The Apostle Paul
Henry T. Hudson
Now to him that is of power to establish you according to
my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen.
HIS EARLY YEARS ........................................................1
HIS FIRST FORMAL MISSION................................13
HIS CALL TO EUROPE..............................................
HIS FINAL YEARS ...........................................................
A. PROGRESSIVE REVELATION
B. DISJUNCTIVE DISPENSATIONALISM
C. ENTERING THE KINGDOM
D. PAUL AND WATER BAPTISM
E. HE APOSTASIA & THE RAPTURE
F. “IMMINENT” or “ANY MOMENT?”
G. “RIGHT DIVISION?”
H. THE MAJORITY POSITION
Another biography of Paul? Not exactly. Although what follows does involve a survey of Paul’s life and ministry, there is an accompanying agenda which is to explore what theologians call the principle of progressive revelational development. In other words, interwoven with historical happenings is a discussion of the doctrinal truths which were inextricably tied to the happenings. Therefore, broadly speaking, the discussion which follows is concerned in large part with how historical and doctrinal phenomena interrelate with each other. If there is any central issue dominating the discussion, it would be whether or not “the revelation of the mystery” which was dispensed to Paul, and which defines the raison d’etre for his ministry, had any substantive doctrinal connections with the historical happenings which preceded, or for that matter, with the doctrinal-prophetical truths found outside Paul’s epistles?
The scope of this study then is directed primarily
by the preceding question. Stated in a more specific manner: Did
the dispensation of the mystery, which was revealed to Paul, a mystery
which had “been hid in God” i.e., “hid from ages and from generations,”
relate in any way to the dispensations of truth which had been revealed
by God’s “holy prophets since the world began” (Lk. 1:70; Eph. 3:1-12;
Col. 1:24-27)? Did it introduce an entirely new and different gospel
of salvation, an entirely new and different church of God, and an entirely
new and different eschatological hope? In my opinion, those
who respond to these questions with an unqualified dogmatic affirmative
answer have allowed certain presuppositions to control their thinking and
have consequently been led to turn a blind eye to the fuller significance
of the dynamic interaction between the historical and doctrinal facts related
to Paul’s life and ministry. Thus, inadvertently, their idiosyncratic
dispensational contentions and conclusions have led them to promote extraneous
distinctions which have, regardless of their sincerity, made a mishmash
of the unifying interconnectedness that can be found from Genesis to Revelation.
Rash words? Let what follows determine the answer (2 Tim. 2:15).
HIS EARLY YEARS
Among the great men of history the Apostle Paul would certainly be near the top. F. W. Farrar wrote: “In truth it is hardly possible to exaggerate the extent, the permanence, the vast importance, of those services which were rendered to Christianity by Paul of Tarsus.” (Life and Work of St. Paul, Vol I, p. 2). Adolphe Monod expressed a similar sentiment. He exclaimed: “Were I asked, who among all men appears to be the greatest benefactor of our kind, I should name, without hesitation, the Apostle Paul.” (Saint Paul, p. 14). Were these writers engaging in mere hyperbole? I hardly think so. On the contrary, if I had the literary ability I would try to go beyond what they have said. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that no man, as a mortal man, has influenced the course of history to the degree that Paul did. Yet, dare I mention it? He had his enemies. What great man has not had his enemies. Even the Lord Jesus Christ had enemies. Speaking of those who opposed him, he declared, “they hated me without a cause.” (Jn. 15:25).
In the early centuries of the church, there were factions particularly within Jewish Christianity that did not hesitate to vilify Paul. They portrayed him as being an enemy of the law of Moses. They tried to depict him as being without any apostolic legitimacy. In later tracts such as, The Ascents of James, it was alleged that he was a Greek and not a Jew. Supposedly, he tried to marry the daughter of the high priest. Seeking to win favor with him, he presented himself for circumcision. However, as the slander continued, he failed to get the girl. Consequently, suffering from rejection, “he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision, the Sabbath, and the law.” (Ephiphanius, Against Heresies, 30:16, 8-9 See also, Homolies 11:35.5; 17:14, 3-5, and Reply to the Greeks 3:34, 9-10; 3:30, 21-23). Thus, contrary to all the biblical evidence, he was set forth as being an un-educated man; being a vacillator and mentally deranged.
In some contemporary circles, Paul continues to be a man under slanderous attack. But at the same time, he is a man greatly loved and honored. It can hardly be doubted that his life and ministry have greatly influenced the course of history. Was the ebb and flow of history altered by the Protestant Reformation (Is the Pope a Roman Catholic?). In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The Reformation fought and conquered in the name of Paul.” He was the Donnerschalg (thunderclap) who sounded out the truths of grace and faith in the ears of Luther, Calvin, and their followers.
From his epistles and from the historical record of the Acts of the Apostles sufficient biographical information can be gleaned to put together a fairly comprehensive background of Paul’s life and ministry. That he was a Jew is a fact beyond dispute. He proudly declares: “For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” (Rom 11:1) His parents had called him Saul, which may have been after Israel’s first king who was also of the tribe of Benjamin. He referred to himself as being “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” a matter which may have reference to his loyalty to his mother tongue rather than to purity of race (2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5). In other words, his heritage and upbringing could not be faulted in any way. Such a testimony was necessary because there was a pronounced snobbishness on the part of Palestian Jews toward those Jews of the diaspora. This prejudice was based on the thought that those living outside Palestine could hardly be pure because, for one thing, they could not escape cultural contamination living among the Gentiles. Cultural and religious discrimination based on a variety of prejudices has been and continues to be endemic among people all over the world.
There can be little doubt that Paul was conversant
with both the language and culture of Greece. He was probably as
familiar with the Greek language as he was with Aramaic, the common language
of the Palestine of his day (Acts 22:2; Rom. 8:15; I Cor. 16:22; Gal. 4:6).
Notwithstanding his being part of the diaspora there could be no question
concerning his patriotism (Rom. 9:3). Nor was there any doubt about
his appreciation for the Law of Moses (Rom. 7:12). He had been raised
and taught that the love and favor of God could be attained by the keeping
of the law. Not only the ceremonial law, but also the hundreds of
rules and regulations that had been added during the previous centuries
by the rabbis since the Babylonian Captivity. It was commonly believed
that Messiah and the kingdom could not come until there was general obedience
to the law. Not only was he zealous for the law and the rabbinical
traditions of the elders, but he had excelled in them beyond many of his
own age, and as touching the external righteousness of the Law no one could
point an accusing finger at him (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6). He came from
a family of Pharisees and belonged to the strictest of Pharisaical sects
(Acts 23:6; Phil. 3:5).
Apparently, he was born and raised in Tarsus of Cilicia in Asia Minor. In his own words he was “a citizen of no mean city.” (Acts 21:39; 22:3). Strabo wrote that Tarsus was the chief seat of learning in the world of that day, surpassing Athens and Alexandria. Paul could also boast that he was a “freeborn” Roman citizen.” (Acts 22:28). Little is known for certain how his family came to settle at Tarsus, but based on a tradition found in Jerome, Paul’s parents came from Giscleala, a town near the Sea of Galilee, and were transported to Tarsus as prisoners of war around the year 4 AD. How they earned or bought their freedom is not known.
What Paul’s attitude toward Gentiles was, before his commission to carry the Gospel to them, is also a moot question. The typical attitude of most Pharisees toward Gentiles was generally one of contempt. They were looked upon as being unclean, because they did not belong to the holy people of God. In other words, they were not heirs to the Law, the Promises, and the Covenants To what degree Paul shared this contempt is not known. He certainly was aware that being a Gentile did not in itself necessarily mean exclusion from the kingdom of God. He must have known some Gentile “God Fearers” who had become proselytes to Judaism. He was evidently well grounded in the Old Testament Scriptures and surely had some knowledge that his own prophets had predicted that Gentiles were not totally excluded from participation in God’s redemptive purposes. He would know that eventually, in the last days, at the time when God sets up his kingdom, some Gentiles would be included. The Lord Jesus had made this very clear (Mat. 8:10-12). Paul even wrote of Gentiles that there were some who “have not the law,” yet, who “do by nature the things contained in the law.” He harbored no second thoughts that God was also the God of the Gentiles besides being the God of the Jews (Rom. 3:14, 29). This understanding did not eclipse the fact that Israel held a special place in God’s purposes.
Not only was he raised in a Jewish home located in a city under Hellenistic influence, but he was also born a Roman citizen. (Acts 22:28). Paul would be the Roman name given to him shortly after his birth. There were then, Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences contributing to his upbringing. Such would also, in varying degrees, impinge on his formal education, but the Jewish traditions would no doubt be uppermost. It is apparent that he was familiar with Greek literature (Acts 17:28; I Cor. 15:33). For a while, he did sit at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 5:34; 22:3). This would be during his teenage years. Gamaliel was one of the most revered rabbinical scholars of that time. He must have been an A+ student for as his later testimony states, he profited in the Jewish religion above many of his equals (Gal. 1:14).
As far as the record in Holy Scripture is concerned, Paul entered the historical scene in Acts 7:38. Moreover, he entered as the leading persecutor of the church of God which at that moment in history was primarily made up of Jewish disciples (Acts 8;3; I Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13). He was not a man to do things in a halfhearted manner. The biblical account tells its readers that he was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1). It is also stated that he “made havoc of the church.” (Acts 8:3). He was behind the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts 7. He surely heard every word of Stephen’s testimony. What went on in his mind? He must have been convinced that Stephen’s testimony and teaching were blasphemous (Acts 6:8-8:3). How could this Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Stephen spoke, be the Messiah? He had been crucified on a cross (Dt. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). How could such be, for as Johannes Weiss wrote: “A Messiah of weakness and of the flesh, a crucified Son of God, was the greatest contradiction that could be imagined.” (The History of Primitive Christianity, p. 188).
PERSECUTOR TO PREACHER
The turning point in Paul’s life was the moment
of his conversion which took place on the road to Damascus. He was
on his way there in order to eradicate all opposition to everything he
held dear. It was there and then on that road at that time that he
met the risen Lord for himself, and it was there and then that he was commissioned
to proclaim the gospel both to the Gentiles and also to the children of
Israel (Acts 9:15; 26:16-18). How can his supernatural conversion
be explained? In his position as arch-persecutor he had surely examined
the preaching of the disciples of Jesus and had tested their ethical teachings.
What conclusions had he reached? Was the divine encounter the outcome
of an inner crisis? Modern psychological theory has postulated a
gradual inner change and a final eruption of conviction that had heretofore
been forcibly suppressed. I think that those who propose such a free-roving
imaginative theory need to back off and reconsider their sources.
Much of the thinking behind this theory comes about as a result of a misinterpretation of certain words in the dialogue between Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks (goads),” it is thought that Paul must have been having seconds thoughts about his persecuting activities Acts 9:5). In other words, psychologically speaking, he had been suppressing latent feelings and needing to admit the error of his way. What do the words actually mean? They can be found in a proverb which appears in Greek literature, and which signifies the folly of resisting what is inevitable. (See, Murck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, p. 21). The implication in these sources was clearly that one must not rebel against what is inevitable, that is, one must not fight against the gods who have in their hands the power to bestow high honors In so many words, one must take his yoke with courage, in stead of kicking against it. What this would mean is that while psychological theory might propose a long period of preparation due to inner psychological turmoil there is nothing in the ancient historic-grammatical context to support the idea.
Although, having come to this conclusion, one cannot help but wonder how he, as a disciple of Gamaliel, a man who had counseled caution in the overzealous persecution of what was judged to be a “new sect,” could lead the crusade against those, who from all considerations, could hardly be viewed as being enemies of God. But then again, if doubts did arise in his mind, would he not have struggled with them thinking that maybe Satan himself was behind them? Was it not the avowed purpose of Satan to thwart the will of God?
This does not mean however that Paul could not look back on his heritage, his parentage, his childhood, and education as providential preparation for his ministry. In fact he did just that, and hence the pithy words used by the Lord at the time of Paul’s conversion simply look to the future as the divine design for his life and ministry. He would one day tell the recipients of his letter to the Galatians that God had separated him from his mother’s womb, and called him by divine grace in order that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15, 16). The language is similar to that used in the call of the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 49:1, 5, 6; Jer. 1:4-8; Acts 9:15; 22:14-15; 26:16-18). However, the main difference is that his apostleship was primarily to the Gentiles, and that it involved a dispensation of truth that had been hidden from past ages and generations (Gal. 1:16; Col. 1:26, 27).
A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE
Anticipating what will be discussed later at greater length, the question might be raised: What is so significant about this hidden-but-now-revealed dispensation of truth? Had not God always intended to bring the blessings of salvation to the Gentiles (See, Isa. 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 55:5). This might be deduced also from the so-called Great Commission that can be found at the end of the Synoptic Gospels. The Twelve Apostles were already familiar with the fact that Gentile proselytes came under covenant blessings by means of baptism, circumcision, and sacrifice. The Lord said nothing to contradict this message. In fact, in the commission he added, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” What had he commanded or taught them? Speaking to the multitude and to his disciples, he declared: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do ye not after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Mat. 23:1-3). In this regard, it is a total distortion of the Sermon on the Mount to contend that Jesus discounted, abolished, or even replaced the law of Moses by introducing a new set of laws. If anything he was intensifying the Mosaic law, and highlighting its deeper spiritual intent. That the law was inextricably tied to the means of salvation is evident in Matthew 19:16-26. This is not to say that mere observance of the law would save anyone. There was the dynamic of proactive faith behind the observance, which involved the offering of animal sacrifices and which contained the graphic object lesson that without “the shedding of blood there was no remission of sin.” (Heb. 9:22).
The significant difference in Paul’s apostleship comes out in the fact that it focused on one aspect of this future salvation which had been “a secret,” something “hidden in God,” that is, not revealed, but rather, “hid from ages and from generations.” It was “unsearchable,” or “untrackable,” and only saw the light of day when it was made known through a special dispensation committed to Paul (Eph. 3:1-12, Col. 1:26). The core of this secret was in the fact that believing Gentiles could now obtain a co-equal inheritance with believing Jews in God’s promise “in Christ through the gospel,”and apart from any works of the law (Rom. 3:23-28; Eph. 3:6).
In other words, while Paul’s call and commission bore some resemblance to an Old Testament prophetic call, it did involve a progressive revelational development that had special significance with regard to Gentiles. He was, in a distinctive way “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13). He was called to preach Christ (the Messiah) among the Gentiles as being equally their “hope of the glory.” (Col. 1:27). Moreover, it came in the wake of Israel’s fall, rather than their rise (Romans 11:1-26). The natural branches of the olive tree had been broken off and wild branches were now being grafted in and thereby were being introduced to the root and fatness of what had been the special privilege of the nation of Israel.
How would Jews respond to such an apostleship? Would they be jealous and resentful that Gentiles (the goyim) were now being invited to become co-equal co-inheritors with them in the redemptive blessings that had been promised by God to their ancestors? An indication of what was to happen can be found in the reaction to Paul’s testimonial message found in Acts 22. His Jewish audience gave him a hearing up till he mentioned the word “Gentile,” and then they lifted up their voices crying out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.” (Acts 22:22).
PAUL AT DAMASCUS
Coming back to Paul’s conversion, I cannot help but conclude that those psychological theories which dig into his past, in order to explain what happened to him, are barking up the wrong tree. For one thing, they would tend to rule out the supernatural aspects of his experience, and consequently promote faulty conclusions. In order to find treasure, you have to dig in the right places! Of course, Paul did have a past, but it was a past with deep roots reaching back into a rich religious heritage. He probably did experience a great deal of guilt and remorse for his role as a persecutor, but such came later after his conversion, and not before. He even testified that his zeal against the churches of God came as a result of his unbelief and ignorance (1 Tim.1:13). However, it would be his heritage which would sooner or later help him understand what had happened, and from that heritage he would be able to reflect both on the event itself, and on its manifold implications.
He eventually arrived at Damascus, but not in the manner he had expected. He was an altogether different man. One can only imagine what was going on in the minds of the believers there. How they must have prayed, and how exceedingly abundantly above all that they could ask or think the Lord heard and answered their prayers. Paul’s reputation was widespread. The believers had heard about, “how much evil he had done to the saints at Jerusalem.” They knew that he was on his way with authority from the chief priests to bind all who were claiming that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:13, 14). But oh the remarkable change. He had been heading to Damascus possessed by intense degrees of religious orthodoxy, and had come face to face with the one who he was in essence persecuting. The light of that divine encounter was above the brightness of the sun. It blinded him, and he was led by hand into the city. There, for three days he did not eat or drink. Then, a disciple named Ananias came, “a devout man according to the law,” and he told Paul that, “The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.” (Acts 22:14, 15). Ananias also urged him to call upon the Lord and to submit to water baptism, a rite which symbolized purification, that is, the washing away of his sins (Acts 22:16). From this moment until the day he was executed at Rome, he never turned back, for as he testified, he fought a good fight, and he kept the faith (2 Tim. 4: 7). What is more, he never seemed to harbor any doubts that his commission came directly from “Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:11, 12). Following his conversion, it did not take long for the word to get out that he who had persecuted the church of God was now preaching the faith that once he tried to destroy.
PAUL’S PREACHING AT DAMASCUS
Regardless of how staggering the revelation and com-mission were to Paul personally, he nevertheless was absolutely convinced that the crucified and despised Jesus was none other than the long-promised Messiah. The first time he preached, while still in Damascus, he preached that Christ was the Son of God, proving that he was the very Christ (i.e. the Messiah). In reaction to his preaching, there arose among the Jews, “a-get-Paul committee” which took counsel to kill him (Acts 9:20-25). He escaped the evil designs of this committee when during the night certain disciples lowered him over the city wall in a basket.
At this point there is some difference of opinion
among scholars as to what happened next. Did he make his way to Jerusalem,
or did he go off into Arabia? The problem is in trying to harmonize
the details as they are presented in the historical account found in the
Acts and in Paul’s own testimony found in the first chapter of his Galatian
letter. His own testimony seems to support the possibility that following
his escape from Damascus he went into Arabia where he remained for a couple
of years. By Arabia, it might be understood to signify the eastside
of Damascus, which was part of the Nabatean Kingdom ruled over by Aretas
IV (9 BC-39 AD). This kingdom extended from Damascus to the Sinai
peninsula. What actually happened in Arabia is again open to speculation,
but some appreciation for the trauma of his supernatural conversion and
related commission would understandably require a time of reflection and
thoughtful adjustment to what was now expected of him.
There might be a reluctance on the part of some readers to agree with what I have just written, but surely, unless, the mind and heart of Paul be viewed in a mechanical and robotic manner, the time in Arabia must have involved a time of spiritual soul-searching and necessary adjustment to the structures of his theological thinking. Did he not receive further revelations from God? Would not these also require some degree of assimilative adjustment? This should not diminish the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the illumination he received while he reflected on all that had happened to him. Neither should it dismiss the experiential human dynamics in the situation. Such dynamics were evident in the diversity of personalities among the Prophets of the Old Testament, and among the New Testament Apostles. Therefore I am not for one moment suggesting that the supernatural work of the Spirit of God be discounted. I am only asking that due recognition be given, even as it is with regard to the doctrine of the verbal and plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture, to the human response to divine revelation. For further examples of what I am trying to say, consider the reactions of Isaiah, Habakkuk and John to the revelations they received (Isa. 6:1-8; Hab.1:2, 6-13; 2:1; Rev. 1:9-18, et. al.).
Following his sojourn in the desert, and his brief
return to Damascus, he made his way to Jerusalem, where he was received
with mixed reactions. Little wonder that there was no red carpet
rolled out for him because his reputation as one who had laid waste the
church of God had no doubt preceded him. Finally, at Jerusalem, a disciple
named Barnabas (the son of consolation, Acts 4:36) took him to see the
apostles, where Paul gave testimony how that he had, “seen the Lord in
the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly
at Damascus in the name of Jesus.” But while at Jerusalem, the Greek speaking
Jews went about to kill him (Acts 9:29). He stayed at Jerusalem a
fortnight, and then in order to escape the threats to his life, he returned
to his home in Tarsus (Acts 9:30). Having speculated somewhat about
his soul-searching while in the deserts of Arabia, I cannot begin to imagine
what must have been going on in his mind as he anticipated his return to
THE CALL TO EUROPE
Damascus then was the turning point in his life. From there his early travels took him into Arabia, back to Damascus, then to Jerusalem, and then finally to his home at Tarsus. These travels would embrace about three years of his life. On his return from Arabia back to Damascus, he would be well prepared to preach and prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. He would also have a better grasp of his apostleship to the Gentiles. What then happened when he returned home to Tarsus? Did he call a halt to his preaching in his home town? Or, did he bear witness both there and in the surrounding regions of Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21)? This was the area north of Damascus reaching north and west around the Mediterranean Sea. If he preached at Damascus the way he did following his sojourn in Arabia, can we expect that he would be content to settle down in Tarsus and twiddle his thumbs for about seven years? He had been called to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and there were certainly plenty in and around Tarsus. But we have no primary source know-ledge of his ministry at this time. We might speculate and won-der if the years spent at Tarsus were not also years of providential waiting. In other words, it was a time of preparation for greater things.
However, even though waiting can be a time of important disciplining I cannot imagine Paul whiling away all his time doing nothing but making tents. Most likely he did spend some time engaged in the family business, but in all likelihood he would have been concerned to reach out into the regions of Syria and Cilicia in a preaching ministry, both to Jews and to Gentiles. In later years, during his missionary journeys, he did occasionally use his craft of tent-making to support himself.
Based on passages such as 2 Corinthians 11:22-33, I would
ask: When and where was he scourged five times? Where were
these synagogues he mentioned? When was he beaten three times with
rods by Roman officials? When did the shipwrecks take place?
Yes, they may have happened on his first or second missionary journeys,
but Acts is silent as to such being the case. When did they all happen?
It would be possible that they happened before his first recorded journey.
He could have worked the whole coast of Syria and Cilicia. He certainly
must have worked with zealous dedication in his own city of Tarsus, but
nothing is explicitly stated. Any man who could testify as Paul did
in Acts 20:18-27 would not sit at home for six or seven years waiting for
a Barnabas to come knocking at his door and announce that he can now come
out of hiding and join the work at Antioch in Syria (Acts 9:30; 11:25).
However, as was just stated, there is no primary source material to support
One further thought should be kept in mind in this connection, which is that the purpose of the writer of the Acts of the Apostles was not to compose a biographical account of the life and ministry of Paul. Yes, Paul was part of the overall purpose of the book, but it was not limited strictly to Paul. However, it does seem possible that Luke may have understood the greater significance of Paul’s ministry and therefore wanted his readers to pause and to ponder over the manner in which Peter and the representatives from Jerusalem are presented in their ministry to the Gentile household of Cornelius (See: Acts 10 & 11). God made it very clear to Peter that the door of faith was now open to the Gentiles and that he intended to take out from among them a people for his name (Acts 15:14). His reluctance to go to the house of Cornelius was surely not merely a space filler, but was in the overall significance of things, an event of meaningful dispensational importance. This will come to the surface more fully when the council at Jerusalem is discussed.
While Paul’s conversion was recorded in chapter 9, he does not really enter the broader scheme of the historical account of the progress of the Gospel until his arrival at Antioch in Syria which is set forth at the end of chapter 11. It is possible that churches were established in Syria and Cilicia but they would more than likely be churches made up primarily of Jewish Christians and any Gentiles among them would more than likely have been in the background. In other words, Paul’s Gentile ministry did not begin to come to the forefront until he entered on the stage of history after his call to Antioch.
CALLED TO ANTIOCH
Paul’s first recorded missionary journey is set forth in Acts 13 and 14. It is clearly an epoch making event (cf. Acts 14:27). Barnabas, who was mentioned earlier, had gone to Antioch at the instigation of the church at Jerusalem. Word had arrived at Jerusalem concerning the multitude of Grecian Jews who had believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and Barnabas was sent to investigate. The actual preaching had been done by those Jewish disciples who had been scattered as a result of the persecution connected with Stephen. The gospel they preached would be similar to what Peter had preached in Jerusalem. They would proclaim that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah, and that there was “none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4: 12). Thus, it would be a salvation message related to the coming of the kingdom of God, and one which demanded repentance and water baptism for the remission of sins. It would offer the hope of participating in the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 2:38, 3:19-21). However, this does not mean that there were no Gentiles being saved at Antioch, but they would be classified more as proselytes to the faith of Israel. At this moment in the dispenstional progressive revelational developments of salvation, there would still be a tendency to view these Gentiles as being “second class” citizens with regard to the hope of the coming kingdom of God. Paul’s apostleship, focusing on the revelation of the mystery, had not, as yet, been fully accepted by the circumcision apostles.
When Barnabas arrived and saw at first hand the blessings of the Lord, he felt constrained to travel to Tarsus to enlist the help of Paul. Again, speculation might suggest that the earlier encounter between Barnabus and Paul at Jerusalem had revealed to Barnabus that Paul would be ideal for the opportunities at Antioch where a cosmopolitan congregation was coming into existence. It could also be the result of a divine vision which sent him to fetch Paul. Whatever the reason, they worked together at Antioch for approximately one year. The work prospered to the degree that the impression left on the more skeptical inhabitants of Antioch was such that they coined the word “Christian” to describe this new religious “heresy” (Greek, hairesis, sect or party). The word “heresy” has taken on an entirely different meaning and generally carries derogatory implications today.
The name “Christian” could hardly have come from the Jews.
They would probably have used the term Nazarenes. (Cf. Acts 24:5).
It must have come from the Gentile inhabitants, and suggests, as
just mentioned, that the number of believers had grown to a fairly large
size to have had an identifying group name attached to them.
Usually, the first century believers referred to themselves as “brethren,”
“believers,” “disciples” and “saints.” They would also look upon
themselves as being “the church (ekklesia) of God.” Now the
designation “Christian“ is added (1 Pet. 4:16). No doubt many of
the unbelieving Jews would resent such a party name, for they refused
to recognize Jesus’ claim to be the Christ. For them, the disciples
were “heretics” in the contemporary sense of the word (Acts 28:22; 24:14).
However, to the average citizens of Antioch the designation would simply
identify the followers of Christ as being a distinct group or party.
It may even have originated as a term of ridicule, implying facetiously,
“little Christ people.” By the time of the Neronic persecutions (64
AD), the term had come into common usage, and eventually was accepted and
became a name of no small significance (Cf. Conybeare and Howson, The Life
and Epistles of Paul p. 100). Anyway, the name originated here
in Antioch and has for the last 1900 years and more been the name most
used by believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
FIRST GENTILE MISSION
Paul’s first missionary journey could hardly have been at a more propitious moment in history. The world around the Mediterranean Sea, the so-called Oikoumene, had undergone some interesting changes in the 300 years before Paul. The vast empire of Alexander the Great had helped spread a common language. Even the Jews in Paul’s day were reading their own Scriptures in the Greek language. It was the language of trade and commerce, hence it would be spoken and understood in all the ports and major cities. The Jews had moved from preoccupation with husbandry and agriculture to a people of commerce and had spread over the known world, and wherever they settled they established meeting places known as synagogues. Their religious convictions were making inroads due to the widespread scepticism and immorality which was insidiously creeping over the world of that day. For over 100 years before Paul, Rome had continued to conquer the known world and had reached the shores of what is now the British Isles. They constructed roads, many of which are still in existence, and they brought what has become known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace which resulted in a system of political suzereingty and justice without comparison in previous centuries. All of this was significant for it created an environment which facilitated the spread of the gospel.
So Acts chapters 13 and 14 mark the commencement and record the happenings of the first structured attempt to reach out to the Gentile world with the gospel of salvation. The whole church at Antioch seems to have been involved in the decision and venture (Acts 13:1-3). It was to be led by Barnabus and Saul with John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas being an accompanying helper. The first port of call was Cyprus, which was Barnabas’ homeland (Acts 13:2, 7; 14:14). The fact that it was the first mission which had as its primary goal the reaching of Gentiles opens up for discussion an interesting chapter in the history of theological thinking, especially for those who approach Holy Scripture via a dispensational hermeneutic. (Appendices B & C).
According to the historical record, Barnabas and Paul are set apart by the ministry of the Holy Spirit unto the ministry to which God had called them. The text places Barnabas first which could be a strategic consideration since their first destination was Cyprus, his homeland. In the written record, it might be noted that there is a transition and before too long Paul comes to the forefront taking over the leadership (Acts 13:2, 7-16). It might also be noted that in this first journey the opposition of Jews was present as it was also in later trips (Acts 13:8, 45, 50; 14:2, 19; 17:5-8,13; 18: 6,12; 19:9; 20:3. Cf. also I Thess. 2:15). Also, at Perga, John Mark, leaves Barnabas and Paul. Why he left, the record does not say. Was it because the going was harder than he had anticipated? Was it because Paul became the leader rather than his uncle Barnabas (Acts 15:38)? Was it because he had an aversion to the fanatical energy of Paul? Was it because of the dangers which lay ahead of them in the terrain which had to be crossed. The mountains did provide ideal hiding places for robbers, and in themselves were not without problems.
What might be of great significance on this first journey is the fact that at Paphos, the chief town of the island, a Jew is blinded, and a Gentile ruler becomes a believer. In general, their modus operandi was to begin in the Synagogues which provided an open door, not only to Jews but also to the Gentile proselytes which gathered there (13:16, 43, 38, 50; 14:1. Cf. also 16:14; 17: 4, 17; 18:4, 7). They were like a stepping stone as the text makes clear (13:43; 14:3ff). It can be noted from Acts 14:27 that their mission was a success and full credit was given to God for opening the door of faith to the Gentiles (Again let me encourage those readers who might be interested to consider the discussion found in appendices B and C).
Beside the curious significance of a Jew being blinded
and a Gentile believing, there is the milestone that Paul now took over
the formal leadership in the mission to reach Gentiles with the gospel
WHAT MESSAGE DID HE PREACH?
At this point, I think that it would not be out of order to pose a question that is occasionally asked which is associated with the historical and doctrinal significance of the door of faith being opened to the Gentiles. First, I think that it might be help-ful to ponder briefly over the message that Paul brought to both the Jews and Gentiles of Pamphilia, Phrygia, and Lycaonia. During his brief stay in Damascus, he had been told that he would be a minister and a witness before the nations and before the children of Israel. He had begun at Damascus, and then had testified at Jerusalem and the borders of Judea and then had made his way to his own city of Tarsus where he had remained for some seven years or more. His next place of work was Antioch in Syria where he stayed for approximately one year. From this Antioch, he, along with Barnabas, headed toward Cyprus and then to mainland of Asia Minor. The question is: What message did he preach?
At Damascus he had preached that Christ is the Son
of God, also that he is the “very Christ.” What this would mean to
his hearers was that Jesus maintained a special relationship with God,
and that he was the promised Messiah. The Greek word Christos means
“annointed one,” and translates the Hebrew mashiach, which in usage would
refer primarily to the annointed one of Yahweh, and signify the annointed
king (1 Sam. 9:16; 14:6). When the Lord Jesus asked his disciples:
“Whom say ye that I am?” Peter responded: “Thou art the Christ, the
Son of the living God.” (Mat. 16:16). In Mark 14:61, the high priest
asked Jesus: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the blessed?” A similar
question is raised in Matthew 26:65: “I adjure you by the living God, tell
us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God?” There is a tendency
among contemporary Christians to think of the title “Christ” as being merely
another name for Jesus, when in reality it is a title with eschatological
significance referring to Jesus as the promised Messiah who will one day
reign as king in the kingdom of God. If those who are convinced,
in spite of clear evidence to the contrary, that Paul did not preach the
kingdom of God could see the significance of the title “the Christ,” they
would more easily understand its eschatological impact. .
So then Paul’s initial emphasis in his preaching was that Jesus is the Messiah annointed and sent by God. This provoked violent antagonism in the minds of many of the Jews who heard him. No doubt he preached the same message at Jerusalem which resulted in similar reactions from the Greek speaking Jews. They went so far as to try and kill him. Peter preached a similar message to the household of Cornelius, which household was essentially Gentile in makeup, bringing in the fact that God had ordained Jesus to be the judge of the living and the dead, and it was through his name that whosoever believeth in Jesus would receive remission of sins (Act 10:43). In some ways this was basically the message he preached at Jerusalem to the Jews who had gathered there for the feast of Pentecost. His message focused on the fact that Jesus was the Christ, and that repentance and water baptism were necessary for the remission of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-38). After the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles at Joppa, and the circumcision disciples expressed astonishment over the phenomena, Peter raised the question: “Can any man forbid water that these (Gentiles) should not be baptized which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” (Acts 10:47). It would appear, as later events would confirm, that Peter’s experiences were intended in part to prepare the way for the acceptance of Paul’s Gentile ministry (Acts 11:14-18; 15:7-41).
Clearly then, Paul’s preaching ministry began when he began “immediately” to preach Jesus as the Christ, proclaiming “that he is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20). He was giving testimony to his conviction that Jesus, the crucified Nazarene, was none other than the Messiah sent from God. If, as many think, he went into Arabia after a few days of such testimony, he came back more convinced and more competent to prove from Scripture that Jesus was indeed the very Christ (Acts 9:22). It is some ten years later that Paul was with Barnabas on his first missionary journey to the Gentile world. What he preached to Sergius Paulos the deputy governor of Cyprus is not explicitly stated, but it is recorded that Sergius came to believe in the doctrine of the Lord (Acts 13:12). His preaching at Antioch in Pisidia is stated more fully. In the synagogue there, he spoke to the Jews and to the proselytes, and began with a summary of Israel’s history. He focused on Jesus as Savior and of his being of the seed of king David. He spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which made possible “the sure mercies of David.” This would involve Messianic overtones (2 Sam. 7:13-16; 23:5; Psa. 132:11). And then he proclaimed explicitly that “through this man (Jesus) is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38, 39). It would seem that many Jews and religious proselytes did believe, and Paul then encouraged them “to continue in the grace of God.” (Acts 13:43).
Therefore the central foci of this grace gospel message preached by Paul was first that Jesus is the Christ, and through him, and through him alone, there is forgiveness of sins and justification, which bring the confident expectation of salvation-bringing-everlasting life (Acts 13:46-49). That there was no conflict between preaching the gospel of the grace of God, and Paul’s preaching the kingdom of God is evident in Acts 20:24, 25. That the salvation was tied to the kingdom of God is evident by the emphasis on Jesus being of the seed of David, and on the meaning of zoen aionion (“life in the age to come.” Cf. Mat. 12: 31-32; 19:16-29). The Amplified Bible summarizes Paul’s report in the following words: “they gathered the church together and declared all that God had accomplished with them and how He had opened to the Gentiles a door of faith (in Jesus as the Messiah, through Whom we obtain salvation in the kingdom of God).” (Acts 14:27). Stated differently, Jesus was and remains the predicted Savior-King-Messiah, and those who acknowledge him as such have the promise of an inheritance in his coming kingdom. Some dispensationalist have a tendency to emphasize the doctrine of the church, and in the process seem to forget that those who believed, whether Jew or Gentile, were not only members of the church of God, but also became heirs of the kingdom of God.
There was one other matter in Paul’s ministry which needs to be mentioned and it is that believers can expect to experience tribulation before entering the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Thus, as they reported back to the Church at Antioch in Syria, the door was now wide open to the Gentiles, and as Paul himself exclaimed at a later date to the Jews at Rome, “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is (has been) sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.” (Acts 28:28).
One curious feature of the preceding discussion
of the message and ministry of Paul comes to mind when I read in the writings
of various Bible students that Paul’s preaching focused on a different
gospel than the one which was preached by Peter and the other circumcision
apostles. Not only were there two different gospels, but the theory
contends that two different churches and two different hopes were the result.
Certainly, the ministry to Gentiles brought a new dimension to the overall
message of salvation, but essentially the hope of a coming kingdom ruled
over by Jesus the Messiah was still prominent. And then, in the light of
the progressive revelational development of truth found in the epistles
of Paul, it can be seen that Gentiles came to be received as being co-equal
heirs with believing Jews in this future kingdom. The problem now
confronting Paul and the Jewish believers concerned the relationship that
these Gentile believers had to the law of Moses and to circumcision?
This problem soon became evident, for shortly after Paul and Barnabas had
reported back to the church at Antioch, there were men who came down from
Judea who taught that unless these new Gentile believers were circumcised
according to the law of Moses, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). There
was no controversy in Paul’s ministry greater than this one. It was
the main bone of contention at the Jerusalem Conference recorded historically
in Acts 15, with its doctrinal ramifications recalled in Galatians 2.
It received comprehensive treatment in the Galation epistle.
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