The Least of the Apostles
There are about twenty-six different Christian character traits taught either by precept or example in the New Testament. Three of them, trusting God (as opposed to being anxious or afraid), love, and humility, are taught more often than all the others together. Since some of the remaining ones — such as compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience — grow out of love and humility, we can learn a lot about the character of the apostle Paul by limiting our study to these three traits.
Looking first at Paul’s trust in God, we recall that he is the one who wrote to the Philippian church those well-known words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). There is no question Paul had ample opportunity to practice what he preached in the midst of the incredible hardships he endured in his apostolic labors. In fact, Paul wrote the very words of Philippians 4:6 from his imprisonment in Rome. However, one prime example of his trust in God occurred some years before this writing in the city of Philippi itself.
As a result of preaching the Gospel, Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison (Acts 16:16–40). For most of us, such a turn of events would probably create a high level of anxiety, but not for Paul and Silas. Instead we read: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (v. 25).
We don’t know anything about the content of their prayers, but the whole tenor of the narrative suggests they were thanking God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake and were asking Him to use their circumstances to further the Gospel. They were fully trusting God.
How do we account for Paul’s trust in God and joy in his circumstances even in jail in Philippi and in prison in Rome? Several years before, he had written to the believers in Rome: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Paul had absolute confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. He knew the teaching of Jesus that not a single sparrow can fall to the ground apart from the will of God, and not a single sparrow is forgotten by God (Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6). He believed it and embraced it in the very core of his being. Paul’s trust in God was anchored in his belief about the sovereignty and goodness of God.
Paul’s theology was also the basis for his humility. He did not begin his adult life as a humble follower of Jesus. Rather, the first time we encounter Paul in the Book of Acts, we find him to be a proud, bigoted Pharisee, ravaging the church and dragging men and women to prison. Although we are looking at Paul’s character, we cannot ignore his basic personality, which was obviously strong and forceful. His traumatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus did not change that. Rather, immediately we see him boldly preaching Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. Years later we find him dealing decisively with the moral problem in the Corinthian church and calling down a curse on the false teachers in Galatia who were subverting the Gospel. Clearly, Paul had lost nothing of the strong, forceful personality he had as a Pharisee. Despite that, however, his life as an apostle was clearly marked by a pervasive humility both toward God and other people.
Paul’s humility is most clearly seen in his own self-appraisal. Writing to the Corinthians in ad 55, he calls himself “the least of the apostles unworthy to be called an apostle because [he] persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9). To the Ephesians about five years later, he refers to himself as the very least of all the saints (Eph. 3:8). Near the end of his life, he considers himself the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). That is quite a progression in his self-awareness, from a proud, self-righteous Pharisee to the foremost of sinners. Only a person of genuine humility would describe himself in such terms.
What turned a once proud Pharisee into a humble apostle of Christ? It was Paul’s understanding of the grace of God. He understood God’s grace to be more than undeserved favor. He saw himself not just undeserving but ill deserving. He knew that in himself, apart from Christ, he fully deserved the wrath of God. Instead, he had been made a herald of the message he once tried to destroy. That is why he followed his assessment as the least of the apostles by the statement “but by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). That is why he would say, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given” (Eph. 3:8). He saw himself as a prime example of the grace of God, and his theology of grace produced his humility.
What about love in Paul’s life? Remembering again his strong, forceful personality, do we find it tempered with love? Did the man who wrote the beautiful description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 display those traits in his own life? Insights from four of his letters to different churches show us that he did.
To the Philippian believers, Paul wrote, “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). And to the church at Thessalonica, he could write, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). We do indeed find a wonderful paradox in Paul — a strong personality combined with the “softer” traits of affection and gentleness.
Of course, the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica were two of Paul’s “better” churches. We might say it was fairly easy to love those people who loved him. But what about the problem churches — Corinth and Galatia — that gave Paul so much grief? Was his love also manifested to them? There’s no doubt that Paul was quite stern in his letters to both churches. To the Corinthians he could write, “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 2:4). And to the Galatians he wrote, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). It was Paul’s deep love for those people and his anguish of heart that caused him to deal so sternly with them. It was what we might today call “tough love.” But the truth is tough love is the costliest of all.
What was the root of Paul’s deep love for the churches? It grew out of his profound understanding of God’s love for him. Paul was so deeply aware of Christ’s love for him that in a sense he was forced to live for Christ and to love as Christ loved. He loved the Corinthians and the Galatians because Christ loved him. So we see again that character grows out of one’s theology. Because Paul’s theology was firmly rooted in the love of Christ, his character reflected it, and he could love others as Christ loved him.