01 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
1st of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” (Introduction and Background) – Sunday, November 25, 2018
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
The day began like any other in the ancient 1st-century city that was located a few miles inland from the northeastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It was part of a region that is called Cilicia. Before the day was over its newest citizen would be born to a Jewish couple who resided there. One and perhaps both of the parents were from the ancestral line of Benjamin, which was one of the original tribes of the people of Israel. The most prominent Benjaminite in history in the Hebrews had been Saul, Israel’s first king. And that is the name that was given this Jewish baby – Saul. These parents would dedicate themselves to see to it that their little boy would be exposed to and raised in Orthodox Hebrew training in the strictest sense. That background would prove to be significant as he grew up into manhood and advance in the cause of Judaism.
But there was a turning point that came when this young man was somewhere in his mid-30s that radically changed his life for the remaining 30-plus years of his life, where he became a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and he was used by God as a servant to make a lasting impact on the Roman world of that day, an impact that would not only last for years that would follow him but actually for centuries all the way to our present-day.
At some point this one named Saul became also known as Paul, as we read about in Acts 13 and verse 9. The Greek word is “Paulos”, and it’s interesting that the literal meaning is “little”. And this came to have some significance because this is the way Paul would come to see himself. On one occasion he wrote in the letter to the Ephesians (3:8) that he was “less than the least of all the saints”. He was the same one who had been the chief or the “worst of sinners,” as he put it in first Timothy chapter 1 (vs. 15-16).
One author of our present-day has written this excellent summary of this great man of God – that it was Paul who established and shaped many of the key doctrines of the faith that believers who form the true church today hold to. It was Paul who took the truth of the gospel message of Jesus Christ to places where it had never been heard before. It was he who courageously pressed on in spite of personal afflictions, frequent rejection, emotional distress, and bodily harm. It was Paul who refused to let obstacles of any size or number stand in his way. It was he who preached and modeled grace, who confronted enemies both human and spiritual by God’s power and strength. Paul reached out to all peoples including Gentiles, not just Jews, and without prejudice. And it was he who passionately built the truth into the lives of some younger men and he urged them to press on in their Christian faith, to pass the torch of that truth to others. And of course, it was also Paul whose writings have survived now some 2000 years becoming a part or the permanent record of the New Testament. Is it any wonder that his life is still admired and his teaching still strikes home in the hearts of people today? Because his life reminds us all of how our lives were intended to be lived, not only by what he wrote but also by how he lived.
Hopefully as you look over that list of summation of this man’s life you can affirm those words and testify even to the profound influence that what he has written and remains available to us today has been used to shape each of our lives spiritually.
Occasionally in my preaching and teaching role I have changed course from going through an entire book of Scripture verse-by-verse, from beginning to end, and I’ve done that even with some of the letters of the apostle Paul. Occasionally I’ve focused even on a Bible character. I remember over year ago I did a series of Sundays on John who was the forerunner of Jesus Christ.
But a few months ago I began to give thought to doing something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before over all the years, and that is focus on the life and the work and the ministry of the man, the apostle Paul. I began pulling off a few resources that I’ve had that I hadn’t looked at for a long time and began exploring something of his life and ministry. And as I did, I realized that there were things about him that I thought that I knew that I didn’t know as much that I thought I did. It lead me on a quest to learn even more about who he is – his background, his life before he came to Christ, what caused him to become the kind of passionate follower and servant of Jesus Christ that he was. I really like looking at Bible characters because one of the things that God has done in His word is – He’s presented them as they are. They are individuals who had sin just like we commit sin. They weren’t always on the right level. They needed to be inspired and moved to walk with God.
And so this morning I want to invite you to join me with me on a journey through passages of the Bible in the coming Sundays with the hope that each of our lives will be inspired and also challenged and impacted to become more like the Christ whom this servant of His, the apostle Paul, came to know and love and serve.
Out of the 27 books of the New Testament 13 of them, almost half, were written by the apostle Paul. And there are ways that we can be able to categorize them. One is by finding some things that are in common.
For example, there are 4 prison letters. They are called this because Paul explicitly says in each of them that he’s writing while he is in prison, which would have been his first imprisonment when he was in Rome, which we read about near the end of the book of Acts. Three of these letters were written to churches in different cities: Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. One was written to an individual Philemon. A few months ago I took a few Sundays to look at the one-chapter letter of Philemon.
Then there is another category called the pastoral letters. These were written to two church leaders whom Paul had much fondness and admiration for. They were in roles of servant leadership in churches, and so he taught them about the structure and the functioning of the church: 1st and 2nd Timothy to his spiritual son in the faith by that name, and then also Titus. These 3 books, by the way, are the last books that Paul wrote as far as we know. The prison letters, of course, were written a little while earlier.
And then there are 6 others that are written to churches in other cities or regions which do not have any particular identification: Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, and 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. It’s believed that Galatians and 1st and 2nd Thessalonians were the earliest of all of his letters, and there’s a debate over which was first – Galatians or 1st Thessalonians. It probably doesn’t make a lot of difference, but you get the idea that there is also some chronology here.
But when you put all 13 of these letters together, they become the primary source for being able to see something about the life and the work of the apostle Paul. His personality also is unmistakably imprinted throughout these letters. A while back we went through the book of 2nd Corinthians – we saw that especially, perhaps more so than any others of his letters from that one in that he sent to the to the church at Corinth.
What is also interesting is that if you take these 13 books, they make up almost one-fourth of the New Testament in terms of space and pages. And then if you couple that with a significant portion of the book of Acts which is almost devoted entirely to Paul’s life and ministry, there is nearly one-third of the New Testament then that involves Paul, either as an author or as the subject of the content. All this to say that it is worthwhile for us to look at this man’s life.
Now as we get started, I want to set the stage and explore for a little bit the limited information we have about his background, which can help us to understand better both who he was and what he came to be in his ministry and his work as well as the message that he communicated through his writings. There are a few basic historical details about Paul’s earlier pre-Christian years that can be drawn from a few occasions in which Paul gave addresses or that he spoke to an audience – on some occasions it was a large audience. One of those was after he was arrested during his last visit in Jerusalem after he had made his three missionary journeys, and he was brought before a military commander near the end of Acts 21. This commander thought for a moment that Paul might be an insurgent who had not long before attempted a revolt in a coup in the city. But when he realized that he had mistakenly made that kind of assessment, he asked Paul just who he was, and he got this reply, Acts 21 and verse 39, “I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city.” And if you go on and read after that and into the next chapter you will see that he spoke words to a hostile crowd of Jews on the steps of the Temple there in the city of Jerusalem.
Now I made mention a few moments ago of Cilicia. If you look on this map over to the right in the middle you will see it there – just a small province. It is located in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the southeastern edge of the sector of Asia Minor, which is today Turkey. Tarsus which was Paul’s hometown was inland just a few miles from the sea. It was along a key river in the province. And it was a major city, sometimes even thought to be the capital city of Cilicia. On the opposite side of the city, and you see it a little bit better on this kind of topographical map, was a towering range of rugged mountains, the Taurus Mountains, which kind of served as a protective shield for the backside of the city. Cilicia had a long history that went back hundreds of years.
Just a half-century or so or so before Paul was born the famous Julius Caesar had visited Tarsus. A few years after that it was the meeting place between two other characters, Antony and Cleopatra, which you might remember their names that Shakespeare portrayed in his famous drama, one of them.
That it was situated on a fertile plain contributed to the city being prosperous. Certain ancient Roman writers refer to a local material that was produced there that was called cilicium. And perhaps this is where the name Cilicia came from, because they sound so close. It was a product that was woven from goat’s hair, from which there would be coverings of various kinds that were made and that were designed to give protection both against the cold and also against moisture. Most likely it was cilicium that was used for the making of tents, and that of course was the craft that Paul had learned and engaged in as a sideline trade, as mentioned in Acts 18 and verse 3, because he didn’t want to burden Christians and the various places that he ministered to support him financially.
So when Paul says here in Acts 21 that he was “a citizen of no ordinary city,” he had good cause to describe Tarsus in that way. That he referred to himself as a citizen of Tarsus meant that he was also a citizen of Rome, indicating that he had inherited that citizenship from his family. We see that a little further on Acts 22 when he was asked, “Are you a Roman citizen?” He replied that he had been born a citizen and being born a citizen means that his family had to already have possessed such citizenship. Now there been various suggestions that have been offered as to how this came about – that maybe his father or his parents or maybe even his grandparents had done something that was worthy of that status of citizenship in the Roman Empire.
But however it came about, Paul’s Roman citizenship would later serve in the providence of God a very important purpose. It would be an essential for his role in carrying the gospel of Christ throughout many places in the Roman Empire. A few examples of that – in Acts 16 (vs. 37-39) when he was about to be beaten further after having already been imprisoned in the city of Philippi when it was found out that he was a Roman citizen, it enabled him to be freed, no longer be detained in that city. On another occasion as I was citing a moment ago, in Acts 22 (vs. 23-29) it caused him to avoid punishment when he was in Jerusalem. And then later in the book of Acts (25:10-12) it made it possible for him to plead his case so that he could be taken to Rome to make his case before the Emperor’s court there in that city.
But as important as Paul’s having been born as a Roman citizen, and it was important – and by the way, when he was born it was probably during the first few years of the first century, maybe even as early as 1 AD, which would have been only a few years after the birth of Jesus Christ which is usually considered to be 4 BC. I know people sometimes say, “Wait a minute, how can you have Jesus Christ being born ‘before Christ’ as least as we take it in our years?” Well it’s not necessarily that Christ’s birth was the thing that made the dividing line between BC and AD, but He was born probably in either 3 or 4 BC, and Paul would have been after that. But just is as important as his Roman citizenship was, also important if not more so was his Jewish heritage. In fact, on one occasion he says that he was actually born a Jew – “I am a Jew,” he says.
And we see that especially in a passage that he wrote to the church at Philippi in the 3rd chapter of that book where he writes these words (Philippians 3:4b-6), “If anyone else thinks that 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.” Now if you go back and read the context of that passage in Philippians 3, one of the points that Paul was trying to make is that he had come to learn something about being a Christian that was very different from when he was not a Christian, because before Paul became a believer his focus in his life was on “me, myself, and I”, totally on himself. In fact he could sum up who he was mainly on the basis of his human credentials and merit that in his mind more unsurpassed and that included his Jewish ancestry and background. And from what we see in this listing that he set forth, he was full-fledged, 100% Jew, and he was proud of it!
He could trace his genealogy back to the first patriarchs, to “the people of Israel”, which was Jacob’s name after (at a certain point he was known as Jacob) he became Israel. He could also trace it back to the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, Benjamin. By the way, he repeated that claim to be of the tribe of Benjamin in Romans chapter 11 and verse 1. He further knew that his parents had submitted him to the right of circumcision. That was the sign of the covenant that God had given to and established with Abraham after He had called him, and it was to be done to Israelite males on the eighth day of their infant lives. You remember that Jesus was taken by his parents to the Temple to go through the rite of circumcision as recorded in Luke chapter 2.
Furthermore he says, “I was a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’.” It’s a phrase that emphasizes not only that both of his parents were fully Jewish, but it’s an expression also that would indicate that Paul grew up from his boyhood knowing and speaking the Hebrew language. He became proficient in it. Plus, he had earned all of the Orthodox Jewish customs and traditions from an early age, and as he got older he became strictly observant of the Jewish way of life.
And then one more thing, it says, “I was a Pharisee.” That term “Pharisee” literally means “separate”. It denoted the strict separation of its adherents from everything which might convey moral or ceremonial impurity. Now Pharisaism had been around for about a century and a half. It started off about 150 years before Jesus Christ. And by the time Christ came along, you will remember during his life and ministry He encountered Pharisees and He challenged and confronted them on certain occasions about their Pharisaical beliefs. Because you see, what happened is that over time these, this party of Pharisees exercised great care in scrupulously observing the laws of Judaism to the point that they decided that the laws needed more defining, so they added more laws to it and what they did is they made those laws that they added to it equal in importance to the laws originally given through Moses way back to the children of Israel at Sinai. And so Pharisaism, while it had its good points, it also had some weaknesses and had a lot of problems. That’s the kind of individual Paul described himself as being. This is a depiction of his Jewish heritage.
Well, what kind of a Pharisee did Paul end up becoming?
Well, from another statement that Paul went on to say in that passage that I referred to a few moments ago in Acts 21, he had at some point come to the city of Jerusalem. When he was speaking that day he said, “I was brought up in that city.” And all we can do is reconstruct perhaps the scenario of what had happened – that after a certain point when he had been raised in the training of his parents back in Tarsus, they either took him or they sent him to the city of Jerusalem so that he could be an understudy of the expert in the law whose name was Gamaliel. And he goes on to say there in that passage in Acts 22 and verse 3 that he “was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers” and he “was just as zealous for God as any” of the Jews who were hearing his voice that day. This had occurred right there in the city of Jerusalem. And so we get the idea that perhaps in his later boyhood, maybe in his early teens, that he ended up coming down there and he sat with and under this esteemed Jewish expert. We don’t know how long – it’s been suggested maybe as much as five or six years, maybe more. And during that time he learned texts from the from the law and various possible meanings, as well as how to engage in open debate. All that prepared him for the day that he would become one of the esteemed members of what might be thought of as the Jewish Supreme Court. It was called back then the “Sanhedrin”. It was 71 men who ruled over Jewish life and religion. And it was in that period that stretched all the way until he was about age 30, and maybe a little bit beyond, that Paul as he expressed it in Galatians 1 and verse 14 said, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of” my “own age” and I was “extremely zealous for the traditions of” my “fathers”. That’s what had been going on with Paul from his early boyhood to his young adulthood. Paul was well on his way, he was on track to becoming an ardent devotee of Jewish belief and thought, a Jewish enthusiast, perhaps even a Jewish extremist as much as it could be.
Now what Paul didn’t realize that all those years through all of that training – that there was something else going on in another dimension, another realm, and that was that the one true God whom he thought he knew had been silently at work. And as he goes on to put it in the very next verse, that it was “God” who had “set” him “apart from” his “birth and” He “called me by his grace.” (Galatians 1:15). What Paul is saying there in that very powerful statement that it was not by chance that he had been born in Tarsus to a mother and father who were dedicated to the principles of the Jewish system and its belief. Behind the scenes God had already known fully about Paul from the time of his birth and before, and He had set Paul apart so that He might call him, unimpressive by human standards by His exceedingly great grace. That’s a little bit of a picture of what Paul’s life was like before he came to Christ.
Now before I conclude this morning I want to just set forth before you a couple of what I call some affirmations or some things that I think we can draw from this introduction that I have given to his life and to his ministry.
The first one of these is that – just as it was not by mere fate that Paul came into this world, so is the case with every one of us. I don’t know how much you’ve ever thought about this – there are many things in this life that we can do something about in and of ourselves, choices that we can make that can affect who we are and what we do for years to come. But none of us had any choice as to when we were born, who we were born to, as well as where, no choice of that at all. When Paul was born, Rome and its Emperor and the high officials ruled over and controlled a vast empire, including Cilicia and the city of Tarsus, which was its main city. What that often meant throughout that empire was that life was not always pleasant for the commoner, and that included Jews who had been scattered because of various reasons. Not only that, but the world of that era was at times chaotic just as it is in our day. If there was ever a need for a spiritual Savior, it was then. And One had been born not long before Paul. But God had a plan that was perfect. His timing was precise. It was no coincidence that Paul would be born when he was and where he was. That’s always true for every person. And we never know what God may have in mind and be ready to accomplish with someone who comes on the scene, who makes his or her entrance into this life and who becomes a part of the population listing on this planet.
As I was thinking of this, I couldn’t help but also be reminded a couple of weeks ago when we had our guest missionary, Joseph Kong with us. And those of you were able to hear the story about him know how God no doubt had set him apart and called him, arranging so that as a young man he could leave his homeland of Cambodia and come here to the United States to study and pursue a college degree and then go back to his home country only a time later to be forced to leave and flee for his life along with his family just a matter of days before the Communist invasion back in the 1970s. As he put it when he was with us, “I would have been some among the first who would have been exterminated because I was in the position that I was in that I had been trained for.” And then, of course, he told us how in recent years he’s been able to go back to that country, his homeland to be used by God and to reach many in that Southeast Asian nation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we all well know, there are no coincidences with God, no by-chance situations or experiences, including births of individuals. God’s plan and His ways are always perfect.
The second affirmation I want to leave with you this morning is that no matter what a person’s background or heritage may be, that never nullifies the possibility for spiritual transformation. Paul’s early and formative years were in the context of Jewish beliefs and training, to the point that he became almost sunk into it, and also some around him would’ve said there is no way a young fellow like that is ever going to get out of that. But as he would write some years after his conversion to the church at Ephesus – he like all of them was “dead in” his “transgressions and sin.” He like them, and all of us, were “by nature objects of” God’s “wrath”, and yet God in His “great love for us” – and by the way you’ll notice if you read that chapter he begins by saying “you”, but he changes the pronoun a few lines further to “we”, including himself – he said because of God’s “great love for us” all, “who is rich in mercy made us alive,” made Paul alive when he had been dead in his transgressions and saved him by His “grace” (Ephesians 2:1-5).
Sadly there are multitudes, and even far too many today who even call themselves Christians, who for whatever reason have taken the position, “Well, I’m just this way and you’re not going to change me. You know, I’m Irish in my background or I’m German or I’m Scottish,” or whatever background that you may have – no one is going to be able to do anything about it, nothing can be done to change them. But God says, and Paul would agree, you may be what you are, but Jesus Christ can do something about it if we let Him, because it doesn’t make any difference our background and our heritage. No one is locked and hopelessly bound it to some human framework or mindset or philosophy or worldview or belief system from which we can never get out. It’s God who can bring about that transformation. As Paul himself declared in another occasion, “If anyone is in Christ,” and “that’s me”, Paul would have said, “he is a new creation”; “that also is me” would have been his words, “the old has gone, the new has come; all this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a). Perhaps there are some changes that God still wants to make upon some of us. I know He’s got a lot of work yet to do with me for whatever remainder of my life that I may have. But regardless of our old ties with our human tendencies or weaknesses, God wants to let us know through this great servant of His that He’s still in the business of changing people, changing us, our thinking, our mindset, our behavior, our ways, to make us into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. He’s got a lot of work yet with some of us, doesn’t He? I know he’s got a lot of work yet with me.
So in the Sundays ahead I invite you travel back with me to the early to mid part of the first century where we will together be focusing our attention on the life of this one man and his Lord who made him what he was. And hopefully as a result, our lives too will be in the process of changing so as to become more like the One who brought salvation to Paul and to us.
Let’s ask God to do that as we close with a few moments in prayer
Heavenly Father, it is certainly no accident that this little baby was born centuries ago in this city that is rather obscure to a Jewish couple that we don’t even know their names or anything about them, just a few hints as we’ve seen this morning. It lets us know that one doesn’t have to come from some kind of a class or elitism in order to be known by You, but You can take the most humble individual and use them to advance Your cause and for Your glory. Thank You for giving to this world and to the church this servant of Yours, who became an apostle, a proclaimer of the gospel message, Paul. On one occasion he told his readers, “Imitate me as I imitate the Lord, as I follow the Lord.” And I pray, Lord, that even as we focus on his life, we won’t be caught up in just him alone but also on the One who indeed was his Lord. We ask You to mold us, keep shaping us, working on us so as to make us more like Your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray in his name. Amen.