“For I think that God hath set forth us, the apostles, last.” (1 Cor. 4:9)
As Paul traveled the first-century Mediterranean world as a missionary evangelist, his first-rate rabbinical education under Gamaliel in Jerusalem served him well. As he and Barnabas or Silas entered a synagogue in a new city, Paul was probably in every case better educated and more knowledgeable about Old Testament scripture than the local rabbi of that synagogue.
This element in Paul’s background of the highest scholarly qualifications removed from consideration any attack based upon lack of education, on the credibility of Paul’s message that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Within the unique context of Paul’s calling and mission to the Jews and Gentiles of the larger Mediterranean world, the above-reproach credentials of Paul’s rabbinical training and education were mandatory and invaluable.
Yet when Paul meets Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, and begins his career of preaching that the cross and the resurrection proved that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, Paul suffers a huge loss of the prestige and honor that his formal education would normally have afforded him in the Jewish culture. Paul entered into the rejection that Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:24-25: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?”
In Paul’s own words in Philippians 3:4-10, Paul says that he has “suffered the loss of all things.” In Corinthians 1:23, Paul says: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness.”
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.” In 1 Corinthians 4:9-16, as quoted above, Paul says that God has set forth the apostles as last, as a spectacle to the world, as fools, weak, despised, naked, hungry, buffeted, reviled, persecuted, defamed, and as the filth and offscouring of the world.
Yet Paul actually concludes this section of scriptures by saying in the 16th verse, to be followers of him in this regard, as being the normal, expected outcome of committed, uncompromising Christian discipleship.
While speaking to Ananias in a vision, Jesus says about Paul: “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my names sake” (Acts 9:16).
Paul narrowly escapes the threat of death in Damascus (Acts 9:23-25), again escapes the threat of death in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29-30), is expelled out of a city (Acts 13:50), is stoned (Acts 14:19), is beaten and jailed (Acts 16:23), is the cause of a riot (Acts 17:5), is accused before Gallio in Achaia (Acts 18:12), and is the cause of another riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41).
Paul is beaten by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:32), nearly “pulled in pieces” by the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:10), is in danger of forty men sworn to kill him (Acts 23:12), is imprisoned for purely political reasons (Acts 24:27), and is shipwrecked in a perilous sea as a prisoner on his way to a trial before Caesar in Rome (Acts 27:39-44).
If the Apostle Paul is one of our best examples of the true Christian, and if this joint-venture type journey-of-faith is the pathway that God chose for Paul to become a Holy Spirit validated writer of some of the divinely inspired New Testament…then Paul’s experiences instruct us as to one of the singular truths of all eternity.
This truth is that the power and wisdom of God working in our lives invariably leads to Holy Spirit manufactured humility. The greatest athlete, the most talented movie actor, and most brilliant scientist, are at their best when they do not have to brag about or tout themselves.
The perfect, divine example of this is Jesus Christ the Son of God, who contrary to worldly conventional wisdom, “made himself of no reputation” and “took upon him the form of a servant” and “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).
When engineered by the Holy Spirit working in our lives, the actualization of our unique God-given talents…blended with some measure of divine humility…is a miraculous, supernatural product that is manufactured within us through the series of events that make up a biblical quality journey of faith.
This is part of what the lives of Paul and the other great men and women of faith in the Bible is telling us. It is the supernatural participation of God that makes these biblical life stories different, extraordinary, and exceptional compared to conventionally human life-stories.