Jesus never traveled even up to 120 miles from His birthplace. Paul, in about ten yearsâ€™ time, had established the church in four major regions of the Empire where there had been no churches before; in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Yet he too had not reached all peoples with the gospel.
Like that of the Lord Jesus, the scope of his work was foundational, not one from start to finish. The growth and development of it he entrusted into the hands of faithful men as did His Lord.
Whatever may have developed afterwards could not be attributed to a faulty foundation on his part. Like Christ [Jn.17:4], He could truly say that his work was done, though vast regions were left unvisited by him. In his final letter he could truthfully proclaim, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith [2 Tim.4:7].
Paulâ€™s early days were spent as a disciple at the feet of one of Israelâ€™s best and most noble rabbis, Gamaliel [Acts 5:33-39]. This man, respectfully referred to as the â€œBeauty of the Law,â€? trained his scholars diligently by the study of the Scriptures. They were required to memorize it and learn the views of Jewish commentators. Open forum discussions were an essential part of their training where minds were sharpened by successive rapid-fire questions.
But brilliance and education did not save his soul. Even the memorizing of the Word of God and careful attention to ancestral tradition could not transform him from the outside in.
Christianity begins with God arresting our maddened course, striking us to the dust where we abandon all for the sake of the Christ of Glory. On the road to Damascus [Acts 9:1-19], the Lord of Glory brought him into the Light and the transformation began there.
Serving the High Priest of Jerusalem was forgotten in the presence of the great High Priest who had entered the heavens. His all consuming mission at Damascus was abandoned in the realization that he did not even know what the Lord wished him to do [Acts 9:5,6]. Awaiting him was a new mission assignment unto the nations [Acts 9:15].
Saul, who had caused so much suffering and sorrow, must be shown how much he must suffer for My nameâ€™s sake [Acts 9:16]. The persecutor must become the persecuted.
Weighty letters from the highest religious authorities [Acts 9:2] were dropped and scattered along the road. His hands must be free to receive and pen thirteen letters from the throne of God to be included in the NT Scriptures. Saul of Tarsus, mighty in Israel, was struck to the dust and became Paul [small], lowly and despised.
His conversion on the Damascus road was the seed of his entire doctrine. Life as he knew it came to an abrupt end: He had been crucified with Christ. The totality of his previous life was of no account and suitable only to be unceremoniously buried along the road in Damascus dust.
Saul of Tarsus died that day. Paul arose in his place. He was no more Saul, the captain of his own soul and leader of men. That day he became Paul the slave, blinded and led by the hand into the knowledge of Christ and of a God he had never known.
Who are you, Lord? [Acts 9:5] signaled his fresh beginning. He confessed that he knew nothing, that before now he had been a self-willed rebel. Christ Jesus was seen to be Lord, and Paul a slave; the basis of his repeated theme of believers being servants/slaves of Christ [Rom.6:14-23]. Christâ€™s reply, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, pierced his soul with a terrifying realization. Hatred of Christians was actually hatred of Jesus Himself. Jesus and His people are one [I Cor.12:12,13].
This was the initial revelation to his heart of his loftiest and most frequently repeated doctrine; the believersâ€™ Union with Christ. His epistles are full of phrases such as â€œin Christ,â€? â€œby Christ,â€? â€œthrough Christ,â€? and â€œwith Christ.â€?
He learned that day that love for the church, the body of Christ, is the most practical and fundamental expression of love for Christ Himself [I Cor.13:1-3]. Christ in glory ever after was his focus. It was this that he wrote of and prayed that God would grant insight into by the illumination of the Holy Spirit [Eph.1:15-23; Col.1:9-12].
In one blazing burst of Light he learned that circumcision and law-keeping are vain hopes of attaining unto salvation. They had not assisted him in the slightest, but were actually his greatest hindrance. Christ did not improve upon a righteousness that Paul already had by these means. Rather, Paulâ€™s was cast out as so much worthless dung in order to attain the righteousness that comes by Christ alone [Phil.3:4-9].
Law was ordained of God to demonstrate the utter failure of human nature to attain unto righteousness, even among the most devoted and privileged among men, i.e., the Jews. The Cross, however, God appointed to resolve the problem of human nature.
The flesh must be crucified, not modified through religious exercise [Gal.2:20,21]. This, only union with the living Christ will accomplish. And Paul saw it, beginning from that day forward.
In Jerusalem, Paul and Peter met and together resolutely resisted the entangling vines of fleshly tradition threatening the church [Acts 15:1-29]. Left unchecked, those tentacles would have wound about the neck of the bride and strangled her, ere the Bridegroom could kiss her with the kisses of His lips.
They steadfastly refused and rebuked the Lawâ€™s crushing burden of man-made tradition. At the same time, they guarded against that false form of liberty that imagines freedom as being license without restraint. While declaring that circumcision cannot save and sanctify, they did not ignore that idolatry destroys and corrupts. No alliance with blood, images, and immorality could be tolerated any more than a Jewish yoke.
This is what was forbidden to Gentiles in the decision of the brethren in Acts 15; not a carnal accommodation to Jewish prejudice, but a repentance from all idolatrous practices and associations.
The idolatrous mystery religions among the Gentiles involved a variety of myths about a virgin-born savior-god who died and was brought to life again by Magna Mater [The Great Mother]. Many had rituals involving eating the flesh of a slain bull still dripping with blood. This, they supposed, made them partakers of the life of the god and possessed of its spirit. Not infrequently, sacred and sometimes wild dancing was practiced along with fornication as part of their â€œworship.â€?
For Paul and Peter, opening salvationâ€™s door to the Gentiles was not an invitation for their idolatry to follow along into the church with them.
Paul had been cut free from the bigotry of bondage, but never fell into the bigotry of liberty. He neither tolerated evil, nor did he compel the immature to follow his liberty though their conscience had not yet been developed to that point.
He consistently rose above the mere logic of his own position into wider, nobler, and more lofty realms. Love transcended his personal convictions and maturity to embrace and assist the weak, immature, and the small of soul [I Thess.5:14].
For Paul, labor was always based upon thought, and life upon doctrine. Harmony between truth and practice is a necessity in Paul. He could never be content with correct doctrine, even in a Peter [I Cor.15:11], which was not matched by correct example as well [Gal.2:11-14].
Paul had attained to a degree of likeness to Christ worthy of imitation [I Cor.11:1]. Perhaps this is nowhere seen more clearly than in I Thessalonians chapter 2, where he describes his deepest convictions, longings, and affection. May we also imitate the Pattern of Christ.
Stop and think: What correspondence between Paul and Christ can be seen?