Life + Culture

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

I have lived with the apostle Paul for over sixty years — admired him, envied him, feared him, pounded on him, memorized him, written poems about him, wept over his sufferings, soared with him, sunk to the brink of death with him, spent eight years preaching through his longest letter, imitated him. Ha! Imitated him! In ten lives, I would not come close to his sufferings — or what he saw.

Can you know a two-thousand-year-old man from thirteen letters (or even six, if you want to be really skeptical) and a short travel-log of his ministry by his personal physician, Luke (the book of Acts)? Yes, you can. And when you get to know him, you will either love him and believe him, or hate him as an imposter, or pity him as deceived, or, perhaps, simply be oblivious that you are dealing with a real man. No historical scholar I am aware of seriously thinks that the Paul we meet in the New Testament is a legend. As the decades of my companionship with Paul have gone by, I have come to love him and believe him.

Give Me Jesus

I find it impossible to separate my appreciation-love from my admiration-love. I am thankful not only for Paul’s life-giving teaching, but also for the admirable excellencies of his life and ministry. I owe my life to the gospel of Jesus — and no one has taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel than Paul. And after the Lord Jesus himself, no one has won my admiration more.

I am glad that he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Christ is the Himalayan touchstone — without sin! But Paul shares not only my humanity, but also my sinful humanity. Yet oh, what heights of greatness and Godwardness he attained — through suffering! I love him for the Christ he shows me, for the unsearchable riches of truth he opens to me, and for the constellation of his personal excellencies — all the more compelling because of how diverse, even paradoxical, they are.

Five Reasons I Love Paul

It would take a book to unfold all of them, but here are five reasons, in some detail, why I love Paul, followed by 27 more in the form of nuggets.

1. A massive change came into Paul’s life through his experience on the Damascus road, and turned him from being a killer of Christians into being a lover of Christ and his people.

You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. . . . [But now those who once feared me are saying,] “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:13, 23–24)

Paul’s public life, before and after his conversion to Christ, was known by hundreds, probably thousands. His transformation, from murderer to lover, was widely known and undeniable. He is not claiming a private conversion experience. He is stating a public fact. His own explanation was that he had seen the risen Jesus and received forgiveness and a mission.

He [Jesus] was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . Last of all he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:4, 8–9)

I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)

Everything that causes me to love Paul flows from this change. Either it is all owing to a great delusion, or it is worthy of my deepest amazement and admiration. The kind of human soul that emerges from his letters is not the soul of a deluded fanatic. Why I believe that is what this article is about.

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2. Paul had an incomparably high view of God’s sovereignty in salvation mingled with heartfelt tears for those who were not saved.

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:15–18)

My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. (Romans 10:1)

However we may try to put God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility together, Paul himself cherished God’s sovereignty to save, and wept over those who refused to come. He saw and he lived this mystery. His mind is not so small or brittle that it breaks while encompassing complex greatness.

3. Paul was utterly devoted to the calling that the risen Christ had given him, even though it cost him incomparable sufferings.

“I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. (Romans 15:20)

In this unwavering commitment to his God-given mission, the labors and sufferings were almost unbearable and unremitting.

[I have served Christ] with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 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 brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–29)

If you say, this sounds like bragging, you would be right, in a sense. False apostles were trying to undermine his work in Corinth. They boasted of great credentials. So Paul says — and he knows this is very risky! — “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman” (2 Corinthians 11:23).

Why I Love the Apostle Paul h6zstl7a

In other words, only fools brag like this. So, yes! “I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11). That is risky. And I love him for taking the risk. Because I know from thirteen letters that this is not a craven egotist who needs propping up through praise. The difference between a sane man and a madman is that when the sane man talks like a madman, he knows it.

4. Paul knew he was not a perfect man, and he did not hide his flaws, but made them an occasion to help others fight for holiness and joy.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. . . . I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind. . . . Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15, 18, 22–25)

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)

This is utterly astonishing, that a man with Paul’s authority and exalted role in the early church — commissioned by the risen Christ himself — should be as vulnerable with his own imperfections. This is not the way of a deluded or a deceptive man. It has the mark of deep and humble inner security and mental health.

5. Another mark of human maturity and mental well-being and authenticity is that Paul’s soul was marked by the beautiful interweaving of enormous powers of reason and profound capacities for emotion, both of which he put in the service of others.

Virtually all who have undertaken, with patience and rigor, to trace Paul’s thinking in his letter to the Romans agree: here is a towering intellect at work. Many have called it the greatest letter ever written — if only for the majesty of its content and the meticulousness of its reasoning. Even his enemies saw these intellectual gifts:

As he [Paul] was saying these things in his defense, Festus [the Roman governor] said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” (Acts 26:24)

Paul believed that the serious application of mental power was part of what it meant to follow Christ. Though formally educated at the feet of a famous teacher (Acts 22:3), Paul did not see himself as the kind of intellectual who would use his powers to outwit others and exalt himself. On the contrary, he called all Christians to think for themselves:

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)

I speak as to reasonable people; judge for yourselves what I say. (1 Corinthians 10:15)

The apostle Peter even drew attention to the complexity and difficulty involved in understanding some of what Paul wrote:

There are some things in [his letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16)

But in spite of the complexity and profundity of his thought, the balance and humanity of the man shines through the depth and tenderness and intensity of his emotions which (like his own imperfections) he is not hesitant to reveal.

We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)

My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 4:1)

God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:8)

I am sending him [Onesimus] back to you, sending my very heart. (Philemon 12)

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:11–13)

The point here is that Paul’s combination of rationality and emotional authenticity are not the mark of a deluded or deceptive man. He bears the marks of a mature, mentally healthy, and stable man.

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And 27 More

Now, to keep this lengthy article from being book-length, I will simply offer the last 27 of the reasons I love Paul in an abbreviated form of nuggets.

1. Paul combined a passion for God’s pervasive, providential rule over the whole world (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; 11:36), with a deep commitment to personal, human action and responsibility (1 Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 2:12–13).

2. Paul could manifest the most tender affection in dealing with his churches (1 Corinthians 1:4–9), without losing the ability to be utterly blunt and forceful when necessary (1 Corinthians 11:17).

3. Paul only rarely referred to the extraordinary divine revelations that he had (2 Corinthians 12:2–5), and never used them to boast, but wanted people to hear and believe only what he taught them and showed them with his letters and his life (2 Corinthians 1:12; 12:9-10; Philippians 3:17; 4:9).

4. Paul’s personal connectedness to individuals was remarkable, given how seldom he saw some of his friends, and how lofty his thoughts and position in the church were. In Romans 16:1–16 alone, he names 29 friends.

5. He treasured his fellow believers with an extraordinary esteem, calling them his joy and crown (Philippians 4:1), but did not flatter (1 Thessalonians 2:5), and was unafraid to rebuke his closest partners (Galatians 2:11–14).

6. Paul’s understanding of human nature was profound, not only in its libertine (Romans 1:24–32) and legalistic (Romans 2:1–5, 17–24) and original (Romans 5:12–21; Ephesians 2:1–3) forms of sinfulness, but also in its capacities for redeemed beauty and love and destiny (Philippians 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:2–10; 1 Corinthians 3:21–23).

7. Paul says that he personally saw the risen Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8). Yet he rarely brings this up, and does not make it the usual means by which he commends the truth and beauty of what he teaches. He does not pull rank, so to speak, by preempting people’s serious assessment of the self-authenticating truth and beauty of what he writes about (2 Corinthians 4:4–6).

8. Paul did not minimize or make light of his sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:8–10), but he was not embittered by them. Instead, he found a contentment in God’s merciful purposes in them (Romans 5:3–4; 2 Corinthians 12:10).

9. In all the authority and esteem that Paul held in the early church (1 Corinthians 14:37–38), and with all the expectations that he would meet the spiritual needs of others (Philippians 3:1), nevertheless he practiced what he preached when he said that no Christian can say to others, “I have not need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). He yearned for the encouragement and strengthening he received from others (Romans 1:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:17–20; 3:8).

10. Though Paul knew that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit as a teacher in the church with Christ’s authority (1 Corinthians 2:12–13; 1 Corinthians 14:37–38), nevertheless he was utterly submitted to the Old Testament Scriptures as God’s authority in his life. He did not let unparalleled spiritual experience nullify the authority of Scripture (Romans 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:16).

11. Even though Paul could have boasted in his superiority over most in his generation (Philippians 3:3–6), and even though his rank in the church was as high as it gets, next to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1), nevertheless he looked on earthly privileges as worthless compared to the preciousness of personally knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:7–8).

12. Paul was not naïve about the vastness of human misery and suffering in the world, and the explanation that he taught was both personal in its application to individual Christians (Romans 8:18, 23) and universal in its cosmic scope of redemption (Romans 8:19–22).

13. Though Paul confessed that the ways of God are inscrutable and his judgments are unsearchable (Romans 11:33), nevertheless he does not stay in the lowlands of divine revelation, but leads us up into the heights of God’s ways and judgments (Romans 9–11), so that when we put our hands over our mouths, it is not because we are amazed at the Appalachians but at the Alps — not at his arithmetic, but his calculus.

14. Though Paul could deal in the deepest and highest “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8), nevertheless his burden was to awaken and sustain in all Christians “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3); and so he “behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12).

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15. Paul did not oversimplify the complexities of Christian freedom and submission. He practiced his own call to all Christians to be subject to proper human authorities (Romans 13:1–4; Ephesians 5:22–6:9), and yet he lived and preached the truth that only in Christ is there true freedom (Galatians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 7:22) —“free from all” and “servant to all” (1 Corinthians 9:19).

16. Not only could Paul think and write at the most demanding intellectual level (Romans), but he also could write poetically, beautifully, and with such universal appeal that, for example, 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most widely quoted paeans to love in the world.

17. Though Paul was driven by an extraordinary ambition — “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20) — nevertheless he was not a lone-wolf kind of leader who needed no friends. He never travelled alone, and when forced to be left alone at Athens, he gave “command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15; see also 2 Corinthians 7:6).

18. Paul was probably one of the most effective and fruitful missionaries in the history of the Christian church. He could say near the end of his life, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ. . . . I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (Romans 15:19, 23), and yet his only boast was relentlessly in Christ and not himself. “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Romans 15:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:5–8).

19. Paul gave us the most beautiful picture of marriage in the New Testament in Ephesians 5:22–33, but for the sake of total devotion to his ministry, and because of his innumerable sufferings, he did not marry (1 Corinthians 9:5; 7:35).

20. Paul spoke in tongues more than any Christian he knew (1 Corinthians 14:18), but he mentions it only once, and in spite of this remarkable behind-the-scenes experience of the Holy Spirit, he never exalts himself because of such experiences, but boasts in his weaknesses and sufferings, which he said were meant to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:1–10).

21. For all the magnificent aims Paul could have articulated for his churches, he was willing to say, “We work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24), and, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). His joy in Christ was deep and his aim was “that my joy would be the joy of you all” (2 Corinthians 2:3).

22. In all his passion for truth and doctrinal maturity (Ephesians 4:13–15), Paul relentlessly carried a practical burden for the poor and collected funds for them throughout his ministry (Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16:1).

23. In spite of Paul’s intense jealousy for gospel accuracy (Galatians 1:6–9), he was astonishingly tolerant of those whose motives in preaching the true gospel were defective, even those who wanted to hurt him (Philippians 1:15–18).

24. Although he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” with an impeccable religious and ethnic pedigree (Philippians 3:3–6; 2 Corinthians 11:22), he passionately worked for reconciliation and unity among Christians of different classes and ethnic backgrounds (Ephesians 2:13–20; Colossians 3:11).

25. Paul took the devil seriously (Ephesians 6:10–20; 2 Corinthians 11:3), but never let him dominate the Christian life. Nor did he ever portray him as the lurking cause behind every sin. Human responsibility dominates his treatment of sin, and the devil is a real, but defeated, foe (Colossians 2:13–15).

26. For all his indefatigable activity in the service of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:23–33), Paul showed us how to “always pray” by praying in his letters over and over (Colossians 1:9–12; Ephesians 1:15–23; 3:14–19; Philippians 1:9–11).

27. Paul’s amazing contentment was paradoxically in “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). Therefore, he was not controlled by a need for money. His ministry was not a “pretext for greed” (1 Thessalonians 2:5). He rested in the promise, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Why I Love the Apostle Paul oulbefto

These are some of the reasons I have a deep affection and admiration and thankfulness for the apostle Paul. I love him. I want the banner over my life to be the same as the one flying over his: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).

Paul lived utterly for the glory of God in Christ. Why? Because this is why all things exist. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

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