1. Week One: A Surprising Runner
Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:14b-17 NLT
To be frank, I’m not a runner, and I have no desire to begin running. But I want to understand it since the apostle Paul often pictures the Christian life as a race, using athletic terminology to represent what it looks like to follow Jesus.
Because considering the lives of other Christians can help us learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we’ll watch Paul run for the next few weeks. Our purpose isn’t to learn ABOUT Paul but to learn FROM him about Jesus and how to faithfully follow him.
It’s usually best to start a story from the beginning. How did Paul get into this race? That’s our topic this week. Even if you’re familiar with his story, consider it from the perspective of those who knew him before he encountered Jesus. What a surprise to them that Paul was now running after Jesus!
Part One Study
Who was Paul? What do we know about his background?
The Hebrew name Saul is used in the early chapters of Acts for the apostle we call Paul. Luke, the historian who wrote the book of Acts, refers to him as “Saul, who was also called Paul” (Acts 13:9). Being of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin, his parents named their son after King Saul, the tribe’s most well-known member. Saul was his Hebrew name while Paul was likely his Roman ancestral name.11 Luke began calling him Paul when his ministry focus turned to the Gentile world.
Although he was a Jew, Paul was of the diaspora, those born outside of Israel, as he identified himself to a crowd in Jerusalem: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3 ESV). In Acts 16:37 Paul identifies himself as a Roman citizen. “Roman citizenship in the provinces in this period was a mark of high status (especially because Paul’s family was from Tarsus, not a Roman colony, and thus must have received it for special service or as freedpersons of a well-to-do Roman.)”2
Tarsus was located in the southeast corner of modern Turkey. With that background, Paul “is thus completely at home in the worlds of both Jewish story and non-Jewish philosophy,”3 making him God’s perfect choice as his witness to the Gentile (non-Jew) world.
Keep that culture in mind as we consider what else we learn about Paul’s background.
Read Philippians 3:5-7 And Comment On These Questions:
- In that day “a person’s identity was wrapped up in the reputation of his or her family, community, and people group.” Honor from one’s social group defined success.4 Why would Paul’s background impress his social group?
- What in your background—family, hometown, education, etc. tempts you to hold on to your “resume” rather than trust God alone?
- What positives in your life have you or would you have to leave behind to fully follow Jesus? Any thoughts about what that would look like?
*** Research Gamaliel, Tarsus, and/or the Pharisees, recording your thoughts.
Part Two Study
We’ll start this section by reading the first biblical mention of Saul. What seems like only a passing remark at the end of the story of Stephen in Acts 7:58 becomes extremely relevant once Luke begins to focus on Paul’s story later in Acts.
Read Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:51-8:3. Read Also Paul’s Description Of Himself In Acts 22:1-5 And Galatians 1:13-14 As You Consider This Question:
- Considering Saul’s background and actions, what is most interesting or noticeable to you about him from these passages?
Paul repeats the word zeal or zealous to describe what led him to persecute the church in Acts 22, Galatians and Philippians, (yesterday’s reading). In our day the word means “PASSION, ardor, love, fervor, fire, avidity, devotion, enthusiasm, eagerness, keenness, appetite, relish, gusto, vigor, energy, intensity; fanaticism.”5 I generally think of it as passionate devotion, but zeal in Israelite tradition involved “actual violence, not just strong emotion.”6
N.T. Wright comments: “. . . one of the solid things that we know about young Saul—[he] followed the ancient tradition of ‘zeal.’ Violence would be necessary to root out wickedness from Israel.”7
The Israelite tradition of zeal began with Phinehas, Aaron’s son, whose zealous actions in killing a couple guilty of sexual immorality stopped a plague in Israel’s camp. The other Old Testament zealot was the prophet Elijah. Wright says about his story, “Most of the Israelites had started to worship Baal, a Canaanite fertility god. …… Step forward the prophet Elijah. He lured the Baal worshippers into a contest that Israel’s God won, and he had the whole lot killed. Once again, great zeal and a great victory.”8
*** Read about Phinehas, “the hero of zeal”9 in Numbers 25:1-13, and note God’s comments about his zeal. If time permits, check out Elijah’s victory in 1 Kings 18:20-40. Journal your thoughts.
With all that in mind, write down your thoughts on these questions:
- Obviously zeal for God was considered positive. What motivates such strong emotions? Consider how you confront the idolatry in your own heart and that common to your church culture. What would it look like if you were motivated as Paul was?
- What is God saying to you today?
Part Three Study
- Acts picks up Paul’s story again three or four years after Jesus’s resurrection (about A.D. 34). Read Acts 9:1-19a, and respond to these questions:
- In light of what you’ve previously read about Paul, what does this story reveal about God— his character and/or his actions?
- Meditate on this week’s Soul Food, our verses for this week (2 Corinthians 5:14-17), and write down your thoughts and any parallels you see between your story and Saul’s.
- How do you sense God encouraging you through this story as you look at your own failures and mistakes?
*** Read one or both of Paul’s own accounts of this event in Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:4-23. Journal any additional insights that you gain.
Are you a Christ-follower? If not, God is reaching out to you in his great love. The journey to faith is different for each of us. Some of us, like Saul, are religious and believe that we’re serving God. And yet we don’t believe that Jesus is God himself who became man so he could die and bring us to God, proving his divinity by his resurrection. Maybe you’re sensing that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that he wants you to follow him. He greatly desires that you turn from seeking life apart from him, going your own way instead of God’s. Jesus died to reconcile you to the great Creator God who loves you and wants you to come home to him where true life and peace await.
Talk to God about it, contact your small group leader, or email me at [email protected].
Each week we share a true story that connects to the week’s study. This one is from Kay H.
A Runner’s Story: Kay H
Who was it who said, “Our part is to run away from God as far and as fast as we can and God’s part is to come after us and save us,” or something like that? Well, that’s what I was doing and that’s what God did. It’s surprising that God chose me because before he did I didn’t know anything about him and I really wasn’t making any effort to find out.
At the time I left home for college I had been to church only a handful of times in my life. I had never even read, much less studied the Bible. My thoughts about God and religion were purely philosophical. I had never heard the gospel, at least that I can remember. I definitely had no understanding of what a “personal relationship with God” meant. In fact, I really had no interest in God at all. Never mind—he was interested in me anyway.
At school I was suddenly surrounded by people who had something I didn’t—a relationship with God that was real and personal, based on knowing him from the Bible and a belief in his Son Jesus who died to take away their sin and rose again to eternal life. At first when they tried to talk to me about it, I either ridiculed them or just literally shut the door in their faces. I argued and debated, and I thought I had all the right intellectual answers based on good reason and logic.
My testimony could be something like Paul’s: I thought I was pretty smart. In a worldly sense most people might have agreed with me. But God wasn’t impressed. He knew my reasoning and logic couldn’t come close to his wisdom. Now I see that what was once my greatest source of pride and accomplishment actually caused me the greatest sense of shame and humility. But thanks be to God, he hadn’t given up on me and his grace was bigger than my sinfulness, pride and stupidity.
Despite my stubbornness and refusal to listen to most of the people who tried to talk to me, God was breaking down my resistance and beginning to speak to me through a few individuals. Through their prayers with and for me (which I met at first with “Sure you can pray for me. I don’t think it will do any good, but if it makes you happy knock yourself out.”), kindness, and even time talking to me about what the Bible really says, God eventually showed me that he’s real, and it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks about him. He also showed me that I’m a sinner and his Son Jesus is the only one who is uniquely qualified to take away my sin, and that he did. It surprised a lot of people when I stood up at a campus evangelistic meeting and declared my faith in Jesus Christ, but it didn’t surprise God. He had plans for me.
Would anybody from my past be surprised to see me following Christ and spending my time and energy on his activities rather than the things that motivated me before? Yes, pretty much everyone who ever knew me would be! That fact has caused some painful conversations over the years, but it’s also created some great opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away —look, what is new has come!”
1 David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, E. Randolph Richards, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, 2nd Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 41.
2 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 370.
3 N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), 17.