14-2-3 Paul: A Character Study
The fact the
Philippians obeyed Paul more when he was absent than when he was present
has some implications (Phil. 2:12). One of the strongest is that Paul in
person was not charismatic, indeed, his physical presence was perhaps a
big discouragement to be personally committed to him. Perhaps he was
actually quite obnoxious in appearance. His power was therefore in his
message, and not in his personality. His hearers were willing to pluck out
their eyes and give them to him [a reference to his physical infirmity?]
because of his message rather than because of any personal
Paul lived a traumatic life, lived with weakness, fear, trembling, tears,
distress, dying daily, burdened beyond measure, despairing of life, having
the sentence of death, sleeplessnessÖ and all this would have had quite
some effect upon him nervously. Almost certainly it would have lead him
to be depressive, and this may explain some of these flashes of anger.
Yet these flecks of pride and anger reflect something of Paul's former
self. He is described as fuming out hared against the Christians like
an animal; he was driven by hate and anger. Stephen's death sentence was
against Pharisaic principles; and it was a studied rejection of the more
gentle, tolerant attitude taught by Gamaliel, Paul's early mentor ("
though I distribute all my belonging to feed the poor..." is Paul
virtually quoting Gamaliel- he clearly was aware of his stance). People
like Paul who come from strict, authoritarian backgrounds can have a tendency
to anger, and yet in Paul there seems also to have operated an inferiority
complex, a longing for power, and a repressed inner guilt. Although Paul
changed from an angry man to one dominated by love, to the extent that
he could write hymns of love such as 1 Cor. 13, there were times when
under provocation the old bitterness and anger flashed back. We too have
these moments, and yet in the fact that Paul too experienced them even
in spiritual maturity, we have some measure of comfort.
Paul's hard, indifferent exterior, his flashes of failure, fooled many
of his brethren, so that they didn't perceive his love or its' abounding
growth. And many a fine believer has been misunderstood by his brethren
in the same way. Not only was Paul's great love for the ecclesias unrecognized
by them. His love for the Law, " holy and just and good" (Rom.
7:12), his love for Israel, so high that he could allude to that pinnacle
of love for them which Moses reached, saying that he would fain lay down
his eternal salvation for them (Rom. 9:3- this is quite something)...the
love of Paul for them was so great. He loved them with the love of Christ:
he describes his hunger, thirst, nakedness and loss of all things in the
very language used about Israel's condemnation (2 Cor. 11:27 alludes Dt.
28:48). In other words, he saw himself as somehow bearing their punishment
for apostasy in his own life, as if he was some kind of suffering representative
for them. And yet the Jews accused him of teaching all men everywhere
" against the people, and the law, and this place"
(Acts 21:28). The tragedy of man's ingratitude and incomprehension would
have driven many men inside themselves. But not Paul. Paul saw his
brethrenís need as his personal need. We see this by studying the apparent
contradiction between Paulís comment that the Philippians sent support to
him repeatedly for his necessities (Phil. 4:16), and the way he
boasts to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:7) and Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:9)
that he did not receive personal financial support from others, but worked
with his own hands so as to be self-supporting (see too Acts 20:33-35).
Yet he wrote those things at roughly the same time as the Philippians were
sending him help towards Ďmy necessitiesí. The only conclusion seems to be
that Paul viewed the necessities of his converts as his personal
necessities- hence he can say that the Philippians sent money and support
for his necessities, whilst at the same time truly stating that he
took no personal support from his converts.
The go-it-alone, maverick Paul came to love and need, desperately, his
brethren. The work of fathering so many others in the Faith developed
in him a whole range of characteristics which made him such a wealthy
soul: he felt as a father (2 Thess. 2:11), as a mother (2:7), as an orphan
(2:17 Gk.). The bitterness and the hardness was surely overridden by these
characteristics, although as we have seen, traces of them still surfaced
sometimes, under provocation. When Paul was first imprisoned in Rome,
it seems Epaphroditus was a great comfort to him; he didn't want to send
him to Philippi, but he " supposed it necessary" (Phil. 2:25).
Likewise, it was only when he " could no longer forbear" (1
Thess. 3:1,5) that he sent Timothy away from him when he was living at
Athens, to strengthen the Thessalonians. Paul came to really need his
brethren. When some members of the Rome ecclesia (who were rather weak,
2 Tim. 4:16) came to meet him at Appii, Paul took courage at the very
sight of them; one gets the picture (from the Greek) of him seeing them,
recognizing who they were, and feeling a thrill of courage go through
his soul (Acts 28:15; note how Luke says " he" rather than "
we" , as if emphasizing that Paul was more encouraged than he was
by these unknown brethren showing up). Here was no self-motivated old
brother, indifferent to what his younger and weaker brethren could do
for him by way of encouragement. And at the bitter end, the way he begs
nervous, spiritually and physically weak Timothy to try to get to him
before he dies has something pathetic about it: " Do thy diligence
to come...do thy diligence to come" , he repeats twice over (2 Tim.
4:9,21). The spiritual weakness of Timothy and his need for Paul's encouragement
is quite a theme (1 Cor. 16:10; 1 Tim. 4:12,14; 2 Tim. 1:6-8; 4:2). Paul
laments how the other brethren had disowned him because of the possible
implications for themselves if they were known to associate with him;
how his soul-mate Demas had left the faith, and how the multitudes he
had converted in happier days had turned away. " Only Luke is with
me" says it all. Some of his last words were: " Take Mark, and
bring him with you, for he is profitable to me for the ministry"
. It seems Paul was aware of his error of years before in pushing Mark
away. We have seen that he alluded to it in his letters. And now, right
at the very end, the memory of his earlier pride and brashness to his
brethren stayed with him. Every, every one of us has done the same thing
to our brethren, countless times. Will we remember them on our deathbeds?
Will our sensitivity to sin be that great? Paul in his time of dying was
a man who had reached a spiritual peak (see later), the love which was
the bond of spiritual completion and maturity. Yet this didn't stop him
being depressed, or from so desperately wanting his brethren, or from
meditating upon past mistakes.
Despite his external hardness of shell, Paul sets a fine example of humility. Truly he despised all worldly advantage and insisted upon the radical principles of the Lord- that true greatness is in humility, wealth is in poverty, worldly learning is the very opposite of Divine wisdom, etc. He mocks, even, such things when he writes to the Corinthians: "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?" (1 Cor. 1:20). Every one of these terms would have been true of Saul the Pharisee, Paul the powerful user of rhetoric, Paul of the razor sharp mind. And he knew his worldly advantage, and despised it. He even seems to take a certain pleasure in this inversion of values. He boasts of how his greatest moment was when he was let down a wall in a basket, in fear for his life (2 Cor. 11:30-33). "In antiquity a Roman soldier who was first up a wall and into a conquered city would win a special award called a wall crown.Paul says he will boast of being first down the wall"- running from the enemy (1). He was the very reverse of the classical ancient warrior. This inversion of values is just as hard and counter-cultural to live by in our world.
To sum up, Paul's attitude to his brethren showed a growth in true love.
He seems to have realized this happening within himself. The autobiographical
section in 1 Cor. 13 shows him confessing that first of all, the public,
dramatic work associated with possession of the miraculous Spirit gifts
had taken him up; yet he likens that period to his spiritual childhood
(note how he uses the same figure of childhood to describe the dispensation
of miraculous gifts in Eph. 4:11-16). He seems to have chosen not
to use the gifts so much, because he realized that the real maturity was
faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these, Paul came to realize,
was love. And a true love must be the end point of our lives, as it was
for Moses, as it was for Jacob. If Peter's list of spiritual fruits in
2 Pet. 1:5-7 has any chronological reference, it is significant that the
final, crowning virtue is love- a love that is somehow beyond even "
brotherly kindness" . Love is above all things the bond of spiritual
perfection (Col. 3:14).
(1) Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest (Leicester: I.V.P., 1998) p. 124.