Through short chapters that meditate on the apostle Paul’s awe-inspiring life and teaching, John Piper gives30 reasons why he loves the person and work of this murderer-turned-apostle.
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.
Read an Excerpt
From Angry Killer to Apostle of Christ
A massive change came into Paul's life through his experience on the Damascus Road, turning him from being a killer of Christians into a lover of Christ and his people.
Paul had been a Pharisee — part of the strictest religious sect of the Jewish people (Acts 26:5). He had been schooled in his faith by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the most esteemed teachers among the Pharisees of that day (Acts 5:34). He could say in public, with no fear of contradiction: "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal.1:14).
His pedigree for radical commitment to the strictest traditions was unsurpassed:
... circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:5–6)
When the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned, Paul, as a young man, was there holding the coats of those who killed him (Acts 7:58). But before long he had moved from passive coat holder to aggressive persecutor.
The Event That Turned His World Upside Down
Three times, Luke, Paul's physician and travel companion and chronicler, describes the event that turned Paul's world upside down.
Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, [Paul] went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1–2)
Paul had recognized that if this menacing Christian "Way" were true, it would shatter his world. He found the meaning of his life and his "righteousness" in meticulous Mosaic law-keeping. So much so that he called himself "blameless" in this law (Phil. 3:6). Among his contemporaries, this achievement was a great "gain" (Phil. 3:7), and he outshone them all (Gal.1:14). If the Christian Way was true — if Christ was raised from the dead — Paul had a profound sense of the implications for his own boasting. It was over.
And when Paul decided to carry his murderous persecution north to Damascus, God stepped in and turned Paul's world upside down. Paul came to believe that God had chosen him for this moment even before he was born (Gal. 1:15). Luke tells the story of Paul's crisis three times in the book of Acts (in chapters 9, 22, and 26). For example:
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:3–9)
Then God sent a man named Ananias to explain to Paul what was happening. God had said to Ananias,
Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. (Acts 9:15–16)
Or, as Paul himself put it,
He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Gal. 1:15–16)
His Change Was Widely Known
The news of this conversion was stunning to the Christians in those regions because they saw the radical change that happened to Paul. Paul expresses it like this:
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. ... [But now those who once feared me are saying,] "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. (Gal. 1:13, 23–24)
Paul's public life, before and after his conversion to Christ, was known by hundreds, probably thousands. His transformation, from murderer to lover, was widely known and undeniable. He is not claiming a private conversion experience. He is stating a public fact. His own explanation of dramatic and public change was that he had seen Jesus Christ, who had been crucified and was raised from the dead.
Jesus, Whom He Had Persecuted, Was Alive
This encounter on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus convinced Paul that Jesus was alive. And that changed everything. Jesus's offer of divine forgiveness was real. Paul received it and bowed to the absolute lordship of this risen Savior. Just as decisive for his life, he also received a mission. Nothing would ever be the same again. The persecutor was now the foremost spreader of what he had hated. He had received the gospel from the risen Christ.
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared ... to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive. ... Last of all ... he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Cor. 15:3–9)
I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:16)
Everything that causes me to love Paul flows from this change. Either it is all owing to a great delusion or a great hoax, or it is worthy of my deepest amazement and admiration. The kind of human soul that emerges from his letters is not the soul of a deluded fanatic or a deceptive shyster. Why I believe this, is largely what this book is about.CHAPTER 2
Beyond Rational Persuasion to the Revelation of Glory
Paul was converted by a blinding encounter with the brightness of the risen Lord Jesus. But when he commends the truth of the gospel in his letters, he rarely uses this undeniable experience as the warrant for why his readers should believe. He is aware that many readers will need better assurance than they can have through historical testimony.
Twice Paul referred in his letters to seeing the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, where his life was forever changed from being a persecutor of Christians to being an ambassador of the Christian faith (see chapter 1).
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? (1 Cor. 9:1) [The risen Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:6–8)
Why People Should Believe Paul's Gospel
There is no doubt that Paul considered this encounter with the risen Christ, and the dramatic change in his life that followed it, as a strong reason for people to consider him a true spokesman for the Son of God.
I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11–12; see also Acts22:17–21)
Notice the nature of his argument. His gospel is not merely "man's gospel," because he did not receive it from man. He had encountered the risen Christ.
Then he builds the argument for the truth of his gospel further with another because clause in Galatians 1:13: "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it." In other words, "the change that you see in me now — risking my life for the One I used to hate — is inexplicable except for my encounter with Christ."
But What about Us Nonhistorians?
But what about the nagging questions of doubt that arise in our hearts about a gospel whose verification hangs on a distant, historical human testimony? It may be that careful historians who know how to sort through evidences and pursue long chains of reasoning can arrive at a strong probability that Paul's explanation of things is true.
But what about the ordinary person? And are we supposed to stake our lives on a strong probability? And what about the preliterate, primitive tribesman who hears a missionary tell, for the first time, the story of the gospel? Jesus bids him to take up his cross and possibly die for his faith (Luke 21:16). Is there a way he could know the truth of Paul's message with such confidence that martyrdom would not be folly?
Paul's Supernatural Defense of Truth
Here is where Paul amazes me by moving beyond his own supernatural conversion as evidence, to the intrinsic glory of the gospel itself as the ground of its truth. Listen to these profound words about how we see the truth of the gospel:
The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:4–6)
First, Paul speaks of a failure to see "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ." Then he speaks of God's remedy for that failure: God has "shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God." In both statements, Paul speaks of a "light." Ponder the nature of this "light." In the first statement, it shines out from the "gospel of the glory of Christ." In the second statement, it shines out from the "knowledge of the glory of God."
In other words, this is not a physical or material light, as from the sun or from a candle. It is a spiritual light. It is not seen by the eyes of the head, but by what Paul sees as the eyes of the heart (Eph. 1:18). But it is not less real than physical light. This is the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Or the "glory of Christ, who is the image of God." It is divine light shining through the story of the gospel.
How Precious That We May Know by the Sight of Glory!
This is the kind of glory the apostle John was speaking about when he said of Jesus, "We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). But most of the Pharisees did not see it when they looked atJesus. Hence, Jesus said, "Seeing they do not see" (Matt.13:13).
But John saw it. And Peter saw it (Matt. 16:17). Theirs was a real seeing. And the glory of Christ was real evidence. It was a real and sure ground for faith. But it was not a physical seeing, since so many saw Jesus (and heard the gospel) and did not see this "glory" or "the light of the gospel."
I am deeply thankful that Paul was led beyond historical argumentation for the truth of the gospel. History is necessary. If there were no historical Jesus, and if there were no death for sins and resurrection from the dead, then all our faith would be in vain (1 Cor. 15:14).
But historical evidences alone do not go to the depths of our souls, where spiritual conviction rests. If we are going to live and die for Jesus, we must see his glory with the eyes of our hearts. My thankfulness to Paul at just this point is part of what I mean when I say I love him.CHAPTER 3
Steady in His Calling through Incomparable Sufferings
Paul was utterly devoted to the calling that the risen Christ had given him, even though it carried him into incomparable sufferings.
Many religious converts have a flash of temporary zeal, but after a while the flame burns out, and they return to the normalcy of ordinary life in this world. They choose comfort and security and live out their lives as nice people. Paul's reversal — from persecutor of Christians to radical, risk-taking promoter of Christianity — did not burn out. His life was astonishing in its single-minded devotion to the person and the cause he came to love — Jesus Christ and salvation by grace.
The Beauty of Single-Mindedness in a Great Cause
I love single-mindedness. I love to see an entire life devoted to one great thing. To me it is beautiful when a human soul, instead of flitting from one interest to another, sets a course of life and stays on it till the end. Of course, this is praiseworthy only if the goal is worth a lifetime of focus. In a few places, Paul distills the passion of his life into a sentence. For example:
I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)
I summarize this magnificent sentence as follows: better to lose your life than to waste it. And for Paul, not wasting his life meant staying on one single course all the way to the end — the course of "testifying to the gospel of the grace of God." He uses this same word course, translated race, in his farewell words at the end of his life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. (2 Tim. 4:7–8)
He made it. All the way to the end. Is this not a beautiful thing, when a man has a great, worthy, single passion in life and burns for it all the way to the end? At the end, as he came to Rome for the last time, even then, as an older man, he was planning to go to Spain because there was a specific angle to his passion for the "gospel of the grace of God." Namely, to go where the gospel hadn't gone:
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation. (Rom. 15:20)
As far as we know, he didn't make it to Spain. But I would rather see a man die abruptly, on his way to one last conquest, than to see him drift off course into the comforts of old age.
The Passion in All His Passions
Perhaps the expression of Paul's single passion that has captured my heart most deeply is the one found in Philippians1:20. Whether Paul says that his single course is to testify to the gospel of the grace of God or that his ambition is to preach that gospel where it's never been preached — in either case, in and under and through that single life passion was the ultimate goal of living and dying that Jesus Christ be magnified in Paul's body. This was the life passion unifying all his strategic aims:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored [or magnified] in my body, whether by life or by death.
Every dream, every plan, every strategy, every movement, every message — with this one all-unifying passion: "that Christ be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death."
Through Unremitting Suffering
But it is not just the singleness of his passion and the steadfastness of his focus that win my admiration and love; it is the fact that in this unwavering commitment to his God-given mission, his sufferings were unremitting and almost unbearable — and he still kept to the course. To be sure, it is noteworthy when anyone holds fast to a single glorious cause in life. But it is staggering to do this through unremitting suffering.
I choose the word unremitting carefully. At the time of Paul's conversion, Jesus said of him: "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16). And then, when Paul describes his life of trials, they sound not only unremitting, but as if they come from every direction:
[I have served Christ] with far greater labors, 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; 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 sleepless 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. (2 Cor. 11:23–28)
If you read that with a warmhearted sense of imagination and empathy, you can easily come to tears. Remember, he was not married. And though he had many close friends, how alone he must have felt much of the time. Picture him late at night, recovering alone from wounds, when others were cared for by a wife.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Why I Love the Apostle Paul"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Liar, Lunatic, or Loved? 9
Part 1 The Beautiful Transformation
1 From Angry Killer to Apostle of Christ 17
2 Beyond Rational Persuasion to the Revelation of Glory 23
3 Steady in His Calling through Incomparable Sufferings 27
4 Unwavering Love for Those Who Scourged Him 33
5 Unshakable Contentment Whether Abased or Abounding 37
Part 2 Loving the Man Who Shaped My Life
6 Magnifying Christ through a Satisfying Death 43
7 Love for People as the Overflow of Joy in God 51
8 From Rabid Ethnic Arrogance to Herald of Deepest Reconciliation 57
9 My Friend with the Best News during Cancer 63
10 Learning Late in Life to Know and Kill My Most Besetting Sins 71
Part 3 A Mind for Logic, a Heart for Love
11 Rigorous in Reasoning, Transparent in Feeling 83
12 Speaking with Feeling about the Glory of Christ, Not Religious Activity 87
13 From Logic on Fire to Lyrics of Love 91
14 Turning High Thoughts to the Help of the Lowly 95
Part 4 Making the Mysteries Sing
15 More Awed by the Glory Revealed than the Glory Concealed 101
16 Reveling in God's Power in and through Ours 107
17 A Global Grasp of Suffering and a Heart of Personal Empathy 111
18 The Horror of Human Sin, the Hope of Human Splendor 117
19 Showing the Truth of Christian Freedom, but Not in a Simplistic Way 121
Part 5 A Personal Passion for Precious Community
20 Not Lonely at the Top, but Linked with Precious Friends 129
21 Christ Was All-Sufficient, and Community Was Crucial 133
22 Backbone, Blunt, and Beautifully Affirming 137
23 Zeal for Gospel Accuracy, Slow to Take Personal Offense 141
24 Not a Conforming Chameleon, and Not a Ministering Maverick 147
Part 6 Counting Others More Significant than Himself
25 Lover of God's Sovereignty with Tears for the Lost 153
26 Apostle of the Happy God and the Hard Life of Spreading Joy 159
27 Admitting Imperfections and Turning Them for Love 165
28 Unrivaled Success as a Missionary, with No Conceit 169
29 The Pursuit of Pure Doctrine and Passion for the Poor 175
Part 7 The Best Gift Paul Could Give
30 The Greatest Chapter in the Bible and the Most Important Promise in My Life 183
A Filial Commendation: Paul's Christ-Embodying Love for Me 191
General Index 195
Scripture Index 199
Desiring God Note on Resources 205
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Why I Love the Apostle Paul by John Piper was to me a thought-provoking book. I just loved it. He breaks his thoughts on the matter up into 30 reasons of why he loves Paul and how these truths minister to him as he faces life. To follow his train of thought, to me, was quite a trip. I found myself nodding my head yes as I read. Piper speaks of why Paul is SO crucial to consider and reflect on for the Christian faith. One of the things I’ve always loved most of Piper’s writing and speaking is that he uses Scripture all the time and that’s definitely the case in this book as well. It’s full of Truth. Would be a great 30-day devotional in my opinion. I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.