Understanding the Apostle Paul
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Some people read Paul’s letters and have a hard time understanding what he is really trying to say. One key that will help us interpret history is through what we call primary sources. This can include people who were eye witnesses to events as well as archaeological findings from the time period. The Apostle Peter was a contemporary of Paul and thus a primary source to the subject matter at hand. Here is what Peter said about Paul:
2 Peter 3:15-17 – “15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.”
The Apostle Peter admitted that Paul’s letters are not easy to understand. He also said that those who twisted Paul’s letters also twisted the other Scriptures. Since there was no New Testament canon at that time, the Scriptures to which Peter refers are the Old Testament. As a result of twisting Paul’s letters and the Old Testament, some have been led to destruction. Many people have misinterpreted his letters as they relate to the Old Testament and thus been led astray. This is especially true concerning the Sabbath and dietary commandments.
When someone reads the Apostle Paul, he or she must understand that he was a very learned man in the Law of God. We know he sat under Gamaliel, who was highly regarded among the Jewish people (Acts 22:3, 5:34-39). Paul was so intelligent that one of the rulers of his time called him crazy!
“At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane’” (Acts 26:24).
The Apostle Paul affirmed himself as a defender of God’s law (Romans 3:31, 7:22-25, 8:1-8). In the book of Acts, Paul was confronted by the Jewish people about his teachings. They heard that he was teaching contrary to God’s Law; they asked him to clarify. We have an excerpt from this story below:
“20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. 26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them” (Acts 21:20-26).
Paul participated in the sacrificial vows of these men to affirm that he was not teaching against God’s Law. Paul was known for living like Christ and teaching others to do the same. He wrote in I Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” He was also known for teaching the same thing in every church. “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (I Cor. 4:17). This refutes the idea that Paul taught two gospels – one for the Jews and the other for the Gentiles or that he had two sets of moral standards for each group.
Paul kept the Sabbath in Acts even when there was no synagogue (Acts 13:13-48; 16:11-15; 17:1-4; 18:1-4). He taught the Colossians to let no one judge them for participating in Sabbath (see Colossians 2:15-17 – Click here to read an article on these verses). This means he will be consistent with his message and not waver.
In conclusion, how do we make sense of the Apostle Paul? There are a few ways we can clarify his statements that seem to contradict other verses in the Bible.
#1 – Compare his letters with each other, other verses in the Bible, and also his life example. Peter informed us that he won’t contradict the other Scriptures. Paul said that he teaches the same thing in every church. His letters and his life will not contradict.
#2 – Look at the immediate context. Sometimes a detail is clarified earlier or later in the same letter.
#3 – Look at the original language. Apparent contradictions are many times clarified by the language he used (Romans 14:14-21 is a great example of this – click here to read an article on these verses). The New Testament was written in Greek.
#4 – History is another factor that helps us clarify Paul. Sometimes there are historical events or cultural practices that will clarify the meaning of his words. There are two great examples of this: Romans 14:5-6 and Galatians 4:8-11. Click here to read an article on Romans 14:5-6 and Click here to read an article on Galatians 4:8-11.
On the “Commonly Misunderstood Verses” page (click here to view it), we break down the most commonly misunderstood verses and explain their proper meaning. Many of these verses were written by the Apostle Paul. The articles on this website will teach you how to defend your faith. It is also a way to reach out to other believers and help them understand the truth of God’s Word.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org