“The Apostle Paul” 2 Thess. 3:16-18 Nov. 26, 1995
There are some men, says James Stalker, in his valuable little work on the Apostle Paul, whose lives it is impossible to study without receiving the impression that they were expressly sent into the world to do a work required by the juncture of history on which they fell. He gives examples such as that of the reformers — Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox — without whom it is impossible to conceive of the Reformation and of the revolution in the history of the world that the Reformation brought to pass. Or, in the history of Scotland, Thomas Chalmers. When the evangelical revival was about to break over Scotland in the early 19th century, there was raised up, by the grace of God, in Thomas Chalmers a mind of such ability and power as to completely absorb the movement into itself, and a life of such goodness and sympathy as to spread that movement to every corner of the land. It is impossible to conceive of that revival without Chalmers.
In the history of the nations it is the same. Men who so changed their times so as also to have changed all the times that followed them, men without whom the history of the world could not be written as now it is. Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Columbus, Napoleon, and the like.
But above all of these and towering above them all is one man: Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul. Apart from the Lord Jesus himself — who, though a true man, must be considered apart from all other men — can there ever have been or ever be a greater man than this man? Can there ever have been a man who exercised a greater influence upon the entire world and the course of its history than this man? Can there be any man with a greater claim to being the greatest man save one in all the history of mankind than Paul? The Lord said that his cousin, John the Baptist, was the greatest man born of woman, but was he not speaking of other things than those things by which we measure the influence and the importance of any single player on the stage of world history?
I want, this morning, to set before you a great hero. The Christian faith has produced heros in all of its ages and it is to its immortal credit that its heros are so worthy of their fame, unlike so many of the other heros of world history. You and I need heros; in this unheroic day and age in which we live, we need them more than ever. Our children need them. It is this vision of greatness, greatness invested in mere sinful humanity, that is essential to Christianity’s power and influence in the world. We are not simply followers of a lifestyle or a doctrine. We are those who know and serve the living God while still in this world and his presence in our lives can and should make us great, even heroic, in our manner of life. That greatness will not always be what the world recognizes as greatness; but then, we Christians have heros whose greatness no one can mistake. And we need not take that fact on faith. History and biography are the demonstration of it. And no greater demonstration does it furnish than the life and labors of this one man: Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only did he change the face of history in his own time and in the age immediately following; not only did the statement of the Christian faith that he produced in the NT become the charter of an entire civilization; but, over and over again, this man has reached forward from the grave, through his writings, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to change men and history at the most important moments and crises of that history.
It was reading Paul that transformed Augustine’s life and saved the Christian church and so the world in a day of greatest conceivable danger. It was reading Paul that set Martin Luther on a course to change the world once again. Lying behind the thinking of virtually every great Christian on whose shoulders the kingdom of God has been carried forward in the world, lies the writings and still more the mind and the heart of this titan. Calvin, Knox, Cromwell, Rutherford — the princes of modern political liberty as well as of Christian civilization and influence were all Paulinists to the man. I could go on at great length.
But let me now in four particulars remind you of the achievements of this man, of his legacy, of the inheritance he bequeathed to the Christian church and so to the world. They are, of course, the Lord’s achievements first. As Paul said himself in so many ways, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” But it is God’s own holy Word that teaches us to celebrate the man that God made and teaches us what pleasure God takes in the fame and the celebrity and the honor that is rightfully given to those who have, by his grace, served him so mightily and well.
II. First, Paul’s own life and experience were the original and the greatest demonstration that the salvation of sinners was and must be nothing less than, nothing else than a triumph of sovereign grace.
You know, perhaps, that the conversion of Paul to the Christian faith is the Bible’s grand illustration of the nature and character of salvation as a divine work performed in and for a man. His sudden conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, reported on four separate occasions in Acts and the Epistles and receiving more space in the NT than even the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the NT’s most comprehensive account a man being born again and the new creation by which the enemies of God — which all men and women are when they are first conceived — are made to be his friends, his children, and his servants.
Not all are brought to Christ as dramatically, as instantaneously as was Paul. Not all are the open enemies of the gospel beforehand as he was. But the story of his coming to be a Christian, larger than life as it is, came to represent and to demonstrate and to illustrate the spiritual history of all believers, whether they became the followers of Christ while still in infancy, while children in the home, while young adults, or in the last stages of life.
God’s grace showed its strength in making such a complete conquest of Paul. In an instant, on that Damascus road, it transformed him from the first century equivalent of a gestapo henchman, seeking the harm of every Christian he could ferret out, into the greatest champion of the Lord Jesus Christ and his message the world has ever seen or will see.
But if God’s grace demonstrated its strength in such a complete conquest of this man, it demonstrated as well its worth, its purity, and its goodness in the kind of man it made Paul to be. It made of him a man of such goodness and wide spirit and a man so hungry for the blessing of others and so steadfast in the truest and purest principles, it made him so brave and so humble and so hard-working, and so self-sacrificing and so hungry and thirsty for righteousness and so devoted to God that his life became and has since been one of the grandest adornments of our Christian faith and one of the most powerful evidences of its truth that can be imagined.
How else can you account for Paul and for the glorious reversal of his life and all his thinking except for the grace and the power of God? And it is a wonderful thing to think that that same power and that same grace must be and is unleashed in every life that is brought to faith in Christ and the love of God. If you believe in Jesus today, really believe, believe in the life-transforming way of true Christian faith, then Paul is only a particularly striking example of what has also happened to you. You too are a triumph of divine grace and work of supreme divine power. That is Paul’s own doctrine and teaching: what happened to him must happen to anyone if he or she would be saved. So how wonderful a thing it is when God’s grace overtakes a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.
II. Second, Paul demonstrated that Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is not merely an experience, nor simply a religious idea, but is in fact, the only truly satisfying, unconquerable philosophy of life and knowledge, a world view embracing all truth, all nature, all human experience.
It is almost impossible to overstate what Peter and John meant to Christianity. The simple, affectionate peasant men of Galilee could tell with convincing power, as no others could, the story of those three wonderful years when they walked and talked with Jesus, how they learned to trust him and love him, what terrible and glorious things they heard from his lips, and how they saw him dead and then alive again. As one of them said years later:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it…” (1 John 1:1-2)
No one else could do what they did. But the church had to go out into the pagan world and down through the coming centuries it would have to encounter and overcome cold indifference, clever skepticism, and fierce opposition of the most sophisticated and learned type.
And so, for the 13th apostle, the Lord chose a man who was a genius, a scholar, a thinker of epic proportion. By the powerful working of his grace the Lord brought that exceptionally fine mind into obedience to the gospel and sanctified all of its powers for the gospel’s sake.
Christ had left the world and those whom he had left to represent him were unlettered fishermen and, for the most part, men of no intellectual mark. Now that in itself reflects a special glory on Christianity, for it demonstrates that it did not owe its place in the world to the attainments of its human representatives. It was not the accomplishment of men. “Not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of God” did the gospel make its way into the world so successfully. Yet, it is not hard to see how necessary it would be that the church be furnished with a man who would be capable of supplying the world with an explanation of Jesus Christ and his gospel that had the intellectual reach and philosophical sophistication that would satisfy even the most demanding of eager and earnest seekers and would provide the church with the material with which to construct an adequate defense of its truth no matter what the opposing philosophies might be that she would eventually encounter on her course of conquest through the world.
Of course, we cheerfully admit that it is not essential to salvation to be able to answer the sort of questions that may be put to Christianity as a system of doctrine and a philosophy of life and knowledge. There are many who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity and truth who could not explain the faith in a manner at all satisfactory to the intellect of the world.
Yet, if the gospel were to make an intellectual conquest of the nations as well as a moral and spiritual conquest — and it must, finally make the one in order to make the other two — it needed a man who could explain to the church itself as well as to the world the full glory of her Lord and the meaning of his saving work. That man was Paul. And the fact that Peter confesses that it was Paul’s writings that proved most challenging to the readers of what was to become the NT, is proof enough that neither John nor Peter could have done what Paul did.
III. Third, Paul provided in his own life and the record of it and the explanation of it in his letters a most powerful and persuasive demonstration of the full and radical commitment to Christ that any and every Christian is summoned to offer the Lord Jesus in love and in thanksgiving.
Christianity obtained in Paul, as a gift from her Lord and Master, an incomparable illustration of what a Christian life is supposed to be, of what Christ is after in the saving of a soul, what Christlikeness looks like in sinful flesh and blood.
Our faith, of course, already possessed a perfect model of human living in the life of our Founder. But the Lord Jesus was not as other men. He was without sin. And so his example, in some respects, was inadequate to teach us what following the Lord must mean and can mean for men and women as imperfect as we are.
In Paul Christianity was able to demonstrate to the world the force and the virtue that was in it. Paul himself was aware of this and spoke of it. For example, in 1 Tim. 1:16 he wrote:
“…for [this] very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display is unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
And what an example! How much he suffered, how much he endured, with what patience he received the most cruel and unjust treatment at the hands of men so much less than himself. What losses for Christ’s sake? [He says that he suffered the loss of all things. Did that include a wife who refused to come with him into the new faith? It certainly included the love and regard of most of his former friends and peers!] And what consecration! Did ever a man so burn himself up with work, with travel, with the maximum effort that the great interests of his life required from him every day, every hour. He taught, we read in the Western text of the book of Acts, he taught in the lecture hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus when everyone else was at siesta. No afternoon nap for this man. Did ever a man so press forward to obtain that for which Christ had laid hold of him? At the end of his life, when he knew it was over and he was soon to be executed, he was still urging Timothy to bring the books he needed for study and writing with him when he came to join Paul in Rome. [I’m reminded of the visit Prof. Cornelius van Til paid to our own Dr. J. Oliver Buswell when the latter was on his deathbed, or nearly so, and found old Dr. Buswell, weakened by several strokes, still drilling himself on Hebrew vocabulary! Or better, William Tyndale, in the cold, drafty cell what was his last home on earth, begging to be allowed to have his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew dictionary and grammar, so that he could continue his studies. These men were followers of Paul as he was of Jesus Christ.]
And this was a sinful man! Or as Chrysostom says “For if he was a Paul, he also was a man!” A man of sins and weaknesses and struggles, a man often borne down by his own failings and his own disgusting penchant for thinking and doing the very thing he knew was unbecoming a follower of Christ. He tells us so, he makes no bones about it. And his spiritual weaknesses only enhance his glory and the usefulness of his example. For they strip from us the excuse that being sinful ourselves we cannot aspire to such a life as he lived, such a life of unremitting devotion to and sacrifice for the King of Kings.
Looming over all of Christianity and over every Christian church in every time and every place is the gloomy specter of nominalism, of faith in Christ that is more talk than life and love and obedience. We see it everywhere in the history of Holy Scripture and everywhere again in the history of the church since the days of the Apostles. But we have Paul’s life as one of the greatest arguments that God has given us with which to combat and repel the nominalist impulse, the illusion that we can be Christians without living the Christian life seriously and zealously and with determination and love. When Christ saved Paul he made him a servant, and Paul says her never saves anyone without doing the same.
IV. And then finally, in the fourth place, the church received in Paul, its greatest missionary, a man who saw the gospel of Jesus Christ as not merely his own hope but the only hope of the entire world.
It is a rare thing to find in the great thinker a man of action, but the church found it in Paul. He was not only the greatest thinker the Lord has ever given to the church, but her greatest worker ever!
One of the great purposes of Jesus Christ was to break down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile and to make the blessings of his salvation known to all men, to every tongue, tribe, and nation. But he could not do that himself. He was limited, by the nature of his mission in the world, to ministry to the lost sheep of Israel.
It fell to another man to change the course of history in this way and that man was Paul. None of the other apostles was equal to this task, none of them had the gifts to attempt the evangelization of the world on a large scale. And how marvelous that it should have been a man who, before he met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, was more zealous for the exclusive privileges of the Jews than almost any man alive.
That he should become the man of such wide spirit as to give his entire heart and life to the winning of the gentile world, to the breaking down of Jewish prejudice in the church, and to the defense of the absolute equality of all men in Jesus Christ, is one of the most beautiful features of the story of divine grace in the NT.
But he was a man who knew himself to be a debtor to the grace of God and so said, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” And in so loving the world, in his master’s name, and in so spending himself for the salvation of others, he left the entire church, he left us, you and me, an example that we should follow in his steps. And so the church has, imperfectly of course, and today there are Christians everywhere, among peoples the Apostle Paul did not know existed, but, had he known, he would have planned to reach!
We have only tradition to tell us of his end, beheaded in or shortly after A.D. 65, outside of Rome, as part of the bloody persecution of the church by Nero. [H.V. Morton reminds us that God has vindicated his servant before the whole world, in that now we call our dogs Nero and Caesar and we call our sons Paul!] It was, it is thought, at the third milepost of the Ostian Way.
He had been led out of the city, no doubt in the company of the common rabble that loved such events. The hot white stone road, the yelling bloodthirsty mob, the small quiet old man walking silently, communing with his thoughts, perhaps casting a quick glance backward over that extraordinary life, all the way back to another road, far away, where he had first seen and heard the Master he had now served so long and so well.
The place was reached and the evil deed was done and, what an empty triumph for sin was that! For by cutting off the great man’s head, his spirit was released to claim his crown in that place — in the third heaven — that he had once been given to see, a place so wonderful he had been forbidden to describe it to others.
Listen to James Stalker once more:
“Even on earth Paul could not die. He lives among us today with a life a hundredfold more influential than that which throbbed in his brain while the earthly hull which made him visible still lingered on the earth. Wherever the feet of them who publish the glad tidings go forth beautiful upon the mountains he walks by their side an as inspirer and a guide; in ten thousand churches every Sabbath and on a thousand thousand hearths every day his eloquent lips still teach that gospel of which he was never ashamed; and wherever there are human souls searching for the white flower of holiness or climbing the difficult heights of self-denial, there he whose life was so pure, whose devotion to Christ was so entire, and whose pursuit of single purpose was so unceasing, is welcomed as the best of friends.” [166-167]
And, brothers and sisters, because we are Christians, if we are Christians, we belong to him and he belongs to us. He shall not come to us, but we will go to him. And that is a wonderful reason why it is so indescribably grand to be a Christian. Do you not want to live your life as he did his? And then, to depart and be with Christ, which, as he taught us and showed us, is better by far.