Following Paul’s example

Serving God and people

Before He ascended the Lord told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). The church which began in Jerusalem was largely Jewish, but God used Paul to bring the Christian faith to the world around the Mediterranean Sea—it spread across the Roman Empire. He also used Paul to record most of the teachings of the Christian faith. What can we learn from Paul’s life?

Paul’s Christian Life

Paul was a strict Jew; a Pharisee who persecuted the Christian church. He was trained in Jerusalem to understand the Old Testament very well. But there was a dramatic change in his life—he turned around 180 degrees and was persecuted for preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. This happened after he had a spectacular encounter with God.

After this time we see that his life was characterized by travel and suffering. After he was saved, we read that “The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man (Paul) is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’” (Acts 9:15-16).

He probably spent about 15 years of his life on his main missionary journeys to modern Turkey, to modern Greece, to Rome as a prisoner and possibly to Spain. Most of his letters were written to churches he established on these journeys.

When his life was threatened, he escaped from the cities of: Damascus, Jerusalem, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea and Ephesus. But Paul didn’t give up when he faced such opposition; instead he moved to preach in another city. Paul endured much suffering and hardship (2 Cor. 11:23-28) and he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:19-21). After being miraculously restored he left for Derbe on the next day where he preached and “won a large number of disciples”. Then he returned to Lystra, where he had been stoned, to strengthen and encourage the believers. Clearly, Paul thought that preaching and teaching was more important than his personal safety.

Paul was in prison for at least five years of his life and five of his letters in the Bible were written from prison. When he faced imprisonment he said “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). Paul accepted such punishment, but continued to preach the gospel: “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31).

Unique to Paul

Some aspects of Paul’s life were unique. He was an apostle and a prophet, being one of the founders of the church, which was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20).

As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul preached the gospel at key cities across the Roman Empire (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; Gal .2:8; 1 Tim. 2:7). In particular, Paul was a pioneer preacher and teacher who brought new truths to the early church. The Greek word apostolos meant “sent out” or “ambassador”. In the Bible, an apostle was also one who witnessed the resurrection (Acts 1:22; 4:33). In Paul’s case, he had seen the Lord in a vision that blinded him (1 Cor. 9:1-2). The apostles also performed many miracles (Acts 5:12; 19:11-12; 28:3-6; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4). These supernatural powers were mainly used to demonstrate to unbelieving Jews the truth of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:22), for example, Paul didn’t heal himself or Trophimus (2 Cor. 12: 7-9; 2 Tim. 4:20). With the completion of the New Testament in written form, the need for such signs largely passed away.

As a prophet, Paul was given the Christian doctrine before it was put into writing—the gospel he preached he received by revelation from the Lord (Gal. 1:12). Direct revelation is not required today as our doctrine should come from the Bible, particularly the books that were written to the early church.

The remainder of this article considers passages of the Bible which say that Paul was an example for us to imitate. They convey this by using at least one of the following Greek words: mimeomai, a mimic or imitator; tupos, a die or stamp or model; and hupotuposis, a pattern.

An Example of God’s Saving Power

A few years before the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy and included his testimony. When writing about his conversion to Christianity he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Here we see that Paul was an example that God can save the worst of sinners. No matter how bad or frequent one’s sins have been, God has the power to forgive them and reconcile the person to Himself, provided there is repentance. Of course, we are all sinners who need God’s saving power.

His Example to the Thessalonians

On his second missionary journey Paul travelled through what is now Greece visiting Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth. As a result of his preaching, some accepted the gospel and these new believers made up the first churches in these places. While he was in Corinth Paul heard news from Thessalonica and wrote them two letters to encourage and instruct them in the Christian faith.

When Paul commended them for their faith, love and hope, he wrote: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). This was preceded by the statement: “You know how we lived among you for your sake” (1 Th. 1:5). So they followed Paul’s example, which was evident from how he lived at Thessalonica.

First, he was bold with the gospel: he said “with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel in the face of strong opposition” (1 Th. 2:2). Second, he lived with integrity: he was “holy, righteous and blameless” (1 Th. 2:10). This included being honest: “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Th. 2:4). Third, he cared for them: loving them like a mother and instructing them like a father (1 Th. 2:7, 11). Fourth, he was self-supporting, active and not lazy. He worked hard so as not to be a burden on others (1 Th. 2:9). When he warned them about laziness, Paul wrote, “you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example” (2 Th. 3:7-9). Paul earned his own living while he was preaching the gospel. He wrote, “We did this … in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate”. In particular, he worked night and day in order to pay for his food. He also worked to provide for the needs of his colleagues (Acts 20:34).

His Example to the Corinthians

Three years after Paul visited Corinth he received a letter from them informing him of their problems and asking him questions. When Paul wrote back to them, after dealing with the problems of divisions in the local church, he said “I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16). What example is mentioned near this statement?

The previous paragraph says: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment” (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Here we see that Paul was passionate for Christ (he was willing to be a fool for Christ) and he suffered for Christ (being: hungry, thirsty, in rags, brutally treated, homeless, cursed, persecuted and slandered).

In the following verse we see that Paul practiced what he preached: “He (Timothy) will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). The Philippians were told this as well, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Phil. 4:9). So, they were to also follow what he taught.

After Paul dealt with the problem of eating meat that had been offered to idols he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The example mentioned before this statement comprised two important principles for our Christian lives.

First, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Although Paul endured hardships and suffering when he preached the gospel, he persevered because he wanted to honor and obey God. He was God-centred in all he did, even when deciding what to eat and drink.

Second, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33). Paul was not selfish. He was people-centred, respecting the welfare of everyone, both believers and unbelievers. He did nothing that would hinder an unbeliever receiving salvation or that would stumble the faith of a believer.

His Example to the Philippians

About 10 years after being in prison in Philippi, he wrote to them from another prison in Rome. He urged them to “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). Once again, his example is evident from the context of this verse.

In the previous verses we see what Paul gave up when he became a Christian: the family religion of Judaism, his attainments and prestige as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:4-15). He now called these things garbage. From his new perspective they were worthless. Because he gave up what everyone else thought was important, he would have been disowned by his family and friends and he was persecuted by fellow Jews. Furthermore, he didn’t want to feel good by keeping a list of rules as he knew that he was accepted by God because of his faith in Christ. He wanted to live as Christ did and this involved suffering. His willingness to suffer for Christ is seen as being a mature view of the Christian faith.

Paul’s goal in life is described as: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). He wanted to leave behind all his attainments which were listed earlier and make progress in his Christian life. His values had changed and he looked forward to heaven.

Then Paul says who not to follow: “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). He criticised those who act as though they were going to live on earth forever and never consider their eternal destiny. Their god is their appetite and they boast about things that they should be ashamed of.

His Example to Follow

So, Paul was an example, a model and a pattern for us all to follow. He was saved to show what God can do in a human being.  From these passages, we see there are two strands in Paul’s example for us: firstly love for God and secondly love for people. This is like the greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-38).

Paul had a passion for God; he was God-centred, not self-centred; he gave up all his attainments and privileges to live the Christian life; he was willing to suffer for Christ; he was bold with the gospel, and he suffered for preaching to unbelievers; and he did everything for the glory of God.

Paul also had a passion for people: he was self-supporting and not lazy; he lived with integrity; he cared for others; and he respected their consciences.

Lessons For Us

God uses our life experiences. For example, Paul’s travels and imprisonment led him to write many letters to early churches, some of which we can read today in the New Testament. Likewise, we need to let God use our life experiences for His purposes.

Paul was saved to be a pattern to all future believers. Like Timothy and Titus, all believers are Paul’s spiritual children. Are we following his example? Are we following Christ’s example? What are our priorities? Do we have a passion for God? Do we have a passion for people? Do we persevere with these priorities despite the difficulties we may face in life?

Paul told the Philippians, “keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). So, God saved us to be a pattern to other believers. Are we an example like Paul? What example are we setting for the next generation?

Let’s beware of the self-centeredness of our times and be willing to suffer for Christ and honor Him in all we do and look at people with compassion though God’s eyes and be bold with the gospel, but treat them with respect.

Written, June 2008

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