Understanding Paul the Missionary (part two)

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The Potter Choses What to do Even with Obstinate Clay: Paul’s Conversion and Call

After Paul’s conversion and calling he would call himself the “very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8) and the “chief of sinners” for his action of initially rejecting the Messiah and persecuting His Church. Paul’s “Torahcentric values were radically reversed and Jesus Christ became the new gravitational center of his life (Phil. 3:4-11).”[1]  Truly as Kostenberger says Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ led to a ‘paradigm shift.’[2] This shift was so significant that Paul mentions it no less than five times (Gal. 1:13-16; 1 Cor. 15:8-10; 2 Cor. 4:4-6; Phil. 3:4-11; 1 Tim. 1:12-16) in the recorded letters that we have. Paul was quite literally given new eyes to see (Acts 9:18 cf. 28:26-27; Is. 6:9-10; 42:7; 61:1-2; Luke 4:18; Jn. 9:39; Acts 26:18). He saw a theophany; he saw that the Lord Jesus was indeed the LORD in flesh.[3] And reminiscent of Isaiah (6:1ff), Paul essentially said the rest of his life, “Here am I! Send me” (cf. e.g. Is. 6:9 and Acts 26:18 cf. Acts 28:25-28).

It seems that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:3-10) and help through the hands of Ananias (vv. 10-19a), he went to those he intended to drag off to prison and instead joined them and confessed that their Lord was indeed his Lord, “the Son of God” (v. 20). People were amazed at Paul’s conversion (v. 21). Those in Damascus “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (v. 19b cf. 18:26) and thus he “increased all the more in strength” and proved that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22).[4]

After Paul’s “increasing” and after “proving”[5] Jesus was the Christ, the Jews ironically try to kill him for the very same reason he himself was breathing murderous threats. Paul however escapes through the Lord’s orchestration (Acts 9:25; 2 Cor. 11:32-33). Paul then flees to Arabia (Gal. 1:17) where he shared the truth of Jesus there and improved his understanding of the Christ more and the eschatological implications based on the OT.[6] Then he went back to Damascus and after “three years,”[7] he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter (Gal. 1:18). Fundamental to Paul’s gospel was Jesus rising on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3-4 cf. Rom. 1:4), which is something that Peter also was taught and preached (Luke 24; Acts 10:40), and we know that Peter influenced Paul (Gal. 1:18). 

Thus, in a sense, Paul was taught by the disciples of Jesus what Jesus Himself had taught them on the road to Emmaus. The scales continued to fall from Paul’s eyes as the disciples (cf. Acts 9:26-31; Gal. 1:18-19) interpreted to him in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus the Christ (Luke 24:27).[8] Paul then, through the disciples, was more enlightened to the fact that “it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47; later on Paul would articulate this same truth by saying that all God’s promises find there “yes” in Jesus the Christ, 2 Cor. 1:20). After this we see more intentional outreach to the nations.

Thus we see that Paul’s carrier as a missionary did not begin in Acts 13 but in Damascus and Arabia some years before (though it is explicit in Acts 13:2 that Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Holy Spirit there).[9] Surely his previous ministry experience sharpened both his pastoral sensitivity and his theological precision as time and conflict does (Apollos, for example, accurately taught the things concerning Jesus but still needed things to be explained to him “more accurately,” Acts 18:24-28). This means in effect that some of who Paul is and his development is clearly out of reach of our speculation. Though that is not to say that fundamental growth in Paul and his thought did not occur during this hidden time.[10]

God thus raised up Paul someone that knew what it meant to be poured into by a teacher (remember Gamaliel’s influence) and discipled in the faith (by Ananias) so that he too would be passionate about teaching and discipleship, that he too would teach others to carry on the faith and teach others likewise (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). Paul was reached by someone that boldly reached out (Ananias) and so he was encouraged to boldly reach out as well.

[1]Don N. Howell Jr., “Mission in Paul’s Epistles: Genesis, Pattern, and Dynamics” in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach, 68.

[2]A. T. Kostenberger, “Mission” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 666.

[3]Acts 9:5; 22:8-11; 26:13, 19; 9:3 says “a light flashed around him” and 22:6 says he saw “a great light” cf. Ezek. 1:4, 26-28 see also Ex. 19:16-19; Rev. 8:5; 11:19; 16:18-21. Thus we see that Paul, after all, in the words of Gamaliel, was “found to be opposing God!” (Acts 5:39).

[4]Likewise John B. Polhill: “Even though Paul was steeped in in the Old Testament and would have had some familiarity with Christian views from his experience of persecutor, he was still a new convert and needed further introduction to the teachings about Christ” (Acts in The New American Commentary vol. 26 ed. David S. Dockery (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1992), 238). Because Paul was already mighty in the Scriptures he was able to preach Jesus as the Son of God “immediately” (9:20). When Paul says in Galatians that he did “not immediately consult with anyone” (Gal. 1:16) it does not “rule out Paul’s interaction with the Damascene Christians or the Jewish synagogue. The ‘consulting’ to which Paul alluded was the idea that he received apostleship and his apostolic credentials from the apostles in Jerusalem” (Ibid., 239). Instead, Paul makes it clear, he received his gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12).

[5]Kistemaker says, “In the Greek, the verb prove actually means to bring together many parts from which a person is able to draw a conclusion” (Acts, 348).

[6]“Paul’s hasty start to his missionary work, which lacked elaborate preparations, had two reasons” (Marten Hengel, “Paul in Arabia” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 [2002], 60). First, Paul understood himself to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Second, he believed time was pressing. “In the beginning of the early church, after the completely surprising appearances of the risen Christ and the enthusiastic experience of the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit, the expectation of the return of the Lord, who had been exalted at God’s right hand, was particularly intensive and possessed a character of apocalyptic realism” (Ibid.).

[7]This could actually have been as little as a year and a half due to how years were calculated in that day (e.g. Marten Hengel, “Paul in Arabia” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 [2002], 52, 65).

[8] Of course, Luke, the human composer of this passage, would have enjoyed much dialogue with Paul about the theme of Jesus being the fulfillment of the OT. We see that Luke expands upon this through the lips of Stephen, Peter, and Paul. We see Paul expand upon this through both Luke’s dictation and his own pen in such places as the letter to the Romans.

[9]See Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Paul the Missionary” in Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours, 36. See also Martin Hengel “Paul in Arabia,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 (2002): 47-66.

[10]Hengel says, “The few hints of Paul’s time in Arabia (or Nabatea) are much more important than is suggested by the scant attention they typically receive in NT scholarship” (“Paul in Arabia,” 47. Italics original). Later he says that many look at Paul’s time in Arabia as insignificant but it was rather a decisive time in Paul’s life (Ibid., 51).