Who’s the most passionate person you know? Do you know what they’re passionate about? Of course you do. Passionate people really can’t hide their passion. At some point, the passion is going to come out.
In this article I want to highlight Paul’s passion—the desire which drove his ministry. I think this is an overlooked area because scholars tend to focus on Paul’s words with the paramount question being, What did Paul mean here or there? But words are the overflow of the heart so it’s appropriate to also ask, What was motivating Paul to say what he said? What was he passionate about?
Passion is hard to measure and in Paul’s case we’re limited because we don’t have an audio recording to hear the inflection of his voice or a video to see his facial expressions. But we do have his personal letters and a narration of his journeys in the book of Acts.
What a person weeps about often shows what they are most passionate about so we’ll explore Paul’s passion by examining the cause of his tears. Paul was not ashamed to weep and even while he was writing, certain thoughts triggered his tears. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18 ESV). What was the cause of Paul’s tears? The thought of Christ’s enemies.
But Paul also wept while preaching to believers. Speaking to the church leaders of Ephesus, he said, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (Acts 20:31 ESV). The cause of those tears is found in the preceding verse. “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (v. 30 ESV). What was the cause of Paul’s tears? The thought of false teachers seeking to lead believers astray.
Paul’s Passion for Christ’s Enemies
Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s tears for Christ’s enemies. In Romans 9, Paul writes, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (vv. 1-3 ESV). And a chapter later, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (10:1 ESV). Paul was passionate about Christ’s enemies, but not because he wanted them to suffer. He desperately desired for them to be saved. As a result, Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean world preaching the message of salvation in Christ, often at great cost to himself (2 Cor. 11:24-27). And he structured his ministry in such a way to save the most people. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22 ESV). But where did Paul get this intense desire to save people? The answer can be found in this statement: “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14).
Paul’s Passion for the Church
Now let’s consider Paul’s tears for the believing community. Paul was passionate about protecting and nurturing the faith of believers so he wept at the prospect of false teachers undermining that faith. And that passion motivated Paul to write and preach. In the letter to Colossae, he wrote, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Col. 2:1-3 ESV). Paul believed he was in an intense struggle to bring the church to a greater understanding of Christ and all the riches that came as a result of faith in Christ. And when a community of believers was on the brink of forfeiting those riches, Paul experienced deep pain, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). In his second letter to Corinth, Paul stated, “apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28 ESV). What exactly was Paul anxious about? A few verses earlier, he wrote, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3 ESV).
So Paul was passionate for believers to be loyal to Christ and mature in their understanding of the faith. As a result, he wrote to them, personally warned them, prayed for them (see the opening of many of his letters), and visited them. On that note of visitation, Paul’s journeys were not only intended to save people, but to encourage existing communities of believers. “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are” (Acts 15:36 ESV).
Paul was passionate about people, specifically he was passionate for their salvation and their perseverance in the faith. And that passion fueled his preaching, writing, traveling, and praying. What are you passionate about?
[This post is part of a series on Paul.}