Friday, September 11, 2015

What can we learn from Paul?

What can we learn from Paul?

There is much we can learn from the life of the Apostle Paul. Far from ordinary, Paul was given the opportunity to do extraordinary things for the kingdom of God. The story of Paul is a story of redemption in Jesus Christ and a testimony that no one is beyond the saving grace of the Lord. However, to gain the full measure of the man, we must examine his dark side and what he symbolized before becoming "the Apostle of Grace." Paul's early life was marked by religious zeal, brutal violence, and the relentless persecution of the early church. Fortunately, the later years of Paul's life show a marked difference as he lived his life for Christ and the advancement of His kingdom. 

Paul was actually born as Saul. He was born in Tarsus in Cilicia in a province in the southeastern corner of modern day Tersous, Turkey. He was of Benjamite lineage and Hebrew ancestry. His parents were Pharisees—fervent Jewish nationalists who adhered strictly to the Law of Moses. His household probably spoke Aramaic, a derivative of Hebrew, which was the official language of Judea.  Saul and his family were Roman citizens but viewed Jerusalem as a truly sacred and holy city. 

Saul was probably sent at the age of thirteen to Palestine to learn from a rabbi named Gamaliel, under whom Saul mastered Jewish history, the Psalms and the works of the prophets. His education would continue for five or six years as Saul learned such things as dissecting Scripture.  Saul went on to become a lawyer.  Paul says in Galatians that he excelled more than any of his contemporaries. 

In Acts 5:27-42, Peter delivered his defense of the gospel and of Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin, which Saul probably heard.  Gamaliel was also present and delivered a message to calm the council and prevent them from stoning Peter.  Ellen White says about this event, 
So enraged were the Jews at these words [of Peter] that they decided to take the law into their own hands and without further trial, or without authority from the Roman officers, to put the prisoners to death. Already guilty of the blood of Christ, they were now eager to stain their hands with the blood of His disciples.  But in the council there was one man who recognized the voice of God in the words spoken by the disciples. This was Gamaliel, a Pharisee of good reputation and a man of learning and high position. His clear intellect saw that the violent step contemplated by the priests would lead to terrible consequences. Before addressing those present, he requested that the prisoners be removed. He well knew the elements he had to deal with; he knew that the murderers of Christ would hesitate at nothing in order to carry out their purpose.  {AA 82}  
It is possible that from that moment on, Saul became even more determined to eradicate Christians as he watched the Sanhedrin flog Peter and the others.  Saul was zealous for his faith, and this faith did not allow for compromise. It is this zeal that led Saul down the path of religious extremism. 

After this Stephen comes into the picture.  Those arguing with Stephen could not hold their ground against him, so they took him to the Sanhedrin, where Paul was enlisted to show that Stephen was wrong.  Ellen White says, 

Saul of Tarsus was present and took a leading part against Stephen. He brought the weight of eloquence and the logic of the rabbis to bear upon the case, to convince the people that Stephen was preaching delusive and dangerous doctrines; but in Stephen he met one who had a full understanding of the purpose of God in the spreading of the gospel to other nations.  {AA 98}  
Stephen's voice and words were like the screeching of fingers on a black board to the listeners.  They covered their ears.  Also, Stephen radiant face was offensive to onlookers.  They decided to take Stephen out of the city and stone him.  Saul was present for his stoning and death.  The Bible says that he held the garments of those who did the stoning (Acts 7:58).  The Jews saw themselves as victorious.  Paul was rewarded for his role in the Stephen trial. He was made a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court of 71 men who ruled over Jewish life and religion (Acts of Apostles 102). 

Saul became more ruthless in his pursuit of Christians as he believed he was doing it in the name of God.  Arguably, there is no one more frightening or more vicious than a religious terrorist, especially when he believes that he is doing the will of the Lord by killing innocent people.  This is exactly what Saul of Tarsus was: a religious terrorist. Acts 8:3 states, "He began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison." 

But according to Ellen White,

The martyrdom of Stephen made a deep impression upon all who witnessed it. The memory of the signet of God upon his face; his words, which touched the very souls of those who heard them, remained in the minds of the beholders, and testified to the truth of that which he had proclaimed. His death was a sore trial to the church, but it resulted in the conviction of Saul, who could not efface from his memory the faith and constancy of the martyr, and the glory that had rested on his countenance.    At the scene of Stephen's trial and death, Saul had seemed to be imbued with a frenzied zeal. Afterward he was angered by his own secret conviction that Stephen had been honored by God at the very time when he was dishonored by men (AA 101).
Ellen White adds,

Saul had taken a prominent part in the trial and conviction of Stephen, and the striking evidences of God's presence with the martyr had led Saul to doubt the righteousness of the cause he had espoused against the followers of Jesus.  His mind was deeply stirred. In his perplexity he appealed to those in whose wisdom and judgment he had full confidence. The arguments of the priests and rulers finally convinced him that Stephen was a blasphemer, that the Christ whom the martyred disciple had preached was an impostor, and that those ministering in holy office must be right.  Not without severe trial did Saul come to this conclusion. But in the end his education and prejudices, his respect for his former teachers, and his pride of popularity braced him to rebel against the voice of conscience and the grace of God. And having fully decided that the priests and scribes were right, Saul became very bitter in his opposition to the doctrines taught by the disciples of Jesus. His activity in causing holy men and women to be dragged before tribunals, where some were condemned to imprisonment and some even to death, solely because of their faith in Jesus, brought sadness and gloom to the newly organized church, and caused many to seek safety in flight.  {AA 113} 

The pivotal passage in Paul's story is Acts 9:1-22, which recounts Paul's meeting with Jesus Christ on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, a journey of about 150 miles. Saul was angered by what he had seen and filled with murderous rage against the Christians.

Before departing on his journey, he had asked the High Priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for permission to bring any Christians (followers of "the Way," as they were known) back to Jerusalem to imprison them. On the road Saul was caught up in a bright light from heaven which caused him to fall face down on the ground. He heard the words, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" He said, "Who are you Lord?" Jesus answered directly and clearly, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (vv. 4-5). Ellen White says,

     Now Christ had spoken to Saul with His own voice, saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" And the question, "Who art Thou, Lord?" was answered by the same voice, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Christ here identifies Himself with His people. In persecuting the followers of Jesus, Saul had struck directly against the Lord of heaven. In falsely accusing and testifying against them, he had falsely accused and testified against the Saviour of the world.

    No doubt entered the mind of Saul that the One who spoke to him was Jesus of Nazareth, the long-looked-for Messiah, the Consolation and Redeemer of Israel. "Trembling and astonished," he inquired, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do."  {AA 117.2}  

From this moment on, Saul's life was turned upside down. The light of the Lord blinded him, and as he traveled on he had to rely on his companions. Saul stayed with a man called Judas.  In the meantime Paul had time to think through what happened.    
For three days Saul was "without sight, and neither did eat nor drink." These days of soul agony were to him as years. Again and again he recalled, with anguish of spirit, the part he had taken in the martyrdom of Stephen. With horror he thought of his guilt in allowing himself to be controlled by the malice and prejudice of the priests and rulers, even when the face of Stephen had been lighted up with the radiance of heaven. In sadness and brokenness of spirit he recounted the many times he had closed his eyes and ears against the most striking evidences and had relentlessly urged on the persecution of the believers in Jesus of Nazareth.  
During the long hours when Saul was shut in with God alone, he recalled many of the passages of Scripture referring to the first advent of Christ. Carefully he traced down the prophecies, with a memory sharpened by the conviction that had taken possession of his mind. As he reflected on the meaning of these prophecies he was astonished at his former blindness of understanding and at the blindness of the Jews in general, which had led to the rejection of Jesus as the promised Messiah. To his enlightened vision all now seemed plain. He knew that his former prejudice and unbelief had clouded his spiritual perception and had prevented him from discerning in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of prophecy.  {AA 118 119.1}  
Jesus instructed a man named Ananias to meet Saul.   He was at first hesitant because he knew Saul's reputation as an evil man. But the Lord told Ananias that Saul was a "chosen instrument" to carry His name before the Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel (v.15) and would suffer for doing so (v.16). Ananias followed the Lord's instructions and found Saul, on whom he laid hands, and told him of his vision of Jesus Christ. Through prayer, Saul received the Holy Spirit (v.17), regained his sight and was baptized (v.18). Saul immediately went into the synagogues proclaiming Jesus and saying He is the Son of God (v.20). The people were amazed and skeptical, as Saul's reputation was well known. The Jews thought he had come to take away the Christians (v.21). Saul's boldness increased as the Jews living in Damascus were confounded by Saul's arguments proving that Jesus was the Christ (v.22).

As a result of this miraculous transformation, Saul became known as Paul (Acts 13:9). Paul spent time in Arabia, Damascus, Jerusalem, Syria and his native Cilicia, and Barnabas enlisted his help to teach those in the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25). Interestingly, the Christians driven out of Palestine by Saul of Tarsus founded this multiracial church (Acts 11:19-21). Paul took his first of three missionary journeys in the late 40s A.D. Paul wrote many of the New Testament books. As previously noted, the book of Acts gives us a historical look at Paul's life and times. The Apostle Paul spent his life proclaiming the risen Christ Jesus throughout the Roman world, often at great personal peril (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). It is assumed that Paul died a martyr's death in the mid-to-late 60s A.D. in Rome. 

So, what can we learn from the life of the Apostle Paul? First, we learn that God can save anyone. 
Second, we learn from the life of Paul that anyone can be a humble, powerful witness for Jesus Christ. Finally, we learn that anyone can surrender completely to God. Paul was fully "sold-out" for God. "I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (Philippians 1:12-14). Paul was in prison when he wrote these words, yet he was still praising God and sharing the good news. Through his hardships and suffering, Paul knew the outcome of a life well lived for Christ. He had surrendered his life fully, trusting God for everything. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Can we make the same claim?