In our last Podcast, we talked about the secrets in a resume. Because the Bible contains so much information about certain people, it is pretty easy to metaphorically build a resume for a Biblical character. This exercise can reveal things we may have never really considered. Let’s look at the Apostle Paul. There is a lot written about him personally.
Paul is Amazing
The Apostle Paul is probably the most amazing disciple in the entire New Testament. Not only does he go from being the number one persecutor of the church to the number one promoter of the church, he goes on to pen three quarters of the the New Testament scripture. He is the author of no less than 13 letters to various people and churches.
Paul was pretty prolific! So too were others who accompanied him such John Mark; who goes on to write the Gospel of Mark, and Luke, a physician. Luke is the writer of both the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Both these men were close associates of Paul and accompanied him on many of his missionary journeys. Beginning with Luke’s writings, let’s gather information about Paul’s life with which we can build a handsome and respectable resume for Paul.
The first time we ever meet Paul is at the end of Acts 7. It’a not a great first meeting. It occurs during the stoning of Stephen where Paul was still known as the Pharisee, Saul. We join the assault just after the crowd has been whipped into a frenzy by the preaching of Stephen.
Acts 7:57 – 8:1
“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”
A Young Man
In terms of church history, theologians tell us the stoning of Stephen happened about 35 AD. This would put it roughly three years after the birth of the church. This passage tells us, Saul was still a young man. He has some type of authority because he is “giving approval” to the stoning of Stephen and the murderers are laying their clothes at the feet of this “young man” as he stands back giving approval.
Saul is obviously filled with a deep hatred and bitter contempt for this new religion. It’s difficult to imagine a hatred so intense and so evil that it compels someone to actually participate in an organized effort to kill, murder and destroy a people who’s entire motivation is love. Have you ever wondered what drove Saul to this breaking point? Why was he compelled to do such a thing?
The Good News is, the next time we meet Saul, he has a little “come to Jesus” moment! On a dusty Damascus road, Jesus appears to him in brilliant light and knocks some sense into him. In fact, Jesus knocks the Saul out of him so far, he changes his name to Paul… and the rest is history!
Paul’s Conversion Three Times
Luke tells the story of Saul’s conversion in the book of Acts, three times. Let’s glean some details about Paul’s life from each of these then move on to discovering some other nuggets about Paul from the epistles. Our first conversion story is told in Acts 9.
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
Saul, apparently has so much clout with the leaders back in Jerusalem, he could ask for, and receive, certain letters of passage. We assume these letters provided the necessary authority; empowering Saul to enter Damascus and collect any wayward Jew who professed Christ and either kill the individual or take them back as a prisoner for questioning or punishment.
During Saul’s encounter with Jesus, he is struck blind. He is told to wait in Damascus. Next, God uses a disciple named Ananias to reach out to Saul. His initial hesitancy is understandable.
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
Ananias heard “many reports” about the problems Saul created with his basically “unchecked authority” to do whatever he wanted. How did he get so much power at such a young age? Paul actually tells us in Acts 22. This happens when Luke re-tells Paul’s conversion story for the second time. This time, it is Paul himself speaking to a bunch of angry Jews back in Jerusalem.
“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
A Split with Gamaliel
In this account, we gain some new bullet points for Paul’s resume. He is a Jew. He was born in Tarsus. He was actually brought up in Jerusalem and was blessed to be taught by one of the most prominent Rabbi’s in all of Jewish history named Gamaliel. According to John McArthur, Gamaliel was so loved and respected, some fondly called him, “The Beauty of the Law.” Paul wasn’t just trained in the Law… he was “thoroughly trained” or as the NASB says, “strictly trained.” He was so zealous for God, he persecuted the church and attacked the followers of Christ because he saw them as blasphemers.
Now, there is something very interesting about Saul’s attitude regarding the Christians which stands in stark contrast from that of Gamaliel. From other scriptures, we know Gamaliel was a “centrist” and maybe even an appeaser regarding the Church. After the Apostles are arrested in Acts 5, he crafts wise counsel, preventing serious persecution. Strangely, Saul does not imitate the patient character traits of his teacher. Despite being trained by Gamaliel, Saul seems to have missed imitating Gamaliel’s patient heart. Something must have happened to Saul to drive him over the edge of reason to possess such a radically differing view than this sage advisor regarding the Church! What happened to Saul to make him so bitter and so angry?
Zealous and Agressive
In Acts 22, we also learn that Saul was “zealous for the law.” This word “zealous” is an interesting word. In those days, there existed, in Israel, a pseudo-political group called “The Zealots.” They were a radical bunch of Jews who were basically… terrorists to Rome. Paul’s choice of the word “zealous,” might give us a little additional insight into the depth of his hatred for the church since most people, of his day, would associate this word with that radical group. He absolutely hated Christians.
We read the final account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 26. He is explaining the miraculous event to King Agrippa.
“The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.”
Once again, we see Paul places great importance on the fact that he has lived the strictest life in Judaism, even from childhood. His life in the Jewish faith eventually leads him to achieve the rank of Pharisee. A Pharisee was one of Israel’s highest religious and political leaders who ruled over the people. Apparently, Saul’s power was strongly centered in Jerusalem.
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.”
Paul was convinced, by his interpretation of the Bible, that he must oppose the name of Christ. Beginning in Jerusalem, the seat of his power, he “votes” to begin his campaign of punishment and death. He travels great distances and goes from Synagogue to Synagogue in this campaign. He says he was “obsessed.” His mission even carried him to foreign cities.
A Jewish Crusade
What we learn from these three conversion stories is intense. We are basically looking at a Jewish version of the Crusades. If people were unwilling to change their religious views they were killed! And, it all began when an angry mob laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As we move away from the three conversion stories in the Book of Acts, other rich tidbits await discovery in the rest of Acts and the Epistles. Let’s organize these revelations into categories as opposed to chronological appearance as we work our way toward Philemon.
Here are some things we learn about Paul’s heritage.
Paul was born a Roman Citizen. We discover this in…
“The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
This is huge! To be “born” a citizen in Rome during that time entitled you to a number of important rights you would not normally enjoy. What else can we learn?
Top of His Class
Paul was a “Super Jew.” He had been strictly trained from birth and was so good at keeping the commandments he could call himself “blameless.” We put this together from a variety of places.
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.
If anyone else thinks he has 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; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Wow, talk about your basic over achiever! Young Saul was quite the student and certainly gained quite a bit of recognition. I’ll bet he had a lot of trophies on the wall!
Paul’s Besetting Sin
Now, like all of us, Paul had his own besetting sins. After his conversion, he readily admitted he was not perfect. In fact, he is actually specific about the sin he struggled with.
“For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
Coveting is a form of greed. A person who struggles with coveting has an extraordinary desire to possess things or achieve rank. This is a particularly insidious sin because it easily masquerades as “success.” Achievement and the things which come with it are considered good and honorable in most cultures; every parent wants their child to do well in life. But when the desire to succeed is taken to an extreme, it can become the deadly sin of covetousness. You want stuff. You crave stuff. In order to feed this sin, you must have at least a little wealth. Certainly, a young man at the top of his class and the top of his game politically would have had a decent income, not to mention the family wealth which would have provided such a prestigious education. Paul eludes to this fact in…
“I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity…”
When Saul meets Jesus on the Damascus road, everything changes. He is struck blind but actually begins to see the worthlessness of his possessions and pride. He gives up everything.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ
Clearly, there was a time in Paul’s life when he was doing pretty well financially. You don’t move to Jerusalem and study under Gamaliel for free! If Paul had never moved to Jerusalem, he would have never achieved the things in life he achieved. Especially politically.
A Persecutor of Christians
But, his greatest sin, he persecuted Christians to their deaths.
I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify.
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem.
Eventually, Saul is humbled by a face to face meeting with the risen Christ!
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Saul met Jesus! How would you like to have that one on your resume? Now this is not just a little invitation to church. Jesus calls him into Apostleship.
1 Corinthians 9:1
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?
Paul Becomes an Apostle
And, not only did Jesus invite him to follow him as an apostle, Paul was the very last person in all of history to be invited.
1 Corinthians 15:7-9
“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
This is how Saul goes from number one persecutor to number one promoter of the church. What did Jesus see in Saul that the distressed disciples of Damascus could not see? Why would Jesus reach out to such a vile and dangerous man? Well, because that’s what Jesus does. He looks at people and sees what they can become, not what they are. He looked at Saul and loved him enough to lead him, in dramatic fashion, to the truth of the Gospel.
Paul’s Resume – A Recap
Now that we have gathered so much information about the beloved Apostle, let’s put together his resume and see if we can see what Jesus saw.
Paul was born in Tarsus of Cilicia as a Roman citizen. Being circumcised on the eighth day, even from birth, he was raised in the strictest training of the Law. He was probably brought up in a wealthy environment which could support the education his family wanted for him. He moved to Jerusalem, probably at a young age, because he identifies that city, as the city where he was “brought up.” He studied under one of the greatest Rabbis in the history of Israel, Gamaliel and advanced faster and better than any other students around him. This would have most certainly attracted the attention of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, while also feeding an arrogance and over confidence in Saul’s heart. I’ll bet the Jerusalem leadership kept a close and eye on this budding young superstar. They surely thought, he could be destined for greatness!
But, this upwardly mobile young man struggled with one particular sin. He was covetous and he could not see it. He loved his stuff and wanted more. His overweening desire for success led him to even greater ambitions. Taking advantage of his position and achievements, he was eventually ordained into the priesthood as a Pharisee, a ruler of the people of Israel; what a crowning achievement. From his perspective, he has led an absolutely faultless and blameless life. Momma must have been so proud.
Then, one day, he begins hearing rumors of an iterate preacher going about Galilee preaching the word of God but having no connection with the Jewish leadership. As the news continues to build about Jesus, some even begin to claim he may be the promised Messiah the Old Testament scriptures foretold. This naturally peeked young Saul’s curiosity. He knew the scriptures well. Could it be time for the messiah to arrive? I’ll bet he began some super deep bible study and the conclusions he reached absolutely stunned him.
Now let’s stop right here and get some solid historical bearings which may have escaped our grasp. When Saul began his persecution of Christians, Acts tells us he was still a “young man.” The murderers of Stephen laid their coats at his feet. And not just a young man, a young Pharisee. Saul had to have been studying in Jerusalem during the years of Jesus ministry. He most certainly was aware of the same things Nicodemus, Ananias and even Ciaphas were aware of. He was part of the “in” crowd. It would be quite naive, on our part, to ignore this fact. Saul was there during the earthly ministry of Jesus. He was at the height of his career. The things unfolding around him from the time of John the Baptist to the crucifixion of Christ were not outside his purview. He would have known about most, if not all of the things going on regarding Jesus of Nazareth.
Saul Before Stephen
If you are like me, you tend to see Saul as a character that suddenly shows up in Acts 7 and had absolutely no existence before that time. That’s silly. Why do we overlook the incredible fact of where Saul of Tarsus appears on a timeline. Frankly, he probably heard Jesus speak! I believe he even met Jesus.
From the time of the resurrection until the stoning of Stephen, a cauldron of hatred stored in Saul’s heart simmered, steamed and ultimately boiled over. This new “cult” had to go. Too many people were believing the lie. 3000 had joined the brain washed masses on the day of Pentecost alone, and thousands more after that. The poison of the Christians had even spread to distant Damascus! It had to be stopped. Christianity could blossom too easily there in the absence of the Jerusalem leadership. Saul asks for and obtains permission to stop the plague in its tracks by going to Damascus with murderous intentions. That fateful trip brings him face to face with Jesus and his life is changed for an eternity.
Our covetous young man gives up everything including his new mission to massacre Christians, obeys the Gospel and immediately begins to preach that Jesus is indeed the Christ! Now, can we stop here for just a moment and make an observation? This is the picture of a proper conversion.
When Saul is confronted with the truth of the Gospel, he quickly and completely obeys everything he is told to do by Ananias in order that his sins should be washed away. There is no debate. There is no negotiation. There is no discussion about whether or not baptism is necessary. He just obeys. And, it is only after he obeys the gospel that his life and mission radically changes.
Now, isn’t that the whole point of “conversion?” Lives truly do change. In every conversion, this is exactly what we should see. Everyone who comes to Christ should see significant changes in the way they have been living their lives. Saul’s conversion stands a model for us.
The Last Apostle
Saul becomes Paul and is invited into Apostleship. In fact, he is the very last person in all of history to become an apostle. The office of “Apostle” is a very particular office in the church and was only offered by and conferred upon an individual by Jesus himself. The qualifications for apostleship are enumerated in Acts 1. Let’s read them.
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”
To be an apostle, a person had to have been around from the time of John the Baptist to the time of the ascension. They must have been a witness to the resurrection. This certainly prevents anyone from claiming Apostleship in this century, doesn’t it? This is an additional reason why I think Saul must have been closely familiar with Jesus ministry in and around Jerusalem. To be an apostle, you had to have been there. Now, there is also one other interesting characteristic common in the call to Apostleship. This is amazing, listen!
Come Follow Me
When we study this out carefully, we discover a particular phrase Jesus used when he called each of the twelve. He always said, “Come follow me.” This, of course, implies something obvious. The call to apostleship had to happen sometime before the death of Jesus on the cross. And the only people who ever received that specific command to “Come follow me,” were the initial twelve apostles. While it is true Jesus used this phrase at other times in a general sense, did you know that He never used that “come follow me” phrase as a command directed at any other people than an apostle?
Well, except one!
It’s the one person in all of scripture who’s resume matches Paul’s exactly and, as it turns out, he is the only other person in all of scripture to whom Jesus commanded, “Come follow me.” And, interestingly, He is the only person in all of scripture of whom it says, “Jesus loved him.”
Yes, I am still talking about Saul of Tarsus, but we know him better as The Rich Young Ruler!
In our next Podcast, I want to pull all of this together and talk about what caused Saul to become so bitter. What drove him over the edge of reason?Enjoy!