Saul of Tarsus: Born Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul was a brilliant young man, a rising star in the Jewish faith, who was a violent persecutor of Christians. But then he met Jesus, and it changed everything. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who has ever lived! If God changed Paul’s story in such a dramatic way, what might he do with our story? Recorded on Apr 16, 2023, on Philippians 3:1-14 by Pastor David Parks.
The Life of Paul is a new sermon series (mostly) from the book of Acts in the Bible. The Apostle Paul has a fantastic story. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians. But then he met Jesus, which changed everything. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who ever lived. Paul’s story offers a great case study of what it looks like to learn the way of Jesus.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus. And today, we get to start a brand new sermon series on the life of the Apostle Paul. Now, Paul’s story is a fascinating story, but also, Paul’s story serves as a great case study for learning the way of Jesus. And the reason is that Paul wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians at the very start of the Christian movement. But then, Paul met Jesus, which changed everything. So, Paul, the persecutor, became Paul the Christian, and one who was persecuted himself for Christ. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who has ever lived. Paul’s life and ministry have influenced billions of people for 2,000 years. How did all this happen? How did someone so diametrically opposed to the Christian faith become the greatest missionary for Christ? How did the one who sought to have Christians imprisoned or killed become one who gave all of his life and suffered many hardships for the work of advancing the gospel among all peoples? In our Easter service last week, we considered the plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s story is a compelling piece of evidence that Jesus is alive to this day as the King of all Creation. How else would you explain his conversion? But over the course of the next ten weeks, we’ll follow the story of his life, his conversion to Christianity, his suffering, his ministry, and more. We’ll be mostly in the book of Acts, but, as we’ll do today, we’ll draw on a few passages from his letters, as well. So today, we’ll begin the story of Saul of Tarsus, the mighty Apostle Paul, and our case study on learning the way of Jesus. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open to Philippians 3:1. We’ll put the Scripture up on the screens for you as well. But we’re going to unpack this text as we work through it in four parts, and then I just have one takeaway for you at the end.
Philippians 3:1–3 (NIV), “Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—“ Let’s pause here. So we’re coming right into the middle of a letter, so it might feel a little random. But Paul is using really strong language here to warn his brothers and sisters in Christ about a dangerous way of thinking. We’ll get to what the threat was in a minute, but from the beginning of the letter, it’s clear that Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Philippi. Now, Philippi was the first European city that Paul had visited because God had called him there in a dream. His visit took place during his second missionary journey in the early 50s AD when Paul was about my age. After arriving, he did his normal thing: he preached the gospel, made disciples, and planted a church that started meeting at an influential woman’s house named Lydia. Here, a few years later, perhaps in 55 or 56 AD, Paul is writing back to his friends in Philippi to address several issues and to encourage them in their faith. This was Paul’s regular practice, and several of his letters were recognized almost immediately as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore were widely shared among the churches around the Roman Empire and included in the canon of Scripture. But one of the issues he felt he needed to address in Philippi was an issue that was confusing for early Christians in many places. That is, were the Gentile converts to Christianity supposed to become like ethnic Jews? Did Gentile Christians need to follow the Mosaic law, including following certain dietary restrictions and getting circumcised? Because of their focus on the issue of circumcision, he calls his opponents “mutilators of the flesh.” I don’t think any of us would want to be an opponent of Paul. But the reason Paul uses such strong language here is that he sees this as a threat to a proper understanding of Christian salvation. You see, if Christians were supposed to obey the law which was given by God under the old covenant in order to be considered righteous, then the gift of God in providing his son Jesus and his death and resurrection to establish a new covenant by faith, was in Paul’s view, adding to the work of Jesus. And any attempt to add to or take away from the person and work of Jesus isn’t just a bad idea; it’s a corruption of the gospel, it’s a false gospel that is no gospel at all! Whenever salvation was at stake, Paul always used the strongest possible arguments that he could. There are many things in the Christian faith that are secondary matters, which mature, bible-believing Christians might disagree about, but salvation is not one of those issues. Paul says if Christians follow this false gospel, they will lessen their faith in Jesus and increase their faith in their own works, putting, as he says, “confidence in the flesh.” So with all that context, we can start to move a little quicker through this text. Let’s continue with v.4.
Philippians 3:4-6 (NIV), “4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” Let’s pause here. So this is where Paul references his own story. He says you want to talk about having confidence in your own flesh, in your own righteousness under the Law of Moses? I have you beat. It’s not arrogance, saying that he has more reasons for putting confidence in his own flesh. He does! Paul says that he was circumcised on the eighth day, which means his parents were obedient to the Law of Moses. He was raised to be obedient to the Law from birth. We don’t know exactly when Paul was born, but it was probably around 10 AD, which means he was just a little younger than Jesus. But we know he wasn’t a convert to Judaism; he was ethnically Jewish. He was of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (one of the Twelve tribes of Israel), a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Saul was his Hebrew name, while Paul was his Roman name. But to his opponents, Paul could say, I’m not trying to be Jewish; I am Jewish. I have the right lineage and family background. But what about the Law? Was Paul a devout Jew or more of a cultural Jew only? In regard to the Law, Paul says he was trained to be a Pharisee. This meant that he had years of formal training in the Mosaic Law. This would be the modern equivalent to a law degree. But Paul wasn’t trained in some second-rate university but by one of the most well-known and well-respected Rabbis in Judea. Paul gives some additional information about this in Acts 22:2–3 (NIV), “Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem]. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” Now, from the Book of Acts, and other historical sources, we know that Gamaliel was a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. Very few people in his day had more authority or influence in the Jewish faith than Gamaliel. As a result, though Paul was born in Tarsus, which made him a Roman citizen, with all the rights and privileges of being a citizen of the most powerful kingdom on earth at the time, he was raised and educated by the very best in Jerusalem. We know he learned the trade of tent-making, possibly from his family, but in Jerusalem, Paul was on the fast track to becoming incredibly powerful and influential as a religious leader himself. But Paul wasn’t just from the right family and had the right citizenry with the right educational background, he was also very zealous and, as he says, as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. Now this doesn’t mean that he was without sin, only that externally, by the measure of the Law, he was blameless, even though his heart was far from God. Externally, he had checked every box. He was brilliant and worked harder than everyone else to be seen and known as a good person. And so, he was a rising star in Judea. If he wasn’t already a member of the Sanhedrin by his late twenties or early thirties, he surely would be soon. This group advocating circumcision and other Jewish practices to the Philippians were little league compared to Paul. But let’s continue and see what Paul thought about all this.
Philippians 3:7-9 (NIV), “7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” This is such a powerful set of statements. For the one who was a rising star in Judaism, from the right family and the right background, who checked all the right boxes, and one who was incredibly smart, hard-working, and zealous, now, perhaps some twenty years after becoming Christian, he could look back and say none of those things were worth anything to him. At the time, what seemed like gains for him were actually losses. And actually, now that he had lost all of those advantages because he became a Christian, he considers them to be garbage compared to knowing Christ and being found in him. As many people have experienced over the years, Saul of Tarsus met Jesus, and it changed everything. Because for Paul, in Christ, he finally found the righteousness he had always tried to achieve on his own. He found that the righteousness that comes from God is given by God’s grace on the basis of faith in Jesus. This is why the Christian gospel is so different than every other religion or philosophy in the world. Everyone else says that it is what you do that saves you. Paul believed this before he became a Christian. But the problem was, as he admits in Romans 7 and elsewhere, that he knew in his heart that sin was still at war within him. He still had a heart problem, even though he had tried so hard to be good on his own. As good as anyone can try to be, we all still fall short of the glory of God. But in the message of Jesus, it was found that it is not what you do that saves you, but what Jesus has already done. Jesus gave his life on the cross to pay the price for sin that we could never pay. But he rose again from the dead, breaking the power of sin and death forever for those who would believe in him and trust him for salvation. Therefore, the righteousness of Christ is given to us by faith. Now anyone, Jew or Gentile, can be forgiven for their sins, have a new relationship with God, and receive eternal life in his kingdom. So do you see why Paul would care so much about not confusing this message of salvation? If it’s not what you do that saves you, thinking you need to trust in Jesus but also get circumcised for your salvation is going right back to that flawed, anti-Christ way of thinking. Let’s finish this passage and hear Paul’s heart for his friends in Philippi.
Philippians 3:10-14 (NIV), “10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Do you feel Paul’s passion? Do you hear his heart for God? He isn’t mildly convinced; he is utterly sold out for Jesus. The greatest aim for his life, the reason he is straining for what is ahead, the reason he is happy to lose everything and suffer many difficulties and hardships, and the reason he is running this race to win the prize is all because of Jesus. Jesus is worth it. For Paul, life with Christ is the best kind of life. Knowing Jesus and following Jesus, and helping other people come to faith and grow in their faith in Jesus is worth more to Paul than anything. If you cut that man, he would bleed Jesus! If you put him in chains, he would tell his prison guards about Jesus. If you killed Paul, then he knew he would be with Jesus, which was far better for him. But how did he get this way? What led up to all this? How did the twenty years between his conversion and the writing of this letter unfold? We’ll cover all that and more in the weeks ahead. But here, Paul uses his story against his opponents to reveal the false gospel they are preaching. If his opponents were right, then Paul would’ve already been righteous under the Law and wouldn’t have needed Jesus or the cross of Christ. But Paul knew he needed Jesus. And the logic of the gospel falls apart if you add anything or take anything away from Jesus. In many ways, this interaction is a perfect example of Paul’s ministry as an apostle, his heart for the church, his passion for Christ, and his refusal to accept a message of salvation based on anything other than the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. But this also sheds a little light on Paul’s story. And that is where I’d like to focus as we close.
Everybody has a story. Paul had a story. I have a story. You have a story. And one of the things we learn from following Paul’s story is that God can not only use our stories; he can not only use our personalities, backgrounds, strengths/weaknesses, wisdom, wounds, and families — in other words, God can not only use all that we are — but he can redeem our stories and change our stories in new and unexpected ways. Paul never expected to become a Christian, much less to be one of the most effective and fruitful Christian missionaries of all time! Paul’s story proves that God has the power and authority to rewrite our stories. God can take us and transform us for his glory, for our joy, and for the good of all people. God is the author of life, including our lives, and no matter how our stories began, he can write a new ending for us in Christ. Did you know that? Do you believe that? Now our stories will not be the same as Paul’s story. But the same Jesus who appeared alive and in glory to Paul on the road to Damascus, the same Jesus who led and guided Paul all over the Roman Empire, the same Jesus who inspired and sustained and preserved his ministry is the same Jesus who we follow today. He’s the same Jesus who is the head of our church today. He’s the same Jesus who saves us by his grace today. He’s the same Jesus who is at work in transforming and rewriting the story of our lives even now. Everybody has a story. May we see our lives and our stories and our past/present/future the way Paul saw his: as being saved/empowered/guided/protected/redeemed in the goodness and the righteousness that is found in Christ Jesus our Lord. May we press on, as a church, toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus. God only knows what might happen in our lives or in this church or in our community, or in our world if we, like Paul, learn to follow the way of Jesus. May it be, Lord. Let us pray.