The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 1/3: Resurrection and Apostolic Commissioning

I. Apostolic Witness
Any discussion on the resurrection of Christ must take seriously the testimony of Paul’s first-hand account of the resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ. In Paul that we have immediate access to an eye-witness to the resurrection, a witness who could say, “last of all… he also appeared to me” (1 Cor. 15:8). Furthermore, he is a witness whose radical transformation of life only underscores the veracity of his testimony when he changed from being a persecutor bent on the destruction of the early church to becoming its foremost defender. Jesus, who he once rejected as a pretended Messiah, he now preached as the resurrected Lord, exalted at the right hand of God. Before the Damascus experience he could only regard Christ from a human point of view (2 Cor. 5:16), i.e., he applied worldly (Pharisaic) standards to his understanding of Christ, judging him according to the concepts of the Messiah at that time. /1/ This worldview was shattered on Damascus Road and was then substituted by another anchored solely on the risen Christ. /2/ Such a change, we submit, is neither due to the process of Paul yielding to the logic of the early witnesses, nor to be reduced to a fruition of psychological preparations in his life. /3/ Rather, it was because as Paul himself testified, he was confronted by the risen Christ on Damascus Road. It was a revelation of Jesus Christ, ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (apokalypseōs Iēsou Christou, Gal. 1:12). This phrase is probably not a subjective genitive (i.e., from Jesus Christ; NIV) but is an objective genitive, i.e., God revealed Jesus Christ and the gospel. /4/ As F.F. Bruce writes, “The gospel and the risen Christ were inseparable; both were revealed to Paul in the same moment. To preach the gospel (Gal. 1:11) was to preach Christ (Gal.1:16).”/5/

Paul qualifies the revelation with “in me” rather than the simple dative “to me” (ἐν ἐμοί, en emoi) to underscore the personal, interior nature of the experience. /6/ We must however insist at the same time that Paul’s encounter at Damascus was more than a subjective experience. In James Dunn’s words, “at Damascus he not only experienced power within but more than that, he perceived a power without – not only a gift of grace (1 Cor. 15:10) but the appearance of the risen Jesus” (1 Cor. 15:8). /7/ It was an objective event in history, as Paul makes it clear by introducing it with the conjunction “when”  (Ὅτε, Hote; Gal 1:15), which marks off a precise moment between before and after.

The externality of the experience is also stressed by Paul’s use of the word ὤφθη (ōphthē, appearance) rather than ὀπτασίᾳ (optasia, vision). While W. Marxen and W. Michaelis argue in the LXX ὀφθῆναι (ophthēnai) can signify the coming of God to someone without God being visible hence, ὀφθῆναι (ophthēnai) signifies the presence of revelation rather than sensual perception, /8/ Dunn on the other hand rightly argues that ὀφθῆναι (ophthēnai) always denotes seeing with the eyes, whether it involves physical objects, theophanies, visions and dreams. /9/ This is especially clear when Paul equates the Christophany on the Damascus road with the resurrection appearances to the other apostles (1 Cor. 9:1). /10/ Furthermore, while Paul did in fact claim to have experienced “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1), he does not confuse or equate these visions with the risen Jesus’ appearance to him. /11/ He seems to radically distinguish the one from the other in terms of significance. The resurrection appearance to him was the end of a series of unique events: “last of all…he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15:8). It has also been pointed out by Ronald Sider that “it is surely significant that Paul, who insisted strongly in 1 Cor. 15:35ff on a bodily resurrection, based his belief in the resurrection of the body (on the ὤφθη, ōphthē) of Jesus. Such an argument would make little sense if he conceived of the appearances as mere visions.” /12/

II. Apostolic Commissioning
The uniqueness of the Damascus experience for Paul is also rightly pointed out by Karl Rengstorf when he writes that “the apostolic consciousness of Paul is essentially determined by his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road.” /13/ Anthony Thiselton elaborates, “The two essential constituents of apostleship were, first, that the Apostle should bear witness to the world of the central fact of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and second, that he should preach the risen Saviour ‘in the demonstration of Spirit and of power’…In this context the perfect indicative ἑόρακα (ἑώρακα, heōraka) expresses the present effect of Paul’s earlier experience of encounter with the raised Christ at the moment of his missionary and apostolic commission on the way to Damascus.” /14/ Paul describes the necessary criteria for apostleship with the perfect tense ἑώρακα (I saw) because the effect of this past event is still operative. As Dunn puts it, “Paul did not think of his apostleship as something re-established by every fresh experience of the risen Jesus. His initial experience determined his apostleship for the rest of his life.” /15/

It was also a commissioning that rested entirely on the divine initiative ad grace: “he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace” (Gal. 1:15). It is grace because it was only through the direct intervention of God that Paul qualified for the apostolate. He was literally thrust into it as an apostle “untimely born” (ἔκτρωμα (ektrōma) in 1 Cor. 15:8), or as C.K. Barrett translates it, “one hurried into the world before his time.”/16/ Paul apparently agreed that to have seen the risen Jesus meant not only to become a witness to the event of his resurrection, but also that it fulfilled a prerequisite for one to receive special apostolic authority within the church (1 Cor.9:1-2; Gal. 1:13-17). Because the resurrection appearances took place over a limited period of time and after a time ceased, then Christ appeared to him even when he was least ready for it. All the other apostles had already seen Jesus and been commissioned by him (1 Cor. 15:7); it was only by this ‘premature birth’ that Paul was enabled to join the apostolic circle before it finally closed (“last of all’ – 1 Cor. 15:8).

In view of the divine initiative Paul could speak of himself as ἀφορίσας (aphorisas, set apart) for the gospel of God (Gal. 1:15). Indeed, the language strongly alludes to the call of some of the Old Testament prophets (cf. Jer. 1:5 and Isa. 49: 1-6) where the Servant said, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name…I will make you as a light for the nations (φῶς ἐθνῶν, phōs ethnōn), that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Paul, however, is not considering himself as a new Servant of God, but “his role, as a continuation of Christ, finds its place in the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Servant. In appearing to Paul, Christ passes on his own mission to him.” /17/ F.F. Bruce also likens Paul’s experience to the commissioning of Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-9a) because he saw “Jesus our Lord” then in a form which identified him not only as the Son of God but also as the image of God, the reflexion of the divine glory (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4,6). /18/

If Paul received his apostolic commissioning and gospel of justification in the Damascus Christophany (Gal. 1:12, 16), we are confronted with the problem of reconciling Gal. 1:12 (Paul received the gospel through direct revelation) with 1 Cor. 15:3 (Paul received the gospel of resurrection through tradition). Because the Old Testament and Judaism seem to know no epiphany without revelation by word, /19/ some have conjectured that the gospel was imparted in a subsequent vision. Such conjectures are, however, unnecessary if we recognize that the logic of the gospel was implicit in Paul’s Damascus experience, when Paul grasped the gospel in essence even though the fuller implications of the experience became clearer to him only gradually. J.G. Machen’s words indeed aptly describe how “What Jesus really gave him near Damascus was not so much the facts as a new interpretation of the facts. He has known some of the facts before, but they had filled him with hatred. The Galilean prophet had cast despite upon the law; He had broken down the prerogatives if Israel; it was blasphemous, moreover, to proclaim a crucified malefactor as the Lord’s Anointed. Paul had known the facts before; he had known them only too well. Now, however, he obtained a new interpretation of the facts; he obtained that new interpretation not by human intermediation, nor by reflection on the testimony of the disciples, not by the example of the holy martyrs, but by revelation from Jesus Himself. Jesus Himself appeared to him.” /20/ In other words, the revelation convicted Paul of the bankruptcy of the Law, and the availability of the gospel of grace to all through the risen Christ. Furthermore, Paul had already been preaching his insight into the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:3-6) for three years before he met any of the apostles (Gal. 1:18-20) and in so far as he received any material details of the gospel it was merely to be a confirmation of what he himself had been preaching all along.

In sum, the Christophany of the resurrected Jesus Christ at Damascus was the point of departure for the theology of Paul. In it he received the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead. As such, Jesus is still sovereignly at work in the world through his disciples. Paul obeyed, as his vocation, to serve as an extension of Christ’s own ministry.

Related Posts (Forthcoming):
The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 2/3: Resurrection and Pauline Christology.

The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 3/3: Resurrection and Pauline Soteriology

(Full bibliographical details will be given at the end of part 3).

[1] So Kim, p.14; Barrett, 2 Cor., p. 171; F.F Bruce, Paul and Jesus, pp. 22-25.

[2] “The doctrine of the Resurrection is like the keystone of the structure of the Apostle’s religious thought. In it his Christology, soteriology and anthropology are culminated.” Hering, 1 Cor, p. 156.

[3] Proponents of the psychological view appeal to Acts 26:14, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” This should, however, be simply understood in the sense that it is pointless to resist the sovereign God, without any implication that Paul’s conscience was pricked, i.e., even though he persecuted the Christians he was being increasingly convinced by their witness. Paul had only the most positive assessment of himself prior to his conversion (Phil. 3:5ff; Gal. l 1:13). Cf. Bruce, Gal, p. 58; Kim, p.52; Munck, pp. 20ff; Haenchen, p. 685.

[4] So Fung, p. 24; Bruce, Gal., p. 89; Betz, p. 63. Support from the context is clear from verse 16a: “(God) reveals his Son.”

[5] Bruce, Gal., p. 89.

[6] So Stanley, p.46. See Fung, p.25 for five different interpretations of “in me”.

[7] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 109.

[8] Michaelis, sv. ὁράω. See TDNT, vol.5, pp.355-61.

[9] See Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 386, footnote 34, for biblical examples cited.

[10] See Kim, p.57; Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, pp. 110-114; Delling in Moule, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection, pp. 84-85.

[11] So Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, p.94. Even Michaelis concedes this in TDNT, vol.5, 357.

[12] Ronald Sider, ‘The Nature and Significance of 1 Cor. 15:1-9”, Novum Testamentum, 1977, p. 140; also Delling in Moule, Significance of the Message of the Resurrection, p.85.

[13] Karl Rengstorf,“ἀπόστολος, apostolos” in TDNT, vol.1, 438.

[14] Anthony Thiselton, 1 Cor., pp. 667-668.

[15] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 103.

[16 Barrett, 1 Cor., p. 335; see Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p. 101 for five possible interpretations.

[17] L. Cerfaux, quoted by Xavier Leon-Dufor in Resurrection and the Message of Easter (Geoffrey Chapman, 1974), p.49. Also Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, (SCM, 1959), p.26.

[8] Bruce, Gal, p.93. Gordon Fee elaborates, “This means further that although there is always clear distinction between them, Father and Son also share divine identity; and what one now knows about God has been revealed fully in the Son, whose image/face we behold as we gaze upon him by the Spirit.” Paul exalts “Christ in his deity, whose own glory is the true manifestation of God’s glory as well.” See Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 184-185.

[19] W. Michaelis, sv. “ὁράω, horaō” pp. 329-340; Kittel, ἀκούω, “akouō” TDNT, vol.1, pp.217ff.

[20] Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, pp. 145-146.