"The Ministry of Paul. Its relation to dispensational truth.
No. 1 His Conversion"
by Charles H. Welch
The Berean Expositor, circa 1912-13.
"It pleased God . . . to reveal His Son in me" (Gal. 1. 15, 16).
It has been our endeavour during the last few years to emphasize the claims of the apostle Paul upon believers of the present time; not that Paul is anything of himself, but because to him was given the dispensation of the mystery (Eph. iii. 2-10).
In the endeavour rightly to divide the Word of truth we are sure to have difficulties, one great reason being that centuries of neglect and tradition have left us prejudiced in favour of a system foreign to the teaching of Paul, and further, the low spiritual state of the church as a whole has rendered it incapacitated for the reception of the mystery (I Cor. iii. 1-3). Those who have had the eyes of their heart enlightened (Eph. i. 18), still find many difficulties and problems, which we must all expect while in the flesh, and among the many causes of difficulty is the fact that the ministry of Paul has a two-fold aspect; in one case he is seen severed from the teaching of the twelve, while in another he is found working in harmony with them. His epistles, covering a space of some sixteen years, are not confined to one period, some epistles being written while he worked in fellowship with Jerusalem, and some being written after Israel was set aside and Paul was a prisoner at Rome.
The book of the Acts records the conversion and early labours of the apostle Paul, so let us turn to that book to learn something more concerning this wonderful ministry. Three cities constitute the three turning points of dispensational interest in the Acts, viz., Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome. Two ministries occupy the bulk of the record, those of Peter and Paul. Peter's ministry commences at Jerusalem and ends (so far as the record is concerned) with imprisonment. Paul's definite ministry commences at Antioch and ends (so far as the record is concerned) with his imprisonment at Rome.
The Acts commences with "the Jew first" and closes with the Jew set aside. The opening and closing verses are worthy of careful study:-
A | i.1-11. | a | Christ teaching concerning the | kingdom of God.
| | b | "Wilt thou restore the kingdom | to Israel?"
B | i.12-xii. Peter's ministry and imprisonment.
B | xiii. - xxviii. Paul's ministry and imprisonment.
A | xviii.25-31. | a | Paul preaching concerning | the kingdom of God.
| b | "Salvation of God sent | to the Gentiles."
It will be seen that the Acts opens with the Lord Jesus giving instructions to the apostles concerning the kingdom of God. In answer to their enquiry as to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, He bids them tarry at Jerusalem until they be endued with power from on high. The closing section reveals Paul as a prisoner at Rome, the final witness to Israel being given, Isaiah vi. 10 quoted for the last time, the door of the kingdom shut to Israel, and the present dispensation of the mystery ushered in.
It is not our purpose in this article to consider the book of the Acts, so we will consider without further introduction the ministry of the apostle, and its bearing upon dispensational truth. The apostle Paul is first introduced upon the page of Scripture at the time of the death of Stephen. Stephen seems to have anticipated the teaching given to Paul. The accusation made against him was:-
"This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us" (Acts vi. 14).
This same charge was preferred against Paul in after years:-
"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" (Acts xxi. 21).
The infuriated Jews who stoned Stephen for his faithfulness found a champion for their traditions in the young man Saul of Tarsus:-
"The witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul, and they stoned Stephen .... and Saul was consenting unto his death" (Acts vii. 58 - viii. 1).
What sort of man was this who would consent to the death of such a saint? The secret of his blind, ignorant cruelty was "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge." Many of the Pharisees knew that Jesus was the Christ. They had said, "This is the heir, come, let us kill him." Paul, however, tells us that what he did, he did "ignorantly and in unbelief" (I Tim. i. 13).
To the English reader, separated by centuries from the period of the Gospels, the term "Pharisee" has taken upon itself a colouring more or less traditional. All Pharisees were not alike, however, even as all Scribes or all Priests were not alike in their zeal or character. The Talmud tells us of seven classes of Pharisees. It speaks of the Shechemite Pharisee who obeyed for self interest; the tumbling Pharisee (nifki), who paraded humility; the bleeding Pharisee (kinai), who, rather than risk outraging his modesty by seeing a woman, risked a broken skull by walking with his eyes shut; the mortar Pharisee (medukia), who covered his eyes, as with a mortar, for similar reasons; the timid Pharisee, who was actuated by motives of fear; the tell-me- another-duty-and-I-will-do-it Pharisee; and the seventh class, the Pharisee from love. Saul of Tarsus was of the sixth order enumerated above, for in Gal. i. 14 we read:-
"I was going ahead (a metaphor taken from a ship at sea), in Judaism above many of my co-temporaries in mine own nation, being more vehemently a zealot for the traditions handed down from my fathers."
The choice of the word zelotes confirms this. The Zelotai were a sect which professed great attachment to the Jewish institutions, and undertook to punish, without trial, those guilty of violating them. It was this bigoted or fanatical temper which moved the young man Saul to associate with the murderers of Stephen, and to personally conduct a campaign, with the idea of exterminating the heresy of the Nazarenes. Such was the character of the "chosen vessel" who was destined, by grace, to shake traditionalism and legalism to their fall, and to stand alone with God, preaching "the faith which once he destroyed" (Gal. i. 23).
To stay here, however, would be but to give a one-sided view of the character of Saul of Tarsus. Writing by inspiration of God, in the full light of his acceptance in the Beloved, he says concerning his past, "Touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless" (Phil. iii. 6).
According to the teaching of the rabbis, there were 248 commands and 365 prohibitions of the Mosaic law, which formed part of the "Hedge of the law." These laws and prohibitions, without exception, in letter as well as spirit, and with the almost infinite number of inferences which were deducted from such laws, were to be obeyed. This was the blameless righteousness of the law. The belief was current that if only one person could attain unto this perfection for but one day, the Messiah would come, and the glory of Israel be ensured. This hope then, together with a nature which must spend and be spent upon that to which for the time being the possessor is attached, was the force which actuated Saul of Tarsus, and through him breathed out threatenings and slaughter.
In eight separate passages does Scripture refer to the terrible persecutions with which Saul of Tarsus was prominently associated. It is written, "He made havoc of the church." The word used here is that used in the LXX. of Psalm lxxx. 13 of the uprooting by wild boars. He dragged men and women to judgment and prison; he devastated in Jerusalem those that called upon the name of Jesus. In the epistle to the Galatians the apostle tells us how he persecuted the early saints beyond measure. To the Corinthians (I Cor. xv. 9), and to the Philippians (Phil. iii. 6), he recounts with sorrow how he persecuted the church. To the day of his death he never forgot that grace which had changed a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an injurious bigot (I Tim. i. 13), the very chief of sinners, into the chiefest of the apostles. Truly, he "persecuted this way unto the death" (Acts xxii. 4).
How fully he was permitted to enter into the sufferings and afflictions of the faith the Scriptures amply testify. Alone, forsaken by all earthly friends, he was permitted to drain to the dregs the bitter cup of religious persecution. Stoned and left for dead, beaten with rods on five occasions by the order of some ruler of the synagogue, imprisoned betrayed, suffering the anguish of hunger, thirst, nakedness, shipwreck, and finally martyrdom, he fulfilled the opening words of his commission, "I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts ix. 16).
As Saul of Tarsus, or Paul the apostle, this man was not content to do things half-heartedly. His zeal had for the time stamped out the activity at least of the heresy of the Nazarenes in Jerusalem, but from other cities news arrived that this pernicious weed had taken root. Unsated by the blood of the saints shed in Jerusalem, he desired to vindicate his Pharisaic claims by uprooting the Christian faith in the distant city of Damascus. Armed with the necessary warrant from the high priest, the persecutor started upon his journey of 150 miles in a frame of mind expressed in the unparalleled term, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter." How long the journey took we do not know; but taking the nature of the roads, the climate, and the eastern method of traveling, authorities have estimated that it occupied the better part of a week.
What were the thoughts of this man during this week's travel? Nothing is recorded in the Scriptures to tell us, except the words of the Searcher of hearts, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (or ox goads). Saul, during that fateful journey, had been "kicking against the goads," as the rebellious oxen do in the plough. The whirl of the city, the excitement of the persecutions and scourgings gave place to the isolated meditation of the Damascus journey. The ox goads against which Saul had kicked were of a similar nature, though perhaps of much deeper intensity, to those which many believers and readers of this little witness have had.
Could it be possible that such men as Peter and Stephen were right, and he with the whole Sanhedrim were wrong? Pride rose against such a thought; those who spoke against the law and the temple must certainly be accursed. Thus would he reason; he could not give expression to these thoughts to those with him, for that would be suicidal. Did the angel face of Stephen haunt his steps along that road? We know not. Was Gamaliel, his teacher, right in even suggesting that such action as his might prove to be fighting against God? We cannot tell. What we do know is this. Spurred on by the goads of an uneasy conscience, Saul urged his followers to abandon the wonted noon-day rest and press on to the City of their desires.
Then, suddenly, the persecutor was changed into the preacher, the infuriated bigot into the apostle of grace. A light, which eclipsed the Syrian noon-day sun as the gospel did the traditions so tenacious]y held by Saul, shone about them. He was struck to the earth; something awful had happened. One man alone knew its solemn meaning and intelligently heard the words from heaven; into the darkened heart of Saul of Tarsus had entered "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ." God had revealed His Son in him. That was the turning-point of his life, for he had seen the Lord.
After the blinding flash of heavenly light there came a voice from heaven speaking in the Hebrew tongue, saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me, it is hard for thee to kick against the goads?" In answer to the trembling cry "Who art Thou Lord?" the voice replied, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest." Oh wondrous revelation! Had the voice said "I am Israel's Messiah," or "I am the Son of God," the apostle would have denied the charge, but in the revelation from the heavenly glory that he was persecuting Jesus of Nazareth, and that He indeed was the Lord, the Messiah of Israel, all his hopes, his pride, his tenacious hold upon the traditions of the elders, his self-righteousness and meritorious zeal, all vanished and left him naked and destitute.
What are the few words which Saul as a believer shall utter? They form a key note to his after life, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" From henceforth he served the Lord Christ; from this time onward for him to live was Christ. He had fallen to the earth a proud, persecuting fanatic; he rose a humble and gracious follower of Christ. How different to what he had dreamed was his actual entry into Damascus and departure therefrom. No longer breathing threatenings and slaughter, but breathing prayers and supplications, for it is written, "Behold, he prayeth!" Not leaving the city with the trophies of his inquisition and the applause of the orthodox, but let out of the city by stealth, in a basket from the wall! After the darkness and the visit of Ananias came the light, for "there fell from his eyes as it had been scales."
The importance of this man's conversion and commission cannot be under- estimated without imperiling the truth committed to him. In our next article we hope to take up the varying commissions of this apostle to the Gentiles, and to show how the right appreciation of his ministry illuminates the Word of truth. Till then, may we all realize in ourselves increasingly the grace that super-abounds.