Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review (#8 of 2013) Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ by Rodney Reeves

This book is the best book on or about the Bible that I have read in a long time and if I had the resources I'd give a copy to everyone I know (lending of it is unfortunately not enabled for Kindle). I think every Christian should read it. Dr. Reeves is a Greek expert and Pauline scholar, Dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry at Southwest Baptist University. As I mentioned before my encounters with him really influenced me and I've never met a Southern Baptist pastor/theologian/teacher who talks, teaches, and writes like him. I had the privilege of hearing him preach a sermon series on Paul while he wrote this book, and his passion for imitating Paul was quite evident.

Reeves does an excellent job explaining the context of Paul's day and the situations of the churches which received his letters. He lucidly explains various lines of scholarly thought on confusing passages. Reeves asks thought-provoking questions about how we imitate Paul as we do church today. What is this "crucified life" that Paul talked about?

I think as believers we often think of Paul as the greatest preacher who ever lived, who was wholeheartedly admired and respected by believers he came into contact with--the children's Sunday School version of Paul. We also think of the Church in Paul's day as being relatively undivided--non-denominational. In reality, Paul's letters to Corinth tell us that he was not a great public speaker-- far inferior to the famous Corinthian orators trained in rhetoric. Churches looked at Paul's life of hardship--beatings, shipwrecks, etc.-- and wondered if he was under God's punishment rather than blessing.

"(T)he Corinthians had come to despise the messenger. That's because Paul sounded like a fool to them." (loc. 406).
They questioned his teachings. There were plenty of factions and groups who thought their doctrine was superior to others. James and the Judaisers in Jerusalem questioned his Gentile disciples' rights. Paul spent much of his ministry collecting money for the famine-stricken church in Jerusalem (even though there were churches in Greece and Asia likely just as impoverished) likely to try and unite the factions, particularly Jew and Gentile, but scholars are divided as to whether Jerusalem even accepted Paul's gift.

"Paul saw every event in his life, every relationship he had, as opportunities to experience the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Jesus." (loc. 95)
Paul saw Jesus several times in visions and appearances, but we forget he wasn't around Jesus to soak in his teachings while on earth. Yet, Paul's writings and life are such a fantastic reflection of what Jesus' life meant. 

Reeves contrasts Paul's life with the American life-- we're constantly striving to avoid loss and gain security. We're also constantly trying to stand up for our rights. 

"(I)f I spend most of my time protecting my interests and devote much of my energy trying to avoid loss, how will I ever gain Christ?  For those of us who prize comfort, will we ever experience the crucified life?" (Loc. 335).
Christians are often quick to judge a person who they see in poor circumstances as "reaping what he (presumably) sowed" or as suffering due to some secret sin. Reeves reminds us that followers looked at Paul's (and Jesus'!) hardships the same way-- surely these were fools: 

"(T)he cross should make us all reticent to declare who is cursed by God...There was nothing about him that looked like success. I can imagine Paul's converts saying, 'If that's what the cross does to a man, I'll try something else'" (Loc. 206 and 284). 
Reeves expounds on Paul's teachings on marriage, fellowship (particularly the Lord's Supper), legalism, eschatology, and more than I can review here-- I highly recommend reading all of it. One example of a poignant question Dr. Reeves asks the modern church: Has today's church made "family" an idol? We're always reading about liberals' "war on the family" and that "adulthood means marriage; marriage means children." That's not supported by Paul at all, quite the opposite.  Paul urged his disciples to love Christ more than anything, and marriage-- where you have to divide attention among the needs of spouse and children-- was to be avoided given the imminence of Christ's return:

(W)e often misunderstand (or completely ignore) his advice about marriage because we don't share Paul's eschatological outlook...Paul didn't write for posterity, believing one day his advice would become our Scripture. No, he wrote because he believed the time was short" (Loc. 1504 and 1700). 
(Paul) presumes that a man will love Christ more than any woman. He thinks that women won't look for fulfillment in a man because they find everything they need in Christ...In our attempts to make Christian families ideal, we forgot our most important obligation: devotion to Christ (not the family) is what makes a man or a woman a Christian...As far as Paul was concerned, true love isn't found in marriage" (Loc. 1542, 1564, and 1587).
Reeves imagines what it would look like if Paul were doing marriage counseling. Husband and wife bring their grievances to his office and Paul responds with questions about their individual walks with Christ--the heart of the problem, but sadly missing from most books and counseling on marriage and communication. 

In independent-minded America, we often believe we can be Christians by ourselves. That our denomination--our team-- is the "winner." That our sins only have private consequences. Paul's letters overwhelmingly paint the Church as a united family, what helps one is to help all-- what hurts one hurts all (most people never grasp that the "you" in Phil 1:6 is a plural noun). That's the overarching theme of the crucified life-- our old families, customs, beliefs, our rights to ourselves are crucified with Christ.  

"He would encourage us to find a way to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, even for those with whom we disagree. Paul would remind us that we can't be Christians by ourselves." (Loc. 2827). 
This book is five stars. One complaint I have (besides lending being disabled) with the Kindle version is that the references aren't hyperlinked for easy flipping back and forth. 

1 comment: said...

Sounds great! I will have to grab this and read through it sometime. I can't believe I have never heard of him. But the book sounds like a very helpful correction as to how we think of spirituality and what obedience looks like.