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Paul never actually met Jesus while he was alive. But that doesn't stop him from becoming the foremost authority on his life and death. Go figure.
Paul's Jesus is pretty different from the Jesus of the gospels. Even though these letters were written down 10 to 20 years before the first gospel was ever committed to parchment, Paul doesn't really tell any stories about Jesus's life. He doesn't seem very concerned with anything Jesus ever said or did either. What's up with that?
Well, it's mainly because the Christians he's writing to would have already known all that stuff. They're followers of Jesus, so presumably they've heard all the stories about how all-around amazing Jesus was. Many of them have even heard these stories straight from Paul. Right now, Paul is kind of focused on taking this whole Jesus thing to the next level. He knows what Jesus did; now he wants us to figure out what it all means (source, 17). Whoa, that's deep.
Really the only biographical detail from the gospels that Paul refers to is the idea that Jesus was crucified, died, and then rose again:
• "Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!" (Galatians 3:1)
• "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Galatians 6:14)
• "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death." (Philippians 3:10)
• "Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ." (Philippians 3:18)
You'll notice Paul doesn't spend too much time dwelling on any gory details. He moves past all this to answer the big question on everyone's mind: why did the crucifixion have to happen?
For Paul, Jesus's death and resurrection are the defining parts of his life. Sure, they reveal his incredible love for the world and his obedience to God. But Jesus's death also frees us to have a relationship with God. How exactly does that work?
All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law"[…] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10, 13-14)
Basically, before Jesus, human beings had to try to get in good with God by following the laws he had given us. However, this system wasn't working out so well because there was a ton of sinning. So God went to Plan B: he sent Jesus, whose death freed us from having to worry about checking boxes on some holy list of things to do. Now everyone is able to have a direct relationship with God. He totally wants to be our BFF.
Sometimes people interpret this idea as, "Jesus died for our sins." That's not really what Paul's saying, though. Paul thinks Jesus died to free us from sin. That mean Jesus's death and resurrection are sort of like the bridge that leads from Sinnersville to Heaventown.
Okay, so Jesus died. We're free! Whoo-hoo! We're going streaking!
Hold on a second. See, for Paul, freedom from the law doesn't mean freedom to do whatever you want. Now, instead of following the law, these folks need to be following Jesus. Yup, break out those WWJD bracelets, and get ready.
So how did Jesus roll, according to Paul?
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
Basically, Jesus became the most awesome guy in the universe by first starting out pretty lowly and meek. So, Paul says, if you go against the grain and humble yourself (in society's eyes), that's how you become great (in God's eyes). It's easy to say, but not so easy to do.
For Paul, this means that Christians are totally transformed by their faith in Jesus. Now we're not supposed to be looking to society to tell us what to do. We're supposed to be looking toward Jesus as an example.
And what's Jesus's favorite thing? Love love love.
• "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
• "The only thing that counts is faith working through love." (Galatians 5:6)
• "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Galatians 5:13)
• "The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Galatian 5:14)
• "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)
• "This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight." (Philippians 1:9)
• "Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (Philippians 2:2)
Yup. Paul's Jesus is all about the warm fuzzy feelings we have for each other. Take care of one another, be kind and generous, treat people with respect and everything will be a-okay.
You may be wondering: how exactly does Paul know all this stuff? Well, he's got an answer. Jesus told him. Personally.
• "Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead." (Galatians 1:1)
• "I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:12)
Paul believes that, since Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, he's got divine backing. In his eyes, he's received a revelation from God and he has to share it. A "revelation" is a just any truth that someone has realized. Paul's revelations are a bit uncompromising, though. He has the truth, and anyone who says differently should just take it up with Jesus. On their way to Hell, that is.
It's pretty fair to say that Paul has shaped our modern picture of Jesus. He wrote more about him than anyone else in the Bible, so his interpretations of who Jesus was and what his work meant have kind of stuck.