God doesn’t look at people the way we do, and that is a good thing. When we look at people, we are culturally trained to judge them, more or less, by a set of ingrained values, many of which we may not even be consciously aware. If we see a very large person, we may immediately judge them to be undisciplined and even slovenly adorned – though the truth may be that they have a genetic disorder or a disease causing gross inflammation. We may write them off if we are looking for a “high energy go-getter type”. If we see someone who is dressed in a disheveled manner, or even mismatched in their clothing, we may judge them to be a “have not” from society’s lowest place – though they may actually be quite well off and just a person who does not care about fashion a whit. When we see someone exceptionally pretty or handsome by whatever the fleeting standard of our day, we are culturally cued to draw near to them and want them to approve of us or accept us. These things are ingrained from a very young age, and they are at work in virtually every interaction of your life. Some sociologists term this “cultural value stamping”.
Fortunately, God is not from where I grew up. He doesn’t reside in one culture, and His evaluations are not all based on my appearance, nor my past performance, but rather He relies on His ability to know what I will become with His transforming hand. God is at work in people that want Him to be – but so much more. He is working in the backdrop of the scenery of your life even before you are aware of Him… Such a truth can be dramatically illustrated in the life of the church history hero – Saul of Tarsus. God saw what few others could see – and God used him dramatically… but only after God forcibly interrupted Saul’s life with a flash of blinding light.
Key Principle: The biggest factor that determines our life’s destination is not our past or even our personality – but our willingness to embrace God’s change in us and control over us.
A few years ago I picked up a book entitled When People are Big and God is Small by Edward Welch. I didn’t read the book, because I was so struck by its title. I began to think about that and put the book back on the rack. What a great title! Have you gone through a time in your life when you made God too small in your eyes, and made people too important? That seems to summarize the setting of the beginning of the story of a companion I have been sharing my life with over the past thirty years. In my obsessive desire to know the Bible, I traveled through almost all the places identified by church historians as part of the life of the Apostle Paul. In this series of lessons, I want to walk through that journey with you.
Meet Saul of Tarsus
I want you to meet my friend back where he began. He was a good guy, well educated, properly spoken and sharply adorned. He came from a good family, and got a first-class education. He was a free Roman and a Jew. He had a Latin mind for organization, a Greek tongue for the study of human wisdom, and a Hebrew heart to know God – the perfect combination for the task that God outlined for his life. Though this story is about him, and not you, it is worth remembering that you are, in fact, genetically perfect for the task God has assigned to you. He knows what He needs and He made you because you are needed in the intricate tapestry of God’s full plan to make Himself known.
The first time we meet my friend, he was standing with his university friends in Jerusalem and listening to a speaker that was systematically alienating and aggravating the crowd surrounding him. The speaker’s name was Stephen, and the subject of his prolonged lecture was the defense of God’s work through Jesus of Nazareth – a life changing influence that was changing people in Jerusalem’s Jewish community by the thousands, and was becoming a source of profound aggravation to the Judean aristocracy in general, and the Temple leadership in particular. The scene was recorded in Acts 7, and it was quite tense, the air filled with a combination of hot, dry dust and bitter-tasting anger:
Acts 7:54 Now when they heard this, (referring to Stephen’s apologetic preaching) they were cut to the quick, and they [began] gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they [began] stoning [him]; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Freeze the movie frame there. Here was the auspicious beginning scene for Saul who would become the most accomplished writer among the Apostles. Could you see it? Of course not! He was one of the crowd – nothing more outstanding could be said of him than the fact that people trusted him with their robes while the stoned a man to death. But wait… that isn’t NOTHING. Saul was a man in whom others placed confidence. They left their valuables with him. They may have sounded like radicals, and certainly they were – but Saul was a trusted radical in their midst. He served them, and that made him both notable and trusted. Don’t forget the way to importance is always by serving the needs of others – it was an early lesson Saul seemed to get. Let’s move back into the scene…
Acts 7:59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on [the Lord] and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. Acts 8:1 Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 [Some] devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul [began] ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word…
The text shifted quickly, as the storm against the Jerusalem church seemed to grow to a “flash point” in almost a moment. A trusted young man was holding the coats in one scene, and was leading the charge into the home of unsuspecting followers of Jesus in the next. Who was this man? We are fortunate, because we have an answer. Because he wrote thirteen letters of the New Testament that are specifically accepted by scholars as from his quill (or his traveling secretarial companions), we know a good bit about the man. I want to introduce him the way he later introduced himself in many scriptures.
The Uniqueness of Saul
I think it is fair to say that Saul fo Tarsus was a unique man, chosen for a very special mission. In fact, Acts 1:23 shares the details of how the Apostles chose a successor to Judas Iscariot. Essentially the choice came down to two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (surnamed Justus) and a follower of Jesus known as Matthais. The latter (Matthais) was chosen, but was never heard about again in the writings of the Christian Scriptures. Some argue the leaders may have been “out of step with God” (though the narrative does not appear to be a statement of disobedience). One thing is certain, waiting in the wings for a Divine meeting was “Shaul of Tarsus” whose conversion and writings would powerfully impact the Disciples from the first century until now (as we will see in our study of Acts 9 and beyond). Scholars have argued that Paul was unique in the record in five ways.
• First, Paul was the most controversial man among the early leaders. The record of Church History reveals that he was called an “illegitimate charlatan” by Pseudo Clement, but highly regarded by others. He was widely followed and bitterly disputed all at the same time. In other words, he was a dynamic leader!
• Second was the noted and incredible “expansive view” of Paul – he was a visionary in many ways unique to his time and place. Though Jesus spoke mainly to Jews and called on them to follow their King, Paul (by the direction of the Holy Spirit) recognized the expanded definition of “spiritual kingdom” – stretching that definition even into the Gentile world. He recognized the shifted pattern of God’s work, and followed after the movement of the Spirit. His chief argument with the other leaders was that the Spirit indicated a change in the direction of the outreach (Gal. 3:2), and the church must follow that direction. He saw it well before most of his peers (cp. Acts 15) and argued when he saw a conflict in the leadership over the new direction (Gal. 2:1ff).
• A third uniqueness of the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (as he called himself in Rom. 11:13) can be seen in the way God used him to communicate revolutionary new ideas to the young churches. Paul “broke ground” on a number issues: divorce, inter-ethnic marriage, acceptable styles of dress in worship, the public behavior of women particularly in ministry, family issues and eschatology (particularly issues like our “resurrection bodies”, etc). His use of the holy principles of the Hebrew Scriptures and the revelation offered to the church by the Spirit through his pen offered the window not only into the Roman world and its problems, but into the method and principles of problem solving for the church of every age!
• Though often thought of as a domineering leader (perhaps because of some very hard words to the Corinthian Church), a fourth uniqueness of Paul was that he was actually extremely relational and caring. He openly praised the good in others (Phil. 1) and thought of the people of God as related in every way. It is no accident that the Spirit of God used Paul to explain the “body concept” of the church, with Messiah as the Head (1 Cor. 12:12ff). He obviously felt that his life was an example to believers everywhere (Phil. 3:4ff) and expressed deep emotion in his dealings with their sin and troubles (2 Cor. 2:4; Phil. 4:1). The closing words from his quill were all about the people in his life, not simply a sterile list of accomplishments (2 Timothy 4).
• Finally, a fifth way Paul was unique in the early leadership of the church – he was uniquely exposed. Though we have other records about the foundations of the church and its leaders, we have nothing so complete as the record of and by Paul. Though the Gospels offer a reasonably complete picture of Jesus, we have no physical writings of Jesus. In the case of Paul, we have both the writings about him (i.e. the Book of Acts) and the letters written by him to the young churches and leaders.
The essential facts about Saul/Paul’s life are, for the most part, documented in the Christian Scriptures by the man’s own letters. At the same time, these facts are but a shadow of the man that stood the test of brutal beatings, shipwrecks, homeless wanderings and many rejections for the cause of proclaiming Jesus. Let’s set up our series of lessons with some significant things about Paul that we know.
First, we know something about his various names. He was named at his circumcision after the first king of Israel (‘Shaul’). Bible students recall that King Saul was selected by his peers in part because of his physical stature. He was known as the king that stood “a head above” other men of his day, and that appealed to the insecure Israelite tribal leaders. In contrast, the Apostle Paul was short in stature. A possible reference to this was his Gentile name “Paulus” which loosely has been translated as “short, stubby one”. Though some writers and Bible teachers unfamiliar with Jewish customs offer the notion that Saul was the “unregenerate” name of the Apostle, Paul did not exchange one name for another after his conversion. On the contrary, every Jew of the diaspora was traditionally named according the formula, “And his name shall be named among the Jews as ___, but among the Gentiles he shall be called ____.” Saul possessed both names from the time of his parent’s naming ceremony. We have become accustomed to calling him by the “name among the Gentiles” because most of the ministry record we have comes from the time of his service outside the land of Israel, among the Gentiles that came to faith. It is worth noting that his size and name left little restriction on his impact. John Chrysostom, (c. 345-407) a leader of the Byzantine Church is quoted as saying, “He was barely five feet tall, with a reach that touched the stars.”
In addition to the knowledge concerning his names, we surmise the birth date of Paul to be about 5 CE, during the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus (who ruled until the year 14 CE). It is certain that he was born during the first decade of the first century, making him a younger contemporary to Jesus. By the Scriptural record we know that Paul never met Jesus before the Savior’s Resurrection and he was still “a young man” (Acts 7:58, a reference to his early thirties) at the time he was “holding the cloaks” at the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem.
Paul’s hometown was the city of Tarsus, and he seemed quite proud of that fact. He apparently liked his “home teams”, and mentioned his home – the place of the third largest “university city” in the Empire (behind Alexandria and Rome) whenever he got the chance. (Acts 7:58; 9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3; 22:28; 26:9-10; Rom. 11:1; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:4-7; 2 Tim. 3:14ff). Some scholars speculate that Paul may be a descendant of some of those who were promised free citizenship if they moved to the Cilician city in 171 BCE. Another claim for the citizenship ancestry of Paul can be found in some who raise the possibility that Paul’s father or grandfather helped Marc Antony (and thus Rome) during Cleopatra’s renowned visit to Tarsus in 41 BCE. The historian Strabo mentions the splendor of the event, as Cleopatra sailed her gilded barge in the Cyndus River into the city. In addition, there is reason to believe that Antony and Octavian used some resources of the city in their struggle against Brutus and Cassius, who they later defeated at Philippi in Macedonia. Some have even suggested that a tent maker’s gift could have been repaid in citizenship (cp. Acts 18:3), though this is mere speculation. In addition to being the hometown of Paul (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), it was also the city Paul returned to after his escape from Jerusalem (Acts 9:30). Barnabas found Paul in the city and enlisted him to service at Antioch (Acts 11:25ff). Paul may well have visited on the Second and Third Mission Journeys (Acts 15:41; 18:22-23). Paul was proud of this important city (Acts 21:39) and his free citizenry, a sentiment common to Roman citizens who often had significant rivalries between cities in athletics, etc.
Paul’s occupation was also recorded in the Bible (Acts 18:3, 20:34; 1 Cor. 4:12) as that of a tentmaker or leather worker. The Greek term “Skenopoios” was used to refer to a variety of binding and weaving crafts. The area of Cilicia, the region of Tarsus, was noted in antiquity for the quality goat hair tents (called “cilicum”). Some scholars even suggest that Paul’s family may have secured citizenship by providing tents to the Roman army during the transition from Republic to Empire.
Students of the Bible can also reasonably identify the key elements to the education of the Apostle Paul. His early life in Tarsus was no doubt impacted by the university in town that was legendary in the time. When he moved to Jerusalem and out of the shadow of the university, Paul studied under the moderate Pharisaic instructor Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was learned enough to become a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). His quotations of the Hebrew Scriptures are usually from the Septuagint version (250 BCE), a possible sign that his memorization of the Word was done from the Greek translation. He apparently could speak the Hebrew language (Phil. 3:5; Acts 21:40) and Greek (Acts 21:37) and perhaps Latin (though this is not certain).
Near to the heart of any Jew of antiquity was his tribe affiliation. Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin, the ancient possessors of the heartland of Israel. The area of the hill country is north of Jerusalem and is centered on the ridge route of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The territory was the dwelling of King Saul of old, and included such important Biblical places as Gibeon, Bethel, Ai, Mizpah and Shiloh (the place the Tabernacle was placed for much of the pre-Temple times.
We know only a few things about Paul’s family. By his own admission he was brought up by observant Jewish parents in the diaspora (i.e. “son of a Pharisee”- Acts 23:6). He no doubt had a number of brothers and sisters, but only mentions one sister indirectly in Acts 23:16. He alluded to his father on a few occasions, but never made any mention of his mother in any of his Epistles (see Rom. 16).
Paul’s contributions and successes are also well known. He has been called a fanatic (defined as “he can’t change his mind, and he can’t change the subject!). He was usually followed by a riot or a revival! Yet, one third of the Christian Scriptures were written at his hand. We know of fourteen and possess now thirteen letters to young churches and Pastors, but there were no doubt others. His style was sometimes complex enough to draw the observation by Peter “some of Paul’s words are hard to understand!” (2 Peter 3:15-16). In addition to his writings, his energetic travel schedule took him to more on journeys totaling more than 10,000 miles.
His travels were often met by troubles (Acts 16:22) and he was asked to leave on a number of occasions (as in Acts 16:39). We have only a traditional record of his death. The “Apocryphal Acts of Paul” (a dubious source in many respects) offers the detail that Paul was beheaded along a main shopping district on the west side of Rome at the hand of the executioners of Emperor Nero in 67 CE.
The broad view
Step back for moment and look at a quick overview of an important man God used in all our lives. He was saved in 36 CE at about age 31 or 32, and died in the year 67 or 68 CE at age 62 or 63. Half his life he followed a zealous religious life, and then he met God’s Son. His was a life interrupted by God’s grace. With only half of his life left – he accomplished more than any other of his day. How? The answer is found again in the Scriptures, back in the record of the Book of Acts, chapter 9.
9:1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He [said], “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” 7 The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.
In 9:1 we begin the paragraph with Saul looking powerful and menacing – but all this suddenly changed. A flash of light, a voice from on high, and the youthful and ardent stride of Saul was broken forever. He started the passage looking ahead at life, but when he met Jesus, he found out that he couldn’t really see at all. The journey that began with him in the lead, ended with him being led by the hand, unable to see the turns in the bumpy road.
As we study the life and ministry of Saul or Tarsus, don’t venerate the man. He was as frail as any other, and as subject to the sin nature as all of us. Yet, from the encounter with Jesus onward, the man learned a secret… The interruption of his life became his greatest blessing. The unexpected call of God became the driving force of his life. Saul FELL INTO GOD’S GRACE, and that was a powerful place to be.
Saul’s greatest power lay not in his ability, but in his surrender of all his life choices to serve his King, his Lord – his Master. Falling into grace was God’s work of introduction, but growing in grace (as he later told Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:1) required the deliberate withdrawal of control of life’s choices to the direction of God’s Spirit under the Lordship or mastery of Jesus Christ. Philippians 3 says it in his own words: “…beware of the false circumcision; 3 …and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 … If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…
Saul didn’t consider Jesus simply as his Friend, or his Helpful Guide – but rather as his “KURIOS” – his Master. Jesus called the shots on Saul’s life. When we move ahead in the story, Jesus will be at every turn in the road of Saul’s life, directing him, guiding him and commanding him. It started with Jesus’ appearance to Ananias in Damascus to accept Saul and help him grow… but it goes on and on in the story. In every story we will see God at work directing… but that isn’t the key to the story. God is doing that in all of us. He isn’t silent… He just isn’t finding many that are willing to listen and surrender.
The secret of Saul was his decision – his final determination that his life was not his own – period. Because he didn’t see his life as his own, God could direct him and use him.
He didn’t find it in religion – he found it when he met and surrendered his life to Jesus on a roadway. GK Chesterton was right when he wrote: “The mark of faith is not tradition, but conversion. It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity.”
His secret was that he met God, and took God’s mastery of his life seriously. The same can be said of you. The biggest factor that determines our life’s destination is not our past or even our personality – but our willingness to embrace God’s change in us and control over us.