Paul’s Jesus

We have two versions of Paul’s come-to-Jesus meeting in our New Testament: one from Luke as he wrote the Acts of the Apostles and another from Paul himself. Initially, adversary-Saul-transformed-to-apostle-Paul resisted the proclamation of the Jesus People that this crucified Jesus was the messiah Israel had been awaiting. First, it was preposterous that God’s Messiah would have died in such shame; the Roman cross was designed for ultimate humiliation and misery. Second, Paul’s Jewish commitment was to the One God, the True God therefore suggesting that somehow God had become human outraged his deepest piety.

Paul’s Damascus Road experience and his vision of the Resurrected Christ turned him and his entire belief system upside down and inside out. Paul almost never referred to the earthly Jesus in his writings because Paul’s Jesus was always the Crucified and Risen One.

This essay on Paul’s Jesus offers excerpts from Charlotte’s 2011 seminary paper, The Gospel Paul Preached.  If the language seems more academic than most of Charlotte’s Living in The Story blogs that’s because it is. Although the seminary paper focuses on the opening verses of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, this adapted essay also summarizes the big picture of Paul’s Christology, i.e. how Paul understood Jesus the Christ: Paul’s Jesus.

Paul’s thesis statement for the Letter to the Romans may well be the thesis statement for his entire life’s work. He understood himself to be one called and sent, one saved and spent for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s confidence in the gospel is grounded in the power of the One True Triune God: the eternal will of the Father, the faithfulness of the Son, the life-giving love of the Spirit.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, Paul proclaimed, it is the power of God …

Romans 1:16

Paul was a deeply pious Jew immersed in the story of Israel as the chosen people of God. Drawing from the rich conceptual history within the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul proclaims that “the gospel of God” is also “the gospel concerning his Son.”

The gospel concerning God’s Son flows from the narrative story of Israel.

For Paul, Jesus is:

  • herald of the good news,
  • legitimate king in the line of David,
  • the anticipated Messiah,
  • beloved of the Father.
  • Son of God.

The gospel is God’s story, God’s movement, God’s purpose and grace, God’s action on behalf of all creation. It is “the gospel of God,” Paul insists, the good news of, from and about the One True God permeating the holy scriptures from the very beginning.

Paul’s spirit-breathed brilliance was his ability to think and then rethink the meaning and mystery of God’s story in light of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The conversion of his mind, his fresh examination of previously fixed conceptions, his complete surrender to the sheer force of God’s story re-imagined, led him to perceive and proclaim a message of God’s reconciliation of ALL people: God indeed has kept covenant with Abraham and has now created one family of God from all the families of the earth.

This reconciliation has happened in and through the one Jesus the Christ.

It is God’s willing, God’s determination, God’s action, God’s word, God’s act enfleshed in the life and death of the one Jesus Christ that is the turning point of history.

Paul’s narrative reading of the ancient text as the story of God allowed him to see Jesus the Christ as the continuation and climax of this ongoing story and thus proclaim Jesus “Son of God” as the “gospel of God.”

Jesus the Son of God IS the gospel of God.

“Son” language in the biblical story is multivalent vocabulary. Numerous references in the Old Testament speak of angels as “son of God.” King David and his royal descendants are characterized as God’s “sons.” The prophesied and promised Messiah was understood to be the coming Son of God. Israel itself was known as God’s “son:” chosen, beloved, intimately related to God.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

Hosea 11:1

For Paul, Jesus is more than just herald of the good news or descendant of David or the perfect embodiment Israel.

It is only this one, Jesus, whom God declared to be, whom God revealed to be, whom God made to be Son of God, the promised Messiah and the Lord above all lords.

As Alan Lewis said, whether “in this Son, God had become a perfect human, or that in this human, God had found a perfect Son,” Paul proclaims it is in the resurrection that the human Jesus was shown to be, was marked out as the authentic expression, demonstration, incarnation of the one true God.

Jesus, a son of Israel, was declared to be the perfect Son of God.

The gospel of God is the power of God

For Paul, the gospel was much more than an announcement of good news. Within this unparalleled new thing, he believed, the power of the One True God has become effective and the presence of God has been made known in this one Jesus Christ.

As Karl Barth has said:

The new thing consists in the fact that someone comes with authority to declare that it has dawned, and that it does actually dawn with his declaration….

For example:

The first creation narrative imagines the speaking of the thing and the being of the thing as one: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”

The Psalmist sings: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth…”

John’s poetic Prologue proclaims: “The Word became flesh…”

The confession of Paul: “The gospel IS the power of God…”

The event of which he speaks, and His speaking of it, merge at bottom into the fact that as this One He is Himself the good thing, that which awakens joy, and that He speaks as its messenger and publisher. [1]

The gospel is the Word turning darkness into light; the Word embodied in fragile flesh; the Word transforming human hearts.

The gospel is Spirit brooding over emptiness; the Wind blowing where it will; Breath breathing resurrection life.

The gospel is unreasonable Love, incalculable Giving, unstoppable Life. The gospel is transformation, reconciliation, restoration, resurrection.

This is the power of God.

It is against all reason that divine presence would be concealed in human flesh and activated by defeat. Yet it is death that actually brings into effect a power great enough to destroy death and defeat destruction from the inside out. That is the biblical witness again and again.

This is the power of God.

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…

Romans 5:5-6

The nature of the power of God made known and made real in the cross of Jesus Christ is love.

God’s essence is love, God’s mode of being is love, God’s motive and method is love. In the pit of death, in the despair of defeat, the power of God’s self-giving love is made real.

The gospel is the good news that God willingly gives God’s Own Self away on behalf of humanity.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18-29

“The message of the cross is foolishness…” said Paul: the message, the word, the logos of the cross. The word of God spoken in the language of death and annihilation and godforsakeness.

The logos of the cosmos is spoken in the grammar of shame and defeat. It is this word that, for Christians, is the wisdom and power of God.

But it is this word that is “foolishness” for some, Paul said.  This word is moria (in the Greek); it is moronic.

Christ Crucified

In Richard Hays’ analysis of the phrase: “Christ crucified” he points out that the word “crucified” is a perfect passive participle in the Greek; it describes actions completed in the past whose effects continue into the present.

So when Paul summarized the gospel as Christ crucified, he identified Jesus Christ as the one whose identity continues to be stamped by the cross. The cross has not been canceled out by the resurrection; rather, to know even the risen Jesus is to know him precisely as the Crucified One.

Any other account of his identity, Hays says, is not the gospel. [2] Even in resurrection and glorification, the humanity of God’s Son is affirmed.

The gospel Paul preached announced the unreasonable love of God poured into the cross of Jesus Christ.

The gospel Paul preached proclaimed the unstoppable love of God breathing life into death.

And so the truth for ourselves is ever the imperative to love.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Mark 8:35

Like the Christ whose name we wear, like the God whose image we bear, like the Spirit whose call we hear – the church is a people who give ourselves away. Within the gospel is the power to create, even in self-centered humans, an unreasonable passion to give ourselves away on behalf of others because of love.

The cross is the very heart of the gospel.

The gospel is not the teachings about Christ; it’s not even the teachings Christ taught. Rather the gospel is the act of the loving, self-giving God enfleshed in the life and death of the loving, self-giving Christ on our behalf.

God’s Christomorphic passion, Alan Lewis says. [3]

In the cross, human violence is met with divine self-giving. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. Here we have not the renunciation of divine sovereignty but its redefinition.” [4]

Divine sovereignty is demonstrated not in mighty acts of power but through the power of self-giving, self-sacrificing love.

The amazing, surprising, unimagined thing about this gospel Paul preached is that God’s promised intervention into history, God’s promised redemption of creation has happened in the human Jesus and in the scandalous crucifixion.

Many of us comfortable American Christians have only a tiny grasp of this mystery. We only understand a hint of the paradox Paul paints because we have our own particular stumbling block the first Christians did not have. First century Christians lived on the underside of their society, and so, for them, the word of the cross brought a great hope for a great reversal of the status quo, a reversal that would – in God’s ultimate plan – bring all those who are shamed and defeated and forsaken into God’s victory.

But for those of us who are quintessential bearers of the status quo, the notion of God’s great reversal can be disorienting. We are so acculturated to the Christian voice as one of power and influence; we are so saturated with American Christendom, we forget that the cross is at the very center of God’s good news.

God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.

Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross.

Richard Hays

The gospel Paul preached proclaimed the cosmic self-giving love of eternal God enfleshed in Jesus the Christ and poured into human hearts through the Spirit.

Paul’s Jesus is the power of God’s love made known in the cross and made real in the resurrection.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 4, Part 2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, First Edition paperback, translated by G.W. Bromiley, edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, (London: T&T Clark International, 1958/2004).

See also Barth’s Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part 1, The Doctrine of the Word of God.

[2] Hays, Richard, 1 Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997).

[3] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001).

[4] Boring, Eugene M. and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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