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Highs and lows of Paul's life

 

Paul (1 of 11)                         Paul who?

 That obnoxious little Pharisee, who viciously persecuted the church, who was knocked to the ground near Damascus, who was stunned by the scolding of the risen Christ, and who was transformed to a passionate advocate of the Way he had tried to eradicate—that’s the one we’re talking about: Paul of Tarsus.

It is not obvious how Luke’s book, the Acts of the Apostles, synchronizes with the letters of Paul. In the next few studies we will detect small clues that may help us solve the puzzle.

1.     Paul was born as Saul into a Jewish family of Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 22:3).

2.     His father was a Roman citizen and a Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin (Acts 22:27-28, 23:6, Phil. 3:5).

3.     As a child, Saul learned the trade of tent-making (Acts 18:3).

4.     Saul apparently went as teenager to live with his sister in Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, 23:16).

5.     He watched and condoned the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58, 8:1).

6.     He became a fanatic persecutor of Christians (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:4-5, 26:9-11).

7.     Unknowingly, he was used in this capacity by God, who inspired the fleeing Christians to disperse the gospel wherever they went, thus accelerating the growth of the church (Acts 8:1-4).

What messages can we retrieve from Paul’s early life?

bullet Although Tarsus was far from mainstream Judaism in Jerusalem, God prepared Paul to be an important instrument in His plan for humanity. Birth-place and birth-family do not disqualify anyone for a meaningful career.
bullet Paul later used his rights as a Roman citizen to protect him against injustice. Paul’s knowledge of the Old Testament he had gained as Pharisee helped him to explain the relationship between the old and the new dispensation to the church of all centuries. Past and present experiences prepare us for future challenges. Even Paul’s tent-making skill came in handy when he had to preach the gospel free of charge.
bullet Watching Stephen’s mob-execution undoubtedly made a deep impression on the young fanatic (Acts 22:20). When Paul was stoned on his first mission journey (Acts 14:19-20), an ordeal he survived by God’s grace, he knew how Stephen must have felt. In his second letter to the Corinthians (6:4-10, 11:22-28), he listed his sufferings for Christ as proof of the authenticity of his message.
bullet Paul despised himself for persecuting the church of Christ when he was a young fanatic Pharisee. He calls himself “the worst of sinners” (1Tim.1:12-15). However, instead of drowning in self-blame, he used this negative of his life to highlight the positive of God’s grace. If the worst of sinners could find mercy, then nobody is too vile to be saved.
bullet Questions: Is there something in your past that holds you back from committing yourself to Christ? Do you use your great sin as an excuse for not accepting Jesus as your Savior? Have you thought that your hometown or family is so insignificant that you will never be a success? Gideon also tried this excuse unsuccessfully (Judges 6:14-16). When looking back, can you see how one phase of your life prepared you for the next?

 

Paul (2 of 11)              Behind the Façade

 There was a time in Paul’s life when things beneath the surface were not as good as those on the surface. Paul confessed to the church in Ephesus that he too had lived in sin: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world … All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph. 2:1-3). He described to the Roman church his struggle between willing and doing: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).

Bible scholars disagree on the time in Paul’s life when he lived in sin. Was it in his childhood in Tarsus or during his study in Jerusalem or when he persecuted the church or during a decade of obscurity after his conversion?

Paul gave subtle clues in his letters.

(1) His confession to the Ephesians speaks of living according the cravings of the sinful nature—going all out for the wrong. There was still no conflict between right and wrong. Maybe he had a wicked childhood in Tarsus and was sent by his father to a strict Pharisee school in Jerusalem in the hope that the study of the law would help to change his ways.

(2) It was probably in Jerusalem he became aware that his desires were in conflict with God’s law: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every form of covetous desire.” Now he had inner conflict about right and wrong: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:7, 8, 15). As Pharisee, Paul thought he was perfect (on the outside, Phil. 3:6), but deep inside he knew he could not keep God’s law of love perfectly (Gal. 2:21). This inner conflict could have been part of his kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14).

(3) This conflict did not end when he converted to Christianity. In several of his letters, Paul referred to the conflict between the old and new self in Christians (Gal. 5, Eph. 4, Col. 3). In The Yeast of Yerushalaim (p163), I summarized the reasons why Romans 7 describes Paul’s struggle as a Christian: “First, he speaks of himself here in the present tense, not in the past tense as he does when referring to his past (Acts 22 and 26, 2 Cor. 11:24-25, 1 Tim. 1:13). Second, he thought of himself as perfect when he was a Pharisee, not in conflict between good and evil (Phil. 3:6, Gal. 1:14). Third, he is now addressing brethren (Rom. 7:1, 4) and will come to the Jews in chapters 9 to 11. Fourth, Paul has already dealt with Law and grace in chapters 1 to 5. In chapters 6 to 8, he explains two fruits of salvation by grace: (a) Regarding justification, he says we are dead to sin. (b) Regarding sanctification, he says we are still in the process of crucifying the old nature.”

Many Christians have experienced an increase of carnal desires during or after periods of intense spiritual devotion and study. The closer we come to God, the more the devil attacks us. From the viewpoint of Freud’s personality theory it is feasible that a loaded superego frustrates the lower drives, which then try to restore the balance between conscience and drives.

Questions: How do you handle the inner conflict between the old and the new self? Do you live a double life—respectable on the outside but vile on the inside? If Paul could be saved and changed, is anyone too sinful for that?

 

Paul (3 of 11)      The Arrested Man-hunter

Paul commented with sincere regret on his relentless persecution of the church when he was still known as Saul. Authorized by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Saul and his helpers  arrested Christian men and women, chained and incarcerated them, charged them in synagogues, forced them to blaspheme Jesus, and executed some of them (Acts 7:58, 8:1, 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:4-5, 26:9-11, 1Tim.1:12-15). According to Luke, Saul breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, making havoc of the church.

When he learned that fleeing Christians dispersed the gospel wherever they went, he decided to go after them and eradicate this sect before it infested the whole world. Thus he got the necessary papers to proceed with his dirty work north of Israel as far as Damascus. He did not think for a moment he would be arrested by the very Person he was persecuting (Acts 9, 22, and 26).

It was noon, near Damascus. He and his party already saw the city. In excited anticipation, they pressed on with zeal. The important Mr. Saul of Tarsus was probably riding on a horse or mule. Suddenly there was a blinding light and a deafening clap of thunder from a cloudless sky. As his frightened horse reeled, Saul landed with a thud on the ground, face in the dirt. The blinding light kept glaring, and a loud voice spoke from above, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul’s trembling answer revealed his total confusion, “Who are you, Lord?” If he knew it was the Lord, why ask who the Lord was? He thought he served the Lord; now he learned that he persecuted the Lord. Were there several Lords?

All uncertainty evaporated when the voice said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Paul looked up and saw the glorified Christ (Acts 9:17, 1 Cor. 9:1). There was no room for further doubts—he knew: “Jesus is the Christ and He has appeared to me.”

The blinding vision took away his sight. The former esteemed leader of the Jerusalem Inquisition had to be lead into Damascus by hand like a blind beggar. He couldn’t see a thing. The darkness enveloping him symbolized the spiritual darkness he had been living in. But the moment he heard and saw Christ his spirit was reborn. His eyes could not see, but his mind was illuminated. He began to understand the Old Testament prophesies with new perspective. The man who tried viciously to exterminate the Christian faith would henceforth be its most vocal advocate.

Paul’s conversion near Damascus had a profound impact on him and on the church through the centuries. His conversion demonstrated how God can change the hardest heart in a moment. Of course, few people have experienced such a dramatic conversion as Paul had. God works with every person in a unique way. For many people conversion is a gradual process from planting the seed to reaping the fruit. Paul might have resisted God in his conscience for some time. Maybe that’s why Jesus said to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The phrase refers to a kicking young ox that has not yet submitted to its trainer. In his resistance, he is only hurting himself. However, when Paul surrendered to his Master, like a trained ox, he became a useful instrument in the hand of the Almighty.

Questions: Why does the admission of one’s mistake not cause self-destruction but self-fulfillment? (For example: when the sinner admits he’s lost, and when the alcoholic admits he’s powerless against alcohol).

 

Paul (4 of 11)                Preparation for a ministry

A Christian is not an island. After his conversion, Saul of Tarsus had to become part of the church so that he could eventually become Paul the apostle. God called a Christian, named Ananias, to visit Paul. Knowing Paul’s reputation, Ananias was at first apprehensive about this assignment. When God informed him about Paul’s future task, Ananias submitted himself to God’s will. Ananias appeared on stage only for this occasion, yet he is forever remembered as the one who introduced the later famous Paul to the church.

First, God laid Ananias’ trembling hands on Saul’s head to remove his blindness. Then God used Ananias to lead Saul to baptism, showing his sins have been washed off, his old self had died, and his new self had risen. Next, Saul was introduced to the church in Damascus. He and Ananias told the congregation what had happened to him, and they welcomed him as one of them. Saul wanted to share his testimony with everybody, so he preached the gospel in the synagogues and convinced some Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.

God knew He still had to remove some rough edges before Saul could be a useful instrument to Him. Therefore, God put the need for meditation into Saul’s heart and sent him to Arabia. In this time God revealed to him the full meaning of the gospel and how it relates to the Old Testament. We don’t know how long he stayed in Arabia—quality of time is more important than quantity. He said he returned to Damascus (proceeding with his work), and three years (after his conversion) he went to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:11-17). The Jews wanted to kill him and persuaded the authorities to prevent his escape by guarding the city gates. Fellow Christians help him escape overnight by lowering him from the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25, 2 Cor. 11:32-33).

Despite Saul’s good standing in Damascus, Christians in Jerusalem did not believe that the fanatic persecutor had changed his ways. They probably feared it was a new trick to sniff out Christians for punishment. Only Barnabas, who knew of Saul’s conversion and ministry in Damascus, believed Saul, and introduced him to the apostles (Acts 9:26-28). Saul stayed with them for two weeks (Gal 1:18-19). He reasoned with the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews), showing from scripture that Jesus is the Messiah. In this time, Saul had a vision in the temple where the Lord told him to flee from Jerusalem (Acts 22:17-21). Some of the brothers accompanied him to Caesarea and send him off to Tarsus (Acts 9:28-30).

For about a decade Saul disappeared from the biblical record. However, during those years of obscurity he was not idle. Using Tarsus as home-base, he apparently spread the gospel in the region of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41). Christians in Judea rejoiced when they learned the former persecutor kept proclaiming the good news of salvation in Christ (Gal. 2:21-24). Some experiences in Saul’s life, omitted by Luke, took place in this period. In his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11), Paul referred to floggings and shipwrecks not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. It was in this time Saul had the vision of heaven (2 Cor. 12). God was preparing Saul for his great task as missionary to the Gentiles.

Many Christians have similar experiences after they accepted Christ as Savior. Rejection may come in the form of persecution from former friends, and as doubting from fellow Christians. Trusting in God alone is the only option.

Question: Are you fruitful in your obscurity? What is the best way to respond to teasing and persecution by the world? How can you convince skeptical Christians of your sincerity?

 

Paul (5 of 11)           Called to a daunting task 

Greek speaking Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene brought the gospel to Greeks living at Antioch in Syria. The news of many conversions reached the apostles in Jerusalem. They sent Barnabas, a native from Cyprus, to help the new church getting on its feet. He assessed the situation and realized that Saul of Tarsus was the ideal person to minister to this non-Jewish church. Knowing the culture and language of both Greeks and Jews, Saul was well equipped.

Saul and Barnabas, assisted by their friends from Cyprus and Cyrene, ministered to the church at Antioch for a year. It was here that followers of Christ were first called Christians. When Saul and Barnabas brought a gift from the daughter church at Antioch to the mother church at Jerusalem, John Mark returned with them to Antioch. After praying and fasting, the leaders of the Antioch church were persuaded by the Holy Spirit to take the light of the gospel to regions still in spiritual darkness. Saul and Barnabas were chosen for the task, and they took Mark along as helper. The Antioch-model (missionaries sent out by the local church) became the benchmark for the church of all centuries.

In Paphos, on the west coast of Cyprus, God prepared their first triumph. While the governor of that region was quite interested in the teaching of the travelers, his magician, named Bar Jesus, was totally against Jesus Christ. The Spirit took hold of Saul to strike the magician with blindness, symbolizing the darkness in which the magician lived and manifesting the power of the Christ he despised. The governor’s conversion to Christianity is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that Paphos was a major center for Aphrodite worship. In Paphos, Saul of Tarsus changed his name to Paul. After the victory over the magician, Paul was now taking the role of leader.

They sailed from Paphos to Perga. Paul might have contracted malaria and decided to move to high country (Gal. 4:13). When Mark left them, probably returning to Jerusalem where his mother lived (Acts 12:12), Paul saw Mark’s decision as letting them down, and held it later against him (Acts 15:38). As they traveled through Galatia from Antioch to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, history repeated itself. Despite the initial favorable response of some Jews and Gentiles, other Jews and Gentiles stirred up trouble, forcing them to flee to the next place. At Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Christians nursed him back to life. Among them was Timothy, who later became Paul’s co-worker (Acts 16:1-3).

Although the road away from the trouble (over Tarsus to Antioch in Syria) was the shortest, Paul and Barnabas decided to go back on their tracks to support the believers in the very cities they had been persecuted. They knew they had some unfinished business in those cities: they had to flee for their lives, and did not have the time to appoint elders and get the church established. This task they completed under God’s caring hand without persecution.

They returned via Perga to the church that sent them out on the first missionary journey. They reported about the good news of salvation and about the bad news of persecution. The missionaries and the local church were empowered by this reaching out to unsaved Jews and Gentiles. This learning experience laid the foundation for all missions of the future.

Questions: Why is it important for both church and missionary to stay in touch with one another? How did Paul see persecution? (Acts 21:13, 2 Cor. 4, 6, 11). In view of the fact that Mark later wrote the first gospel and that Paul later asked for his help (2 Tim. 4:11), do you think Paul misjudged Mark’s true character?

 

Paul (6 of 11)                  The Battle for Truth 

Families and businesses fight external and internal threats to their wellbeing continuously. The church uses the same strategy relentlessly. On his first missionary journey, Paul suffered attacks from outside the church. When he returned to the church that had sent him into the mission field, he had to fight against heresies inside the church.

While Paul and Barnabas were ministering in the Antioch church, a few Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem, demanding that Gentile Christians should be circumcised. They saw Christianity as part of Judaism, and that the first had to be controlled by the latter. Knowing that he was not saved by his strict Judaism but by God’s grace in Christ, Paul immediately rejected the legalistic approach of the visitors from Jerusalem. Heated arguments ensued but no one could prove or disprove viewpoints on this matter with Old Testament authority. They decided to send a delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem to obtain authoritative guidance from the apostles.

As they traveled southward, they visited local churches, informing them of the rich harvest brought in from the Gentiles. The churches rejoiced with them. In Jerusalem, they first told the apostles about the fruits of their missionary journey, and then faced a larger church council which included the apostles, elders, the circumcision supporters, and the delegation from Antioch. James, the brother of Jesus, apparently acted as chair-person.

After both sides stated their case, Peter reminded the meeting how God used him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and how they received the Holy Spirit just as the apostles on Pentecost. These early Gentile Christians were not circumcised but baptized.

As the meeting fell silent, pondering the evidence, James quoted from the Old Testament to show that God promised salvation to the Gentiles long ago. He suggested a compromise by acknowledging salvation through grace alone on the one hand, and by observing four rules that would facilitate socializing between Jewish and Gentile Christians on the other hand. All Christians should avoid immorality, food offered to idols, eating blood, and eating animals that did not bleed out. The meeting concurred and decided to send the resolution in writing and in person to all local churches.

Paul has won an important victory for the church of centuries to come. The Jerusalem Decree of AD 50 exempted Gentile Christians from keeping the Law of Moses. It freed Christianity from the control of Judaism. The decision did not forbid Jewish Christians to observe Jewish law, but made it clear that both Gentile and Jewish Christians were saved by grace and not by works.

Without Paul’s fervent defense of salvation by grace through faith the Jerusalem meeting probably never would have taken place. However, without the support of Peter and James, Paul probably would not have pulled it off (Gal. 2:9).

For the rest of his life, Paul proclaimed this message with vigor and eloquence. Thanks to the controversy, this truth came out all the more brilliant. Especially in his letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, Paul explained the truth of salvation by grace through faith deeply but clearly. Long before the first gospel was written, this truth was firmly established in the early church. Anybody who leans toward salvation through good works should just read Romans 3, Galatians 2, and Ephesians 2 again to be cured of this folly.

Questions: Do you stand up for the truth of the gospel?

 

Paul (7 of 11)                   Pruning the Ego

 Success easily inflates the ego. After Paul’s victory for the gospel in Jerusalem, two incidents point to the possibility that he was suffering from big ego syndrome. God would prune him back to size.

Despite Peter’s defense of the gospel of grace at the Jerusalem meeting, he avoided Gentile Christians in Antioch when some legalistic brothers arrived from Jerusalem. Paul saw that as a violation of the Jerusalem Decree. Maybe Paul was right or maybe Peter just wanted to discuss some matters with these visitors. However, it was Paul’s cocky attitude toward Peter that revealed the flaw in Paul’s personality. Instead of first discussing the matter privately with Peter (as Jesus commanded – Matt. 18:15-17), Paul attacked Peter in public—the person who backed Paul up at the Jerusalem Council—portraying Peter as ignorant about the ABC of the gospel. Paul recorded this episode in one of his letters. He did not tell us how Peter reacted (Gal. 2:11-16). Peter later said some nice things about Paul in one of his letters, showing that he held no grudges (2 Pet. 3:14-16).

Paul also picked a fight with his long-time friend Barnabas. They agreed it was time to revisit the churches they had planted on the first journey, but when Barnabas wanted to take Mark along, Paul rejected the idea. Paul still had a grudge against Mark for leaving them on the first journey. Instead of discussing the matter with Mark, giving him the opportunity for apology and forgiveness, Paul was so persistent that it caused a breach between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Luke recorded this incident right before Paul’s next journey.

These episodes confirm that Paul needed to crucify his old cocky self. Luke describes in Acts 16 how Paul’s big ego was pruned by events God brought over his path. The man who had vehemently opposed circumcision for non-Jews now had to circumcise Timothy to please the Jews (though Timothy was legally not a Jew because his father was Greek). Peter would have frowned with a smile.

Paul suffered the next come-down when they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. Forbidden to preach? It must have been quite a shock for the vocal Paul. Note that their journey was not without blessing, but Paul had been put on a leash. Like a dog, he had to sit when his Master say “sit!”

Pulling on his leash, Paul tried to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. Paul had to learn that not he but God determined the agenda. In Troas his Master made him lie down in sickness. How else would he have met Luke, a Greek physician? Luke gave a subtle clue of this meeting between him and Paul by writing about “we” from Acts 16:10. While Luke attended to Paul’s body, Paul worked on Luke’s soul. Both were successful.

In a vision, God showed the way—to Macedonia. When they arrived in Philippi, Paul’s ego was further pruned. Only a few women listened to him. When he drove the evil spirit from a slave girl, he and Silas were severely beaten with rods and thrown into the dungeon, their feet clamped in stocks. Mister Big had become mister small. With his old self crucified, Paul was a useful instrument to lead the jailor to Christ. Persecution in Thessalonica and Berea kept Paul’s ego trimmed. The poor response of the intellectual Athenians to his speech on the Areopagus (Acts 17) sent Paul humbly on his way to Corinth, the most licentious city in the Roman Empire. He was now ready for a meaningful ministry for eighteen months, the longest time he stayed in one place up to that point.

Question: When was the last time your ego reared like an aroused cobra? Can you think of an occasion when you won an argument but hurt a friend?

 

A novel  THE BROKEN SPEAR  Now Available. It begins in Corinth at the time Paul arrives there with the gospel. It goes to Africa and ends in Rome. The characters come to grips with Jesus in violent circumstances.

 

Paul (8 of 11)        The holy gospel in a sinful city

Corinth was ideally placed on the east/west and north/south trade routes. The city sat on the narrow isthmus that linked the Peloponnesian peninsula to mainland Greece. The trip around the peninsula was so hazardous that most seafarers preferred to unload their cargo at Corinth’s east or west harbor, transport the goods by wagons to the other side of the land-bridge, load it on another ship and proceed to the destination. Smaller ships were hauled over the four mile wide isthmus by trolleys that ran on a paved road called the Diolkos.

By day, the harbors and roads buzzed with Corinth’s lucrative transport business, and by night, the taverns and brothels took much of the earned money by providing recreation to rowdy sailors and workers. Even in other parts of the empire, a person with a wild life-style was labeled a “Corinthian.” To this place Paul brought the holy gospel. (Click on Corinth button to view pictures of ancient Corinth).

Luke only tells us about Paul’s preaching in and eviction from the synagogue, his vision, and his trial at the Bema (Acts 18). Paul wrote four letters at Corinth (1 & 2 Thessalonians, Romans, and Galatians), and four to Corinth from Ephesus. Only two letters to Corinth survived: 1 & 2 Corinthians. His captivity letters were written in Rome (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon), and two pastoral letters after his release (1 Timothy and Titus). He wrote his last letter (2 Timothy) during his second captivity in Rome, shortly before his execution.

As one can see in Paul’s letters to them, the Corinth church was Paul’s problem child. Yet, in Paul’s biography, Corinth played a vital role. In Corinth he became a writer. His writing was born from need, not from brilliant insight into the power of the pen. Persecution had forced Paul to flee from Thessalonica in a hurry. There was a lot of unfinished business. He sent Timothy to them. He returned to Paul with questions about the end time from the new church. To strengthen Timothy’s hand, Paul put his answers in writing so there could be no misunderstanding about the issues addressed.

While Paul worked in Ephesus for three years on his third journey, the church in Corinth sent delegations to him, asking for guidance on pressing problems in that church. Bits and pieces of information in the Corinthian letters show that Paul probably wrote four letters to them (1 Cor. 5:9-11, 2 Cor. 2:4, 7:8), and that Timothy, Paul, and Titus each paid the troubled church a personal visit (1 Cor. 16:10-11, 2 Cor.2:1, 12:14, 13:1, 7:6-7, 8:12). When the Corinth congregation responded favorably to Paul’s pleading, guidance, and admonitions, he was overjoyed: “You have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all my troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Cor. 7:3-4).

 On Paul’s third journey, he over-wintered in Corinth for three months (Acts 20:1-3), where he probably wrote Galatians and Romans. By this time Paul must have realized the impact his letters had on congregations. The Corinthian church would have received copies of Galatians and Romans. The aging apostle also noted with delight the fruitful work his assistants, Timothy and Titus, were doing. Later each of them received a letter from Paul, showing the way to these young pastors and to many who would follow them in centuries to come. Corinth gave the opportunity to train new leaders of the church. God used the sinful city to make great contributions to the development of Christianity.

Questions: Is your surroundings too sinful for winning souls and planting churches? How can the written word spread the good news in the electronic age?

 

Paul (9 of 11)            Mounting Opposition (Acts 19-26)

 When Paul left Corinth after his eighteen month ministry, Aquila and Priscilla accompanied him to Ephesus where they stayed while Paul proceeded to Jerusalem and Antioch in Syria. Once again he reported to the church that had sent him on his second mission. As he traveled on land back to Ephesus (his third mission), he visited the Galatian churches he planted on his first journey.

Paul’s extended stays at Antioch and Corinth made him see the fruits of longer periods of ministry at one place. He taught “the whole will of God” for two years in the school of Tyrannus at Ephesus. Apparently, Paul sent his students out to surrounding areas to proclaim the gospel and plant churches (Acts 19:9-10, 20:31, Col. 1:7, 2:1, 4:12-13). Establishing his headquarters in Ephesus with its famous Diana temple was bound to cause confrontation sooner or later.

The healing miracles Paul performed spurred some sorcerers to expel an evil spirit in the name of Jesus and Paul. The demoniac viciously attacked the sorcerers, who fled for their lives, severely injured. The incident shocked the community to such an extent that many believed in Christ, burned their sorcery scrolls, and boosting the growth of the church.

 As the church prospered, the Diana worship declined, harming the business of the silversmiths who made and sold replicas of the Diana temple. One of the smiths, Demetrius, stirred up an anti-Paul pro-Diana demonstration, which got the whole city in uproar. People streamed to the amphitheater, where they shouted for hours. Realizing the people were fired up enough to kill the opposition, church members withheld Paul from addressing the agitated crowd, and advised him to leave Ephesus for a while.

While Paul was in Macedonia, Titus arrived with the good news that the church of Corinth got their house in order. Delighted, Paul wrote his fourth letter (2 Corinthians), commending them for their cooperation, and addressing the problem of the Judaists, who wanted to force Mosaic Law on Christianity. When Paul arrived in person at Corinth a few months later, the Judaists moved to Galatia where they tried to infest the church with their heresy. That spurred Paul to write his bold letter about “salvation by grace alone” to the Galatian churches. He followed it up by his letter to the Romans, which was a more comprehensive thesis about Christian theology.

When Paul was about to leave Corinth for Syria, he learned about a Jewish plot to kill him on the way. He changed his traveling plans and returned to Macedonia, accompanied by several helpers who protected him and the money he gathered in Corinth for the poor in Jerusalem. On his way, Paul addressed the churches he had planted in Philippi, Troas, and the elders of Ephesus. As they sailed along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean See, they met with Christians in several harbors. They warned Paul that suffering awaits him in Jerusalem.

When he arrived there, the Judaists saw Paul in the temple and stirred the crowd up to kill him. From the Fortress of Antonia, north of the temple, Roman soldiers saw the riot and intervened, saving Paul’s life. The commander allowed Paul to address the crowd from the steps of the fortress. They listened to Paul’s testimony to a point and then became even more agitated. When Paul’s nephew informed the commander about a plot to kill Paul on the way to the Sanhedrin, the commander sent Paul with a strong guard to Caesarea, where he was held in custody for two years before he was sent by ship to Rome.

Question: How do you take opposition and persecution?

 

Paul (10 of 11)                The gains of losses 

Looking at Paul’s captivity (Acts 21-28), there was not much gain in shackling this eager worker of God—or was there? Unobtrusively, Luke started writing about “we” again when Paul reached Philippi, and continued with that until they reached Jerusalem (Acts 20:6, 21:15). When Paul was sent to Rome two years later, Luke resumed writing about “we” (Acts 27:1).

Was Luke in Israel all that time, and if so, what did he do? The first sentence of Luke’s gospel gives the answer: while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, Luke stayed on in Israel, doing research for his gospel by contacting eye- and ear-witnesses who had seen and heard Jesus personally. Thus Luke discovered many events and sayings that are not described by earlier versions of the gospel such as Mark and Matthew. Luke 1:1 probably refers to them.

To a great extent, Matthew only added the speeches of Jesus to Mark’s gospel. Luke, however, put everything in his own words, even when he described events also recorded by Mark and Matthew. About 40% of Luke’s gospel was new material, especially the Perean ministry of Jesus (Luke 10-19). Luke’s angle was also different: while Mark depicted Jesus as King by accentuating his mighty deeds, and Matthew painted him as Prophet by highlighting his wise words, Luke presented Jesus as Priest by stressing his prayers and healing miracles.

If Paul was not imprisoned in Israel, Luke’s gospel might never have been written. Paul’s loss of freedom enabled Luke to gather eye-witness material for his book that gave us so much more—such as the Christmas story.

Luke’s writing inspired Paul to resume his as well. Paul was not in a prison during his first captivity in Rome. He lived in a rented house, though he was chained to a Roman soldier day and night (Acts 28:30-31, Phil. 1:12-13). From there Paul wrote the precious letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and to Philemon. In these friendly letters, Paul touched deep theological truths.

In one long sentence (Eph. 1:1-14), Paul urges the Ephesians to rejoice with him about the salvation made possible by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He says that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith, which are both gifts of God (Eph. 2:8-10). He shows the unity of the church despite the variety of ministries. He urged members to crucify the old self and develop the new self (Eph. 2-4). He addresses family life and describes the full armor of God (Eph. 5-6).

Written and dispatched at the same time, the letter to the Colossians covers the same terrain as Ephesians. The preeminence of Christ is eloquently reiterated (Col. 1:13-23, 2:9). Paul shows the contrast between the gospel (salvation by grace, Col. 1:23) and religion (salvation by works, Col. 2:23). He also refers to the old and new self, and spells out the basics for family life.

Paul assures the Philippians that God will complete the good work he had started in them. He tells them that God used his captivity to bring the gospel to many in the Praetorium Guard. He pleads for unity in the congregation, pointing to Christ’s humiliation and glorification. He reminds them that all his Jewish credentials could not save him. Saved by Christ, he forgets the past and strives for his goals in the future. He can do all things through Christ who empowers him.

Paul asks his friend Philemon to forgive Onesimus, his deserter slave, who became a Christian in Rome. It says a lot about employer/employee relationships and about the freeing of slaves.

Question: Can you remember occasions in your life when God turned a loss into a gain? Have you changed problems into challenges and victories?

 

Paul (11 of 11)                      Passing on the torch

Nobody showed up from Jerusalem to accuse Paul at Caesar’s bench, so after two years the case was dismissed. Paul’s enemies probably gloated that they have put him away for four years but they did not realize how God turned his temporary loss of freedom into salvation for millions through Luke’s gospel and Paul’s captivity letters.

The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul’s captivity in Rome and tells nothing about Paul’s release. However, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus reveals that Paul had been in Ephesus and Crete where he left these young pastors to continue with the work he had started. Paul realized that his time for ministering in person to the churches was coming to an end, so he had to equip his younger assistants to proceed with the ongoing task of feeding the flock.

Most likely, Paul meant these pastoral letters to be read in the churches in order to strengthen the hands of the young pastors. He gave directions how these pastors should behave toward old and young, and how they should choose members of the church for offices such as elder, deacon, and women’s groups. He warns them against pitfalls like useless argumentation about genealogies, and shows the positive things they should do for the church’s edification. Paul stressed the power of the inspired Word of God and admonished his successors to preach it faithfully. Paul painted a picture of the apostasy the church could expect in the end time. He also included some wise words about money.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the last letter he wrote, was obviously born in prison. He was arrested again and this time prospects were bleak. With deep disappointment he mentions former friends who have failed him. He was depressed in the cold dungeon. He pleads with Timothy to come to him in a hurry and to bring him some warmer clothing. He asks that Mark come to him too. The only other loyal friend was Luke the beloved physician.

Despite Paul’s low mood, his spirit soared when he thought about the fruitful life behind him and the glorious life ahead of him: “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 me on that day” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

Nero had increased his persecution of Christians. The devastating fire in Rome, which the deranged emperor himself set off, he conveniently blamed on Christians. It gave him ample excuse to make a spectacle of them in the arena by burning them alive or casting them to the lions. Paul was one of their leaders but he could not treat him the same way because Paul was a Roman citizen. The least painful execution was reserved for citizens: beheading with a sword. Okay, so remove the head of this unrest instigator!

They took Paul from the dungeon, roughing him up pretty well, read the sentence issued by the emperor, and took him to the burial site for executed convicts along the Apia Road. When beheaded, the convict’s body fell into the grave and caused the least effort to the soldiers. One mighty slash of the sharp, heavy sword ended the life that started with error but ended with devotion. In a moment, Paul’s own words became a wonderful reality: Absent from the body, present with the Lord! (2 Cor. 5:8, NKJV).

Question: Preparing the younger generation to take over responsibilities from the older folks may have pros and cons: the younger people may push the older people out prematurely or the older people may not realize that their way of thinking has become outdated amidst new developments. How do you see it?

 

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