Reflecting on Saint Paul always places me outside of my comfort zone. There is something captivating about the man’s story: a well-educated Jewish leader who converts to Christianity. However, I can tell from the letters attributed to him that he is a bold individual–even after his conversion–and that has always frightened me.
Why would Jesus appoint such a tough individual? I think my struggle with Paul comes from the stern tone that shows up in his letters, but I have to remind myself that the early Christian world described in Acts is a tough place. When just about every person is a threat, one has to be strong, and Paul is the strongest Christian leader of his time.
Perhaps the most intimidating part of Paul’s writing is his honesty. To the Christians in Corinth, he points out their modest past: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Why does he point out their lowly pedigree? To show that “[God] chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians). Am I the only one who finds his descriptions of the Corinthian people rude? Yes, he ultimately acknowledges that they are saved, but still . . . lowly and despised? The man does not hold back.
Perhaps the reason so much of the New Testament still resonates with us today is that it applies such unrestricted honesty. Jesus often calls out hypocrites, and Paul does not shy away from the fact that, left to our own devices, we are messed up creatures. We desperately need God. Today it is considered inappropriate to point out such blunt truth, but the Bible presents truth without the least bit of shame.
If I search deep within my heart, I realize that I wish to have Paul’s courage. When I start to squirm in my seat and think perhaps I’ve had enough of the man’s words, a startling thought hits me: Paul is honest with his loved ones. How many people in this world are brave enough to speak such truth?
9 ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.* 10And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.
12 ‘With this in mind, I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13when at midday along the road, your Excellency,* I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew* language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” 15I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me* and to those in which I will appear to you.17I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
19 ‘After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,20but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.21For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.
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