What was Paul really like? What was his character? What kind of personality? How did he react to weakness, or opposition, or indifference? Did he lose his temper? Was he a good listener? It’s important to me, as I listen to what Paul had to say, to know what kind of person is doing the talking.
Those of us who grew up with computer mediated communication often have experiences of radical misunderstanding of some short yet critical message. Something is said quickly, and the receiver reacts to implications of the message that the sender never intended. Without having the redundant factors provided by physical observation and empathy, it is easy to misinterpret a message in isolation. This effect is moderated somewhat if there has been some form of direct communication in the past, so that the receiver can at least anticipate some of the non-verbal factors based on previous experience. Sometimes even one physical meeting is sufficient to give one person enough “feel” for the other that information about the other’s communication style can inform the listening and understanding process.
For me to try to understand Paul, I need to use whatever materials we have to get an idea of the kind of person he was. These are some of the characteristics that show through his letters.
Highly Focused and Goal Oriented
Paul’s life and daily activities are defined by his role as an apostle. He does not spend some portion of his day on his ministry and then go home to relax for the rest of the evening. Even his profession as a tent maker is practiced in service to his ministry.
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2:9)
As Soren Kierkegaard beautifully expressed it, apostleship is an all-consuming vocation.
an apostle has really only to be faithful in his service, and to carry out his task. Therein lies the essence of the apostle’s life of self-sacrifice, even if he were never persecuted, in the fact that he is “poor, yet making many rich,” that he never dares take the time or quiet or carefreeness in order to grow rich. … even though at first he might have wished for a long life, his life to the very end will remain unchanged, for there will always be new people to whom to proclaim the [gospel]. … a man is called by a revelation to go out into the world, to proclaim the word, to act and to suffer, to a life of uninterrupted activity as the Lord’s messenger. [Kierkegaard quoted in Johan Christiaan Beker, Paul
the Apostle: the Triumph of God in Life and Thought, (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1980) p 11-12]
Paul is completely engaged in and defined by his role as an apostle, as we hear in the beginning of his letter to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, (Rom 1:1)
With a High Sense of Urgency
Paul’s missionary activity was in constant motion, working when he can within a community and moving on when he is unable to be effective. He had a strong sense of those he wanted to visit to share the gospel or encourage in it.
without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (Rom 1:9-13)
This urgency seems to derive from two sources, a consciousness of all those he wished to visit and a sense that the time available to do the work was short.
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; … For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29,31)
With a consciousness of the size of the population he still wanted to reach and the shortness of the time available, Paul only seemed to be able to work at full intensity.
Determined To Do Whatever It Takes
Whether before his conversion in his life as a Pharisee or after his conversion as an apostle of Jesus, Paul believed that his work in the service of God was so important that he needed to make whatever efforts were necessary to do the job. Paul’s willingness to suffer and accept rough treatment was the result of his conviction that the work was undertaken for God alone.
though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. (1 Thess 2:2-4)
He was willing to do whatever it took to win those around him to faith in the gospel.
I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. … To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:19,22-23)
Paul’s service to the gospel drove not only his activities but also all aspects of his behavior, style, and expression.
Energetic, Hard Working
Paul was a high energy person, constantly active. In his travels on land, he walked. There were good Roman roads to walk on, and the relative safety for travelers that Roman government provided. A day’s travel on land in those days was twenty-three miles, and although there were places of rest along the roads in villages planted by the road builders, Paul’s travels took great physical strength and stamina.
Not “Sensitive” to Personal Needs
Paul was strong enough and willing enough to be uncomfortable in service to his purpose.
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. (2 Cor 11:24-27)
The ordinary needs of daily life – food, clothing, and shelter – were satisfied in a minimal way, with whatever was sufficient for survival.
To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor 4:11-13)
With a Robust Conscience
Paul had a basic understanding of himself as a sinner with all
other human beings, and he accepted responsibility for his sins. As he said,
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; (Rom 3:23)
He identified in himself the struggle between his desire for righteousness and his bodily desire for sin.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:19-24)
His conclusion is that he is rescued through Christ from defeat by bodily sin. However, his description of the tendency to sin is more typical of the tendencies (yetzer) to good and evil of Jewish tradition than it is of the introspective examinations of motives in later western thought. Paul’s thought is not dominated by an overactive conscience; he accepts his sin and forgiveness in a practical way and moves on. Kristen Stendahl correctly warned against and pointed out the danger of interpreting Paul’s view of sin in the context of western struggles with conscience derived from Augustine. [see Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) pages 78-96]
Paul had many basic skills that he needed for his work as an apostle, apart from his direct preaching of the gospel message. He traveled from town to town, and he was a competent traveler. He was able to organize his travels and use ships when possible, to get from place to place on land by his own power, to find food and lodging, and to negotiate with strangers along the way. He knew that it was wise to keep company with one or a small group of fellow travelers, a precaution for safety in dangerous places and for help in possible emergencies. He was able to approach people of different cultures and learn enough of their customs and practices to make himself acceptable in their midst.
Paul was able to engage in basic business and make his own living when necessary. He may even have used his trade to enable him to make connections with those he wanted to reach. E. P Sanders describes a possible scenario:
Whenever he entered a new city, he probably took a room in which to ply his trade, and he talked with whoever came in or walked past. Cutting and sewing leather (of which tents are usually made) was a fairly quiet occupation, and it would not have interfered with discussion. We cannot know for sure how Paul reached interested hearers, and he may have employed diverse means. He was probably most effective, however, one-to-one, or in small groups. [E. P. Sanders, Paul, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) page 20]
We have also seen, as happened in Athens, that Paul was comfortable simply entering on-going conversation and debate in the marketplace.
Paul was also an organizer for the early church communities. He recruited people into roles based on their assets and gifts, and he put together house church organizations that functioned well and flourished long after his departure. He was sufficiently capable financially that the churches entrusted money raised from charitable contributions to him for delivery.
Paul was willing to use whatever assets he had at hand to further his work. We can see this particularly in the way he made use of his Roman citizenship. In Philippi, Paul used his citizenship to get out of prison and even to get an apology from those who had beaten them and put them there. In Corinth, he accepted the protection of the Proconsul Gallio. When a Roman tribune responded to the disturbance around Paul in Jerusalem, Paul used his citizenship to obtain his release and an appointment before the council. Later in Caesarea in his hearing before Festus, Paul used his privilege as a citizen to appeal directly to the emperor.
His encounter with Lydia outside of Philippi shows his openness to responding to the opportunities he finds around him.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:13-15)
An opportunity opened in casual conversation led to a lasting friendship and a course of on-going support. Paul was always flexible and open to the possibilities in his encounters.
Paul was extraordinarily confident in three things: 1) the importance of the work he was called to do, 2) the benefit of the gospel to all those he approached, and 3) the authorization that he had from God for his message. This confidence came from two sources – from the scriptures in which he believed completely and from his personal encounter with Jesus in the road to Damascus.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12)
For Paul, this is the strength of the foundation on which he stands and from which he preaches. He realizes the way the gospel can appear to outsiders, and he completely rejects any possible negatives. He said,
I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Rom 1:16)
His is an absolute confidence in the reality of the power of God in the message which has been entrusted to him
we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:23-25)
It is this confidence which takes him wherever he feels called to go, leads him to interrupt people going about their business in all positions and ranks of life, and drives him to speak to any and all audiences he can muster.
Paul was educated as a Pharisee, and this means that his formative period was filled with argumentation, point and counter point. In order to understand the application of the law, and the Pharisees cared deeply about living out the law in detail, one must consider the specifics. One must take a situation and look carefully at the ways the law touches that situation. This involves considering which aspects of the law should be considered, and which considerations are more important than others. Paul developed his skills in advocating, objecting, and answering objections during his study of the law, and those skills are still available in his evangelical work.
Early in Paul’s missionary travels, conflict was a reality in the response to the gospel.
The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord…. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. (Acts 14:1-6)
Paul and his companions continued their proclamation, engaging in argument with their opposition, and only withdrew from the conflict when faced with physical violence. In Athens, he joined in the public debate that was popular in the city.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. (Acts 17:16-18)
Paul’s willingness to take on a good argument in this way was consistent with the practices he had learned in his early life.
Paul did not hesitate to express himself in strong language when he felt strongly about a particular issue. His letter to the Galatians was clearly in response to a communication which he found distressing. After the required formal greetings of the letter, Paul dove right in.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— (Gal 1:6)
Paul was shocked, and he was not afraid to say so. He did not think the Galatians were behaving well, and his reaction was not pedantic but personal. He said,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. (Gal 3:1-4)
Paul was truly upset, and he showed it. Of course, the Galatians are making some very large mistakes, from Paul’s point of view, and will know when they receive this letter how important Paul believed the issues to be.
Paul cared deeply about the people of his churches, and he took their progress as well as their failings personally. As his passion subsided, Paul’s tone changed, but not the convictions that led to his outrage. He said,
My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Gal 4:19-20)
In his letter to the Thessalonians, a letter of reinforcement and encouragement, Paul says
we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:7-8)
Paul’s feelings – anger, outrage, disappointment, frustration, and affection – are all directly reflected in his language through the text of his letters.
Beker, Johan Christiaan. Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1980.
Davies, W. D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, 4th ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1980.
Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Sanders, E. P. Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and other essays. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.
Young, Brad H. Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles. Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 1997.
©2009 Jean F. Risley – All Rights Reserved