Despite not being one of the disciples, Paul's influence looms over the early church. Out of the 27 books in the New Testament, Paul wrote 13. He went on more than four missionary journeys and was greatly responsible for the spread of the gospel.
Through his letters, Paul has been instructing humanity for thousands of years. Here are three critical lessons we can learn from his life.
1. No one is outside of God's reach
Paul spent a good part of his life as a Pharisee. He was well educated in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. This adherence to the law and tradition caused him to passionately hate the new Christian movement springing up around Jerusalem. In his zeal, he began persecuting Christians.
This likely involved going to synagogues and encouraging the punishment of Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. We do know that in the case of Stephen, he held the crowd's coats as they stoned him to death. Luke even tells us that Paul approved of Stephen's death (Acts: 7:54–8:1).
On his way to Damascus one day, Paul had an experience that changed everything:
"Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'
'Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked.
'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. 'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything" (Acts 9:1–9, New International Version).
This experience set Paul on an entirely new trajectory. He went from being someone who persecuted the church to someone willing to be persecuted for the church. In the end, Paul would give his life for the gospel.
It's vital to recognize that no one is outside of God's reach. The fledgling church was probably praying hard for Paul, and for their persecutions to end. Christ intervened and changed the course of the first century.
Never give up on anyone.
2. Our achievements do not define us
Most of the guys Jesus chose as disciples were simple blue-collar workers. They weren't well known for their accomplishments. But then along comes Paul. Not only could Paul work with his hands, but he was an educated and disciplined Pharisee. This was a position that earned him a great deal of respect and influence.
How did Paul feel about those achievements after finding Christ? He tells us:
"If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith" (Philippians 3:4b–9, NIV).
In the light of Christ, Paul realized that all of his accomplishments paled in comparison to being reconciled to Christ. As a follower of Christ, his work stopped being about impressing others by his adherence to the law and became about faithfulness to Jesus.
3. It's important to understand contentment
As we noted earlier, Paul sacrificed a lot to follow Jesus. Not only did he eventually lay down his life, but he also suffered:
- Beating with rods
And yet Paul tells the Philippian church this:
"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:11–13, NIV).
Jesus gives us the strength to be content in every circumstance. This means that we can have a sense of peace that comes from being reconciled to God through Christ and knowing that He is in control of our life. When we have a handle on that truth, our contentment won’t come and go based on our daily experiences.
Learning from biblical characters
These are just a couple of the lessons we can learn from Paul. God captured this misguided man's heart and used it to change the world. Paul was never outside of God's reach—and neither are you!
If you're interested in more lessons from biblical characters, check out 3 Lessons from the Apostle John.