Christ in Paul’s Letters

1. Though soteriology is especially what Paul is known for, clearly his Christology is crucial; in fact, his soteriology would be nothing without it. The main debate in the literature is to what extent Paul’s Christology is “Judaistic” or “Hellenistic.” Second temple literature generally indicates that within Judaism, the expectation was of a human Messiah sent from God. In Hellenism, by contrast, the general paradigm was of a god appearing as a man. As a man of the book (the Old Testament Scriptures), Paul’s Christology is indebted to the Scriptures, Christ’s own self-disclosure, and consistent with the apostolic message. It is also heavily indebted to the mode in which Christ revealed himself to Paul, namely Christ’s glorious self-exaltation, and his corporate relationship to Christians as representative of the new humanity (or the second Adam).
2. Before looking at the specific emphases of Paul’s Christology, we do well to look at how central Paul has made it in his theology. It is indicative that in an epistle a focused on the gospel as Romans, Christ begins with the Son (1:3), and deals centrally with the Son as the New Adam (5:12ff), and unpacks the significance of the Son’s relationship to the Father (3:21ff) and the Spirit (6-8), only to return to the Son as the minister of circumcision in chapter 15:19-20, whom Paul preaches to the Gentiles and wherever Christ is not named. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which focuses on the preaching of the cross, Paul focuses on Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:17-25), and believer’s relationship to God through Him (1 Cor. 1:30ff). In Philippians, Christ asserts that to live is “Christ” (Phil. 1:21), in this sense than, that life is tantamount to being in Christ, receiving all from him and living out of Him. After all, in his ascension He has received a headship over all (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:19-20).
3. For Paul, Christ fulfills all of salvation history. It finds it culmination in Him. In Him all the promises of God as Yea and Amen – they are sure (2 Cor. 1:20). He is the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). He was the rock in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4). He is the Passover of His people (1 Cor. 5:7) and as the New Adam, his resurrection guarantees theirs (1 Cor. 15:40ff.).
4. The relationship between Christ and his people is central in a number of Paul’s important letters, not least of which Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Philippians. God has created one new man in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:15). The moral life of Christian consists in putting on Christ (Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:5-17; Eph. 4:25-5:2). Christian husbands will love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25) and Christian wives will submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ. The Christian life as a whole is contained in the truth of “learning Christ” (Eph. 4:20). Everything needs to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17).
5. Especially, as it regards the topic of suffering, Paul makes many connections to Christ. Suffering is something that because of Christ, Paul can boast about (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:10; Phil. 1:29-26). It is even regarded as a gift from Christ (Phil. 1:29), one in which Christ’s grace is made sufficient for him. It’s something that makes him more conformed to Christ (Phil. 3:10-11). It’s a suffering too that “fills up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24). That does not refer to an atoning or meritorious function to Christian suffering; however, it is a means that Christ’s cause be expanded and God’s people be brought into greater conformity to Christ on earth (Rom. 8:17, 35). It also serves to increase Christians in patience and experience (Rom. 5:3-5).
6. The church is the body of Christ, and the gifts to the church – officers, etc. – are gifts from the ascended Christ. Baptism speaks to union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 1:1:16); the Lord’s Supper to communing with Christ (1 Cor. 10:15-17; 11:23-26). The church grows up into Christ (Eph. 4:13), and will be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19) through Christ. Christ is the one after whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named (3:15). Christ dwells in their hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17). The church exists in part to know the love of Christ, collectively, as a corporate body (Eph. 3:19).
7. Christ delivers from the curse of the law, having become a curse (Gal. 3:10). He apprehends sinners to save them from a life pursuing their own righteousness. He gives them the new ambition of gaining Christ and knowing Christ (Phil. 3:9-11). This is so distinct from a life dedicated to food laws that those who are seeking to establish a righteousness find that Christ cannot profit them (Gal. 1:6-7; 5:2). Instead, Christians are dead to the law that they might live in union with Christ, and his life is their life.
8. Christ’s return is an important subject especially in the letters to the Thessalonians. When Christ returns, He will be glorified with the saints (2 Thess. 1:10). Believers are those who wait for His coming (2 Thess. 3:5). His first coming has dealt with the principalities and powers that kept the nations away from the gospel (Eph. 1:21). Meanwhile, the fashion of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). His future coming gives urgency to the gospel preaching (2 Cor. 5:10). To believe on Christ means that we escape the wrath to come (1Thess. 1:10; 5:9; 2 Thess. 2:13). The return of Christ will not happen without events that fulfill God’s plan (2 Thess. 2:1-10), but in the end Christ will destroy all other forces. His coming with the saints and for the saints is a cause for comfort, as is the fact that believers who die, sleep in Christ (1 Thess. 4:14-18).
9. In his pastoral epistles, Paul speaks about the glory of Christ in a way that shows equality with the Father (1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Tim 4:1). In fact, Paul is careful to pair the Father and the Son at critical points in his epistles (1 Tim. 1:1-2; 5:21; 6:13; 2 Tim 1:1; 4:1; Titus 1:1, 4; 2:13). Both Father and Son are said to save (1 Tim. 1:15; 2 Tim. 9; 4:18), and spiritual blessings come from both (1 Tim. 1:14; 2 Tim. 1:6, 18; and Paul speaks of himself as serving both Christ and God (2 Tim. 1:3; 2:3, 15, 24; Titus 1:7). This underlines what we see from the benedictions and prayers and thanksgivings throughout the epistles and that is that Paul is certainly not Christomonistic, but Christ-centered in his Trinitarianism.
10. The heresy that the Colossian church was being affected by becomes the occasion for Paul to speak most eminently of Christ. Paul’s opponents were fascinated with “philosophy,” based on the rudiments of the world (2:8), practiced physical asceticism (2:21), and were preoccupied with angelic beings (2:18). The heresy seemed to have been a syncretism of mystery religions, paganism, and esoteric Judaism. The essential problem with this heresy was Christological. It detracted from the person of Christ: for that reason Paul emphasizes his preeminence. Paul asserts that all the divine fullness resides in Christ (Col. 2:9). All the mediatorial fullness of God also dwells in Christ (Col. 1:19). He is the mystery of God himself (Col. 2:2; 2:10). He is the image of God, that is the He makes visible all that is invisible in God. He is also the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) in the sense that he is “unique, distinguished from all creation, prior to it and supreme over it” (P. T. O’Brien in DPL). Not only that, but Christ is the firstborn from or out of the dead. That is, he is the founder of a new humanity. Both in the “new creation and old the first place belongs to him alone. In accordance with the divine intention he ‘has become’ preeminent in everything.’”
11. In a similar way, Philippians 2 speaks of the Lordship of Christ. It traces Christ’s humiliation, not as the abdication of His deity, but the adding of His humanity. In the process, Paul speaks in a most exalted way of Christ existing “in the form of God,” which is equivalent to saying that he was truly God, and having “equality with God,” that is, not needing to do anything to seek to acquire it (2:6). He rather veiled His glory and became a servant, humbling himself, and humbling himself again, he died the death of the cross in fulfillment of prophecy (Isa. 53) (Phil. 2:8). Because of all this, God exalted Him and gave him a lordship over all, again in fulfillment of prophecy (Isa. 45:20-25; Phil. 2:9-11).
12. In conclusion, we can say that though Christology is intimately bound up with soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology in Paul’s theology, some of the most sublime characterizations of Christ’s divinity and exaltation in the canon, alongside John are issued by Paul. And this is not yet even to deal with the rich significance of Christ’s death, and the atonement thereby, which we will deal with in a future lecture.