The desire for relevance
The Apostle Paul felt the tension between the desire to be in the immediate presence of God and the desire to preach the Word to the world. First, in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul spoke of his desire to bring the Gospel to all peoples. In verse 22, he spoke passionately of his missionary mindset: "I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some." Paul, a Jew, from a nation bound by covenant to God's law, submitted to the old law in order to be a better servant to the Jews in the hope of winning them to Christ.
However, Paul was not confined in his witness to the nation of Israel. He also lived among the Gentiles during his fruitful ministry. And to the Gentiles he also preached the Word of God. Gentiles, not living under Israelite law -- i.e. being "without law" -- required sensitive yet bold proclamation. That is, the Gentiles were subject to Christian proclamation even though they lacked the old law (1 Corinthians 9:21).
Yet Paul was careful not to leave the idea that sensitivity toward Gentiles entailed a forsaking of all standards whatsoever by the Christian missionary. In a significant qualification, Paul claimed that in spite of no longer being under the old covenant, he is still "subject to the law of Christ" (verse 21). The law of Christ, we learn elsewhere, is not the means of salvation, but it most definitely is the means of guidance for the lives of Christ's disciples.
On the one hand, Paul wrote to the Galatians that they are justified only by grace through faith. Therefore, they must not become subjects of the old law, as if such observance was necessary for salvation (Galatians 5:1-4). On the other hand, Paul went on to explain that a new law would be operative in their hearts, minds and bodies. The Christian must "walk in the Spirit." Walking in the Spirit is not submission to Israelite law, nor, we are strongly reminded, is it giving free reign to "the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
The desire of the Christian church is not set upon this world and its sinful ways. The desire of Christians is for God above all. This brings us to a second great desire in the heart of the Apostle Paul. If his desire in 1 Corinthians 9 is for the conversion of all people, his desire in 2 Corinthians 5 is to dwell in the presence of God in heaven.
Again, this second desire is an embodied desire. Yet, the bodily form of this heavenly desire is not identical with this world's forms. Paul is quite clear that his desire is to leave behind "this earthly house" and to take on the resurrected body, "our habitation which is from heaven" (2 Corinthians 5:1-2). Paul is not prematurely embracing death in some perverse way of thinking. Rather, this is his way of saying that his ultimate goal is "to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Paul is ready and willing to stay here and continue his witness to men in service to God. (Elsewhere, we learn that his courageous efforts on behalf of the Lord brought him many persecutions.) But his overarching desire is to please God: "Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him" (2 Corinthians 5:9).
So, a tension of desires pulled Paul's heart between this world and the presence of God. And yet, his primary desire always was for the holy presence of God. He desired a presence in this world only as a means to be pleasing to God. Paul's desire for God trumped his desire for the world. Moreover, he found much in this world to reject, because it is filled with lusts, or false desires.
Paul was content to remain in the world, but not so that he might enjoy the world. Paul was content to remain in the world, so that he might win people for God. What was ultimately relevant to Paul was not the world or its nations and their cultures. What was relevant to Paul was not even his contributions to the world (he considered his best works filthiness, Philippians 3:8).
What was relevant to Paul is Jesus Christ and His atoning work upon the cross. Making Christ and His cross known to the world was Paul's singular focus, and everything else paled before the relevance of the cross. For the cross of Christ is the only means for bridging the gap between God and man (1 Corinthians 2:2). (The cross is not only the unique bridge for our forgiveness; it is also the exemplar for the Christian life, Mark 8:34-36.)
Does this mean Paul found human existence in the here and now irrelevant? By no means! But he did believe that relevance truly occurs when people forsake this doomed world and its ways in order to be transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. This is spelled out for us in his great letter of justification to the Romans.
In Romans 12:1-2, Paul called upon Christians to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God. We must submit our lives to God in service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Two Pauline words particularly stand out for the current context, a context where many Christians are eagerly desiring relevance before the cultures of the world: "conformed" and "transformed."
Paul teaches that we must not be conformed to, literally "schematized with," this world. Rather, we must be transformed, literally "metamorphosed" or "changed," by the renewing of our minds and wills. Such transformation in the Christian life begins with consistent and prayerful meditation upon Scripture and results in lives entirely submitted to Jesus as Lord. Such transformation is not in words only but also in deeds.
It is God's desire that the justified will be sanctified. He wants His children to be transformed by the Word and to become instruments for transforming others. This means that the people of the world must be transformed in their attitudes as to what is truly relevant. Scripture determines what is relevant, and people must adopt its holy outlook, leaving behind the world's sinful outlook.
The only proper means of relevance is immersion in the Bible. And as we win people's hearts and minds to the relevance of Scripture, we must remember that we will never successfully transform an entire culture. Some will believe, and some will not. And it is our job not to determine who will and who will not. Our job is to proclaim the Gospel freely to all, so that "some," as Paul said, might be saved. Our job is also to see our own wills transformed to what is pleasing to the Lord.
It is my deep and heartfelt prayer that we will have a desire for the relevance of pleasing God. We can do this through preaching the faith to this world and through living the faith faithfully in this world, looking forward to the day when we will be in His very presence. That is the only relevance worthy of a Christian's desire.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.