With Adam Hamilton, we have traced the life of Jesus from his birth The Journey, through his ministry The Way, to his death and resurrection 24 Hours That Changed the World. What happened next?
Follow the journeys of Paul, beginning with his dramatic conversion, as he spread the Gospel through modern-day Greece and Turkey. Travel to the early church sites and explore Paul’s conversations with the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. In this six-week study, you are invited to experience faith through Christ’s greatest teacher and missionary.
“Adam Hamilton has proven to be a faithful guide to applying the Bible to modern life in a sane and balanced way, and I trust him as an interpreter of the Apostle Paul for today.” -Philip Yancey, author of Vanishing Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew
“Pastor and teacher Adam Hamilton succeeds brilliantly in introducing the life and ministry of Paul. Adam’s interweaving of personal testimony and ministry insights provide important lessons for Christian disciples today—something Paul himself would have readily welcomed.” - Dr. Mark Wilson, Asia Minor Research Center, Antalya, Turkey
“Adam Hamilton demonstrates theologically and spiritually how indispensable the apostle Paul is to both the early Christian and 21st century church. This book is a wonderful gift for the church, and I recommend it with utmost Christian enthusiasm.” - Dr. Israel Kamudzandu, Associate Professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation, Saint Paul School of Theology
“I regularly lead groups of seminary students, alums, clergy, and laity on immersion trips to Greece and Turkey. This book will certainly be on my reading list.” - Jaime Clark-Soles, Associate Professor of New Testament, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor, Perkins School of Theology
Read an Excerpt
The Life and Message of the Apostle Paul
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Called to Follow Christ
Paul's Background, Conversion, And Early Ministry
[And Paul said,] "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia ... a citizen of an important city ... circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews ... brought up in [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law being zealous for God ... I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age ... I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison." —Acts 22:3a, 21:39b, Philippians 3:5, Acts 22:3b, Galatians 1:14a, Acts 22:4
HIS PARENTS NAMED HIM SAUL, after the first king of Israel who, like their child, was of the tribe of Benjamin. His father and mother were part of the Jewish diaspora, living in Tarsus, a major city in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, with what may have been as many as two hundred thousand residents.
Tarsus was located ten miles from the Mediterranean Sea on the plateau between the Taurus Mountains and the sea. You could get there by ship traveling up the Cydnus River to a harbor leading into the city. It was a magnificent city, cooled by a sea breeze and nestled at the base of the mountains.
In earlier times, Tarsus had been the capital of the region called Cilicia; by Paul's time, though no longer the capital, Tarsus was still a very important city. Caesar Augustus had granted it special status as a "free city," a way of ensuring the loyalty of its citizens. This was particularly important because Tarsus was located on a key east–west trade route bringing goods from the east to the interior of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This ancient highway passed through the famous Cilician Gates, a mountain pass to the north of Tarsus. As citizens of a free city, the people of Tarsus were permitted to govern themselves, were allowed to mint their own coins, and were free from most Roman taxes. (As you can imagine, avoiding Roman taxes was a tremendous draw, and people were eager to move there.)
There's little left for us to see of Tarsus from Paul's time. Much of the modern city was built atop previous cities that were built atop even earlier cities; hence, the ruins of Paul's Tarsus are mostly buried beneath the present city. Two exceptions include a section of Roman road within the city and an old well referred to as St. Paul's Well, which is adjacent to excavated ruins said to be Paul's childhood home. The likelihood of these ruins being Paul's home seems remote to me, but these landmarks give visitors a place to anchor Paul's story.
We learn in the Book of Acts that Paul was born a Roman citizen (22:26), and yet it is estimated that only 10 percent of the empire's population at the time had been granted citizenship, perhaps significantly less in the eastern part of the empire. This leads us to believe that Paul's parents likely were wealthy or important landowners or business owners in Tarsus who themselves had been granted citizenship. It's also likely they were tentmakers or owned a tentmaking business, given that Paul himself was trained as a tentmaker.
Tarsus was an important intellectual center in the Roman Empire. Strabo, a Greek philosopher and geographer who died in A.D. 24, described Tarsus and its citizens this way:
The inhabitants of this city apply to the study of philosophy and to the whole encyclical compass of learning with so much ardour, that they surpass Athens, Alexandria, and every other place which can be named where there are schools and lectures of philosophers.
It was a place of culture and learning. It is likely that young Saul, whose Roman name was Paul, received instruction at the Greco-Roman primary and grammar schools of Tarsus up to the age of thirteen before being sent to study in Jerusalem. In these schools, Paul would have learned the art of writing and the use of language; he would have studied the Greek poets and the basics of Greek rhetoric and logic. These studies would have played a pivotal role in preparing him at an early age for his later work as an apostle, Christianity's first theologian, and the man who would be credited with writing thirteen of the New Testament's twenty-seven books.
Though the practice of having a Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen began later than Paul's time, it may give some indication of when Jewish young men being prepared for rabbinical studies might have gone to Jerusalem to study. Similarly, the story of Jesus in the temple when he was twelve might point to an age at which boys in Paul's time were thought to become men and hence ready to learn from the great teachers in Judaism. It seems at least possible, then, that Paul was sent to Jerusalem by his parents sometime around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday, where he may have studied the Law, both written and oral, under Gamaliel I, one of the leading first-century rabbis, up to the age of twenty. For a first-century Jew, this may have been akin to our practice of going away to college.
Mention of Paul's age raises the question of when he was born, and to that we have no clear answer. It is often said he was born sometime between 5 B.C. and A.D. 10. I lean more toward A.D. 10, which would mean that Paul finished his schooling under Gamaliel around A.D. 30, close to the year Jesus was crucified. This fits nicely with the idea that young Paul was anxious to make a name for himself by persecuting the fledgling Christian movement.
How God Uses the Puzzle Pieces of Our Lives
You may wonder why these details of Paul's early life are important. The reason is that Paul and the things he would later think, write, say, and do were in part the result of his early life experiences. Think of Moses, who grew up in Pharaoh's household and thus was the ideal candidate for God to use in liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt. In a similar way, Paul's childhood in a predominantly Gentile city known for its culture and outstanding Greco-Roman education, his tentmaking in his father's shop as a boy, his grasp of the Greek language, his Roman citizenship, his education by one of the leading rabbis of his day—all these experiences were critical to the work Paul one day would be called to as Christianity's leading apostle to the Greco-Roman world.
Pause here for a moment and consider your own background—your family of origin, the experiences you had growing up, your education, and religious training. In what ways might God call you to use these things for his purposes?
I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, but we did not attend church much when I was small. My father was Catholic, and my mother was a member of the Church of Christ. When they married it was clear my father was not likely to join the Church of Christ, nor my mother the Roman Catholic Church. When I was in third grade, my parents struggled to find a church somewhere between those two, and they settled on the United Methodist Church. My parents eventually divorced, and we dropped out of church. My mom remarried a good man who had serious alcohol problems, so there was constant chaos at our house. My stepdad relocated our family from our childhood home to a southern suburb of Kansas City. It was there that I encountered Christ at a small Pentecostal church, met my future wife, and felt called to be a pastor. Marrying right out of high school, I went off to college at Oral Roberts University, where I received a great education in a charismatic, evangelical tradition. It was while in school at ORU that I felt called to rejoin The United Methodist Church and specifically to take part in revitalizing a church that had been in decline for twenty years by that time. Partly because of that experience, I attended seminary at Southern Methodist University, where I received excellent and somewhat liberal theological training.
Each part of what I've described above is a piece of the puzzle that shaped the person, pastor, and author I am today. I carry a Roman Catholic appreciation for tradition, a Pentecostal and charismatic belief in the power of the Holy Spirit, a compassion based on growing up with an alcoholic stepdad and an often chaotic home life, a willingness to see truth on both the left and the right shaped by my education at an evangelical undergraduate school and a liberal seminary. It is as if God looked at the various pieces of my life and said, "I can use each of those parts of your past, your life experience, and your faith if you'll let me."
In my experience, the most difficult or painful parts of my past are often the very things that have been the most important elements in whatever success I've had in ministry and in life to the present. In so many ways our lives are like puzzles, and God has a unique way of bringing those various pieces of the puzzle together to create something beautiful and useful in us. What are the puzzle pieces—the life experiences you've had—that God might use to accomplish his redemptive work in the world? God's call on our lives is often surprising and usually is based on God's ability to see how our various elements in the past might fit together to accomplish God's purposes in the present.
Saul the Persecutor
The first time we read about Paul's life in the Acts of the Apostles is in Chapter 7. Jesus had been crucified and resurrected and had ascended to heaven just a couple of years earlier. The fledgling movement of Christ's followers had exploded in Jerusalem. There now were thousands of people who believed that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah. These Jewish disciples of Jesus called themselves "followers of the Way," and among them, surprisingly, were some of the rabbis from the party of the Pharisees. In Acts 6 one of the leaders of the Way, a man named Stephen, was arrested and placed on trial. When he gave his testimony, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem convicted him of blasphemy and condemned him to death. In Acts 7 we first hear Paul mentioned in Scripture, though by his Hebrew name:
Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. ... And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 7:58-60; 8:1)
It appears that Paul may have been about twenty years old at the time, which would mean he was quite young to be giving approval for the killing of Stephen.
Death by stoning required that the witness who testified against the convicted individual drop the first stones upon him. The fact that they laid their coats at Paul's feet likely indicates that Paul was given authority to act on behalf of the Jewish leaders to oversee the execution. The Mishnah, or first written version of what was called the Oral Torah, tells us what this process looked like. The victim would be thrown down on his back and held there. Standing over him, about ten feet above the ground on a platform, the first witness took a large stone and dropped it on the victim's chest. If the victim did not die after the first stone, a second was dropped by the second witness. If after the first two witnesses the victim did not die, those around would take rocks and strike him until he died.
We read in Acts that after Stephen's death,
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. ... Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. ... Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-2)
What was it that motivated Paul to volunteer for the job of approving Stephen's execution and then going from house to house to arrest followers of the Way? I think it may have been the same thing that caused him years later to write, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors" (Galatians 1:14). Early in his career Paul was eager to impress the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem and to make a name for himself. In other words, it was Paul's personal ambition, combined with his unwavering religious convictions, that I believe led him to the work of persecuting the fledgling Christian movement.
Thinking about ambition, let's consider once more how Paul's story might connect with your story or with the stories of people you may know. Many of us struggle with ambition. I have struggled with it my whole life. I remember praying years ago, "Lord, please take away my ambition." And I felt him saying to me, "I'm not going to take it away; I'm going to use it, but your ambition must be for me and not for you."
Some people are blinded by ambition and are willing at times to do horrible things in order to get ahead. Paul was convinced that followers of the Way, regardless of how devout or gentle or loving, had to be stopped. It wasn't God that drove him to arrest those followers and approve their deaths. Blind ambition and unwavering religious conviction can be a dangerous combination.
It's important for us to submit our ambition to God, directing it to his glory and not our own, and for the most part that's what Paul seems to have done for the rest of his life. We can avoid acts that are contrary to our faith, as Paul learned to do, by holding our religious convictions with humility and never forgetting the commands of loving God and neighbor. To help me with that task, I memorized Scripture—like Psalm 115:1, which I often repeat as a "breath prayer," (the kind of prayer you can say in one breath): "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory." I committed to memory Jesus' question in Matthew 16:26, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (NIV).
When we fail to surrender our ambition to God's purposes, when we live to seek our glory and are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, we are bound to fall. But if we succeed in surrendering our ambition to God's purposes, we will help others find their way on the path of life. That's exactly what Paul was about to do.
It Is Hard to Kick Against the Goads
Paul, with letters in hand from the high priest authorizing the arrest of followers of the Way, began his way to Damascus. While on the road, he was stopped in his tracks, and his life was changed forever. Here is how he described the experience:
I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road ... I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads." I asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The Lord answered, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting."
Some have suggested the light from heaven was a bolt of lightning that struck near Paul and his colleagues. Whatever happened, it was terrifying, and Paul was blinded by it. In the midst of the light, Paul heard Jesus speaking to him. I love what Jesus said: "Saul, Saul ... it hurts you to kick against the goads."
What on earth is a goad? A goad is a stick with a pointed end, used to prod oxen and cattle to move in the direction their owner wants them to go. Jesus was saying, in effect, that he had been prodding or "goading" Paul in the right direction for some time, that Paul had not paid attention, and that his failure to pay attention was hurting Paul and others. ("It hurts you to kick against the goads.")
What an interesting idea: God is prodding us on a regular basis, seeking to lead us, guide us, and move us to do his will and to live as his people. God's prod is gentle yet persistent. And yet, unlike the old farmer who goads his oxen so hard they can't help but obey, God allows us to resist his goading.
Excerpted from The Call by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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