When I was just starting out in Christian pastoral ministry (long ago) I was drawn to the writings of Paul for preaching material. It read more like theology to me — it seemed more about ideas and morality — and seemed a better fit for the needs of a three-point sermon outline. I could simply draw from Paul’s writings my point #1, point #2 and so forth. All my points were Biblical (from my point of view at the time) since they each had a verse or a phrase from one of Paul’s letters attached to them.
What I was missing was that all these assertions Paul makes, all the apparently abstract theology and moralizing, was, in truth, reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus — working out its implications for first century believers. The Epistles must take us back to the Gospels — or else, we are just not getting it. The Gospel message we need to communicate is the story of Jesus.
The following quote from New Testament scholar Martin Hengel helps to put the nature of Christian witness in focus:
It is not a matter of chance that in his letters Paul sometimes refers by way of allusion to the narration of stories about Jesus. These allusions presuppose that the readers know more (1 Corinthians 11:23ff; 15:3ff; Romans 1:3; 15:8; Philippians 2:6-11; Galatians 4:4 etc.). We must assume that in his mission preaching — which fades right into the background in his letters — Paul also of course told stories about Jesus, and primarily the passion story, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus … These isolated references are therefore all the more important … According to the earliest Christians the saving event was ‘history’, which comprised not only the death and resurrection of Jesus as the specific event lying at the heart of salvation, but also his activity and the authentication of the apostles by the risen Jesus.
— Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (1979) quoted in John Dickson’s book The Best Kept Secret in Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips (2010) pp. 136, 137.
If this is the case (and I think it is) then Paul’s letters need to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel stories — even though the Gospels were actually written down at a later date.
This helps us to get perspective on the meaning of the teachings of Paul — but it also helps us get perspective on the nature of Christian witness and ministry. Keep the focus on Jesus. Preaching and teaching and ministry needs to be first and foremost about Jesus — not doctrine, not social reform, not morality, or whatever else threatens to take center stage. This is not because those things are unimportant — far from it — but because the Christian perspective on those things is rooted in the story of Jesus. Without Jesus our theology becomes lifeless and abstract, our morality judgmental and harsh, our social reform self-righteous. All of it needs to be redeemed.
Underlying the theology that seems abstract and objective is a story that is specific and concrete — the story of Jesus. Narrative theology lies behind the objective theology that takes the form of assertions and ideas and commands. When taken out of their proper context they begin to lose their meaning.
Our witness needs to be first and foremost about Jesus.