Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the July 1, 2017 Sabbath School Lesson


“Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”  2 Corinthians 11:23-28, NIV

Perhaps you have encountered the persecuted church of modern times. They are not hard to spot. They are the ones who have been severely crippled by not hearing the music they like in church. Their skin bears the scars of not having enough of their favorite author referenced during a sermon. Their eyes have been blinded by the inappropriate dress of a brother or sister. They attempt to mimic what they imagine is the austere dress of the martyr which is no doubt the dress of the angels and will be the only dress allowed in heaven. Although few in number, they can easily be identified by their expressions: the taut lips, the rolling of the eyes, and the head hung in sorrow for all the abominations in Israel. Their constant refrain is to ask if their listeners know what is said in this rule or that. They wish to bring the church back to some former imagined glory, as though those who live in the past are more saintly than anyone today. They overlook the repeated biblical admonitions that all are sinners.[i] From the Major Prophets to the Apostles, we are reminded of our inability to assume an air of judgment because of our sinful failings which allow us no spiritual pre-eminence over others.

The church in every age has had such martyrs for the cause. Invariably, they are always pointing to the past as the gateway to heaven and the failure of anything modern to be able to take us home to Christ. But are they right? Some, already inclined to such thoughts, seem to think so. They begin to follow such people and then when they receive disapprobation they see in that a confirmation of their holy purpose, for if they were not being confronted would it not have been because they had compromised with unholy forces? Sadly, it is hard to free oneself from such a trap of circular reasoning and may only be possible through a divine intervention. Such a divine event happened to Paul while traveling to confront the followers of the new way, the way of Christ, in Damascus.

Paul was zealous for the way the faith had always been practiced in conjunction with the temple services in Jerusalem. Although he had studied with the best of the Pharisees, he somehow failed to discern that the “ancient” faith he was practicing had become so corrupted and distorted that it was given pre-eminence over the central figure of that faith, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Rules and form had come to matter more than substance. And sadly, those rules over time had become more and more the products of men’s machinations rather than true revelations of the character of God. It is a process that has been repeated countless times through the ages, even into modern times. A group of believers gains some new insight that allows them to see and understand a biblical point from a fresh perspective. All are thrilled at the clarity that the new perspective brings to understanding God. But as time passes, the new insight becomes more important than the God it illuminates and rules about the new insight to prevent any further progression of understanding are enacted. Then as the more progressive among the believers test the boundaries of those rules in an effort to keep growing in their search for God, new rules are enacted to buttress the original ones. Eventually even believers who originally held the Bible to be their only guide to faith are laboring with more attention to their man-made creed than to the Bible it was supposedly based upon. It is as though we created a fence out of books to keep the beast from the garden, but we never bothered to read the books to see what they had to say about building those fences.

Fortunately, Paul had the ability to see when he was headed down the wrong path. He did not see this as early as he could have, and divine intervention was the key to redirecting him. But once he saw and understood his error, he did a complete about face and went from persecutor of Christians to their advocate and sought to recruit as many as possible to that way. There was an inbred reluctance on the part of many of the apostles to reach out to the world beyond Judaism. They had been taught their whole lives that salvation could only be found in Judaism and the temple services. It was a dramatic change to step beyond that confined world. God reached out to Peter with a special vision to try to break down that wall.[ii] But even after Peter shared that vision with the other apostles, there was great astonishment and little was apparently done to follow up on it. God had to find someone willing to break with the indoctrination of the past to take the faith into this new worldwide revelation of the kingdom of God. He found that person in the most unlikely of places. He converted an enemy.

It is often the fervency of an enemy that makes them an equally fervent ally if they can be reached and their heart touched with understanding of the failure of their present course. Paul had that experience outside of Damascus and the same dedication to purpose that brought him to that city became equally fervent in proclamation of the faith he had formerly persecuted. We often have a hard time seeing this. To our understanding an enemy must be crushed and defeated before we can feel safe. Never do we want to allow them the opportunity to grow strong where they might become a threat. Unfortunately this has been especially true in the precincts of the church where free dialectic is more often discouraged in the interests of spiritual uniformity. Dissenters are harried from its ranks first through denial of access to positions of power or influence and if they still persist in the publication of their views either orally or in writing, they may even be removed from the holy ranks altogether, a practice formerly called excommunication but more nicely nuanced into disfellowshipping today. But strangely in that very act often comes a genesis through the realization that it’s not the church but rather the Spirit that calls us to service and gives us our voice. It is the Spirit that carries the words of faith to the receptive ears and hearts where these little shoots can find fertile soil to grow into active and vibrant faith that lies beyond the boundaries of the constrained understanding of the past.

As was seen in Paul’s treatment in Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and appeal to Rome, he was seen as no longer within the ranks of those practicing the ancient faith. Instead, many saw him as its greatest threat, but in that expulsion, he was able to find the greatest freedom to be whom he was called to be. He had come to the point where all of what went before was less than rubbish that only prevented his faithful service to God. And that service was not a service of works based righteousness as the Epistle to the Galatians will reveal. It was a service of love for a God who reached down and plucked a fiery and zealous persecutor from his horse and blinded him to get his attention. The God of the universe made a special effort to touch the heart of this one man, and in that encounter, so fill his heart with love for the gospel that the fire would never be quenched for the rest of his life.

Yes, Paul also encountered those false martyrs who sought to return everyone back to the past glories that they imagined were salvific. But the power of his encounter allowed him to stand firm in opposition to all of that. Eventually the very temple these “historic” Jews so venerated would even be demolished and the very Gentiles they excluded would be the primary force that would carry the gospel to the far corners of the world. All because a theology student, cum persecutor, cum evangelist to the Gentiles refused to let a constrained understanding of past imaginary glories harness him to its train.

[i] Romans 3:10

[ii] Acts 10




If you enjoyed this commentary, you might also enjoy this companion book by the author of this commentary.

To learn more click on this link.
Galatians: Walking by Faith




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