Heroes of Faith: Paul the Apostle

This morning I want to talk about one of my favorite heroes—Paul the Apostle. Let me begin by confessing that, unlike yours truly, some people don’t care for St. Paul, at all.

Radical Members of the Jesus Seminar don’t like Paul. They make a sharp distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith, and, in Paul it is virtually impossible to separate the two. Ignoring Paul is their loss! Great scholars everywhere, like Gary Wills, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian have recognized that the Epistles of Paul contain a great deal of information about the life and ministry of Jesus. No less a historian that Donald Harmon Akenson has called the Epistles of Paul “the skeleton key that unlocks the historical Jesus.” If the only thing we knew of Jesus was what we knew from the Epistles of Paul, it would be enough! Jesus would still be the son of David, the Messiah of Israel, who ministered among us, appointed twelve to be with him, instituted the Holy Supper, was betrayed, died for our sins, was buried, was “designated Son of God in power” by his triumphant resurrection “on the third day,” and promised his own return in glory.

Some women do not like Paul. They object that he put a lot of effort in making sure that women were subservient to men. There can be no doubt that Paul was a child of his times where women were concerned. In 1st Corinthians 11, he writes that the head of every man is Christ, and that the head of a woman is her husband. He then lays down rules for women who wish to speak in church saying:

4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head (which is Christ), 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head (which is her husband).

It get’s worse. Later in 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 we read:

34…women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now if you listened carefully, you realize that, seemingly, Paul has contradicted himself. First he says that when a woman prays or prophesies in church she should cover her head. Then he says that it is shameful for a woman to even speak in church, and that she should ask her questions of her husband at home. Which is it?

Many of the best scholars think that Paul did permit women to pray and prophesy in Church, and that someone who edited his letters at a later date inserted verses 34 and 35. The text of 1st Corinthians 14 actually reads better without verses 34 and 35! Read the passage for your self and you will see.

Still, we cannot avoid the fact that Paul was as much a child of his day with regard to accepting a subordinate role for women as he was with regard to accepting slavery. It is my personal conviction that he did not bother to change either, because he thought that the return of Christ in glory was eminent, and that all historical anomalies would soon pass away.

Elsewhere St. Paul shows his better self:  In 1st Corinthians 16:19 Paul pays tribute to a husband and wife team of co-workers named Aquila and Prisca or Priscilla. (Romans 16:3) They host a church in their home. Who would expect their hostess to keep quiet in her own home? Even better, according to the New Revised Standard Version, in Romans 16:7 St. Paul recognizes a woman Apostle, by the name of Junia, and points out that she was in Christ before him! (See Note 1:) An apostle was certainly allowed to speak in church. Most important of all, in Galatians 3:28, St. Paul makes the specific point that, in Christ there is no Jew and no Greek, no Slave and no free, no male and female, but “all are one in Christ.”

Ladies, I think Paul has been misrepresented to you. I think that were he alive today, he would be delighted to work with the Rev. Christy Clore, and he would certainly recognize the achievements of the late Mary Matz, the first woman ordained in the modern Moravian Church, and Bishops Blair Couch and Kay Ward.

There is a third group of people who don’t like Paul: Many Jews. One Jewish Rabbi put it like this, “Jesus, yes; Paul, Never!” Of course, he was speaking in purely human terms. Like many Jews he recognized Jesus as a great Jewish teacher. Yet, he refused to accept the teaching of Paul that Jesus is both “the Crucified Messiah,” and the One designated “Son of God” in power by his resurrection from the dead, to whom Paul often gave the divine name, “Lord.” The cross is still a stumbling block for the Jews (1st Corinthians 1:23), and they cannot apply the divine name to any but God, something that Paul was forced to do to Jesus the Messiah because of his experience of him.

I love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I try never to forget that my boss was a Jewish carpenter. However, I cannot pretend to love the Jewish people as much as St. Paul. In Romans 9:3 Paul said that he was willing to be “accursed and cut off from Christ,” for the sake of his brethren, his kinsmen, his race. That, my friends, is love, and dedication!

Now what must we say of Paul.

1. First, it must be said that Paul lived and died a Jew, who worshiped and served the God of Israel. Paul was preeminent among his own contemporaries. Thus in Philippians 3:4-8 we read:

4 If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, 6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:4-8

In Acts chapter 9, St. Luke tells us that Paul’s life was turned upside down, or, perhaps, right side up on the Road to Damascus when it pleased God to reveal the risen Christ to him. Many people call Paul’s Damascus Road experience his conversion. However, I do not think that Paul himself would not call his experience of coming to Christ a conversion. He would call it a fulfillment, the natural extension of the Jewish path that he was already on. Paul saw Jesus Christ as the “telos” or the “goal” of the Law. He considered the circumcision of the heart wrought by the Spirit of Christ as the natural extension of, and the natural replacement for the circumcision of the flesh wrought by a rabbi when a Jewish Child was 8 days. Paul said,

28 For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. Rom. 2:28-29

2. Though some of his contemporaries would have debated it, I think it must be said that Paul was an apostle. An apostle is “one who is sent.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus appointed twelve to be with him. Even during his lifetime he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God. After his death, they preached Jesus, as the king in the kingdom, predominately among the Jews. In the 1st chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and the other apostles chose a replacement for Judas who betrayed Jesus. The choice is between Justus and Matthias, both of whom knew Jesus in the days of his flesh and witnessed his resurrection. They used the lot to choose between them, and the lot fell on Matthias. (Acts 1:15-26) I think it is interesting that, in the book of Acts, we never hear the name of Matthias again. This contrasts smartly with the facts set forth in Acts chapters 9-28. The two-thirds of the Book of Acts is absolutely dominated by Paul.

We know from 2nd Corinthians 5 (See: Note 2) that Paul was not a companion of Jesus in the days of his flesh. His qualification as an apostle rested entirely upon his encounter with the Risen Christ. In 1st Corinthians 9:1 Paul writes: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”

1st Corinthians 15:3-11 is the earliest eyewitness account of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It predates the earliest gospel by more than a decade. In 1st Corinthians Paul lists some of the appearances of the risen Christ to key figures in the church, including Peter, and James, the brother of the Lord, and the other apostles, and Paul declares his experience as the equal of theirs. In reporting each appearance, he uses the same Greek word, which is translated by the English phrase, “he appeared.” Thus, in 1st Corinthians 15 Paul writes:

15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 1st Corinthians 15:8-11

Paul and the other apostles preached a common gospel, and St. Paul thought that God had appointed him “Apostle to the Gentiles,” in the same way God had appointed Peter, “Apostle to the Jews.” (Romans 11:13; Galatians 1:11, 2:9, etc.) John Wesley the founder of Methodism once said, “The World is my Parish.” In saying this he is merely echoing the Apostle Paul.

3. Paul did not have an easy life. Five facts speak to that.

First, Paul paid his own way. In 1st Corinthians 9:9 Paul points out that ministers should be paid. In 2nd Corinthians 12:13 he suggested to the Corinthians that they would have appreciated him more if he had received a salary. We know from Philippians 4:18 that Paul received gifts from the churches. Yet in 1st Thessalonians 2:9 he tells us that his aim is to pay his own way, so that he could preach the gospel free of charge. In Acts 18:3 we read that Paul paid his own way as tentmaker, and in 2nd Corinthians 4 and 5 his work finds its way into his theology. In 2nd Corinthians 4 and 5, he compares physical body with a tent, and the resurrection body, like the one Jesus has, with a house. He language is full of hope, and I am quite sure that I will think of it when it is my turn to lie down and die. He writes:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2nd Corinthians 4:16-5:1

Second, Paul was single. In 1st Corinthians 9:5 we read that Peter had a wife who traveled about with him, as did others among the apostles, as did the brothers of Jesus. Paul did not have a wife, and Paul did not seek a wife. He was not on Christian-Mingle.Com, for he considered his celibacy a gift from God. In 1st Corinthians 7:7, Paul goes so far as to say, “I wish that all were as I am.” Paul remained single, and he championed the single life for the same reason he accepted slavery and a subordinate roll for women, he thought that Jesus was coming back soon, certainly in his lifetime, and, at his coming, the form of this present world would soon pass away. (1st Thessalonians 4:13-18, etc.) In all this Paul was wrong, but he saw the possibility that he might be. That is why he writes in 1st Corinthians 13:9 saying that, “our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect, but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” Paul had looked on Perfection in the face of the Risen Christ, and he knew that all things were moving toward that Perfection, and that that Perfection would someday come to full fruition.

Third, Paul had a physical infirmity. Some have suggested he was an epileptic. Others have suggested that Paul was homosexual—though they admit Paul was celibate, and he did not engage in sex. Still others have suggested that he had bad eyes. I vote for bad eyes. We know that Paul was more a letter “speaker” than a letter “writer.” We know from the Romans 16:22 that he had an amanuensis or secretary, named Tertius, who wrote Romans as Paul dictated it. Paul did sometimes write a few words in his own hand. Thus, he concludes his letter to the Galatians saying, “See what large letters I am writing with my own hand.” Finally, in Galatians 4:15, he writes that if possible, members of the congregation would have “plucked out your eyes and given them to (him).” All this has led me to conclude that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was his eyesight.

Like any of us, Paul wanted to be rid of his infirmity, but it was not to be. In 2nd Corinthians 12:8-9 he writes:

8 Three times I besought the Lord about this (thorn in the flesh), that it should leave me; 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Fourth, Paul suffered for the sake of the gospel. You have heard of the Perils of Pauline? In 2nd Corinthians 11:25-27 St. Paul outlines “The Perils of Paul.”

25 Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Nietzsche said that a human can bear almost any “how” if only we have a “why.” Paul had a why. He thought his suffering had meaning. In Colossians 1:24 St. Paul writes:

I rejoice in my suffering, for in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

Some debate whether the Epistle to the Colossians was wholly the work of Paul. Whatever we decide about the whole, I do not think anyone else in the early church would have been bold enough to speak words like those found in Colossians 1:24.

Finally, Paul died a violent death. In 2nd Timothy 4 we read:

6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. 2nd Timothy 4:6-8

Though I think that the Pastoral Epistles certainly belong to a later stage of the church’s development than the early epistles of Paul, I believe they certainly contain genuine sayings by him, and I regard this saying as one. It reminds me of another. It was the great mathematician, Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” Archimedes died during the Roman siege of Syracuse for crimes he did not commit. One story says that when the Romans came to take him away he was working on a mathematical problem. Archimedes protested, “Can’t this wait a little while? Just let me finish this problem.” Archimedes was not afraid to die, because his life had meaning right up to the end. The same was true of Paul. We do not know from the New Testament how Paul died. Tradition tells us that he was beheaded, in Rome, during the Reign of Nero. It declares Paul was beheaded, not crucified, like Peter, because Paul was a Roman citizen. The truth is there is little of which can be sure concerning Paul’s death, save this: Paul’s character declares that he was undoubtedly preaching Christ right up to the very end. I have no doubt that when the jailers came to walk Paul to the chopping block he was still talking about Jesus Christ. Perhaps the conversation Paul had with them was not unlike the conversation St. Luke tells us that Paul once had with King Agrippa. After hearing Paul speak of Christ, Agrippa said, “In so short a time, you think to make me a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am — except for these chains.” (Acts 26:28-29) Paul would rather die, in chains, with his Lord, than live without him, for in becoming the slave of Christ, he had become absolutely free.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Note 1: The RSV translates “Junius,” a man. The name appears in the accusative case, and could be either male or female. The problem is that there are no men named Junius in any contemporary literature, and the women named Junia turn up everywhere. Most scholars today accept Junia.

Note 2: In 2nd Corinthians 5:16-21 we read:

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. (Note: Paul himself points out that he did not follow Jesus in the days of his flesh. WNG) 17 Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become.