The apostle Paul gives his readers a very lofty admonition: “Imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1 NKJV). The problem is, we tend to have such a distorted view of Paul that this seems to be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. One of the reasons this is such a challenge is because numerous misconceptions about the apostle have been generated over the centuries. Sometimes he is referred to as “Saint Paul” to distinguish him from the ordinary Christian. He is commonly viewed as an inaccessible authority figure, high up on a pedestal with a halo encircling his head. We hear of “Pauline theology” and “Pauline churches,” as though he were a lone maverick who developed his own brand of Christianity distinct from that of the Jerusalem apostles. He is often regarded as a fearless missionary who boldly marched into unknown territories, bravely confronting religious error and conquering men’s souls without the slightest apprehension.
With such an inflated view of the apostle Paul, how can any of us mere mortals ever hope to comply with the apostolic directive to imitate him? Few can live up to such a high standard, and since I am no “Saint Paul,” I have an excuse for not doing more for the Lord, for not being more involved in the church, and for not being more faithful in my Christian walk. However, to be fair to Paul, to give credit to God (who is the real reason for the apostle’s success), and to counter some of our flimsy excuses, we need to have a more realistic view of Paul. The purpose of this article is not to take anything away from the apostle that is his due but simply to dispel some of the mistaken ideas about him.
Paul the “Theological Genius” is a Myth
Is it legitimate to speak of “Pauline theology” as though the apostle developed his own doctrine and his own brand of Christianity? What does Paul himself say? “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). The message that Paul preached was something he himself had “received” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3), and the directives he recorded were ultimately “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
Whether or not Paul was highly intelligent, talented or creative is beside the point. Everything he believed, taught, and stood for did not originate with him. It all came from a much higher source. Rather than promoting anything about himself, he hid behind the message of a crucified and risen Savior. How, then, do I imitate Paul in this regard? “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God . . .” (1 Peter 4:11).
Paul the “Fearless Warrior” is a Myth
Is it realistic to think of Paul as a man without apprehensions, trepidations, or fears? If so, it makes it much more difficult for most of us to imitate him. But is this what the apostle was really like? During their first missionary tour, Barnabas and Paul were working in areas familiar to them, namely Cyprus and Southern Galatia (Acts 13–14). On the second tour it seems that again Paul was wanting to stay fairly close to home, namely in Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7). However, the Lord wanted him to go even further a field (Acts 16:9-10). While Paul obeyed this missionary call, it was anything but easy for him.
In Achaia the Lord reassured him: “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent: for I am with you . . .” (Acts 18:9-10). Paul later admitted to the Corinthians, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). He also wrote, “when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears” (2 Corinthians 7:5). Apparently the apostle Paul was just as human as the rest of us!
Simply based on the information available to us, there does not appear to have been anything all that remarkable about Paul as a man. Both his bodily presence and his speech were considered unimpressive (2 Corinthians 10:10). A second-century description of him portrays him as a man of small stature, with a bald head, hooked nose and crooked legs (Acts of Paul and Thecla 1.4-7). Considering the extreme maltreatment he endured through the years (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28), it is not surprising that his body bore visible scars (Galatians 6:17). On top of all that, it has been suggested that what he describes as his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) may have been some physical malady that he struggled with for most of his life.
If Paul were such a pitiful and unimpressive specimen of humanity, how does one explain his phenomenal success as a missionary? First and foremost, credit must be given to the mighty working of God (1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 15:10). Secondly, one cannot discount the invaluable assistance of Paul’s co-workers (Acts 20:4; etc.). But as far as Paul himself is concerned, what made the difference in his life was a convicted heart and the burden he carried for a lost world (1 Corinthians 9:16). No matter how untalented, inadequate, or fearful you might feel, if your heart is convicted by the message of Christ, you will be compelled to step out in faith and allow God to powerfully accomplish his will despite your imperfections.
Paul the “Individualist” is a Myth
The lone maverick and solo missionary are not the images of Paul we get from the New Testament. Of the thirteen letters bearing Paul’s name, only five begin with his name alone (each for a special reason). However, the normal practice was to include references to co-senders: Sosthenes (1 Corinthians), Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), “all the brothers with me” (Galatians), Silvanus and Timothy (1, 2 Thessalonians). In addition, there are numerous co-workers mentioned in the body of Paul’s letters as well as those who send greetings at the end. The apostle was anything but a loner.
On his first journey he worked in partnership with Barnabas and for a time with John Mark (Acts 13–14). On the second expedition he labored with Silas, Timothy, Luke, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 16–18). On the third tour at least ten companions are mentioned in the biblical record (Acts 19–20). Of course the chief partner in Paul’s lifelong ministry was the Lord himself (cf. Acts 14:27; 15:4; 21:19; 1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
Paul the so-called “theological genius,” “fearless warrior,” and “individualist” are myths that have no basis in scripture. The apostle did not give an impossible directive when he said, “Imitate me.” To truly imitate Paul, as he imitated Christ, we must: (1) hide behind the message of a crucified and risen Savior; (2) step out in faith, confront our fears, and do what the Lord has commissioned us to do; and (3) understand that we are called upon to work within a community, in partnership with one another and ultimately with God.
–Kevin L. Moore
Originally appearing in The Voice of Truth International (58:97-99) and republished in The Summit Chronicle 11:1 (June 2008): 3, 6, 9.
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