The Study of Acts & The Life of Paul

Introduction

The church is the most important body of people on earth -- it is actually the secret government of earth.  As Paul says, it is "the pillar and bulwork of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15), i.e. the source and support of all realistic knowledge of life.

In our study of Acts and Paul we will see the birth and growth of God's church; which is still present in the 20th century.  In Ephesians, Paul employs two symbols for the church.  At the end of the first chapter he says, the church is a body.  He speaks of "his (Christ's) body, the fulness of Him who fill all in all" (Eph.1:23).  So the church is a living organism:  it is part of the life of Christ present on this earth.  In the second chapter, Paul says the church is like a building, "members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets", which grows into a holy temple designed by the Spirit for the habitation of God (Eph.2:19-22).

The central thing about the church, therefore, is its relationship to a Person.  There is intense conflict throughout the book (especially in Paul's ministry), but Acts is a record of power in the midst of persecution, the life of Christ pouring into society through men and women very much like you and me.  The book of Acts fills the gap between the Gospels and the book of Romans, making it possible for us to understand the New Testament.

The key to Acts is found in the introduction where the essential strategy by which Jesus Christ proposes to change the world is revealed -- a strategy which is the secret of the revolutionary character of the church when it is operating as it was intened to operate:  "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment throught the Holy Spirit to the Apostles whom he had chosen" (Acts 1:1,2).  Luke clearly implies that Acts is the continuation of what Jesus began to do in his life on earth (which Luke recorded in his first book).  In a very real sense Acts is a continuation of the acts of Jesus through the bodies of men and women who are indwelt by His life.  Whether in the Gospels or in Acts, incarnation is the secret strategy by which God changes the world.  That is the strategy of the book of Acts:  it is the record of incarnation -- of men and women possessed by Jesus Christ and manifesting His life every day.  For this reason the book of Acts is an unfinished book, for it is still being written.  Acts closes abruptly with Paul living in a rented house in Rome.  The book of Acts is Volume I and we are writing Volume 20.  I wonder how Luke or Paul would record our volume in the 20th Century!

In our study we will jump to the life of Paul.  During the first chapter of Acts the gospel was being systematically preached throughout Judea and Samaria by godly men like Peter, James, John and Philip.  The Lord was doing something else:  he was prparing the human instrument by which the gospel would reach the "uttermost parts of the earth", i.e. the apostle Paul.

Saul of Tarsus, the enemy, the persucutor, the relentless pursurer of Christians is now to be arrested by Jesus.  No story shows more beautifully the relentless, loving pursuit of God than the life of Paul.  Saul was a young man who was very sensitive to the things of God, both in his early training and in his heart.  But he was in spiritual darkness until the blinding light of the exalted, glorified Christ was printed indelibly on his soul and heart.  Saul was then led by the hand into the ciy of Damascus where for three days and nights he neither ate nor drank, while the image to which he was exposed was developed and imbedded unforgettably in his heart.  Saul of Tarsus was crucified, and Jesus Christ was seen in his life from then on.

The Preparation of a Pioneer

From his earliest days, as far as we can tell, Paul demonstrated many qualities of leadership which developed greatly with the passing years.  He was a man of impressive intellectual stature whose career is the most astonishing in church history.  His versatility was such that in retrospect it seems as though he possessed almost every gift.  But despite Paul's awe-inspiring record a close study reveals a vulnerable, lovable man who establishes rapport with the humble man on the street as easily as with the most brilliant philosopher.  In Paul, we find an inspiring example of what one man, wholly abandoned to God, can achieve in only one generation.

Paul said, "He who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me," implying that the "God of our fathers" was always involved in his life -- before his conversion and commission "in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles."  (Gal. 1:15, Acts 22:14).  That's why Paul instantly capitulated to Christ on the Damascus road, he did not resist the commands of his new Master, who revealed to Paul that He was the crucified, resurrected Messiah of O.T. prophecy.  Jeremiah also recognized this sovereign activity of God.  "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."  (Jer. 1:5).

Paul knew he was predestined to leadership, and that he outstripped his contemporaries.  "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of our fathers."  (Gal. 1:14).  He was "educated at the feet of Gamaliel" who was the leading Pharisee of his day.  (Acts 22:3).  This is no doubt why the Jewish authorities were so furious at the loss of his promising leadership.  Paul became a "Pharisee of the Pharisees" and was an upcoming member of the Sanhedrin in which Gamaliel was actively involved.  It was this same Gamaliel who counseled moderation in Acts 5:34-39, "If it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men (Peter & John); you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

Both by birth and training Paul was prepared to minister as a world missionary leader, multi-culturally:  he had the tenacity of the Jew, the culture of the Greek, and the practicality of the Roman.  He spoke Greek fluently and it was universally known and used.  In addition, his Roman citizenship proved a great bonus to him on several occasions.  His theological scholarship and extensive knowledge of the O.T. was superb.  Then, too, he was equally familiar with the philosophical systems of his day and could dispute with their proponents on their own ground.  "He spoke and disputed against the Hellenists." (Acts 9:29)

Conversion of the 'chosen vessel'

Paul's conversion was one of the greatest events in human history, his surrender to the lordship of Christ was immediate and absolute.  In a second, that seemed an eternity, following his question, "Who are you, Lord?"  Paul saw the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet and knew that he had seen the Lord, that He was alive.  At that point the whole ground of his hostility collapsed, and the most astounding thing to Paul was that when Christ appeared to him it was not in wrath and vengeance, but in boundless, unconditional love.  Not one word of reproach.  "It is hard for you to kick against the goad."

Paul had never admitted to himself that he had felt pricks of a 'goad' as he raged against Stephen and followers of Jesus.  But now, instantaneously, he was shatteringly aware that he had been fighting his Messiah.  As Paul looked upon Jesus in all His Messianic glory and majesty he broke!  He was trembling as he asked, "What shall I do, Lord?"  Nothing mattered to Paul but to find and obey the will of his "Lord".  At that moment he knew he was utterly forgiven, utterly loved.  In his own words, "God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  And his response to Jesus' instructions was immediate obedience:  "I heard a voice saying to me 'Get up and stand on your feet.  I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.  I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  I am sending you to open their eyes of turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God."  (Acts 26:14-18)

From the first days of his life "In Christ" Paul not only knew that he was a 'chosen vessel' through whom God would communicate His revelation, but he had a general idea of what God had planned for his future.  He knew that:

  1. his ministry would take him far from his home,
  2. that he would have a special ministry to the Gentiles, and
  3. that his ministry would involve him in great suffering.

Only gradually did he come to realize that this call was not so much a new purpose of God for his life as it was the culmination of the preparatory process that began before his birth as God's 'chosen vessel'.  When Jesus was teaching His disciples about the mark of servanthood He added that positions of leadership in His kingdom were according to the sovereign appointment of His Father.  "These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."  (Mk. 10:40)  Paul recognized God's sovereign call, but he came only gradually into a clear understanding of what God's work was for him.

Reshaping Paul's Ambition

Paul's conversion certainly did not quench his driving ambition.  He had an inner compulsion that drove him on to greater achievements and distant horizons.  The superintending providence of God redirected this intense ambition into spiritually productive channels.  This new direction was for the glory of Christ and the advancement of His kingdom.

Paul had two major ambitions:

  • The first was to win the smile of the Lord.  "So we make it our aim to please Him."  (II Cor 5:9)  Christ's personal approval motivated Paul along the path of faithful, sacrificial service.
  • The second ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ was not known (Rom. 5:20).  He knew he had been called to go "far away to the Gentiles".  (Acts 22:21)  His vision knew no horizons, like so many missionaries who followed his example:  the ambition to evangelize all the unreached peoples for Christ.  A true missionary heart like Paul's is essentially selfless and Christ-centered, longing to please God, motivated by Christ's love and finding expression in loving those for whom He died.
  1. "For Christ's love compels us."  (II Cor 5:14).  It controls us, leaves us no options.  In Paul's life the love that had broken and captured his heart on the Damascus road continued to hold him in willing servanthood and inevitably found expression in the ardent love of others.
  2. "The fear of the Lord" was a solemn reality which also motivated him to reach the lost.  (II Cor. 5:11)  "Since, then we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men."  But whenever Paul referred to the wrath and judgment of God, he spoke of His mercy.  "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Rom. 6:23).
  3. Paul was deeply influenced and motivated by the hope of the Lord's return.  "Our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await the Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ."  (Phil. 3:20).  This hope spurred him on to win more people away from Satan's enslaved condemned kingdom to Christ's kingdom of freedom and future glory.

The Trip to Arabia

Why did Paul go away to Arabia?  F.B. Meyer says, "We all need to go to Arabia.  Even the Lord was led into the wilderness by the Spirit.  In one form or another, every soul who has done a great work for the Lord has passed through similar periods of suffering, disappointments or solitude."

Before Paul could attain maximum usefulness in achieving God's sovereign purpose for his life, he needed a period of solitude, an important element in his maturing process.  Spiritual leadership does not develop well in the glare of publicity.  Paul wisely sought solitude after his initial rejection by the Jews in the synagogues.  He needed time alone in the "school of the Spirit", reviewing the whole course of O.T. truth in the light of the new revelation that had come to him.  The far-reaching implications of the sufferings and death of the Messiah had to be thought through, formulating his theology along radically different lines.

One of Paul's greatest insights under the leading of the Spirit was his understanding the doctrine of God's free, but costly GRACE.  He dropped the intolerable burden of Pharisaic-law keeping and gladly embraced the freedom of grace-living.  Paul understood grace more than any of his contemporaries and was always under attack from law-keepers, but he vigorously defended God's Grace from his new understanding of O.T. scripture and Christ's finished work on the cross.

Following his period of seclusion in Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17) hoping to win the Jewish Rabbis with his first-hand knowledge about the Lord.  In this he was bitterly disappointed both in Damascus and in Jerusalem.

Paul Meets Peter and James

Returning to Jerusalem, Paul found that the Christians were afraid of him, but Barnabas rescued him, bringing him to Peter and James.  Paul wanted to make the acquaintance of Peter and inquire of him the details of the life and ministry of Jesus.  James must have told Paul how Jesus had appeared to him, which was recorded in I Cor 15.  The account Paul received of the words and actions of Jesus from Peter became very important in Paul's preaching.  The principles and guide-lines Jesus taught his disciples were the heart of Paul's gospel along with the special revelation he received at his conversion. The three clauses he uses in I Cor. 15 "as of first importance" are quotations he received from Peter and then delivered to his converts.  They are as follows:

  1. "That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures."
  2. "That he was buried"
  3. "That he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."

When the fifteen days in Jerusalem were up, Paul departed for his native city, Tarsus, because his life was being threatened by the Hellenists who now regarded their lost leader as a traitor to the cause.

The risen Lord appeared to Paul again and confirmed afresh that his ministry was to the Gentiles, and not to the Jews in Jerusalem "because they will not accept your testimony about me."  (Acts 20:17-22)  "Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles."

Wrapped up in that revelation on the Damascus road was Paul's distinctive understanding of the church as the Body of Christ and individual Christians as members of that Body.  Jesus' question:  "Why do you persecute Me?" showed Paul that every Christian is a member of His Body.  With this insight, Paul began to preach his understanding of the Christian's existence "In Christ".  An existence in which social, racial and other barriers within the human family were done away with.  Among those barriers none was so important in Paul's eyes as that between Jew and Gentile.  After his conversion, he devoted himself to demolishing it.  This insight was implicit in his call when he was commanded to preach Christ among the Gentiles.  As he himself, a Jew by birth, had received new life in Christ through faith apart from works of the law, so they, Gentiles by birth, could similarly receive new life in Christ through faith and thus enjoy an equal status in the redeemed community.

Through Paul's ministry "the mystery hidden for ages and generations" was disclosed -- the mystery summed up in the message "Christ in you, the hope of glory".  (Col. 1:26).  In other words, Paul viewed himself as a 'chosen vessel' of God's Grace in order that the saving purpose of God, conceived in Christ before all worlds, might be made effective "In Christ" through Paul's ministry.

The School of the Spirit

Notice this verse describing the church after the believers sent Paul back to Tarsus.  "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built-up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was multiplied" (Acts 9:31).

After his conversion, Paul was eagerly trying to serve Christ in the flesh with his great knowledge and highly educated Jewish background.  Back in Tarsus for 7-10 years, Paul learned the essential lesson Christ is trying to teach all of us; "Apart from Me you can do nothing" (Jn.15:5).  So he is able to say, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal.2:20).

For seven to 10 years nothing is heard of the apostle Paul.  How he filled those years is not very clear, but we can be sure he was actively evangelizing in his native land.  They were years in the "school of the Spirit", years of maturing and deepening his walk "In Christ".  Finally the Holy Spirit leads Barnabas to go and find Paul and bring him to Antioch.  Paul comes a chastened, broken man, available for the Lord.  And so begins an unparalled life, a Spirit-led life, that changed the whole Roman Empire and the course of history.

Oct. 1997 - Assignment

In the apostle Paul, God has provided the example of "a man just like us" (Jms.5:17) -- a man who knew failure along with his success.  In Christ we found inspiration to follow His perfect example as a servant-leader, but we realize how far we fall short.  In Paul, we gain encouragement from a man who fell and rose again, a man defeated and finally victorious by the GRACE of God.

We need Jesus with his perfect example on the one hand, and Paul with his imperfect, yet triumphant life, on the other hand as we walk in their footsteps.  If our study of Paul's life is to be fruitful, each of you needs to translate his leadership principles into your own life and experience.  Paul revealed so much about himself in his letters, while Luke recorded historical material in the book of Acts.  We will be interpreting Paul from his own writings, examining the qualities, which made him such a super leader, and applying them in our own life.

  1. Paul said, "He who had set me apart before I was born and had called me by Hid grace . . . " (Gal.1:15) implying that God's sovereign over-ruling power had been obvious in his life.  How have you experienced God's sovereign work in your life, both before and after you were saved?  If possible list the "steps" by which you came to the Lord:
    1. The sequence of conviction by the Holy Spirit,
    2. Individuals who shared with you along the way -- "planting" and "watering" the seed of the Gospel.
      It will be both instructive and inspiring to recall God's sovereign love as He called you and drew you to Himself.
  2. Paul's response was instantaneous:  "What shall I do, Lord?"  Nothing mattered to Paul anymore, but to find and obey the will of God.  What was your response?  How quickly and how fervently did you capitulate to Christ?
  3. Paul's driving ambition was redirected into spiritually productive channels for the glory of Christ and the advancement of His Kingdom.  How have your ambitions and the direction of your life changed since your conversion?  Have you consistently implemented God's values and direction in your life?
  4. As a member of the Servant Team and/or as a leader, have you discovered the role and purpose God has for you?  Do you have a general understanding of what God's will is for your life and work?

From the time of Paul's conversion to the end of his life he was motivated by the one purpose: he had been redeemed to serve, saved that he might save others.  It is important for us, in our busy lives, to "stand beneath the cross where Jesus died for our sins", and simplify our life with Paul's purpose "that the name of our Lord Jesus be glorified in you and you in Him, according to the Grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess.1:12).