Paul and His Apostleship
“A chosen vessel of mine to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15, NKJV, other texts from NASB).
By Ray Charlton
These words to Ananias gave assurance that it was safe for him to go to the house where Saul of Tarsus was staying and restore his sight, which Saul had lost during his encounter with Christ. Ananias had good reason for concern since Saul had come breathing threats and murder against that church in Damascus (Acts 9:1).
Establishing the Church
Paul came from Athens to Corinth, spending 18 months there from 51-52 AD. Here he met Aquila and Priscilla, staying and working with them. Acts 18:4-6 gives insight to the situation in Corinth. “He was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 18:4-6).
The first letter was written about 3 years after Paul left Corinth so the Church would have been in existence nearly five years and had experienced many divine providences (Reprints 3144:3, 4442:1). In Acts we are told the Lord had many people in the city (Acts 18:10).
The Situation in Corinth
Paul gave thanks to God that the church had become rich in all things, including speech and knowledge. The message about Christ had been established amongst the brethren. They should have been united in thought and purpose. In 1 Corinthians 7:1 it is revealed that the Church had written to Paul asking for guidance. Additionally, a report of their divisions and quarrels had come from the house of Chloe. “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?’” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). 1 Corinthians 4:6 shows that it really was the local leaders, and not Paul and Apollos, who were the source of the divisions.
The church was divided, many following men instead of Christ. Paul spoke of the few he baptized, suggesting some were following the one who had baptized them. He defended his position, stating “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Cleverness of Speech
Some have presumed that Paul was not a good orator, that he was weak in speech. However, we read in Acts 22 that he had been brought from Tarsus to Jerusalem to be educated under Gamaliel. Gamaliel was a teacher of renown in the Mosaic Law, one who truly respected God (Acts 5:39). Paul’s oratory skills were shown at the Areopagus when he explained God’s plan having seen the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” In Acts 24 we find Paul before Felix, and here we see his mastery. “When the governor had nodded for him to speak, Paul responded: ‘Knowing that for many years you have been a judge to this nation, I cheerfully make my defense’” (Acts 24:10). This statement and Paul’s subsequent defense were sufficient to keep him out of the hands of the Jews. Later, Paul was brought before King Agrippa where he was allowed to give his defense, finishing with: “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” Agrippa replied, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:27-28). Paul certainly had the ability to impress and persuade.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians was delivered without superiority of speech and wisdom, which may have been above the level they could understand. Instead, the words he used were led by the Spirit and power of God so that their faith would be founded on God’s doctrine and not man’s wisdom.
Questioning Paul’s Credentials
In 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul asks four rhetorical questions. From these questions it is clear that some in Corinth were questioning the legitimacy of his apostleship.
Am I not an Apostle? Paul begins by saying that he was “called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1). It could be that Paul’s history of persecuting the Church called into question his apostleship. Ananias in Damascus needed to be reassured by the Lord: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
Am I not free? Paul, born a Roman Citizen, was a free man with many privileges, including the right to appeal to Caesar, the highest authority in the empire. He was also free in the sense that by accepting Christ he was no longer bound by the Mosaic Law. Paul also mentioned that the brethren in Corinth did not pay him. Rather, he worked with his own hands to provide for himself and those who travelled with him. This gave him the freedom to preach the Gospel as it had been given to him, without considering any requirements that might have been placed on him, if he were being paid.
Still, in 1 Corinthians 9:4-14, Paul gives the reasons why he is entitled to payment under the Law, as those that worked in the temple, and also, under the direction from Christ. Nevertheless, Paul concludes, “What then is my reward? That, when I preach the Gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more” (1 Corinthians 9:18-19).
Have I not seen Jesus? This was required to be an apostle (Acts 1:21). Paul saw the risen Lord after Jesus ascended to Heaven, thus qualifying him. “And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4-5).
Are you not my work in the Lord? Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, planting the seed of the gospel. He left others to water the flock and acknowledged it was God that gave the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). Thus he had the right to say, “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:2).
Paul’s preaching did not suit everyone. Nevertheless, he was always aware of his audience, and wrote: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those … to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).