One reason, perhaps the main reason, that we have been so ignorant of the writings of St. Paul is that, unlike the four Gospel writers, Paul does not tell stories about the life of Jesus.
In fact, one might even wonder whether Paul knew very much about the life of Jesus. He wasn't there when Jesus preached and performed miracles. He was not present at Christ's passion and death.
What Paul had was a blinding revelation of the risen Lord. It's an interesting story, perhaps, but it is a story more about Paul than about Jesus.
The four Gospels are more attractive to readers than Paul's letters simply because they tell stories.
Paul, however, insists that he is preaching the Gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ. He says, "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel" (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Yet his letters are so different than the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus' public ministry, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. How can these letters be considered as Gospel too?
The first thing to note is that Paul's letters were written to established churches or to individuals. The people who receive them already knew the Gospel and had been transformed by the Gospel. The letters are quite different than the content of Paul's preaching.
The second thing is that the Gospel is not a story about the life and times of Jesus. Nor is it a set of doctrines about Jesus. It is the saving news about Jesus.
While the Acts of the Apostles records some of what Paul preached to those who do not believe in Jesus, Paul does not say much about the content of that preaching in his own letters. But he does hint at that teaching in a few places and what he says is quite simple.
The Gospel is more than a set of beliefs; it is the power of the Holy Spirit.
In one letter, he wrote, "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
In another letter, Paul said, "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16).
In short, the content of the Gospel is not extensive. This brevity, however, can be misleading if we consider the Gospel only to be words. In fact, it is life-changing, transformative.
The world is not and cannot be the same because Christ reconciled humanity with God through his suffering and death and then offered us the promise of eternal life through his resurrection.
Paul describes the Gospel at the beginning of his letter to the Romans: "It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" (1:16). So don't expect to be able to say that you know the Gospel if you can recite a basic statement of Christian faith. You must also be touched by the power.
"Our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction," Paul wrote. "You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 6).
In yet another place, Paul wrote, "The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power" (1 Corinthians 4:20).
This is intriguing. The Gospel spread like wildfire because it is more than a set of beliefs. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, enflaming hearts and transforming lives.
Paul often says that, unlike other preachers for other causes, he did not preach with eloquence. Yet people came to believe in Christ through his preaching and turned their lives around.
This lack of eloquence was a sign that the Gospel was preached with power – not Paul's power, but the power of the Holy Spirit.
We can learn much about our faith from studying Paul's writings. We can read those letters again and again and we can read some of the great mountains of books commenting on Paul's writings. But if we have not been seized by the power of the Holy Spirit, we do not know the Gospel.
Conversely, one may not be able to read at all and yet, hearing the word, be renewed in heart and spirit. That is knowing the Gospel.
In our day, we are very much oriented to the intellect and reason. What we most need is to let our hearts be open to the Gospel. We need times of prayer and meditation on the words of Scripture as much as we need study. We need to talk freely with those close to us about the wonder of Jesus Christ.
Then the Gospel will enter us with power. Then we will truly know the Gospel.