Christianity 201

April 24, 2020

The Apostle Paul’s Personal Circumstances as Apologetic

…”I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee…”
– Paul in Philippians 3:4-6 NIV

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished…”
– Paul in Acts 22:3-5 NLT

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
– Paul in 2 Cor. 5:17 NLT

After the Gospels, the New Testament proceeds to give us a glimpse of what following Christ will look like after He ascended and after He sent the Holy Spirit. Much of this was written by Saul/Paul who is personally completely absent from the gospel accounts.

What we know about his life can be instructive.

The Apostle Paul:

Shows us what following Jesus means when you didn’t see it firsthand.

In a way, Paul is a stand-in for all of us. There’s nothing in either the gospels or Paul’s own writing to suggest he was part of the crowd when he taught in Capernaum or Bethsaida or Sychar or Bethany or performed miracles in those places. There is a natural skepticism when you didn’t see something extraordinary up close and personal. Even Thomas doubted after following Jesus for three years. Paul would be in this category. Because he never met or conversed with Jesus, in I Cor. 15:8 he goes so far as to call himself “one abnormally born.”

Shows us what following Jesus means when you follow an other religion.

Paul is an example of what it means to convert (verb) or become a convert (noun.) Here was no nominal Jew, but a man steeped in religious training who knew his faith inside-out and would go on to boast about this aspect of his life even after committing to Christ. He in effect becomes the poster boy for conversion; his life allows the possibility for anyone to walk away from their spiritual past into a new chapter.

Shows us what following Jesus means when you are an intellectual.

Even if Paul had never boasted about his training, the grammar and sentence structure of his writing betray his thorough education. I personally believe that the “Philippian hymn” which is set off as poetry citation in most of our Bibles could be an example of Paul quoting a popular early Church song written by someone else or it could be Paul quoting Paul, since training in music was part of that classical education. Today we see objections from people who think they are ‘too smart’ to believe the Gospel, but Paul showed that formal education doesn’t make one too sophisticated an intellectual to reject the simple concepts of faith.

Shows us what following Jesus means if you were formerly opposed to Christianity.

It’s one thing to be atheist or agnostic, or to follow another faith, but if you’ve been particularly vocal about it, you have to be willing to swallow your pride and say you were wrong. Most biographers of Paul characterize what happens to him in the wake of the Damascus Road encounter as being a dramatic, 180-degree turnaround. This is the simplest definition of repentance: ‘My life was going in one direction and then, in a moment, I changed trajectory and started walking toward a completely different objective.’

Shows us what following Jesus means when you are being spiritually formed.

None of any of the significant events in Paul’s post-conversion life happens until after he has been inactive while undergoing a time of discipleship and spiritual formation and simply considering the claims of Christ in a world about to be turned upside down by the life of Jesus. Some put this as a three-year period, while others have it as high as 14 years, though the latter number might have some overlap with early ministry. This might have been a tough period of Paul who would have been anxious to share his post-Damascus testimony, and it shows us that just because people aren’t entering into high-profile Christian service right away, it doesn’t mean their life hasn’t been dramatically changed.

Shows us what following Jesus means while you are suffering.

We can only speculate as to Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” though some commentators are more certain than others. There can be little doubt that it dogged Paul continually, three times bringing him to a point where he either enlisted the fervent prayers of other or spent time apart crying out to God to take the condition away. If anyone had time to wrestle with the question as to why God allows suffering, it was him. And let’s not even talk about being hungry or shipwrecked. He is convinced that when we are weak we are made strong.

Shows us what following Jesus means when you are now the one facing opposition.

From a literary perspective, the story comes full circle; the man who opposes the teaching of Jesus ends up facing the same type of opponents; the proverbial shoe is now on the other foot. Many of the epistles are called “Paul’s prison letters” because he spends a section of his life under house arrest. A faith in Christ needs to be anchored firmly and be resilient in the face of challenge.

Shows us what following Jesus means … period.

From Paul’s famous love chapter, to the fruit of the spirit, to his message of economic, ethnic and gender egalitarianism, to his imagery of living the Christian life as one running a race, to his theological treatise in his letter to the Romans; in all these things Paul shows us what it means to live the Christian life.

 

-PW