Part-Time Recommendation: Paul - A Biography

I'd like to take a moment and recommend to you N.T. Wright's biography of the Apostle Paul simply titled Paul. It has captured my attention and thoughts for the past couple months as I have read it and re-read it while taking copious amounts of notes (35 pages, no joke). I'd recommend this book to two types of people: 

1. Anyone who would like to get a deeper understanding of the cultural context, life, and message of the Apostle Paul without diving into what feels like a theological college textbook. It is meaty enough for someone like me to still learn new things without feeling like I've lost the main story in a sea of academic propositions. However, it's also not as basic as a typical 12-week "Meet Paul" bible study. I think it hits a nice middle ground.

2. Anyone who has heard the name of N.T. Wright and would love to get an overview of his main arguments without buying a number of books on multiple topics. This is the book I'd present to lay Christians looking to be introduced N.T. Wright as the narrative of Paul's life allows for his most accessible book, but also allows for great introductions to all sorts of Wright's main arguments without having to read those books individually. Wright sticks to the narrative of Paul's life pretty well, at times very compellingly, but uses the events of his life to summarize key arguments he has made at length in other books. It's really a fantastic way to dig deeper not just on Paul, but on the breadth of Wright's best arguments.

This doesn't mean it will be an easy read, but it is written well and contains numerous maps and a very helpful timeline, that I think most Christians will be able to benefit greatly. This isn't a review, so I won't get into the lowlights and highlights, but I will share with you my summary of Wright's view on Paul - really my summary of the 35 pages of word for word notes I took on it. If the summary doesn't interest you, perhaps the book isn't your bag, but if it does - get it and enjoy!

Overview: The Apostle Paul’s impact on the world is unparalleled. He was not just some theoretician of philosophy, but someone who spent most of his life working, conversing in the streets, praying, and hammering out his mature thought in the practical task of planting and pastoring churches. He was a first rate intellectual who absorbed the Hebrew scriptures and zealously obeyed them. He was familiar with all the major philosophies of the day and seemed able to weave the Jewish, Roman, and Greek thought worlds together at ease. Saul’s Damascus road conversion was not losing and gaining a new religion, it was Saul recognizing that all of God's promises are made full in the person of Jesus Christ. 

After his empowering baptism and filling of the Spirit, he spent time in Damascus and Arabia where he received his gospel and prophetic/Apostolic calling to go and announce the word of God and the anointing of a new King. After 10 silent years in Damascus Paul began planting and pastoring in Antioch. We begin to see Paul living out how Israel's story shockingly merges together in the person of Jesus, overcomes the evil powers that held the world, and that all humans, not just Jews, were free to worship the one God. Questions and issues arise with Jewish practices as Gentile converts join the community. To begin to resolve these issues, Paul must dig deep into the Scriptures, and learn how the Messiah community is to live into this new future.

After Antioch, Paul goes on missionary journeys throughout the heartland of the Roman empire planting churches and confronting locals. He would typically begin in local synagogues sharing a message not just about getting people “saved” (though this mattered to him), it was intending the establishment of a new kind of kingdom on earth (as in heaven), with Jesus as king. Paul’s message of a new age dawning in Jesus as King and defeater of the forces of darkness was accompanied by powerful signs and bursts of healing activity, enthusiastic embrace by some Jews and gentiles, and a zealous rejection that led to persecution and great personal suffering. Paul would learn that the great physical suffering and persecution experienced by himself and ministry partners is not random and disconnected, but a physical sign of his apostleship in sharing in the ministry of Jesus. Paul has learned the hard way that the dark powers of the world will strike back. This has forced him to dig deep into the truth of the God who raises the dead, to imitate the Messiah, and to reflect the mind of the Messiah. This depth is reflected in the poems and exhortations of his letters Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians.

In the end, in the churches Paul planted, in the Messiah-centered communities he pastored, and in the theological teachings, exhortations, and “vision of the One God reshaped around Jesus and the spirit and taking on the wider world of philosophy” found in his writings; Paul was not producing a new religion but by the power of the Spirit launching “a new kind of humanity – a new people, a new community, a new world. A new polis. A new kind of life.” A new kind of life lived in the wake of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in anticipation of his return. He did this with all “his heart, his mind, and his strength. And, finally, with his life.”

Finally - here is perhaps my favorite quote of the entire book:

“God has accomplished, and will accomplish, the entire new creation in the Messiah and by the Spirit. When someone believes the gospel and discovers its life-transforming power, that person becomes a small but significant working model of that new creation. The point of being human, after all, was never simply to be a passive inhabitant of God’s world. As far as Paul was concerned the point of being human was to be an image-bearer, to reflect God’s wisdom and order into the world and to reflect the praises of creation back to God. Humans were therefore made to stand at the threshold of heaven and earth – like an ‘image’ in a temple, no less – and to be the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God.

Here, then, is the point of Paul’s vision of human rescue and renewal (‘salvation’ in traditional language): those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focused on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents. They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way to be human." -N.T. Wright