Who was Saul of Tarsus or more commonly known as the Apostle Paul? And why are we concerned about him and his message? Is his message and theology somehow related to Abraham? Yes, correct on both counts; and the astute Bible student will discover deep connections in Paul’s letters back to the Abrahamic story.
To begin, we know that Saul was of Jewish descent and a citizen of Rome. This citizenship provided him with certain privileges (such as the right to vote, stand for public office, the right to due process, and the privilege of direct appeal to the emperor if needed) that others may not have enjoyed. In addition, Paul had a superior intellect and was trained in the best rabbinical traditions of his day. He obviously leveraged his background, education, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write much of the New Testament. But what was his background?
First century Israel had three consecutive schools for education.1
Bet Sefer – House of the Book
This was the first school attended and consisted of memorizing the Torah (5 books of Moses). This was completed by about age 10 and most of the students returned to their families at this time to learn the family business such as fishing or carpentry.
Bet Talmud – House of Learning
The brightest students from Bet Sefer continued to the House of Learning. Here they studied the balance of the Old Testament and learned the art of questions and answers. Instead of responding with an answer, they were taught to respond with another question (Jesus effectively used this art in his confrontations with the religious leaders). In this way, students could demonstrate their knowledge and great regard for the Scriptures. They were taught to always be curious about the Scriptures.
Bet Midrash – House of Study
Very few students from Bet Talmud ever made it this far. For the few who did there was still another set of classes called Bet Midrash. If one was smart enough and knew the Scriptures well enough to make it this far, they were given the opportunity to go to a rabbi (teacher) to seek further education. The rabbi would grill them and ask all kinds of questions because he was trying to find out if they were good enough to become his student. He wanted to know if the possible disciple knew enough, but more importantly, if he could be like him in all areas of life. If the rabbi was not impressed he would send the student back to the family business. It was rare, but some young men were invited to study under the rabbi. He would become the young man’s teacher and it would be the disciples job to become like the rabbi in every way. The student would take on his beliefs and his interpretations of the Scriptures. This was called his “yoke” and the rabbi would say, “Come follow me.” This was a huge privilege that was offered to very few. The disciples (also called Talmudim) job was to become like the rabbi in every way. If the rabbi was hurt and had a limp you might see his healthy disciples walking behind him (in his footsteps) with a limp.
Now consider that the Apostle Paul would have come through this educational system described above. Listen to how he describes himself in Philippians, “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as touching the law – a Pharisee”.
His family likely had a history of religious piety and a lineage which had been attached to Pharisaical traditions and observances for generations. Acts 23:6; 2 Tim. 1:3 While still young, Saul received his education at the school of Gamaliel one of the most noted rabbis in history. The Hillel school was noted for giving its students a balanced education, likely giving Saul broad exposure to classical literature, philosophy, and ethics. Acts 22:3 As he grew up Saul became a well-respected member of the Jewish community. He further set himself apart by persecuting followers of “The Way”. One such encounter was his oversight of the stoning death of StephenActs 7, a leader in the early church.
Reviewing the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7, we find an articulate and well-reasoned argument from Stephen – much the way in which Paul (at a later time) would present his arguments. Toward the end of Stephen’s testimony, he refers to angels, the prophets, and heaven being opened allowing him to see the Son of God. These were beliefs the Pharisees (of which Saul was a member) accepted. The Sadducee’s, on the other hand, did not accept belief in angels and demons, oral traditions of the Torah or the resurrection of the dead.
Why do I bring up Stephen’s martyrdom at the feet of Saul (Paul). Although Stephen spoke of supernatural beliefs with which Saul, a Pharisee would have agreed, Stephen was also proclaiming the Messiah. Stephen had an eloquent, solid and articulate argument referring to doctrines and experiences which the Pharisees accepted, but these were inadequate for convincing Saul of the truth regarding Christ. In other words, divine revelation does not come through human reasoning, but rather through supernatural revelation. This understanding echoes other passages which say; “spirit gives birth to spirit,” or when speaking to Peter; Jesus replied,
“You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being.
The point is that spiritual light and understanding do not come through natural reasoning or well-articulated arguments. It takes revelation from the Spirit of God. This is exactly what Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. Saul possessed all the natural schooling and rabbinical training, but these did not lead him closer to the true knowledge of God. Rather God used spiritual revelation to bring Saul into a relationship with himself and then reinforced his calling with Saul’s education and experience to bring forth the gospel and the mystery of God.
Did we not see this same divine strategy in the last chapter? God used the natural experiences of the Patriarchs and national Israel mixed with divine providence to bring forth his purpose. This speaks of our need to be fully engaged in both our natural and spiritual life.
When we consider Paul’s life experience, the call of God, revelation given him and his life message we see that nothing was wasted. The family he was born into, his rational mind, education, and the suffering he experienced – it was all woven together by the Master Builder to bring forth a wonderful message. We can trust that same Master Builder and know that our lives are not a conglomeration of random events, rather they are parts of a wonderful story being written – ready to be revealed at God’s appointed time. As I am now in my late fifties, I have learned that God does not waste anything in my life, just as nothing was wasted with Paul – let us trust him when we don’t understand how the puzzle fits together. For he will reveal his masterpiece at the right time.
Another message from Paul’s life is that with great revelation came great suffering. These were the catalysts leading to personal transformation – think of his Damascus road encounter. The Damascus road encounter began the transformational process. The sufferings of his life were building blocks used by God in accomplishing the transformational work in Paul’s life. When God spoke to Ananias to go to the house of Judas and pray for Saul, he also said that he would show Saul how much he must suffer for his names sake.
But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my names sake.”
In the last chapter we touched on the suffering of Abraham and his descendants and how God used that in transforming a family into a nation. We now see God at work in Paul accomplishing a similar purpose. This is the normal journey for those greatly used of God.
The message of Paul’s life, the revelation he received and the mystery of God which he understood are the heart of this book. It is a message that is historical, prophetic and experiential for both Jew and Gentile. It is a message with a promise to take us deeper in our spiritual walk, though it may challenge our current assumptions.
Personally, I’ve found that when I understand the character of God, the covenants he makes, his great love, the importance of divine revelation and the path of suffering, I can more readily trust him in my own transformational journey. Without this understanding I would never be willing to make that journey.
Paul also understood the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and he makes this clear in Romans chapter 3 -4. In these chapters Paul actually links Abraham and Christ together as we will discover shortly. Covenant or rather “cutting covenant” is an idea that is lost in our modern worldview. For the ancient reader, these ideas of covenant were part of the known worldview.
Covenant – A Working Definition
This message is about helping the bride of Christ understand and embrace the Abrahamic covenant in its fullness. This is the covenant which predates the Levitical system and through the priesthood of Melchizedek points the way to the blessed fulfillment in Jesus our Messiah. Since much of our study focuses on covenant let’s provide a working frame of reference.
Biblical Covenants demonstrate God’s love, mercy, and grace and have three basic components:
- the promises or terms of the covenant which takes the form of an oath or vow (a curse if the covenant is broken)
- the blood of a sacrifice by which the covenant is ratified
- the sign by which the covenant is sealed or witnessed
A Biblical covenant is established and sealed by an oath, which usually involves a ceremony wherein the parties make their vows and commitments. The oath is an integral part of a covenant and the term ‘oath’ is sometimes used as a synonym for covenant (Deuteronomy 29:12, 14). Wherever God says He made an oath or a vow, it is in reference to a covenant that he has made. In taking an oath, the one so doing, promises to preserve the covenant terms and conditions. Covenant terms are then sealed with a promise calling a curse upon themselves should one of the covenant parties fail to keep covenant terms. The curse of a broken covenant is death.
In the ancient practice of cutting a covenant, an animal sacrifice was divided in two and laid out on the ground and the partners to the covenant walked between the pieces for a witness. This established a point of agreement in the midst of the sacrifice between the parties by which each was committing themselves to the life of the other member of the covenant. Sometimes the covenant was made by cutting the wrists with the mingling of each others blood. By whatever method, they then became blood brothers and symbolically exchanged identity by the giving of coats or some other tangible item of their person. In addition, they often exchanged weapons which symbolized mutual defense of the other party. This last point is observed in the covenant between Jonathan and David.1 Samuel 18:3-4
The things exchanged became the tokens of the covenant, or the seal of the covenant, without which it was not valid. With the exchange of identity, there was an exchange of names and assets, as is done in a marriage covenant (with the ring as the sign of the covenant through which the marriage is sealed). The covenant was presided over by a witness or a mediator and the covenant was celebrated with a covenant meal of the sacrifice which ratified the covenant. Eating together of the same life-source further bonded them in covenant relationship, partaking of bread and wine are tokens of the sacrifice.
Covenant Connection Points
Why are we spending so much time on understanding covenant you might wonder? The answer is because the Abrahamic covenant forms the bedrock foundation for the Gospel of Christ and New Testament theology. To explain, in Paul’s letter to the Romans he spends the first several chapters detailing mankinds helpless condition. Actually, it can be discouraging to read until we come to chapter 3 verse 21.
Beginning in verse 21 he introduces a new way to be made right with God apart from the law. In the passages which follow, Paul discusses Christ as our sacrifice and the shedding of his blood. With this kind of language, we can easily discern that he is making reference to the cutting of a covenant.
For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.
In both passages, he makes the point that it is faith in the promise of God that produces a right standing with God. In other words, these two characters (Abraham and Jesus) are inextricably linked through promise and covenant. Consider two verses:
When discussing the role of Christ, Paul says,
“We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are”.
Then when he discusses Abraham, he says, “And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.
Finally, please notice that not only is Abraham declared righteous by simple belief (just like New Testament believers) but in the passage above Paul clearly connects the faith of Abraham to the faith of believers in the Messiah. As we continue our journey together we will discover greater connection points between these two covenants. I will also be referring to the “renewed covenant of Abraham” to help illustrate that the gospel was God’s plan from the beginning and not a correction to the Mosaic system.
The significance of “cutting a covenant” is easily lost on the western mind, but this would have been common knowledge to Paul. In fact, Paul spent the first part of his life learning many such topics from the Old Testament and studying the academics of his day – but missing the revelatory knowledge of the Spirit of God. Theological knowledge without revelation does nothing to transform the soul into the image of Christ – it is only when the breath from heaven breathes on that field of dry bones that divine life springs forth. This is my prayer as we continue our journey, that God will open our eyes to see the tremendous message which the apostle Paul understood and articulated so well for the discerning reader.
Meditation and Discussion
What does it mean that our Lord’s work on the cross is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant?
How does understanding covenant give you confidence in your relationship with God?
In your own Christian experience, what is the difference between a sound theological argument versus a revelation from heaven? What was the difference and how did it impact your life?
Does life seem like a series of random, broken events? Can you trust that God will bring all those jagged pieces together for your good and his glory?
From the question above, where are you on your journey with God? Do you feel like you are in a time of growth and favor or are you in a valley where God may be forging part of your life message?