May 19, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: Why the Messiah was crucified

In the year 37, Saul met Peter for the first time. He had just escaped from Damascus, where he had been preaching for three years.

It’s not surprising that he wanted to meet with Peter to learn what Jesus was really like.What’s surprising is that it took him three years to do so.

He didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome in Jerusalem, and that might be why he waited three years. Jesus’ followers were initially afraid of him because they remembered that he had been present at the stoning of Stephen, and approved it.

But Barnabas became convinced of his sincerity, and introduced him to Peter and James, Jesus’ brother (probably a son of Joseph from an earlier marriage). Later, he wrote that they were the only ones he met (Gal 1:18-19). He remained with Peter for 15 days.

What Saul learned from Peter apparently influenced his preaching, and his lifestyle, from then on. He tried to imitate Jesus so that his own life could mirror the life of Jesus (see 1 Cor 11:1 and 2 Cor 4:10). He was particularly impressed by Jesus’ dedication to his mission, his “endurance” (2 Thes 3:5), and his “gentleness and clemency” (2 Cor 10:1).

But Saul had a problem that Peter apparently didn’t think about. Saul had to ponder how Jesus, if he was the Messiah (as Saul was convinced he was), could die, and by the cruel death of crucifixion.

Other early Christians skipped over the Crucifixion. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saul was to write that he was passing on what he received: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), with no mention of the Crucifixion.

That wasn’t good enough for Saul because of his Pharisaic background. He understood that Jewish belief about the Messiah had no indication that he would die, and certainly not by crucifixion. That was why many Jews refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

For Saul, the only solution was that Jesus chose to die. And if so, he also chose how he was to die. Peter was already preaching that Jesus “died for our sins” so Saul concluded that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was a supreme act of love: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Saul was so overwhelmed by this insight that from then on he made the Crucifixion the center of his preaching. As he was to write to the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

In his Letter to the Philippians, he quoted a liturgical hymn (Phil 2:6-11) that said that Jesus “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,” to which he added, “even death on a cross.”

He quoted another early liturgical hymn in his Letter to the Colossians (Col 15-20) which spoke of God reconciling everything through Christ, to which he added, “making peace by the blood of his cross.”

His 15 days with Peter were worthwhile. †



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