Paul’s Days of Ignorance (Phil. 3:1-7)

Published on Thursday, 21 September 2017 18:36

On several occasions, Paul refers to his way of life before he was a Christian. He says that he grew up in Tarsus before moving to Jerusalem to study under a famous rabbi called Gamaliel. Paul was aware of the significance of Tarsus because he describes it in Acts 21:39 as not an obscure city. Tarsus was the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia and was noted for its schools of philosophy and rhetoric as well as being a centre for trade – it had a large harbour and ships sailed there from many parts of the world. It was inevitable that Paul would have been influenced in some ways by such an environment. Moreover, a sizeable Jewish community lived there, which would have provided Paul with a sense of belonging and a culture to absorb.

When was Paul born?
Again, there is no way to be precise about this. He became a Christian several years after Jesus ascended to heaven around the years 29 or 30. At the time of the death of Stephen, which was about three or four years later, Saul is said to be a young man (Acts 7:59). Maybe he was in his late twenties or early thirties then, which would mean he was born a few years after the birth of Jesus around BC6.

The family of Paul
Paul belonged to a Jewish family that identified with the Pharisees. He says in Acts 23:6 that his father was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would adhere strongly to the religious beliefs connected to that group, such as the hope of the resurrection and to the existence of spiritual beings such as angels, both of which were denied by the Sadducees. He also would have a strong commitment to the religious traditions embraced by the Pharisees, and those traditions were very numerous and affected most ways of life.

The family tribe was Benjamin and this connection probably explains why he was given the name Saul, the first king of Israel, who came from the tribe of Benjamin. Many in the tribe were proud of the connection, even although Saul turned out to be an unfaithful king as far as obedience to God was concerned. It was common for individuals to have several names, so it is also possible that he had been given the name Paul when he was a child as well.

His family status also gave him another privilege, which was that he was a Roman citizen. Luke tells that when Paul informed the city officials of Philippi that he was a Roman citizen they became afraid because such persons should not have been punished in the manner that they had beaten him. Later, when speaking about his Roman citizenship with a Roman tribune who had purchased his citizenship Paul says that he was freeborn.

It was common for Jewish males to have a trade and on several occasions Paul worked as a tentmaker. Perhaps his family were engaged in that trade and he may have learned to practice it when he was young. It is possible that he took up the trade after he became a Christian, but it is more likely that he learned the trade when he was young.

Saul probably was not the first member of his family circle to become a Christian. In Romans 16, he refers to relatives who were in Christ before he was and who had moved to live in Rome. ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me’ (Acts 16:7).

In Jerusalem
Saul was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, probably as a young teenager. The period of study would last for several years and Paul had family in Jerusalem where he could stay. He mentions a nephew from Jerusalem who helped him there when he was arrested a couple of decades later for being a Christian (Acts 23:16). The reason for this choice of location by his father was because he would have wanted his son to be instructed by a Pharisee. Although he was a Pharisee, Gamaliel was regarded as a moderate as far as his beliefs were concerned. Yet he would be very different from the teachers connected to the Sadducees, among whom were the priests, because most of them denied the existence of a spiritual world.

It looks as if Paul’s family had earmarked for him the role of a rabbi. Since he was from the tribe of Benjamin he could not serve God as a priest or a Levite. So he was sent to Jerusalem to be taught by Gamaliel. Before he went, he would have been educated by instructors in the synagogue in Tarsus or by a rabbi in the city. He would have become familiar with the Old Testament and would have seen the predictions it contained about the coming Messiah. No doubt he wondered when the Messiah would appear.  

In his letter to the Philippians Paul mentions regarding himself that as far as outward obedience to the law was concerned he was blameless (Phil. 3:6). By the law he probably means the ceremonial as well as the moral law. He was confident that he had not failed to observe all that was required of him. So he was consistent as well as dedicated to the law of Moses. Each detail of it he regarded as important and necessary to obey.

Paul would have recognised that he was not living in the glory days of Israel’s experience. The nation had descended into being a vassal state of the mighty Roman empire. There had not been days of greatness for Israel since the time of David and Solomon, and they were a thousand years away. How did Paul react to such a situation? He resolved to serve God as best as he could and he would oppose anyone among the Jews who suggested otherwise.

We can deal briefly with a couple of questions that are asked about this period in Paul’s life. One is whether or not he saw Jesus during those years when he was in Jerusalem. Given that Paul would have attended the Jewish feasts that Jesus also attended, it is very likely that he was in the vicinity of Jesus. But that does not mean that he ever saw Jesus or heard him speak, and since Paul was a Pharisee he would not have heard any of his friends suggesting that they should listen to him.

The other question is whether or not Paul was married. It is impossible to know the answer to this question. Yet some have suggested he was because of his comment in Acts 26:10 that he cast his vote to condemn Christians in Jerusalem, which could suggest that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, and members had to be married. If he was married, then he must have become a widower, and again his comment in 1 Corinthians 7:8 (‘to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am’) could be read as indicating that he had remained unmarried after losing his wife. But it is not possible to state that he was definitely married.

Paul the persecutor
At some stage in his life as an adult in Jerusalem Paul became a very strong opponent of the Christian faith. Later in life, he viewed those days as a time when he was ‘a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent’ (1 Tim. 1:13). Moreover, he says that he then ‘acted ignorantly in unbelief,’ so although he had imagined he was serving God when he put people in prison he later discovered that he was not. His aim was to destroy the Christian church and remove it from the earth.

Given that Luke, the author of Acts, was a companion of Paul, we can be assured that some of the details mentioned by Luke came from information that Paul provided. One such detail is the account of Stephen. When Stephen was put to death, Luke says that the mob placed their clothes at the feet of Paul, indicating that he was in charge of the execution. This indicates that the authorities had confidence in him.

The followers of Jesus living in Jerusalem before that time had not yet commenced evangelising the Gentile world. Instead they remained somewhat connected to the practices of Judaism, such as attending the temple at the time of prayer, as we can see from the early chapters of Acts. Initially they were popular with the people in general. Opposition to the disciples of Jesus came mainly from the Sanhedrin, and it was dominated by the Sadducees who strongly opposed a message that centred on a claim that the founder had risen from the dead. They wanted to crush the new movement, but it was the Pharisee Gamaliel who advised the Sanhedrin not to oppose the followers of Jesus in case it found itself fighting against God (Acts 5:34ff.). On the assumption that Paul would have agreed with the view of Gamaliel rather than that of the Sadducees, why did he then become such a strong opponent of the followers of Jesus? The answer seems to be connected to the story of Stephen and what he taught about Jesus.

Stephen had a very effective ministry in the city. He was opposed by several groups of Jews, among whom were Jews from Cilicia (Acts 6:9), which is where Paul came from. Eventually, Stephen was put on trial for his beliefs and his speech explaining his opinions is recorded in Acts 7. Luke then says in Acts 8:1-3 that a great persecution arose against the church that day under the leadership of Saul. This is what Paul was engaged in when he set off to Damascus to deal with the followers of Jesus there.

We can see from the speech of Stephen that he highlighted the regular unfaithfulness of Israel and minimised the ongoing importance of the temple. He grasped that the coming of Jesus had changed many things about the worship of God. No doubt, those ideas if they became popular would have strong effects on the people of Israel. People were beginning to see that the church was not really a subset of Judaism, but instead was a very different kind of gathering.

At that time Paul determined that the church had to be destroyed. Whether this determination was the outcome of something that had been simmering in him for a while, or whether it was a recent decision connected to the ministry of Stephen in Jerusalem, cannot be stated with certainty. Whatever the cause, Paul became a fierce persecutor of the church.

Divine preparation for service
We can see several ways in which Paul was being prepared for serving Jesus later. The divine Potter was at work shaping the man who would become so important in the life of the church. First, he was given a thorough grounding in the Old Testament – all he needed in a sense was the key to open all its rooms, and he found that key when he met Jesus.

Second, Paul would have realised the inadequacy of legalism for becoming right with God and for maintaining a relationship with God. His adherence to the requirements of the law were incredible, but of no value in a spiritual sense. He stressed this repeatedly in later years.

Third, Paul was to engage with people of all cultures as an apostle. He would have interacted with such and understood their ideas from the years he spent in Tarsus as well as with people he met later in Gentile-dominated Jerusalem.

Fourth, Paul’s personality was renewed when he became a Christian, but many of his traits would remain but now devoted to the service of Jesus. He was disciplined in his habits, determined in his goals, and devoted to God (as he thought). Those features are prominent too in his Christian life.

Fifth, his religious and civil privileges gave him access to places, even if he was eventually expelled from some of them. As a rabbi, he had access to the Jewish synagogues and as a Roman citizen he had certain privileges that he could use when he so wished.

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