“Paul … The most powerful messenger of the first century… Now we stand here 20 centuries later… Because he was a traveller…” – Kanye West
Before you say “I fell off” there is a reason to beginning a post at the Pilgrims Rest Stop with a Kane West tweet. First of all he made a pretty valid assessment of St. Paul as the greatest missionary the world has ever known. The greatest Jew since Jesus would be the first to tell you that he is who he is because of the Son of God (Galatians 2:22). He is as loved, as divisive and as perplexing as he was in the first century.
Contemporary pop culture icons referencing well known figures is not new. A closing reading of the New Testament reveals this is something Paul himself did. I am not saying that Paul would necessarily quote Mr. West but he did reference a lot of contemporary issues in his writing, some being obvious and others being far more subtle. Paul drew on his life and experiences in his mission.
Another person Mr. West has compared himself to is Wardell Stephen Curry II. Even though I have loved basketball for a long time it is only in the last year or so that I have paid great attention to the ins and outs of the NBA. As fate would have it I picked a perfect time to see the sporting brilliance of Steph “The Baby Faced Assassin” Curry. What particularly impressed me about him is that he is unashamedly a Christian. As I was thinking about his exploits it made me wonder about Paul. Paul used a lot of sports metaphors in his epistles (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:7-8.) I think he probably was a fan of sports and I wonder what he would have made of a Christian athlete like Steph.
Of course whatever Paul’s hobbies were was really his business. It is strange however, for a faithful Jew in teaching the word of God, to use a pagan indulgence as a sermon point. Sporting activities in ancient Greece was linked to the gods, the Olympic Games being a prime example and the Isthmian Games near Corinth being another. The Jews would have nothing to do with heathenism. In Acts when he is speaking to a thoroughly Jewish audience he never makes such references. When he approaches a Gentile audience such as in Acts 17 he makes a plethora of references to contemporary Hellene culture.
What do we make of this Jewish man, born in a Greek city, who was a Roman citizen? He quoted Greek poets and philosophers alongside the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions. He talked about theology, sports, and politics in the same breath. He was one of the first truly global citizens. What produced such a unique life and way of thinking even among his contemporaries?
Of course the answers to such a question are complex and far beyond my expertise to properly address. Many have spent a life time studying him. In 1 Corinthians 9 we do get a clue regarding what motivated him to be so eclectic.
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 ESV
His thinking and behaviour was intimately tied to his mission. As the apostle to the Gentiles he faced seemingly insurmountable odds. However, the drive to bring the good news that changed his life to all was strong. Perhaps, the incarnation inspired him to become as others are because God in Christ Jesus became as we are. Drawing from his life experiences and interactions he presented the Gospel in an accessible yet provocative manner to those whom he encountered. There is further insight into his psyche in his second epistle to the Corinthians.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 ESV
Paul here uses a military metaphor. He lived in a period familiar with military activity and he was himself found several times under military custody. Paul acknowledged that the Gospel was not only challenging religion, politics and even culture. He was engaged with the ideologies, worldviews and the mindsets of people.
If Jesus is Lord his mission was through preaching of the Gospel to bring the world to submission before its God (Romans 1:5.) For this to happen, first, the battlefield of the mind had to be won. Every thought had to be taken captive to Christ. Whether it was Stoicism, pharisaic thinking or politics, Christ had to be all in all. He was not simply talking about evicting “negative” thoughts from a person’s mind or making a sermon point out of everything. It meant interpreting everything through the lens of a Christian worldview. In the same way Christ took upon himself human nature but was obedient to God, we are to take our thoughts and submit them to God (Philippians 2:6.) It’s about human ways of thinking being redeemed through the Gospel, a true renewal of the human mind with new ways of thinking (Romans 12:2; Colossians 2:9-10.)
If Paul was here today we might have been shocked by the way he deals with contemporary culture. He might quote a Kanye or use Steph as an example. We can’t affect a culture without being a part of it. However, being in it does not make us of it. In today’s world more than ever we need to know how to be relevant but non-conformist at the same time. Instead of dismissing ideologies and worldviews we need to learn how to engage them and rescue them through the power of the Gospel. This is a daunting task but God himself will equip us for his work.