Dr. John Hartmann

Proclaiming the Whole Counsel of God

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The Conversion and Call of Saul of Tarsus

September 25th, 2011 · No Comments

Saul of Tarsus was the chief instigator of a persecution against the early church in Jerusalem that was primarily aimed against the Hellenistic Jews who had believed in Jesus and who were associated with Stephen. His conversion took place while he was journeying to Damascus, to arrest and extradite any of Jesus’ followers who had fled there to escape the persecution that was taking place in Jerusalem. The risen and exalted Jesus appeared to him in a vision, and he within three days was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. The Lord also revealed to him his calling to bear witness concerning Him to the Gentiles, the sons of Israel, and even the political powers of the Roman world, and also shows him how much he will suffer in executing this mission, all for the sake of the Name of Jesus.

There thus is an inseparable connection between Paul’s apostolic witness and the sufferings he must endure for the Name of Jesus. Who were his persecutors? Not so much the Roman authorities, who generally were indifferent to Paul’s work, except when it disturbed the peace or was perceived to be a threat to Roman rule. Nor does his opposition come mostly from the general Gentile populace, though they too could become hostile when Paul’s work challenges their idolatry or the money some made through making idols. By and large, Paul’s chief opponents were his own brethren, the sons of Israel, who opposed him in nearly every major city in the Diaspora where he preached the gospel of Christ. Paul was persecuted by Jews who didn’t believe the gospel, who, after rejecting his message, would stir up riots in order to get the Roman authorities at odds with him. But he also was persecuted in some measure by Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah, but who thought that Paul erred in not telling Gentiles who repented and believed in Jesus that they could not be saved without a full initiation into Judaism, which would include circumcision and accepting the full yoke of the Law of Moses.

Paul ministers out of deep awareness that the grace of God is with him in a special way to fulfill his calling to the Gentiles. “Yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10) becomes something of motto for Paul’s life. And the scope of the mission and grace given to him is staggering to the mind. He is given “grace and apostleship to bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His Name’s sake” (Rom 1:5; cf 12:3; 15:14-21). Paul never boasts of anything as coming from himself; everything he achieves in his ministry of the Gospel is a matter of the grace and power of God that work so mightily through him to achieve God’s goals among the Gentiles. This lays the foundation for a gift-based theology of ministry that Paul will in due time develop in his letters, displaying his unique insight that God has gifted and anointed each member of the Body of Christ for fruit-bearing in works of service that He prepared beforehand for each to walk in (Eph 2:10; 4:7-16′ 1 Cor 12; Rom 12:3-8).

Paul knows he has been given grace and apostleship in a unique way. But he in no way thinks of the work of God as something he carries out alone. Paul, more than any other NT author, again and again mentions by name those who co-labor with him in the cause of Christ, speaking of them with appreciation, affection, respect, and honor, as those who together with him lay down their lives for the Lord and His cause in the Gospel. Read through Paul’s letters and this will become so clear one wonders how we might have missed th is. Paul and the other apostles were here informed by the teaching of Jesus: that those involved in the mission of the Gospel must be ready to lose their lives in order to gain it (see Matt 10:37-42; Mark 8:34-38).

So Paul, after his conversion, was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, and immediately began to preach in the synagogues of Damascus, proclaiming that Jesus is the risen Son of God. This continues for three years, after which a plot against his life forces him to flee from Damascus to Jerusalem. We will pick up this story in two weeks, as we continue to look at the early ministry of the apostle Paul.

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