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Key Leadership Lessons from the Apostle Paul

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.

– 2 Cor. 11:24-28

Leadership Lessons from Key Events in the Life and Ministry of the Apostle Paul

It is difficult to comprehend the lasting impact the Apostle Paul has had upon the lives of both Christians and unbelievers throughout the Church Age. For close to 2,000 years men and women have been reading Paul’s letters that were penned under the inspiration of God. His life stood as a testament to the first century Christians of what it meant to walk by faith. The world knows of the Apostle Paul.

Students of the Word of God also know that such a profound impact came about by great personal sacrifice. In a notable demonstration of his love for the Jewish people Paul declared, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3).[1] Paul was more than willing to lay down his own life if it meant others might come to faith in Christ. Here was a man willing to suffer lashings at the hands of the Jews, imprisonment, persecution, and poverty if it meant the Gospel of Christ was preached (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Despite all that he suffered his deep concern was, “for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:25).

According to tradition, Paul was beheaded at Rome.[2] This great man of faith remained faithful to the end. Near the end of his life he told Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-7).

The world has seen very few men like the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:16). The life and ministry of the Apostle Paul provides many important leadership lessons for Christians. By examining key events in the biblical record, these principles can be set forth and used in Christian ministry today.

The Leadership of Paul before His Conversion

The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly a central figure in the New Testament. It is also equally true that the Word of God tells more about Paul after his conversion to the Christian faith. Certainly this is where the bulk of the leadership principles from his life can be gleaned. Nevertheless, it would be remiss to overlook Paul’s life before his encounter with the living Christ on the road to Damascus.

Paul’s education must have begun at a young age. This is because:

Jewish law prescribed that a boy begin the study of the Scriptures at five years of age and the study of the legal traditions at ten (m. ʾAbot 5:21). Josephus relates that both the Scriptures and the traditions were taught in every city to Jewish boys “from our first consciousness” (Against Apion 2.18), and Philo Judaeus speaks of such instruction “from earliest youth” (Legatio ad Gaium 210). Undoubtedly Paul was immersed as a boy in such a curriculum as well, being taught in the synagogue school and at home.[3]

But a time would come when Paul’s education moved beyond the local synagogue. This was not the case for every young Jewish boy.

At thirteen a Jewish boy became a bar mitzvah (“son of the commandment”), at which time he took upon himself the full obligation of the law, and the more promising lads were directed into rabbinic schools under abler teachers. It was probably at this age or shortly thereafter that Paul came to Jerusalem to further his training, perhaps living with the married sister spoken of in Acts 23:16.[4]

Fortunately, the Word of God provides some record of Paul’s life before he came to saving faith in Christ. In Paul’s defense before the crowd at the Temple in Jerusalem he stated, “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). It can also be seen from the biblical record that Gamaliel was a well-respected teacher (Acts 5:34). This was Paul’s mentor. He was trained or educated by Gamaliel. This is notable because, “Paul acknowledged him as his teacher (Acts 22:3), and he was held in such high honour that he was designated ‘Rabban’ (‘our teacher’), a higher title than ‘Rabbi’ (‘my teacher’).”[5] Paul had some of the best education available to a Jew living in the first century. At the very least, it must be inferred from this early period in his life that Paul demonstrated promise and dedication as a student. Paul would later state, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). This diligence would pay dividends later in his life and ministry.

Paul testified that, “according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5). This is a telling statement about the group he was a part of because the Pharisees, “controlled the synagogues and exercised great control over much of the population.”[6] Being a Pharisee, Paul would have been an influential person.

In his position as a Pharisee Paul persecuted the Church (Phil. 3:5). Undoubtedly, he did so because he saw the Christian faith as opposed to his Jewish beliefs. As a leader, Paul would have sought to bring an end to this new movement, to keep it from influencing others. Again, Paul affirmed:

Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:9-11).

As an enemy of Christ, Paul would have never followed the leadership model of Jesus. Yet, it still should be noted that he was already a leader before his conversion. Even though he was a hateful man, some of these qualities should be admired. It appears that Paul was one of the men leading the charge against the Christians (Acts 9:1-2). This demonstrates that he was willing to take initiative and lead. Paul’s commitment to what he believed should not be questioned. He sought out the authority he needed to bring about an end to the early Christian faith. Paul showed a respect for the proper authority structure in place.

Council at Jerusalem

Leadership does not take place in a vacuum. Real life struggles and problems dictate that leaders must be able to take the principles they have learned in ministry and apply them to rapidly changing situations. Paul demonstrated this need while providing believers with invaluable lessons on leadership during what is commonly referred to as the Council at Jerusalem.

Luke provides the details of what transpired, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” This was a dramatic problem for the early Church. The entire Gospel message of Christ was on the line because these men believed that circumcision was required for salvation. Tom Constable explains the seriousness of the situation:

Their claim was essentially a denial of the sufficiency of faith in Christ for salvation. They evidently claimed that James, the Lord’s half brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church, endorsed their position (cf. 15:24; Gal. 2:12). Peter, who was in Antioch at this time, compromised with these men by withdrawing from eating with the Gentile Christians there. Barnabas also inclined to do so. Paul, however, saw the inconsistency and danger in this practice and rebuked Peter (Gal. 2:11, 13–14).[7]

Demanding that individuals become circumcised for salvation was tantamount to teaching you first must become a Jew in order to be saved. Even Peter and Barnabas had been, “carried away with their hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:14). Initially, it would seem that there was a need for someone to step forward with a strong commitment to the purity of the Gospel of Christ. This individual would need to work towards making sure the Church provided a consistent message regarding the content of the gospel.

At some point in time, Paul must have confronted Barnabas. This becomes evident because Luke testifies regarding the men from Judea, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them” (Acts 15:2). Several observations should be made at this point. As a leader, Paul would not compromise on the essential truth of the gospel. Further, he corrected those in leadership positions who had compromised their message (Peter and Barnabas). Still, Paul undoubtedly believed that more needed to be done. The believers at Antioch needed clarity regarding this issue, as well as the Church at large. Therefore, Paul and Barnabas stood up to dispute this false gospel message. Nobody likes confrontation, and this was surely a difficult move by Paul.

The decision was made to bring the matter before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to settle the matter. The Scriptures do not explicitly state who initiated this decision, but it demonstrates both the authority of apostles and the need to have a united testimony regarding the content of the gospel.

Paul’s earlier correction of Peter paid eternal dividends. At this gathering of the early Church leaders, Peter now stood in opposition to the idea that men must be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas then declared the work of God through them among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). Paul’s willingness to allow this matter to go before the men at Jerusalem demonstrated that he was not a lone ranger. He recognized the authority of the other men in the Church and saw the need for a united testimony, which became the end result of this Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22-29). After the crisis had passed, it should be noted that Paul and Barnabas went back to their responsibilities of teaching the Word of God in Antioch (Acts 15:35). This, once more, demonstrates the servant leadership of Paul.

Departure of John Mark

Perhaps one of the more notable disagreements in the New Testament revolves around the departure of John Mark. Certainly tension existed between the men involved. While it is impossible to know anything beyond what the biblical record teaches, it is advantageous to consider any lessons of leadership that can be learned from this event.

The situation started out innocently enough. Paul had said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). Luke further recorded that, “Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark” (Acts 15:37). Paul had a different perspective because he, “insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). This event references what had taken place in Acts 13:13. At that time, “John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem.”

It is not possible to know exactly why John Mark had previously departed the mission work. It is noted that he was present with Barnabas and Paul even before they started their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25). Nevertheless, his earlier departure had left a rift between these two early leaders in the Church. Luke teaches, “The contention became so sharp that they parted from one another” (Acts15:39). This disagreement was something that both Paul and Barnabas were passionate about. The word for contention means a, “sharp disagreement.”[8] Here it is learned that even faithful servants of the Lord can have considerable disagreement over matters in the ministry. Perhaps Barnabas had loyalty to John Mark because he was his cousin (Col. 4:10).

The contention presented in the book of Acts between Barnabas and Paul had eternal consequences. Luke recorded, “Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Then he came to Derbe and Lystra” (Acts 15:39-Acts 16:1). Certainly it is unfortunate that this sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas took place. Still, it should be noted that the end result was that two missionary teams ended up being sent out instead of one. The practical lesson for leaders that should be taken from this is the important message that even though there was a sharp disagreement, God ended up using it for His good. Leaders in Christian ministry would be wise to look for new opportunities that arise when problems and struggles come along.

Division within the Body of Christ can damage a united testimony for Jesus Christ. Jesus testified that, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love for other Christians is essential in presenting a united testimony for Christ. Therefore, it is critical to examine the biblical record to note that love and reconciliation did take place.

It is noteworthy that in Colossians 4:10-11 Paul testified, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me.” This is a significant statement about Mark because, “Mark is the author of the Gospel of Mark. At the beginning of his second missionary journey, Paul had refused to take Mark with him (Acts 15:37–40). Evidently the two had been reconciled, for Paul commends him here and in 2 Tim. 4:11.”[9] A similar favorable mention of John Mark by Paul is found in Philemon 24.

Towards the end of Paul’s life he made a statement that reveals just how completely reconciled Paul and Mark had become. In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.” This statement should not be overlooked. It is a telling proclamation to just how far their relationship had been healed. The progression can be observed, “Paul refused to take him along on the second journey (15:36–40). Later Mark matured and was with Paul in his first Roman imprisonment (Col 4:10). Now the aging apostle gives his young associate his highest accolade: ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.’”[10] A significant ministry lesson must be observed at this key point. Disagreements will happen and people will make mistakes. Leaders must allow for individuals to mature in their faith, and to allow time to heal disagreements. It would have been altogether too easy for Paul to emphatically state that he never wanted to minister with Mark again. God had a significant role for Mark in the early Church, and reconciliation with Paul paved the way for allowing him to step into that position.

Jerusalem to Rome

Undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic times during the life of the Apostle Paul is found in his journey from Jerusalem to Rome. It is also here that various lessons on leadership are found.

Luke revealed in the book of Acts that Paul was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, “on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16). Paul was short on time and he wanted to spend it on matters that were important. He made a priority of meeting with the elders of the church at Ephesus:

Paul avoided a stop in Ephesus because he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. He knew it would take far too long to say good-bye to his many friends in Ephesus. Miletus was some 30 miles by land south of Ephesus, so he sent for the Ephesian church’s elders to come there. Evidently his ship had a layover of several days in the port of Miletus.[11]

Leaders are frequently short on time, but Paul demonstrated the importance of prioritizing who he spent his time with. He focused on those in the church that had been entrusted with leadership.

At Miletus, Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus:

And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:22-24).

Considerable debate has existed on whether or not Paul should have headed to Jerusalem. This issue should be put to rest because:

There is no evidence that Paul was rebelling against God. On the contrary, Jesus Himself confirmed that the trip was part of His good and perfect will (23:11). While Paul was in a Jerusalem prison, Jesus appeared to him to tell him to take courage. The Lord explained to Paul that just as he had solemnly witnessed for the cause of Christ at Jerusalem, he would do the same in Rome. There was no condemnation, but rather affirmation, of the fact that Paul bore witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.[12]

Paul was being guided by the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem. This was confirmed by the Lord’s recognition of His mission in Acts 23:11. Paul’s expression bound in the spirit, “reveals a deep persuasion, which no one could deter, and which he unequivocally considered as God’s will even in the light of accurate predictions of the suffering he would encounter.”[13] Even though it was made known to Paul that he would suffer, he was not deterred from following the leading of the Holy Spirit in his life. He was willing to stand alone and suffer for his Savior. This is a mark of true leadership.

This type of resolve was again witnessed in Paul in Acts 21. The prophet Agabus warned that Paul would be bound at Jerusalem and given over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). This caused the Christians present to plead with him, “not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). Even Luke took part in pleading with Paul not to head there. Paul’s steadfast resolve to the Lord’s will meant that he could not be persuaded to avoid Jerusalem (Acts 21:13). Ultimately, this led the other believers to testify, “The will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). Paul’s commitment to the will of the Lord eventually was replicated in the lives of the other believers in his life.

As expected, Paul was taken into custody in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-36). Paul’s desire to serve Christ in Rome had come through chains (Rom. 15:32; Acts 28:16). Luke recorded that, “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31). As demonstrated from the book of Acts, Paul had an active ministry in Rome. Clearly he was able to teach believers that were a part of the Church of Jesus Christ in Rome. It is also generally agreed that during this time he wrote the Prison Epistles:

Four of Paul’s letters are grouped as the Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Each of them includes clear internal references to the writer’s prison surroundings (Eph. 3:1; 4:1; 6:20; Phil. 1:7, 13, 14, 17; Col. 4:3, 10, 18; Phil. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). The similarities between the details of Paul’s imprisonment given in Acts and in the Prison Epistles support the traditional position that the letters were written from Rome.[14]

This is truly further evidence of a leader that is concerned about the welfare of the Church of Christ. Even while under arrest, he sought to continue to teach the brethren the Word of God. His love for Christ and His people pressed him into continued service, no matter how difficult the situations were that he faced.

What should a leader do when he knows the close of his life is near? The beloved Apostle Paul knew that it was time to give final instructions to the men he had trained up in the ministry:

The two Epistles to Timothy and one to Titus, commonly grouped together as the Pastoral Epistles, belong to the period at the close of Paul’s life and provide valuable information about the great missionary apostle’s thoughts as he prepared to pass on his tasks to others. They are addressed to two of his closest associates, and for that reason introduce a different kind of Pauline correspondence from the earlier church Epistles.[15]

In his closing days as an Ambassador for Christ, Paul provided instruction about, “church order, false doctrine, leadership standards, and pastoral oversight of church life.”[16] This demonstrates once again that Paul’s chief concern was for the Church of Jesus Christ.

2 Timothy was written during the final days of Paul’s ministry. The final chapter of the epistle provides insight into the parting thoughts of the Apostle. His concern was that the Word of God would continue to be preached (2 Tim. 4:2). He wanted Timothy to know that the time would come when sound doctrine would not be tolerated (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Further, Paul wanted Timothy to fulfill his ministry (2 Tim. 4:5).

But what about the Apostle himself? What lessons of leadership can be applied from the closing days of his ministry? Paul knew that the time of his departure was, “at hand” (2 Tim. 4:6). After giving final instructions to young Timothy, Paul set forth a powerful example of a leader facing death and persecution, but still demonstrating a solid testimony for Jesus Christ.

In verse 7 Paul confidently proclaimed, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul could declare that he had remained faithful to Christ even to the end. He knew and believed that, “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul looked forward to receiving his rewards from Christ for his faithful service. Still, the beloved Apostle provided this same hope for, “all who have loved His appearing.” Even facing death, Paul sought to provide hope and encouragement in Christ.

After several practical exhortations, Paul expressed that, “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (2 Tim. 4:16). This had to be a lonely time for the Apostle. Rather than express bitterness, Paul lovingly proclaimed:

May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen! (2 Tim. 6:16-18)

Even during this difficult hour of his life Paul expressed no bitterness to those who had abandoned him. Even more impressive, was that Paul’s confidence rested in Christ. Paul looked to the One who could preserve him for His heavenly kingdom.


It would take a careful student of Paul’s life many volumes of books to express all of the leadership lessons that can be gleaned from his life and ministry. Even before his conversion as a follower of Christ, his diligence to his education and position as a Pharisee demonstrated a man that was willing and very capable of leading men. Once he became a new creation in Christ, the Lord refined Paul into becoming a model leader for all Christians today.

He tackled a delicate and critical issue at the Council of Jerusalem. Even when a disagreement occurred over John Mark, Paul showed humility and leadership in his reconciliation with the cousin of Barnabas. During his final years of ministry, Paul provided a living example of a man so committed to Christ that he was willing to lay down his own life if it meant others would have the opportunity to respond to the glorious Gospel of Christ. His motive was to please Christ and he looked beyond his own life to train up the leaders that would be prominent after his departure. He wanted all men and women of faith in Christ to look toward the hope we have in Jesus. His security and peace in his life was not dictated by this world, but came to him through his relationship with Christ. Leaders within the Church would be wise to continue to study and apply the principles that Paul lived out in his faith!

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).

[2] Moisés Silva and Merrill Chapin Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, M-P (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 2009), 732.

[3] Ibid., 698.

[4] Ibid., 699.

[5] J. D. Douglas, “Gamaliel,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 396.

[6] Charles W. Draper with Harrop Clayton, “Jewish Parties in the New Testament,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 916.

[7] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Acts 15:1.

[8] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 780.

[9] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), Col. 4:10–15.

[10] Ralph Earle, “2 Timothy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 414.

[11] Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 413.

[12] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), Acts 20:22–23.

[13] Alberto S. Valdés, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 585–586.

[14] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 422.

[15] D. Guthrie, “Timothy and Titus, Epistles To,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 1189.

[16] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1618.

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