Paul is not my favorite.
Not my favorite Kiss guy – that honor goes to Gene Simmons, rather than Paul Stanley. Also not my favorite Beatle – I generally prefer Lennon over McCartney. Nor in hockey – I always thought Mr. Coffey’s impact as an offensive defenceman was overblown compared with, say, Mr. McInnis. And Paul is also not my favorite apostle.
Or even my second-favorite.
As I’ve said before, I identify very strongly with Peter’s ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach to both talk and action – and the fact he’s so quick to change his mind about pivotally important matters – in the Gospels. And I’m encouraged by the fact God helped him to harness and overcome these weaknesses to become the faithful primary leader of The Way in the book of Acts.
I’m also right there with Doubting Thomas far too much of the time, and I greatly admire the loyalty and steadfastness of Barnabas. My favorite Gospel is John and my favorite epistle was written by James, so these two guys rate higher than Paul, too. (James was not written by John’s brother James, by the way. It’s believed to have been penned by James the Just, who may have been the brother of Jesus! Just a bit of biblical trivia for you, at no extra charge.)
So it seems that Paul doesn’t even crack my personal Top 5 Christian Apostles. Not only because I gravitate toward others more that I do to him, but because I’m actually repelled by a few of the things I know about him.
Paul’s writing style is a bit rambly for my tastes (am I the pot or the kettle in this scenario?), for starters. But more alarmingly, the substance of some of his writing rubs me the wrong way, too. Some of his guidance about women and their roles in the church and in families is a little harsh for my tastes. I’m also not wild about Paul’s views on marriage in general. Additionally, I’m uncomfortable with the way he turns his back on Barnabas when Barnabas refused to turn his back on John Mark in Acts 15:35-40.
Admittedly, though, these are minor chinks in an otherwise brilliant and shining suit of armor. There’s a great deal more to admire about The Paul Guy than to admonish. The boldness and audacity with which he delivers the Gospel – refusing to defer to Peter on some key issues, even though Peter had known and followed Jesus in the flesh, while Paul apparently only met Him on the Damascus Road – blows me away whenever I think about it.
His absolute dedication to spreading the Good News to the whole world – travelling perhaps 10,000 miles by sandal and sail – is disciplehood dedication I can only dream about. In his travels, he founded perhaps a dozen or more churches in these far-flung (often hostile) locales, so I think it’s safe to say he was the most prolific missionary of the early church.
But perhaps even more important than Paul’s church planting is his ‘church watering’. He wasn’t just about starting churches, he was just as concerned about making sure they stayed on track! He didn’t just plant the seed and leave its cultivation to chance; he wrote letters back to these fledgling communities, challenging them to go deeper; rebuking them when they wandered off track and praising them for their growth.
And loving them, fully and completely, all the while.
Paul’s example illustrates very clearly that evangelism isn’t merely about head-hunting. It’s at least as much about heart-filling. Paul’s accomplishments, recorded in the Book of Acts, would be impressive and instructive on their own. But what if that was all we knew about him? What if history recorded that Paul wrote Spirit-filled letters to early Christian groups and individuals, but the letters themselves had never made it out of the First Century?
The Gospels and Acts are obviously critical to us learning the story of Jesus and the Church, but the epistles are what really puts flesh on those bones – explaining and interpreting what happened during Jesus’ life, and providing first-hand elaboration on some of the stories told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Our understanding of Jesus – both who He is and what He did – are informed almost as greatly by the epistles (most of which were written by Paul) as the five books that precede them!
If not for Paul’s Epistles, how different would this thing we call ‘Christianity’ be?
And while you’re thinking about that, think about this: About a third of Paul’s letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon) were written while he was in prison!
Not necessarily the dark, overcrowded, filthy, disease-ridden dungeon he chose not to escape from in Acts 16:16-40, but still under lock and key. Paul was under house arrest and awaiting probable execution when he wrote at least some of these.
Not exactly the cheeriest of circumstances. And yet, Philippians is sometimes described as the most joy-filled epistle. Colossians is among the more encouraging of Paul’s letters. It even contains passages that are often read at weddings!
It’s probably overstating my case to say Paul did his best work in prison (the book of Romans is probably his masterpiece about his Master, and that was probably written during his third missionary journey in Corinth). But it is fair to say the shackles of incarceration didn’t slow him down at all.
With God’s help, Paul was the same disciple in good times and in bad. I don’t know about you, but I have good times and bad, too.
My bad times are a far cry from Paul’s, though – in terms of both severity and duration. And if God could help Paul find find purpose and joy (JOY!) in his circumstances, horrifying and painful as they were, I wonder what he can do for us in ours.
If we let Him.
Peace be with you.