Posted by: gmscan | July 14, 2012

The Apostle

  • (NOTE: I stepped away from this blog for a while after leaving my church. It took a while to get accustomed to being able to worship the Lord without the constant noise and contention within the PCUSA. Whether you support or oppose the political positions of the denomination, surely this is not the church Christ had in mind. I am grateful to be free of it.)

I just finished reading “the Apostle,” a biography of Paul, by John Pollock. It is written almost as a novel rather than a scholarly exposition of Paul’s life and work. But the author takes his research and scholarship seriously, having written a couple dozen other biographies and histories, including three on Billy Graham.  His intention is to bring Paul alive as a person and he succeeds beyond my expectations.

The book illustrates the enormous task given to Paul, and how it never could have been accomplished without divine assistance.

Just imagine – one man, sometimes accompanied by a friend or two, walking (literally) into a pagan and hostile world and bringing it to Christ with nothing more than the power of his speech. How could that have been done without the Holy Spirit filling his listeners?

Imagine being whipped, stoned, and imprisoned just for speaking the truth that you have witnessed. There was no mass media to report the abuse, no fundraising campaigns to hire lawyers to defend you, no talk show interviews where you could explain yourself. Just you and the Word in a land you had never before visited and where you don’t know a soul.

We all know Paul’s Epistles, but this book provides the context for those writings. Where was Paul and what was he doing when he wrote his letters to the Galatians and Corinthians? Who were the people he was writing to? What was Paul’s experience with them?

I don’t want to review the whole book here, but it provided a number of insights that surprised me and I want to share with you.

One was how Pollock brings alive the very human relationships between the central characters, especially between Paul and Mark, Barnabas, Peter, Silas, Timothy, Titus, and Luke. These were all men with different styles and priorities. They sometimes clashed and grew impatient with each other, even as you and I do.

Another take-away was what Paul was up against as he entered a new city. Imagine walking into a town where you don’t know anybody, preaching to strangers who already have their own religion, and winning converts on your very first day. Paul typically began in the local synagogue, which was an advantage. Visiting Rabbis were allowed to speak to the congregation, and Paul, of course, was a Jewish scholar and a Pharisee.

It is interesting how essential the presence of these Jews was to Paul’s mission, even at the cost of brutal rejection of his message in many cases. One might wonder if the hand of God was at work in the Jewish diaspora – through their exile to Babylon and other oppressions they learned how to be true to their faith and remain a community in alien lands. Their presence gave Paul a foothold as he brought God’s message to the gentiles.

And cultural conditions in some of these cities were beyond anything we can imagine today. That was especially true of Corinth. Paul later wrote to them, “I came before you weak, as I was then, nervous and shaking with fear.” And no wonder – on a hill overlooking the city was the Temple of Aphrodite. Pollock writes –

“The cult was dedicated to the glorification of sex. One thousand girls were kept consecrated to the goddess, and their processions, rituals, and individual solicitude so aroused male devotees and set the tone of the city that the ancient world described habitual fornicators as ‘living like Corinthians….’”

But that wasn’t all. In the city itself was the Temple of Apollo –

“This also glorified sex, as well as music, song, and poetry, for Apollo was the ideal of male beauty. The temple’s inner recesses held nude statues and friezes of Apollo in various poses of virility, which fired his male worshippers to physical displays of devotion with the god’s beautiful boys.”

But Paul quickly found helpers in the middle of all this corruption. Aquila and Priscilla were Christian tent makers who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius and settled in Corinth – just in time for Paul’s arrival. They gave Paul shelter and work. Just a coincidence, eh?

Similarly in entering Ephesus. He arrived by ship accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla. This companionship must have been a blessing as he encountered the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the largest building in the western world. The Temple of Artemis was also devoted to fertility rites, but Ephesus was more focused on sorcery than on the sexual promiscuity of Corinth. Magicians and sorcerers plied their trade throughout the city. Ephesus was to the pagans much like Jerusalem was to the Jews, the focus of their religion and the destination of pilgrims from all over the world. It was also a major center of commerce and trade.

Here he got a friendlier reception in the local synagogue, but he didn’t stay long, wanting to return to Jerusalem for Passover, before settling in to Ephesus for a longer stay. Here he met Apollos and the twelve men who had been baptized in the manner of John.

Throughout his missions, Paul keeps encountering people who have heard of Jesus and are trying to follow The Way, but don’t quite have the details down. Travel was relatively easy throughout the Roman Empire and commerce was widespread, so many people had heard of the happenings in Jerusalem and there must have been itinerate preachers wandering about telling their own versions of the story of Christ. Paul had his work cut out for him in correcting misperceptions. Surely this is part of what prompted his many letters.

I believe this all has application in our time. When I was wrestling with my decision to leave the PCUSA some people said that we (Presbyterians) have to deal with the world as we find it, not as we would like it to be. Others argued that we should not be critical when we encounter people whose view of Christianity is different than our own. What would Paul have done with this advice?

Paul entered a world that was even more sex-obsessed than our own. He dealt constantly with people who taught false gospels. He did not cringe from confronting this idolatry. He met it head-on. He said boldly that immorality among the saints should not be tolerated. He said there is not much we can do about it outside, in the world, but within the church is another matter – “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” (1Cor. 5:12-13) He warned the Corinthians against “false apostles (who) disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2Cor. 11:13-15)

Isn’t this the point of clear doctrine — to be able to distinguish between false teachings and true? God’s truth cannot be different today than it was in the first century. A church that blows with the winds of fashion is of no use. God is not a kite, he is a rock, a fortress that gives us shelter.

There is a quote by Chuck Colson in the cover of the edition I got. It says:

“I found in The Apostle absolutely priceless treasures. In fact, the experience of reading it was one of the most significant in my Christian growth.”

I can only add my “Amen!” What a rich adventure we are part of.  How blessed we are by all that has come before us, and how eager I am to see what comes next.

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Responses

  1. It is a great book. He has another – a biography of Christ – called The Master. Read it?

  2. I enjoyed this book too when I read it – Dan

  3. Thanks for your written words and thoughts of faith. You have moved me to read the book myself and maybe relive my journey walking the cobbled streets through Ephesus.

    Thanks for sharing. You have more of an impact that you may realise.

  4. Greg – I’ve turned to the very same verses you have used in I Corinthians 5 and I Corinthians 11 in claiming that we have been disobedient to the Scripture for having ignored those verses. Now we can no longer have them removed so we need to remove ourselves.
    Thank you for sharing about this book as well as the truth so easily found in the Scripture.


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