Damascus Road Explodes Our Political Zeal

paul-damascus

The Iowa Caucus and its long, infuriating build-up (especially, perhaps, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s insane messianic hopes for the Donald) supplies this passage from Preston Sprinkle with fresh significance. Here Sprinkle highlights the upheaval of Saul’s Damascus Road experience as his old eschatological expectations were completely and utterly dismantled. The crisis that defined the rest of Saul’s life erupted with the traumatic revelation that God’s kingdom program was in no way dependent upon human agency, that Saul’s zeal was actually superfluous and, in fact, damnable. Saul’s zeal to contribute to the kingdom had to be crucified in order to become worthwhile. In light of Barclay’s assertion that the cross must shatter all our narratives to reevaluate and recast them, I think it’s fair to ask: how must our political involvement and discourse experience the same cataclysm as Paul? Imagine: how often are our political views just disguised eschatology? How much of our zeal is just worldly, ego-asserting furor? Perhaps the judgment on works we confess so regularly needs to penetrate farther into our visions of civic duty and the means we apply towards accomplishing Utopia. If you want a litmus test, just substitute the word “America” every time you read “Israel.” Is God pronouncing judgment upon your zeal?

Saul’s encounter with the risen Messiah did not just provide him with new identity markers for his faith, but also reconfigured the structure of his soteriology. In other words, salvation from Rome, the purification of Israel, and the establishment of God’s kingdom- all of which Saul was seeking to accelerate through his violent actions- had been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The impact that Saul’s Damascus road vision had on his beliefs is retold in Galatians 1:13-16…

The violent nationalism that led Saul to rid Judaism of dissenters in order to help bring about the kingdom of God came to halt with God’s revelation of Jesus, who had already inaugurated the kingdom unilaterally. Or in the words of N.T. Wright, “The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time.” No longer would Saul need to be a Deuteronomic catalyst in prompting salvation for Israel; Paul would now be a herald of God’s Prophetic intervention in Jesus, who has rescued us “from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4). While it is true that Saul the Pharisee was certainly not trying to pull himself up by his moral bootstraps and earn his way to heaven, his life was devoted to triggering God’s end-time salvation through torah devotion and the violent purification of Israel. More than just a call to a new vocation, Paul’s Damascus road encounter would entail a rereading of salvation history- a transposition of the divine and human dynamics in bringing eschatological salvation into the present through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

Moreover, the Damascus encounter became a paradigm for the shape of the gospel that Paul would preach. Bernard Lategan rightly states: “The nature of the gospel as contrary to human expectation, not based on human effort, is first and foremost illustrated by Paul’s conversion from persecutor to preacher and his calling as apostle.” Paul implicitly reveals this throughout Galatians 1-2, where human and divine agencies are contrasted. Paul opens the letter by asserting that his apostolic commission was “not from a human source nor through a human agent but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1 my translation). He later identifies God in contrast to man as the source of his gospel; he “neither received it (the gospel) from a human nor was I taught it, but (I received it) through a revelation of Christ” (Gal 1:11-12 my translation). He describes his experience in Galatians 1:14-16 along the same contrasting lines of human and divine agencies. His former wrongheaded pursuit of God was countered by God’s invasive pursuit of Paul, whose former zeal for God through the law brought death (Gal 2:19), whereas Christ’s unilateral deliverance of Paul brought life (Gal 2:20). Paul’s encounter with Jesus, in other words, embodies the gospel that he is commissioned to preach- the reprioritization of God as the prior and primary agent of salvation is cemented in his message.
(Preston M. Sprinkle, Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013], 246-248)

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