One of the blessings associated with the “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6 KJV) is how the mysteries of the Godhead were revealed. We’ve learned more from a Carpenter, some fisherman and a tent-maker than from all the sages of past history. The Carpenter as Son of God broke the seals of the Old Testament, and also lifted the veil which had hidden the glories of God from human eyes (Rev. 5-6; Heb. 10:19-22). Being the Son of God, He revealed His Father in Himself, telling Philip, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). And Philip was the one the Greeks had approached saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (Jn. 12:21). And their request was answered, for this same Jesus blessed the Gentiles as He had the Jews. But His chosen messenger to them was not Philip, but Saul of Tarsus.
This choice was inconsistent with human judgment. Saul was a bigoted Pharisee who hated Gentiles. He was a gifted prodigy of Gamaliel, a doctor of the Law who occupied the chair of Theology at Jerusalem. And some say this brilliant Benjamite (Rom. 11:1) was heir presumptive to Gamaliel’s professorship. In contrast to the ordinary home-born Jews plucked from obscurity to occupy 12 thrones in God’s future kingdom (Mt. 19:28), Saul was an exceptional home-born Roman citizen and distinguished Law student at Jerusalem.
Saul’s conversion was unique. Having been chosen when and how he was, he needed to have a face-to-face with Jesus, because by definition an apostle was one who had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1). The Lord’s appearing to His chief persecutor brought this religious fanatic to his knees and his senses (Acts 9:4-6). Before his encounter with Christ, Saul believed it was his duty to kill Christians (Jn. 16:2). He met the Lord with blood on his hands and in a murderous frenzy because the Nazarene “heresy” had reached Damascus. Now God was redirecting his whole life, calling him to witness to the Gentiles as He had called Peter to witness to the Jews.
His meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus began an intimate fellowship which was never broken. Not being one of the 12, he had missed the ministry of his new Master, yet Paul had special access to his Lord, for he was the only apostle who literally was taken up into heaven to converse with the risen Christ (2 Cor. 12:4). Like none other, he understood the logic of the gospel he preached. He was learned in the Scriptures, and at home with the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. Regarding his thorn in the flesh, when he pleaded directly with Jesus for its removal, he received an explanation as to why he had been so afflicted – no other apostle had been blessed with such an “abundance of the revelations” (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
His Mind And Body
Saul, who was also called Paul – meaning “least” or “little” – (Acts 13:9) never pretended to be a Samson in strength or an Absalom in beauty (2 Cor. 10:10). He even put himself down saying he was “the least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8), possibly a reference to his physical as well as his spiritual size.
Though small in stature, he towered above the other apostles in intellect. The school of Gamaliel had sharpened his mind. Having to commit the Scriptures to heart stood him in good stead when he was obliged through weak eyesight and prison chains to dictate from memory. Yet he was not a detached academic as his whole heart was in his work: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). He simply could not live without Christ. He had no delusions about the cost of following Him: “Neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
The most difficult aspect of being a disciple is life-long consistency without slackened standards, weakened spirit or loss of zeal. We have all experienced the grief of a Christian who has not lived up to the potential of his conversion. Also we have seen some stumble in later life and fail to finish well. But the one who met Christ on the Damascus road never doubted or deviated all the way to death. Whether contending with fanatical Jews or misled Christians he refused to be deterred. He was unbeatable in argument for he spoke by the same Spirit who had inspired Stephen when confounding his accusers. Indeed, a careful analysis of Paul’s reasoning against Christ-resistant Judaism is mostly an expansion of Stephen’s defense.
Paul took every opportunity to learn all that he could from Luke, who was not only a faithful traveling companion but also an inquirer who had carefully recorded the life of Christ from Bethlehem to the glory. Indeed, if we measure the New Testament in words, Luke and Paul wrote about two thirds of the New Testament Scriptures! We should not overlook the fact that while the other apostles answered the “what” of the gospel, Paul excelled in explaining the “why.” His Roman epistle is a masterpiece of heavenly reasoning, and is based soundly upon the gospel preached by Christ Himself.
At first sight we might have supposed that Saul of Tarsus was the wrong choice as an apostle to the Gentiles. For example, in his culture his not being a family man would disqualify him from giving instruction on marital matters. Likewise, as a Jew who cursed pagans, how could he even walk in the shadow of the heathen temple at Ephesus? And how could a man who detested philosophers deal with Greeks? His days at Tarsus had not been wasted. As a Roman citizen he was free to travel throughout the Empire. His birthright allowed him to appeal to Caesar and preach Christ to Nero.
Paul was not only an exponent of Moses’ law but an expert in Roman law as well, as is evident from his courtroom defenses. Similarly this apostle to the Gentiles not only knew the inspired poetry of David, but could quote from pagan poets when preaching on Mars Hill. To gain Greeks he became as a Greek, confounding those Corinthians who challenged the truth of the Resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 he transcended Plato and Aristotle when invoking the witness of Scripture, personal experience, creation and divine revelation.
The apostle detested the world’s wisdom which rejected a crucified and risen Savior (1 Cor. 1:18-25). This means that he did not adjust his message, which was rejected in Athens, to make it more acceptable in Corinth. Nor did he use more rhetorical skill to impress his hearers. He simply said, “my speech and my preaching were not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
Paul’s complex writing style was in sharp contrast to the everyday language of the gospels. Yet his preaching proved richly productive, brief and to the point, as in the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31). His style did not impede the progress of the gospel, for it is impossible to estimate how many have been saved through his preaching then, and through his epistles since. Most of Paul’s complex phrases express simple things, but he had a tendency to employ Hebrew idioms with which his Gentile readers were not familiar. Peter himself admitted that Paul wrote “some things hard to be understood,” but he justified his fellow-apostle by claiming that only the most “unlearned and unstable” will distort Paul’s words to support their heresies (2 Pet. 3:16).
Regarding Paul’s success in evangelism, we cannot overlook that he was the first apostle to set foot in Europe, and the gospel spread throughout that continent like wildfire. Though he was beaten at Philippi, the pagans could not beat God in His campaign to win souls to the ends of the earth. This purpose was evident in Paul’s dealing with the major Gentile cities of the Roman empire. These represented aspects of human activity which, though opposing God, would eventually succumb to His conquest for souls. For if the Ephesians drove Paul out, this Jew went forth to topple Diana of the Ephesians.
Likewise among the Greeks, Athena, the goddess of wisdom was confounded by the God of wisdom. While the Athenians “mocked,” the Corinthians wept in repentance and rejoiced in faith (Acts 17:22-18:11) Similarly on reaching Rome Paul triumphed over this center of military might and world-government. He would later write to the disciples in the capitol reminding them that “there is no power but … the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). In this regard he recognized himself as an emissary of the King of kings sent on a reconciling mission to the pagan sons of Romulus. For which cause he described himself in his Ephesian prison-epistle as “an ambassador in bonds” (Eph. 6:20).
As always he triumphed, for he added that “all the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 6:22). Indeed in his epistle to the Philippians he gloried in his preaching to the whole Praetorium guard stating that “my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places” (Phil. 1:13).
And during his second Roman imprisonment he tempered his privations with these words: “I suffer trouble, as an evildoer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). This was also proved true when many years later the fugitives from Caesar’s wrath emerged from the Roman catacombs like saints in victory rising from the dead.
If Paul was typical of the Church afflicted, he also foreshadowed the Church triumphant. He earned himself a position of glory in the Church eternally at rest. And so as one who never doubted the superiority of the Master, Paul was an example of what a mortal wretched man could achieve by the grace of God. For which reason he wrote, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). The One who had been with him from the beginning was also there to strengthen him at the end (2 Tim. 4:16-17).
By Tom Summerhill
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org