We must listen to Paul's words, if we would learn to know him. "His bodily presence" (so his enemies declared) "was weak and contemptible" but his letters (even they allowed) "were weighty and powerful" (2Corinthians 10:10). Moreover, an effort of imagination and memory is needed to recall the past. In Paul's writings, however, the apostle is present with us.
But, after all this is done, to reproduce the picture of Apostle Paul's deeds and times, how small would our knowledge of himself remain if we had no other record of him left us but the story of his adventures! If his letters had never come down to us, we should have known what he did and suffered, but we should have had very little idea of what he was.
We Christians can bear witness now, that Paul's writings still live in the mouths of men throughout the whole world. His Epistles are to his inward life what the mountains and rivers of Asia and Greece and Italy are to his outward life, the imperishable part which still remains to us when all that time can ruin has passed away.
It is in these letters, then, that we must study the true life of Apostle Paul, from its depths and springs of action, which were "hidden with Christ in God," down to its most minute developments and peculiar individual manifestations. In them we learn what he says about himself. Their most sacred contents, indeed, rise above all that is peculiar to the individual writer. They are the communications of God to man concerning the faith and life of Christians, which Apostle Paul declared by the immediate revelation of Christ himself.
Paul's manner of teaching God's eternal truths is colored by his human character, and is peculiar to himself. And such individual features are naturally impressed much more upon epistles than upon any other kind of composition. We have not treatises or sermons, which may dwell in the general and abstract, but genuine letters, written to meet the actual wants of living men. They offered immediate answers to real questions, and warnings against pressing dangers. They were full of the interests of the passing hour. It is not too much to say that Paul's writings are himself, a portrait painted by his own hand, of which every feature may be "known and read of all men."
It is not merely that in them we see the proof of Paul's powerful intellect, his insight into the foundations of natural theology (Romans 1:20) and of moral philosophy (Romans 2:14 - 15). It is not only that we there find models of the sublimest eloquence when he is kindled by the vision of the glories to come, the perfect triumph of good over evil, the manifestation of the sons of God, and their transformation into God's likeness, when they shall see him no longer "in a glass darkly, but face to face" (1Corinthians 13:12). We find Paul but in his letters, besides all this which is divine, we trace every shade, even to the faintest, of his human character also.
In Paul's letters we see that fearless independence which led him to rebuke and correct Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11), and that earnest indignation which bids his converts "beware of dogs, beware of the concision" (Philippians 3:2). We see Paul's fervid patriotism which makes him "even to wish myself to be accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (Romans 9:3, HBFV). We view that generosity which looked for no other reward than "to preach the Glad Tidings of Christ without charge" (1Corinthians 9:15, 18). We also view that dread of officious interference which led him to shrink from "building on another man's foundation" (Romans 15:20).
Here in Paul's writings we also see that scrupulous fear of evil appearance which caused him to say "For you remember, brethren, our labor and our toil; for we were working night and day so as not to be a burden to anyone among you, while we proclaimed the gospel of God" (1Thessalonians 2:9, HBFV).
We marvel at Paul's self-denying love which will eat no flesh, not ever, "so that I may not cause my brother to stumble" (1Corinthians 8:13, HBFV). We see his grief for the sins of others, which moved him to tears when he spoke of the enemies of the cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18) and that noble freedom from jealousy with which Paul speaks of those, who, out of rivalry to himself, preach Christ even of envy and strife (Philippians 1:15).
We learn in Paul's letters about that tender friendship which watches over the health of Timothy even with a mother's care (1Timothy 5:23). We also come to understand Paul's sense of loneliness, which perhaps is the most touching feature of all, because it approaches most nearly to a weakness (2Corinthians 2:12 - 13).