Paul—Persecutor, Apostle, Martyr

The following are the words I shared this morning with the University Church of Christ, where I attend. They fit quite well, I think, within this year’s theme of “love not the world.”

Aristotle’s description of the Great-Souled man

In his works on ethics, Aristotle describes various human qualities, virtues, and personality types. The one I find most interesting is what he calls the “Great-Souled” character. In modern translations, the Greek word for “great-soul” (megalopsychos) is often translated “magnanimity,” which derives from a Latin term that also means great-soul. But in modern English the word magnanimity means (excessive and unexpected) generosity.  And that is not what Aristotle means.

Aristotle says the Great-Souled (G-S from now on) man “seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and really is worthy” (EN 4.3). He is capable of great deeds and knows he is capable. He deserves great honor and knows it. He possesses great energy and ambition. He is willing to suffer greatly for a great cause. In Aristotle’s words, the G-S man “is unsparing of his life, since he does not think that life at all costs is worth living.”

But his great failing is measuring his greatness by what his country or city or community values most. Aristotle says that honor is the greatest of all external goods (EN 4.3). So, above all things, the G-S man seeks the honor and glory he thinks he deserves. And since he knows he is worthy of great honor, he is prone to be intolerant of insult and to explode in great anger when deprived of the honor he knows deserves. (For more on this subject, see Jacob Howland, “Aristotle’s Great-Souled Man,” Review of Politics, 64.1 (Winter 2002): 27-56.)

Paul as the Great-Souled Man

My assignment today is to survey the career, character, and message of Paul the Apostle. By any measure Paul was a great man. But I think we can gain greater insight into Paul by viewing him through the lens of the G-S character type. That’s what we will do this morning.

Upbringing

From Acts, we learn that Paul was a citizen of Tarsus. Tarsus was the capitol city of a region called Cilicia in Asia Minor (Modern Turkey) and a regional center of learning. It was home to several famous Stoic philosophers contemporary with Paul. We are pretty sure that Paul came from a moderately wealthy family, because only people of some wealth could become citizens of Tarsus. In Acts 22, we learn that, though he was born in Tarsus, he was brought up in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel, the most famous Rabbi and teacher at that time.

Paul describes himself in Philippians as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (3:5), that is, ultraorthodox and extreme. And in Galatians, chapter one, he describes himself this way (1:13-14):

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

Paul was a highly talented man and very ambitious to do great things and receive great honor. But he sought to do great things as measured by what the sect of Pharisees considered great. And his ambition for greatness among the Pharisees led him to become a persecutor of Christians.

The Persecutor

Paul viewed the rise of Christianity as a great threat to Judaism and to his community. For Paul, Jesus was a deceiver and his disciples were heretics! After all, Jesus was tried in the Jewish Court, convicted of blasphemy, and crucified by the Romans as a rebel. He could not be the messiah as the Christians claimed! Paul was outraged at this insult to God, the law, the temple, and Judaism—and to himself!

Paul is first mentioned in Acts as participating in Stephen’s murder and then as the designated inquisitor to arrest disciples in Damascus and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. Acts 9 describes him as “breathing out threatenings and slaughter.” He was the Great-Souled man at his worst.

Conversion

But Saul, the Great-Souled man, met Jesus on the road to Damascus. What an unlikely convert! And what a transformation! The chief inquisitor becomes the apostle to the world for all time! What he took as blasphemy, he learned was God’s deep truth. What before looked like weakness now appears as divine power! Human folly has become divine wisdom. Shame becomes glory and insult honor. Everything in Paul’s world has been turned upside down.

His former great cause, his great ambitions, and his great accomplishments, he now considers “as garbage” (Phil 3:8) compared to knowing Christ. His legal scrupulousness, his sincerity, and his zeal for God’s honor, he now calls “the flesh,” mere human pride in oneself (Phil 3:3).

But Paul has not ceased to be the G-S man. All his enormous energy and ambition was brought into the service of Christ. He is still capable of great things and knows it. And he knows how to brag about it, as you can see in 1 Cor. 15:9-10:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

And in 2 Cor 11-12, he gives two chapters to “bragging” about his work:

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 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.24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 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, 26 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. 27 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. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.

As you can see, Paul is still willing to suffer greatly for a great cause! And like Aristotle’s G-S man, “He is unsparing of his life, since he does not think life at all costs is worth living.” But Paul now measures greatness and glory and honor by another standard. It’s not the well-being of the city or the nation or of any other community or interest group or academic guild or profession or business or institution. Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the standard for human greatness, wisdom, and honor. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). He is what God would look like if God became a human being. And the Christian Great-Souled person wants to be as much like God as possible, which means to become as much like Jesus as possible. Listen to Paul’s words from Philippians 3:10-11:

 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s Gospel, Teaching and Theology

Paul’s message, teaching, and theology are shaped by his character and his experience on the Damascus road. He learned to his total surprise that he did not know himself or God; indeed, he learned that instead of loving God he hated him and that instead of being perfectly righteous he was the worst of sinners! And yet God chose him, called him, forgave him, and bestowed abundant grace and mercy on him. This experience humbled Paul and made him infinitely grateful. Hence…

Paul’s message was cross-centered and Spirit-empowered. It urges us to respond to God by trusting in the unbounded mercy and grace of God shown in Jesus Christ.

The Cross.

It should not be surprising that Paul’s gospel centered on the cross. Listen to 1 Cor 2:1-5:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Before Paul’s conversion, the cross was the thing he hated most about Jesus and his followers. But meeting Jesus in the heavenly vision revolutionized his understanding of the cross. Now he sees it as a window into the heart of God. The law gives some insight into God’s justice, but the cross reveals a deeper justice, the secret of divine love. And it shows the way we must live in order to become like God.

Grace/mercy

Grace is the favor that moves God to extend mercy to us. Paul never ceases to be amazed that God loves him, that God looks on him with favor and extends his mercy to him. Paul knows from experience what happens when you measure yourself by a human standard and think that God also uses that standard! It leads to self-righteousness, blasphemy, and persecution. For all his legal righteousness and zeal for God’s law, Paul discovered he still needed infinite mercy! And Paul’s gospel shouts that we have no claim on God. If God favors us and accepts us, it is because of his sheer grace and mercy! Never ever think there is another reason! Paul makes this clear in Romans 3:21-24:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in[h] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Speaking of Faith and Trust…

Paul didn’t request a meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road, and he knows that he didn’t deserve the mercy and forgiveness given him. But he believed the heavenly voice and trusted in God’s mercy. The gospel Paul preached is about the surprising thing God has done for us; it’s about his favor and mercy and forgiveness enacted in Jesus. The gospel urges us to believe and trust in God’s grace.

Faith is our acknowledgment that God’s is way ahead of us and that we want to catch up. It is our confidence in God’s love and mercy. Faith is our first positive response to God’s offer of salvation; it’s not the cause but the effect of God’s grace. Every other response to Jesus flows from faith and trust.

Faith is not some great, noble, and difficult act that sets us above others. No, not at all! Faith is the humblest, poorest, most empty-handed act we can do. It puts no confidence in our power or wisdom or goodness. It renounces all such claims and acknowledges that God alone is holy, that Jesus alone is Savior and Lord. It looks down on no one. It compares itself to no one. For it keeps its eyes fixed on Jesus.

The Unity of Jew and Gentile

Isn’t this amazing: Jesus called Paul the Pharisee, the ultraorthodox enforcer, to be the apostle to the “unclean” gentiles! And Paul took that mission with great seriousness. He resisted every attempt to force gentile Christians to keep the Law of Moses. In Christ, everyone, Jew and gentile alike, relates to God by faith and trust in God’s grace bestowed in Jesus, not by keeping the law. Paul sees the church as the fulfillment of the OT prophecies about the nations of the world coming to faith in Israel’s God and flowing into Jerusalem.

And the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ is one of his major concerns throughout the letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. You can see this issue surface especially in Romans, chapters 1-3 and 9-11. No one, gentile or Jew, can make themselves acceptable to God by keeping the law! So, Jews should not look down on gentiles because they don’t keep kosher or observe Sabbaths and other holy days! And gentiles must not look down on Jewish believers because they observe the law or because most Jews did not accept Jesus as the messiah. We are one body in Jesus Christ, as Paul says so eloquently in Galatians 3:26-29:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What makes us acceptable to God? What makes us children of God and heirs of the promise given to Abraham? On what basis should we accept each other? Everyone, Paul says, who in faith has been baptized into Christ is our brother or sister. They are God’s children, acceptable to God, heirs of the promise. We are united to each other in Christ, Paul says, so get used to it!

We must accept those whom God accepts, on the same basis God accepts them. It matters not your tribe, your nation, or your social status. It makes no difference whether your skin in pink, white, black, brown, yellow, or purple. It doesn’t matter where your ancestors lived, in the North or South or East or West. Young or old, educated or ignorant, rich or poor, from the city or from the country…It makes no difference. Languages don’t matter! In the church, every day is Pentecost! In the church, only one thing matters: how you stand with Jesus Christ. Do you rely on him completely as Savior? Do you give yourself to him utterly as your Lord?

The Spirit and the Law

To some people Paul’s talk of divine love, grace, and mercy, his insistence of faith as the proper response to grace, and his seeming criticism of the Law of Moses implies that we don’t need to make any effort to be good or to do good in the world. Apparently, Paul heard this kind of objection often. For in Romans, chapters 6-8, he responds to it at length. In 6:1-4, he says:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Where do we get the power for this new life? Paul’s answer is very clear: from God’s Spirit, which lives and works in all who are united to Christ! Listen to Romans 8:1-4:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

In faith, receive and trust in the power of the divine Spirit to change us, to transform us into new people. Through the Spirit’s power we become people who really do love God and our neighbors, who reject the way of the world, and allow the Spirit to place the life of Jesus into our spirits. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. The Law can’t do it for you. But the Spirit can.

Four Lessons

What can we learn from Paul, the Great-Souled man?

First, we need a Damascus Road experience. We need to encounter Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. We need to learn to see ourselves differently…not as those who “seem to be worthy of great things and really are worthy.” We need to stop measuring greatness by human standards and seeking honor from human beings. Ask yourself how much your search for acceptance, recognition, attention, honor, and glory from other people drives your life? What about us academics? Do we seek honor from our peers or from God? What about students? What about you professionals? What a difference it would make if we sought honor and glory and acceptance from God alone, and in relation to human beings sought only to do them good.

Second, we need to adopt God’s great cause, which is bringing the whole world into conformity with the pattern of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the place to start is with yourself. That is what Paul did.

Third, we need to understand that in union with Christ and through the power of the Spirit we are capable of great things and we will be made worthy of great honor. We do not have to be slaves to anger, greed, lust, pride, and a host of bad habits. You can be transformed into a patient, loving, disciplined, generous, and wise person. We can be a light in the darkness. There is no greater accomplishment than becoming like God as God is seen in Jesus. And there is no greater power for good in this world than living such a life. No one acting as a warrior or persecutor or politician or academic can do such great things or deserved so great an honor.

Fourth, don’t delay. Resolve today to place your biography, character, and experience—no matter what it is!—in God’s hands. Do what Paul did. In faith, accept God’s grace and make that clear to everyone by submitting to baptism into Christ. God used Paul to do great things and he can use you! God alone decides what things are truly great and deserve honor. And you don’t have to be extraordinary in the eyes of others to do them.

I will conclude with the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28:

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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3 thoughts on “Paul—Persecutor, Apostle, Martyr

  1. nokareon

    Wow! I’m reading N.T. Wright’s “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” right now, and I find a lot of what you are saying here resonates with his work in that tome.

    Would you say that our political leaders/figureheads live out Aristotle’s concept of “great-souled” in the worldly sense? I find it significant that in 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks *as if* he were going to boast in the way of the world, but concludes with a resounding rejection of that way: “if I boast, I boast in those things that show my weakness.” This is the great-souledness that flows from alignment with God’s will and mission, not the world’s paradigm.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      I need to read more of Wright. I’ve not read this book. Yes, Paul does qualify his boasting in a way that gives God glory. And what an brilliant move to “boast” about his weaknesses! He seems to resort to irony, that is, appearing to be “worse” than he really is to demonstrate his superior qualities in a way in which they will be taken seriously! I am sure some students of NT rhetoric have studies this rhetorical strategy. It is very interesting. He gets to state his experience and qualifications without the seriousness of the braggart. But of course the braggart is never taken seriously! So interesting!

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      1. nokareon

        Indeed! Paul was placed in the awful position of having his credentials challenged by opponents who knew his generally meek demeanor and way of conducting his ministry. It is like the bullying of a shy child who won’t talk or fight back, when the bullies take the lack of resistance as fuel to continue the bullying. However, Paul finds a clever way to establish his credentials while simultaneously critiquing the methodology of his opponents and re-affirming his own. Wow!

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