Playscripts of Salvation
SEPTEMBER 24, 2020
The New Testament epistles are home to some of the most explicitly rich gospel-theology in all of the Bible.
They are, essentially, love letters from God to us — personal, warm, intimate, assuring, reminding us of his love for us (like any human love letter might do), but also addressing the big “How then shall we live?” question that often arises for those who are saved by grace, apart from their works.
With this in mind and because we often think of the letters as the most “practical” genre of Scripture, we tend to look at Paul (the author of 13 of the letters) as a picture of us. And in one sense, rightly so. He is the self-professed “chief of sinners,” like us. He is a man wrecked and remade by grace. For followers of Jesus, he becomes an example to emulate: the epitome of one who speaks the truth in love, who models how to pray for our churches, and whose teachings become a go-to list for what character traits to look for in our pastors.
Not your typical religious textbook
Yet there are many other sections of Paul’s letters that don’t fit this paradigm quite as neatly. For example, why does Paul spend so much time talking about being separated from his churches, about how he longs to see them, and about sending helpers like Timothy or Epaphroditus to encourage them? Why does he go into such detail about how he has suffered for the churches, even going so far as to say that his suffering will “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?” And why is it important for the New Testament to say that Paul wanted a guest room to be prepared for him for the next time he’s in Colossae? These sections of the letters aren’t as easy to apply to our lives. Perhaps this is intentional.
Reading these things through the clarifying lens of Christ helps us to see that they are more than just “contextual noise.” They are, instead, deep theological blueprints that map out the story of redemption. For starters, though, we have to resist the temptation to read Paul as though he is a mirror image of us. As previously stated, there is some truth to that. But he is also a picture of someone much greater, namely Jesus Christ himself, or in some cases, God the Father.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s start by looking at one of the best examples of this in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:4 (abridged):
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. … Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.
The gospel in unsuspecting places
We see a common theme in many of Paul’s letters: he is separated from his churches, he longs for them, but he can’t get to them, so he sends a helper or servant or co-worker to minister to them. In 1 Thessalonians, it’s Timothy who is sent, who elsewhere is called a “son” of Paul’s. Here he is called a coworker or “servant” of God. And therein lies the key to interpretational clarity. Does any of this ring a bell for you? Does it sound like another story in the Bible, say, involving our exile from God, satanic separation, and gospel reconciliation through Christ the true son, all under the umbrella of suffering? It should. It’s certainly not a coincidence. Paul is like God the Father here, longing to be reunited with his “children” in the faith, but he’s separated (not just by circumstance but by something much more spiritual, Satan himself). He overcomes that separation by sending his son Timothy who resembles Christ in how he brings order, sturdiness, and encouragement to their faith. We see a similar paradigm play out in the book of Philemon. This time, Paul symbolizes Christ by advocating for Onesimus to Philemon, offering to pay Onesimus’s debts “by his own hand” like Christ paid our debts through his nail pierced hands at Calvary. In both cases, it’s the works and sufferings of Paul that bridge the gap, and notably not the collective works of the churches.
Another benefit to reading the letters this way is to see an example of Christ’s affection for us rather than an example of a type of affection that we’re supposed to have for our own Christian friends. What if when Paul says “we endeavored with great desire to see you face to face” this was not simply descriptive of his heart towards the Thessalonians, but reflective of Christ’s heart toward us? What if our big take-away was not “how can I do better at matching Paul’s affection?” but instead “right now as I read this, God has this type of affection for me; he sent his son to lift my downtrodden soul from the pit, and now his posture towards me is one of pure acceptance, not disappointment.” What if Philippians 1:8 — “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” — is not just the words of Paul but the words of Christ, not unlike how Jesus commandeers David’s words in the psalms for himself?
This is the “deeper magic” in the letters; it’s where they become for us not just textbooks on Christian living, but playscripts to the greatest story ever told. God sent Jesus to save us because “he could bear it no longer” (1 Thess 3:1). He came to overturn satanic separation between God and sinners through his death and resurrection, by his pierced debt-paying hands, not by your own. When you sin, he has affection for you. When you don’t sin, he has affection for you. When you mimic Paul’s ministry practices well, he loves you. When you don’t mimic them well (and many times you won’t), he still loves you. As Paul says in Philippians 2 about Epaphroditus (but really about Christ): “Receive him with all joy.” Receive Jesus — which means, he is coming to us! In fact, he has already come all the way, the bridge-builder of the ages. So, receive and rejoice, and then let your good works tell the same story that Paul’s do. Let your forgiveness tell the story of Jesus’s forgiveness (Eph 4:32). Let your love tell the story of God’s love (Eph 5:2). Let your hospitality tell the story of his hospitality (Rom 15:7). Our works, and the ethical imperatives of the New Testament letters aren’t just about us, they’re about putting the greatest story of all time on center stage for all to see — the story of Jesus’s blood bringing us near to God.