A Brief Bible History/Section 2/Lesson 16

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LESSON XVI

The Conversion of Paul

The work of the Early Church was at first carried on only among the Jews. The Lord Jesus, it is true, had commanded the apostles to make disciples of all the nations, but he had not made it perfectly plain when the Gentile work should begin, or on what terms the Gentiles should be received. Conceivably, therefore, the early disciples might have thought it might be the will of God that all Israel should first be evangelized before the gospel should be brought to the other nations; and conceivably also the men of the other nations, when they finally should receive the gospel, might be required to unite themselves with the people of Israel and keep the Mosaic Law. The guidance of the Holy Spirit was required, therefore, before the gospel should be offered freely to Gentiles without requiring them to become Jews.

But that guidance, in God's good time, was plainly and gloriously given.

One of the most important steps in the preparation for the Gentile mission was the calling of a leader. And the leader whom God called was one upon whom human choice never would have rested; for the chosen leader was none other than Saul, the bitterest enemy of the Church.

Saul, whose Roman name was Paul, was born at Tarsus, a center of Greek culture, and the chief city of Cilicia, the coast country in the southeastern part of Asia Minor, near the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. In Tarsus the family of Paul belonged by no means to the humblest of the population, for Paul's father and then Paul himself possessed Roman citizenship, which in the provinces of the empire was a highly prized privilege possessed only by a few. Thus by birth in a Greek university city and by possession of Roman citizenship Paul was connected with the life of the Gentile world. Such connection was not without importance for his future service as apostle to the Gentiles.

Far more important, however, was the Jewish element in his preparation. Although Paul no doubt spoke Greek in childhood, he also in childhood spoke Aramaic, the language of Palestine, and his family regarded themselves as being in spirit Jews of Palestine rather than of the Dispersion, Aramaic-speaking Jews rather than Greek-speaking Jews, "Hebrews" rather than "Hellenists." Both in Tarsus and in Jerusalem, moreover, Paul was brought up in the strictest sect of the Pharisees. Thus despite his birth in a Gentile city, Paul was not a "liberal Jew"; he was not inclined to break down the separation between Jews and Gentiles, or relax the strict requirements of the Mosaic Law. On the contrary, his zeal for the Law went beyond that of many of his contemporaries. The fact is of enormous importance for the understanding of Paul's gospel; for Paul's gospel of justification by faith is based not upon a lax interpretation of the law of God, but upon a strict interpretation. Only, according to that gospel, Christ has paid the penalty of the law once for all on the cross. According to Paul, it is because the full penalty of the law has been paid, and not at all because the law is to be taken lightly, that the Christian is free from the law.

Acts 9:1-19, and Parallels

Early in life Paul went to Jerusalem, to receive training under Gamaliel, the famous Pharisaic teacher. And in Jerusalem, when he had still not reached middle age, he engaged bitterly in persecution of the Church. He was filled with horror at a blasphemous sect that proclaimed a crucified malefactor to be the promised King of Israel, and that tended, perhaps, to break down the permanent significance of the law. It is a great mistake to suppose that before he was converted Paul was gradually getting nearer to Christianity. On the contrary, he was if anything getting further away, and it was while he was on a mad persecuting expedition that his conversion finally occurred.

The conversion of Paul was different in one important respect from the conversion of ordinary Christians. Ordinary Christians, like Paul, are converted by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. But in the case of ordinary Christians human instruments are used—the preaching of the gospel, or godly parents, or the like. In the case of Paul, on the other hand, no such instrument was used, but the Lord Jesus himself appeared to Paul and brought him the gospel. Paul himself says in one of his Epistles that he saw the Lord. 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8. It was that fact which made Paul, unlike ordinary Christians, but like Peter and the other apostles, an actual eyewitness to the resurrection of Christ.

A wonderful thing, moreover, was the way in which Jesus appeared to Paul. He might naturally have appeared to him in anger, to condemn him for the persecution of the Church. Instead he appeared in love, to receive him into fellowship and to make him the greatest of the apostles. That was grace—pure grace, pure undeserved favor. It is always a matter of pure grace when a man is saved by the Lord Jesus, but in the case of Paul, the persecutor, the grace was wonderfully plain. Paul never forgot that grace of Christ; he never hated anything so much as the thought that a man can be saved by his own good works, or his own character, or his own obedience to God's commands. The gospel of Paul is a proclamation of the grace of God.

Paul saw the Lord on the road to Damascus, where he had been intending to persecute the Church. Acts 9:1–19, and parallels. As he was nearing the city, suddenly at midday a bright light shone around him above the brightness of the sun. Those who accompanied him remained speechless, seeing the light but not distinguishing the person, hearing a sound, but not distinguishing the words. Paul, on the other hand, saw the Lord Jesus and listened to what Jesus said. Then, at the command of Jesus, he went into Damascus. For three days he was blind, then received his sight through the ministrations of Ananias, an otherwise unknown disciple, and was baptized. Then he proceeded to labor for the Lord by whom he had been saved.

Soon, however, he went away for a time into Arabia. Gal. 1:17. It is not known how far the journey took him or how long it lasted, except that it lasted less than three years. Nothing is said, in the New Testament, moreover, about what Paul did in Arabia. But even if he engaged in missionary preaching, he also meditated on the great thing that God had done for him; and certainly he prayed.

QUESTIONS ON LESSON XVI

  1. Where was Paul born? Find the place on a map. What sort of city was it.
  2. What is known about Paul's boyhood home, and about his education? In what books of the New Testament is the information given?
  3. Why did Paul persecute the Church?
  4. Describe in detail what the book of The Acts says about the conversion of Paul. Where does Paul mention the conversion in his Epistles?
  5. How did the conversion of Paul differ from the conversion of an ordinary Christian? In what particulars was it like the conversion of an ordinary Christian?
  6. What did Paul do after the conversion?