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Paul’s Grammar: Hearing the Imperative

In Paul Found I take him at his word, but that means that we’re faced with a linguistic problem. Most of us don’t read Greek, and those that do, as few as they are, often carry on serious disagreements. In what is called The New Perspective on Paul, there are many scholars who debate what “faith in Christ” really means, especially as it relates to the theology around justification by faith. This is not at the center of my book, but it is important to note that there are some scholars who believe Paul wasn’t talking about our faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ that brings all people into God’s story of salvation. The argument centers on one little Greek word which can be translated either is “in” or as “of.” 

It’s easier to begin understanding Paul in terms of his energy and passion that probably was consistent through all his life. He seemed always to have lived in the tension between what God had done and was doing in relationship to our world (the indicative verbs) and what God’s people ought to do in following and in being faithful to God (the imperative verbs). Expressed linguistically this means that there are indicative verbs which describe all that God was and continues to do. These are verbal statements about God’s creation, covenant-making, and most recently in the narrative about Jesus the Messiah. 

Paul whose story brought him to have apostolic ministry directed to Gentiles must clearly have been first and foremost a teacher of God’s story. Again and again, in his letters, he makes allusions to parts of God’s story as if his audience already knows the full story. It might be fairly said that the letters are filled with allusions to nearly every aspect of the story of God contained in what we know as the Old Testament. Could all those non-Jews, from various parts of the world identify with the Hebrews scriptures? Paul assumed it was an essential tool to know that story for one to know Jesus as their Lord (Kurios). Teaching the Jewish story of God was at the heart of Paul’s ministry. Eventually, as we see in his letters,  Paul could mention the name of Adam, or Haggar, or Moses with the expectation that he was writing to people who knew what he was talking about. 

Paul the teacher, though, was also Paul the pastor and church planter who was focused on how this story is shared in the life of community. The letters of Paul have often been mined for the theology they possess, when the truth of the matter was that all Paul believed about God was meant to appear in the common life of God’s people as a witness to the truth of the story of God in Christ. Their lives in community would reach out into the world to be a proclamation as the demonstrable way in which others would know and be called to partake in God’s story. The shorthand for what I am talking about is that the ethics of Christian life, especially as they would form and shape community, were clearly in view at all times for Paul. 

The church for Paul is to embody “in its life together the world-reconciling love of Jesus Christ.”

Thus Paul uses imperative language over and over. He calls again and again to the communities of faith that he cares about for a kind of righteous and faithful living that will best reflect the story of God in Christ. Consider this example from the letter to the Romans (Chapter 12), and as you do, image Paul’s face. 

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This isn’t any angry or stern Paul who is offering this advice. He’s plenty serious but I can only imagine that if you were there to hear him dictate those words there had to be a more subdued gentleness about him in the course of this teaching. Yes, these are all imperative verbs, but they aren’t the kind that come when you’re told to take the garbage out or to move your car when you waited a few seconds after the light has turned green. 

Another side to Paul involves what can only be called his clever and subtle subversive speech. When we come to talk more about that side of Paul we’ll come back to this passage from his letters to the Romans. For now it gives us an important picture of Paul the pastor, who more often than not, had a kind of motherly spirit of regard for those who were finding themselves in the story of Christ. To be sure, along the way, we need to deal with Paul who was angry and disturbed on some occasions when he was fearful for what others were saying or how they may have been twisting his words. We all have moments, don’t we, when the anger rises up, and then there are what we hope are the far more normal times when we’re calm and considerate when responding to stress or problems. We’re going to see both sides of this Paul, and maybe recognize some of our complexities in the process. I can imagine Paul himself saying “Don’t forget how much y’all need each other who are in Christ.” And yes, I think we can make a case for a Paul who used “y’all” with a Southern accent. (In another blog I’ll talk about is use of the third person plural pronoun!)


  1.  The difference between the indicative and the imperative verb in Paul is best expressed by Richard Hays: “Only if we back off some distance in the actual content of the Pauline letters can deposit a dichotomy between Paul’s theologyand his ethics — or between kergma (the proclamation of the gospel) and didache(the teaching of standards of conduct), or between indicative (what God has done in Christ) and imperative (what human beings are called upon to do. The more closely read Paul’s letters, the more fragile these familiar dichotomies appear.… Theology is for Paul never merely a speculative exercise; it is always a tool for constructing community.” Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament,  Page 18.
  2.  Ibid. p. 24. This is the way Hays reads 1 Cor. 5. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”