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11th January: Paul and Physical Hardship

By the grace of God I am what I am. 1 Corinthians 15:10

According to an ancient tradition, the Apostle Paul was `an ugly little man'. Ancient traditions vary in their authenticity, but nothing in Paul's own letters or in the record of his travelling companion Luke contradicts this tradition. Much fits in with it.

Paul (2 Cor 10:10-11 NIV) quotes his critics in Corinth as saying, `His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'. He firmly refutes any idea that his letters are just words, but neither here nor elsewhere does he make any attempt to contradict what is said about his personal appearance and speaking.

On the nature of Paul's `thorn in the flesh' (2 Cor 12:7), about which he is not specific (one has to try to read between the lines), one of the most widely held theories is that it was an eye affliction, which may well have marred his facial appearance. He acknowledges (Gal 4:13-15) that a bodily ailment made him a trial to the Galatians, and he is grateful for the way in which they received him: ` you did not scorn or despise me,... if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me'.

When Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra (Acts 14:8-18), and set the cripple walking, the people said they were gods. Because Paul was the chief speaker, they called him Hermes, the messenger of the gods. But it is not difficult to infer which of the two was the taller and more impressive in appearance, for it was Barnabas whom they called Zeus, the chief of the gods.

When Paul came to Athens, at first he failed to make an impression on at least some of the philosophers, who saw him only as `this babbler' (Acts 17:18). Some later changed their minds.

There can be little doubt that Paul was small and outwardly unimpressive. Yet, by the grace of God, he was foremost among that little band of people who turned the world upside down. He had intellect, learning, courage, endurance, humility without weakness and loyalty to those to whom he ministered. Above all he had a deep unswerving devotion to Christ, on whose indwelling presence he depended. If the ancient tradition is accurate, may God give us more such ugly little men!

Ay, for this Paul, a scorn and a reviling,
Weak as you know him and the wretch you see -
Even in these eyes shall ye behold His smiling,
Strength in infirmities and Christ in me.
FWH Meyer, St Paul.

Further reading: Look up the references.


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