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Behold Paul

(Franco Origlia/Getty Images)


Behold Paul

Author Michael F.

Michael F. Bird's Introducing Paul (IVP, 2008) does that splendidly. A Scottish lecturer in New Testament, Bird has a knack of vividly putting in current context the radical nature of some New Testament claims and the way they were perceived 2,000 years ago. For example, we are used to hearing "Christ is Lord," and we might even snooze through such a declaration. But:

"Imagine it is the late 1930s and you are in a lavish hotel in Berlin for a sumptuous dinner with a cohort of German industrialists, bankers, barons, university lecturers and officers from a German SS Panzer division. The evening is relatively cheerful and the mood jovial. . . . Then an SS officer taps his glass and proposes a toast to the Führer, Adolf Hitler, to his health and the new Germany, and everyone raises their glasses. And then you, being the committed Christian you are, propose another toast and bellow out in your best German, 'Jesus ist Führer!' Now what manner of reaction do you suppose it would prompt from those SS officers? Do you think they would even entertain the idea that Germany has room for two Führers, the other being a Jew?"

Bird explains, "In the ancient world, the title 'Lord' (Kyrios) was also used of the Roman emperor. In the Roman era, terms like grace, gospel, parousia, justice, freedom, Lord, Savior and Son of God were employed in Roman political propaganda and utilized in the prayers and rites of the imperial cult, which focused on worship of the Roman emperor. By analogy then, the 'good news' that 'Jesus is Lord' carried with it the implication that Caesar was not Lord. . . . Paul's gospel had theo-political consequences in that it claimed for Jesus an immense authority and power which threatened that of Rome."

It's clear that Bird has enormous respect for Paul and the importance of his epistles for the church today. He notes that "our pluralistic and postmodern world is becoming more and more like the ancient Greco-Roman world." He argues that "in a day when all claims to truth are suspected as being little more than veiled claims to power, Christians must set forth God's grace in all its truth [and] set forth the story of why the world has gone so horribly wrong."

To his credit, Bird doesn't duck Paul's views of homosexuality. He notes that "several alternative readings are often put forward, such as that Paul is condemning only pederasty, or heterosexuals engaged in homosexual promiscuity, sexual exploitation of slaves, or homosexuality in the context of pagan worship. Such interpretations can persist only by doing serious violence to the context and content of Paul's argument."

Bird records other attempts to disregard Paul's clear meaning and notes that "it is nonsense to say that Paul did not know of committed same-sex relationships, for they were quite common." The bottom line: "Paul's proscriptions are broad enough to apply to an assortment of homosexual relations and acts (including those of men and women) and his argument in Romans 1 encompasses the unnatural nature of homosexuality itself."

Finally, it's good for all of us to remember how foolish the message of Christ crucified is to those without ears to hear. Here's Bird's second vivid contextualization: "Imagine you are walking through your local university or college and hear in the quad an elderly man from South America telling people loudly about God's love and salvation. He announces the 'good news' of Carlos Hernandez. He recounts how Carlos was a Peruvian peasant attested by many mighty deeds . . . falsely accused of being an al-Qaeda terrorist . . . killed by electrocution. But a week later, this Carlos was raised from the dead and was seen by several American tourists. Then the man declares that 'this Carlos was electrocuted for your sins and salvation is found through faith in him.'"

How can we expect anyone to believe such a story? No wonder people believe only through God's grace.