James Montgomery Boice begins his comments on the opening verse of the book of Romans with this little story: “Lord Lyttleton and Gilbert West were two nineteenth-century English barristers. They were unbelievers who one day took it upon themselves to disprove Christianity. West undertook to write against the resurrection of Jesus, while Lyttleton’s task was to disprove the factuality of Paul’s conversion.” They began to research the data and “West told Lyttleton that there was something on his mind that he felt he should share.” He was becoming convinced of the truth of the resurrection. Lyttleton also admitted the strength of the evidence regarding Paul’s conversion. ‘Gilbert, as I have been studying the evidence and weighing it by the recognized laws of legal evidence, I have become satisfied that Saul of Tarsus was converted as the New Testament says he was and that Christianity is true; I have written my book from that perspective.” West replied that in a similar way he had become convinced of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, had come to believe in Jesus, and had written his book in defense of Christianity. Today their books are found in many good libraries.”[1] I have not considered Paul’s conversion as important as Jesus’ resurrection. However, if the resurrection is not true, we are, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “… of all people most to be pitied.” Boice echoes a similar sentiment regarding Paul’s conversion. “If Paul was not converted as a result of seeing the risen Lord while on the road to Damascus, as he claimed, and if he did not receive his gospel by a direct revelation from Jesus Christ, then Paul was a charlatan, his writings are not true, and Christianity is bereft of its single most important teacher after Christ.”

Paul identifies himself with four distinctives in the opening verse of Romans. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” First, he uses his conversion name: Paul. The fact that Saul, the Jewish Rabbi, became Paul the Christian convert is as radical conversion as one would ever see. He was named after the first King of Israel who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. The word “Paul” in Greek means “small.” Second, the giant Saul who persecuted the believers and took part in Stephen’s murder had become, not a king, but a slave or servant of Jesus. He identifies himself as such. Some argue that this term applied to Moses and others in the Old Testament is a term of honor. But I think Moo has it right. He says, “The connotations of humility, devotion, and obedience are never absent from the OT phrase and are surely primary here also.”[2] Thirdly, Paul says he’s “called” to be an apostle. He did not appoint himself. He knew that God was the one who had called him. Hughes says, “At the base of Paul’s self-perception was the fact that his lifework was God’s doing. What a comfort—what a motivation!”[3]

Finally, Paul knows he was “set apart.” It wasn’t something that came to God but was part of God’s eternal plan. Paul affirms this truth in Galatians 1:15-16, “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being.”  The word for being “set apart” is the same word from which the word “Pharisee” comes. They saw themselves as set apart to proclaim the law. Paul was one of them. But he knows that God’s plan for him was not to promote the Law, but the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul was confident in who he was and that God had uniquely called him and set him apart for a particular task. The same is true for you and me!

[1] Boice, James Montgomery. 1991–. Romans: Justification by Faith. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 41.

[3] Hughes, R. Kent. 1991. Romans: Righteousness from Heaven. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.