Paul, Arabia and Zeal For God


This post is consists of reflections on original material by N.T. Wright as presented at Wascana Fellowship on Feb. 13, 2010.

New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright seems to have solved the riddle of why Paul went to “Arabia.” Not only that, but he seems to have integrated this trip into a coherent account of what this has to do with what he is writing to the church in Galatia about. We will talk about what, if anything, this may have to do with us.

I literally slapped my forehead when Wright presented the geographical clue Paul drops in Gal. 4:25. There, before our very eyes, Paul says exactly what he means by “Arabia” as he develops his allegory of Hagar and Sarah. “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia” (NRSV). According to Paul, Mount Sinai is in Arabia. Go figure. We have the exact location from his own pen.

Now that we know where he was, Wright was able to piece together other clues in the letter to figure out what Paul was doing there. Why Mount Sinai? Why would Jesus meet him there? Was Paul to be a new Moses to lead Gentiles to freedom from Egypt? It seems that way from what he says in 1:15-17. Like Moses, he is called even before he is born. God meets him on the way in a sort of burning bush experience, appoints him as His spokesman, brings him to Mt. Sinai to receive instruction about the New Covenant and sends him off to meet the people he is to proclaim the message to. Yes, there probably is a Moses theme going on here, but there is also more.

Immediately before that statement, in verses 13-14 Paul talks about his persecution of the church because he was “zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors” (NRSV). The expression of “zeal” along with violence toward the perceived “enemies” of God’s way remind Wright of two other prominent Bible figures. The first is Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. Phinehas stops a plague on the Israelites by killing an Israelite elder who was having an affair with a Midianite princess (one of many women leading Israelite men into idolatry). God commends him for his “zeal” on God’s behalf in Numbers 25:11. In this case, Phinehas has done God’s will, establishing a precedent for what “zeal for the Lord” might entail in the midst of an evil generation.

A second instance of zeal finds Elijah having all the prophets of Baal put to death in 1 Kings 18. God had first put on a show of fire that put those prophets to shame, and Elijah seized the moment to get rid of the false prophets. Shortly thereafter, Jezebel frightens him into running for his life. God sustains him all the way to Mt. Sinai, where He eventually asks what Elijah is doing there. Elijah begins by explaining how “zealous” he has been for God.

[At this point I deviate slightly from Dr. Wright in the presentation to point out that God had probably not told Elijah to kill the false prophets, and speculate that this may be the reason for his early retirement from prophetic ministry. Whereas Phinehas had been a priest, Elijah was only a prophet, and probably not entitled to being in the execution business.]

Dr. Wright puts these clues together and suggests that Paul had originally thought of himself as following the “good example” of the “zeal” such luminaries as Phinehas and Elijah in persecuting the Christians. How could a dead Messiah possibly rescue Jews from the clutches of the Romans? How could a mere human being be thought of as God? This was considerably worse, from Paul’s perspective, than Baal worship could ever be! This fits in perfectly with the flow of his argument of the rest of the letter that the Judaizers must let go of the very same zeal that he let go of in v. 14.

[Note: He is not saying that Jewish Christians must stop observing the Law in their own lives, but rather that they must not let it divide them from Gentile Christians. He is also saying that the Law does not give life – only Jesus does. Jesus has freed them from the penalty of disobedience by grace. No amount of law-keeping can bring back innocence after guilt has been created.]

A lesson for today might be that zeal for God’s holiness or righteousness must never divide the people of God from each other! We Christians all have the same spirit as the prophets of old, rendering us unfit for martial zeal! We are not at war with Christians of either Jewish, Gentile, Mainline, Roman, Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasions. Jesus has won that war and has torn down the wall between us by His victory. Like Paul, we must give up the war on “the infidel” and learn the peace of Christ.

That peace must also extend to the non-believer. This is the main reason that the Christian Right’s ideal of reforming Canada or the United States of America into some form of Christian morality by force of law cannot work. Jesus is not here to govern the nations – yet. He is here, first and foremost, to save the nations. To that end He governs the minds and hearts of those who believe and follow Him by His Spirit as we live our lives in the world, but not of the world (John 17:16).

Unlike Elijah, Paul was able to leave that misplaced zeal behind on Mount Sinai, where it belonged. He was able to begin a fresh ministry of reconciliation from that point on, because he looked to New Jerusalem Above for his cues about how to live in God’s own love. So should we.

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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One Response to Paul, Arabia and Zeal For God

  1. Patricia Downing says:

    Thanks John, good information. I was wondering when
    Paul met Jesus, knowing Jesus had confronted him but
    had forgotten the actual context. Found it in Acts 9:4-6
    where the Lord caused him to be blind.

    Looking forward to reading the next posts.
    Pat

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