Elon, North Carolina
Last week, we looked at the gospel in 15:1-8. For those who were not here, we looked at nine characteristics of the gospel. In the last part of those verses, Paul deals with the Resurrection and then he begins to talk about himself. Why? Because he was the last one to see the Resurrected Christ. “Last of all, he was seen of me also” (15:8).
What Paul says in these two verses is very interesting and very practical. It is dripping with applications for us today. I want to look at four statements Paul makes here about himself and their application to us. What was Paul’s assessment of himself?
Paul talks about Himself
I. Paul’s first statement – “I am the least of the Apostles” (15:9)
We look at him as one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. He was one of the all-time giants of the faith. The last of the Apostles was also the least of the apostles. This is incredible humility. Instead of saying he was the greatest of the Apostles (which in many cases he was), he says that he was the least of the apostles. Pride would have said, “I am the greatest” (as Muhammad Ali did).
Paul could very well have said “I am the greatest of the apostles. I planted more churches than they did. I wrote more books of Scripture than any of them. I am the most educated of all of the apostles.” Instead, he said that he was the least of the apostles.
Paul said that he was not just the least of the apostles, he said that he was the least of the saints and not just some of the saints. Paul said that he was less than ALL of the saints but even that was not enough. Paul said that he was “LESS than the least” (so NIV, KJV) of ALL the saints (Ephesians 3:7-8). Interestingly, the word Paul in Latin (Paulus) means “small”. That is what his name means. He is “the little one”.
Paul says that “He was born out of due time” and because of that he was the least of the apostles. Paul uses a metaphor from childbirth to describe his conversion. What does that mean that Paul was “born out of due time”? He was born in a freakish way.
He did not have a normal birth. It was abnormal compared to the other apostles. How was Paul a baby born out of due time? Paul was an Apostle and the Twelve were Apostles. Both were personally selected by Jesus but Paul’s apostleship was a little different than the rest.
1) The other apostles were called when they were already believers.
They were promoted from disciples to apostles. Paul was suddenly moved from enemy of Christ to Apostle of Christ.
2) Paul came on the scene late.
A baby is normally born around nine months. That baby is born normally. Paul came late. He was a late-term baby or an overdue baby. He did not witness any of the miracles of Christ or travel with him for three years of his public ministry or hear his teaching on earth.
He was the least of the Apostles because he was the last of the apostles. Jesus appeared to all of the other apostles BEFORE he ascended. He appeared to Paul AFTER he ascended into heaven.
II. Paul’s second statement – “I do not deserve to be called an apostle” (15:9)
Now Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. He says in the Book of Romans that he was called to be an apostle (1:1). He says in the Book of Galatians that he was chosen to be an apostle, not by man but by God (1:1) but Paul says he was not worthy of the title or the office of apostle.
Why did Paul feel this way? He says that because he persecuted the church of God. He saw himself as the worst sinner on the planet He called himself “the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15) and that was said at the end of his life in one of his final books before he died.
Paul was responsible for the death, imprisonment, and suffering of Christians. He was a violent man. Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He was partially responsible for his violent death (cf. Acts 9:1-2). He made murderous threats against believers (“I am going to kill you”). Peter never did that. John never did that (cf. Acts 22:4; 26:9). That is very significant.
Lessons from Paul’s Past Life
1) Being forgiven does not make you forget your past.
Paul said that when you become a Christian, you become a “new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17). You go through a radical change and you are not the same person. You get washed, justified, forgiven but salvation does not remove the memory of past sins. These were things that Paul did BEFORE he was saved. In fact, it happened about twenty years earlier.
The Book of I Corinthians was written around 55 AD and most scholars date Paul’s conversion around 34 or 35 AD. Paul was forgiven from all of these sins and it still bothered him. It still shocked him to think that he was responsible for the death of fellow Christians. He lived with that the rest of his life. We need to remember and never forget what we did before we were saved.
2) Paul was not defined or bound by his past life.
Many in addictions cannot seem to get past what they went through. “You don’t know what I did. You do not know my past.” Paul did not join a recovery group for persecutors or an addiction group for former Pharisees, religious fanatics or for spiritual abusers.
3) God can use you despite your past.
God knew exactly what Paul did and put him in the ministry. He called him to be an apostle. God was able to used Paul greatly, despite his sinful past. Your past does not limit God’s ability to use you in the future. Peter denied Christ three times and yet God was still able to use him on the Day of Pentecost to lead three thousand Jews to Christ from one sermon preached.
III. Paul’s third statement – “I worked harder than all of the other apostles” (15:10)
That is an interesting statement. Notice what he does say and what he does not say here.
1) He does NOT say that he was more gifted or more spiritual, just that he worked harder.
2) He does NOT say that he worked harder than all of them combined but that he worked harder than any one of them
3) He does NOT say that the other apostles were lazy.
He is not knocking the other apostles, he is just saying that he worked harder, not harder than some of them but harder than ALL of them (“I labored more abundantly than they all”). He was just stating a fact. The other apostles were supported by the church. Paul worked for a living.
He worked hard. He worked with his hands. He was a blue collar worker. He worked long hours (I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:8). He supported himself and yet look at everything that he was able to do during his lifetime.
Accomplishments of Paul
1. He wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the NT.
He wrote more NT books than any other writer. In fact, three-fourths of the Apostles did not write a book of Scripture or any other book so far as we can tell.
Three fourths of them never wrote a book of Scripture and Paul wrote thirteen of them. Most of them were not writers. Only three other apostles wrote a book of the Bible (Matthew, John and Peter).
2. He may have been the greatest missionary of all time.
He went on three missionary journeys and started all kinds of churches from Jerusalem to Spain. Paul traveled more than 10,000 miles on his Christian missionary journeys to various cities and that was without an airplane or car.
3. The church today is largely a Gentile church today because of his influence.
He was the apostle to the gentiles. He had a passion to preach Christ where he was not known (Romans 15:20). When the church began it was one hundred percent Jewish. Those were the good old days. Now the church is predominately a Gentile movement. Paul was the one who took the gospel to Europe and from Europe it came to America.
4. He was also the great theologian of the early church.
He was the most educated of all of the apostles. None of the Apostles went to seminary. They were not intellectuals or scholars or even great thinkers. Most of the apostles were uneducated (Acts 4:13; Luke 10:21). They were simple fishermen. Four of the twelve were fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James and John).
One was a tax-collector (Matthew). No one knows the occupations of the other seven but apparently they were not highly educated. None of them had PhDs. Paul was highly educated. Paul says that he studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
Who was Gamaliel?
1) He was a teacher of the law.
He was the leading Jewish teacher in the first century (Acts 5:43). He was the grandson of Hillel, who was one of the most rabbis in Jewish history. Hillel lived in Jerusalem at the time of King Herod.
2) He was a Pharisee.
Paul was a Pharisee before he became a Christian (Acts 23:6; 26:5). Gamaliel was also a Pharisee (Acts 5:34).
3) He was a member of the Sanhedrin.
Gamaliel was a member of the highest court in Jerusalem and was well respected by all the people.
4) He died in 54 AD.
He died before the Temple was destroyed and just before I Corinthians was written. Unlike the other apostles, Paul was very well educated. He studied under some of the top teachers of his day. Paul had a brilliant mind.
He wrote some of the deepest parts of the NT. Even Peter said that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand (II Peter 3:16). It was the writings of Paul that changed the course of history and led to the Reformation.
1. Work hard.
Do we work hard in ministry? God wants us to work hard and says that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (15:58). The Bible has a lot to say in the Book of Proverbs about laziness. In fact, Paul was the one who said that if you don’t work, you shouldn’t eat (I Thessalonians 3:8). The pastors of our church work hard. In fact, they probably work too hard.
2. Be humble about your accomplishments.
Paul was not shy about stating what he achieved. He had no problem with recognizing his accomplishments. He did not have a false modesty about what he could achieve and do. He did not say, “What I have done really amounts to nothing. I am not good at what I do.” He did not belittle what he achieved or what he did.
It is not wrong to acknowledge you accomplishments. He was not shy about saying he worked harder than any of the other apostles. That is not pride. David did that. Boasting is wrong. Paul is not boasting. He is just stating a fact but he also did not take credit for what he did. Notice the last thing that he said about himself.
IV. Paul’s fourth statement – “I am what I am by the grace of God” (15:10)
Three times in one verse Paul mentions the grace of God and credits the grace of God for all that he achieved. William Barclay says that Paul would never have called himself “a self-made man,” because he said, “I am what I am by the grace of God”. The grace of God was what saved him and what enabled him to accomplish everything that he did.
He gave God all of the credit for what he had done and Paul got NONE. Everything he did was a work of grace. Because it is a work of grace, you don’t earn it. You don’t deserve it. It is freely given. That completely does away with human merit and it does away with human pride.
Paul says, “If there has been ANY change in me from a persecutor and a blasphemer, it is all because of God’s grace.” God should have struck Paul dead on the Damascus Road. He persecuted the church. In fact, Paul himself said, “He who destroys the church, God will destroy” (3:17).
That was what he deserved but he received grace. He also gave God credit for his service. Paul says, “If I accomplished anything for Christ, it is all because of God’s grace.” Everything about the Christian life has to do with grace.
We believe by grace (Acts 18:27). We are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). We serve through grace (I Corinthians 15:10). We are able to endure trials through God’s grace. When Paul was given a thorn in the flesh FROM SATAN and he asked to have it removed, not once but three times, what was the answer God gave him? “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12:9).
What is the lesson here? If we are able to serve God in any way or do anything for Christ, it is because of the grace of God. If we are an apostle, it is because of the grace of God. If we are a pastor of a church, it is because of the grace of God. If we are a teacher, it is because of the grace of God.