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The Preparation of Paul

Paul by Rembrandt

by Dennis Pollock

The most significant figure of the New Testament era (other than Christ Himself) was clearly the apostle Paul. This Jewish rabbi turned Christian preacher and apostle won countless souls to Christ and through his writings has left an imprint upon the church which will never be erased. The majority of the New Testament epistles were written by Paul, and his teachings on the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus have kept the church on course when legalists from every generation have attempted to turn the church away from “faith alone in Christ alone.”

We would expect that with such amazing fruit, there surely must be a deep and solid root system, and we would be correct. Paul’s amazing ministry and phenomenal influence upon Christianity did not spring out of the air, nor did the great apostle fall from heaven. Like every man and woman of God used to touch his own and following generations, Paul was carefully prepared and crafted by that great sculptor of men, the Holy Spirit. As with all God’s chosen vessels Saul’s particular training program was unique, and yet it contained the common elements that make up the curriculum for all who would serve as representatives of the most high God. This included 1) the knowledge of God, 2) Character formed by patient perseverance through difficult times, 3) Humility and the annihilation of self-confidence, and 4) the development of razor-sharp skills for the task ahead. Judging from the results of his remarkable life, Paul must have graduated from the divine university with honors!

Early Days

Because God knows all things from the beginning, Paul’s preparation starts long before he is aware of Christ or of his calling. During a near-riot in Jerusalem over his ministry, Paul addresses the angry mob, and shares a little about his early training:

“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” (Acts 22:3)

One commentator writes: “His preliminary education having been completed, Paul was sent, when about thirteen years of age probably, to the great Jewish school of sacred learning at Jerusalem as a student of the law. Here he became a pupil of the celebrated rabbi Gamaliel, and here he spent many years in an elaborate study of the Scriptures and of the many questions concerning them with which the rabbis exercised themselves. During these years of diligent study he lived "in all good conscience," unstained by the vices of that great city.” While most teen-agers were giving their parents headaches from their rebellious and stubborn attitudes, Paul was studying in Jerusalem under the most respected and brilliant rabbi in Israel, carefully delving into the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets, and learning the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon. He proved a brilliant student and outshone all his peers.

Paul writes: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul took his Judaism seriously, and exerted all his considerable energy and intellect toward rising higher and higher in his scholarly pursuits. After coming face to face with Jesus Christ, he would say: “I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” However his training and education weren’t a total loss. His knowledge of Judaism and his thorough familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures would become a tremendous asset in helping him provide a Biblical background to the doctrines of Christ and justification by faith. In truth Paul’s many years under Gamaliel and his countless hours studying the Scriptures provided him the intellectual resources to counter his fiercest critics and shut the mouths of any who even thought about accusing him of being an “ignorant preacher.”

Persecutor of the Church

As Paul (who was at that time called Saul) reached adulthood, he couldn’t help but be aware of the new sect of Judaism, which was stirring up tremendous controversies wherever it was found. This strange group called themselves “The Way,” and they proclaimed that the miracle-worker, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been publicly crucified, was still alive. Worse yet, they insisted that He must be worshiped as God. And worst of all, some were suggesting that it was not necessary to be a Jew in order to be in a right relationship with the God of Israel – just believe in Jesus and be baptized, and all is well.

This was far more than Paul could take. Later he wrote: “I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.” Luke writes of Paul, who at that time was called Saul, “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” All his life Paul seemed to possess the energy and drive of ten men. It was as though he was wound with a spring much tighter than most men, and could never rest until he was out in the world, pursuing a goal that called for every ounce of strength he possessed. In his early adult years, that goal was the destruction of the church of Jesus Christ. After his conversion, it was the building of that church.

Confrontation

It seemed that Saul increased in hostility and rage against the Christians, right up to the point where Jesus stopped him cold in his tracks. It happened as he was on a journey to Damascus to arrest Christian Jews for blasphemy and to bring them back in chains to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. Luke describes Saul’s state of mind as “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” As Saul was the leading figure in the persecution of the church, no doubt Christians had been praying about his violent attempts at purging the believers from Israel. God was about to answer those prayers in a way that probably no one could have imagined.

There was nothing gradual or gentle about Saul’s conversion. It was powerful, it was direct, and it was nearly irresistible. Jesus appeared to Saul in blinding, overwhelming light and asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul had no answer, but feebly replied, “Who are you, Lord?” He was told by the voice: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'' Jesus was referring to ox goads, sharpened sticks which farmers used to keep their animals moving when they were being stubborn. Jesus was telling Saul that his attempts to be a one-man wrecking crew to demolish the church of Jesus Christ was like kicking against sharp sticks. He would never succeed, and was only hurting himself.

By this point Saul was trembling and totally astonished. He asked meekly, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The proud Pharisee had been slain in an instant, and Saul is compliant and open to whatever plan Jesus might have for him. Jesus told him: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” God typically deals with His children on a one-day-at-a-time basis, and Saul was no exception. Next step: go on to Damascus and wait further instructions. Saul willingly complied, but had to be led by the hand as he was now completely blind from his experience. He would spend the next three days in blindness – fasting, praying, and no doubt replaying the strange encounter again and again in his mind.

While Saul waited in Damascus, Jesus made another appearance, but this time to a man who was one of His own, a godly disciple named Ananias. Jesus told him:

“Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” (Acts 9:11)

Paul the prisonerThe idea of going to pray for a blind or a sick man wasn’t so strange in those days. Those early disciples were experiencing great success in praying for the sick. But the problem was the healee – Saul of Tarsus! Every Christian in the city knew that Saul was the church’s greatest human nemesis. Worse still, word had spread that Saul was on his way to Damascus for the purpose of dragging the Jewish believers in the city back to Jerusalem to be punished. The Christians of Damascus were living in a state of dread, knowing that this monster Saul was approaching their city. And now Jesus was telling him to go and pray for this man!

Chosen Vessel

Ananias decided that Jesus somehow wasn’t aware of the situation, and told Him, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” Jesus patiently told His servant: “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel…” 

Ananias humbly obeyed the Lord, Saul regained his sight, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was baptized. He wasted no time at all, and was soon proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel in the synagogues of Damascus. All his zeal for destroying Christianity had now been rerouted and reenergized toward spreading the news of Jesus Christ to all who would listen. But now there was an added dimension to Saul’s natural zest for doing things wholeheartedly. Now he spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit and found himself flowing with the purposes and plan of God rather than in opposition.

Still there was more work to be done in the great apostle’s life. As a new believer Saul truly “hit the ground running.” The Bible tells us “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God,” and declares that “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” The impassioned new believer had only a rudimentary knowledge of Christ at this time. His zeal was admirable, but there was a need for more than zeal. Saul must become educated in the ways and truths of Jesus Christ, and there were character issues that needed correction. In short, Saul the fireball must be equipped, taught, matured, and shaped into Paul, the apostle.

Much of Paul’s training period is shrouded in mystery, but there are a few clues from his writings which give us hints at God’s discipleship program for the young man. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes, “I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” The point the great apostle is making here is that the insights he had in the mysteries of Jesus Christ had come directly from the Lord and not from men. And if they did not quite get the point, he made it even clearer, declaring, “I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Where Paul went in Arabia, and exactly how he spent his time there, no one knows. But clearly Paul was suggesting that He had some “alone time” with the Lord after his conversion, where Jesus Christ revealed Himself and the doctrine of justification by faith to him, burning it into his consciousness until it became bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. Although we do not know all the details, this much is certain: whatever ways and means used, and whatever divine program our Lord chose to prepare His servant Paul for effective ministry, the results were phenomenal.

Paul would go on to become the greatest theologian in the history of the Christian church. This hand-selected, personally-trained, carefully-groomed man of God would set in motion a torrent of spiritual power and truth that would rock his world, and would continue to shape, train, inspire, and guide the followers of Christ in every generation, even up to the present day. If ever anyone could be said to be a chosen vessel, it was Saul of Tarsus, who would come to be known to the world as “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.”

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