Character Sketches » Paul
The date of Paul's birth was not known, but can be closely estimated to be about one to four BC. This can be calculated from the phrase “at a young man's feet” (Acts 7:58) referring to Paul at the stoning of Stephen and the phrase “such a one as Paul the aged” in his epistle to Philemon verse nine from the imprisonment in Rome.
Paul was born in the seaport town of Tarsus which received the merchandise of many countries on her docks. Sailors of many races and languages were constantly seen on her streets in their varied manner of dress. This was a preparation for Paul as a missionary to the gentiles of various cultural and racial backgrounds. It served to help him sympathize with human nature in all its variety and to be more tolerant with people in consideration of the varied habits and customs of the time he lived in.
Paul's father was a Pharisee which was one of the strictest religious groups of the Jewish people. Paul was taught from childhood to know the scriptures, and he, who was to become a Pharisee, knew much of the scripture from memory. By the time he was thirteen years of age he was already a master in the Jewish history presented in the Pentateuch, Psalms and the prophets. Unlike the Greek children around him whose heroes were Hercules and Achilles, Paul's heroes were David, Moses, Joseph, Abraham and others. He also was brought up to speak Aramaic even though he was familiar with the Greek and Hebrew languages.
Paul's father decided that Paul was to be a rabbi (a minister, teacher and lawyer all wrapped up into one). Before he went to school, however, he was taught tent making as it was customary to teach Jewish boys a trade which would prove a resource in time of need. This was to prove a valuable tool in Paul's ministry in later years. Paul was sent to college in Jerusalem, and it was during this time that Gamaliel was there. Gamaliel was know then and now as the great rabbi of Jerusalem. As Paul sat at his feet he was to learn much that would later influence his activity in reaching the lost for Christ.
Paul retained a very pure character during his time in school despite the many opportunities and temptations on every side to deter him. The starting point of his thinking was that the true end and greatest happiness of man was in knowing and obtaining God's favor. His beginning taught him that the means to this end was the keeping of the law. This problem was enormous and naturally insurmountable because it included the Mosaic law plus a thousand and one rules added to it by the Jewish teachers. Nevertheless, Paul was determined to succeed in his quest.
During his early years after school and up to the time of his conversion there was a war waging inside the man. He knew that the only true peace in all the universe was to be found in the favor of God, but he was never satisfied in his efforts to obtain this peace. He had already passed through many mental conflicts, and the more he tried to keep the law the more he saw sin in himself. He became oppressed with guilt and God's presence seemed to move further from him instead of closer to him. It was in the midst of this intense inner struggle that Paul arrived in Jerusalem and heard of the “sect” of the Jews that believed Jesus was the Messiah.
It is possible that Paul may have had his first encounter with Christians as they traveled to various synagogues preaching Christ, and he may have disputed with them. When he stood by Stephen at his death and approved stoning Stephen to death, he gained recognition with the authorities and perhaps secured a seat in the Sanhedrin. This led to his being entrusted with the work of uprooting Christianity which he believed to be a way of clearing up his past failures to God. He wasn't a man to do things in a half hearted manner, and so he threw himself into this work with all his energies. Through his efforts many were put to death and many were caused to blaspheme the name of their Savior, and the church was scattered. He seemed to be going on a path of mad destruction against the church without any conscience and was heading to Damascus when he heard the Lord ask him “Is it hard for thee to kick against the goad?” This would seem to indicate that he must have had time to consider what he was doing just prior to his meeting with Jesus. A goad was used to drive or stop oxen, and when they rebelled against directions they injured and infuriated themselves. This is a vivid picture of a man who is fighting against his own conscience. Perhaps Paul, realizing this, may have considered that he was fighting against God himself. Now he had encountered the one who alone could change him and satisfy the longing of his soul.
The man who emerged from that encounter began to espouse the very cause that he had so zealously persecuted. A close examination of his epistles would reveal a man of prayer, devotion, zeal, sensitivity to sin, hard circumstances, concern, love, determination, principle, broad views, principle, vivid insights, moral energy, victory, steadfastness, willing sacrifice, organization, great responsibility, rejoicing and a host of other traits each worthy of individual attention.
His message was gentle or stern as the occasion demanded, and he was dedicated to pleasing God rather than man. Paul vividly points out the universality of sin and of Christ's atonement for sin – setting the example for Jew and gentile.
Paul was an incomparable example of Christian character – second only to Christ himself. His life as an apostle, evangelist, missionary, shepherd pastor and church organizer is ample proof of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its ability to transform a life. It is a testimony of the incomprehensible usefulness of a life wholly yielded to God.
Among the messages he preached, his life stands as a testimony to Christians of all ages and stations in life, both now and for all eternity. He wasn't, like some, converted from worship of a false god or gods to worship the true God, but he was converted from worshiping the wrong way to worship and service acceptable to God. This he did with intense zeal and to glorify God and God alone. We would do well to emulate him.
C. R. Lord © 1980