Whodathunkit? A zealous, fire-breathing, puritanical Pharisee gets chosen, not in spite of, but because of his all-in approach to what he believes is truth. Once Saul, the Jew of Jews on the fast track to becoming High Priest one day, now Paul, the equally zealous Apostle for Jesus! He was even led to reach beyond the strict boundaries of his precious Judaism with the Message of the Good News about Jesus, and that meant going to the formerly-hated, uncircumcised, pagan Gentiles! God is so cool! It would have made much more sense (to me) for him to have chosen just about anybody else, but God’s selection process is the antithesis of ours (seems like Scripture tells us something like that somewhere). So, from the least likely background (do you see a pattern emerging here?), a violent opponent of Jesus, and all those who chose to follow him, becomes the Holy Spirit-inspired writer of over a third of the precious truths in our New Testament! Of course it did take a fourteen-year hiatus out of the public eye to de-construct Paul’s self-righteousness, to expose the folly of his reliance on his pristine Jewish roots, to reveal the major stumbling block of his vanity and pride. The question is, what was the lasting result of this long and intense period of retooling?
Here’s a hint: about one hundred times in Paul’s writings, he uses the dynamite phrase (or its equivalent), ‘in Christ Jesus.’ This was no slovenly habit of employing an easily accessible, hackneyed expression. Having earned his PhD from Holy Spirit University he now desired that absolutely everyone might come to know what he had come to know, namely that real intimacy with Jesus (not just a saccharine nod from a safe, doctrinally-pure, law-keeping distance), a full absorption into Jesus (eating his flesh and drinking his blood??), a love affair with Jesus (his church being the bride, with Jesus as the bridegroom coming back, looking forward to the consummation of the marriage!),was what produced life, what made all earthly things fade in comparison, what provided the only sustainable context for hope and joy and love. Only ‘in Christ Jesus.’ This ‘marriage’ was holy, exclusive, for eternity. This ‘marriage’ captured the love of God for his children in its fullest measure. This ‘marriage’ was to be visible proof of the abundantly fruitful life found ‘in Christ Jesus.’ The love found in this ‘marriage’ is powerful enough to banish fear and loneliness and darkness and guilt and despair. It nourishes the weak and causes them to rise up on wings like eagles. It causes life to gush forth from the wellspring of the heart. This love is the Love we still cherish and celebrate in this COVID-strange, socially-distanced and hugless Advent Season. And it’s so radical that God sends this loving Bridegroom to us as, of all things, a baby in a manger! So we wait for him for whom our souls long, and we sing, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! PD