Does Paul Contradict Peter, James, John, or Jesus?
Q: There seems to be New Testament evidence that Paul didn’t preach the same gospel that Peter, James, and John did. It is written that Peter was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, then Paul came along and said that he was to do it. Then Paul indicated that he wasn’t impressed with the original disciples who actually spoke with and touched Jesus. Could you please give me your opinion on this? If Paul was to be such a huge part of the New Testament, why is his coming not mentioned anywhere in the Bible? I see no foreshadowing or prophecy about him.
A: One of the oldest ongoing assaults against Holy Scripture involves the game of playing Paul against either Peter or Jesus, trying to make “contradictions” in God’s Word. You didn’t say where you discovered your New Testament “evidence” but the claims are nothing new. Yet when we examine the Scriptures in their totality, most of these allegations quickly vanish. Even the most vexing problems are eased when we have a good doctrinal understanding of what God’s Word is all about and when we have an in-depth knowledge of its major people.
To make comparisons among Peter, Paul, James, and John about the Gospel, we need to agree on what the Gospel is. Before this, we should agree upon what the Gospel is not. The Gospel is no human invention, teaching people how to save themselves. Concerning such a perversion, Paul told the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly ... turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (1:6-8)”
Peter said of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)” At Pentecost, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (2:38)” When speaking to a mixed audience in Cornelius’s home, Peter said, “To [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (10:43)”
John said there is one essential: “Believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another. (1 John 3:23)” He directly quoted Christ, who said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, (John 3:17)” and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)”
Meanwhile, Paul’s epistles and various quotes from Acts show that he believed and proclaimed the same Gospel. When he and Barnabas were imprisoned in Philippi, they told their jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. (Acts 16:31)” He reminded the Roman Christians that they’d been set “free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (8:2)” In the same chapter, he asked, “[The Father] who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (v. 32)” He declared to the Ephesians God’s “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (2:7)” He went on to say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (vv. 8-9)”
In all of these passages and elsewhere in the New Testament, we find a common theme: Salvation for mankind comes solely through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by the work of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith in each of us. The Spirit does this through the means of Baptism and the proclamation of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins and sustains faith through this same Gospel and through the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper.
Once we are believing children of God, the Spirit moves us to perform deeds of righteousness in thankful response for our salvation. If we show no true good works, that we have no true faith. James flatly said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (2:17)” This is nothing but the other side of the coin from Ephesians 2:10, where Paul said, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Thus, James spoke the harsh warning to those who tried to be Christians without living godly lives while Paul emphasized that true believers live lives of Gospel-encouraged, Spirit-guided godliness.
Turning to your other points, we first of all see that none of the apostles is especially mentioned by prophecy, except, perhaps, Judas Iscariot. The remaining eleven were among the larger group of about 120 disciples gathered after the Ascension and before Pentecost. Peter said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled.... (Acts 1:16)” He then applied Psalms 69:25 and 109:8 to the betrayer: “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ (Acts 1:20)”
As for Peter being appointed to reach out to the Gentiles, he received the same commission as did the other ten surviving apostles. Christ told them all, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)” This, obviously, would include Jews and Gentiles as the apostles came to them. Peter was, however, the first of the apostles to receive a specific command to include Gentiles in the Gospel’s proclamation (Cornelius and his household in Acts 10). The rest of the Jerusalem believers seemed completely astonished before finally concluding that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life. (Acts 11:18)”
Paul made it a habit during most of his missionary journeys to first visit local synagogues and to proclaim the Messiah to his fellow Hebrews. If and when the Jews rejected the message, or as God-fearing Gentiles heard and desired to know more, he then turned also to them. At times, because of Jewish resistance, he had to completely turn his back on proclaiming the Good News to the Jews (see Acts 13:46 and 18:6). In Acts 22:21, Paul said, “[God] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” He emphasized this in Romans: “I am an apostle to the Gentiles (11:13)”; in 15:16, he called himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God.”
Paul specified that Peter and James were specially called to bring the Gospel to the Jews while he had a specific mandate to reach out to the Gentiles. We see this clearly in Galatians 2. In verses 7 and 8. Paul said of himself and Peter, “Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).” He continued, saying that James and John joined Peter in giving “the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (v. 9)”
According to 2 Peter 3:14-18, Peter had a high view of Paul and his writings. The epistle mentions the divine wisdom Paul had received. Its author commends the Pauline letters of which he was familiar, comparing them favorably to “the other Scriptures (v. 16)” Since the New Testament was nowhere near its final form, the simplest understanding is that 2 Peter places Paul’s epistles on a par with the Hebrew Scriptures already in use in the Christian Church.
Finally, little from Paul indicates that he “wasn’t impressed with the original disciples.” Rather, he took pains to emphasize that he was no “second generation” recipient of the Gospel. Instead, he emphasized that following his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road, he had studied under the Lord Jesus’ direct tutelage just as had the other apostles.
We read in Galatians 1:12 that Paul “did not receive [the Gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” That was why he “did not immediately consult with anyone; nor ... go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles.... (vv. 16-17)” It was only “after three years” (roughly the same time span the original apostles had in their training from the Lord) that Paul “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. (v. 18)”
We might liken these two different three year periods of instruction under Jesus to our current seminaries. Of course, we see one obvious difference: The Twelve and Paul each sat before a much better Teacher than have any subsequent generations of pastors, missionaries, and teachers. Yet no matter whether they studied under Christ before or after His ascension, Saint Paul and the other apostles all learned the same Gospel of forgiveness of sins through the Savior’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Scripture records only one time when the relationship between Paul and the original apostles became strained. Paul mentioned it to the Galatians only to emphasize absolute freedom under the Gospel over the new legalism being taught by false Christians who claimed that the Gentiles who believed in Christ should also become Jews by circumcision and keeping the Law. That was why 2:11-14 brings up the time that Paul was forced to rebuke Peter for hypocrisy, since “he was eating with the Gentiles” in Antioch until a group came from James of Jerusalem. Peter then “drew back and separated himself” from the Gentiles, leading “the rest of the Jews” and “even Barnabas” to do the same.
Acts 15 shows that this rift was healed. The Israelite Christians, including the apostles, agreed with James that the Jewish believers “should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God (v. 19)” and sent a letter of fellowship that only asked that Gentile Christians would abstain from false worship, idolatry, and sexual immorality. When the Antioch Church — which was largely Gentile in composition — read this letter, “they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (v. 31)” This Jerusalem Council was also the source of “the right hand of fellowship” Paul mentioned to the Galatians.
The rejoicing didn’t stop in Antioch. Today’s believers continue to celebrate their Christian fellowship, regardless of earthly differences. With the Galatians of the First Century and with the saints of subsequent times, the Lord also speaks to us through Saint Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)”
The closer we look at the Biblical record, the more convinced we should be that the Church made no mistake when she decided to hold a joint commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul. While perhaps in their temperaments they differed, they demonstrate agreement in faith and similar zeal for proclaiming the Gospel. While their brief disagreement stands as a lasting caution to Christ’s Church to stand firm on the truth and resist all error, their reconciliation and harmonious desire to be faithful to their Savior illustrates the joyful theme of brotherly union that David celebrated centuries before:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psalm 133)
HT: Love and Blunder for the Evangelicola ad.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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