The Theme of Paul's Life
This week in our Bible study, we started the book of Romans. You can do no better than the soaring theology and tightly-argued opening chapters of Paul’s best-known letter. As we began, I asked the group what they thought of when they thought of Romans. There are so many familiar passages in this letter:
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
“For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
“And we know that for all who love God all things work together for good, for those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2).
Many remembered learning the “Roman Road” as an evangelism tool or could quote passages from Romans 8 – maybe the greatest chapter in the Bible. Here’s something that did not come up, the relationship between Romans and the Old Testament. To be fair, this would not have been on the top of my head had I not been reading the opening lines of the letter. Romans may be the most powerful statement of the gospel in the New Testament, but it is also one of the most comprehensive statements of the meaning of the Old Testament.
Paul opens the letter so exuberantly that he breaks into praise, previewing the glorious gospel of the Son of God before he even gets to the opening remarks.
Here’s how he starts, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son” (Romans 1:1-3a).
I like to translate that word the ESV renders “promised beforehand” as “pre-promised” because it captures how Paul sees the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
This sentiment at the beginning of Romans is not unique among Paul’s letters. He begins his missive to Titus in the same way, “in [the] hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began." The eternal life you read about in Romans was God’s plan before time began. God has been working toward the gospel expounded in Romans for all of history.
The more we look, the more we see this theme in Paul.
When he reminds the Corinthians of the basic tenets of the gospel, notice what he says; “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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).
It’s all in Scripture!
Luke spent as much time as anyone with Paul. He traveled with him during the later part of his missionary journeys and recorded their exploits in the book of Acts. Among the group of Christians Paul traveled with, Luke was the one who captured Paul’s travels, teaching, and heartbeat and preserved it for the church. What’s interesting is how much time Luke devotes to showing the continuity between the Scriptures and the death and resurrection of Christ.
At this point, Paul is simply continuing something Jesus started. After he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to two men on the road to Emmaus. As they walked together, they talked about Jesus. The men did not recognize that he was standing right beside them.
Jesus asked them what they were discussing, and they said, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened" (Luke 24:19-21).
Jesus gives a surprising response: "And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27).
This encounter is a continuation of Jesus’ frequent question to the scribes and Pharisees: “Have you not read?” God’s been planning and promising this for all of history.
In Acts, it’s Jesus’ disciples who carry on this same task. Peter quotes prophecies from Joel, Isaiah, and Psalms on the day of Pentecost in Chapter 2. Stephen confronts the High Priest and the Sanhedrin with the story of Israel in Chapter 7. When Philip came across an Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand the book of Isaiah, he “opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). It is Paul, though, more than any of these others who carries on this theme.
Throughout the second half of Acts, a pattern arises. Paul goes to a new town and makes his way to the synagogue. He debates with the Jewish leaders, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. Sometimes a few Jews will convert, but often the Jews expel him (sometimes forcefully) from the synagogue, and he moves out into the city to reach the Gentiles.
In the final snapshot of Paul’s life in Acts, he’s doing this very thing: “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23).
Bearing all of this in mind, we have to reach one conclusion: Paul was an Old Testament guy! Even though he was the prophet to the Gentiles, he based his ministry and his preaching on Scriptures that pointed to Jesus as the Christ.
I can’t help but think this was because of the radical transformation that occurred in Paul’s own conversion. When he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was more than stunned; he was completely changed. He did not just start believing in Christ, he realized in that moment that Christ was the fulfillment of all he had ever hoped for in God. In the face of Christ, he saw the yes and amen to every single one of the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20).
In N. T. Wright’s magnum opus on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, he describes Paul’s conversion and the ensuing years as a reformulation of everything he knew from the Scriptures around the person of Christ.
“The hypothesis I offer in this book is that we can find just such a vantage-point when we begin by assuming that Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans.” (1)
Paul was a monotheist, so how can Jesus be God?
“Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).
The Jews were God’s chosen people. Does this mean God has changed his mind?
“For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).
What about the law? Was the law evil? Pointless?
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith’” (Gal. 3:13-14).
In Romans - maybe more than any other book - Paul lays out his approach to the Old Testament. In Romans, he shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures, taking place throughout history, and culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. This is why he begins the letter the way he does; “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.”
Luther saw this theme in the Romans; “It seems as if in this epistle St Paul wanted to set forth in a brief summary the whole Christian and evangelical doctrine and show the way to the understanding of the whole of the OT, and that there is no doubt that he who has this epistle in his heart is possessed of the light and power of the OT.” (2)
Karl Barth found it was the theme of Paul’s whole life. From start to finish, the Bible is about Jesus Christ fulfilling the promises of God and completing the plan for all the ages. Paul preached this message tirelessly, from Jerusalem to Illyricum to the ends of the earth.
So what difference does this make?
First, Paul’s letters show us that the Old Testament and the New Testament tell the same story.
God did not change his mind, alter the plan, or send Jesus as a backup. Paul points out that Jesus Christ was God’s plan before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-5).
Second, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same, and Jesus Christ is the full representation of that God.
It’s common to hear people say that they love the New Testament God but don’t quite know what to do with the Old Testament God. Paul makes it clear that God has not changed, and even more than that, that Jesus is the perfect image of the Father.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).
Third, to understand the New Testament, we should also study the Old Testament.
One of the reading plans I love to recommend to those looking to understand the whole Bible is to read the book of Matthew –one chapter a day for 28 days. Then go back through and every time Matthew refers to the Old Testament - 43 times explicitly - read that chapter, and look at the way Matthew uses the passage to point to Christ.
The same thing could be done in Romans. In this letter, Paul quotes the Old Testament extensively. He uses verses from Psalms, Isaiah, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and many of the minor prophets. He explains the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Esau from Genesis. Reading Romans as a lens for the Old Testament will produce a better understanding of the whole Bible.
Showing God’s plan in the Old Testament was one of the themes of Paul’s life. He saw the continuity of God’s plan and the startling way he fulfilled his promises, and he never stopped talking about it. The opening verses of Romans remind us that we too are called to be “Old Testament people.” By reading the whole Bible with Christ at the center, we see the totality of God’s plans and promises.
(1) N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 46.
(2) Paraphrased in C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans, 57.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.