Perhaps no man in Christian history, save Jesus Himself, has led the way as an example of faith to be imitated as the Apostle Paul. Our understanding of Hebrews 13:7 encourages us to both remember our leaders as those who 1) spoke the word of God to others, and 2) whose life also matched the proclamation (consider the outcome of their way of life). The greatest example of someone who spoke God’s word true and whose life was congruent with the proclamation is Jesus. He was perfect. But the testimony we have of the Apostle Paul reveals him as a sinner, as we all are, but a sinner whose entire life was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus, an encounter and calling that has made Paul an incredible example of faith for us to imitate. His life, though not perfect, matches the proclamation of the Gospel very clearly. He was a man who possessed the secret to life, the secret to saving faith, and he strived to make that secret public both in what he said and how he lived, he proclaimed salvation by Jesus Christ alone.
A Biographical Sketch
Paul was born Saul, a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27) from Tarsus, a city in the south of Turkey, just a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Though rather than worshiping Roman deities (i.e. Caesar), Saul was raised an ardent Jew. In fact he was a “Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:6). Not only was he a Jew, he was an exemplary Jew as He spells out in Philippians 3:5, he was “circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” His life as a Jew was of exemplary character. Indeed the pedigree he discloses here in Philippians is one that would set him apart as a real example of Jewish heritage.
Saul was highly educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a leader among the Pharisees, the strict educated Jewish elite. He was educated among a Jewish Ivy League school. It was his academic expertise in the Pharasaical school that blended so well with his own dedicated temperament that made him such a force of zeal, both against Christianity and later for Christianity. This zeal led him to persecute the Church (1 Cor. 15:9), which included the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3). He thought he was doing right, what the Jewish faith would commend him for as a good Jew.
However, on a road approaching Damascus, north of the Sea of Galilee, Saul had an unexpected encounter. The very founder of the religion he was persecuting appeared to him, Jesus Himself. Jesus questioned why Saul was persecuting Him and then saw fit to blind him. But with the trial he also provided the way of healing; a man named Ananias who would lay his hands upon Saul for healing, a testament to Jesus’ power and authority. It is here that Saul is called to go and proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. Saul sheds his Jewish name and takes a new Christian name, Paul. This calling takes him on numerous missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, results in imprisonment, stonings, beatings, a shipwreck, and more (2 Cor. 11:16-29). All this for the Gospel. This call to proclaim it took him eventually to Rome where many believe he was executed.
His devotion to the calling Jesus placed upon Him led to a faith that we must never forget, a faith that if we are seeking to live as disciples of Jesus, we must seek to imitate. The following are specific realities within the life of Paul that we as Christians 2000 years removed would be foolish not to learn from and incorporate into our own lives. He is a beacon pointing the way to us to the realities of grace and Christian discipleship.
By Grace Alone
One of the major tenents of the Reformation was sola gratia, by grace alone. This doctrine referred to the means by which a sinner is justified before God, thereby inheriting eternal life. Paul’s letters are foundational to this theological truth. In Pauls’ letter to the Christians at Ephesus he states, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (2:4-5). Indeed Paul’s entire ministry can be described by those two words by grace. Paul saw clearly that saving faith in Jesus Christ was only given to the sinner through grace. Our verse here makes it plain in the original Greek that God is the acting agent. The verse is filled with divine passives, stating what God has done as the primary agent, and stating that we are recipients of God’s action, of God’s bestowing of free grace.
For isn’t this how we define grace? Something that is given to another based on nothing earned but entirely based on the freewill and good desire of the individual bestowing it? This is why any notion of earning God’s grace, of earning salvation, is so preposterous according to the Scriptures. Paul makes it explicit that in order for grace to be grace, it has to be given contrary to any striving of the individual to attain it. Faith in what Jesus Christ has done on the cross is a gift given to the individual by God’s gracious will. Faith itself is not something that we can bring about on our own, for if it was then grace wouldn’t be grace. If we could believe by our own power, then the very act of faith would be an act earning salvation. But Paul’s writings are very clear that salvation is by grace alone, by God’s free decision to be gracious.
We learn from Paul the depths of God’s goodness towards us. When we see that God knows only He can rescue us, we learn to adore this God and glorify Him as the sole agent in our salvation, the sole gift giver. When we let grace be grace, and turn from any works righteousness, we rest in the beauty of God’s sovereignty and are drawn to glorify Him with thankfulness, that He would be gracious enough to rescue a sinner like me from the depths of my wretchedness. Soli Deo Gloria.
Paul was not a man who had an easy life. We have already alluded to some of what he had endured for the sake of his call to share the gospel with the gentiles above. But one thing that we can learn from Paul has to do with how he responds to these hardships. In his second letter to the church at Corinth he writes this particularly regarding his physical weakness, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
We read this verse and we think “How could Paul say this?!” We suffer in this life and have seen hardships befall us. We know they aren’t easy to endure and we come across verses like this and we think that Paul was out of touch with life. This may not be the best verse to share with someone who is suffering, but it is an integral verse for building a theology of suffering and pain. For we see in v. 9 just prior Paul states, “But [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And I do believe this is the key to a theology of suffering that it exists for a purpose. The ultimate end of suffering, according to Paul, is so that it might lead us to rest on God’s grace alone, and not our strength. When we are reminded of how weak we are we realize how much it is we need to rest and trust in God.
And so Paul can say that he is content in hardships because he knows that in the midst of them he is weak and the only strength he has comes from God. Paul says this in 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” For as FF Bruce says, “If his ministry was so effective despite his physical weakness, then the transcendent power was manifestly God’s, not his own.” (FF Bruce, 136)
We learn from Paul that the hardships that assail us in life ought to be redeemed. We should view them as an opportunity to look to God, to say to Him, “Lord please help me, I am weak, please be strong that you might receive due glory.” When we see our weakness as a vehicle for God’s strength to be supplied, God gets the glory and we are sustained by the sufficiency of His grace.
The New Self
The last key lesson from Paul that I want to highlight (there are many) is his understanding of the old and new self. In Paul’s letter to both the church in Ephesus and Colossae he makes this doctrine a key point of exhortation and encouragement. Paul explains that for those in Christ they have a new nature. The old self, which was alienated from God due to a bondage and total inclination to sin, has been put to death and instead we now stand in the new life that Jesus has given us.
In his letter to the church at Colossae Paul states, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1,3; see Eph. 4:17-32 for a fuller exposition of this doctrine). The key encouragement that Paul brings to his Christian audience is that they have put to death the old sinful self and have been reborn and are united with Christ in heaven at this very moment. Because of this reality Paul encourages them to then live as new creations. If we are made new and our old self has been put to death we are to act like it. Knowing that we are united to Him who is at the right hand of the Father, united to Him who intercedes on our behalf, united to Him who speaks every prayer we pray to His fathers ear, knowing this enables us to live in the reality of the new life.
We learn with Paul’s exposition of the new self that we are liberated from our sinful past. We are made new. We are forever shiny and clean in God’s eyes. There is great comfort here. Out of this comfort by God’s grace we are given the strength to then live as new creations, seeking things that are above and seeking to live in the reality of our justification.
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If you are looking for a wonderful comprehensive understanding of the Apostle Paul I would turn your attention to FF Bruce's wonderful text Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Bruce's understanding of Paul is top notch and the text is easily accessible with chapters discussing different areas of Paul's life and his influence.
**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader John Calvin