The apostle Paul remains such a gift to the church. His testimony of conversion and fruitful ministry is still bearing fruit. But there remains a tension of distancing him from ourselves. On the one hand, we can be tempted to exalt him to a place unfitting for him as a man and brother in Christ. But in another sense, his writings can be dismissed as less than authoritative because they’re written by a man (That’s just Paul being Paul). This isn’t fitting for him as an apostle.
It’s helpful to remember and praise God for how he has influenced the church and the world through the ministry of the apostle Paul.
Paul the Man
We don’t know the exact date of birth for Paul, but most people estimate that it was within a decade of Jesus’s birth. And he died as a martyr in Rome in the mid-’60s. His birth name was Saul, and he grew up in a city called Tarsus, which is in south-central Turkey. He was a faithful Israelite of Hebrew ancestry and received training from a chief rabbi, Gamaliel.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church began to multiply significantly. Saul was a passionate opponent of Christianity, spending his energy attempting to extinguish this newly kindled flame. He was directly involved in violent persecution. He stood by and watched Stephen’s murder, and Acts says he ravaged the church (Acts 8).
But then one day, it all changed. Saul was making the 150-mile trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, with legal authority to hunt down any Christians he could find (Acts 9). As he trekked forward to arrest these Christians, Saul was arrested by Christ! He was struck blind and heard a heavenly voice calling him to follow him. And he did.
As he trekked forward to arrest these Christians Saul was arrested by Christ!
From this point, his life completely changed. The man who went about killing Christians now went out trying to make Christians. He began going by the name Paul, which means “little one.” Many people say this name reflected not only his small stature but also his new humble position in Christ. He was content to be a little man used in a big way. He became a significant missionary and church planter, indeed a leading figure in the not only the history of the church but also of the history of the world.
We would do well to consider Paul’s story. It’s quite compelling and encouraging.
It reminds us of the power of God, to convert such a rebel and make him an ambassador. Think of the person you know who seems furthermost from Christ. They are not out of reach.
But it also reminds us of the love of God. Paul had caused great harm to God’s people and lived with violent hostilely to God. God loved him and called him to himself. Perhaps you think God could not love you because of something you have done or what you have thought about God. Let Paul be an abiding example to you. Don’t quickly forget his story.
Paul the Apostle
In passages, like Ephesians 1:1, we read that Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.
Think about how he got to this place as an apostle. Paul says he is serving in this way by the will of God. Paul’s emphasizing the fact that he did not choose this call, nor did he appoint himself. Just like his conversion, this apostleship is a result of God’s sovereign work. Paul neither asked for the job nor applied for it. No, he was divinely drafted for the role. It was God’s imitating work.
The word apostle strictly speaking means one who is sent. In the New Testament, the word is used in an unofficial and an official sense.
Unofficially, there are apostles or people who are sent out by churches to serve as representative (e.g. Phil. 2:25, 2 Cor. 8:23). The word is used in this unofficial, broad sense 80 times in the New Testament.
But in the official sense, the New Testament refers to an office. And the best way to remember this is that the apostles have authority. When you think apostle think authority. They are ambassadors sent to speak and act on behalf of the sending party. Here we see Paul referring to himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. That is, he is sent out on behalf of Jesus. He comes with his authority.
Some today claim to have this apostolic authority. But the New Testament forbids this based upon the fact that the apostles had a foundational role (Eph. 2:20). And, they had a unique set of qualifications. They had to be an eyewitness of the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor.. 9:1, and 15:6-9). But merely seeing the risen Christ did not make someone an apostle, for many saw him after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6) and weren’t apostles. Apostles in the official sense had to be called and commissioned by Christ. (If someone means an apostle is someone who is sent out by churches as representatives, then I have no quibble with them technically, but I do think the word choice is confusing. Most people today think of apostle in the official sense.)
Putting this together then, the writings of Paul in the New Testament are not like any other letter sent by and to someone. They are letters to churches and people from an apostle. They come with the authority of Jesus himself.
Sometimes Bible translations put the words of Jesus in red. When we read the Gospel accounts, we can see where the narrator is speaking and where Jesus is speaking. But this might make you think that the words of the rest of the NT don’t have the same weight to them. The words in black don’t have the same authority as the words in red. But the biblical concept of apostle helps us to see that the words in black have just the same weight as the words in red. They are all God’s words. Paul is an apostle writing and speaking, but it is as if Jesus Christ himself is talking to his church.
The biblical concept of apostle helps us to see that the words in black have just the same weight as the words in red. Paul is an apostle writing and speaking but it’s as if Jesus Christ himself is talking to his church.
We need to keep in mind who we are talking about with apostle Paul. In one sense there is a tremendous encouragement in God saving such a rebel—just like us. At the same time, he’s the beloved apostle who wrote with divine authority. We must be sure we give the proper biblical weight to his words. We must relate to him as a brother and fellow member in Christ’s church, but with the recognition that his inscripturated writings have divine authority.