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PAUL'S GREATEST MISTAKE

By Curtis Pugh

The fact that a man was an apostle did not make him perfect. Apostleship does not mean that a man was free from mistakes. Like He does with all of His true children, God teaches His children through their mistakes so that they cease from making them. This is a part of chastening “of whom all [sons] are partakers” (Hebrews 12:8). (Obviously from the context the word “all” there means all the “sons” for those identified as illegitimate sons are not chastened.) Neither did inspiration make an inspired writer perfect for it is the Scriptures that are inspired and not the men. The Scriptures are, literally, the breathing of God while “...holy men of God spake as they were moved [borne along] by the Holy Ghost,” (2 Peter 1:21). Thus carried along by the Holy Spirit what they wrote was free from error.

Let me offer further proof that apostleship did not keep men from making mistakes. In Acts 14:14 both Paul and Barnabas are plainly stated to have been apostles. And yet the Bible records a disagreement between those two apostles that was so great they parted ways. It is written: “And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God,” (Acts 15:37-40).

Which of these two apostles was at fault? Were both at fault? The Bible says “Barnabas determined to take Mark” and “Paul thought not good to take him with them.” John Mark was the young nephew of Barnabas. Paul's reason for opposing Barnabas on this matter was that on their previous evangelistic journey John Mark had come back home before the trip was completed. Evidently Paul thought him to be undependable and untrustworthy. This event was described as a contention that “was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other.” The Greek word for contention has come across to us in English and is “paroxysm.” Medically a paroxysm is a “fit” otherwise the word means “a sudden strong feeling or expression of emotion that cannot be controlled.” Did these two apostles lose control over this matter? Strong uncontrolled feelings between two apostles: somebody was at fault. Somebody made a mistake. Perhaps both Barnabas and Paul were at fault. By the way, later Paul would write to Timothy and say, “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry,” (2 Timothy 4:11). The breach of fellowship was repaired after a time and John Mark was said to be “profitable.”

Other mistakes of apostles could be cited, for instance when both Barnabas and Peter were carried away with the Judaizers being confronted by the circumcision party. (See Galatians 2:11-14). This is the instance where Paul withstood Peter to his face in rebuking him. Both the apostles, Barnabas and Peter were to be blamed for their mistake.

Having shown that apostleship did not guarantee that an apostle could not make a mistake let us go on to consider what this preacher believes was Paul's greatest mistake and one from which he learned: and one from which all God's men and His churches should learn. For a full reading of the scriptural context you may wish to read Acts 17:16 – 18:18. It is mostly from these verses that we shall quote.

Early on in Paul's first evangelistic tour he came to Athens. We are told: “Now while Paul waited for them [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons [Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion], and in the market daily with them that met with him,” (Acts 17:16-17). Certain persons who were considered philosophers took note of Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. This was said to be the highest court in Athens. There they began to question him about his doctrine.

It should be noted that these pagan Athenians were nothing more than what appears to have been a group of intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals for we read about them: “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing,” (Acts 17:21). Novel ideas were their entertainment. They were not serious about the truth and certainly not the things of God. In this case Paul was their entertainment for the moment.

Paul begins to reason with these men by stating that he was preaching to them about the “unknown God” whose altar he had seen by the way. An analysis of his sermon, if it can rightly be called that, shows it to be human reasoning, philosophy and intellectual in its approach until Paul reaches the teaching of the resurrection. In his sermon Paul quotes from one of the pagan Athenian poets, but never quotes the Scriptures. This is noteworthy. What he says is true, but his preaching was an intellectual approach wherein he tried to reason with these men. The result of his sermonizing in this way was that the doctrine of the resurrection was mocked. Only a few, it seems, “clave unto him and believed.” Soon after this we are told “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth,” (Acts 18:1). No church was founded in Athens. It seems that Paul's assessment of the situation in Athens was that he had failed. This preacher believes that the Lord impressed upon Paul the futility of trying to make converts by the intellectual approach. Human means cannot produce spiritual results!

Upon his arrival in Corinth, the next city on his tour, Paul joins himself to two other tent makers, laboring with Aquila and Priscilla, and began reasoning in conversation with both Jews and Greeks in the synagogue. The word used for “reasoned” is “dialegomai” akin to our English word dialogue. But after Silas and Timothy caught up with him there in Corinth we read that “Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ,” (Acts 18:5). Upon the arrival of his co-workers, Paul begins to openly preach. The result of his preaching that Jesus was the Messiah (for that is the meaning of the word Christ) was that the majority of the Jews in that place turned against him. This is the point at which Paul turned to the Gentiles and gathered a congregation made up of both a few Jews and a majority of Gentiles. After spending a year and six months there (Acts 18:11 and “after this tarried there yet a good while,” Acts 18:18). Paul then left an established congregation properly organized under the authority of the congregation that sent him out. (See Acts 13:1-4).

Later Paul would write to this congregation in Corinth. He would remind them of his behavior among them from the first until he left them. His words were these: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: {enticing: or, persuasible } That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God,” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 complete with KJV marginal note).

The depth of meaning behind Paul's words can only be fully understood and appreciated if we consider his words in light of the mistake he had made in Athens. Immediately after leaving Athens he came to Corinth with a determination “not to know any thing” among them “save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He reminded the Corinthians that he “came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.” He simply declared unto them “the testimony of God.” Surely this means he cited the Scriptures as proof for his teaching. His words were not “persuasible” (KJV margin). Merriam Webster says “persuasible” means persuadable. Paul did not make use of human reasoning, philosophy, psychology, or any other means to attempt to persuade the Corinthians. He simply preached to them “the testimony of God.” Had he used human persuasion his converts would have been the result of human reasoning. He refused to do that. Rather he preached Christ: i.e. that Jesus is the Messiah.

Dear ones in Christ: if the simple preaching of the Word of God will not convert the sinner whom God regenerates: if it will not accomplish what God wants to accomplish we most certainly shall not do it by human means. A significant number of Baptist preachers of various Baptist subspecies have become seminary trained in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and have entered Baptist pulpits as men capable of artificial motivation by various means. Coupled with musical entertainment and a host of worldly methods they have met with little success if success is measured by the faithful devotion of their converts to Christ and holy living. A few have maintained super-size congregations by enticing the passing numbers of the religious herd that comes and goes from year to year as they tire of religious entertainment and other things appeal to them. While all this is going on the sheep hunger and are scattered on the mountains. Can you not view them as Jesus did? “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36).

Thank God for the few men, God's men, who search the Scriptures seeking manna with which to feed the flock over which God has made them overseers. Thank God that Paul saw his mistake in Athens and carried out his determination to preach the Word of God, letting the chips fall where they may. And there were others in Paul's day and since – down through the centuries – men who have faithfully taught God's Word, having compassion on the scattered sheep and concern for the glory of God and His Christ!

God's men may not be many today, but they shall be mighty as long as they preach the mighty Word of God. Brethren: “...though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;),” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). Let us ever flee from any taint of the methodology of this world that we might be faithful ministers of Christ!


Grace Bible Baptist Church
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Denham Springs, LA 70726

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