Volume 1.1 / Three Influences in the Training of Paul, the Missionary Apostle
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Closing Editorial

Three Influences in the Training of Paul, the Missionary Apostle

H.H. Drake Williams, III

One of the great needs in world evangelism today is the training of Christian leaders. This comes to the forefront in one of the most important works in world mission today, Operation World. The book provides extensive information about countries, spiritual interest, statistics of the church, and then specific needs for prayer in each country. In the foreword before the author Jason Mandryk details any of the specific prayer requests for nations and continents, he writes this as being one of the most critical needs in the body of Christ worldwide.

Leadership development is the crucial bottleneck to church growth. There is a worldwide lack of men and women truly called of God and deeply taught in the Scriptures to lead the churches, people willing to suffer the burdens and responsibilities of leadership for the sake of the Savior who redeemed them. . . Those who accurately and effectively expound the Scriptures are few, especially in areas where the churches are growing rapidly.[1]

As a result of the need for Christian leadership development, many institutions have emerged to meet the need of Christian leadership development. There are many different programs with special interests and emphases. For some of us involved with planning these programs, it is easy to focus on accreditation standards, graduate profiles, student recruitment, and numbers of graduates. While these things are necessary, it is important that we do not lose track of how great missionaries were formed.

One exemplary missionary is the Apostle Paul. He traveled the then known world taking the gospel from Asia Minor to Macedonia, Greece, Rome, and beyond. While we honor him as a great missionary and apostle, few take time to consider the influences that led him to be an excellent missionary. The following will consider three influences that made Paul an exemplary missionary. It will then conclude by drawing implications for theological preparation of Christian missionaries today.

1. Paul Was Trained to Know the Scripture Thoroughly

One factor that made Paul influential was his great knowledge of the Scripture. He knew the Scripture exceptionally well before starting his mission work and even before his Christian conversion.

As a result of his Jewish upbringing, Paul learned the Scripture from a very early age. Like other Jewish children in the first century, Paul would have been taught to a greater depth than what most children would learn in church today. Philo Judaeus, a first century Jew, wrote Jews "consider their laws to be divine revelation and are instructed in them from their youth" (Legatio 210). According to the document Aboth which is found in the Mishnah, "at five years old one is fit for the Scripture" (Aboth 5.21). In 4 Maccabees 18:10, an ideal Jewish father is recorded as teaching his seven sons stories and sayings about Abel, Cain, Isaac, Joseph, Phinehas, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Daniel, Isaiah, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, and Moses. There is no reason to believe that Paul's upbringing was any less immersed in Scripture. [2]

Paul's education also goes further than his childhood. Paul described himself to be a "Hebrew of Hebrews," a Pharisee, a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3; Phil 3:4-6). Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, noted teacher of Scripture and one of the most important figures in Jewish history. The Jews celebrated Gamaliel and called him "the glory of the Law." Jewish tradition records him as the first designated Rabban, a title even higher for knowledge of the Scripture than Rabbi. Paul studied the Scripture at the feet of Gamaliel, and as a result, he learned the Scripture and the ways that many would have interpreted it.

The type of instruction that Paul would have received can be seen in the Mishnah. In this Jewish literature a Scripture text is cited, and then the interpretation of one rabbi is found. Then another rabbi will comment upon that Scripture text in a slightly different way and perhaps about the previous rabbi's comment. Deliberation about one verse of the Scripture can amount to pages of commentary. What is particularly striking about this discussion is the attention paid to prominent as well as seemingly obscure passages of Scripture.

It is evident that he knew the biblical languages well. He was instructed in Hebrew at the foot of Gamaliel. As a first century Jew, he would have understood Aramaic.[3] He wrote his letters in Greek. His use of quotations of Scripture within his letters clearly favors the understanding of the Old Testament in Greek, but it is evident that he also translated some of his Scripture citations from Hebrew into Greek rather than take the best known Greek translation of the Scripture in his day. [4]

In our modern age, some considering mission may be able to remember how different teachers and pastors have thought about well-known sections of the Bible like Psalm 23, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Greatest Commandment. Paul, as a Pharisee taught by Gamaliel, would have known different learned opinions on minor passages of Scripture as well. He knew his biblical languages and could interpret from them. He was thoroughly versed in the Scripture well before he began his missionary work.

2. Paul Knew His World

While Paul knew the Scripture exceptionally well, this was not the only influence in his training. He knew his world extremely well, too. In Acts 22:3, he says before everyone in his defense speech that he is a citizen of Tarsus. By saying that he was from Tarsus, Paul reveals that he is from a culturally wealthy city.

Tarsus was a prime city of the fertile plain of East Cilicia, in Southeast Asia Minor. It was an important and culturally rich city. The Roman Empire favored the city of Tarsus. It became the capital of the province of Cilicia, following Pompey's victories (67 B.C.). Notable Roman leaders visited the city. The orator Cicero took up residence in the city (51-50 B.C.) and Julius Caesar visited it in 47 B.C. Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian who wrote in the early part of the first century, tells of the enthusiasm of its inhabitants for learning, and especially for philosophy. In this respect, he says, Tarsus surpasses Athens and Alexandria and every other university town (Geographica 14.5.13). Tarsus was also famous for noted Sophists such as Archademus and Antipar, and it was known for well-known philosophers like Plutiades and Diogenes (Geographica 14.5.14). While Paul received his education in Jerusalem, the place of his birth undoubtedly exerted influence. Besides the knowledge of the world that Paul had from growing up in Tarsus, Paul was also well traveled. Before he was a missionary, he had traveled to Jerusalem for his education (Acts 22:3). He was on the road to Damascus prior to his conversion. Following his conversion, he was in Damascus, Arabia, and Phoenicia. His later travels led him to modern day Greece, Crete, Italy, and likely Spain.

The knowledge of his world is evident from his ability to quote leading thinkers of his day. With his understanding of his world, he could communicate with the learned Greeks. In Acts 17, we see Paul able to debate with educated men on Mars Hill in Athens. As he stands before the altar to an unknown God, he is able to reason with them that there is only one God "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Only someone who knew the Greek poets could reason so well. Later in his writing to Titus whom he left on the island of Crete, he quotes a Cretan prophet in Titus 1:12.

In other places in his letters, he displays his knowledge of Greco-Roman culture. With the Corinthian church, for example, his writing shows that he knew the issues that they faced. His writing betrays that he knew the tactics of the Sophists, traveling speakers who tried to lead people in their own human wisdom. He is able to counter effectively their rhetoric and faction building by pointing to the cross.[5] As he confronts incest (1 Cor 5), he displays knowledge of the patronage system that could protect a man who is even living in incest.[6] He quotes pagan poets in 1 Corinthians 6.[7] His address against food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10 indicates that he knew of the many temples where other gods were worshipped and where sacrifices to idols were made.

He was a man of many languages, too. Besides knowing the language of Scripture, he could write in Greek. He also used ancient Greek letter forms in the composition of his letters.[8] This would have made his letters more understandable to the primarily Gentile recipients. While Aramaic would have been used in his preaching in the synagogue and Greek was the lingua franca of the day, his confrontation with those in Lycaonia, Lystra, and Derbe illustrates that he knew many other languages from the ancient world (Acts 14).[9] Scholars are still in debate as to whether he understood Latin.[10]

Paul knew the ideas of his world. His many travels exposed him to the ideas of the people that he was trying to reach. While he knew the Scripture, he also knew his world. He understood a wide variety of people linguistically and culturally.

3. Paul Encountered the Risen Lord Jesus Christ

One final influence that was formative on his life before he began his mission work was his encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul mentions this encounter with the Lord many times (cf. 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8; Gal 1:12-17). The importance of the Damascus account is not lost on Luke as he records early church history. Luke refers to the event three times in Acts 9, 22, and 26.

On the road to Damascus, Paul's life changed dramatically. Many places in his letters speak of his former life, but following the appearance of Jesus, he sees himself as a different person (cf. Rom 5:9; 7:6; 2 Cor 5:16; Gal 4:9). This is best displayed in his autobiographical confession in Phil 3:4b-11. In this passage, Paul recounts his many great accomplishments: from being from the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, and blameless under the Law. More than twenty years, and perhaps even thirty years after the change in his life he still is able to say, "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ." Knowledge of the Savior trumps his previous background.

On the road to Damascus, Paul experienced Jesus Christ in a completely overwhelming way. Great Christian thinkers have noted this. Augustine as well as Christian thinkers from the medieval period believed that Paul's rebellious will had been humbled. Paintings from this time period reveal Paul as one toppled from his horse and thus humbled by his experience with the Almighty One. In the time of the Reformers, Paul's conversion was considered to be a lightning bolt experience. For example, Tyndale and Zwingli see that Paul's conversion was a time of sudden grace when the light of God surrounded him unexpectedly (cf. 2 Cor 4:6).[11] It is evident that his conversion experience was significant.

Besides radically transforming his life, Paul's encounter on the Damascus road also changed his mission. Instead of persecuting the church, his call focused on being an apostle and servant of Jesus Christ. At times in his writing, he even refers to the Damascus Road experience as the basis for his mission (Gal 1:15-16; cf. Acts 26:16-18).

The ongoing knowledge of his Savior through pain and suffering then becomes significant for the communication of his gospel message. The knowledge that comes from suffering sets him apart from leaders with secular practices in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. The experience of knowing Christ's glory revealed through pain then becomes the "revelatory vehicle of Christ's glory" to the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor 2:14-16; 4:7-12; 6:3-10; 11:23b-33; 12:9-10; 13:4).[12] The Christian experience for Paul was formative and of utmost importance.

4. Implications for Training Missionaries

These three influences—Jewish Scriptural upbringing, understanding of the Greco-Roman world, and the experience of the crucified but risen Lord—were formative in Paul's preparation. Each of these can provide basis points for the preparation of leaders today.

Paul's Jewish and hence great instruction in the Scripture should encourage intense training in the Bible and its interpretation. Paul understood prominent Scripture texts as well as those less noteworthy, and he also knew how learned men interpreted them. He could read the Scripture in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as its translation in Greek. In a day where Biblical literacy is waning, particularly in the western world, Paul's intense training in the Scripture ought to encourage concentrated biblical and theological study.

The knowledge that Paul had of his world should likewise encourage missionaries to know the world as well as the word. He understood the philosophies as well as the main ideas of common people. Courses and experiences that help one know the world such as internships, cross-cultural experiences, philosophy, and apologetics should not be viewed as secondary but part of the main body of training for future missionaries. These experiences can help one learn to communicate with those in the world more effectively.

While a Damascus road experience cannot be planned in any curriculum, future missionaries can be encouraged to encounter afresh the crucified and risen Lord. Personal devotions, mentoring, discipleship, and chapel can lead one to experience the crucified and risen Lord in profound and unique ways. Future missionaries should not think that the difficulties and suffering are interfering with their true calling. It may well be that these are the "revelatory vehicle of the glory of God" as they were for Paul.

Knowledge of Scripture, his world, and of the crucified and risen Christ formed Paul into the great missionary apostle to the Gentiles. Likewise, these elements deserve priority in shaping future missionaries for Christ.


[1] J. Mandryk, Operation World, 6th edition Downers Grove: IVP 11.

[2] B. S. Rosner, "'Written for us': Paul's View of Scripture" in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture Edited by David Wright and Philip Satterthwaite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns/Paternoster, 1994), 81-105.

[3] See further R. Buth and S. Notely, editors. The Language Environment of First Century Judea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[4] See further C. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline epistles and Contemporary Literature (SNTSMS 69; Cambridge: CUP, 1992). 

[5] B. W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists (SNTMS 96; Cambridge: CUP, 1997).

[6] See further J. K. Chow, Patronage and Power: A Study of Social Networks in Corinth (JSNTSS 75; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1992).

[7] J. Murphy-O'Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 20-31.

[8] See further Stanley E. Porter and Sean A. Adams, editors. Paul and the Ancient Letter Form (PAST 6; Leiden: Brill, 2010).

[9] S. E. Porter, "Did Paul speak Latin?" in Paul's World, edited by S. E. Porter (PAST 4; Leiden: Brill, 2008), 289-309.

[10] S. E. Porter, "The Languages that Paul did not speak" in Paul's World, edited by S. E. Porter (PAST 4; Leiden: Brill, 2008), 131-50.

[11] See further B. Corley, "Interpreting Paul's Conversion – Then and Now" in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry (R. N. Longenecker, ed.; Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, UK:Eerdmans, 1997), 1-17.

[12] See further, S. J. Hafemann, Suffering and the Spirit:An Exegetical Study of 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:3 within the Context of the Corinthian Correspondence (WUNT 2.19; TuÌbingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1986).