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Paul: Background and Call


Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, September 12, 2015

If awards were given for the inspired writers of Scripture, Paul would be nominated and likely win in quite a few categories: Most Prolific, Most Foreign Mission Trips, Most Amazing Conversion Story, just to name a hypothetical few. From what Paul reveals in Scripture of his character, however, he would likely demur all these awards. He is, as he states in Romans 1:1, a slave of Jesus Christ. Not a prizewinner for Christ. Enslaved to Him.

So many aspects of Paul’s ministry are amazing to me. This week’s lesson examines the underpinnings of it all: from whence he came and how he was called.  Paul’s robust ministry continues to inform many of today’s Christian mission efforts. And God began it with a man whose beginnings are among the most unlikely.

As Paul confirms in his letter to the Philippians, he was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5). The word Pharisee probably borrows from the Hebrew word prs, meaning separate or detach. The Pharisees were a separate class in many respects.  As Sunday’s lesson indicates, Pharisees “were known for insisting that all the laws of God, both those written in the books of Moses, as well as those handed down verbally by generations of scribes, were binding on all Jews.” Their strict adherence to Jewish laws set the Pharisees apart from their contemporaries: Jews and Gentiles. Paul no doubt knew and abided by these laws, making his embrace of multiculturalism later in life so significant.

We know that Paul felt especially led to share the Gospel with Gentiles. His witness as a former Pharisee and one who formerly condemned Christians—even to the death—was a powerful one, showing how God can humble and restore a former enemy of the faith.

Paul had a passion for grafting Gentiles into the Christian church. He sought to dispel myths that they were unwelcome because they did not fit the mold of Jewish believers in Christ. Thursday’s lesson takes us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which Paul goes to a conference in Jerusalem (Ch. 2), likely to have his Gentile mission evaluated by the apostles. Paul brings Barnabus, an esteemed Jewish Christian, and Titus, a Greek Christian, to the conference. The trio are symbolic of the widening diversity in Christianity at the time. At the conference, Paul seeks certitude about that which is causing division in the church: do Gentiles need to be circumcised as Jews first before being accepted into Christianity? Here, Paul makes an important distinction in the law and the verses are so well-known to many of us that we may forget their gravity.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. – Galatians 2:20-21

Paul, who at one point in time may have found his identity deeply rooted in Jewish ceremonial laws, has found freedom from this identity by being found in Christ. He stands to embrace all who want to be found in Christ, as well.

Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church taking a similarly active stance? Embracing all who want to be found with Christ living inside of them?

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that the Seventh-day Adventist church is the most diverse religious group in the U.S. Yet, members of our church know well the racial segregation struggle of U.S. churches and conferences. How can such a diverse church still be widely unintegrated? Perhaps the ministry of Paul can instruct us in how the Gospel of Christ can better unite us. While bureaucracy may persist for reasons that go well beyond racism, including economic feasibility, the Gospel that unites us should never be impeded by that which cannot save us alone, e.g. ceremonial laws or regional organizations. Paul’s willingness to champion the cause of inclusivity as it advances the Gospel should be our inspiration and our touchstone.

This is not merely an ideal written idly by a Pollyanna Adventist. I have experienced this unity most profoundly. As a convert to Adventism from a fairly orthodox Catholic upbringing, I can attest that I was well-loved into the Adventist church. I am a Caucasian woman from the Midwest who found herself attending a Korean Adventist church in New England for the better part of ten years. By virtue of our proximity to so many universities, and because of the famous weekly “potluck ministry” of the Korean elders, the congregation had a steady flow of college students who were Haitian, Zimbabwean, Indonesian, Jamaican, as well as Korean. Our fold was enriched by this diversity and our view of the world church was ever enlarged. We were small in number but great in diversity and Christ was our common glory!

I believe that it is possible to advance the Gospel even further when we share the fruits of our diverse gifts, talents, and cultures. I know because I have experienced it and it was a foretaste of Heaven. 


Kendra Lee is a professor of journalism at Southern Adventist University.


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