Paul as a Witness of the Work of God

By Ted L. Gibbons

Ted L. Gibbons, “Paul as a Witness of the Work of God,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 27–40.

Paul as a Witness of the Work of God

Ted L. Gibbons

 

Ted L. Gibbons was an instructor at the Utah State Valley College Institute of Religion when this was published.

 

The life of Paul following his conversion allows us to learn significant lessons about what it means to stand as a witness of God “at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9). In Paul we find a powerful witness of God. Like Alma [1] and the sons of Mosiah, he threw himself into the work of being a witness in the most hostile of environments.

Following his return to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey, Paul threw much of Jerusalem into an uproar. There Paul was falsely accused of defiling the temple, and the people dragged him out therefrom with the intent to kill him. After his rescue by Lysius and a band of Roman soldiers, Paul asked permission to do what he had been commissioned to do: “I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people” (Acts 21:39). He was then permitted to address the hostile crowd who had assembled.

Standing on the stairs to the castle, [2] speaking to people eager for his death, Paul recounted his conversion and his calling. He told the people that following three days of blindness and fasting, Ananias had come to him, healed him, and said:

“The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.

“For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard” (Acts 22:14–15).

Thus Ananias summarized Paul’s life: he would know God’s will and see His Son and hear His word, and he would be God’s witness “unto all men.” Ananias followed his prophetic call with a challenge: “Why tarriest thou?” (Acts 22:16). Paul never tarried again. He “received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized” (Acts 9:18), spent a few days with the disciples in Damascus, and “straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Thus began Paul’s ministry, a ministry motivated by his testimony of Christ and by his determination to be a witness of Him “at all times and in all things, and in all places.”

A Witness of God at All Times

During the final months of the Savior’s ministry, “there was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people. Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews” (John 7:12–13).

Jesus Himself warned His followers of the consequences of their unwillingness to be His witnesses in front of His enemies.

“Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God.

“But he who denieth me before men, shall be denied before the angels of God.

“Now his disciples knew that he said this, because they had spoken evil against him before the people; for they were afraid to confess him before men” (JST Luke 12:8–10).

In our own day the Lord has added this instruction: “But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them” (D&C 60:2).

The Lord warned His disciples that even their longing for personal safety must not cause them to shut their mouths in fear. No such admonition was necessary for Paul. He never sought a safer environment on his own, but at least eight times in the book of Acts when Paul was in danger, the disciples tried to move him out of harm’s way. [3] The Lord had commanded him: “Speak, and hold not thy peace” (Acts 18:9). And that is what he did for the final thirty years of his life, regardless of personal danger.

Paul did not believe in sabbaticals. He learned what he was expected and able to do, and he got it done. His continual witness was one of undiluted commitment. He imparted the same sense of duty to Timothy, his own disciple: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).

The circumstances in which Paul found himself were never a limiting factor, nor were the dangers. If something needed to be said, Paul said it. When personal conversation was impractical or impossible, Paul wrote letters.

But at the time of his conversion, such power and potential were not apparent. When the Lord called Ananias to heal Saul, Ananias debated the issue. “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name” (Acts 9:13–14). The concerns of Ananias were justifiable. No reasonable person would encourage a wolf to dwell with the sheep, and Saul had been a wolf. He made “havock of the church” in Jerusalem, “entering into every house, and haling [compelling] men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). Paul’s repeated invasion of Christian homes and his arrest and incarceration of Christian believers is a heartrending image—an image that must have haunted and motivated him through all the years of his discipleship. And Ananias knew Saul had come to Damascus, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).

However, Ananias learned, as would so many others, that Saul was a “chosen vessel unto [the Lord]” (Acts 9:15) who would suffer great things for the name of Christ (Acts 9:16). This reality was as invisible to Ananias as it would have been to all of us. Hugh Nibley described the problem of being unable to see the hearts of people:

“The gospel of repentance is a constant reminder that . . . the most wicked are not yet beyond redemption and may still be saved. And that is what God wants: ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ (Ezekiel 18:23). There are poles for all to see, but in this life no one has reached and few have ever approached either pole and no one has any idea at what point between his neighbor stands. Only God knows that.” [4]

God knew Paul. He knew what Paul was and what he could become, and even though the potential hidden in this tentmaker’s son was at first imperceptible to Ananias, it was nevertheless real. Paul knew that what God had found embodied in him might also be veiled in the hearts of others. Therefore, as Paul demonstrated on the stairs of the Antonia Fortress, he was determined to deliver his witness to everybody at all times. This courageous approach has always typified the greatest missionaries among us: those who have marched into danger armed with the word and their witness, determined to teach the truth. The following events from the missionary journeys of Paul confirm that he was prepared to stand as a witness of God at all times.

• In the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, after the reading of the law and the prophets, Paul and his companions were invited to speak, and “Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience” (Acts 13:16). One of Paul’s greatest qualities was that he was always ready to “stand up.”

• Paul and his companions stayed in Iconium for a long time, “speaking boldly in the Lord” (Acts 14:3).

• While Paul waited for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he could not simply wait, because “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, and in the market daily with them that met with him” (Acts 17:16–17). His “daily” trips to the market to teach and his testimonies to the devout reveal to us the desires of his heart.

• When Paul came to Corinth, “he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (Acts 18:4).

• He gave many sermons and, when needed, he gave long sermons. In Troas, “when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7). And he was not done at midnight. After raising Eutychus from death (he had gone to sleep and fallen from a third-story window), Paul “talked a long while, even till break of day” (Acts 20:11).

• To the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul testified, “by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31).

• Even as a prisoner in Jerusalem, Caesarea, on Melita (Malta), and in Rome, Paul shared his witness because he was first a prisoner of his love for and testimony of Christ (see Ephesians 3:1; 4:1). He had no desire to please men, but God (see Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).

The example of Paul as a witness of God at all times should compel us to renewed efforts. We can never waste an opportunity to be witnesses because we have other things to do or we have done enough or people will not listen. Paul shows us what the Lord expected when He directed His disciples to stand as witnesses “at all times.”

A Witness of God in All Things

Paul delivered his witness through his actions, his example, his obedience, and his message. The verbs used in the King James Bible to describe Paul’s ministry paint a stirring portrait of Paul. For example, He “witnessed” (Acts 22:15; 23:11; 26:16), “confounded” (Acts 9:22), “disputed” (Acts 9:29; 15:2), “waxed bold” (Acts 13:46), “returned” (Acts 14:21), “sang” (Acts 16:25), “testified” (Acts 18:5), “strengthened” (Acts 18:23), “taught” (Acts 20:20), “declared” (Acts 20:27), “wrote” (2 Corinthians 2:3–4), “withstood” (Galatians 2:11), “imparted” (1 Thessalonians 2:8), and “exhorted and comforted and charged every one . . . as a father doth his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

Paul’s witness of the things he had seen and heard—the things he knew—were varied and powerful.

Paul was a witness of God’s goodness to the Gentiles. Luke’s arrangement of the conversion and call of Saul in Acts 9 before the invitation to the Gentiles in Acts 10 is probably not a coincidence. Paul was the messenger of God to the Gentiles. As a “chosen vessel” he was to bear the name of the Lord “before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). It was in Antioch in Pisidia, when the Jews were “filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming,” that Paul first said, “Lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:45–46). Decades later, in his defense before Agrippa, Paul explained his ministry:

“I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come:

“That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).

Paul was a witness against the enemies of righteousness. When Elymas the sorcerer attempted to turn one of Paul’s converts from the faith, Paul immediately took action:

“O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?

“And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand” (Acts 13:10–11).

Paul was a witness of God’s power. Paul caused a great commotion when he healed the cripple in Lystra. Residents were convinced that the “gods [were] come down . . . in the likeness of men” (see Acts 14:8–15). In Philippi he healed a young lady who enriched her masters with her “prophetic” gifts. When the irate owners of the slave perceived their financial loss, they had Paul and Silas beaten and committed to prison, from which, like Alma and Amulek (see Alma 14), they were freed by an earthquake (Acts 16:25–26), which gave Paul yet another opportunity to stand as a witness (see Acts 16:28–33).

Paul’s miraculous ministry continued in Ephesus.

“And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:

“So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11–12).

In Troas, as mentioned earlier, Paul restored Eutychus to life (Acts 20:9–12). On the island of Melita (traditionally identified as Malta), when he was bitten by a deadly viper, he showed no ill effects from the poison (see Acts 28:3–6).

Paul was a witness of the need for purity in doctrine and ordinances. When Paul found a group of baptized disciples who knew nothing of the gift of the Holy Ghost, he baptized them again and then laid his hands on them to confer that gift. Even though they were called disciples (see Acts 19:2), Paul knew that their instruction in the sequence and importance of the ordinances was incomplete. He performed the ordinances again to ensure that they were done correctly and by proper authority.

Luke related a similar episode, one involving the name of Paul, though not his presence, to show the need for purity in the ordinances. A group of exorcists, referred to as “vagabond Jews,” who must have been witnesses of some of the miracles of Paul, undertook to do a similar work in his name and the name of Jesus. They “took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.

“And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:13–16).

Paul was a witness of what a great missionary should be. In his letter to the Saints at Thessalonica, he spoke of his boldness (1 Thessalonians 2:2), the trust of God in him (1 Thessalonians 2:4), his determination to say what God wanted him to say (1 Thessalonians 2:4), his refusal to flatter to obtain success or advantage (1 Thessalonians 2:5), and his refusal to seek glory for himself or to be burdensome to his converts (1 Thessalonians 2:6). He spoke of his gentleness (1 Thessalonians 2:7), his labor and travail both night and day so that he could stand blameless before God (1 Thessalonians 2:9), his commendable behavior (1 Thessalonians 2:10), and his gratitude to God for the privilege of serving (1 Thessalonians 1:2; 2:13).

In Troas he testified:

“Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,

“Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews:

“And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,

“Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:18–21).

Paul was a witness of the need for patience and long-suffering in the work of God. When God replied to Ananias s concerns over the conversion of Saul, the Lord said, “For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my names sake” (Acts 9:16). In this matter of suffering Paul was very much like the sons of Mosiah, to whom the Lord said, “Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls” (Alma 17:11).

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives a résumé of his suffering for the cause of Christ. He speaks of labours, prisons, floggings, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, journeyings, perils, false brethren, weariness, painfulness, hunger, thirst, fastings, cold, nakedness, and “the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23–28). In conjunction with the list above, seven recorded instances tell of attempts to take Paul’s life (see Acts 9:23; 9:29; 14:5; 14:19; 21:30–31; 23:12; and 25:3).

One of the great images of the New Testament is of the moment when Paul and Silas, stripped and savagely beaten, thrown into a Philippi prison and placed in stocks, “sang praises unto God” (Acts 16:23–25). Patience and long-suffering indeed! He was truly a man willing to be a witness in all things.

But why not sing praises in prison, or anywhere else? Paul’s great love was not for his own life, but for Christ (see Acts 20:24; 21:13). That love became his motivation from his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus until the day of his martyrdom. It was a love he taught eloquently to others:

“That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,

“May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

“And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:17–19).

A Witness of God in All Places

The book of Acts and the epistles of Paul indicate some of the places where Paul visited or preached. Some of the locations were Antioch in Pisidia, Antioch in Syria, Athens, Berea, Caesarea, Corinth, Damascus, Derbe, Ephesus, Galatia, Iconium, Jerusalem, Lystra, Melita, Miletus, Mysia, Paphos, Philippi, Phrygia, Ptolemais (Acco), Rome, Salamis, Thessalonica, Troas, Trophimus, and Tyre.

However, Luke shows us something more interesting than the cities where Paul preached. For within those cities, Paul taught in many synagogues (see Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1–2, etc.), in “all the coasts of Judea” (Acts 26:20), “by a river side” (Acts 16:13), in a prison (Acts 16:25–32), on Mars’ Hill (Acts 17:22), in the market (Acts 17:17), in a certain man’s house (Acts 18:7), over all the country (Acts 18:23), in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), at a sacrament meeting (Acts 20:7), from house to house (Acts 20:20), on the stairs (Acts 21:40), in the castle (Acts 23:10), in the judgment hall (Acts 23:35), on a ship (Acts 27:21–26), in the quarters of the chief man of Melita (Acts 28:7–8), and in his own house (Acts 28:30–31).

The Lord commanded His disciples to take the witness to “all the world” (Mark 16:15) and “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But in this worldwide ministry, the instruction was to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). That one-by-one ministry to individuals happens in places smaller than cities and countries. The sons of Mosiah reported that they had preached to the Lamanites in many places: “And we have entered into their houses and taught them, and we have taught them in their streets; yea, and we have taught them upon their hills; and we have also entered into their temples and their synagogues and taught them” (Alma 26:29).

Paul preached in this same spirit, and his determination to be a witness to individuals in every place caused him to emphasize similarities rather than differences.

“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.

“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;

“To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

“And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

The purity of Paul’s intent is nowhere better seen than in the passage above. Whatever he needed to do within the framework of agency and his commission from Christ, he would do. President David O. McKay wrote this of Paul:

Before the Royal, he was kingly,

In the prison, noble, true;

In the tempest, mighty captain

Of a terror-stricken crew.

Sunless days nor nights of blackness,

Prison chains—tempestuous wave,

Floundered ship nor deadly viper—

Feared he not the yawning grave.

“God’s good angel stood beside me,

His I am and Him I serve,” This the secret of his power—

Him from Right no power could swerve. [5]

A Witness of God Even unto Death

Luke ends his account of the ministry of Paul with the Roman imprisonment, but nonscriptural sources suggest that he died about A.D. 67 or 68 near Rome. Sperry wrote this:

“At the time of Paul’s first hearing before the Roman court, it is said that Nero was absent in Greece. What the charge against Paul was we do not know, but it was probably one involving sedition. Nor do we know what happened at the second hearing. Apparently Nero had returned, and his displeasure sealed the Apostle’s doom. The Roman Senate had passed an ordinance to the effect that ten days should elapse between the condemnation of a criminal and his execution in order that the Emperor might, if so disposed, grant him a pardon. It was the custom, especially if a demonstration might take place, to take the criminal outside of the city to be executed. The tradition is that Paul was conducted about two miles from Rome on the Ostian Way, southwest of the city, where he was beheaded by the sword. His Roman citizenship saved him from the suffering sustained by many Christians in being crucified or in being smeared with pitch and set on fire. According to the testimony of St. Jerome, Paul met his death in the fourteenth year of Nero’s reign, that is, sometime between October 13, A.D. 67 and June 9, A.D. 68.” [6]

Such information is useful in understanding what happened to Paul and in understanding Paul himself. Long before the sword fell in Italy, Paul knew at least some of what awaited him. In Miletus, Paul spoke of his future:

“And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there:

“Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.

“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:22–24).

When at Caesarea, Agabus prophesied future afflictions for Paul, and disciples besought him to change his plans, Paul rebuked them, saying, “What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

He was ready indeed! His only desire, even at the end of his life, was to glorify Christ through his witness of the Redeemers merits, mercy, and grace. He was willing to let his life and his death be such a witness.

“For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,

“According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death” (Philippians 1:19–20).

Paul was a small man, about five feet tall. But he also had a voice that when elevated resembled the roar of a lion. [7] It is possible to hear the spirit and the resonance of that voice as we read his words. That roar, the thunder of undiluted truth, has changed the Christian world. In fact, as those of us called to a similar ministry read the words of Paul’s witness and invitation, it is truly difficult not to hear it:

“We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain . . . . Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed:

“But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses,

“In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings;

“By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned,

“By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left,

“By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true;

“As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed;

“As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:1–10).

In his final letter to Timothy, Paul wrote what could have been his own epitaph:

“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:

“Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6–8).

Paul’s witness of God at all times and in all things and in all places does not end with his death. That witness has echoed down the ages. Perhaps Paul’s testimony before Agrippa is an appropriate place to conclude, for it is a reflection of the great longing of Paul’s life: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds” (Acts 26:29). This is an appeal that should reach across the years to us. Whether or not we have ever seen the light on the road to Damascus is not the issue; we have all been called to be witnesses of God, at all times and in all things and in all places, until we also have finished our course.

Notes

[1] Elder Bruce B. McConkie refers to Alma the Younger as “the American Paul” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 89; and Bruce B. McConkie, The Promised Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978), 268, 333.

[2] The castle is the Fortress of Antonia. It was built by Herod the Great and was located just north of the temple.

[3] See Acts 9:24–25; 9:29–30; 17:5–10; 17:13–14; 19:28–31; 20:22–24; 21:4, 10–13.

[4] Hugh Nibley in Of All Things! Classic Quotations from Hugh Nibley, comp. and ed. Gary P. Gillum (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1993), 6.

[5] David O. McKay, Ancient Apostles (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), 197.

[6] Sidney B. Sperry, Paul’s Life and Letters (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 303.

[7] See Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon Cook, eds. and comps., The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 59.