All in

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Apostle Paul, c. 1657

What kind of a man was the apostle Paul? What did he look like? The great Dutch master Rembrandt imagined Paul laboring over his writing desk, and other artists did the same. Many made him out to be bald. The personality that comes across is these portraits is of a serious and contemplative man. And certainly, his letters demonstrate deep and careful thought.

I imagine, though, that Paul was a bit of a firebrand. That’s not to say he was a hothead (though sometimes I’ve thought this), but a man of deep passion and conviction. We might say today that if Paul was in, he was all in, all the way, whether it meant suffering or even death.

Think of the stories we have of Saul of Tarsus in the book of Acts. His zeal for the law of Moses made him a zealous persecutor of Christians. He went from house to house, dragging believers off to prison (Acts 8:3). He even took the initiative to get official permission to take the persecution to Damascus (9:1-2).

On his way there, he was confronted forcefully by the risen Jesus. His worldview turned upside down — but his personality remained as fiery as ever. The zealous enemy of the church became its equally zealous defender. Paul preached the gospel in Damascus in a way that made the Jews there want to kill him; the believers had to sneak him out of the city (Acts 9:19-25). Then Paul went to Jerusalem and argued with the Hellenistic Jews in a way that made them want to kill him (9:29). His newfound brothers and sisters stuck him on a slow boat to Tarsus, and things quieted down (9:30-31).

Paul drops out of the story of Acts for a while, until his friend Barnabas fetches him from Tarsus to help lead the new Gentile congregation in Antioch (Acts 11:25). They go on a missionary trip together; they face death and persecution together; they appear before the Jerusalem council together. You would hope that this would cement the deepest of bonds between them. But Luke describes what seems like a shouting match between them (15:36-41). They part ways — literally — and Barnabas disappears from the book of Acts (there are hints in Paul’s letters that they reconciled later).

But as with any of us, there is more than one side to the man, more than one way to express his passion and zeal. Paul could be a deeply loyal and affectionate friend. I picture him striding into a city where he has planted a church and greeting his brothers and sisters with bear hugs. He thinks about them; he worries about them; he wants the best for them.

And, of course, he writes to them.

. . .

With this post, we begin a new series on the book of Philippians. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi follows the recognizable form of the way letters were written between friends in his day. This is not “friendship” in the Facebook sense, but friendship as a civic virtue, a relationship of mutual care and obligation. Put in contemporary terms, such letters might begin with “Long time, no see” or “Wish you were here,” followed by, “I’ve been thinking about you, and I know you’ve been thinking about me.” And at some point, there might be a request for help of some kind, predicated on the obligations of friendship.

Philippians is not only a friendship letter, of course; it includes a great deal of moral instruction as well. But it’s striking how non-hierarchical his language is. When he makes an appeal, he does so on the basis of their friendship and partnership in the gospel, rather than his spiritual authority.

Paul is all in on his relationship to the Philippians, and apparently, the feeling is mutual. But how did they meet? And what do we know about the Philippians? We’ll explore those questions in the next post.