It’s not uncommon, in Christian circles, to hear someone say that they like Jesus better than Paul. I think Paul would enthusiastically agree with them.
These commenters, though, aren’t actually talking about Jesus and Paul, they are talking about what and how Jesus taught, as revealed through the four Gospels, as compared to what and how Paul wrote about as he desperately tried to build and hold together the early Church. An interesting analogy to help understand these two men and their ministries is to consider the differing roles between the CEO and COO of a corporation.
A story that has circulated in business circles, is of the time that Apple’s engineering team showed the very first prototype of a new iPhone to Steve Jobs. Steve took one look at it and said make it smaller. The engineers then took great pains to explain to him that the phone was as small as it could possibly get, given the current limitations of chip technology at the time. Steve then asked them to hand him the prototype, and without even turning it on, walked over to a fish tank adorning the back of the room, and dropped the phone in. As it settled to the bottom of the tank, a few air bubbles leaked out and made their way to the surface. Steve turned to the engineers and said, if there is room for air bubbles, it can be smaller.
The role of a CEO is to set a vision – to convey a new way of looking at the world. The role of a COO is to understand this vision, and then go make it happen. Jesus was the CEO of God’s redemptive plan for the salvation of the world. The Apostles became his COOs. In some ways, it looks easy to be a CEO – how hard is it to drop a phone into a fish tank? As you read through the Gospels, you see the similarity. Jesus would step into a synagogue, expound mind-blowing teaching, and then walk on to the next town. He didn’t wait around to make sure people understood or believed. In fact, the Gospels seem to indicate that he cared little for this type of follow-through. When we read the Gospels carefully, it appears that Jesus’ primary concern was making sure that his COOs, his apostles, understood the vision. His parting words: … go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you … (Matthew 28:19-20) indicated that it was time for them to take the vision and execute – time for the hard work to begin.
What sets apart Paul’s letters from all the other writings of the New Testament, is that in them Paul reveals himself – his heart, his passion, his frustrations, even his anger. He was a logical thinker, trained in rational thought, studious and well versed in scripture as well as Hebrew, Roman, and Greek culture, and most of all, he was disciplined. After finally being faced with the truth (on his journey to Damascus) Paul immediately took the time to re-learn the scriptures in light of the revelation of Jesus, thought through the meaning of it all from multiple angles, and began his ministry of sharing the great news of Jesus Christ.
He soon learned, however, that his missionary field included those who were not nearly as studious, rational, disciplined, or well educated as himself. Where Jesus would walk out of a town, after preaching, not concerned with how well the message was received, Paul stuck around and followed up – and was hurt when his people didn’t understand. When he learned that Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome were treating each other with callous disrespect, it broke his heart and he took great pains to do something about it – to purchase papyrus, to write his well-thought out letter to the Romans, and to find someone to convey it those churches. When he heard that Judaizers where tearing away the very foundations of the small-town churches he planted, he traveled to Jerusalem to put an end to this destructive theology. Few think about how many miles of dangerous road he walked in order to do this.
Paul’s letters and teachings delve into the nitty gritty; they deal with the in-fighting, sexual immorality, and bickering that beset the early churches. Paul dealt with all the things that Jesus didn’t step into, and he worked long and hard to find ways of sharing the gospel message so that people would understand, whereas Jesus taught in parables that few understood at the time.
It is interesting to think in terms of these roles: CEO vs COO, because they are typically not interchangeable. A gifted CEO can share a vision in a manner that no one else can, and a gifted COO can grind through an execution plan with a focus on detail that most CEO’s could never do. In the same way, Jesus did what no else could possibly do, but is it possible that the Apostles, the disciples, and even us, are charged with a task that Jesus could not do? It may seem to be a heretical thought, but the fact is, Jesus did not do it. He left it for us to do.
Pastors like to give sermons on Jesus’s final words on the cross conveyed in John 19:30: It is finished, but the Greek may better be translated as It is paid for. There are many milestones in God’s plan for redemption, and Jesus’ death on the cross, the propitiation for our sins, is a major one, but not the only one. Three days later, Jesus came back and continued his ministry on earth for forty days, teaching and expounding on the meaning of his previous teaching. The great commission can be seen as another great milestone, followed soon after by another: the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Viewing God’s redemption plan as something that is finished is misleading, and unwisely diminishes the efforts of his COOs, the hard and tedious work of the Apostles and first disciples. In the same way, it also diminishes the efforts and responsibilities of his current disciples – of us.
While a believer may be able to say that the Lord’s redemptive work is completed in themselves, they cannot say that it is completed in our unbelieving neighbors and co-workers, and they cannot always say that they have created a community of worshiping believers that provides an ideal example and welcoming environment to those still in need of redemption. This is where the encouragement and wisdom of Paul can be most appreciated.
Maybe we like Jesus better because we wish we could make those grand pronouncements. Call out the hypocrisy in our leaders, and walk out the door. Or maybe we like Jesus because we wish it was sufficient for us to demand, from those we meet, are you in our out? Leaving no time for growth or indecision. And maybe we think less of Paul’s teachings because he struggled the same way we do. He struggled when hearing that those he shared the gospel with didn’t quite get it, didn’t let it seep into their lives the way he prayed it would.
Paul struggled to find new ways of explaining what, to him, were obvious truths. He struggled to see people that he had come to know as dear friends fade away from the Church. For myself, I’ve always loved Paul for these very same reasons.
We call the Bible inspired, because it is, it all is. We could never fully understand the Old Testament, without learning, through the Gospels, how Jesus recast it as a new vision. In the same way, we may never truly understand the Gospels without learning how Christ’s message was lived out by his very human, and very fallible first disciples. It is the combination of perseverance and fallibility, as conveyed by the epistles, particularly Paul’s, that give us true hope that we are welcome participants in the Kingdom of God, revealed to us through his son, Jesus Christ.