the consolation of Israel” and it was revealed to him by the Spirit that Jesus was the Christ (Luke 2:25-26), yet he would not have thought that “salvation” (v. 30) and glory to Israel (v. 32) would have came through the Messiah being cut off.

Thus, in light of Paul’s background, it is very significant that Paul’s vision of the Christ was so radically reshaped. A huge paradigm shift had taken place in his life and view of everything. Paul went from persecuting the people of the “the way,” those who follow Jesus, to following alongside them and eventually leading the charge, yet he had to truly “count the cost.” Paul honestly suffered the loss of all things, and counted them a worthless trash, in order that he may gain Christ.

Paul, in space in time, was transformed by his risen Lord and King. He went from persecutor to persecuted. He went from confining those who confessed Jesus as Lord to preaching nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Once Paul was convinced, he reasoned with others that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4[11]). So “Jesus Christ’s resurrection,” for Paul, “represents the hinge of history.”[12] In Jewish thought resurrection is the precursor of the age to come. “Hence, Jesus’ resurrection signaled that the new age has come. God’s saving promises are being realized.”[13]

Significance Paul saw the risen Lord Jesus. Paul, a persecutor of the Church, ended up leading various churches. Paul, who would have known if the whole thing was a hoax, died for His Lord Jesus.

The resurrection happened.

It changed everything for Paul.

Has it changed everything for you?  


[1]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God vol. 1 in Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 181.

[2]Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 181.

[3]cf. Ibid., 182. Later Wright says that the Pharisee’s “goals were the honour of Israel’s god, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel” (Ibid., 189). We see from the NT that this begins to come to fruition in Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God yet there is a “not yet” aspect to the Kingdom.

[4]See Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 202.

[5]F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame vol. 1 in The Advance of Christianity Through the Centuries F.F. Bruce gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), 83. See Don N. Howell Jr., “Mission in Paul’s Epistles: Genesis, Pattern, and Dynamics” 63-91 in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach William J. Larkin, Joel F. Williams eds. (New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 68. Also, N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 327-28. 

[6]cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 75. Truly, “a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms for the Jews” (Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 292). Paul himself was among the rulers that “did not recognize him,” the Messiah, nor what the prophets said regarding Him (Acts 13:27). Yet he later was enlightened to the fact that the Scriptures were fulfilled (v. 27b) when Jesus was condemned, i.e. “cursed,” on a tree (v. 29 see also vv. 30-39). Also, Loren T. Stuckenbruck after examining the relevant apocalyptic and early Judaism literature says, “messianic speculation varied from author to author and even within the documents themselves” (“Messianic Ideas in the Apocalyptic and Related Literature of Early Judaism” 112 in The Messiah in the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 90-13.

[7]David P Seemuth, “Mission in the Early Church” in Mission in the New Testament, 51.

[8]See John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 30.

[9]Moses knows that Israel is going to turn away from LORD (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:16-28; 31:16-21, 27, 29), and says that the ultimate curse will be exile however after exile will come covenant renewal and the perfect keeping of the Torah (30:1-10) (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 261). “Covenantal ideas were therefore fundamental to the different movements and currents of thought within second-temple Judaism” (Ibid.). “It was the covenant that drove some to ‘zeal’ for Torah, others to military action, others to monastic-style piety” (Ibid., 262).

[10]Martin Hengel says, “A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish” (Crucifixion John Bowden trans. [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977], 10) as Paul himself later would say (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). See also Ibid., 61-62, and esp. 89. Justin Martyr Apology I ch. 13. Also the Alexamenos graffito shows how foolish many thought it was to worship one that had been crucified. The graffiti depicts a Christian worshiping an image of a man on a cross with a donkey head.

[11] Acts 9:22; 13:16ff; 16:13; 17:3, 17; 18:4-5, 19; 19:8ff; 24:25; 26:6, 22-26; 28:23, 31 cf. 18:28; from the beginning of the church preaching and teaching was integral 2:42. Hengel rightly says Paul considered the “Jewish-Messianic message and its concomitant scriptural evidence… quite important from the very beginning” (Marten Hengel, “Paul in Arabia” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 [2002], 59). Also, in Luke’s “orderly account” that he wrote to Theophilus so that he may have “certainty” (Luke 1:3), he said that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs” (Acts 1:3). I. Howard Marshall sees the spread of the message of Jesus the Christ as the main story-line that the book of Acts is concerned with (Acts, 26).

[12] Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 292 see also 853.

[13] Ibid.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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