Paul: Background and Call
One of the most central figures in the New Testament was Paul, originally Saul of Tarsus. Paul was to the early Christian church what Moses was to the children of Israel. The difference is that while Moses brought God’s people out from the Gentiles in order that Israel would be able to do God’s will, Paul brought God’s Word from Israel to the Gentiles in order that the Gentiles could do the same; that is, to do God’s will.
More is known about Paul than any other first-century Christian. He is especially remembered for his significant contributions that have influenced Christian outreach during the past two millennia. His missionary visits and activities to the nations around the Mediterranean Sea set a powerful example for Christian missions in coming generations.
Paul is credited with lifting biblical absolutes from their Jewish culture, where civil, ritual, and moral laws were so integrated into the fabric of Jewish life that there was hardly any distinction between the Jewish custom and what they thought was God’s everlasting message to the nations.
This week we will take our first look at someone who, other than Jesus Himself, is thought by many to be the most important figure in the New Testament.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 12.
Saul was born in Tarsus, an important town on the trade route between Syria and western Asia (Acts 22:3). Tarsus was a multicultural center of industry and learning and home for a short time to Rome’s most famous orator and senator, Cicero.
Saul’s parents were Diaspora Jews (Jews who were not living in the land of Israel) from the tribe of Benjamin. His birth name was Saul (Hebrew sha’ul, “asked for [of God]”)—though, after he began his mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:9), he took the name Paul (Latin Paulus, name of a prominent Roman family). Also, since he was a Pharisee, Paul probably had a wife, though we know nothing about her. In fact, we don’t know much about his family at all, though a sister and a nephew are mentioned (Acts 23:16). Paul was also a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25–28).
Saul was probably educated in a synagogue school in Tarsus until 12 years of age, followed by rabbinic study in Jerusalem with the famous Rabban (this honorary title meant “our rabbi”) Gamaliel (vs. 3). Like most Jewish males, he learned a trade—in his case, tent making (Acts 18:3).
As already stated, Paul was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5). The Pharisees (meaning “separated ones”) were known for insisting that all the laws of God, both those written in the books of Moses, as well as those handed down verbally by generations of scribes, were binding on all Jews. Their strict patriotism and detailed obedience to Jewish laws could make them appear to their fellow Jews as hypocritical and judgmental. Paul, however, did not hide the fact that he and his father were Pharisees (Acts 23:6).
Paul’s pharisaic background was an important element in his successful missionary work for both Jews and Gentiles. It equipped him with detailed knowledge of the Old Testament, the only Scriptures available to early Christians. It also acquainted him with the scribal additions to, and expansions of, the Old Testament laws. He was thus the apostle best qualified to discern between timeless, Scripture-based divine absolutes on the one hand and later Jewish cultural additions, which were not binding, and which therefore could be ignored by Gentile followers of Jesus. As we have seen, this issue would become a very important one in the life of the early church. Today, too, the role of culture in the church creates issues for the church to address.
Personality traits are an individual’s typical responses to surrounding domestic, cultural, or educational circumstances. Character is the combination of traits, qualities, and abilities that make up what sort of person an individual is.
Paul was clearly a man of great conviction and zeal. Before his born-again experience, he used his zeal to persecute the early church. He supported the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58), took the initiative in imprisoning Christian women, as well as men (Acts 8:3), made murderous threats against the disciples (Acts 9:1), and organized a raid on Christians in a foreign country (Acts 9:2, Gal. 1:13).
At the same time, too, we can see how Paul’s zeal and fervency were to be used for good, as he dedicated his life to the preaching of the gospel, despite incredible hardships and challenges. Only a man totally dedicated to what he believed would have done as he did. And though he lost all things for Christ, he counted them as “rubbish,” which comes from a Greek word that means something that is useless, like garbage. Paul understood what was important in life and what wasn’t.
Paul was also a humble man. No doubt, partly from the guilt of his former persecution of Christians, he viewed himself as unworthy of his high calling. And also as someone who preached the righteousness of Christ as our only hope of salvation, he knew just how sinful he was in contrast to a holy God, and such knowledge was more than enough to keep him humble, surrendered, and grateful.
“One ray of the glory of God, one gleam of the purity of Christ, penetrating the soul, makes every spot of defilement painfully distinct, and lays bare the deformity and defects of the human character. It makes apparent the unhallowed desires, the infidelity of the heart, the impurity of the lips.”—Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 29.
Right from the start, it was clear that the Lord had intended to use Paul to reach both Jews and Gentiles. No other event in Paul’s preparation as missionary and theologian compared in importance to his conversion; indeed, often in his witness he would talk about that experience.
“ ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me’ ” (Acts 26:16, NIV). Paul couldn’t preach or teach about what he didn’t know. No, instead he would preach and teach out of his own experiences with, and knowledge of, the Lord, all the time in harmony with the Word of God. (See Rom. 1:1, 2.)
From this we can see five results of authentic missionary work:
One thing is certain about all Paul’s missionary endeavors: no matter where he went, the preaching of Christ and Him crucified was central to his message. By making it so, he was being faithful to the call that Christ had first given him, that he should preach about Jesus. The message for missions today is obvious: whatever else we preach and teach (and as Seventh-day Adventists, we have been given so much that needs to be shared with the world), we must keep Christ and Him crucified at the front and center of all our outreach and mission work.
Paul, though, didn’t preach Jesus just as some sort of objective truth and then go on his merry way. Central to his work was to raise up churches, to start Christian communities region by region throughout his part of the world wherever he could. In the truest sense, his work was “church planting.”
There is another element to Paul’s missionary work, as well.
If one reads many of Paul’s epistles, it’s clear that they often are not evangelistic, at least in the sense that we use the term, that of reaching out to the unchurched. On the contrary, many of the letters were written to established church communities. In other words, included in Paul’s missionary endeavors was the work of pastoral care, edification, and nurturing the churches.
So, we can see at least three central elements to Paul’s missionary activity: proclaiming Jesus, church planting, and nurturing established churches.
“Multiculturalism” is a recent term, first appearing in print in the 1960s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For many ancient peoples, there were only two categories of humanity—us and them, our tribe and not our tribe. For Greeks, all non-Greeks were “barbarians.” For Jews, all non-Jews were “Gentiles.”
As we have seen already, the success of the Gentile mission forced the infant church and its leaders to deal with the Jew/Gentile divide. The question, at heart, was whether a Gentile could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew.
“When Peter, at a later date, visited Antioch, he won the confidence of many by his prudent conduct toward the Gentile converts. For a time he acted in accordance with the light given from heaven. He so far overcame his natural prejudice as to sit at table with the Gentile converts. But when certain Jews who were zealous for the ceremonial law came from Jerusalem, Peter injudiciously changed his deportment toward the converts from paganism. . . . This revelation of weakness on the part of those who had been respected and loved as leaders left a most painful impression on the minds of the Gentile believers. The church was threatened with division.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 198.
Paul faced the issue with Peter and took a firm stand for what today could be called a multicultural church. His Gentile converts would not have to become Jewish in order to become Christian. Paul’s complex background as a devout Pharisee, student of Rabban Gamaliel, Roman citizen, fundamentalist persecuting zealot, and finally convert and apostle of Jesus Christ, eminently qualified him to distinguish timeless, unchanging divine absolutes on one hand and their temporary cultural and religious vehicles on the other.
Further Study: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22, 23, NIV).
Read 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, NIV. Modern missiology applies the term “contextualization” to Paul’s mission methods stated here. Contextualization is defined as “attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture.”—Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 21 (January 1997): p. 2.
“The Jewish Christians living within sight of the temple naturally allowed their minds to revert to the peculiar privileges of the Jews as a nation. When they saw the Christian church departing from the ceremonies and traditions of Judaism, and perceived that the peculiar sacredness with which the Jewish customs had been invested would soon be lost sight of in the light of the new faith, many grew indignant with Paul as the one who had, in a large measure, caused this change. Even the disciples were not all prepared to accept willingly the decision of the council. Some were zealous for the ceremonial law, and they regarded Paul with disfavor because they thought that his principles in regard to the obligations of the Jewish law were lax.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 197.