Lecture 3 in the UNSW Campus Bible Study Easter Lecture Series 2015: “Jesus Christ and the Revolution of Identity”
You are what you do?
What do you do?
That’s a question people often ask you when they meet you for the first time, isn’t it? They want to get to know you, what makes you tick, what interests you. More than that, they want to know who you are: your identity, where you fit in to the big scheme of things, how to relate to you. And so they ask: “What do you do?”
Of course if you’re a student, then you’re not doing anything yet, so the question is: “What are you studying?”—which tells them what you will be doing when you do actually start doing something! (I’ve been a student for 25 years of my life, so I know what I’m talking about!).
So what do you do?
The topic for our lecture today is: “calling”. Your calling in life is a core aspect of your identity. Your calling is all about your particular place in the world. It defines what drives you; your purpose. Your calling gives you a reason to get up in the morning. It determines whom you relate to, how you spend your time, where you live, and even what you’re willing to suffer or die for. The word “vocation” basically means the same thing—from the Latin vocation meaning a call or summons.
And in our world, when we talk about someone’s “calling” or someone’s “vocation”, we usually mean what they do. Your vocation is equal to your job or career. That’s just a basic assumption that’s built in to our world. And so our jobs, our careers, are given a massive amount of weight in defining who we are, aren’t they? Your very identity is caught up with your career. Your career is the measure of your worth in this world. If you have a more important job, then you’re a more important person, and of course you’ll get more money or prestige.
Indeed, the economists tell us that our careers are supremely important. The wellbeing of our entire nation and of all human flourishing depends on growing the economy, which means getting people doing jobs. Justice and happiness and world peace all depends on your work, your job, your career. If we want to reduce crime, we need to get young people into study and work; if we want men to avoid depression, we need to get them into study and work; if we want equality and justice for women, we need to get them into study and work.
Who you are in this world, and what you are worth for this world, depends on what you do.
For some people, this axiom can be stifling and depressing—especially for those who are doing a boring job, or an unimportant job, or aren’t sure why they’re doing what they’re doing. For others, their career can be an exhilarating journey. About 15 years ago here, down by the Roundhouse, I met a first year student who told me that his calling in life was to bring immortality to the world (No, he wasn’t Lord Voldemort!) He had just starting studying medical science. His purpose in life was to be the one who defeats ageing through his research. That’s a pretty ambitious calling, don’t you think? That career defined him, that’s who he was, that’s why he existed. To be a medical researcher who defeats death.
So the world says: You are what you do.
Today we are looking at the identity and the calling of the apostle Paul, whose writings are here in the pages of the Bible, the New Testament. Paul was an Israelite. As an Israelite, Paul was a man whose identity and calling had been bound up tightly with what he did. His vocation in this life, and his destiny and eternal security in the next, were based on his actions—his personal actions, his actions for his community, and his actions before God.
But today we will be looking at a revolution that occurred in Paul’s calling. It was a revolution in Paul’s very identity that happened as a result of his encounter with Jesus Christ. We will see how Paul’s vocation, his calling, as an Israelite was turned upside-down and transformed through Jesus Christ. I hope that as you engage with this revolution in Paul’s calling, it will provoke some kind response in you as well—that you might ask questions about your own calling, your own purpose in life. At the end of this lecture we will be suggesting ways you could respond to what you have heard.
Paul’s former calling
We will be looking at a section from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, written about 56-57 AD. It is about a conflict: a conflict of identity, a conflict of callings. We will see here two very different notions of calling and life vocation. The first view is that of the mainstream Jewish community of Paul’s day—the standard Israelite view of the first century. Paul had once shared this mainstream view before he met Jesus Christ. The second view is Paul’s revolutionary understanding of calling and vocation, an understanding that Paul had come to as he encountered Jesus Christ.
Eternal consequences (1)
We’re entering the discussion in Romans chapter 10, at an intensely emotional moment in the letter. Paul here is deeply concerned, grieving and praying for his fellow countrymen, his fellow Israelites.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.
Why is Paul concerned and grieving for his fellow Israelites? Because their salvation is in danger. He prays for them to be “saved”. What does this mean? Paul is saying that his fellow Israelites have put themselves in a position where they are facing God’s eternal judgment! They have a problem with eternal consequences; their destinies are in peril. In Monday’s lecture we heard how Paul had come to understand that the destiny and future of the world are inextricably caught up with Jesus. Jesus is God’s Messiah, raised from the dead, and through Jesus all people will in the end be raised from the dead, some for everlasting life, some for everlasting judgment. But we saw how Jesus’ death was in fact a key part of God’s plan to make the world right: Jesus took on himself God’s judgment for human rebellion. So people who trust in Jesus will be saved; they will escape God’s judgment.
But here, Paul is saying that his fellow Israelites are not in this position.
Zealous for God (2a)
Why? Well, it’s not through lack of commitment.
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God
Israel has a zeal for God. That is, they have a passionate commitment to God and to God’s purposes. This seems like a good thing to have, doesn’t it?
This zeal for God is something that Paul knows all too well. When we examine Paul’s life, we see that this was exactly the attitude Paul had previously had, as a member of the people of Israel. This zeal had once defined Paul’s own calling.
Here is how Paul describes his past identity and calling as an Israelite in some of his other letters:
… circumcised on the eighth day, from the race of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin;
with respect to the law: a Pharisee,
with respect to zeal: persecuting the church
with respect to righteousness in the Law: being blameless
For you have heard about my former conduct in defending Judaism,
how I went to extremes to persecute the church of God and destroy it,
and how I was advancing in the defence of Judaism beyond many contemporaries from my own race,
being an extreme zealot for the traditions of my ancestors.
Here we can see what Paul’s previous way of life as an Israelite had looked like. There are two aspects to Paul’s former identity and calling. Both of these aspects are about Paul’s actions, what he did.
Firstly, Paul’s identity and calling were bound to his activity in keeping the Law. He saw himself as being “blameless” with respect to righteousness in the Law of Moses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was absolutely perfect in everything—but it did mean that he worked very hard at making sure he did all those things that were directly commanded in the Law, as much to the letter as possible. And he would have made sure made proper prayers or sacrifices for any minor failings. Paul knew the Law, he was committed to keeping the Law. This was his life, this was his divine calling. It was also, as we have seen in the previous lecture, the basis for his security and confidence before God.
Secondly, Paul’s identity and calling were bound to his activity in making sure his fellow Israelites kept the Law. He worked hard, very hard, to defend the Jewish way of life against defiling and corrupting influences. Paul wanted Israel to remain a pure Law-keeping people.
This is signalled by the word “zeal”. “Zeal” for Paul is a special word with a significant history and background. It means being intensely and jealously passionate for Israel’s purity. Just as God is passionate for Israel’s purity and wants Israel to stay pure and keep the Law and not worship any other gods, as the first and second commandments declared, so “zeal for God” involves being passionately committed to preserving the purity of Israel.
For many Israelites, the great paradigm for this kind of divine zeal is the priest Phinehas. Phinehas’ story can be found in the Old Testament, in Numbers chapters 25. It’s one of the more R-rated accounts in the Old Testament. Phinehas lived in a time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. There was another nation nearby called Moab, who worshipped foreign gods. Many of the Israelites started to have sexual liaisons with Moabite women—as a result, they started to worship the Moabite gods and make sacrifices to them. This was disastrous for Israel; God was angry with them and even sent a plague among them as a judgment. The only way the plague was stopped was when Phinehas got a spear, went up to an Israelite and a Moabite lying down in the act, and drove a spear through both of them! Since Phinehas acted on God’s behalf, Phinehas’s action was described by God as “being zealous with my zeal” [v. 11].
The zeal of Phineas actually inspired a whole way of thinking amongst many Jews in Paul’s time. Israel was affected deeply at this time by foreign Greek influences—including the temptation to abandon the Law of Moses and worship Greek gods. Many Jews believed that these influences had to be opposed, passionately and intensely, so that Israel’s purity would be maintained. Some Jews even used violence, claiming the zeal Phineas as a model.
Paul, as an Israelite, was committed to this kind of “zeal”. In particular, for Paul, “zeal” meant persecuting the gatherings of the newly formed Christian movement—the church. Why did Paul persecute the church? Perhaps it was because they worshipped Jesus Christ—and Paul believed that this was detracting from worshipping and serving God. Or perhaps, even more likely, it was because the early Christian church was a place where Jews and Greeks gathered together in close proximity. Paul, as a zealous Israelite, would have been afraid that having all these Greeks constantly gathering with Jews would lure the Jews away from their purity and commitment to God. Whatever the reason, Paul expressed his zeal and commitment to God and to Israel’s purity by starting a campaign to make sure Christians were locked up. He instigated and approved of the execution of Christians. Paul was like a kind of first-century Jewish Ian Kiernan. He spearheaded and organised a “Clean Up Israel” campaign. He wanted to get rid of the rubbish. But the rubbish, for Paul, was not chip packets and plastic bags. Rather, it was foreign, corrupting influences that stopped Israel from keeping the Law, and threatened Israel’s purity and endangered Israel’s calling to worship God and keep God’s law.
Paul’s “zeal”, like the zeal of many of his fellow Israelites, involved a passionate commitment to action: action in keeping the Law, action in keeping Israel pure. This action had been Paul’s divine calling.
The tragic flaw (2b-4)
But Paul’s story, of course, didn’t end there. We read in the New Testament book of Acts that even as he was working hard on his Clean Up Israel campaign—even as he was transporting important letters from Jerusalem to Damascus which gave him the authority to arrest Christians and bring them to Jerusalem; on that road to Damascus, Paul saw a vision of Jesus Christ. That vision revolutionised his identity: his destiny, his security, and his calling.
Let’s come back back to our main text, Romans chapter 10. This is how his encounter with Jesus Christ has affected Paul’s view of his fellow Israelites’ zeal:
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
What was wrong with this Israelite zeal, according to Paul? What was wrong with Paul’s own former zeal? Well, it had a tragic flaw. The problem was that this zeal for God was, in fact, ignorant. Paul’s Israelite zeal was not “according to knowledge”. These Israelites who had such zeal had missed out on a truth—a vital truth. It was a truth about Jesus Christ. And it was a truth that changed everything.
What is this truth?
Firstly, it was a truth about the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was never supposed to be a way to become righteous before God by giving us a list of things to do. You can’t make God happy with you simply by keeping the Law. It doesn’t work that way. Keeping the rules, following the right path, will never justify you before God himself.
Why is that? Because of our sin. Sin, we saw in the last lecture, is something that are more deep-rooted in us than we dare to imagine. Sin involves doing the wrong thing against God. And it’s actually something that affects everything we do. Even if we know and approve of moral rules, even if we know and approve of God’s law, we will never be able to truly keep those rules. So we can’t establish our own righteousness simply by doing and acting and keeping the Law. In fact, as we saw in the last lecture, all the Law can really do by itself is to show us how high God’s standards are, and to show us how far short of God’s standards we fall.
But there is to be right before God. The righteousness of God is found in Jesus Christ. It’s found through trusting in Jesus Christ, not through doing the Law.
Paul here is actually referring back to a previous part of his letter—chapter 3. This is where he has spelt it out in a little more detail, so it’s worth us going back and looking at the more detailed explanation:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [or an atoning sacrifice] by his blood, to be received by faith.
Yes, we sin. Yes, we fall short of God’s standards and his glory. Yes, we actually deserve God’s judgment. But—we can be right with God, we can be justified before God, we can be completely forgiven by God, because Jesus has died to take God’s judgment on himself. By trusting, by faith, in Jesus, by coming to him and living with Jesus as Christ, as King. This is the centre of Paul’s message, his great gospel.
So what does that say about Paul’s former calling? His calling to keep the Law? His calling to keep Israel pure?
Well, it says that he can’t be right with God by keeping the Law. It was a futile calling. It was a calling that was doomed to failure. Instead, he should be trusting in Jesus Christ. Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
And secondly, the gospel says that he can’t keep Israel pure. Paul’s “Keep Israel Clean” campaign was also futile. Why? Because Israel wasn’t clean in the first place! There’s no difference between Israel and everyone else. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely, through God’s grace, his sheer gift to us. The problem for Israel was not all those contaminating influences “out there”. The problem was sin “in here”. And that sin had to be dealt with. And that sin, Paul has realised, can only be dealt with through trusting in Jesus Christ.
The revolution of Paul’s calling
Doing versus trusting (5-8)
So Paul realised that his own activity, his own “doing”, his works, were never going to make him right with God. Instead, his life was about believing, trusting, and receiving God’s gift. This is the point of the next section, verses 5-8. Here Paul shows that the Law of Moses is not ultimately about doing things for the sake of God, but instead it is about trusting and receiving what God has done for us.
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.
But the righteousness based on faith says,
“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’”
(that is, to bring Christ down)
“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’”
(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But what does it say?
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);
What Paul is doing here is fascinating, and multilayered. It is an intertextual tour-de-force. You see, Paul is actually going back to the Law of Moses and quoting it, but he’s not simply quoting it. He is re-reading it and interpreting it in the light of what he has discovered from his knowledge of Jesus Christ.
He says, yes, there is a part of the Law of Moses that seems to promise that if you perform the actions, if you do the commandments, then you will live. (He is alluding here Leviticus 18:5).
But, says Paul, this is not the final word. The Law goes on. In Deuteronomy chapter 30, the Law points forward to something far greater. It promises that there is something more important than simply commandments that we must keep. There is a message. This message is not ultimately about something that we can achieve ourselves. It is something that God gives to us. He puts his message into our hearts, and he puts his message on our lips.
And that message, says Paul, is about Jesus Christ. We cannot achieve the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ. We can’t perform it. The message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is about what God has done. God has sent Jesus into the world, to die the death we deserve, to bring forgiveness of sins. God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead, as King, as Messiah. We can’t achieve that. As if we could bring Christ down yourself! As if we could raise Christ from the dead! No, God has done that. And he’s put that message about Jesus Christ into our hearts so we can believe it, and he’s put that message on our lips to speak it, so we can speak it, confess it.
Believing and speaking (9-10)
And so in verses 9-10, Paul says that being right with God, escaping from his judgment, having life, being “saved”, is not at all about doing commandments. It is about believing and speaking a message.
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
This is something that is so fundamental to Paul, so fundamental to Christianity ever since, that we need to come to grips with it.
There are two kinds of people according to Paul. The first kind of person is Paul’s fellow Israelites. They are committed to doing good works from God’s Law. But Paul is in agony for them, and grieving for them. Why? Because they are under the judgment of God! They are not saved.
The second kind of person is someone who trusts in and confesses the message about Jesus. They do not attempt to achieve their own righteousness before God. They certainly don’t try to bring Jesus up from the dead. They confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead. And these people are justified—that is, they are forgiven and right with God. These people are saved—they actually do escape God’s judgment.
Some of you here will be very religious people. Some of you here will be trying very hard to keep the commandments of God. You will feel that it is your calling, your purpose in life, to keep God’s commandments, and that God will reward you and give you salvation as a result of your actions. You will be working hard to stay pure, and maybe seeking to keep others pure, for God’s sake. Your activity, your actions, your works for God will be at the heart of your identity, your destiny, your security, your calling.
Is that you? Because if that is you, then Paul would place you in the first group. He would be in agony for you; he would grieve for you; he would pray for you. Because you are under the judgment of. What Paul would say to you, and urge you to do, is to stop trying to achieve God’s favour. To realise how deep-rooted your sin is. To come to God, and receive his gift of Jesus Christ. And instead, to trust in this message—a message, not about what we can do for God, but about what God has done for us.
The calling of the world (11-13)
In the next section, Paul spells out the implications of this truth for the whole world. Again, the point is not about doing, but about believing and speaking.
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Paul quotes here from the prophetic books of Isaiah and Joel. Joel describes a great Day of Judgment where all the nations are gathered together. In the face of God’s judgment, nobody can stand. They are all helpless. Israel cannot stand, because they have sinned against God. The nations cannot stand, because they have sinned against God. But there is hope. There are people who will be spared, and saved. The people who will be saved are those who call on the name of the Lord, who ask and beg for God’s mercy and forgiveness, who admit their sin and turn back to him. It makes absolutely no difference whether they’re from Israel or anywhere else. That’s not relevant. No, whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Notice that the only calling that is going on here is the people who are calling on the name of the Lord; the people who are crying out to God for mercy!
But those who do ask for mercy, receive mercy. And more than mercy; they receive God’s riches! In the last lecture we spelled out what it means to be a Christian—it is not about keeping rules, but about having a relationship with God; being able to call God Father; having that precious security that comes from knowing that God is with you, and that your eternal future is secure. And all these riches come from calling on the name of the Lord.
What is the name of the Lord? Paul has just spelled it out in verse 9. The name of the Lord is Jesus!
The calling of the apostle (14–17)
So what does this mean for Paul? It means that he has a new calling, a new kind of vocation.
Paul’s calling is not to do, to act, to establish his own righteousness. Paul’s calling is not to work hard to preserve the purity of the people of Israel. No, Paul’s calling is now simply to speak. To proclaim. To preach. Paul’s calling is to call other people to call on the name of the Lord.
He spells this out using a simple logical chain of reasoning:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
You see, Christianity is not a principle for following certain laws. It is a message about a person. That person is Jesus. The message is about the fact that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God’s King, God’s Messiah. Jesus is the one whom God has raised from the dead. Jesus is the one in whom the world’s destiny finds its fulfilment. Jesus has died to take on himself the judgment for our sin. Jesus is the one we need to turn to and to call on to escape God’s judgment.
If Christianity were a principle for how to act or a law about what to do, then Paul’s calling in life would be about following the laws and keeping God’s people pure and perhaps urging other people to follow the laws as well. But since Christianity is a message about a person, and a relationship with God that comes through that person, then Paul’s calling is to believe in the message about Jesus, and to speak the message about Jesus. If people are saved by calling on the name of the Lord—then people need to actually hear the name of the Lord. And so Paul sought to speak that name wherever he could.
That is where Paul’s identity lies. In believing in Jesus, and in speaking about Jesus so others can believe in Jesus. This is how Paul’s identity, his destiny, his security, his calling, have been revolutionised by Jesus Christ.
What is your calling?
So who are you? Where do you belong? Where is your world heading? Where is your life heading? How do you find your security? What is your calling?
For Paul, the answer to these questions was not a matter of what he did. Yes, before he encountered Jesus Christ, Paul’s identity, like many of his fellow Israelites, was defined by what he did. But Paul’s identity had been revolutionised by Jesus Christ. And now his identity was defined by Jesus Christ.
Paul was forgiven, justified, right with God, through Jesus Christ and his death.
Paul’s destiny was to be made alive, to have his body raised, through Jesus Christ and, as a result of Jesus Christ’s own resurrection from the dead.
Paul’s security was found in having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; in having his heart changed, having God’s Spirit with him, having that status and commendation from God as his Father.
Paul’s calling—his vocation—was to believe in Jesus Christ, and to speak about Jesus Christ to the world; to call on people to believe in Jesus Christ, to call on him for mercy, to belong to him, to come into a relationship with God through him, to live for him, to be holy for his sake because he has brought forgiveness. To be able to call God Father, to know the joy and security that is ours even in suffering—because our destiny is secure through Jesus Christ.
Isn’t that better than defining yourself by what you do?
The last time I checked, that first year student I met down by the roundhouse 15 years ago has not yet brought immortality to the world through his medical research. In fact, the last time I checked, the world was still a place full of death, and pain, and suffering and crying and mourning.
But Paul had found that his identity, his destiny, his security, his calling, had been revolutionised by his encounter with and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Perhaps you haven’t encountered him; perhaps you don’t know who Jesus Christ is. Can I urge you to take some time this Easter to check him out. To see who Jesus Christ is. The easiest way to do that is by reading about Jesus’ life and work and teaching from one of the Gospels in the New Testament.
Or perhaps now you just need to pray—to pray a prayer asking God to revolutionise your own identity through Jesus Christ. I’m going to pray a prayer like that now, and if you would like to pray with me, please do echo it in your own mind.
I know that I can’t achieve life by my own actions, and that I don’t deserve eternal life. I am guilty of rebelling against you and ignoring you. I need forgiveness. Thank you for sending your son to die for me that I may be forgiven. Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life. Please forgive me and change me, that I might find my destiny, my security and my calling in Jesus Christ. Amen.
This lecture was based on material from my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans.