What Paul Taught Everywhere: Imitating God in Christ

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Last week we interviewed Jason B. Hood about his new book Imitating God in Christ (IVP Academic, 2013). Read the interview here. Purchase the book here. The following is part of his introduction to the book.

When I was in seminary, a friend of mine asked a question about the Bible that changed my life. I’m not much for trivia, but this question struck home: “What does Paul explicitly say that he teaches ‘everywhere in every church’?”

Paul taught a number of things “everywhere in every church”: Jesus as the Son of David, the atoning death of Jesus on a cross, his resurrection and enthronement as Lord, justification by faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the unity of the family of God across racial and social lines, the law of love, future judgment at the feet of Jesus. Paul taught these things with enough consistency that we can safely say he never failed to communicate them to his congregations.

Yet none of these things is the correct answer. Since my seminary days I’ve asked this question of many students and colleagues, but I’ve never gotten the correct answer from an evangelical. (For those keeping score at home, “the cross of Christ” is the most popular answer, with 1 Cor 2:2 often cited. See language similar to “everywhere in every church” in 1 Cor 7:17; 4:33-34). The answer is that Paul teaches his own “ways in Christ . . . everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:17) (The NIV’s translation is misleading: “my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” The italicized words are added to the Greek; they open up the possibility that it is not Paul’s “ways in Christ” that are taught “everywhere in every church,” but some other teaching with which his “ways” merely agree). This statement concludes a paragraph in which Paul describes these “ways in Christ” and contrasts them with the mindset the Corinthians have inherited from the world around them: translation is misleading: “my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”

We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor 4:10-13)

By both ancient and contemporary social standards, many of the characteristics Paul presents here are anything but exemplary. In his day (as in our own), working with one’s hands was a shameful, second class activity to be reserved for slaves if at all possible. What kind of mindset or self-understanding would lead someone to choose to suffer the things Paul describes here?

Earlier in this passage Paul states, “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals” (1 Cor 4:9). Paul is perhaps describing the apostolic mission here as a march of the condemned, a post-victory parade of captive rebels being marched off to a life of slavery or to be fed to beasts or killed in mock battles. Whatever the imagery behind this sentence, it is clear that Paul sees himself and his disciples as part of a grisly display before humanity and the supernatural world alike.

Any psychologist worth his or her salt can con+rm that this sort of martyr complex is unhealthy. But it gets worse. Paul is attempting to instill this framework of death in others. He insists that his approach must be duplicated in the lives of Joe and Jane Christian in Corinth:

“Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4:15-16). As an example, Paul offers Timothy. “For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:17). Timothy is a flesh and-blood model who knows and lives the ways of his spiritual father, Paul (this label for Timothy should remind the Corinthians of the expectation to become faithful “children” in 1 Cor 4:16 and the faithfulness of stewards required in 1 Cor 4:2) He displays for the Corinthians what they should have been putting into practice: a sacrificial, cross-shaped life that reflects Paul’s “ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”

That’s the answer to our pop quiz: Paul taught his sacrificial, cross shaped life “everywhere in every church.”

Now if Paul’s cross-shaped life doesn’t come to mind as a likely answer to our question, perhaps it’s simply because this passage is obscure. But while this question may be the stuff of Bible trivia, there’s nothing trivial about the answer. This passage cannot be written off as an obscure thought, tucked away off the beaten path of passages that are more memorable and theologically significant. Paul repeats his cross-shaped résumé throughout his letters to Corinth. Moreover, he
insists that he is simply imitating Messiah (1 Cor 11:1), in line with what Jesus repeatedly taught: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 5:13).


Taken from Imitating God in Christ by Jason B. Hood. Copyright(c) 2013 by Jason B. Hood. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com View the product page here.

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Jason B. Hood (Ph.D., Highland Theological College and University of Aberdeen) is currently an adjunct faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He teaches biblical theology of mission in correlation with the Memphis Fellows Initiative. Hood is also the Scholar-in-Residence at Christ United Methodist Church and director of Christ College Residency Program, an intensive discipleship training program for college students. He and his wife and three children reside in Memphis.

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