I have lived with the apostle Paul for over 60 years—admired him, envied him, feared him, pounded on him, memorized him, written poems about him, wept over his sufferings, soared with him, sunk to the brink of death with him, spent eight years preaching through his longest letter, imitated him. Ha! Imitated him! In 10 lives, I would not come close to his sufferings—or what he saw.
Can you know a 2,000-year-old man from 13 letters (or even six, if you want to be really skeptical) and a short travel-log of his ministry by his personal physician, Luke (the book of Acts)? Yes, you can. And when you get to know him, you will either love him and believe him, or hate him as an imposter, or pity him as deceived, or, perhaps, simply be oblivious that you are dealing with a real man. No historical scholar I am aware of seriously thinks that the Paul we meet in the New Testament is a legend. As the decades of my companionship with Paul have gone by, I have come to love him and believe him.
Give Me Jesus
I find it impossible to separate my appreciation-love from my admiration-love. I am thankful not only for Paul’s life-giving teaching, but also for the admirable excellencies of his life and ministry. I owe my life to the gospel of Jesus—and no one has taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel than Paul. And after the Lord Jesus himself, no one has won my admiration more.
I am glad that he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Christ is the Himalayan touchstone—without sin! But Paul shares not only my humanity, but also my sinful humanity. Yet oh, what heights of greatness and Godwardness he attained—through suffering! I love him for the Christ he shows me, for the unsearchable riches of truth he opens to me, and for the constellation of his personal excellencies—all the more compelling because of how diverse, even paradoxical, they are.
Five Reasons I Love Paul
I originally thought of 32 reasons why I love Paul, but it would take a book to unfold all of them, so here are five of the most significant reasons, in some detail.
1. A massive change came into Paul’s life through his experience on the Damascus road, and turned him from being a killer of Christians into being a lover of Christ and his people.
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it…. [But now those who once feared me are saying,] “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:13, 23–24)
Paul’s public life, before and after his conversion to Christ, was known by hundreds, probably thousands. His transformation, from murderer to lover, was widely known and undeniable. He is not claiming a private conversion experience. He is stating a public fact. His own explanation was that he had seen the risen Jesus and received forgiveness and a mission.
He [Jesus] was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…. Last of all he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:4, 8–9)
I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)
Everything that causes me to love Paul flows from this change. Either it is all owing to a great delusion, or it is worthy of my deepest amazement and admiration. The kind of human soul that emerges from his letters is not the soul of a deluded fanatic. Why I believe that is what this article is about.