We meet Saul in the book of Acts. He begins as someone who opposed Christianity and was there holding the cloaks of those stoning Stephen to death only to have a vision of Jesus that blinds him on the road to Damascus. God uses this devout Pharisee as the one who starts the multi-ethnic churches throughout the Roman Empire, and his letters were passed around from church to church and have become part of the New Testament.
Even Peter who we read about throughout the Gospels and Acts writes that “Paul wrote with the wisdom that God gave him” and refers to his letters as Scriptures and that “his letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV)
Paul is hard to understand because of the dense theological arguments he makes and because sometimes we don’t know the questions he may be answering.
Understanding the context makes all the difference. This is especially true when reading the letters of Paul. As usual I go to The Bible Project and The New Testament for Everyone by NT Wright.
We are reading one side of the conversation that Paul wrote to the churches he helped start and to the church leaders he mentored.
For instance in the letter to the Romans we know that there is a great deal of division in the church in Rome in large part because all of the Jews were expelled by the Emperor Claudius. They were allowed to return after his death when Nero took over. Having been gone for a few years, the Jewish believers came to find the Gentile believers were not following many of the Old Testament laws and rituals. Their judgmental attitude towards the Gentile believers created a great deal of tension which Paul addresses in a letter that calls followers of Jesus to live in unity as representatives of the Kingdom of God and God’s new humanity.
The book of Romans seeks to convey that the gospel proclaims salvation by faith in Jesus Christ for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, revealing God’s righteousness and inviting believers to live transformed lives in accordance with God’s grace.