Paul's Gospel: Part 2, On the Road to Damascus

In Galatians, Paul describes how he received his gospel as "an apocalypse of Jesus Christ" (1.12). Something was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus when he encountered the Risen Lord Jesus.

Imaginatively, I like to ponder how Paul saw the world when he set out that morning to arrest members of a heretical messianic sect. And then imagine what was going through his mind for those three days he sat blinded in the darkness. His entire world had come crashing down. Flipped upside down. Everything Paul believed at the start of his journey was suddenly revealed to be a catastrophic mistake. 

For my part, I think meditating on this catastrophe is the clearest path to understanding Paul's gospel. 

For a catastrophe it surely was. On the road to Damascus it was revealed to Paul that Israel had crucified her own Messiah. And Paul himself was persecuting the Messiah. As Jesus says to Paul, "Why are you persecuting me?" Paul must have wondered, how could this have happened? How could this disaster have befallen God's chosen people?

The answer, I'd suggest, goes back to Numbers 25.

In Numbers 25 the men of Israel have been drawn into pagan worship by Moabite women. This causes a plague. To stop the plague, God demands that those who committed idolatry be killed. Right as that command is given, in front of everyone, an Israelite man takes a Moabite woman into a tent to have sex with her. It's a pretty brazen act. Beholding this effrontery, Phinehas, priest and son of Aaron, grabs a spear, goes into the tent, and stabs the man and the woman. The plague stops. God then says to Moses:

"Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
Phinehas is explicitly praised because he was zealous for God. And in the memory of Israel Phinehas' zeal is commemorated in Psalm 106:
They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
Alert readers of Paul's letters should recognize that phrase, "credited to him as righteousness." That notion about what, exactly, gets "credited to you as righteousness" plays an important part in the development of Paul's gospel. 

For Phinehas, we know exactly what gets credited to him as righteousness. Zeal for God, for God's honor and for God's law, is what makes Phinehas righteous before God.

I draw your attention to the story of Phinehas because, if you want to understand Paul's mindset and worldview the day he set out on the road to Damascus, this is the story that unlocks what was in his head. When Paul set out that morning to persecute Christians, he was setting out in the footsteps of Phinehas. On the road to Damascus, Paul was Phinehas. And his zeal would make him righteous in the eyes of God. As Paul would later describe in Philippians 3.6, looking back on that fateful morning on the road to Damascus, he was "in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless."

And yet, the zeal Paul thought would be "credited to him as righteousness," in the footsteps of Phinehas, had caused him to persecute the Messiah. And as Paul reflected for three days in blindness, the awful truth would have sunk in, that it was this same zeal for God's honor and law that had caused Israel to crucify Jesus. 

Recall the point from Part 1. For Paul and his fellow Jews, the Law of God is good. Again, read Psalm 119. There is no "works-based righteousness" in Psalm 119. No legalism. No trying to "earn your salvation." Those were Martin Luther's problems, not Israel's. 

Consequently, since the law was, as Paul says in Romans, holy, spiritual and good, then the only part missing of the equation was zeal. Zeal would make us righteous, just like Phinehas' zeal was credited to him as righteousness. Which is exactly what Paul was trying to do the morning he set out for Damascus. 

This is oversimplified, but here's a sketch of what Paul had in his head on the road to Damascus:
The Law + Zeal = Righteousness
This is the "Phinehas Formula." And yet, the "apocalypse of Jesus Christ" shown to Paul on the road revealed that this equation had gone catastrophically wrong. Zeal had caused Israel to reject, crucify, and, in the hands of Paul, persecute the Messiah. How had this happened? What blew up the "Phinehas Formula"? How had zeal led to disaster rather than to righteousness? 

These questions, in my estimation, were what Paul pondered during his three days of blindness. And the answers Paul came up with became the heart of his gospel. To see this, let's go back to that line from Galatians 2:
"For if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing."
With the story of Phinehas in hand, we can see a bit more clearly what Paul is driving at here. According to the "Phinehas Formula," all that is needed to attain righteousness is zeal, passion for obeying the law of God. That was what Paul was trying to do before the "apocalypse of Jesus Christ." And here's the critical point to hammer home. If zeal had been enough there was no need for Christ to die. If zeal is what made you righteous, just like Phinehas, then the path ahead was crystal clear: Just be more zealous. Just obey. Just do the thing. Zealousness for the law was the solution to our problems. The law is holy and perfect, so all that is needed from us is passionate adherence. 

And yet, this passion for obeying the law of God, this zeal, was revealed to Paul to have led to the greatest of catastrophes. Which means, and here we arrive at the point, zeal alone is not the solution to our problem. Obedience alone can't get you to righteousness. Because zealous obedience led to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

But even more importantly, if zeal alone were the solution our problems, then Christ died for nothing. If zeal had been enough, there was no need for Jesus to die. Because Paul and Israel had zeal in spades. What was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus was the catastrophe wrought by zeal, and how Christ had died to rectify that disaster. 

Which bring us back to Galatians. If righteousness could be gained through the law, Paul is saying, then we're still playing by the Phinehas playbook. Here's the law, just obey it. Be zealous, like Phinehas, and it will be credited to you as righteousness. But if that's true, if the Phinehas playbook is still in effect, then the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is superfluous and unnecessary. If zeal is all we need--a passionate 100% commitment to God--then Jesus died for nothing. All you'd need is zeal. 

And yet, Christ did die, and he died for something. And that something has everything to do with why zeal and the Phinehas Formula created such a catastrophe. We'll turn to that catastrophe in the next post.

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