Now that alone is amazing, but what I find even more amazing than what he did, is what he had to overcome to do it. Few think of Paul as anything less than a powerful, awe-inspiring orator whose presence and delivery left listeners powerless to resist. But, these people would do well to read their Bible again.
Everyone knows that Paul was once a Jew whose name was Saul. He was a Pharisee from Tarsus (southern Turkey), and a very committed one at that. Luke tells us that Paul studied under the Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel, who may not be a household name today, but was a big name then.
Saul was actively persecuting the Christians of his day, when he was knocked off his horse by a flash of light and blinded. His encounter with the risen Christ changed his heart, his name, and his mission. From then on, Saul became a believer in Jesus, would be known from then on as Paul, and dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel.
He had good times, and bad times. He was beaten, chased out of towns, and imprisoned for his effort. And ultimately in the end, he was arrested in Jerusalem, brought to Rome, and beheaded under the emperor Nero in 64 AD.
Now think about this. Say you’re a content Jew or a happy pagan, and this Paul guy comes into town. He starts to talk about this criminal who the Romans crucified named Jesus of Nazareth. But this Jesus wasn’t really a criminal at all, because he was of course innocent. And not only innocent, but he had never sinned against any law – he was blameless. And to say that he was blameless and even perfect would be an understatement, let’s just say that he was God. And not only one of the gods, but the only God. Riiiiight.
So Paul’s got a different problem with each group. First, the Jews have a tough time with the God in man’s image based on two things. First, in Deuteronomy 21:23 it says, “…God's curse rests on him who hangs on a tree…” Not to mention that the Decalogue's prohibition of making a graven image of God. To the pagans, believing Jesus is another god is not that big of a deal. But to say that there is only one God, and Jesus is He, sounds ridiculous to polytheistic logic and reason. Paul himself points this out in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:23):
“…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,…”So Paul claims that Jesus is God, the one and only God, who was killed. What proof does Paul have that this is true? Because Jesus was raised from the dead and knocked him off a horse. And you can imagine the next question would be that if Jesus were alive, why Paul couldn’t show him to them. To which Paul had to answer that he couldn’t because Jesus was now in heaven.
Talk about a tough sell. I can only imagine how difficult talking about the Trinity was! So with the message being a hard one to sell, Paul must have been an amazing speaker, right? Wrong. Paul’s letters could be forceful but listen to what Paul says in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 10:10):
“For someone will say, ‘His letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’”Or elsewhere in the same letter (2 Cor 11:6):
“Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”Like Moses, Paul’s public speaking skills left much to be desired. He himself knew it, and had to deal with it daily I’m sure. But he didn’t let that stop him.
So if the message is tough to sell, and his speaking skills are limited, Paul must have been the first century Fabio. Walking around with his low-cut tunic exposing his overly developed chest, hair blowing in the wind.
Well, probably not. In the apocryphal writing “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”, a popular read during its time, the writer gives us a possible glimpse of what Paul looked like:
“…for Titus had informed him what Paul was like in appearance: for he had not seen him in the flesh, but only in the spirit. And he went along the road to Lystra, and stood waiting for him, and kept looking at the passers by according to the description of Titus. And he saw Paul coming, a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built, with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace. For sometimes he seemed like a man, and sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.”And here we find the icing on the cake. Paul was a stocky, short, bow-legged big-nosed dude with a uni-brow?! Little chance of finding Paul on the cover of a first century romance scroll or selling “I Can’t Believe it’s not Olive Oil” spread. This is by the way, the reason that Paul is traditionally depicted as being a little sparse in the hair department.
So if the people didn’t believe him, he wasn’t a “good talker”, and he looked like Danny DeVito, what was his secret?
Paul sought the will of God in his life, kept the end game in sight, and believed people were worth trying to save. He had the, “countenance of an angel”. His faith in God, hope in Heaven, and Love of the lost never let anything – and I mean anything – from stopping him. Paul changed his life to reflect his faith, not his faith to reflect his life. And he never gave up; he died with his sandals on.
God’s will in our life is most likely not going to be for us to do huge world changing things. Instead of changing the people of the world, it vary well may be to change a person’s world - maybe our spouse’s, our children, someone we know…. Whatever task we are each given, and regardless of how bad we have it, we are to be beacons of Faith, Hope, and Love in the world.
Laughed at by the Pagans, scorned by his own Jews, you know Paul took a beating. Nevertheless, Paul not only stuck it out, but as he said,
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.”I pray I will someday be able to say the same.
St. Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, pray for us!