The first chapter of Galatians is a good explanation of the ministry of Paul the Apostle. He wants his readers to understand that his knowledge of Jesus comes directly from an encounter with the living Christ and then a continued friendship with Jesus. His teachings are both grounded in the words of Jesus for he has heard them from first-hand witnesses like Peter and James, and they are an interpretation and a theology of those words that have been worked out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has shown that the accounts of the life of the Lord here on earth and the very words of Jesus are sufficient for all who follow him and that they must be understood and interpreted for each new situation and context within which the disciples of Jesus find themselves. The twelve apostles (eleven if we leave out Judas) and the early followers had not yet envisioned what it would mean for the life and words of Jesus to impact the Gentile people. They could interpret the life and words of Jesus for a Jewish context, of law, circumcision, diet, and special worship days, but their minds could not grasp how to help the Gentiles follow their Rabbi. That task was given to Paul by direct revelation and through the advanced theological training of the mind of Paul.
Too often we have pitted the words of Paul against the words of the Gospel writers. We have thought that Paul was too distant from Jesus and did not know enough of the very words of life spoken by him. Paul makes it clear that, like Peter and like James, he has been given his ministry by Jesus and has the words of life implanted deep within his theology. The very theology of the words of life has been imparted to him by Jesus. Paul shows us that it is not enough to simply read the words of Jesus, laid down for us by first-hand witnesses and then do what the first-hand witnesses did. Paul’s ministry was to deeply understand the words of Jesus and then interpret those words for a rapidly changing world while remaining true to the initial hearing and meaning of those words of Jesus. There is a recognition that the words of Jesus must be heard and then understood in a given context. There is a recognition that a poor fisherman on the shore of Galilee must understand the words of Jesus differently than a wealthy maker of purple clothes (such as Lydia from Thyatira) or middle-class tent-makers (such as Aquila and Priscilla) or a rich young ruler.
Certainly, there is a place for the call to be “Red-Letter Christians.” We must always heed the red letters, that is the words specifically ascribed to Jesus in the gospels, but this does not negate the other Holy Spirit inspired words of the Bible, the large part of which are written about the travels, life, work, evangelism, and theology of the Apostle Paul and his companions in the gospel – a gospel which was being worked out as it spread through the known world of the time.
In our present context, we too must be Red-Letter Christians who give special heed to the words of Jesus, and then interpret and understand those words for our time. What did it mean for a Jesus-follower in the first century when Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God,” and what does it mean to a 21st century citizen of Canada? What principles will be the same and what principles will be different? How do Paul’s words in Romans 13 (which in part tell us to “obey the authorities,”) help us to understand how to “render unto Caesar”? May those who have ears to hear, hear the implications of these words for a world rocked by protest, violence, and calls for defunding. Lord have mercy upon us all, this is our prayer for our souls, for the oppressed, and for our broken world.
As a footnote to this blog, may I call upon Christians everywhere to pray for one of the original Red-Letter Christians. Dr. Anthony Campolo is presently in the hospital having suffered a stroke on June 20th. His wife, Peggy, is as much by his side as she can be given the limitations due to the current coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Campolo’s son, Bart shared the news of the stroke in an email to those who follow the Campolo Center for Ministry. Please pray for this great preacher and theologian of the faith.