“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Galatians 1:3-5).
The stage on which Paul the Apostle’s missiological work played out was no theatre, it was the reality of his life set inside a Greco-Roman world of Greek culture, customs, and language in the self-governing Roman city of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia. Despite the set of Hellenistic norms prevalent in Tarsus, Paul and his family countered the culture with a strict lifestyle steeped in Jewish tradition. For example, Paul could have only chosen to speak Aramaic (or Hebrew whilst attending Synagogue or Temple) but instead Paul also became versed in Greek while remaining anchored in his like-minded community of the strictest sets of Judaism. A Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul was a ‘slave’ to Judaism as he advanced far beyond his contemporaries being exceedingly zealous for preserving the traditions of his fathers (Galatians 1:13-14; Acts 26:5) and therefore was set apart from the Greco-Roman culture by a system of rules and rituals that played like an orchestra over everyday life (Miller, 2004, 296; 2 Timothy 2:3-4; Ephesians 6:13-17).
And so, the intense and bizarre conversion experience Paul eventually had brought with it questions of Paul’s psychological health for he had at several times persecuted followers of Jesus as heretics. “I persecuted this Way” (Acts 22:4) Paul said, “I used to imprison those who believed in You” (Acts 22:9) (Miller, 2004, 298 – 299). Robert E. Picirilli in his book Paul The Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian writes, “Paul was determined to cut down the flower before it could bloom” (Picirilli, 2017, 52) because the new Way came against the highly legalistic form of Judaism which Paul and his family loved, and that made Paul a maker of unmerciful disorder and confusion. “His were the energies that had kept that effort alive” (Picirilli, 2017, 52) and he would do so by entering the homes of the disciples in order to drag them off to be beaten and jailed (Acts 8). In light of that, Picarilli feels that Paul’s intense struggle against the Church represented his inner turmoil toward a life that was full of repression: “One often fights all the harder against the truth when he is half-consciously resisting it” (Picirilli, 2017, 55). When Paul experienced Jesus’ voice (which was accompanied by an intense light) Paul came to a consciousness of ‘The Truth’ (John 14:6). Jesus said to Paul:
“[Paul who was also called Saul] fell to the ground and heard a voice. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Who are you, sir?’ Paul answered, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, the one you are persecuting’. ‘What shall I do Lord?’ ‘Get up and go into Damascus and there you will be told all that you are to do’”… “And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (Acts 22:7-10, 9:7).
Since Paul was so submissive in his conversion many have wondered if Paul suffered from psychological trauma such as a seizure (one of the more tame theories). Picarilli addresses that issue and asks the remarkable question, “whoever testified that one seizure changed his life and gave him such a vision and purpose as that which made Paul what he was?” (Picirilli, 2017, 59). Whatever the explanation, it is interesting to many readers of the Bible that the voice Paul heard directly addressed his anger and unmerciful form of justice. To put it another way, the voice brought Paul to a place of conviction that was contrary to his hurtful practices but was not contrary to Paul the person who had always been a man of many convictions.
Paul’s dramatic turn of a new leaf and Apostolic title raised him up to the highest level of ‘Church office’ and ultimately to be regarded as the founder of ‘The Way’ or ‘Christianity’, he had an immense amount of authority as Christ’s representative on earth. As Paul went from his office as Pharisee to his office as Apostle one might note those offices had always been metaphorically staring at one another straight down the line of opposites, and a life of opposites and extremes had always been a reality for Paul. On the one hand, there had always been Greek culture and the threat of Hellenization; on the other hand, there had always been religious rules and the issue of sin and punishment in Judaism. Except in his second office Paul’s ‘reality’ brought with it news of the forgiveness of sins for one another and from God (John 3:16, 1 John 3:1), and that is something Paul spent a great deal of time writing about (Romans 5:8, 8:37-39, Galatians 2:20).
Paul’s notions of grace, peace, and mercy via a spirit of love and forgiveness is relevant for us today when we consider Jesus paid the ultimate punishment for the sins of humankind past, present, and future (the gospel of John is a great place to start looking into those things); Those notions of grace, peace, and mercy can permeate our relationships with one another and with God instead of the notions within us that seek to latch on to the pettiest error or misunderstanding to devour who we are. Though it is necessary for systems of government and law to be in place it is unfortunate when those who digress but a little are treated as if they have just committed something unspeakable. One cannot keep to the letter of the Mosaic Law, and all the Laws of Leviticus at all times for that sort of person would have to be and was expected to be, the Messiah – a true God-Man through in through, never changing, always the same… No wonder Paul wanted to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout the Roman Empire (Miller, 2004, 296)!
Paul was, is, and always will be the exemplary counter, yet cross-cultural missionary and missionary writer. His missiological preaching on subjects such as the problem of sin, the way of the cross, the resurrection, and especially the parousia (Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 1 Cor 15:23) have permanently made Paul one of the brightest shining stars among missiologists and theologians. Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Robert E. Picirilli in the book already mentioned, Paul The Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian whittle Paul’s preaching down to three main categories: race, culture, and religion (Picirilli, 2017, 7). Reading through Paul’s letters one can see how Paul expounded those three things in both an inclusive and exclusive manner, particular and pointed to one culture and/or subculture at time as he sewed each of them together into one tapestry, allowing his words to resonate well for both the Jew and the Gentile without becoming overly complex.
For example, in one reference to the Jews, Paul points to Christ in a way that would have made sense for them saying, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised” (Romans 9:2-5). And in one reference to the Gentiles, Paul also desired to win them to Christ saying, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law… so as to win those not having the law” (1 Corinthians 9:21). And to both the Jews and Gentiles Paul said, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). What marvelous statements those are! Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger and Robert E. Picirilli both agree together that it is remarkable Paul’s status did not usher him into writing complex and intense systematic or abstract theologies, considering the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles are almost unrivaled in their subject content (Picirilli, 2017, 7). Picirilli later comments, word for word: “in recent years a phalanx of scholars has recognized that Paul wrote primarily as a missionary and only secondarily as a theologian” (Picirilli, 2017, 7). Paul was poetic and well educated but he personally did not need to become more than who he was, or more detailed than he was, in order for his work and writings (by virtue of the Holy Spirit) to make a powerful impact.
“I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21).
To put it another way, Paul was not a placebo effect and he did not affect others to take on his beliefs in order to just sit around “waiting for God to move” because Paul was a man of action and that is felt in his recounting of missionary travels, terrible trials, Church plants, persecutions, and tent-making throughout the book of Acts. Those themes are all things people can quickly identify with to varying degrees and perhaps more so to missionaries, who like Paul was, are determined to carry the gospel message from ‘one side of Rome to the other’ in order to ‘convert’ an out of control culture that was/is often contrasted by a highly legalistic religious/political system at one point or another. A grand mission such as that does not leave one without any scars and Paul was certainly no exception for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (1 Timothy 3:12). “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16). And one could say that is what happened for Paul through people like Picarilli who feel that through all of his suffering, Paul became for the world the most significant theologian and outstanding preacher of all-time with the Holy Spirit providing ground for his work to be included in the epistles as the interpretation of the gospel that dominates the New Testament (Picirilli, 2017, 51).
“…[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:22-26).
Jasmin Hall-Hembree | July 01, 2018
Miller, M. Stephen (2004). Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible (pgs. 296 – 302). Colorado Springs, Colorado: Barbour
Picirilli, E., Robert (2017). Paul The Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian (pgs. 7, 51, 52, 55, 59). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.