Profiles of Faith: Paul - Apostle to the Gentiles

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Paul - Apostle to the Gentiles

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The Roman soldiers brusquely prepared Paul for scourging. This vicious lashing was a fast and effective way to get to the truth of the dispute that had arisen between the apostle and some Jews in Jerusalem.

As the Roman soldiers yanked the clothes from his back, Paul asked the centurion overseeing the punishment, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?" (Acts 22:25, New International Version).

Paul's question about the rights of a Roman citizen immediately thwarted the soldiers' intentions. The rights of a Roman citizen could open many doors throughout the empire and automatically nullify this kind of abuse of position by petty officials.

Peter wrote that Paul’s writings were complex and easy to “twist,” and some people had come to erroneous conclusions because they were unskilled in the truth.

The centurion scurried to his commander to warn him of the possibility of illegally mistreating a Roman citizen, a serious offense anywhere in the empire.

The garrison commander approached Paul cautiously. Could this man, who had somehow so provoked the local Jewish leadership, really be a Roman citizen? The officer knew he had better tread carefully.

He asked Paul, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" (Acts 22:27). Paul responded that indeed he was.

The officer had to accept Paul's answer at face value for several reasons. First, he had already made the mistake of not conducting an inquiry of his prisoner beforehand. Second, if his prisoner were indeed a Roman citizen, he ran the risk of losing his position and - in a worst-case scenario - his life.

But then he made an erroneous assumption. Seeing that Paul was a Jew, he assumed Paul was at least in no better position than he was when it came to Roman citizenship. Looking at the manacled prisoner, he said, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship."

Paul responded, "But I was born a citizen" (Acts 22:28, NIV).

At the time, Roman citizenship was a valuable privilege conferred on those of high standing, those who had performed exceptional service for the empire or those who had paid for citizenship through what amounted to a bribe. The officer had bought his citizenship at great cost. Paul had been born a citizen, probably because an ancestor had been honored with Roman citizenship for performing valuable service to an administrator or military commander.

Hearing Paul's response, his questioners immediately withdrew. They already were in enough hot water for their abuse of Paul's rights as a Roman. The commander realized his dilemma. But what he didn't know was that the entire scenario lay in the hands of God and that Christ's apostle, Paul, would serve as a witness for Him not only to the highest levels of government in Rome but to us 2,000 years later.

Profiling Paul

How did Paul come to this point?

We have many ways of approaching a profile of the apostle, and it is difficult to squeeze into one article even the highlights of a tumultuous life that fills most of the book of Acts and much of the rest of the New Testament.

In this article we concentrate on understanding why and how Paul conducted himself within the diverse cultures of the Roman Empire. We'll gain an overview of the many cultural, educational and religious factors that shaped a powerful servant of God.

When you read the book of Acts and Paul's letters, this perspective can serve as a backdrop and perhaps help you better understand why Paul was "all things to all men" (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Paul's formative years

In the New Testament, more of Paul's writings were preserved than those of any other writer. But who was he? Where did he come from? What was his family background, his education? What did he look like?

Reading a little of the context pertinent to these questions can help us understand God's work with His disciples in general and Paul in particular.

Paul had been a Pharisee, a member of one of the strictest Jewish sects. He considered himself the most zealous, rigorous and careful of all Pharisees.

His given name was Saul, the same as the name of Israel's first king more than 1,000 years earlier. Like that Saul, the apostle, too, was from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. He later became better known by his Roman name, Paul. Many factors in his background-his family, intelligence, hometown, Roman citizenship, education and zeal-appear to have marked him for God's use.

The city of Tarsus, where Paul was brought up, was the capital of Cilicia, then a part of the province of Syria. It was a metropolis of its time and in many senses a free city of the Roman Empire. It was situated on both sides of the cold, rushing River Cydnus, built on a spacious, luxuriant plain bounded by rolling hills. Beyond the hills rose the majestic snow-covered Taurus (not Tarsus) Mountains.

Tarsus was one of the great cities of the empire. The Greek geographer Strabo said that, when it came to philosophy and general education, Tarsus was more illustrious than either Athens or Alexandria. At the crossroads where East meets West, Tarsus was home of major gentile communities as well as a considerable Jewish colony.

Family and education

Paul was not merely a resident of the distinguished city of Tarsus, he was a Roman citizen. "To the Roman his citizenship was his passport in distant lands, his talisman in seasons of difficulties and danger. It shielded him alike from the caprice of municipal law and the injustice of local magistrates" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1986, Vol. 3, "Paul, the Apostle," p. 2273).

Paul's family apparently had not emigrated from Judea to Tarsus a few years before Paul's birth because his ancestors "had been planted in Tarsus as part of a colony with full municipal rights" (ibid.). The Jews' dispersion and subsequent migrations dated back some 500 years, through the successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and finally Rome.

Apparently Paul's family had lived in Tarsus for generations before his birth. His cultural environment outside the Jewish colony in Tarsus was awash in Greek thought and education and ruled by the Romans, who themselves incorporated much Greek culture into their own.

Paul was educated. His schooling probably began in a room attached to a synagogue and culminated in Jerusalem, where he sat at the feet of the renowned Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

The learned Rabban (an eminent title) Gamaliel was Paul's tutor in the law. Gamaliel had a great reputation among all the people of Jerusalem. He showed the capacity to rise above the bigotry of the Pharisees (Acts 5:34-39). Paul's training in Jerusalem under Gamaliel helped equip Paul to serve God.

Paul spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and likely Greek and possibly Latin. "The city [Tarsus] gave him a schooling in his social, political, intellectual, moral, and religious life, but in varying degrees. It was because Tarsus was a cosmopolitan city with 'an amalgamated society' that it possessed the peculiar suitability to educate and mold [Paul's] mind" (ibid.).

Paul was in effect a citizen of the world, equipped to mix with Jew or gentile.

Unimpressive in appearance

What did he look like? Indications are that Paul was not a man of impressive size. His Roman name, Paul, means "little." A secular and unflattering tradition has it that he was bowlegged and short but strongly built, with eyebrows that met over a large nose.

The Bible, however, isn't clear about Paul's physical appearance since God focused more on His servants' spiritual condition, teaching and service. Paul was a giant in those areas.

At Lystra, after Paul's participation in a miraculous healing, the natives took Barnabas for Zeus and Paul for Hermes, because Paul "was the chief speaker" (Acts 14:12). Apparently Barnabas had the more impressive appearance. In Malta the natives first thought Paul was a murderer, then quickly changed their minds, thinking he was a god since he didn't die after a serpent bit him (Acts 28:4-6).

Enemies at Corinth sneered at Paul's bodily presence, which apparently was in contrast to his powerfully written letters (2 Corinthians 10:10). Their reaction to Paul indicates his looks were anything but impressive. Besides his natural appearance, he probably had suffered scars and other disfigurements from his many beatings (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

A thorn in the flesh

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul mentions his "thorn in the flesh," referring to an infirmity, mental or physical, that causes a person trouble. Although Paul doesn't explain what this was, it might have been poor eyesight.

Paul apparently refers to a vision problem in his letter to the Galatians. Perhaps he suffered with deteriorating eyesight: "For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me" (Galatians 4:15).

Later in the same epistle he writes, "See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!" (Galatians 6:11).

Although some argue that "large letters" refers to a long epistle, the original Greek wording denotes sprawling, untidy letters (written by someone who was not a scribe by trade). Also, the letter to the Galatians is not long.

If poor or deteriorating eyesight was the problem Paul alluded to, such a condition must have frustrated him, given his zeal for God and drive to spread the gospel of Christ.

But Paul, with his faith in God and Christ, bore up under his infirmities: "From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Galatians 6:17).

From a spiritual standpoint God was pleased with the way Paul appeared, bruises, scars and all, for God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). Based on the record we have of Paul's life, we can safely say his outward scars showed monumental inward faith in God.

Paul's natural abilities

Paul was known for his zeal. As a young man he was a formidable foe of the early Church. The hard-hitting Pharisee traveled far and wide to bring Christians to Jerusalem for imprisonment, interrogation and even death (Acts 26:10-11).

God, however, had other plans. He channeled Paul's zeal to His service. In God's service Paul served as scholar, sage, statesman, seer and saint. He had heart, imagination, sensitivity and a strong will. He was courageous, sincere, subtle, humorous and tactful. He had vast leadership abilities and a gift of expression.

Paul was a gifted thinker. He examined ideas and opinions logically, often with questions and answers, to determine their validity. He was keenly analytical and an expert expositor of the Scriptures.

His sharp mind caught the attention of many, including rulers and other government officials. Nowhere is this more evident than when he was accused of the Jews while a prisoner in Caesarea (Acts 25-26). During that time he was restrained in bonds, the Jews hoping to have him delivered to their judgment in Jerusalem. Instead, God allowed him a day in court with Felix, the governor, and later with his successor, Festus, as well as King Agrippa and Queen Bernice.

All of these rulers, and especially the latter, were at least partially persuaded to consider the truth of God's Word through Paul's inspired explanations of the Scriptures. It was none other than King Agrippa who replied to Paul's incisive exposition, "You almost persuade me to become a Christian" (Acts 26:28).

Paul's gifts from God

Paul had his share of spiritual gifts, too. He understood prophecy and could explain it well. God granted him visions and other revelations, including a vision of "the third heaven" and God's throne in "Paradise" (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).

God worked miracles by the hands of Paul (Acts 14:8-10; Acts 16:18; Acts 19:11-12; Acts 28:8-9). The apostle even raised a young man to life after he had died in a fall (Acts 20:9-12). Paul was himself unharmed by the bite of a poisonous snake (Acts 28:3-6).

Among Paul's spiritual gifts, few were as dear to him as his calling (Acts 9:15). Paul reported that he had seen the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8).

Paul was also a gifted teacher. He wrote at least 13 epistles that are preserved in the New Testament. His insights give us broad understanding of the rest of the Scriptures and reveal many profound spiritual principles.

When studying Paul's writings we should consider them in the context of the entire Bible. After all, as Jesus said, we are to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4). Many well-meaning Bible students have difficulty properly understanding Paul's writings. One of his contemporaries, the apostle Peter, wrote that Paul's writings were complex and easy to "twist," and some people had come to erroneous and dangerous conclusions because they were unskilled in the truth (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Apostle to the gentiles

A major part of Paul's service to God included his calling as an apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:13; Ephesians 3:8). Although the other apostles carried the gospel primarily to the descendants of the tribes of Israel, Paul was chosen for the huge responsibility of taking God's truth to gentiles.

Most Bible students know that God's truth and the gospel first went to the "Jew" -or, more broadly, to the Israelite-and then to the gentile (Romans 1:16). With Paul, God began to carry out His original intention for all peoples to know Him, His truth and His laws and ultimately to experience God's peace and prosperity. Although relatively few are called and understand His truth now, God's original intent will not come about until Christ returns and establishes the Kingdom of God on earth-when peace will begin to pervade the world (Isaiah 2:2-4; Hebrews 8:10-12; Zechariah 14:8-11).

God specifically chose Paul to begin the work of making all people into spiritual Israelites (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:15-16). God drafted His great plan before He began the age of man on earth (2 Timothy 1:9). God didn't send just anyone to the rest of the world, beyond the scattered nation of Israel. He sent a converted Israelite, skilled in the ways of God, who had grown up in the knowledge and understanding of the gentiles' culture as well as his own.

God used Paul as an instrument to help open doors to gentiles in a much broader way. As a result, all peoples have the opportunity and privilege to become spiritual Israelites. God used Paul, although Paul always acknowledged that the credit went to God.

A faithful servant awaits his crown

The disputes that brought Paul into conflict with Jewish religious and Roman civil authorities, mentioned in the introduction to this article, eventually brought Paul to Rome, the heart of the mighty empire. He wrote several of his epistles while a prisoner there. He was first held under house arrest but was free to receive visitors (Acts 28:16-31). Even under those circumstances he could exercise considerable influence, to the point that some in the emperor's household were converted to Christianity through his teaching (Philippians 4:22).

His captors eventually released him, but he was later imprisoned again. His situation grew increasingly grim as Christians began to experience persecution throughout the empire. This time he was held in prison and sentenced to death.

At one point Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). Later he realized Christ would not return in his day. Yet he was confident that a crown of life was reserved for him, to be given him at his resurrection to eternal life.

Paul's words to Timothy remain a great source of encouragement for Christians of all ages:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:8, NIV).

When you read Paul's letters in the Bible, and the account of his ministry as recorded in the book of Acts, remember this thumbnail sketch of Paul's life and background to better understand why Paul could be all things to all men.

Keep in mind why God chose and used Paul. It was because He knew Paul was capable of remaining a faithful servant to the end: "... He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel" (Acts 9:15).