1. Saul before Paul
Before Paul was renamed Paul, he was born as Saul. Saul was born in Tarsus in Cilicia (modern day Turkey). He was of Hebrew ancestry and Benjamite lineage. His parents were Pharisees (whom we studied about last week), who adhered strictly to the Law of Moses. In his young teens, Saul was sent to Palestine to learn from a rabbi named Gamaliel, under whom Saul mastered Jewish history, the Psalms, and the works of the prophets. Saul became 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. Saul eventually turned his focus to a ruthless pursuit of Christians, as he believed he was eradicating them 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 to put them in prison.”
Saul was like many whom we might look at today and say, “They are just too far out there. There is no hope for them.” As Christians, we can even become jaded and give up hope in praying for these kinds of people or even develop feelings of hatred towards them. The good news is our God will have whom He wants. God saves both the prodigals, who are irreligious and consumed with the secular world’s ways, and the zealots, who are super religious and consumed with self-righteous methods and self-salvation. It is good for us to remember that our gospel testimony needs to be to those who are lost on both ends of the spectrum. The parable of the prodigal son is a good example of this. Both the younger brother (irreligious) and the elder brother (religious) were lost in their own way and needed to see the gospel of the Father’s grace for salvation. Both of these extremes exist in our culture today, and both need the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. Paul’s Conversion
God had great redemption for Saul. In Acts 9:1-22, we see that Paul met the “resurrected Jesus” on the road to Damascus. He hears the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He says, “Who are you Lord?” Jesus answers directly and clearly: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv. 4-5). Wow. What a moment. God saved Saul and gave him faith in and submission to Jesus Christ. From this moment on, Saul’s life was turned upside down. As a result of this miraculous transformation, Saul became known as Paul (Acts 13:9).
As a result, Paul devoted his life to Jesus’ glory and becomes one of, if not the most, influential pastors of the early church! He planted churches and wrote most of the New Testament. Most theologians are in agreement that he wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. These 13 “letters” (books) make up what are known today as the “Pauline Epistles.”
3. Where is Paul’s Authority From?
In Galatians 1, Paul introduces himself this way: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me.”
Paul is sent (the word apostle means "one who is sent") by Jesus Christ Himself, who converted Paul’s life on the road to Damascus. Not only is his authority given by God Himself, but it is confirmed by the body of believers (his brothers) who are with him. So, we see here, Paul’s authority is by God and confirmed in godly people. Trust me, if Paul was not sent of God, there is no way the early Christian Church would have backed a guy who devoted his life until that point to having Christians arrested or killed.
In his opening words of the book of Romans, Paul says this of himself:
Romans 1:1-6 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
First, Paul refers to himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word for servant here is actually slave. Paul counted it his greatest joy to be a slave for Jesus. Why? Because he understood the slavery from which he was freed and for whom he now serves.
All of us are formerly slaves to sin. We were spiritually dead and in bondage to nothing but sin and deserving of nothing but eternal damnation apart from the glory of God. To be saved is to be set free from the bondage of sin, but we are never free in the sense that our flesh longs for total control. In Christ, we become slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:16-18). We are slaves to Jesus. He is our Lord; He is our Master.
We are free from the eternal bondage of our former slavery to sin and our sentence of death. But we are never free, meaning apart from rule. God created man to be under rule. It is the sin of man to ever think that we are free from any kind of rule or authority. We are ruled by sin or we are ruled by God. The difference is it is life to be a servant of God. It is joy to be a slave of God. There is no higher or greater role we could ever play. Like Paul, do you value the fact that in Christ you are a slave to Christ? Is your life His? Is your purpose to do His will for His glory?
The other thing we see here in Romans 1 is the scope of Paul’s ministry. He says he is doing all this “for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). The great commission of Jesus commands His people to go make disciples of all nations. Paul saw that the nations were his scope of ministry. How could one man get the gospel to all nations? He couldn’t, but he could train up disciples who then went and made disciples who could.
This is a picture of the glorious birth and work of the early church. Paul was a critical leader and teacher used by God to spread the gospel and to plant churches. Do we see and value our mission the same way as Paul, or are our daily focus and priorities all too set on our little lives and self-made kingdoms? May we repent of making this life about ourselves and give far more of our time and energy to being discipled so that we can truly go and make disciples unto the nations!
4. Paul’s Suffering
One of the biggest highlights of Paul’s ministry and focuses of his teachings was the reality that as Christians in this time and place, we will suffer for the name of our Lord. Paul didn’t run from this; instead, he embraced it as the reality of the eternally important call on our lives that God has given us.
Take a moment and read the following passages again and be reminded of what Paul went through in his life and ministry for our Lord: 2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 4:8-12; 6:4-10; 11:23-29; 12:7-10.
Wow. We thought we had a hard time. It is so important that we learn from Paul in this area. He went through so much and yet remained joyful and on mission, despite his struggles and sufferings. He knew who his God was. He understood his mission and purpose for this life. He let his theology shape his thinking and attitude in all that he went through. Here is just a taste:
I rejoice in my sufferings (Col. 1:24)
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:18)
Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:20)
Rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor (Acts 5:41)
But we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3)
Sometimes it is easy for this to be agreed with in the good times and forgotten in the bad. So how do we keep the joy of the Lord despite our sufferings like Paul did?
Let’s look at Romans 8:31-39.
In this passage Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
This is saying since God paid the infinite price of His Son by sending Jesus through the ultimate suffering on your behalf—if He did that, will He not then surely follow through in providing everything you need? Then it goes on to say this in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” These are gnarly forms of suffering, right? But he goes on to say in verse 37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” So you've got persecution and murder of Christians. And then he says in all these sufferings we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us!
This is how we are able to find joy in our suffering.
A conqueror has his enemies lying subdued at his feet, right? So, your sufferings are conquered; they are defeated—distress, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, persecution—there they are, conquered at your feet.
Now “more than conquerors” means these things are not just in chains at my feet; they are serving me. My tribulation, my distress, my persecution, my famine, my nakedness, my danger, the swords against me—as painful and tearful as they are—they are serving me in Christ. God is working them all together for my good. The good is the key. The good is the foundation of our joy.
The good that God works in and through our suffering is the foundation of my joy. I trust in God who is over all things. I trust Him completely. This is how we walk in joy even when we can’t see through the fog or the pain, or when we’re barely staying afloat. The joy is not the circumstance. Hear me: The circumstances of our suffering are full of tears. In Christ, we can have joy in our suffering. This doesn’t mean that when we are in the thick of it that there are not tears! There are plenty of tears. The Bible tells us in Isaiah 53:3 that Jesus was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10 that he was "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing."
God wants us to be joyful. But He doesn't do it with circumstance; He does it with Himself. He does it with the gospel. And we must trust that He does it in and through the circumstances. This is what Paul understood, and I pray you do, too.
Oh, I could go on for days with all we can take way from Paul. Like how to live the sacrificial life in the here and now. How to be satisfied in plenty or little. But for the sake of time, I will just leave you with one of my favorite Paul quotes from Galatians and pray you see what I do in the power of these words and what they mean for those of us walking in Christ:
Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
By His grace and for His glory,
Soldiers for Jesus MC