Paul vs. Jesus's Teachings: Is There a Conflict?
If you know anything about Christianity, you know that it is based on the teachings of Jesus. You will also know that many of His followers contributed to what is now known as the Christian Bible. One of the most prominent writers of the New Testament was the Apostle Paul. He wrote the majority of the New Testament and was one of the most revered early church fathers. But as with many great religious writings, many of them have come under scrutiny. It has been proposed and even argued that Paul’s teachings are in direct contradiction to those of Jesus. Was the great Apostle Paul actually corrupting the words of the Great Teacher? Let’s dig a little deeper into this thought.
Before diving right into the topic, we need to understand where Paul came from. Paul is not a Jewish name. It was actually the Greek name for the Jewish Pharisee named Saul. A Pharisee was one of the religious ruling classes. Saul was a rising star that first appears in the Bible in the book of Acts where he witnesses and even gives his approval for the stoning of the very first Christian martyr, Stephen. He began a quest to seek out all the people who were claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the long sought after Jewish Messiah. His mission was to have them imprisoned and killed to stamp out the heresy that was spreading through the Jewish faith. It was on a journey to Damascus that Saul’s life changed dramatically. It was on this road in Acts 9 that Saul was knocked to the ground and heard a voice from heaven speaking directly to him. The voice asked him why Saul was on his persecution journey. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the voice asked him. After a period of blindness in which he was healed, Saul realized that his zealousness was in the wrong direction. The Messiah had come and he was killing the ones who had accepted Him. Saul did an abrupt turn in his life and became one of the most vocal and bold preachers of Jesus’ teachings. After a period of learning and studying, he went before the apostles and was recognized as a convert. His influence increased and spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Over the years questions began to be raised on the teachings of Paul. Were they in contrast to Jesus’? Were they complimentary and supportive? His influence was vast so this question is not one to be taken lightly. If one accepts Jesus as their Christ, then they accept His teachings. Any teachings that are not in line with these words are considered heresy and generally banned. So, where does Paul stand?
Was the Law Abolished?
Another point that has been made that Paul’s teachings differ from Jesus’ is that many read that Paul says that the law was abolished which directly contradicts Jesus’ words. In Romans 6:14 Paul says, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” Much of Paul’s writings are similar to this. Does this contradict Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17 that says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”? Let us look deeper into this.
Several times in Jesus’ ministry He was accused of breaking the law. In Matthew 12 it says, “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’” Jesus declared Himself the Lord of the Sabbath. In Mark 12 starting in verse 28 the religious leaders approach Jesus asking Him which of the laws or commandments was the greatest. He gives them two: “Love the Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He ends it with “There is no commandment greater than these.” The entire law which was immense was summed up in just two statements. The rest of the law was nothing in comparison to these.
In Luke 11 beginning in verse 37 Jesus turns onto the religious leaders who were experts in the law. They noticed that Jesus did not wash His hands before the meal as was laid out in the law. Jesus replies, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?” The Pharisees were so fixated on the letter of the law. The law was not wrong, but the leaders had forgotten what the purpose of the law was. I once heard a Jewish speaker state that the law was given so that every act of the Jewish person would be instructed by God. Before doing even the most basic daily activity, the law abiding Jew would consider the Word of God and therefore God would be the focal point of their most mundane actions. The Pharisees were making more of it. Jesus was pointing out that their hearts were full of greed and hypocrisy. They were so concerned about how they looked on the outside and that the law was followed that they ignored the heart and soul which was what the law was created for. The original intent was forgotten.
In John 8 one of the most popular acts of Jesus was in direct contrast to the law. The religious leaders brought before a woman caught in adultery. According to the law she was to be stoned. Jesus turned the tables on the leaders and asked if any of them were so pure that they could stand in judgment and take the life God gave this woman. In the end, Jesus forgave the woman and sent her on her way to a new life.
From these acts, did Jesus really abolish the law? The law was given so that man could see that they could not make it into heaven on their own accord. By even following the letter of the law, a scapegoat still had to spill the blood and take on the sins of the nation. The law was never enough. Faith had to take a prominent role. The Jews had forgotten that over the years. The law became more important than the One who gave the law. With Jesus appearing, the law was fulfilled. The need to strive for redemption was removed. He replaced it with His sacrifice. Once again, the law is not bad and should not be completely ignored. Jesus only ignored the parts that had been corrupted and misconstrued. Over time the religious leaders had added regulations and expanded their interpretations of the law to where there were many more regulations than what God gave originally. “Keep the Sabbath holy.” What does that mean? The leaders expanded this statement to mean that almost no physical action could take place on the Sabbath. Yet, Jesus and His followers went out into the field and harvested just enough to eat. Did that mean that the One who gave the law now desecrated it?
Jesus did keep Jewish tradition and practices yet He ignored the ones that were manmade and misinterpreted. If He had totally ignored Jewish practices He never would have reached the chosen people and shown them that He was God. The Jews were to be the tool to reach the rest of the world. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….”
Jews or Gentiles?
One of the first arguments that Paul differed from Jesus in his teachings is that he spread the message to the Gentiles (non-Jews) while Jesus said His message was for the Jews only. Many take Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:5-6 as supporting the Jew only stance. “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” Paul stated in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentiles.” Many feel that these words are a deviation from the Matthew words that Jesus spoke.
One thing that anyone reading any piece of literature should keep in mind, is that the entire piece needs to be read and not just have one sentence or section pulled out of context and examined alone. Scholars look at the entire piece to get a better understanding. Because of the questioning of the Pauline writings, let us focus on the rest of scripture instead to see if there really is a conflict. We’ll look at the entire Bible as a whole with minimal focus on Paul’s writings.
In Luke 7 there is an account of a Roman officer who had a servant that was very ill. He had heard of Jesus’ miracles and looked to Him for healing. This man was not a Jew yet He turned to Jesus for a miracle. There is no statement that the Roman should become Jewish first or that he had to go through any hoops whatsoever. Jesus sees the man’s faith and heals. There is no comment made about the man’s religion or heritage. His faith alone was enough for Jesus to respond.
Another example is when a Canaanite woman approached Jesus begging Him to heal her child that was possessed by demons. This account located in Matthew 15 quotes Jesus as saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Did this mean that only a Jew can be saved through Jesus? The woman continued to plead and in the end Jesus answered her requested because she showed such faith. This woman who was not Jewish and does not appear to ever become Jewish was blessed by God and recognized for her strong faith.
Another time that Jesus ministered to a Gentile was when He encountered the woman at the well. She was a Samaritan which means that she had some Jewish blood in her. She was considered unclean and not pure so therefore not accepted in Jewish worship. Jesus ministers to her despite this and the fact that she was living an immoral life. Jesus tells her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” These words do not say that it is only for the Jews. It was to be from the Jews.
When the Bible is taken as a whole, deep study reveals that the message was never meant only for the Jews. Isaiah 57:7 says that “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In Isaiah 42:6 it says, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” While God choose the Jewish nation as His chosen people, never did He turn away those from other cultures that accepted Him. Ruth and Rahab were of Gentile descent and they are listed in the genealogy of Jesus. One could argue that they accepted the Jewish faith which is accurate. They did. But when Jesus physically arrived, He came as a Jew, practiced life as a Jew, and worshiped as a Jew. Does this mean all have to become Jewish? According to Isaiah, the Jews were to be the light to the world. They were to tell others about God and have them bow down before Him. There was a strategic plan for all of this.
The message of Jesus was brought to the Jews first because they already knew about Him. They had accepted God. They had planned for the Messiah. Therefore, they should be the most prepared for the arrival of the Messiah and for the continuation of His work. By His appearing and having His ministry focus on the Jews, He was giving the tools to them to reach the rest of the world. Never once did He say that all had to be converted first. His life practice as a Jew is common sense action since He was raised Jewish and if He totally turned His back on the Jewish faith He never would have reached the Jews to become the true light to the rest of the world. One could also argue that in many aspects He did reject parts of the Jewish faith. The religious leaders were always in His face about breaking Jewish law and not strictly obeying their practices. Where does all this fit in?
More Like Complimentary
This brings us back to our original inquiry. Were Paul’s teachings in contrast to Jesus’? No. They were complimentary to them. The new church was trying to clarify points that came up as it was growing. Paul and the others that wrote the rest of the New Testament took Jesus’ words and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit explained Jesus’ teachings in ways that these new cultures would understand. The message was the same. The delivery was different. In fact, the Apostle Peter gives credence to Paul’s writings in 2 Peter 3:15-16: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that god gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” If Paul was in direct contrast to Jesus and his writings should be ignored, what about Peter’s? Do we now ignore the other writings as well. Jesus gave Peter quite a bit of authority and poured His Spirit out on him. Now we are in a quandary.
Paul’s writing are harsh and directly to the point. He never minced words which many people do not like because it is so pointed in their own lives. Yet, in this sense He also complimented Jesus. Multiple times, Jesus called the religious leaders “vipers” and “stiff-necked”. Twice He ran them out of the temples as He destroyed their business stations because they were desecrating the temple. Paul was the instrument in which the Gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire. He had privileges the other Apostles did not and would not be able to break through to the rest of the known world. The Twelve were to reach the Jews so they could be light to the world and bring others to Christ (not to Judaism). Paul was to open the doors for them so that they could accomplish the work they were called to do.