Questions About the Apostle Paul (Part 1 of 6) Bible Lesson. Bible Questions. Bible Contradictions?
The Bible describes him in some pretty vivid terms: destroying the church (Acts 8:3) and breathing out murderous threats against the church (Acts 9:1). Although his very name drove terror through the hearts of the early church, he appeared in Jerusalem – claiming to have become a believer. But Barnabas choose to believe that God had changed the heart of the most dangerous man in Israel (Acts 9:26 – 28).
From the time of his conversion to the end of his life, Paul (Saul) would be persecuted and denigrated because of who he claimed to be and his service to Christ. Besides Judas, he is the only apostle who is repeatedly vilified, demeaned, criticized or just plain misunderstood.
I was recently asked to answer a series of questions about Paul. In this introductory post, I want to comment on Paul’s personality and his style of communicating. But first, a couple of quick notes about the only Biblical writer who researched and recorded Paul’s extraordinary conversion and ministry – Luke, the beloved physician.
Luke and Paul
- Luke was Paul’s frequent traveling companion. He is more closely associated with Paul than any other apostle or writer of the New Testament. In three of his letters, Paul refers to Luke with great affection (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24, 2 Timothy 4:11).
- As the only gospel writer who was non-Jewish, Luke sets before himself the task of giving an exposition of the beginnings of the Christian movement (the books “Luke” and “Acts”).
- Concerning the events of Christ’s ministry (as recorded in the four gospels), Luke probably wasn’t an eyewitness nor a participant. He probably didn’t even know Jesus personally.
- Some scholars have guessed that much of Luke’s writing was originally intended to help Paul in his legal defense. So Luke-Acts may have been written for Theophilus (Luke 1:1 – 4; Acts 1:1, 2) as a kind of legal brief, demonstrating the nature of the church in the Roman Empire. Much of this is speculation, but it makes sense.
Paul’s Personality and Communication Style
Without question Paul’s personality was outgoing, decisive, authoritative, direct and persuasive. He was a very powerful communicator and every message he delivered was sure to leave its mark. At times we have a tendency of view strong-willed individuals as argumentative, arrogant, pushy and irritating. But do I hold this against Paul? No.
People have different temperaments, capacities and experiences. We all communicate and process information in various ways. Let us do a better job of appreciating our differences by taking the time to understand others and comprehending the content of what they are trying to communicate.
There will be conflict, disagreement and misunderstandings. But we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss and criticize others. Jesus warned us about this (Matthew 7:1 – 5; John 7:14 – 24). When we make judgments, we must be careful to do it as He directs us. In other words, don’t be nitpicky or superficial but judge (and discern) fairly, correctly and solely based on what is right (God’s standard of what is right).
Paul had extremely powerful credentials – better than those of his contemporaries (Philippians 3:4 – 14). He used his background, accomplishments, skills, talents and everything else God blessed him with to advance the Gospel. And Paul didn’t apologize for doing so.
AN EXAMPLE: THE BOOK OF PHILEMON
Onesimus was a runaway slave who was converted to Christ by Paul in Rome. As he returned to his master with this letter in hand, he knew Philemon had the legal power to sentence him to immediate execution. His life hung in the balance as Paul used his full influence on Philemon.
Philemon was a wealthy Christian known for his love, hospitality and faith. Paul appeals to his friendship, his status as a Christian leader, his sense of love and compassion. He doesn’t use his apostolic authority to command Philemon to receive Onesimus as an equal Christian brother. But notice the subtle tact and pressure of verses 2, 14, 19 and 22.
Paul was in prison for the sake of the Gospel. He had a personal relationship with both slave and slave owner. His goal was to reconcile these two men. Forgiveness and reconciliation was vital in the lives of these two men and in the church.
Paul was humble.
He was courteous.
He used tact and diplomacy.
He was stern, but it was wrapped up in gentleness.
The point is he was neither self-righteous or dogmatic. It was obvious he cared deeply about his two friends; his brothers in Christ. He understood that Philemon was the victim and that Onesimus was guilty as charged. And yet Paul was sympathetic to their strained relationship and he acted with compassion. Christian love was his motivation.
Why Does Paul Seem So Self-Centered?
Some fault Paul for constantly referring to himself in his writings. But don’t forget – his letters to churches and individuals are just that: personal correspondence. Who doesn’t refer to himself or herself when writing a letter, especially if one has a personal relationship with the recipient? Put yourself in Paul’s sandal’s – how would you convey your personal experience of Christ changing your life in your witness to others?
Much depends on the subject and purpose of the communication.
These letters weren’t written in a vacuum. Paul was writing to people who were facing serious difficulties. He expressed a range of emotions and he took the their burdens to heart (2 Corinthians 11:27, 28). His epistles to the Corinthians and the churches in Galatia are noteworthy. These Christians were in crisis.
Conduct and ethics were at the heart of the controversies in Corinth – divisions within the church, a case of incest, the abuse of Christian freedom, chaos in the worship services, fellowship issues with pagans, the behavior of women, lawsuits between members, questions about marriage, confusion about spiritual gifts. Some even tried to cast doubt on Paul’s authority as an apostle.
At his own expense, Paul spent 18 months in Corinth. What kind of feelings or emotional connections do you think he had with these people? He used point-by-point instructions, emotional pleas, poetry, sarcasm, lengthy arguments and his own personal history to get these Christians back on track.
After explaining why he has not visited them (as he hoped), Paul shares with the Corinthians the sense of fulfillment he has in both his ministry and in them personally. Written within a year of 1 Corinthians, this letter is even more personal and autobiographical. The tone is bittersweet. Paul openly admits his frustrations and his internal struggles. Once again, he defends his apostleship and his character. He is bold and passionate when he answers his critics.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia because they were turning away from the gospel he had preached and turning toward a perverted message. The perversion included Christ but also emphasized being circumcised and keeping the Jewish law as the way to be faithful to God. He was also concerned that they were falling under the sway of teachers who wanted the Galatians to follow them instead of Christ.
These teachers followed Paul from town to town, spreading rumors and contradicting him. In this emotionally charged letter, Paul answers the personal attacks against him. Some of his critics even questioned his right to be called an apostle (in their attempt to discredit his teachings).
Paul discussed his background:
- as a defense against anyone who questioned the legitimacy of his apostleship and
- as a demonstration that he answered to God (not to people) to show the Galatians Christians what they needed to do
So why does Paul seem to be stuck on himself? My short answer? He was bold, honest and very transparent about his emotions, his faults, his life and his faith. Such vulnerability will always. . .
- get you in trouble
- lead to misunderstandings
- entice others to malign or take advantage of you
- and endear you in the hearts of those who recognize their own spiritual poverty and brokenness (Matthew 5:2 – 4)
The questions and answers about the apostle Paul begin in the next post.
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