What makes the Christian faith distinct from other ways of approaching God? The apostle Paul was intensely concerned with this question. Various kinds of Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophies held deep influences in the churches he had founded; sometimes to the point that they ceased to be Christian. Paul’s battle against alien teaching tells us a lot about what Paul thought was unique about the gospel. When he writes to the churches to explain why the teaching of his opponents had to be rejected, we learn what is essential to the Christian faith.
When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians he had been the target of vicious attacks. To Paul it was clear that more than his own reputation was at stake. The critique from his opponents was rooted in a view of Christian ministry that was irreconcilable with the gospel. They claimed that Paul was not an adequate minister of Christ and that the church in Corinth should not take him seriously. The opponents bravely maintained that they were more Spirit-filled than Paul, and, consequently, that they should be considered a higher authority by the Corinthian church.
In his reply, Paul is forced to explain the real credentials for a true apostle of Christ. For Paul, this was a very difficult task, because his ministry was not about recommending himself but about recommending his savior, Jesus Christ. To compare himself with other human beings is a faux pas for Paul, who is accountable to God, not to human beings (2 Cor 10:12–13).
When Paul does engage in a comparison between himself and his opponents in 2 Cor 11–12, we see him at his most sarcastic. It is as though he is saying: “So, these teachers think they are better servants of Christ than I am? Let us see what they are bragging about. I’ll promise you that no matter what they say, I have something better.” He speaks like a little child, or, as he says, a fool (11:16–21), to demonstrate the ludicrousness of this whole enterprise of boasting.
When Paul sets out to substantiate this, he subverts the whole concept of boasting. When a pastor starts boasting of himself, we expect that he will tell us the size of the congregations he has addressed, how popular he has become, how many churches he has founded, and how many adherents he has won. But Paul does the opposite. He starts to enumerate his defeats, his humiliations, and his sufferings.
Modern Christians easily misunderstand Paul’s listing of his sufferings in 2 Cor 11:21–33. We are so impressed by everything Paul was able to withstand for the sake of the gospel. But in Paul’s world the standards were very different. The Greeks worshiped the perfect human body. Weakness, sickness, and suffering equaled imperfection and humiliation. It was embarrassing to the church in Corinth to be associated with a leader like Paul, who was the opposite of a dynamic and self-conscious leader, but rather appeared as a pathetic loser.
In his list of exploits, Paul mentions the most humiliating events of his life. Whereas warlords such as Augustus and Pompey would list the exact number of towns they had occupied and the number of troops that had surrendered to them, Paul took care to give the exact number of public corrections he had received. With the specific mention of the thirty-nine lashes, the beating with rods, and stoning, Paul has effectively made reference to his degrading rejection by all conceivable authorities (with the possible exception of the church in Jerusalem). Jewish authorities, Roman authorities, as well as popular opinion have punished him in the most degrading ways (11:24–25).
Stoning was a particularly shameful form of punishment, as it was normally executed by the community. Demosthenes reports that Aeschines gave up his profession as an actor after an attempted stoning by the crowd. Stoning might therefore be considered the conclusive evidence of the complete failure of an orator. Paul’s “bragging” at this point amounts to the ultimate self-defeat. His point is that his credentials as an apostle of Christ are his complete lack of credentials. Since he does not have anything else to brag about, the power of Christ can be effective in him (12:9–10).
In Paul’s mind, to be Christ’s servant means to identify with Christ’s cross. Just as Christ came in the utmost weakness, and was hung on a cross, so also does Christ’s servant appear in weakness and humiliation. But as the resurrection power of Christ was at work in the midst of Christ’s weakness – on the cross – so is the same power at work through the weakness of the apostle (13:4).
In Philippians 3:1–11 Paul warns against the danger of self-righteousness. In this connection he mentions himself as an example. The most important criterion for being right with God (concerning this there was broad agreement among Jews) was of course to belong to the people that was chosen by God. In that respect Paul had reason to be confident. He possessed the sign of the covenant, circumcision, executed on the eighth day, according to the law. He belonged to the elect people, Israel. In this matter there was no room for doubt, as his pedigree could be traced back to the patriarch Benjamin, the son of Jacob.
Many Jews felt that simply to be of Jewish origin did not provide any guarantee of also belonging to God’s chosen people. Disobedience of God’s law could result in a loss of this privilege. Even if this more restricted interpretation of God’s election would turn out to be the correct one, Paul had no reason to fear. His law observance was in a class of its own. He had joined the Pharisees, the strictest party regarding the interpretation of the law (Acts 26:5).
But with his customary affinity for stark contrasts, Paul has no sooner finished listing all the reasons why he should be right with God before he rejects all of them. It is as though he is competing with himself to reject these credentials as emphatically as he can. With a crescendo of three expressions, he makes his point: I have come to regard as loss, I regard everything as loss, I regard them as rubbish. Why? Because to know Christ is so much more worth. And those who want to belong to Christ, as Paul has just explained, they should have the same mind that was in Christ (2:5). Christ’s mind-set is shown by how he, who was in the highest position of all, in the form of God, emptied himself and was awarded the very lowest position in this world. He was handed over to death and had to die in the most humiliating way, executed on a cross. Those who want to belong to Christ must be conformed to him. The idea that one’s position before God can be tied to something palpable, such as one’s pedigree or one’s deeds, is an idea that has to be abandoned. Just as Jesus’ humiliation was the way to is perfect exaltation, so also does a Christian’s way to exaltation go through identification with Christ’s humiliation. The Christians’ assurance that they are God’s children can therefore never be tied to anything of their own, but always to Jesus Christ and the knowledge of belonging to him.
Thereby Paul has also explained the difference between true and false Christianity. False Christians want to connect their faith in Jesus with some kind of quality or achievement that can be considered their own. But faith like that is in reality a rejection of faith in Jesus. For faith in Jesus entails a mind-set that abandons one’s own and leads to humiliation, because gaining Christ is so much more worth.
To Paul, being a Christian means identifying with the cross of Christ. To be a Christian therefore implies a total reevaluation of all values. Paul rejects that which formerly was considered honorable and which increased his status. Instead, he glories in that which was considered dishonor. On the cross, Jesus identified with the utmost shame, and, consequently, Paul has turned upside down everything that is considered honor and shame. Now he boasts in that which is considered dishonor, his humiliations and his defeats. For God’s power is at work in that which appears to be weakness in the eyes of the world. God’s kingdom is a bizarro world.
Recent New Testament scholarship, often referred to as the new perspective on Paul, tends to downplay the differences between Paul and Judaism. There are good reasons why. Previously, scholars tended to emphasize the differences so strongly that they forgot that Paul was a Jew. Instead, Paul was seen almost exclusively as a product of Greek philosophy. Therefore, it is a big step forward when scholars now focus more on how Paul’s thinking is rooted in the Old Testament and his Jewish heritage.
It is more controversial when scholars associated with the new perspective claim that Paul did not have a view of salvation that was fundamentally different from Judaism. Many scholars maintain that the Jews believed in salvation by grace, through the election of Israel, in a way that was comparable to Paul's emphasis on grace. The difference is only that Paul believed that God’s salvation was given to human beings of all nations, not only Jews, through Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who was given as a light to the nations (Isa 49:6). Paul’s critique of the Jews, in Romans 9–11 for example, must therefore be understood as a critique of the conviction that salvation only belonged to the Jews and that the Gentiles only could be saved if they became like Jews. The particularism of the Jews, not their works-righteousness or self-righteousness, was the object of Paul’s censure. In this way, Paul becomes the first great spokesperson for anti-racism. God’s grace is given to all, independent of ethnic identity.
As I have argued , however, Paul’s teaching on the uniqueness of Christian faith goes deeper than this. In light of the cross of Christ, even the Jewish election-based faith must be rejected as self-righteousness. Belief in Jesus is belief in the crucified one, and thereby a faith that God’s power works through weakness and that God’s exaltation takes place through humiliation. Therefore, faith in Jesus entails not trusting in anything that can be counted as one’s own, whether that be good works or ethnic inclusion in God’s chosen people. This is how radical Paul is when he insists that he will boast in Jesus alone.
Translated and adapted from articles published in Norwegian (Troens ord, nos. 1 and 2, 2003) and Danish (Budskabet, no. 5, 2003).