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Why Didn’t Paul Quote Jesus?

Critics of the church raise an interesting question about the credibility of the apostle Paul.

The query sounds something like this: If Paul represented Jesus as he claimed, why did he rarely quote Christ in his letters?

If we haven’t heard anyone raise this challenge before, it might surprise us to know that Paul was not the only one who did not quote Jesus as much as we might expect.

Peter, James, and John follow the same pattern. They spent 3 years with Jesus, yet their letters reflect almost no specific mention of what they heard their Teacher say. None of them referred to their Teacher’s now-famous words about the kingdom of God, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the poor, the sick, or the oppressed.

By Jewish standards, this lack of direct mention is unusual. Students of rabbis were known for memorizing and quoting their teachers.

So why don’t the letters of Jesus’ disciples give more attention to His stories or sayings? Some critics suggest that Paul didn’t write more specifically about Jesus because he came later and didn’t know enough about the Rabbi from Nazareth to do so.

But if Paul could only speak personally of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, that doesn’t explain the silence of Peter, James, and John.

John, in turn, did have personal contact with Jesus. He quotes Him at length in his Gospel but only once in his three letters (1 John 3:23). Even though Paul follows a similar pattern in his letters, his credibility is questioned. So it’s important to understand the distinct roles of the New Testament Gospels and letters.

The Gospels and letters have different purposes. The Gospels provide a record of what Jesus said and did. The letters of Paul and the apostles explain the meaning and practical implications of who Jesus was and what He did for us.

The authors of the New Testament letters were not writing in the measured tones of rabbinic discourse. Nor were they compiling the historical facts we find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, because of what they had seen happen to Jesus, they were not identifying themselves in their letters as disciples of a rabbi, but as servants and sent-ones (apostles) of the risen Lord. In the process, their letters became an important part of the Bible.

If we miss God’s “voice” in the letters of the New Testament, we could make the mistake of thinking that the words of Jesus carry more weight than the words of Moses, Paul, or Christ’s apostles. That’s why it is so important to remember that the Lord Himself promised that after His return to His Father, He would send His Spirit to help His disciples give witness to what they had seen and heard (John 14:26; 15:26-27). This assurance helps us understand how we can listen to Paul as we listen to Moses and Jesus.

The authors of the New Testament letters wrote by the same Spirit of God who inspired Moses and spoke through Jesus. By the same divine inspiration that gave us the Old Testament and Gospels, these authors helped their readers understand who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

• Paul wrote 13 letters about the practical implications of believing that “God in the flesh” has purchased the eternal salvation of all who believe in Jesus (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:19).

• John wrote about the love that will be evidenced in our lives when we truly believe the “Word of Life” loved us enough to die in our place (1 John 1:1-3; 2:1-2; 3:23).

• Peter described what it takes for followers of Jesus to live out their faith in the Messiah who gives us a living hope by His resurrection from the dead (1 Peter 1:3; 2 Peter 1:5-7).

• James saw Jesus as the King and Lord of glory (2:1), who gives us freedom from guilt (1:25) so that our lives can be full of both faith and action (2:17-22).

• Then there is the author of the letter to the Hebrews. He urged his readers not to lose hope in Jesus as one “through whom [God] made the worlds,” and who, as “the brightness of [God’s] glory” and “the express image of [His] person” and the One who upholds “all things by the word of His power,” “purged our sins” and then “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Transformed by their faith in Christ and inspired by the Spirit of God, these authors wrote letters that are as important to the church as Moses and the prophets were to the nation of Israel.

The letters of Paul and the apostles resonate with the Spirit and purposes of Jesus. Everything they wrote reflects the Spirit of God whose power and presence were so evident in Jesus.

Although Paul made only one direct quote of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), and even though John also may have repeated Jesus’ words only once in his three letters (1 John 3:23), everything they wrote expressed the attitudes, mission, and principles of the Son of God. 

For example, much of the apostle Paul’s credibility is seen in his willingness to endure repeated imprisonments, beatings, and the scorn of his countrymen in order to do whatever was necessary for him to share in the sufferings and purposes of Christ (Colossians 1:24).

In the process, Paul and the other authors of New Testament letters were enabled by the Holy Spirit to express, in their own inspired words, practical counsel needed by the growing international body we know as the church.

Without these letters, the unfolding, inspired drama of Moses, Israel, Jesus, and the New Testament church would be incomplete.

Father in heaven, please help us to hear Your voice, not only in Moses and Your Son, but in all of the Scripture You have breathed into our lives. —Mart De Haan

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