Paul’s Political Gospel, Pt. 3
Saul the Pharisee would have shared the vision of salvation elaborated in the previous post. The Pharisaic hope was in the God of Israel fulfilling his promises to set Israel free from oppression and to restore the nation to its rightful place as God’s chief agent of salvation and rule over creation. The God of Israel would return and install the nation as the throne from which he ruled over the nations.
Because he was passionate about this hope, Israel’s current domination and oppression at the hands of Rome was intolerable. It needed to be set right. This desperate need set the agenda for the Pharisees. As Saul read the Scriptures of Israel, therefore, he understood that the nation had been sent into exile for unfaithfulness to God, for idolatry, for neglecting the Mosaic Law and its practices. The logic made perfect sense to him and it fired his zeal. If unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Law led to exile, then renewed faithfulness to the Law at the national level would surely move God to act on behalf of Israel to deliver the nation from its enemies and bring about salvation.
So Saul’s aim as a Pharisee was to bring about a renewed nation, to present to God a purified people, newly zealous for the Law, every bit as passionate as Saul for the “traditions of the fathers” (Gal. 1:14). He was convinced that once the nation was pure and obedient, God would be moved to send Messiah who would bring God’s salvation.
Saul’s aims as a Pharisee, therefore, involved an intense pursuit of a national campaign for the honor of the God of Israel, advocating for faithfulness to the Mosaic Law. This is what Paul, years later, has in mind when he said that as a Pharisee he was passionate for the “resurrection from the dead.” While this was redefined after his conversion, Saul’s entire life was devoted to seeing the promises to the fathers fulfilled. This provided the drive for the Pharisaic passion for purity and holiness.
It’s important to understand that for Saul “resurrection” meant far more than God raising the righteous dead. It was a shorthand way of referring to all of God’s eschatological (or, “end-times”) activity. Not only were the dead to be raised, but all of the end-time transformations of creation would take place. God’s very life would be poured out on creation resulting in its total transformation. The wicked would be judged, Sin and Death would be destroyed, the new age would replace the old, and the Kingdom of God would come in all its fullness.
Now, we can’t be sure that Paul ever heard or saw Jesus before his conversion, but he likely knew of his claims to be the Messiah. Jesus’ death, however, confirmed to Saul that this Jesus was most certainly not the Messiah of Israel, especially because of his death on a Roman cross.
In Gal. 3:13, Paul cites Deut. 21:23 , that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Saul would have contemplated Scripture’s (and, by extension, God’s own) verdict on Jesus: he was cursed by God, rejected as Messiah. That a movement would have sprung up around this person was blasphemous and intolerable, since it could only be characterized as complete disobedience to the God of Israel, rejecting God’s own verdict on Jesus and his claims. For Saul, such a movement was a mortal threat to his fundamental Pharisaic aims and ambitions—Christians were standing in the way of God fulfilling the promises to the fathers! He could not afford to ignore this movement or maintain any kind of neutral posture toward it.
It is no surprise, then, that Saul’s first appearance is at the murder of Stephen, recorded in Acts 7:58-60. Luke portrays Saul watching over the coats of those putting Stephen to death after his speech to the council (Acts 7:2-53), giving hearty approval (Acts 8:1). A wave of persecution against the church immediately follows this event, in which Saul plays a leading role. So great was his zeal that he traveled around Judea, “breathing out threats and murder” (Acts 9:1) in attempts to “destroy the church of God” (Gal. 1:14). He must have developed quite a reputation as a persecutor of the church, since after his conversion hardly anyone in the first generation of Jesus-followers wanted to have anything to do with him.
Before his conversion, then, Saul’s political outlook was one in which the God of Israel was going to judge the nations and save Israel. This would come as a result of the presentation to God of a nation conforming to the Mosaic Law. This set Saul on a religio-political mission of coercion and violence. If you asked Saul the Pharisee, “What is keeping God from coming in power to save his people and to judge the nations?” He would answer, “It’s the presence of sinners in Israel, tax-collectors, prostitutes, the disobedient—their lack of faithfulness to the Law and conformity to the traditions of the fathers—they are preventing God from saving Israel and bringing about the resurrection from the dead.”
We need to take note that Saul’s political vision was indeed largely shaped by Scripture—the freeing of Israel from oppression, the restoration of shalom, the transformation of the people into a just nation. But there were several elements that had become perverted and distorted. Saul had become captive to an “us” versus “them” mentality, shaped as he was by his cultural prejudices. He longed for God’s vengeance against foreign nations rather than their redemption. And his political mode had become corrupted because of his zeal. He was violently coercive toward others, seeing others as the problem he needed to solve on God’s behalf. Once people got on board with the Pharisaic agenda of a righteous polis, only then would Israel experience God’s blessing. Saul was not only coercing other Jews, he was also trying to force God’s hand. He truly believed that he could get God to send salvation based on works of righteousness.