Almost every one of Paul’s Epistles begins with much the same form of wording—‘Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ’. Exceptions are those epistles which came not only from him but also from his fellow labourers, as that to the Philippians, or the Epistle to Philemon, where he calls himself ‘a prisoner’. Why did Paul draw so much attention to his apostleship? Did he have a justifiable reason for so doing?
It is worth noting that there is a considerable and important distinction between Paul defending his apostleship, and defending himself. The kind of comments we have concerning himself are 1 Timothy 1:15, ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.’ He has defined his status as the chief of sinners by saying that he had once been ‘a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious’ (v.13). His own view of himself is never anything less than honest, and he is not afraid to see himself in his true colours. Why, then, does he defend his apostleship with such vigour?
Paul was called to be an apostle
An apostle, as no doubt we all know, is one who is an eye-witness of the resurrection. So Acts 1:22. It is clear from the crucifixion accounts that there were many who were witnesses to Christ’s death, and it is clear from the subsequent narrative that there were many (although not as many) who were eye-witnesses to the resurrection. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that the Lord was seen alive ‘of above five hundred brethren at once.’ And yet there were only twelve apostles!
Apostleship is not merely the term to describe those who could say they had seen the Lord Jesus alive after the resurrection. Certainly it cannot mean that any were actually present when the stone rolled away from the tomb and the Lord came forth, since we know of none (apart from the angels, perhaps) who were present; the soldiers had fled in terror when the earthquake struck. Rather, apostleship is the effect of having been called to serve as an eye-witness by the Lord Jesus Christ, to testify to what they had seen. This is why the apostles prayed for the leading of the Holy Spirit in choosing Judas Iscariot’s replacement. They desired only to appoint the man whom the Lord had chosen.
Paul was chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ. As he journeyed towards Damascus he and his companions saw a very bright light. Saul (to give him his proper name) was the only one to hear the voice. He saw the glory, and perhaps no more than the glory, of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He was also told that it was Jesus who spoke with him, and who had a purpose in showing himself to Saul in this way.
The effect of this revelation was that Saul was thrown into turmoil. All his previous prejudices concerning Israel and her God, and the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth and those foolish enough to believe he was the Messiah, were brought crashing down around him. He had to rethink his whole understanding of the purpose of the law, and of the promises to Israel. And when, through the grace of God, he came to a clear understanding of these things (one which coincided in every detail with the doctrine of the other apostles, as Galatians 2:1–10 shows) he knew he was sent to preach this truth far and wide. This was the message which came to him through Ananias, Acts 9:10–17. This was confirmed to him as he prayed on the ship in the midst of the storm, Acts 27:24.
Therefore Paul could allow no opposition to his apostleship. To resist this was to resist the one from whom he had his charge, Jesus Christ. To refuse his witness was to make him a liar, and he knew what he said was true.
Paul delighted in the gospel of Christ
Paul’s apostleship, his being an eyewitness, was not simply that he might inform people that there had been such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. There were a number who could do that, not only those whom he mentions in 1 Corinthians 15, but also those who were present at Nain when the widow’s son was raised, or who knew that Jairus’ daughter had died but was then alive, or those who were present at Bethany when Christ called Lazarus forth from the tomb. Paul’s apostleship went far beyond merely stating a fact. He was called to preach the doctrine of the resurrection.
That doctrine is nowhere more clearly summed up than in the Epistle to the Romans, where in chapter 3 he writes of our ‘being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (vv.24–26).
Having spoken of the blessing that is ours through Christ’s atoning sacrifice (a sacrifice which is inextricably linked to the resurrection, Romans 4:24–25), he then asks, ‘Where is boasting then? It is excluded. Why what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’
The problem with those who opposed Paul’s apostleship was that they all disagreed profoundly with this point. They were adamant that a man is justified within, not without, the deeds of the law. Christian men must submit to circumcision, they argued, else they cannot please God. So deep is the difference between our being justified by faith, and our being justified by the deeds of the law, that Paul dared to call anything other than the gospel of justification by faith ‘another gospel, which is not another.’ If any preach that alternative gospel, he said, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:6–8). Paul understood the terrible danger of turning the gospel from grace to works. He knew he was called to preach the gospel of justification by faith, and had been commissioned to the work by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. For the sake of those to whom he preached, therefore, he must defend his apostleship. To allow it to be attacked would be to allow Christians to think that it either did not matter whether we are saved by faith or by works, or that he was in fact wrong to preach justification by faith. Since the very salvation of sinners depends on this vital distinction, he cannot let the attacks go unanswered. The eternal security of men and women depended on the matter.
Attacks on Paul’s apostleship are rife today. Whether it is the feminist theologians who hate his so-called misogyny (hatred of women), or those who hate his alleged defence of slavery, or his apparent anti-Semitism (which would be funny were it not so sad, given that he was a Jew himself, who could wish himself accursed for his brethren’s sake), or his ‘culturally conditioned’ teaching on the need for men to pray with their heads uncovered and women to pray with theirs covered, the grounds of opposition seem almost endless.
If we ask why people go to such lengths to attack Paul, the answer must lie in the gospel he preached. At bottom, all attacks on Paul and his apostleship are of the same order as the murmurings and complaints against Moses when he led Israel in the wilderness. It is of the same order as the insistence by Israel that Samuel should make them a king. God said the Samuel, ‘They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me’ (1 Samuel 8:7). Those who oppose Paul’s apostleship, and the doctrine he preached, oppose the Lord who commissioned him.
It may seem very unlikely that readers are among those who reject the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The plain truth is that we can pay lip service to doctrine but deny it in practice. While it is true that none shall be saved by holding to a form of doctrine, it is true that none shall be saved by holding that which is against the gospel. Under God, Paul’s apostleship has been the instrument for so much good in the world, since he, more than any, declared the whole counsel of God. Dare we deny this?■