Paul was an extraordinary man, not because he was extraordinary himself, but because his God is an extraordinary God. The book of Acts casts Paul in a light that demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s power. From Acts 8, when Paul was persecuting Christ (Acts 8:3) to chapter 9 and his conversion, not only was the transformation drastic, but it seemed to be instantaneous. In verse 18 Paul is baptized and then before we know in verse 20 he is already proclaiming the gospel. However, we forget a little phrase that exists in verse 19: “Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for a time.” There is much that can be said, speculations that could be made, and interpretations of action that may be developed from those words.
However, I look at these words now only to bring attention to a simple point. As a new believer, it was essential that Paul be disciples, after all, some of the last recorded words of Christ not only say go make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) but conclude with an encouragement that they will be able to fill this task when the Holy Spirit comes (Acts 1:8). And so, Paul, called by God, learned directly from the disciples.
Our attention must be drawn to this point because we have the tendency to elevate Paul beyond human status. Paul appears to be a man that both extended grace and needed grace. We forget that he was merely a fallen man in need of being rescued from our sin just like the rest of us. Therefore, he was very much in the same process of progressive sanctification that each of us finds ourselves in: as people who hopefully extend grace and need it to be extended to us as well.
Paul’s testimony, from murderer to martyr, is one that draws attention not to the man of Paul but to the God of Paul. As I think about the spiritual marks of maturity, it’s interesting to see Paul’s maturation process. As Paul went from justification to glorification, there is a progression of statements worth noting, and so, consider the following verses:
For I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God ~ 1 Corinthians 15:9
This was the grave given to me – the least of all the saints – to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of Christ ~ Ephesians 3:8
This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them. ~ 1 Timothy 1:15
Each of these verses is shared in the order they were written, beginning first with 1 Corinthians and ending with 1 Timothy shortly before Paul’s death and note how Paul describes himself in each. First he is simply the least of all apostles, and then he graduates to the last of all the Christ followers, until finally, Paul describes himself as the least of people (sinners).
I hate to speculate too much on Paul’s character beyond what Scripture makes clear, and yet, from Paul’s belief and behavior in the book of Acts we can easily conclude that Paul probably was a very prideful man. In fact, we could probably conclude that outright by the simple fact that he is a human being. Yet, a byproduct of his position probably instigated a deeper level of that as well. Yet, Paul’s progression of sanctification reveals an utter humility. He goes from seeing himself as the least of a few people to the least of all people within about 5 years or so. Even more important is to note the tone in Paul’s writings when looking at the context of what he writes. None of these statements appear to be from a false humility that is actually motivated by pride, but can be interpreted as genuine statement of recognition.
I am convinced that these statements are not issues from a position of greater condemnation, but from a greater conviction. Certainly Paul was a man who recognized who he was, who Christ is, and who he was with Christ. Deeply convicted of those aspects forces Paul to relinquish his pride and recognize Christ.
The same need exists within our own lives today. We need not condemn ourselves as the law has already done that while Christ has also already atoned for that. However, we need to stand convicted; convicted by the depths of that sin we relinquish control of our lives and submit it to Christ because the greatest depths of depravity are not overcome by our inconsequential acts of goodness. Instead, they are rightly atoned for based upon Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. So like Paul we are in process and perhaps his progress of sanctification can encourage ours.
Photo “Steps to Heaven” courtesy of user Visit Lakeland and Flickr.