There could not have been a more unlikely person to be significantly used by God than Saul of Tarsus. True, he did have certain gifts, but even these conspired against him. For instance, he had a knack for doctrinal truth, but this only made him act intolerably superior to others. He was gifted with a quick mind, but it was coupled with a sharp tongue that withered opponents and friends alike. He possessed a relentless motor—an ability to tirelessly work toward accomplishing goals, but his intense personality only enhanced the ugliness that lay below the surface. People might afford him begrudging respect, but no one wanted to be around him.
Whatever greatness lie dormant in the little Pharisee’s soul was vastly outweighed by the mean-spirited traits that constantly hurt or offended others. No, Saul of Tarsus was not a great man. Like so many other aspiring leaders, his gifts and abilities—which were unquestionably impressive—were nullified by deep character flaws. He was, quite frankly, full of himself.
How could the Lord direct the ministerial efforts of such a contrary person? How could the lowly Savior use such a proud man to represent Himself to hurting people? How would God be able to utilize such a self-consumed person to touch the hearts of wary listeners?
It would require a tremendous transformation; a great mortification of Saul’s self-life. He would have to allow Jesus Christ to utterly conquer him. In short, Saul of Tarsus would have to become Paul the Apostle.
I have spent the past few months studying this man’s life—seeking to know more intimately how God did this great work within his heart, what kind of man he was in his daily life, how the Lord used him in such a powerful way. All of this I am attempting to bring to life in the twelve-week series of video and audio messages entitled The Life of Paul.
The following are seven of the secrets I have discovered about why the Lord was able to use him so effectively and powerfully.
The first thing that stands out about him is that he had spent a great deal of time studying Scripture. “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers…” (Acts 22:3) In and of itself, his years of study had only made him a more scrupulous Pharisee, but once he was broken by God, his thorough knowledge of Scripture became an invaluable asset.
Second, he was brought to Christ through a powerful conversion. His was no half-hearted commitment; he was all in from the outset. Three days of intense anguish of the soul left this proud Pharisee a devastated man. He had gone to Damascus full of hatred and death; he emerged from that bed full of love and life.
Third, his enormous abilities were laid on the altar for the Lord to use or not use as He saw fit. He never again attempted to use his talents to promote himself. “Whatever things were gain to me,” he later wrote; “those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 3:7) The Lord did eventually utilize Paul’s gifts, but not before they were purged of the ugly pride that had been attached to them previously. Once purified, those talents were mightily employed in the King’s service.
Fourth, Paul was a fighter. This natural tendency to fight for what he believed in was also crucified of pride and selfishness. Paul could struggle against his many opponents without being ugly in the process. While he hated the harmful effects of the false teachings his enemies promoted, he didn’t hate them as people. In fact, of the Jews who would gladly have torn him to pieces, he would write that he would accept the curse of God upon himself if it meant their salvation.
Fifth, Paul knew the secret of being weak in himself, which allowed the Lord to work powerfully through him. “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) He embraced his many trials because he understood that through them he was humbled and Christ exalted. This was a secret to the mighty power that worked through him.
Sixth, “the apostle to the Gentiles” possessed a capacity to bear enormous spiritual weight. He labored in prayer for all his converts, one by one. He bore them in his heart, in spite of the great distress it caused him at times. For instance, in regards to his burden for the various congregations he had birthed, he said, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)
Last, the great force that ever compelled him forward in ministry was not the love of human applause or the desire to make a name for himself. The secret of his unrelenting efforts was that he was “rooted and grounded in love,” and was thus able to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:17-19) This is why he could later tell his favorite pupil that “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5) Any human motive would have spoiled his witness and diminished God’s ability to use him.
Paul was many things during his lifetime: student, Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin, evangelist, teacher, pastor, prophet, missionary, author, pioneer. But beyond all else, he was a lover of God and His people. It was this, more than anything else, that explains who he was and why his ministry was so effective.
All of this and more comes out in a study of his life. Why not join us for the next twelve weeks as we study The Life of Paul?