1 Corinthians 15:8-10 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Paul now adds himself to the list of eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. He does this in a humble way, almost derogatory of himself. The purpose of this is to highlight God’s grace. This is a common pattern in his letters. He writes about bad, sinful, or weak he is, often highlighting his suffering, and then compares this to God’s grace, forgiveness, and power at work in his life (2 Corinthians 11-12; 1 Timothy 1). He gives four negative assessments about himself in vv. 8-9. First, he was untimely born. This is an odd statement in this context and it is difficult to know what he means. The term “untimely” can refer to premature birth or even abortion. Paul sees something deficient in his birth and heritage. This might be reflected in his thoughts in Philippians 3:3-7. He actually had a great heritage, one of the best for a Jew, but he considered all that a loss when compared to knowing Jesus.
Second, Paul calls himself “least of the apostles.” It is noteworthy that Paul calls himself an apostle even though he was not part of the original twelve. He puts himself on par with the others primarily because he saw the risen Jesus and was commissioned directly by Jesus to go into the world (“apostle” means “sent out”). There are more than twelve apostles, as the book of Acts indicates. Yet, in Paul’s humility, he sees himself as the least.
Third, this leads him to claim that he is even unworthy to be called an apostle. This is due to the fourth description, that he persecuted the church. It was a shock to many early believers when Saul the persecutor became Paul the dynamic missionary. He had been a murderer but Christ captured him on the road to Damascus and fundamentally changed him. He did nothing to earn his salvation and did nothing to be given the calling and status of an apostle. It was all by God’s grace.
Paul shifts to the positive in v. 10 and almost goes to the opposite extreme of boasting. He acknowledges that it is by God’s grace that he has been able to accomplish anything in his ministry. We can see an important balance in this verse between God’s grace and human effort. God’s grace was not in vain or useless in Paul’s life because he responded in obedience shown in hard work. In fact, he even boasts that he worked harder than any of the other apostles. He does not say how here, but it might be in his efforts of taking the gospel to new areas across the Roman Empire. Other apostles did this also, but we do not have a record of the extent of their efforts or of their suffering. Even in Paul’s hard work of ministry and suffering, he realized that it was God’s grace working in him. Paul only needed to respond with faith and obedience.
It can be difficult to respond in faith and obedience to the leading of God’s grace in our lives. Often what gets in the way is either fear, shame, or self. We must ask God to help our faith grow. And then we must be prepared for the ways that God will help our faith grow. These ways may be in the form of suffering, just as Paul experienced in his ministry.
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