Traditional portraits of the apostle Paul give us a visually unimpressive and balding man. He was probably not as tall and handsome as a movie star, and may not have been much in a fight. But as a pastor arguing with errant congregants, he knew a thing or two about verbal judo, about keeping his opponents off balance enough to land a point.
Paul had his detractors in Corinth, who thought little of him and his teaching, probably even questioning whether he was truly an apostle. He wasn’t like Peter, who had been Jesus’ right-hand man, the one whom Jesus called “Rock.” And surely James, the Lord’s brother, had a right to the title of apostle after his conversion. But who was Paul? What right did this Johnny-come-lately have to think that he spoke with the authority of one whom Jesus had commissioned and sent?
In the previous post, we saw how Paul, preparing to confront the rejection of the resurrection by some of the Corinthians, cited what was probably a church creed listing the many physical appearances of the risen Lord. Paul mentioned Cephas (his preferred name for Peter) in the same breath as the Twelve, and James with the rest of the apostles. Paul inserted himself way down at the end of the list, describing himself in lowly terms as if he didn’t even belong in the story.
As some scholars have suggested, Paul’s unflattering self-description — as one “abnormally born” in the NIV, “untimely born” in the NRSV (1 Cor 15:8) — may have reflected an insult hurled at him by the Corinthians. With both humility and rhetorical skill, Paul accepted the insult, thereby catching his opponents off-guard and opening the way for a transformed understanding:
I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed. (1 Cor 15:9-11, CEB)
If his opponents thought of him as an apostle at all, it was as a decidedly minor apostle, a lightweight who could easily be ignored. But instead of defending himself directly, Paul says, You’re right, I’m the least of the apostles. I don’t deserve the title. But — and here’s where the judo comes in — it’s not for the reasons you think. No, it’s worse than that: I actively persecuted Christians. How could I possibly be an apostle? There’s only one way: by the sheer grace of God. It’s God who works in me. So I am an apostle, and I preach the same message as the other apostles: the good news of a truly risen Savior.
Paul, of course, has much to say about the resurrection, and needs even his opponents to listen. But for now, here’s the question: are there people to whom you have refused to listen for personal reasons, even though you knew that God might have something to say to you through them?