Why the Apostle Paul’s Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride
Last week I showed that if anybody has grounds for pride, it is surely the Lord Jesus Christ. But maybe the fact that Jesus is such a special case means that you find his example hard to relate to. Of course I don’t have as much grounds for pride as Jesus – he’s God! – you might say. But as far as ordinary people go, I’m pretty special. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men”, as the Pharisee prayed in Luke 18:11. Other men are far worse than me: “extortioners, unjust, adulterers” But as for me, I’m so much more religious than them: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But if we want to play the religion card as our grounds for pride, there’s another very strong contender in the race that we’ll find ourselves competing against: the apostle Paul.
Before his conversion, Paul was an incredibly religious man. He was the absolute model Jew. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” he writes in Philippians 3:4-11, “I have more.” If you’re feeling smug about your good works, I can assure you that they’re not a patch on mine, says Paul. Then he goes on to list his religious qualifications: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;” Paul’s heritage and pedigree are absolutely top notch. He’s a bona fide, full-blooded Jewish male, raised according to all the laws and customs passed down from God by Moses. But he went far beyond the call of duty: he continues, “as to the law, a Pharisee”. The Pharisees get a pretty bad wrap these days, but at their core they were a group of people who were fanatical about holiness – they were absolutely devoted to obeying God’s law in all of its minutiae, even down to the level of tithing the herbs and spices that grew in their window garden. That’s how committed they were to keeping God’s law, and they were great at it: “under the law, blameless” writes Paul. From what he goes on to say next, Paul clearly isn’t suggesting here that he kept the law perfectly and could have earnt his way into God’s good books, but he is saying that as far as the external, outward requirements of the law went, he was unrivalled. And it wasn’t just a dry formalism, either; Paul’s was a religion full of zeal and vigour in the service of God: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He may have been mistaken about the right way to do God’s will, but once he’d identified what had to be done there was not a shred of hesitation or holding back in how he went about it. Paul had Christians firmly in his sight and he wasn’t going to lose track of the scent until he’d completely eradicated all hints of this terrible heresy.
Paul was exactly the kind of believer you’d want to have in your congregation. He’d never skive off synagogue on a Saturday morning because of an important football match; he’d never be distracted from what he was supposed to be doing by some pretty girl; he’d never be bribed into making compromises; he’d never shrink back from speaking the truth from fear that it might make him unpopular; he’d be the first one there at the monthly prayer meeting and the last one to leave; he’d be the most generous of your regular givers and would contribute hefty sums to that one off appeal to raise money for a new roof; he’d be on every committee, even the truly tedious ones; whatever religious works you find yourself tempted to take pride in, Paul would be there doing it better and more energetically, leaving you and your paltry efforts in the dust.
“But,” says Paul, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” After his conversion, Paul now sees all of his religious works as a complete waste of time – indeed, as loss, because all they did was put up a smoke screen that prevented him from recognising his need of the Lord Jesus. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (lit. dung) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. By trusting in his own efforts, all Paul was doing was digging himself deeper and deeper into a godless hole. His own righteousness seemed incomparably cheap and shabby next to the perfect, spotless righteousness of Christ, a level of righteousness that could be found only by forsaking his own efforts to make himself right with God and trusting wholeheartedly in Christ’s finished work on the cross.
Even the mighty Paul, impeccable, immovable, incorruptible, even Paul recognised that his own religious works were but a pale shadow next to the righteousness of Christ. They were worthless, the sort of thing you’d take about as much pride in as a pile of horse manure. Boasting in your own works would be like taking a bunch of used nappies along to the Antiques Roadshow and trying to argue that they were worth as much as some centuries-old Ming vase: you’d be laughed off the show and told to never come back. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” For all his religious works, even a zealous Pharisee like Paul would still one day die and rot, and without Christ there’s not a thing his good works could do to save him.
We see this same attitude of Paul’s played out in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33. Comparing himself to the false “super-apostles” who boasted in their works, Paul begins to mock them by adopting their own false logic:
“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of- I am speaking as a fool- I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far great labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepness night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Paul shows that whatever grounds for pride the super-apostles of Corinth thought they may have had, he had more. Nobody had gone to greater lengths for the sake of the gospel than him. And yet there is nothing arbitrary about the list of things Paul has chosen to mention here. As heroic as they may make him look, there’s also something slightly pathetic about the list, don’t you think? Earlier the Corinthians have described Paul as a man whose “bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) and here we read of him being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, cold and exposed. This small little man seems to spend his whole life in constant shame, always one step away from disaster, whilst the cosy super-apostles get on with their comfortable lives in Corinth at the expense of the church there. The explanation comes in v30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul chooses to boast not of the things that show how great he is, but of the things that show how small and weak and pathetic he is. He boasts of the things that show that all he has accomplished could not possibly have been accomplished in his own strength, but in the strength and power of the Lord his God. The God who says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When the human vessels that God works through are so obviously mere clay pots – cheap plastic cups that are used once and then thrown away – well it’s then that God’s infinite power is most clearly perceived. “Therefore,” says Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
If you think you have grounds for pride, surely they are nothing compared to the apostle Paul’s? And yet he knew it was utterly vain to try and boast in his own righteousness – even as great as his was – and chose instead to boast in how utterly weak and pathetic and dependent on the God of grace he was.