For l am the least of the apostles…But by the grace of God I am what I am….

1 CORINTHIANS 15:9, 10

Every humble and devoted believer in Jesus Christ must have his own periods of wonder and amazement at this mystery of godliness—the willingness of the Son of Man to take our place in judgment so that the people of God could be a cleansed and spiritual people!

If the amazement has all gone out of it, something is wrong, and you need to have the stony ground broken up again!

The Apostle Paul, one of the holiest men who ever lived, was not ashamed of his times of remembrance and wonder over the grace and kindness of God. He knew that God did not hold his old sins against him forever!

Knowing the old account was all settled, Paul’s happy heart assured him again and again that all was well.

He could only shake his head in amazement and confess: “I am unworthy to be called, but by His grace, I am a new creation in Jesus Christ!”

I make this point about the faith and assurance and rejoicing of Paul in order to say that if that humble sense of perpetual penance ever leaves our justified being, we are on the way to backsliding![1]

The Testimony of a Special Witness

And last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. (15:8–10)

The fourth major testimony of Christ’s resurrection was that of the apostle Paul himself, a special and unique witness of the risen Lord. Paul was not among the original apostles, all of whom had been disciples of Jesus during His earthly ministry. He was not among the five hundred other believers who had seen the resurrected Christ. Rather, he had for many years been an unbeliever and a chief persecutor of the church.

He was, however, last of all allowed to see the risen Christ. The Lord’s appearance to Paul not only was post-resurrection but post-ascension, making Paul’s testimony more unique still. It was not during the forty days in which He appeared to all the others but several years later. All the others to whom Christ appeared, except perhaps James, were believers, whereas Paul (then known as Saul) was a violent, hateful unbeliever when the Lord manifested Himself on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1–8). There were also other appearances (Acts 18:9–10; 23:11; cf. 2 Cor. 12:1–7).

Jesus appeared to Paul as it were to one untimely born. Ektrōma (untimely born) ordinarily referred to an abortion, miscarriage, or premature birth—a life unable to sustain itself. In Paul’s figure, the term could indicate hopelessness for life without divine intervention, and convey the idea that he was born without hope of meeting Christ. But the use of the term in the sense of an ill–timed birth, too early or too late, seems to fit Paul’s thought best. He came too late to have been one of the twelve. In carrying the idea of unformed, dead, and useless, the term was also used as a term of derision. Before his conversion, which coincided with his vision of the resurrected Lord, Paul was spiritually unformed, dead, and useless, a person to be scorned by God. Even when he was born it was wrong timing. Christ was gone. How could he be an apostle? Yet, by special divine provision, He appeared to me also, Paul testifies.

Though Paul never doubted his apostleship or hesitated to use the authority that office brought, he also never ceased to be amazed that, of all persons, Christ would have called him to that high position. He not only considered himself to be the least of the apostles, but not even fit to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God.

Paul knew all of his sins were forgiven, and he was not plagued by feelings of guilt over what he had once done against God’s people. But he could not forget that for which he had been forgiven, and it continually reminded him that by the grace of God I am what I am. That he deserved God’s forgiveness so little was a constant reminder of how graciously His grace is given.

It is possible that Paul’s memory of having persecuted the church of God was a powerful motivation for his being determined that His grace would not prove vain. (Compare his testimony in 1 Tim. 1:12–17.) As is clearly substantiated in the New Testament, Paul was able to truthfully say, I labored even more than all of them. (Compare his commitment as chronicled in 2 Cor. 11:23—12:12.) Yet he was not boasting in his own spirituality or power but in God’s, because, as he hastened to add, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. The same grace responsible for his calling was responsible for his faithfulness. God sovereignly appointed Paul an apostle and sovereignly blessed his apostolic ministry. Paul believed, responded, obeyed, and was continually sensitive to the Lord’s leading and will. But apart from God’s prevenient grace the apostle knew that everything he did would have been in vain and worthless (cf. Eph. 4:15–16; Col. 1:28–29; etc.).

The truth and power of the resurrected Christ had brought three great changes in Paul. First was deep recognition of sin. For the first time he realized how far his external religious life was from being internally godly. He saw himself as he really was, an enemy of God and a persecutor of His church. Second, he experienced a revolution of character. From a persecutor of the church he became her greatest defender. His life was transformed from one characterized by self–righteous hatred to one characterized by self–giving love. He changed from oppressor to servant, from imprisoner to deliverer, from judge to friend, from a taker of life to a giver of life. Third, he experienced a dramatic redirection of energy. As zealously as he had once opposed God’s redeemed he now served them.[2]

9–10 Paul goes on to admit that he was totally unworthy to have this special appearance from the risen Lord and certainly did not have the right to become an apostle, for he had been one of the key persecutors of “the church of God” (see Ac 8:1; 9:1–2; Gal 1:13–14). But solely “by the grace of God” (v. 10) was his life turned around so that he became what he eventually became—an apostle preaching God’s word of salvation to the Gentiles. In other words, Paul’s experience of God’s grace was not in vain (“not without effect”).

In fact, whether out of guilt or because of eagerness to spread the gospel, Paul worked harder than any of the other apostles to fulfill the mission assigned to him. Then for the third time in v. 10 Paul uses charis (“grace,” GK 5921), since he knew whatever good he was doing for the Lord was a result of God’s grace working in and through him. Paul—saved by grace and ministering by grace![3]

15:9 As the apostle thinks of the privilege he had of meeting the Savior face to face, he is filled with a spirit of unworthiness. He thinks of how he persecuted the church of God and how, in spite of that, the Lord called him to be an apostle. Therefore he bows himself in the dust as the least of the apostles, and not worthy to be called an apostle.

15:10 He hastens to acknowledge that whatever he now is, he is by the grace of God. And he did not accept this grace as a matter of fact. Rather it put him under the deepest obligation, and he labored tirelessly to serve the Christ who saved him. Yet in a very real sense it was not Paul himself, but the grace of God which was working with him.[4]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 404–406). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 393). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1804). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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