Theme: Paul the Pharisee
In this week’s lessons, we look at how Paul viewed himself apart from Christ, and the great change that took place because of God’s mercy.
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-20
The first passage where Paul talks about his past is Galatians 1:13, where he writes, “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” Paul believed that by working against the church he was serving God as a faithful Jew. He, of course, did not realize at that point that the same God he was claiming to follow was establishing the very church Paul was persecuting.
The other passage is Philippians 3:4-6. Beginning in the middle of verse 4, Paul gives us what we might call his theological or religious resume: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” This is an important passage because it tells us what Paul’s theological commitments were, and how he sought to live them out, before he was converted on the road to Damascus. His faith was misplaced because he was relying to some extent on his theological pedigree and was proud of who he was and of what he had achieved, religiously-speaking, up to that point.
Looking at all these things, Paul concluded that if anyone was living to please God, it was certainly Paul the zealous Pharisee. One thing he lists is that he was of the people of Israel, in other words, he was a Jew. We might wonder what advantage there is in being a Jew. Paul himself deals with that very matter in Romans 9. He has been making the case that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, stand before God as sinners in need of his grace. Still, Paul says there are advantages to being a Jew. For one thing, they have the Scriptures that point to Christ. Even though Paul did not understand all this earlier, by the grace of God he came to see how the Old Testament anticipates and points to the coming of Christ as the Messiah and Savior.
There are other advantages, too. Paul mentions the promises, the patriarchs, the temple worship, the covenants, the receiving of the law, as well as other items pertaining to the knowledge and worship of the one true God, who has now revealed himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. These are all great advantages to help lead people to salvation through Christ, and the Jews were the recipients of all these blessings.
Paul also says in Philippians 3 that he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, which means that he was a pureblooded Jew. He did not have one Jewish parent and one Gentile parent; both of Paul’s parents were Jewish. In addition, he was circumcised on the eighth day, as God commands in the law. Even more, he was of the tribe of Benjamin. During the Jewish civil war in which there was a split in the twelve tribes, the result was that ten tribes formed the kingdom of Israel in the north, while two tribes made up the kingdom of Judah in the south. It was the tribe of Benjamin that remained with the prominent tribe of Judah, where the temple was located and where the worship of God according to the stipulations of the Mosaic law were occurring. All this was Paul’s background, and he was very proud of his theological heritage.
Not only was Paul proud of his ancestry; he was also proud in what he was achieving. He became a Pharisee the strictest sect of Judaism, zealous for a legalistic form righteousness that they laid down as the proper approach to obedience to God. Paul followed this legalistic course blamelessly. Moreover, Paul demonstrated his religious zeal by persecuting the church, believing it to be contrary to what God had commanded in Scripture. This is Paul’s religious past, and it explains why he was trying to destroy the church.
When Paul refers to himself as being of the people of Israel, what does he mean? What else do we learn about this advantage from Scripture?
What does Paul mean when he calls himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews”?
Why did Paul take pride in being of the tribe of Benjamin?
Reflection: How do people boast concerning religious things today? On what things do they rely for acceptance before God?