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14.  Paul

14-1 The Conversion Of Paul / Saul || 14-2-1 Paul And His Brethren || 14-2-2 The Weakness Of Paul || 14-2-3 Paul: A Character Study || 14-3 The Preaching Of Paul || 14-4 Saul Changed To Paul || 14-5 Paul's Relationship With Jesus || 14-6 Paul And Christ  (1) || 14-6-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels  || 14-6-2 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Statistics || 14-6-3-1 Paul's Quotations From The Gospels: Analysis And Implications || 14-6-3-2 Inspiration: The Human Factor || 14-6-3-3 The Enigma Of John's Gospel || 14-6-3-4 The Nature Of The Gospel Records || 14-6-3-5 Memorizing Scripture || 14-6-4 The Supremacy Of Christ || 14-7 Paul And Christ (2) || 14-7-1 Paul's Use Of The Gospels: Further Observations || 14-7-2 Paul And The Parables || 14-7-3 Paul's Use Of The Sermon On The Mount (Mt. 5 - 7) || 14-7-4 Paul's Exposition Of Gethsemane || 14-7-5 Paul And The Characters In The Gospels || 14-7-6 Paul In The Gospels || 14-7-7 Paul And John The Baptist || 14-7-8 Saul, Paul And Stephen || 14-7-9 Following Elders || 14-7-10 Connections Between The Gospels And Epistles: Observations || 14-8 Paul's Heroes || 14-8-1 Paul And Moses || 14-8-2 Paul And King Saul || 14-9   Paul and Corinth || 14-10 Paul And His Weak Brethren || 14-11 Paul's Thorn In The Flesh || 14-12 Paul's Shipwreck  || 14-13 Paul’s Self-Perception || 14-14 Paul, Philemon and Onesimus || 14-15 Chronology of Paul’s Life

14-4 Saul Changed To Paul

Clearly perception of sinfulness grew in Paul after his conversion. He considered himself blameless in keeping the law (Phil. 3:6); and yet chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:16). He realized that sin is to do with attitudes rather than committed or omitted actions. I'd paraphrase Paul's personal reminiscence in Rom. 7:7-10 like this: " As a youngster, I had no real idea of sin. I did what I wanted, thought whatever I liked. But then in my early teens, the concept of God's commandments hit me. The command not to covet really came home to me. I struggled through my teens and twenties with a mad desire for women forbidden to me (AV, conveniently archaic, has " all manner of concupiscence" ). And slowly I found in an ongoing sense (Gk.), I grew to see, that the laws I had to keep were killing me, they would be my death in the end" . Paul’s progressive realization of the nature of sin is reflected in Romans 7:18,21,23. He speaks there of how he came to know that nothing good was in him; he found a law of sinful tendency at work in him; he came to see another law apart from God’s law at work in his life. This process of knowing, finding and seeing his own sinfulness continued throughout his life. His way of escape from this moral and intellectual dilemma was through accepting the grace of the Lord Jesus at his conversion. In one of his earliest letters, Paul stresses that he felt like the least of the apostles, he honestly felt they were all better than he was (1 Cor. 15:9). However, he reminisces that in his earlier self-assurance, he had once considered himself as not inferior to " the very chiefest apostles" (2 Cor. 11:5). Some years later, he wrote to the Ephesians that he felt " less than the least of all saints" (Eph. 3:8). This was no Uriah Heep, fawning humility. He really felt that he was the worst, the weakest, of all the thousands of believers scattered around the shores of the Mediterranean at that time. As he faced his death, he wrote to Timothy that he was " chief of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15), the worst sinner in the world, and that Christ's grace to him should therefore serve as an inspiration to every other believer, in that none had sinned as grievously as he had done. It could well be that this is one of Paul’s many allusions back to the Gospels- for surely he had in mid the way the publican smote upon his breast, asking God to be merciful “to me the sinner” (Lk. 18:13 RVmg.).  

See the progression: realizing, 'finding', that he was desperately disobedient to the Law, although externally he kept it blamelessly (Phil. 3:6). Then he saw himself as the least of the apostles, although self-evidently he appeared the greatest of them; then as the least of all the believers; and finally as the worst sinner in this present evil world. Paul's increasing perception of sinfulness is shown by the way in which in his earlier letters he uses the greeting " Grace and peace" ; but in Timothy and Titus, his last letters: " Grace, mercy, and peace..." . He saw the overriding, crucial importance of God's grace and mercy, and he wished this on all his brethren. Note in passing that he saw himself as learning the lesson of Job. Phil. 3 has several allusions back to him- like Job, Paul suffered “the loss of all things”(:8), although he considered himself previously “blameless” (:6). He threw away his own righteousness, that he might be justified by grace and know thereby the essence of Christ (:9), just as Job did. And relatively late in his career he could comment: “Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect”, alluding to the Lord’s bidding to be perfect as our Father is (Mt. 5:48). Through this allusion to the Gospels, Paul is showing his own admission of failure to live up to the standard set. Would that more of our leading brethren would be as willing to show chinks in their armour.  

Paul’s progressive appreciation of his own sinfulness is reflected in how he describes what he did in persecuting Christians in ever more terrible terms, the older he gets. He describes his victims as “men and women” whom he ‘arrested’ (Acts 8:3; 22:4), then he admits he threatened and murdered them (Acts 9:3), then he persecuted “the way” unto death (Acts 22:4); then he speaks of them as “those who believe” (Acts 22:19) and finally, in a crescendo of shame with himself, he speaks of how he furiously persecuted, like a wild animal, unto the death, “many of the saints”, not only in Palestine but also “to foreign [Gentile] cities” (Acts 26:10,11). He came to appreciate his brethren the more, as he came to realize the more his own sinfulness. And this is surely a pattern for us all.  

Saul Changed To Paul

It can be no accident that Saul appears to have changed his name to ‘Paul’, “the little one”, at the time of his first missionary journey. His preaching of the Gospel was thus related to his own realization of sinfulness, as reflected in his name change. And so it has ever been. Saul becomes Paul in so many lives. True self-abnegation, recognition of our moral bankruptcy, our desperation, and the extent of the grace we have received…these two paradoxical aspects, fused together within the very texture of human personality, are what will arrest the attention of others in this world and lead them to the Truth we can offer them. I have developed this theme far more in various studies in A World Waiting To Be One . We read in Mk. 15:40 that “Mary the mother of James the little one and of Joses” stood by the cross (RVmg.). I take this Mary to be Mary the mother of Jesus, for Mt. 13:55 records that James and Joses were brothers of Jesus and thus children of Mary. Remember that Mark is writing under inspiration a transcript of the preaching of the Gospel by the apostles, as they recounted the message of Jesus time and again. Could it not be that in the preaching of that Gospel, when it came to the cross, James asked to be surnamed “the little one”, remembering his earlier rejection of Jesus his brother? Now it is not at all surprising that Saul of Tarsus too decides to call himself ‘the little one’, through sustained meditation upon the cross (1).  

So, how about our perception of our own personal sinfulness? As a community, do we have a greater sense of our own moral frailty and blindness, a longer hesitancy to cast the first stone....? What changed Paul was his appreciation, both theologically and emotionally, of the importance and beauty of the doctrine of grace. You can see this, time and again, in his writing and thinking. This realization of sinfulness and appreciation of grace was what changed a man beyond all recognition. And Paul's pattern is ours too.  

Our experience of life, the way God works through our failures, almost overruling even (it seems to me) the kinds of sins we commit and their outcome, is all intended to bring us to an increasing realization of our own sinfulness. The more God's word abides in us, the more we will know our sinfulness (1 Jn. 1:10). Thus Paul speaks as if when Corinth are more obedient, he will reveal further to them the extent of their weakness (2 Cor. 10:6). On a racial level, it could be argued that over history, God has progressively revealed the sinfulness of man to him. Thus the early records of Israel's history in Egypt and in the wilderness contain very little direct criticism of them. But the prophets reveal that they were corrupt even then, taking the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea (Ez. 20). But then in the New Testament, Stephen brings together several such prophetic mentions, combining them to produce a stunning description of Israel's ecclesial apostasy, which culminated in their rejection of the Son of God. 

It fell to Paul’s lot to have to write some hard things to some of his brethren. There were those who were going back to the legalism of Judaism, thereby falling from grace; and there were those unashamedly mixing the ways of this world with those of Christ. But like Peter, whenever Paul writes critically, he does so with ample allusion to how own failures. His own experience of grace was the basis upon which he appealed to his weaker brethren, rather than self-righteousness leading him to be critical of others. He warned the Romans that those who “have pleasure” in sinful people will be punished just as much as those who commit the sins (Rom. 1:32). But he uses the very word used for his own ‘consenting’ unto the death of Stephen; standing there in consent, although not throwing a stone (Acts 8:1; 22:20). He realized that only by grace had that major sin of his been forgiven; and in that spirit of humility and self-perception of himself, as a serious sinner saved by grace alone, did he appeal to his brethren to consider their ways.  

All through his life and witness, Paul was aware of how he had rebelled against his Lord. He wrote that he bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus. He seems to be alluding to the practice of branding runaway slaves who had been caught with the letter F in their forehead, for fugitivus. His whole thinking was dominated by this awareness that like Jonah he had sought to run, and yet had by grace been received into his Master’s service.

Certainty Of Salvation

And yet as Paul's sense of his own sinfulness grew, so did his confidence of salvation. These two elements, meshed together within the very texture of human personality, are what surely give credibility and power to our witness to others. On one hand, a genuine humility, that we are sinners, that we are the last people who should be saved; and yet on the other, a definite confidence in God's saving grace and the achievment of Jesus to save sinners. Paul at the very end had a wonderful confidence in the outcome of the day of judgment. He had spoken earlier of running the race (1 Cor. 9:24-26; 1 Tim. 6:12). Now he says that he has finished it, in victory. His final words consciously allude back to what he wrote to the Philippians a few years earlier:

Philippians 2 Timothy 4
What I should like is to depart (1:23) The hour for my departure [s.w.] is come (4:6)
If my life-blood is to crown the sacrifice (2:17) Already my life blood is being poured out on the altar of sacrifice [s.w.] (4:6)
I have not yet reached perfection [finishing] but I press on (3:12) I have run the great race, I have finished [s.w. perfected] the course (4:7)
I press toward the goal to win the prize (3:14) Now the prize awaits me (4:8)


Paul felt that he had attained the maturity which he had earlier aimed for. To have the self-knowledge to say that is of itself quite something. May it be our ultimate end too.


(1) Paul's name change from Saul to Paul occurred whilst in Cyprus- where he met Sergius Paulus and preached the Gospel to him (Acts 13:12). It would seem that Paul took the name of this Gentile to represent how his work with the Gentiles had become so fundamentally a part of him. From there, Paul went to Antioch and preached there. Why did he do that? Bruce Chilton has pointed out that there is archaeological evidence in Antioch that Sergius Paulus of Cyprus was in fact from there and there are plaques and inscriptions recording how he had funded things in the town (1). The guess is that this man became Paul's patron for a while, and sent him to preach the Gospel to his family in Antioch; hence, as the custom was, Saul of Tarsus took the name of his patron. And perhaps reflecting upon how this was all so providential in spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, Saul kept that name. The providence of the situation becomes the more interesting when we reflect that as a Roman Governor, bound to perform pagan rituals and be loyal to Caesar, Sergius Paulus may never himself have accepted the faith. The way John Mark returned to Jerusalem at this point (Acts 13:13) may simply be because he considered that all this was too much- following what appeared to be a whim of chance and calling it God's hand. For Antioch [not Antioch on the Orontes] was in the backwoods of Asia Minor, and it would've seemed crazy to go into such a distant and insignificant area all because of a 'chance' meeting with a generous Roman Governor.

(1) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 117.