“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, (Ephesians 3:1)”
It’s not clear when Saul of Tarsus was born; some have him a few years older than Jesus, while others have him a few years younger.
Paul has given us some insight as to who he was before he became a believer in Jesus Christ in his writings.
He writes: (Gal 1:13-16) For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
Paul makes a distinction between “the Jews’ religion” (Judaism) and the ekklēsia of God (the Church or the assembly of God); that Christianity isn’t just another fraction of Judaism or else both would be God’s ekklēsia; nor does any Apostle call this assembly (Christianity) a sect ( a different opinion) of Judaism.
He said he was exceedingly zealous, more than those who were before him and those of his days in the oral traditions handed down by the fathers of Judaism. (Interestingly Paul does not say the Law or traditions from Moses, but of the fathers; even Jesus showed how these oral traditions made void the Law.)
It is claimed that there were two sets of Laws handed down by Moses; one was the written law and the other is an oral Law that was handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation that was to help explain the written Law; however, the oral law often contradicted or in some way made the written law of none effect (or void) and its interpretation often superseded the written law in authority; and it is these laws that created what is now known as “Judaism” and that Paul said he was more zealous than all others.
In another place Paul is recorded as saying:
(Act 22:3-5) I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.
Paul says, “at the feet of Gamaliel”; this is a term used to show he was an actual student or disciple of Gamaliel and that he received from Gamaliel personally; not from another who repeated or taught Gamaliel’s teachings.
This Gamaliel was the head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem during the days of Jesus; which would mean that both Paul & Gamaliel would have known of the things being done by Jesus.
As far as Judaism is concerned; Paul learned from one of the best minds on the oral Law and in doing so means; Paul must have been exceptionally bright himself to have been allowed to have Gamaliel as a teacher!
Paul was molded to be what he was by Judaism and through his zeal in the oral law he excelled in Judaism above many of his contemporaries. “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb”; Paul statement could be showing that God’s grace had a calling on Paul, even before he was born; or, he could be showing that God’s grace called Paul out of Judaism; where Judaism was like the womb where the child is formed.
Because of the context, I’m more inclined to believe Paul is showing how he was formed to be who he was through Judaism. Where he had a (misguided) zeal for God and that he could have been a great tool used for the furthering of Judaism.
But when it pleased God, he separated him from Judaism for another purpose. God’s grace came and he became a great tool for the Gospel of Christ instead of Judaism; and he was called to preach Christ to the Gentiles.
God’s grace did not change his zeal, but rather it changed the direction it was taking him and how it was to be demonstrated.
Often times when God’s grace finds us, we have been shaped by the world’s view of things in our character. But through grace we become new creatures; however, at the same time much of our character stays intact, but now it must be redirected.
Just as Paul was zealous for God in Judaism, he was equally zealous in Christ. However, that zeal had to be brought under control; there were even times where Paul’s zeal to get things done at any cost, caused problems between himself and other believers; such as with John Mark and Barnabas.
We are not told why Paul may have been angry with John; people’s imaginations run wild here; some suppose John got homesick; some suppose John may have gotten weary or tired of the journey, while others reason out something else why John departed early.
Whatever the reason for John’s early departure, Paul was not in agreement or happy with it and Paul wasn’t giving John another chance! Whatever the problem that he had with John Mark; Barnabas didn’t share the same feelings about it. It also caused a heated debated between Paul and Barnabas; which caused them to go their separate ways. Who was right in this heated debate, Paul or Barnabas?
Passion and zeal for the things of God can be a good thing; but often times when one that has zeal in one area and they run into another person who does not share the same kind of zeal in this same area; often a problem between them can and will arise.
If this happens, friction can and often does occur; where one accuses the other of a fault. Such as, the zealous may accuse the other as being lukewarm or not giving their all for God; and the one who is not zealous in that area, may accuse the other of being judge-mental or caught up in works for salvation or even prideful.
Some people are very competitive by nature (or character), some are not; some are lions, while others are lambs in their character, some like working alone, while others depend on working in groups.
Paul’s statements of himself in Judaism; seems to point that his zeal was also driven by a sense of pride and at times even he was boastful; which seems to have caused him problems with both the believer and unbelievers alike, even after his conversion his zeal may have been a little out of control.
God does not call us all to be lions, but he has called us all to love; therefore the lions for God need to be sure that not only are they zealous for God, but that they are also operating in the love of God; so as not to devourer God’s lambs!
Even though Paul’s zeal could be a problem at times, God’s grace did not remove it; nor did it prevent God’s ability to use Paul for his purpose.
We all should be zealous for God, but how that zeal is played out or in what area of our walk with God, may depend on each person’s own character or nature.
Passion is a strong emotion that drives a person or ones own willingness to suffer for a set purpose or goal, but our passion should not destroy or cause harm to those who do not share the same passion, or same degree of passion.
In the end, Paul’s view of John Mark changed; whether John himself changed (grew up in the eyes of Paul) or through God’s grace Paul may have seen that God was working through John in spite of what Paul thought about John’s actions; and Paul may have then decided to let John be John in Christ.
From the Saul of Judaism, to Paul the prisoner of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles; it is hard to imagine the changes he went through. From the first thought while blinded by the glory of Christ for three days; to the last day in prison just before his death.
What a change in course; from his persecution of the Church, to being one of the greatest helpers to build it; and to his dying for his faith in Christ Jesus.
God’s grace reached out and changed this man’s life; as well as, Paul was changed in the way he thought and the way he saw other people.
Paul was a man already running a race; however, grace changed the finish line; he was already fighting a fight, grace just changed his opponent; and through this prisoner; this servant of the Lord; the known world of his day and even the world of today, have forever been changed!
Paul was a prisoner a long time before he was ever in jail; grace had captured his heart many years earlier.
May God’s grace capture our hearts as well; that our own ambitions may fade through God’s grace; that we may be able to say likewise, “I’m a prisoner of Jesus Christ, my Lord!”