Sep 29, 2008
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we cannot hope to understand St. Paul without first exploring his B.C. (before Christ) timeline. He was a tri-part person - a Jew (from the tribe of Benjamin and a member of the Pharisee movement), a Roman citizen raised in a Hellenized (Greek) culture, and a disciple of his Resurrected Rabbi, Jesus.
This week we will look at St. Paul in the context of his Pharisee background. If someone called you "a Pharisee of Pharisees" today, it would be one of the worst insults you could receive. In our time, a Pharisee has been reduced to a self-righteous hypocrite. Although Christ reserved some of his harshest criticism in the Gospels for the Pharisees, he also encouraged obedience to their teaching, while challenging the hypocrisy of some. In Matthew 23, Jesus highlights this fact, "practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (23:3). And all Pharisees were not the enemy of Christ and his Church. In the Gospels, some Pharisees warned Jesus of Herod’s murderous plans (Luke 13:3), and one of the greatest Pharisees in history, Gamaliel, urged Jewish leaders not to persecute the followers of Christ (Acts 5:34).
St. Paul wasn’t embarrassed to be a "Pharisee of Pharisees," and he never considered it something he must lay aside to follow Christ. Decades after his conversion, when he proclaimed the Gospel before the Sanhedrin, he declared, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (Acts 23:6, author’s emphasis). At the same time, the moment he met Christ on the Damascus Road, he would have to revisit everything he believed, and radically expand the boundaries of his belief. I believe this is why he went to Arabia (possibly even Mt. Sinai), to re-orient his ideas about the God of Israel (not unlike Moses and Elijah).
After meeting the Resurrected Christ, the Pharisee of Pharisees would spend most of his energies converting the Gentiles, yet this was not inconsistent with his Jewish heritage. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6), language that the Lord will use of his servant Paul (Acts 13:47).