A Portrait of the Apostle Paul

This week I was drawn to the 2nd chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Four things stood out as a kind of portrait of the Apostle Paul. He was a traveler, a mother, a laborer and a father. These traits provide a new way of thinking about Paul that helps me appreciate him better. See 1 Thess 2:1-12.

Traveler.  It’s easy to forget where Paul traveled and how much he traveled. Take a moment and look at this map to observe where and how broadly Paul traveled in his zeal to proclaim the Gospel. Three main journeys, from the years 47-64 AD, spanning the known Eastern world at the time. It’s remarkable the lengths to which this brave, committed man went – by boat, by horseback and on foot. In this way, he tirelessly laid the foundation of so much of our Christian faith. 

Paul Travels map

Mother. Paul is writing to the young church in Thessalonica, where he has recently visited. I could have addressed you based on my authority as an apostle, he says in verse 7. But, instead, Paul reminds them he was gentle with them, the way a nursing mother tenderly cares for her child. It’s quite an image. Paul, the confident, authoritative former Pharisee who had a direct vision of the risen Jesus and numerous mystical experiences, speaking to a young Christian community in Thessalonica in all tenderness. He reminds them he behaved with them more like a nursing mother than a professor or a doctor or an apostle. Tenderness and gentleness are the marks of his evangelism: 

“Although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ . . . we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother who tenderly cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” (1 Thess 2:6-7)

Laborer. The next trait that strikes me comes in verse 9. We know from other Scriptures that it was considered normal for evangelists to be paid some kind of wage for their work. But not with Paul. “You recall, brothers, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Paul felt it a priority to continue his trade as a tent maker while he traveled. To earn his keep so as not to impose a burden on those who listened to him. Paul wanted his hearers to receive the gospel as a free gift. It’s an incredible practice from a man who went to such lengths in his evangelical labors – all free of charge. It’s also a beautiful testimony to the dignity of human labor. Even the great Paul worked with his hands to provide for his needs.

Father. There is one more characteristic Paul cites that describes his relationship with the Thessalonians: the role of father. “As you know,” he writes, “we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:11-12). This verse underscores the firmness and strength that a father shows to his children. It completes the portrait we have of Paul, as evangelist, and helps us understand his extraordinary fruitfulness as a founder of Christian communities. 

Paul was a tireless traveler and laborer, tender as a nursing mother, and firm as a loving father. I like these four ways of thinking of the apostle Paul. They soften and complete the image we often have of him. 

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