FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 17, number 11, March 22, 2018
“. . . what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed. . . in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” -Romans 15:18,19
Why Was Paul So Successful?
Paul began his ministry in 47 A.D., and while writing to the Romans in 57 A.D. as he ministered in Ephesus, he was able to tell them that he had completed his ministry. He had preached from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum, modern day Croatia. He also told the Romans that he very much hoped to see them while on his way to Spain (the end of the world, as they saw it at the time, Romans 15:24). So, in ten years Paul established the church of our Lord Jesus Christ in four Roman provinces-Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia Minor. In other words, Paul completed his ministry in ten years.
This begs a very important question-how did he do it? Why was Paul so successful? Many church leaders over the years have attributed Paul’s undeniable success to his unique gifting and upbringing, to the special times in which he lived, to the receptivity of Paul’s message of grace by the ancient, under educated people of his day.
To be sure, Paul was a remarkably gifted man. I have long marveled at the grammatical construction, syntax, use of vocabulary, verb tenses, and nuances of language which he used in dictating his letters to the various churches. It’s one thing to dictate a letter, but it is quite another to do what Paul did with such felicity and clarity of speech. Paul was a massive intellect, to be sure. We also know that Paul was very well trained in the intricacies of Pharisaism, having studied under the great Gamaliel. He was also a privileged man, telling us that he had been a Pharisee of Pharisees, of the tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of Abraham. He was born a Roman citizen, a wonderful benefit which delivered him from trouble many times over when he later became an apostle. He was a zealous man, calling himself a persecutor of the church. While on his way to Damascus to arrest and imprison Christians, he was met by the resurrected Christ. He was an earnest man, having held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death for preaching the gospel.
And it is also true that Paul lived in a very unique time. The Roman Empire at the time, the greatest, most powerful empire in the world, stretched from England to Africa, from Syria to Spain. The Roman roads made travel very fast. The Roman emphasis on being one nation of multiple ethnicities served as the backdrop for Paul’s message that all believers are one body in Christ. In other words, the people, some say, were pre-conditioned to accept the various ethnicities, and put them on the back burner in relating to people of different cultures. Also, some say that the Greek world of learning was a major reason for Paul’s success. The New Testament Scriptures were written in Greek, the common language of the day, and it appears that the Scriptures were not translated into local or tribal languages. And some have suggested that the Greek pursuit of higher learning made Christianity a learning faith, that people were already predisposed toward seeking a growing, intellectual knowledge of the Bible and theology. And there can be no doubt that Paul’s Jewish heritage helped him immensely. The Romans gave special dispensations of freedom to the Jews which other ethnic groups failed to receive. Their tax burden was less than most nations, and they were largely exempt from Roman, military service. Furthermore, it is pretty clear that Luke, the author of Acts, contrasts the wicked, deceitful treatment of the Jews concerning Paul with the kindness and protection of the Romans.
So, do these natural benefits explain Paul’s success? Well, keep in mind that the world at that time was certainly not docile and predisposed toward Christianity. Paul faced severe opposition, persecution, and beatings at the hands of both the Jews and the Gentiles. He received thirty-nine lashes of the whip five times. He was beaten with rods on three occasions. He was shipwrecked three times. Once he was stoned and left for dead (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). And today’s world holds nothing over the world in Paul’s day. Infants were regularly abandoned on garbage heaps. Homosexuality was rampant, as was abortion. Slavery was so pervasive that it never entered the mind of Paul (see his letter to Philemon) or the other apostles to seek the abolition of slavery. He simply taught slaves and masters to act Biblically toward each other. The amphitheater with its gladiator fights to the death were exceedingly popular. Augustine reports that Alypius, who was invited by friends to attend a gladiator fight, vehemently refused at first. But his friends persisted and he agreed to go, but he would not look. The bloodthirsty roar of the crowd piqued his curiosity, and he looked and was hooked on the violence. He says that with the sight of blood he drank in ruthlessness, being drunk with murderous joy. So, contrary to what some have said, the world was very much opposed to morality and the Christian faith.
How, then, can we explain Paul’s success? A cursory look at Acts clearly gives us the reason for his success. It had nothing to do with his privileges, education, or the times in which he lived. It had everything to do with the fullness of the Holy Spirit who was on him and in him.
I can safely say that none of us have the unique gifts or status of Paul, but that does not matter. The only thing that matters is being sold out, totally committed to Jesus Christ by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
I hope this encourages you. If you seek the Lord and the filling of the Holy Spirit, you can be mighty for God. He is all you need. Well, how do we gain the fullness of the Spirit? Hold on. I will tell you next week.
1. Cited by Roland Allen in Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? page 31.
2. Acts 1:5,8, 2:4, 4:8,31, 6:3,5, 7:55, 8:17, 9:17, 11:15, 13:4, 14:3