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Legalism and Faith (11)
Saul the Pharisee Becomes the Apostle of Grace

(Bible Study - November 1999)

The apostles continued on earth the work of the ascended Messiah. The original twelve (less Judas, plus Matthias), became the leadership core. Peter took primacy early on within this core group, fulfilling his commission from the Lord Jesus. Others also joined their ranks, notably prominent figures such as Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, Stephen, Titus, and Paul. The apostles guided the growing body of believers through the difficulties and stresses of Jewish opposition, internal strife, Roman persecution, organizational growth problems, difficult people, and all the other headaches and heartaches inherent in managing an organization whose product was "a people for the Lord."

The unlikely apostle
One of the greatest of all the Lord’s servants was a man who had no intention of aspiring to apostleship when he grew up. In fact, he dedicated his life course to destroying the work of the apostolate. Had the early church leaders drawn up a list of potential recruits, they doubtless would have omitted the name of Saul of Tarsus. More likely, Saul of Tarsus would have headed the list "Least Likely Candidates for the Truth." A bitter enemy and complete ideological opposite of Christianity, Saul seemed destined for a life of exquisite Pharisaism.

But as often happens, the ways of Providence surpass human ken.

The Lord God had a special role in the new synagogue of Christ that only Saul of Tarsus could fill. While all his life Saul thought he was preparing to be the chief rabbi, God had a different occupational goal in mind. Keeping this great theological person in his chosen field, but entirely reorienting his perspective, God took the man Saul for a very special role: the apostle of Grace.

Paul, as we better know him, scattered autobiographical bits throughout his letters. We also have Luke’s first-person accounts of his speeches in Acts, where he had reason to mention his background. Although we have no one place where Paul gives his whole "story," such as we might do when someone asks how we came into the Faith, he does give us enough background to help us get a reasonable picture of his early life.

Top Pharisee
In this article we aren’t so much interested in Paul’s biography as we are in relating his theological background to his role as apostle of grace. We know that Paul (then Saul) was born in Tarsus, the son of a Pharisee who was also a Roman citizen. Paul went to Jerusalem early in life to study with the great rabbi Gamaliel. In his first Jerusalem trial (Acts 22:2), Paul introduced himself to the Sanhedrin as he who learned "at the feet of Gamaliel." This phrase means more than we would take it for at first glance. It sounds like Paul is giving homage to his teacher, and that he hung on Gamaliel’s every word. Actually, Paul used this figure of speech to remind the Sanhedrin just how important a figure Saul of Tarsus was, even from his earliest years in Jerusalem. In the synagogues, students sat in an arrangement that reflected their academic position. We have a description of a typical academic synagogue setting in which Paul would have studied:

"The academy head presided, seated on a chair or on special mats. In the front rows opposite him sat the important scholars, including his colleagues or outstanding pupils, and behind them all the other scholars. When the academies grew larger, particularly in Palestine, the order of the seating was based on a precisely defined hierarchy. In the first row sat the great scholars, in the second row the less important sages, and so on" (Adin Steinsaltz, The Essential Talmud).

We can, therefore, picture the apostle as a young man, seated front and center, at the very feet of the renowned and revered Gamaliel. Already at the top of his class, he was on his way to becoming the leading Pharisee.

Paul also wrote to the Galatians (1:14) that he was extremely zealous for the law, and his academic accomplishments exceeded that of many of his peers. This may have been a humble way of saying that he really excelled above everyone when it came to legalistic knowledge. Along with other mentions of his "qualifications" (Phil. 3:4-6, Acts 22:3, 23:6) we can assume that Paul had no superiors in the world of Pharisaism. Had not God intervened in his life, he was destined to become the next great rabbinical leader. Just as men like Gamaliel, Hillel, Rabbi Akiba, and many others have become Talmudic legends, so also Saul of Tarsus would have doubtless joined the list. Perhaps he may have achieved the great title of Rabbi Saul of Tarsus.

The necessary apostle
To show why it was necessary that God would have to chose this man for the office of apostle, let us return for a moment to the main thesis in this series of articles: the primary theological contrast to faith is legalism. The battle against legalism first belonged to the ministry of the Lord Jesus. After his resurrection and ascension, the ongoing theological debates with the unconverted Jews required a new leader. Not one of the original twelve could carry forth in this arena. Jesus had carefully avoided selecting any academics among his first group of twelve apostles. He himself was self-educated (John 7:15); he established no academies or seminaries; he amassed no treasury, he relied on no honor. He chose "to be with him" fishermen and tax collectors, men of no repute save for the excellency of their faith (except Judas).

However, the growth of the new church after the resurrection necessitated a different type of apostle. God needed an expert in the law. He needed one who spoke with absolute authority on matters of the law. If salvation were to come to the Jews through Jesus, then the preaching of the cross would have to come into the synagogue through an authoritative person. So it came to pass that the Lord God selected Saul of Tarsus. Later in life, Paul would recognize that this calling came from his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15); his life of Pharisaic education and religious practice had prepared him for apostleship. Little would he have thought as he studied and argued with the sages about abstruse points of ritual law that this was God’s way of preparing him for the work of the gospel of grace.

God’s selection of Jewry’s leading figure accomplished three purposes. One, as we have just written, it gave the church the most qualified spokesman they could possibly have in the ongoing battle against legalism. Two, Paul’s presence as a Pharisee presented unassailable credentials to anyone who wished to debate theology. As Paul had to remind various of his readers, he was the main gun of the Judaizers. He knew their methods from the inside. He could argue with the best of them, and for the other echelons who paid homage to standing, he stood as the finest. He had the status of leader, and the intellectual means to back it up.

A third purpose achieved in the selection of Saul the Pharisee to the apostleship related to personal grace. Paul gave us many details about his early life as a leading Pharisee. Later in life, he would call the supposed advantages -- refuse (Phil. 3:7,8). He would describe himself as a persecutor of the church, the least of all apostles (I Cor. 15:8-10), and the foremost of sinners (I Tim. 1:15). The Philippians passage tells of the excellency of faith, and the latter two passages emphasize the abundance of grace. If God could forgive Saul, he can forgive anyone. Saul vitriolically opposed God’s work. He voted for the execution of Stephen, then the leading spokesman of the church. Saul was a completely evil person, but God put His finger on him, and said, "I want you." When he responded, God forgave him. Grace covered the multitude of his evils.

Paul’s theological conversion
Before we look at a point concerning the nature of Paul’s conversion, let’s contrast Paul’s former beliefs under law with his new beliefs in Christ. Using the autobiographical details from his letters and speeches, we can discern how this great mind reframed his entire career as a Pharisee.

Saul the Pharisee Paul the Apostle
A Hebrew born of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5) Neither Jew nor Greek (Gal. 3:28).
Circumcised on the eighth day (Phil. 3:5) Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love -- a new creation (Gal. 5:6; 6:15).
As to righteousness under the law, blameless By works of the law shall no man be justified (Phil. 3:5; Rom. 3:20).
Advanced in knowledge (Gal. 1:14) Knowledge puffs up, love builds up (I Cor. 8:1).
Zealous for the traditions of our fathers (Gal. 1:14). They [the Jews] have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened (Rom. 10:2).
Travelled widely to persecute (Acts 26:11) Travelled widely to preach (Acts 13:2; etc.)

Paul had his value system entirely inverted. He discarded all the pillars of his self-righteousness: ritual holiness, works, rabbinical knowledge, traditions and genealogy. The "foremost of Pharisees," in Christian retrospect, considered himself only the "foremost of sinners" (I Tim. 1:15), and the least of the apostles. By using "foremost" ("chief," KJV), Paul seems to contrast his Pharisaic standing with his standing in Christ. As a Pharisee, he stood at the top by reason of his learning and ritual purity. Casting legalistic achievement aside, he acknowledged himself rather as the chief sinner -- and thus he found the possibility of receiving and accepting the grace of our Lord.

A personal plea
Lastly, we will reflect on the nature of Paul’s conversion episode. The apostles’ witness failed to convince Paul of Jesus’ messiahship. He didn’t learn it through argumentation in the synagogues. It didn’t come from his academic learning. Not even Stephen’s magnificent proclamation swayed Paul; it was only a red cape waved in front of a bull. What did it take to get Paul where he needed to be? A personal appearance by the resurrected Lord Jesus. This experience with Christ, which Paul evidently recounted often as part of his witnessing, impacted him as no rabbinical debate ever had. Paul had all the knowledge of scriptures in place, but he lacked the perspective of reading with the veil on his mind lifted.

Saul the Pharisee, like all his fellow Jews, believed in a messiah (Christ), but he didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ until after the Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road (Acts 9:22). As he lay in darkness those three days in Ananias’ house, he must have experienced something very new to him: being absolutely wrong. And this wasn’t a theological debate. Jesus himself had proven his resurrection by appearing to and speaking to Paul. Paul’s knowledge base took on a completely new perspective. The vitriolic opponent became the vehement proponent.

Paul became convinced of Jesus’ messiahship through a personal encounter.

This is fitting, as our discipleship in Christ depends not on an intellectual apprehension, but on the realization that we serve a living Lord. However, we don’t encounter Jesus visibly and audibly as did Paul, so it takes a greater effort of faith to believe in the risen Lord. Yet, he still appeals to us as he did to Paul. He reminds us that as we treat his people, we treat him. We have a living religious experience. This is totally the opposite of the dead letter of the law. This is how Jesus converted Paul. This is the message of the covenant of grace to us.

Next: A New Wineskin

David Levin

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