Was Paul a saint? I don’t mean in the Biblical sense of the word saint, but more in the Catholic and Protestant sense of the word. See we are trained to picture the men of the Bible as supermen; people who were above our weaknesses, superior to us; untouchable.And while we may academically admit that they were men like us – as the Bible clearly records Paul saying “We also are men of like passions with you” (Acts 14:15) – still, it’s hard to realize that if they are on a pedestal, it is because they earned it. And that they had the same faults, the same temptations, and above all the same self-doubt, as we do.
If we don’t realize that they were like us, then we have no hope of attaining to their level. So today, I am going to prove that Paul was not a saint in the current religious sense; that he was a flawed human whose example should be followed only where he himself followed Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
God is honest about His heroes. He records history in the Bible, both flattering and unflattering incidents. Most historians trying to prove a point would have left out the story about David and Bathsheba – David himself would probably have preferred it were left out – but God included it, because we needed to know that great men make mistakes too, and are punished for it.
God didn’t need to mention that Abraham had weak faith and lied about his wife being his sister – well, half-lied since she was a half-sister – but God did. And Abraham did it twice, once after his conversion! (Genesis 12:13-19, 20:2-12) Even then the fear of his life prompted Abraham, father of the faithful, to lie to save his own hide!
And God didn’t have to record that Peter, who opened the gospel to the gentiles, was sinning and shunning the gentiles in order to favor the Jews (Galatians 2:11). The point is, God’s heroes were men; men subject to all the same weaknesses and stupidities that we are. But this article is about Paul…
God didn’t say much bad about Paul to the casual observer; not after his conversion anyway, which is all that counts. Peter said that Paul was a terrible writer (2 Peter 3:16). A brilliant man, but a terrible writer. But that is hardly a negative character flaw.
But consider this; God had personally opened Paul’s mind to understand that the law of Moses was done away. Paul had been in the third heaven, and trained by God personally for years, probably in Arabia (Galatians 1:15-18). No one BUT Paul wrote a word about circumcision being done away, or any of the sacrifices being done away, or ANYTHING being different than it always had been. And consider how Peter and the other apostles must have felt – they had known Jesus in the flesh for years. And in all that time, in thousands of sermons, Jesus never breathed a WORD about the law being done away! Think about that!
And then a few years after He died, this guy who had KILLED most of His friends, now had a change of heart and was tearing at the very HEART of the religion of Christ, by doing away with the sacrifices, the temple, the circumcision, and all those things Peter had cherished all his life, and which Jesus had apparently cherished. That was a bitter pill for Peter to accept – but Paul had the miracles, the power from God, and a great history of God working with him to commend his teachings, and so Peter had little choice but to accept it.
But now imagine Paul’s burden – he alone believed this way. All of the men who founded the religion he was spreading, men who had actually known Jesus while He lived, great men who did powerful miracles and built the church, were WRONG – and He, Paul, a worm and the greatest of sinners, was right?
You or I would have had great self-doubt over that. And so did he. Was he wrong? Was it all a dream? Had he been drinking when he saw the third heaven? How could he alone be right when all these great people were wrong? It is hard being alone. And it eventually got to Paul.
Acts 16:3 Him [Timothy] would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him BECAUSE OF THE JEWS which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.
Notice carefully! Paul took a new convert and CIRCUMCISED HIM. Paul, who alone in all the Earth KNEW that circumcision was nothing! And in fact, detrimental!
Galatians 5:2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
So why did Paul circumcise young Timothy? “Because of the Jews”! Paul, in an effort to keep the Jews “in those quarters” happy, compromised with them and circumcised Timothy. The same man who did that, wrote these words:
1 Corinthians 7:18 Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised.
So here we can already see, relatively early (perhaps about ten years into his ministry), Paul was easily induced to appease the Jews, because of his respect for them and his own inferiority complex about martyring so many of the early Christians. But Paul learned from this mistake, and when he later went to Jerusalem with a convert, he didn’t bow to their pressure to circumcise him:
Galatians 2:3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:
So a mistake that you learn from isn’t really a waste. But moving on, Paul hadn’t completely learned this lesson. It always struck me as odd; about ten years after this happened, Paul determined to go to Jerusalem. As his reason, he gave this scripture:
Galatians 2:2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.
Is it just me, or is there self-doubt in that verse? Paul had been fighting, almost entirely alone, for 20 years. Yes, he had Timothy and Titus and Luke and a few others, but they were disciples – he had no equals to share this burden with. Unlike Peter who was one of twelve apostles, who could share the burden of rightness with James, John and the others, Paul was alone, and always at odds with Peter and the twelve. They tolerated him, even respected him, but never completely agreed with him.
And Paul had watched his churches that he had raised up be overcome by wolves; so many times that he began to expect it. In going back to Jerusalem at this same trip in about A.D. 58, and passing through Ephesus he said…
Acts 20:29-30 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
So Paul was looking for fruit on his life’s work and was disappointed. His churches were all doomed to failure. He fought the Jewish Christians at every turn. He’d been beaten, stoned, and gone through all sorts of trouble, and he was frankly wondering… “Have I been wrong all along?”
This is perfectly understandable, for I’m fairly sure I’d feel the same way. But that doesn’t make it right. Paul, because of his dark past, NEEDED the acceptance of others to prove the value of his present life. He needed it more than most of us need it. And so he asked himself “have I done all this for nothing?” And so he went to Jerusalem seeking answers. Hoping to resolve something with the apostles and see if he had overlooked something. And so the stated purpose for his final visit to Jerusalem was “lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.” (Galatians 2:2).
But God did not want him to go to Jerusalem!
Acts 20:23 Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me [in Jerusalem].
Acts 21:4 And finding disciples [in Cyprus], we tarried there seven days: who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.
God expended a great deal of prophet-hours to tell Paul that he should NOT go to Jerusalem. He allowed it, but He did try quite hard to warn Paul away, in every city that He passed through. Now why would God do that? Why didn’t God want Paul to go to Jerusalem? Paul had gone before and God hadn’t said anything. But this time was different. This time Paul was seeking something else. Something He shouldn’t have been seeking. He was seeking acceptance from men. He was seeking the approval of the Apostles. And God knew that, should Paul receive it, he would be damaged forever.
When they arrived at Jerusalem, Paul went privately to the elders.
Acts 21:18-20 And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:
So once the formalities and the “how’ve you beens” were taken care of, the very first words out of the Apostles mouths were “you see all the JEWS that believe… and they are all zealous of the LAW…”. This wasn’t the ten commandments – it was the law of Moses that Paul had been preaching was done away for decades. The Jews well knew this – but in order to bring harmony to the church, they wanted Paul to compromise with this teaching.
Verse 21 And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.
Notice that this was EXACTLY what Paul had in fact been doing.
Verse 22 What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come.
And here you see that “the multitude” had not yet heard that Paul had come, which is how we know for certain that these are the events spoken of in Galatians 2, where he went up “privately” to the elders.
So basically to put it in our language, the conversation was something like this; one of the apostles, perhaps James, was saying “Paul, you see this great church we have here, and how all these people who are of God keep the law of Moses; now they have heard that you teach against the law of Moses. Now of course *I* know that’s not true, but you need to PROVE to them that you’re one of US.”
Verses 23-24 Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and KEEPEST THE LAW.
This vow was a part of the law of Moses, and involved shaving your head and at the end sacrificing both a male and female lamb, a ram, unleavened bread, oil, etc (Numbers 6). Basically running the gamut of the offerings, to prove that Paul really was “one of them”.
But Paul wasn’t. Paul KNEW he wasn’t. But he desperately wanted to be. And so he agreed to this absolutely ridiculous request, SOLELY to please the people in Jerusalem who felt he was tearing down their wonderful religion, which was in a bit over a decade to be completely destroyed by Titus.
Verses 26-27 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them. And WHEN THE SEVEN DAYS WERE ALMOST ENDED, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,
God gave Paul seven days to realize he was being a dufus. Seven days to back out of this deal and tell them that the law was done away, and he was going to be no part of the “weak and beggarly elements” surviving. But he didn’t.
So God stepped in and stirred up these Jews to disrupt the ceremony and forcibly remove him. And this happened just as the sacrifices were almost upon him. The point at which Paul would have, apparently, done irreparable damage to his conscience. God prevented him from doing that, for his own good.
And this started a chain of events which, over the next few years, led him before Festus, Felix, Agrippa and ultimately, although not recorded, before Caesar himself. And God made great use of this imprisonment of Paul’s, and so it all worked out in the end – but that’s not the point. God makes use of our bad choices as well as our good ones, but that doesn’t make the bad choices right.
The fact of the matter is, Paul was doubting himself, his calling, and his ministry, and that insecurity led him to make a major, and very nearly spiritually fatal compromise. This compromise caused God to bind him in chains, and then under house arrest, for years after this.
God had warned him not to go to Jerusalem many times, perhaps dozens from the way scripture reads, but Paul stubbornly refused to go; he was determined to get the acceptance of the men in Jerusalem, the acceptance that would prove so harmful to him if he received it.
Had God not intervened, Paul would have performed the sacrifice, and by accepting the Jew’s authority in that, would have cast himself into a mindset that could never have written Galatians, or Hebrews, and that would have effectively ended his usefulness to God as the apostle to the gentiles.
Since God plans things out in advance, God no doubt had already planned to send Paul to Rome, and Paul may have even known of these plans, although about that we can only guess. But regardless, if Paul was going to Rome, God could have, and would have, found another way to get him there without being a prisoner. Paul could have gone to Rome free, but because of his stubbornness he went there in chains.
And while in chains, Paul learned the lesson that he failed so badly in Jerusalem. Paul learned to be alone, and to be OK with that. By the time he wrote 2 Timothy, we find him completely alone.
2 Timothy 1:15 This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.
Asia was were Paul did his life’s work. Corinth, Ephesus, most of the churches in Acts and most who received letters were in Asia. And they had all left him. And he had to deal with being right, alone, after everyone he had ever taught, everyone he had ever respected, had left him.
2 Timothy 4:10-11 For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.
He had thought he had it bad and felt lonely a decade before, when he went up to Jerusalem “lest he had run in vain”. So God plunged him into almost complete solidarity in his views; even his most trusted lieutenants forsook him. And Paul through this painful process finally realized that He didn’t need Peter’s approval, or James’, or anyones. God had revealed it to him, and until it stood refuted out of the Bible it was right.
Paul who was in Rome in chains, would not have submitted to the vow he had submitted to a decade before. Paul was not a saint; he was not perfect. But he, through a series of mistakes and pitfalls, many of which are not recorded ultimately realized the fact which most never learn. The fact which was so eloquently summed up a century and a half ago by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison when he said…
“Better to be always in a minority of one with God – branded as madman, incendiary, fanatic, heretic, infidel – frowned upon by “the powers that be,” and mobbed by the populace – or consigned ignominiously to the gallows, like him whose “soul is marching on,” though his “body lies mouldering in the grave,” or burnt to ashes at the stake like Wickliffe, or nailed to the cross like him who “gave himself for the world,” - in defence of the RIGHT, than like Herod, having the shouts of a multitude crying, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!”" (William Lloyd Garrison, 1865)