Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paul the Apostle 1

Paul may have described himself as a "Hebrew of Hebrews" and a Pharisee before he believed (e.g., Phil. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:22), probably meaning that he spoke Aramaic as a first language.  But we learn from Acts that he was born in Tarsus (Acts 22:3), in the Diaspora, among those Jews scattered throughout the world.  Accordingly, Greek was also a first language for him.

We also learn from Acts that he was a Roman citizen (e.g., Acts 16:37), which probably meant that he came from a family of some wealth.  He speaks of working with his hands as a step down for the sake of the gospel (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:12).  He might have worked with leather and tent making in the mission field, but back home in Tarsus he more likely was the boss.

These elements in his background no doubt helped equip him to be the formidable apostle that he turned out to be.  Paul was not one of the twelve apostles.  For example, he did not fit the list of qualifications for Judas Iscariot's replacement in Acts 1:21-22.  He had not followed Jesus from the time of John the Baptist.

However, he considered himself an apostle of equal status to the other apostles (cf. 2 Cor. 12:11).  "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" he told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:1).  An apostle is someone sent on an official mission representing a greater authority.  Paul received this commission, this role as ambassador, from Jesus himself.  Jesus appeared to him and sent him to be a witness of the good news that Jesus is king (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Paul would eventually understand his specific mission as apostle to the Gentiles, to non-Jews (e.g., Gal. 2:7). Acts regularly shows Paul going first to the Jewish synagogue when he entered a new city, but we know from Paul's own writings that the Jews in these synagogues were never his primary target (Rom. 15:16).  He also felt led to places where the good news about Jesus' kingdom had not yet taken hold.  For this reason, he never planned to spend long in Rome, because faith in Jesus was already well established there (Rom. 15:20).

It is hard to know exactly when Paul fully understood the nature of his calling, even though in hindsight Paul clearly understood this to be God's purpose for him from the start (cf. Acts 22:21; 26:17).  It is possible it was very early indeed.  He says that after Christ revealed himself to him, he went to the Nabatean kingdom of Arabia even before he returned to Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 1:17).  Since he apparently stirred up controversy while he was there (cf. 2 Cor. 11:32-33), it seems likely that he was preaching to Gentiles from the very beginning.

Paul tells us it was about three years after he believed that he finally went back to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18).  Both Paul and Acts tell us he then spent about ten years thereafter back around his home city of Tarsus (Gal. 1:21; Acts 9:30).  We can presume that he was preaching the good news during these years, even though we know very little about them.  At some point, he became part of the exciting developments at the church of Antioch in Syria (cf. Acts 11:19-30)...


J. E. D. said...

These posts are great summaries of man Paul! I really appreciate them. I do have a couple points of query however.
1) You say that Paul's Roman status probably means that he came from a family of some wealth. Is this the only way this is possible for him to have Roman Citizenship? I have been taught otherwise with the idea that Paul was brought up as a slave and released by his Roman owners (as was practiced then) and granted citizenship.
2) I found your language regarding how Paul considered himself an apostle a bit too strong for my taste. Did Paul really consider himself to be equal in status to the other apostles? Indeed, 1 Cor. 9:1 seems to indicate this. However, later in 15:9 Paul reflects on his status as an apostle and considers himself "... the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle" due to his persecution of the Church.
Just a couple thoughts. Keep up the good work!

Ken Schenck said...

Good thoughts! Certainly it is not a slam dunk that Paul's family had money. Perhaps this hunch is built on more than just Paul's citizenship (e.g., his ability to travel, his connections with Jerusalem, his comments on working with his hands). I have wondered if his grandfather had been granted citizenship by Julius Caesar as he campaigned through. We could come up with other plausible theories. Certainly not enough information to know for certain.

I was going more on 2 Corinthians 11:5 and Galatians 2. Of course he's on the defensive there and perhaps he doth protest too much. Calling yourself inferior can be a badge of honor in an honor shame culture. Perhaps I worded it more strongly than appropriate.