The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER FIVE: PAUL AND THE OUTWARD MOVEMENT
Jesus’ final charge to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel was to take the Good News to “all nations” (28:19), meaning to “all people” and in the book of Acts to “the ends of the earth” (1:8), meaning throughout the Roman Empire.
The Acts of the Apostles
The book of Acts is the story of how Christianity moved from Jerusalem, the center of the Judeo-Christian world, to Rome, the center of the sociopolitical world. It is the second half of Luke’s two-volume work on the origins of Christianity. The two books were separated in the second century to combine the four Gospels into one collection and to give Acts a place of its own as the story of the “outward movement” of the Good News.
- Luke’s Authorship. Luke’s authorship of Acts has never been seriously challenged, though some wonder why, if Luke was Paul’s traveling companion, he never mentions that Paul wrote letters. The answer may be that Luke chose to emphasize Paul’s preaching (there are nine Pauline speeches in Acts), since in antiquity history was often written through the spoken words of the principal characters in the narrative. Others wonder why Luke reintroduces Theophilus at the beginning of Acts and repeats the story of Jesus’ ascension (both appear in his Gospel). Perhaps Luke does this because the two books were separate scrolls and this was Luke’s way of tying them together.
- The Story and Structure of Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the first thirty years of the church— from Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and ascension in the year 30 until the arrival of Paul in Rome in the year 60. The first half of the book (chapters 1-12) is the Petrine section, the story of Peter and the church in Jerusalem; it ends with the death of Herod Agrippa I in 44. The second half (chapters 13-28) is the Pauline section, which begins with the sending out of Paul and Barnabas in the year 46 (13:1-3). This is the story of Paul’s missionary work in Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus and other cities in the Roman Empire.
- Pentecost: The Church’s Birthday. The book of Acts opens with Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. In 1:8— a key verse in understanding the structure and message of Acts— Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (in expanding concentric circles). On the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death (Pentecost comes from a Greek word meaning “fiftieth,” to mark the fiftieth day after Passover), the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and others, who began to speak in “other tongues” (fourteen are mentioned). The Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3:22) launched Jesus on his ministry to Israel; the same Spirit came upon his followers at Pentecost, launching them on their ministry to “the ends of the earth.”
The Apostle Paul: Ambassador for Christ
The book of Acts introduces us to the apostle Paul, the most important, though not the first or only, of the church’s early missionaries. Well before Paul’s first journey in the year 46, churches had been established in Damascus, where Ananias and others were active; in Antioch, which had a large Christian community and became Paul’s mission base; in Cyprus, Barnabas’s native land; in Rome, which had a thriving church years before Paul arrived there; and in Alexandria, the home of Apollos.
Saul of Tarsus. We know quite a bit about Paul from the book of Acts and from his letters (Galatians 1:13-24 and Philippians 3:4-6). He was named for Saul, Israel’s first king; Paulus or Paul was his Greco-Roman name. Paul was born in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, a prosperous port and trade center that was famous for its schools (it was the “Athens of Asia Minor”). His parents were Roman citizens, though it is not known how they obtained their citizenship; Paul says that he inherited his citizenship (Acts 22:27-28). His father was a leather worker and tent maker, as was Paul. He had a sister whose son warned Paul of a plot against him following his arrest in Jerusalem (23:16). When he was old enough, Paul went to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel (22:3), the most famous rabbinic scholar in the first century. Paul became a strict, zealous Jew who persecuted Christians, whom he thought were undermining Judaism. In the year 33, when Paul was in his late 20s, he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Paul’s Conversion. The call of Paul is the most dramatic conversion story in the Bible. Paul went to Damascus to hunt for “any there who belonged to the Way” (the way of Jesus). As he approached the city, “a light from heaven flashed around him and he heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Paul was persecuting Jesus’ followers.) Paul is told by Ananias that he has been chosen “to carry Jesus’ name before the Gentiles.” The account in Acts 9:1-19 is followed by two parallel accounts, one in Jerusalem following Paul’s arrest at the end of his third journey (22:3-21) and another during his imprisonment in Caesarea (26:9-18).
Paul’s Missionary Journeys. It is not known how many journeys Paul undertook, but three are well documented in the book of Acts. The first journey team (c. 46-48) included Paul, Barnabas and Mark (for part of the way); they traveled from Antioch to Cyprus (Barnabas’s homeland) and then to Galatia. The second journey team (c. 49-53) included Paul, Silas (who replaced Barnabas) and Timothy (who replaced Mark); they went to cities in Asia Minor that Paul had visited on his first journey, and then they traveled to Europe, ending in Corinth, where Paul stayed for eighteen months. (It was on this journey that Luke met Paul.) On the third journey (c. 54-58), Paul and his same team revisited churches they had established in Asia Minor and Europe and then settled in Ephesus, where Paul stayed for two years.
Paul’s Writings. Paul’s writings follow the Greco-Roman style, with his name at the beginning, followed by a formal greeting; then the body of the letter, which included both doctrinal teachings and ethical instructions; and some final greetings at the end. Paul’s letters were written over a period of some fifteen years— from 1 Thessalonians in 50-51 to the Pastoral Letters in the 60s. His letters were usually dictated (see Romans 16:22); were carefully written, though some may have been edited and combined, as with the Corinthian correspondence; were more numerous than those in the New Testament (the letters referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Corinthians 2:4; and Colossians 4:16 have never been found); and were both communal (written to churches) and personal (like the letters to Timothy). Some believe that Luke assembled Paul’s correspondence from copies Paul made of his letters; others believe the letters were gathered together by Onesimus (the slave mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philemon), who later became the bishop of Ephesus.
Paul’s Theology. Paul grew up believing that the Torah was God’s ultimate revelation— then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, and everything changed. Paul came to understand that while Jewish law made one aware of sin, it had no power over sin. Only by faith, only by believing in Jesus, the one sent to redeem us from our sins, can we be justified— “justification by faith,” Paul’s doctrinal center— and rightly related to God. The bottom line of Paul’s theology is the cross: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Paul: The Ideal Man. Paul was the ideal man in the ideal place at the ideal time to launch God’s mission to the Gentiles: he was a Pharisaic Jew who was firmly grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures; a non-Palestinian Jew who was able to translate the gospel into the language and thought forms of the Greco-Roman world; a Roman citizen who was protected by his rights of citizenship; and a religious zealot, first on behalf of Judaism, and then Christianity. During his dozen years on the mission field (46-58), the apostle Paul established churches in several northern Mediterranean cities of the Roman Empire.
Galatians: The Epistle of Christian Freedom
Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty (from Jewish legalism). After Paul left Galatia, some Judaizers— hard-line Jewish Christians— arrived. They told the Galatians that Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith was not enough; it needed to be more firmly grounded in Judaism. Though the Judaizers were a headache, they forced Paul to articulate the principal distinguishing differences between Christianity and Judaism, those that made Christianity separate and distinct from, rather than an extension of, Judaism. Paul said that a person is not justified by works of the law (Jewish rules, rituals and customs) but through faith in Jesus Christ. If justification comes through the law, Paul said, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:15-21). The letter to the Galatians contains Paul’s nine fruits of the Spirit, which should be seen in the lives of those who call themselves Christian: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (5:22-23).
Romans: Paul’s Magnum Opus
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is considered to be his most important writing: the culmination of his thinking after many years on the mission field; the most systematic statement of his understanding of the gospel; and his last will and testament to the church. No one knows who founded the church in Rome; some think it may have been travelers from Rome who were in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost (see Acts 2:10). The Roman church was a large church; Nero could not have blamed the Christians for burning Rome if they had been a small, insignificant minority.
Romans 1:16-17 has been called the ‘Gospel According to Saint Paul.’ Paul writes that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith [in Jesus Christ].” Paul goes on to say that God has revealed himself in creation and to Israel, but “all have sinned” (3:23). The bad news is that “the wages of sin [the payment for sin] is death”; the good news is that God has sent one to redeem us from our sins, namely, “Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23). Some call Romans 12:1-15:13 ‘Paul’s Sermon on the Mount.’ He begins by telling the Romans to offer themselves “as living sacrifices … to God [in contrast to Israel’s dead animal sacrifices] [and to] be transformed by the renewing [of their] mind” (12:1-2). Paul goes on to write that Christians are to love one another with mutual affection; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers; welcome those who are weak in faith; and never put a stumbling block in the way of another.
The Corinthian Correspondence
Paul and his team visited Corinth on their second journey and stayed for eighteen months. First Corinthians is an answer to a number of problems that surfaced in the Corinthian church after Paul left; it shows how the early church struggled to be Christian in a pagan environment. Those who say, “I wish we could get back to the simplicity of the early church,” should read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In it Paul addresses a number of issues that were brought to him in person (1:11) and in writing (7:1). Space does not allow for their discussion, but they involve problems the church is struggling with even today: cliques and factions, sexual immorality, marriage and divorce, sensitivity toward new believers, propriety in worship and the proper exercise of spiritual gifts. Chapter 15 is Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection: he mentions those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, the future resurrection of all who “belong” to Christ and the nature of our to-be-resurrected bodies. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is the most autobiographical of his letters. In it he defends his ministry against the “super apostles”; he also talks about his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7). The letter ends with the popular, widely used benediction, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14).
Paul’s Other Letters
Most scholars believe that First Thessalonians was Paul’s first letter, which would make it the first New Testament “book” to be written. This letter and Second Thessalonians address questions that arose in Thessalonica after Jews there forced Paul to leave (Acts 17). Their questions had to do with Jesus’ return, specifically what happens to those who die before he returns (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Paul wrote four letters while he was in prison, which are called the Prison Epistles. Philippians is Paul’s letter of great joy to his favorite church. Colossians is a letter written to a church that Paul had neither founded nor visited concerning certain heresies that had arisen in the church in Colossae. Philemon is a personal letter to a member of the Colossian church about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Ephesians is the most important of the Prison Epistles. It contains a theme central to Protestant theology: we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (2:8-10).
The remaining three Pauline letters are called the Pastoral Letters. They contain instructions from the pastor Paul to two young pastors, Timothy and Titus, to maintain orthodoxy, to rebuke false teachers and to be models of Christian conduct Paul also gives characteristics to look for in choosing church leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
The Letter to the Hebrews and the Seven General Letters
There are eight letters that follow Paul’s letters. Hebrews is first in line because it is the longest non-Pauline letter. The letter establishes the all-sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins (see 10:1-18). Chapter 11 has been called the Faith Hall of Fame.
The seven short letters between Hebrews and Revelation are called the General Letters; they are known by the names of their authors rather than their addressees. The most important are James, 1 Peter and 1 John. James is the famous faith plus works epistle of the New Testament. James writes that “faith without deeds is dead” (2:26). First Peter is the Epistle of Courage. Peter tells his readers to accept their suffering with cheerfulness, looking to Jesus and following “in his steps” (2:21). First John is written against those who denied Jesus’ true humanity. John starts his letter by saying, “We have heard … we have seen. . . and touched with our hands” the risen Christ (1:1).
The Book of Revelation
It goes without saying that the book of Revelation is one of the most difficult books in the Bible, and also one of the most controversial. One reason is its use of symbolic language (numbers, colors, strange phenomena). We should remember that the author’s symbols would have been understood by those to whom he was writing, much as the ‘unlucky’ number thirteen would be today. For instance, horns (of animals) were a symbol of power, and seven symbolized fullness or completeness; thus seven horns meant all-powerful and seven eyes meant all-seeing. The message of apocalyptic literature like Revelation is that God will save his people, as he did when Pharaoh was oppressing the Israelites in Egypt. Until God intervenes, however, things will likely get even worse. But God will prevail and will reward those who have been steadfast and faithful.
The book of Revelation has two parts. First, John is told to write what is revealed to him concerning seven churches (meaning, perhaps, the “whole church”) in present-day Turkey, whose members were guilty of compromise and apostasy (abandoning their beliefs). Second, John is shown visions of plagues, famine, wars and death, each described in vivid language, and is told that there will be a final battle— the Battle of Armageddon— following which Satan will be bound and there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1).
Why Didn’t the Jews Accept Jesus as the Messiah?
The book of Acts and Paul’s letters tell the story of the outward movement of the good news. Although many Jews believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, as reported in Acts 2:41, 2:47 and 4:4, the overwhelming majority, both in Palestine and in the cities Paul visited on his journeys, did not. Why not? First, the Jews believed that the Messiah would be a royal figure from Jerusalem, the City of David, not a peasant from an insignificant village in Galilee. Second, they believed that the Messiah would embody the highest purity of Judaism, not eat with tax collectors, heal the unclean and break the Sabbath. Third, Jews, at least zealot Jews, were waiting for a military Messiah like David who would lead Israel in the overthrow of Rome, not someone who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Fourth, the Jews did not understand that the Messiah would bear the sins of Israel, as prophesied by Isaiah (chapter 53), or that he would be crucified, because one hanged on a tree (on a cross) was under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23). Fifth, the Jews did not believe that the Messiah would be raised from the dead in the middle of time; they believed that he would be raised, along with everyone else, at the end of time.
God’s plan is to bring salvation to the whole world. The centerpiece of this plan is Jesus Christ, who died a sacrificial death for the sins of the world and was raised from the dead to confirm his mission. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls Jesus’ death “a stumbling block to Jews,” who were looking for a king, not a suffering servant, and “foolishness to Gentiles,” who wondered how one crucified as a common criminal could be the world’s Savior (1 Corinthians 1:23).