Saul of Tarsus

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 8
In contemplating the character of this most remarkable man, we may gather up some fine principles of gospel truth. He seems to have been peculiarly fitted to show forth, in the first place, what the grace of God can do; and, in the second place, what the greatest amount of legal effort cannot do. If ever there was a man upon this earth whose history illustrates the truth, that “salvation is by grace, without works of law,” Saul of Tarsus was that man. Indeed, it would seem as though God had specially designed to present, in the person of Saul, a living example, first, of the depth to which a sinner can descend; and, secondly, of the height to which a legalist can attain. He was, at once, the very worst, and the very best of men – the chief of sinners, and the chief of legalists. He traveled down to the lowest point of human wickedness, and climbed to the loftiest summit of human righteousness. He was a sinner of the sinners, and a Pharisee of the Pharisees.
Let us, then, in the first place, contemplate him as
THE CHIEF OF SINNERS.
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:1515This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:15)). Now, let the reader note, particularly, that the Spirit of God declares, concerning Saul of Tarsus, that he was the chief of sinners. It is not the expression of Paul’s humility, though, no doubt, he was humble under the sense of what he had been. We are not to be occupied with the feelings of an inspired writer, but with the statements of the Holy Spirit who inspired him. It is well to see this. Very many persons speak of the feelings of the various inspired writers in a way calculated to weaken the sense of that precious truth, the plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture. They may not mean to do so; but, then, at a time like the present, when there is so much mental activity, so much of reason, so much of human speculation, we cannot be too guarded against aught that might, even in appearance, militate against the integrity of the Word of God. We are anxious that our readers should entertain the very highest thoughts respecting the inspired volume; that they should treasure it in their heart’s affections, not as the expression of human feelings, however pious and praiseworthy, but as the depository of the thoughts of God. “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:2121For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21)).
Hence, therefore, in reading 1 Timothy 1:1515This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Timothy 1:15), we are not to think of the feelings of man, but of the record of God, and this record declares that Paul was the chief of sinners. It is never once stated that any one else was the chief of sinners. No doubt, in a secondary sense, each convicted heart will feel and own itself the vilest heart within its entire range of intelligence; but this is quite another matter. The Holy Spirit has declared of Paul, and of none other, that he was the chief of sinners; nor does the fact that He has told us this by the pen of Paul himself, interfere with, or weaken, in the smallest degree, the truth and value of the statement. Paul was the chief of sinners. No matter how bad any one may be, Paul could say, “I am chief.” No matter how low any one may feel himself to be – no matter how deeply sunk in the pit of ruin – a voice rises to his ear from a deeper point still, “I am chief.” There cannot be two chiefs, for if there were, it could only be said that Paul was one of them; whereas, it is most distinctly declared that he was “chief.”
But let us mark the object of all this dealing with the chief of sinners. “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them who should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.” The chief of sinners is in heaven. How did he get there? Simply by the blood of Jesus; and, moreover, he is Christ’s “pattern” man. All may look at him and see how they, too, are to be saved, for, in such wise as the “chief” was saved, must all the subordinate be saved. The grace that reached the chief can reach all. The blood that cleansed the chief can cleanse all. The title by which the chief entered heaven is the title for all. The vilest sinner under the canopy of heaven may hearken to Paul saying, “I am chief, and yet I obtained mercy. Behold in me a pattern of Christ’s long-suffering.” There is not a sinner at this side the portal of hell, be he backslider or aught else, beyond the reach of the love of God, the blood of Christ, or the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
We shall now turn to the other side of Saul’s character, and contemplate him as
THE CHIEF OF LEGALISTS
“Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more” (Phil. 3:44Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: (Philippians 3:4)). Here we have a most valuable point. Saul of Tarsus stood, as it were, on the very loftiest crag of the hill of legal righteousness. He reached the topmost step of the ladder of human religion. He would suffer no man to get above him. His religious attainments were of the very highest order. (See Gal. 1:1414And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:14).) No one ever got beyond him in the matter of working out a self-righteousness. “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more.” Is “any” man “trusting” in his temperance? Paul could say, “I more” Is “any” man “trusting’’ in his morality? Paul could say, “I more.’’ Is “any’’ man “trusting” in ordinances, sacraments, religious services, or pious observances? Paul could say, “I more” Is “any” man proudly wrapping himself up in the pompous robes of orthodoxy, and “trusting” therein? Paul could say, “I more.” In a word, let a man mount up the hill of legal righteousness as high as the most towering ambition or fervid zeal can carry him, and he will hear a voice falling upon his ear, from a loftier height still, “I more.”
All this imparts a peculiar interest to the history of Saul of Tarsus. He lay at the very bottom of the pit of ruin, and he stood on the very summit of the hill of self-righteousness. Deep as any sinner may have sunk, Paul was deeper still. High as any legalist may have stood, Paul stood higher still. He combined, in his own person, the very worst and the very best of men. In him we see, at one view, the power of the blood of Christ, and the utter worthlessness of the fairest robe of self-righteousness that ever decked the person of a legalist. Looking at him, no sinner need despair; looking at him no legalist can boast, If the chief of sinners is in heaven, I can get there too. If the greatest religionist, legalist, and doer, that ever lived had to come down from the ladder of self-righteousness, it is of no use for me to go up. Saul of Tarsus came up from the depths, and down from the heights, and found his place at the pierced feet of Jesus of Nazareth. His guilt was no hindrance and his righteousness no use. The former was washed away by the blood, and the latter turned into dung and dross, by the moral glory of Christ. It mattered not whether it was “I chief” or “I more.” The cross was the only remedy. “God forbid,” says this chief of sinners and prince of legalists, “that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:1414But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. (Galatians 6:14)). Paul had just as little idea of trusting in his righteousness as in his crimes. He was permitted to win the laurel of victory in the grand legal struggle with his “equals in his own nation,” only that he might fling it, as a withered, worthless thing, at the foot of the cross. He was permitted to outstrip all in the dark career of guilt, only that he might exemplify the power of the love of God and the efficacy of the blood of Christ. The gospel has a double voice. It calls to the slave of vice who lies wallowing in the mire of moral pollution, and says, “Come up” It calls to the busy, self-complacent religionist, who is vainly endeavoring to clamber up the steep sides of Mount Sinai, and says, “Come down.” Saul was no nearer to Christ as the chief of legalists, than he was as the chief of sinners. There was no more justifying merit in his noblest efforts in the school of legalism, than in his wildest acts of opposition to the name of Christ. He was saved by grace, saved by blood, saved by faith. There is no other way for sinner or legalist.
Thus much as to Saul of Tarsus, in his twofold character as chief of sinners and chief of legalists. There is one other point in his history at which we must briefly glance, in order to show the practical results of the grace of Christ wherever that grace is known. This will present him to our notice as
THE MOST LABORIOUS OF APOSTLES
If Paul learned to cease working for righteousness, he also learned to begin working for Christ. When we behold, on the road leading to Damascus, the shattered fragments of the worst and best of men – when we hear those pathetic accents emanating from the depths of a broken heart, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” – when we see that man who had just left Jerusalem, in all the mad fury of a persecuting zealot, now stretching forth the hand of blind helplessness, to be led like a little child into Damascus, we are led to form the very highest expectations as to his future career; nor are we disappointed. Mark the progress of that most remarkable man; behold his gigantic labors in the vineyard of Christ; see his tears, his toils, his travels, his perils, his struggles; see him as he bears his golden sheaves into the heavenly garner, and lays them down at the Master’s feet; see him wearing the noble bonds of the gospel, and finally laying his head on a martyr’s block, and say if the gospel of God’s free grace – the gospel of Christ’s free salvation, does away with good works. Nay, my reader, that precious gospel is the only true basis on which the superstructure of good works can ever be erected. Morality, without Christ, is an icy morality. Benevolence, without Christ, is a worthless benevolence. Ordinances, without Christ, are powerless and valueless. Orthodoxy, without Christ, is heartless and fruitless. We must get to the end of self, whether it be a guilty self or a religious self, and find Christ as the satisfying portion of our hearts, now and forever. Then we shall be able to say, with truth,
“Thou, Ο Christ, art all I want,
More than all in Thee I find.”
Thus it was with Saul of Tarsus. He got rid of himself and found his all in Christ, and hence, as we hang over the impressive page of his history, we hear, from the most profound depths of moral ruin, the words, “I am chief” – from the most elevated point in the legal system, the words, “I more” – and from amid the golden fields of apostolic labor, the words, “I labored more abundantly than they all.”