At a conference of Christian political party leaders in Leissigen, Switzerland, in 2013, I heard the following observations made by Valeriu Ghiletchi, a member of the Parliament of Moldova and a former President of the European Baptist Federation.
He drew attention to four stages of the apostle Paul’s life and ministry, to show his changing self-image:
- About 49AD: in Gal 2:6 Paul writes: “But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it makes no matter to me: God accepts no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me”. Valeriu glossed this as: “It makes no difference to me. Those men added nothing to my message.” Paul was very self-confident.
- About 55AD: in 1Cor 15:9 Paul wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”.
- About 60AD: in Eph 3:8, after his prison experience, he wrote: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
- Finally, in 1Tim 1:15 about three years before his death, he wrote: “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.”
This is a very useful observation.
Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul considered himself to be ahead of his equals in the Jews’ religion Gal 1:14, and some of this competitive spirit is manifest in the epistle to the Galatians, where he considered himself to be at least equal to the apostles if not ahead of them.
Immediately after his conversion, Paul’s credibility was called into question, and Barnabas helped to overcome suspicions about Paul’s conversion Act 9:27. Barnabas also head-hunted him in Tarsus for the work among the Gentiles in Antioch Act 11:22,25. Paul was aware of his unique ministry and from an early stage he had to defend and assert his calling. This is seen in Gal 1:1,11-12 and he asserted his independence from the other apostles in Gal 1:17-19. Fourteen years later Gal 2:1 he ascertained that his doctrine was the same as the other apostles Gal 2:2, and asserted that they had not added anything to his knowledge of Christian doctrine nor events in the life of Christ Gal 2:6.
However, by the time of writing 1Cor 15:9 Paul considered himself to be the least of the apostles, minimising and contrasting his right to be called an apostle compared to the other apostles. This does not mean he minimises his apostleship; rather he magnifies the office in Rom 11:13 written about the same time, but he does not insist upon the designation being officiously applied to himself. He does not with false humility suggest that he is worse than the other apostles at fulfilling the apostolic office; rather, he asserts the opposite in 2Cor 11:5 “For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles” and “for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing” 2Cor 12:11; however this was in the context of a challenge to his apostleship and he felt compelled to speak thus.
Still later, during his imprisonment, he coins a Greek term ‘less than the least’ Eph 3:8 to describe how he compares himself to the saints. He has moved from comparing himself equal to the apostles in the epistle to the Galatians, to the least of the apostles in the epistle to the Ephesians, and now he is less than the least of the saints – a saint nevertheless.
Finally he comes down to the level of describing himself as “the chiefest sinner” in 1Tim 1:15.
This is the great apostle to the Gentiles maturing for glory, like the weeping willow tree, which stoops lower the older it becomes.