Paul – His Self-Conception,
His Message, and His Mission


Douglas G. Gilliland


Table of Contents

Introduction *

Thesis *

The Church – Self-Identification and External Images *

Jewish Sects in the New Testament Era *

Political/Religious Sects *

Messianic Expectations *

The Self Image of the Church *

The Image of the Church from Judaism outside of the Church *

The Image of the Church from the Outside World *

Geographical Identification *

The Central Theme of Paul *

Centrality of the Gospel Message *

Centrality of the Crucifixion within the Gospel Message *

Centrality of the Person and Work of Jesus at the Crucifixion *

Paul - Theologian, Pastor, or Missionary? *

Saul – Opposer of the Gospel *

Paul –Student of the Holy Spirit *

Paul as Theologian *

Paul – Teacher and Prophet *

Paul - Evangelist *

Paul - Pastor *

Paul – Missionary *

Conclusion *

Bibliography *


This paper addresses several issues. The first issue is the relationship of Paul to the Judaism of his day. The central question addressed is; "Is Paul a Jew for whom the Church is an emerging, new "Jewish" reality or is Paul a "Christian" who is very conscious of his distance from Judaism?

Also, the center and "organizing structure" of Paul’s thought will be analyzed.

Finally, the question of whether Paul is essentially a reflective theologian, a pastoral leader, or a missionary will be considered.


This paper makes the case that Paul is a central figure in a select sect well within the bounds of Judaism of his day. Paul’s important role as the founder of various churches is central to the spread of the faith to the various urban cities of the eastern Mediterranean.

The central theme of Paul is shown to be Christ.

Finally, Paul’s first century role as missionary is emphasized.


The Church – Self-Identification and External Images

There are three basic points of perspective on the identity of the church in the first century. These perspectives are from inside the church, from inside of Judaism but outside the church, and as viewed from the external culture. The subtleties of each of these views are examined in the following sections. For the most part, the church was viewed from both the inside and the outside perspectives as a Jewish sect. There were some important areas of differentiation between the church and the rest of Judaism, though.


Jewish Sects in the New Testament Era

In the New Testament timeframe, Judaism had a number of sub-factions. The New Testament lists these as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians. Extra-biblical sources list the Essenes as an exclusivist sect of that era. Each had characteristic beliefs. Some were separatists. Others were part of the ruling elite. The point is that is was no unusual to have sects within Judaism.

The Pharisees were pleased when Jesus refuted the Sadducees on the issue of the resurrection. However, this relationship was not long lasting. Jesus was gathering disciples and weakening the power of the Pharisee and Sadducees. The alliance of these Sadducees and Pharisees for the purpose of killing Jesus was a common ground that they shared


Political/Religious Sects

Some of the sects were political and others were religious. Most were probably a mix of both political and religious. There was a widespread belief by the Jews that the Messiah would be a political figure. This belief was part of the expectation of the apostles even after the resurrection. Thus, there were a number of false messiahs that led people into military acts against the Roman rulers.


Messianic Expectations

There were high expectations of the coming of the Messiah at the time, as well. The church viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of those Messianic expectations. Jesus had explicitly identified Himself as the Messiah.


The Self Image of the Church

Paul considered himself to be a Jew. Paul viewed the church as the faithful remnant of Israel. For the people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, their faith was viewed as the culmination of the Jewish religion. The rest of Judaism had been cut off from God, because they caused Jesus to be put to death.

The book of Acts shows that Paul preached Christ in the synagogues from the Jewish Scriptures. Paul could not have done this if he was not considered to be a Jew.


The Image of the Church from Judaism outside of the Church

The church continued to be persecuted from the rest of Judaism in its early history although there were some elements within Judaism that argued for tolerance.

Paul used the internal divisions within Judaism to gain the alliance with the Pharisees against the Sadducees when he was persecuted thus avoiding prosecution from the Roman authorities for himself. Paul stated that he was on trial for his belief in the resurrection (as held by the Pharisees), although the real issue was that Paul preached Christ. The church was viewed by many of those in Judaism as a heretical sect. Paul had papers from the High Priest to imprison, for the purpose of putting to death, believers in the way. The same division between the common people and the leaders of the Jews existed in the early church that had existed between the leaders and Jesus. Just as the common people followed Jesus, many of the common people followed the way. The leaders continued their persecution that had reached it’s final point in the crucifixion of Jesus.


The Image of the Church from the Outside World

There was little discernment from outside of Judaism of the differences between the church and the rest of Judaism, but there was an interest in understanding what the dispute was all about. As mentioned Paul used the internal differences that already existed in Judaism to his advantage when he was being persecuted by the Jews to paint himself to the Roman authorities> Paul painted himself as merely holding one of the sides of an internal religious dispute. The Romans did not want to get in the middle of settling religious disputes.

In Antioch, the people of the church were known as Christians, most probably a term of derision referring to the ignoble death of Jesus . Even with this distinct identification, there’s no indication that they were not viewed by those outside of Judaism as anything other than a Jewish sect.


Geographical Identification

The issue of geographical identification is important since this forms a crucial aspect of the identification of the church from outside of Judaism. At one point, the church itself was known as the sect of the Nazarenes and thus was considered a sect within Judaism. This identification was because Jesus was a resident of Nazareth, a city of Galilee (although his ancestral connection to Jerusalem/Bethlehem is demonstrated in the Gospel accounts). During his ministry, Jesus had been closely identified with Galilean Judaism. Jesus preached in the synagogues of Galilee. The issue of regional identification was important in determining who had jurisdiction over the trial of Jesus. Finally, the promised resurrection appearances had occurred in Galilee.

Similarly, the early church shared in the identification as Galileans. For the most part, this was due to the early leadership being Galileans. Among the Jews, there was a general expectation that the Messiah would not be a Galilean and this formed a key part of the Jewish apologetic against the way. Yet, there is a reference in the prophets to Galilee.


The Central Theme of Paul

Paul is intensely Christ-centered. The central theme of Paul’s preaching and writings is the role of Jesus in the economy of God. The life of Christ was at the central to Paul’s preaching.


Centrality of the Gospel Message

In some of his earliest writings, Paul clearly identifies his central message.

1 Cor 15:1-7 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that:

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

And that he was buried,

and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once;

(of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.)

After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.


Centrality of the Crucifixion within the Gospel Message

Paul placed the death of Christ as the keystone of his apostolic message. The key event in the life of Christ, for Paul, was Christ’s crucifixion and the resurrection that followed. For Paul, the message of the death and resurrection of Christ was more than merely an historical anomaly. The resurrection of Christ was to become the center of Paul’s life. In this way, the life of Christ became the life of Paul.

Centrality of the Person and Work of Jesus at the Crucifixion

Paul‘s message of reconciliation was for the entire world. The reconciliation that God had done in sending His Son to die was the message that Paul was to carry to the world.


Paul - Theologian, Pastor, or Missionary?

Paul was a unique person with a unique calling from God. At various times in his life he operated in various functions within the church. The dominant role of Paul’s ministry was that of missionary to the Gentiles. This paper examines each of the roles Paul played as well as offers reasons for why missionary was Paul’s dominant role.


Saul – Opposer of the Gospel

Prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had opposed the church. Paul carried papers from the Saducean High Priest for the purpose of arresting those who had become followers of the way. Saul had participated in putting to death Stephen, the first martyr.

Paul –Student of the Holy Spirit

Paul’s bona fides were based on his independence from the rest of the apostles. Paul claimed to have not received his gospel from any man, but from the Holy Spirit.


Paul as Theologian

From our late 20th century perspective, Paul appears primarily as a theologian. That’s the picture that we get from his letters when we look for answers to our theological questions in them. After all, Paul had the best theological training of his day, from Gamaliel. Although, Paul did write at least some of the contents of his letters to settle the live theological issues of his day, that was not the primary purpose of the letters. The ministries of evangelist, pastor, teacher, and missionary are all a part of the job description of the apostle. The primary task was missionary.

The difficulty in determining the central role of Paul is due to his gifting as an apostle. An apostle is given all of the ministry gifts of the Holy Spirit and operates in each of them to some degree. The other apostles had been commissioned by Christ and saw the scope of their ministry (as recorded in the New Testament) to be to the Jews primarily. It took repeated miracles to show them that God wanted the Gospel to go to the Gentiles. Although the Jewish apostles accepted in principle the conversion of the Gentiles, they did not make it their mission. It took Hellenistic believers to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.


Paul – Teacher and Prophet

Prior to going out as a missionary, Paul was in the church at Antioch operating in the capacity of prophet and teacher. From Antioch the Holy Spirit re-confirmed Paul’s calling out to be a missionary. From Antioch, Paul was sent out as a missionary.


Paul - Evangelist

Paul identified himself as a preacher of the gospel. This is a theme of his writing that is repeated again and again. In fact, Paul’s first actions after conversion were to go into the synagogue at Damascus and preach Jesus as the Messiah.


Paul - Pastor

Paul’s pastoral care for those who he had brought to Christ motivated many of his epistles. Paul was a church planting missionary to the Gentiles and was not even known by face to the Judeans. Paul was the leader of the churches he founded. After Paul left the cities, he went back to them to visit them. Paul also appointed elders to rule over the churches in his absence.


Paul – Missionary

At his calling by Christ, Paul was prophetically told that he would preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, Rulers, and to the Jews. As mentioned, the Holy Spirit sent out Paul as a missionary, from the church at Antioch. Paul’s particular mission emphasis was to reach people who had never before heard the gospel. Eventually, Paul could state that he had preached from Jerusalem to Ilyricum.

Paul had the habit of preaching to the Jews in the synagogue when he went into a new town as well as preaching to the Gentiles. When Paul reached a dead-end with preaching to the Jews, he shook the dust off his feet and took the Gospel to the Gentiles alone. Paul concentrated missionary efforts on four of the most populous and prosperous provinces, Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia.

Paul spent extended periods in some particular locations. For instance, he was in Corinth for eighteen months. This was not an invalidation of his missionary calling, it demonstrates the need to disciple the people he had led to Christ.

Fred Jonkman presents nine emphasis of Paul’s missionary life:

1 – Paul confines his efforts to four provinces.

2 – Paul chose large cities as strategic centers.

3 – Paul made the synagogue the scene of his initial labors.

4 – Paul preferred to preach to a responsive people.

5 – Paul maintains contact with the sending church.

6 – Paul planted churches.

7 – Paul made use of fellow workers in the gospel.

8 – Paul became all things to all men.

9 – Paul was an adept communicator of an unchanging message.




This paper made the case that Paul is a central figure in a select sect well within the bounds of Judaism of his day. Paul’s important role as the founder of various churches was shown to be central to the spread of the faith to the various urban cities of the eastern Mediterranean. While the Jews viewed Paul as a heretic from the Jewish faith, Paul was well within the interpretive limits of the day in his doctrine. The differentiation was Christ.

The central theme of Paul was shown to be Christ. This is shown in the words of Paul which were clearly focused on the person of Christ.

Although Paul operated as a pastor, evangelist and a theologian, primarily Paul was a self- supporting missionary earning his living as a tentmaker.



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Banks, Robert. Paul’s Idea of Community. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).

Barrett, C. K, Paul: An Introduction to His Thought. (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Jonkman, Fred. On the World Wide Web at: pages/missionary methods.htm

Keener, Craig S. Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1993).

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983).

Murphy-O-Connor, Paul the Letter-writer: His World, His Options, His Skills. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995).

Orr, James. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1939).