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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Paul: from a man to a man of faith

It’s easy to look at the New Testament writers and hold them in a certain high regard. After all, these men actually walked around with Jesus Christ, in the flesh. These men saw his miracles, performed countless times. These men’s words became scripture, being inspired of God to write about this Jesus. And yet, when you get past all the hype, past all of the awe, the reverence that we often have for these men, we realize that they are indeed just that: men. It is hard, at least for me, to think of Peter as being just a man. After all, it’s Peter! This is the guy who walked on water. This is the guy who spoke out on Pentecost and three thousand people believed in Jesus! But this is also the guy who began to sink, for his lack of faith. This is the guy who denied Jesus three times. Peter was just a man; flawed and utterly human. What changed for him? A man, afraid for his life on that fateful night, but a mere fifty days later stands up and proclaims boldly that not only did he believe that Jesus was the Christ, but that the thousands of Jewish men and women around him were guilty of his blood, at great risk to his own life! What changed? How did he get to be that man, willing to forsake all for this simple message? One word. Resurrection.

I think about Paul, too. Certainly, we do not know much about the man, but we see enough. Paul was a man among men in the Jewish society. He was leagues ahead of his contemporaries, without equal in his zeal for his ancestral traditions. He was an ascending student of Gamaliel, a Jew among Jews. His contemporaries looked to him for approval, and received it as they assaulted those blaspheming apostates, those who followed “The Way.” Again, we do not see much about Paul, only brief glimpses of the man; momentary snapshots, before and after pictures, if you will. One day he’s on his way to Damascus to kill him some blasphemers, and the next moment he gets knocked on his backside, seeing a vision of Christ. That one moment changed his life forever. He became the chief voice of the gospel message to the Gentile world, and by extension, you and I. He became a pariah, an exile among his own people, all for the sake of this simple message. How did he get to be that man? One word. Resurrection.

Sometimes I think about what it must have been like for these men, what their transformation from their old life to the new must have been like. Take Paul for example. I am of the persuasion that he was likely married, may have even had children. And yet, there is no mention of them, not once. Certainly, that could be because he remained celibate his entire life. But, assuming he did have a wife, it seems more likely that she disowned him completely. In fact, we never once hear about Paul’s family after conversion; nor that of any of the other apostles. Their message was one of conflict, a wedge driven between husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother. They were as dead men to those who would not believe, cast out and forgotten. Imagine that. Imagine the pain of being abandoned by those you love, who love you, for the sake of this simple message. Imagine having the entire world at your fingertips, as an aspiring young Jew, only to have every last vestige of hope torn away from you. Your family: gone. Your dreams: gone. Your reputation: gone. We do not have much in the way of a record of Paul’s life imediately after conversion. We know that he goes about preaching the gospel shortly after his conversion, for a period of three years. We know that he then returns home for another fourteen (Galatians 1-2). While this is certainly never a topic that the Bible feels the need to address, it is one that consumes my thoughts of late. What must those fourteen years have been like for Paul as he realized that his life as he knew it was over? Old friends would no longer even talk to him, or if they did, it was to insult and call him down. His family, perhaps even a wife and children, disowning him as an outcast. All his education, seemingly for naught. His hope of life, of the very promises of God, shattered; replaced with a person, Jesus Christ.

The next time we see Paul, we see him with Barnabas. There is never any detailed mention of those things that he left behind, only the faint shadows that surely exist from every man’s past; shadows and dust of a life now over. We look at the man he was prior to coming to the knowledge of the resurrected Christ, and we look at the man after. Before, a murderous villain opposing the very Son of God; while after, a man whose only hope rests in the risen Christ. Just consider a few passages that highlight this change. Consider a man who has so fully cast his lot in with this Jesus that he can honestly say:
“20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Philippians 1:20-24

Think about that! We read these words and we agree to them like they are some mental proposition with which we should concur, but never actually reading these words, realizing that these are the words of a broken man, a man whose life has been so altered by his belief in the risen Christ that he honestly says that death is gain (and believed it!), for death will see him with Christ! No man comes to that place lightly, without having every last hope, save Christ alone, methodically ripped away from him over the years. But, this is exactly the man we see in Paul, a man who left behind his life, including his very identity, and found another.
“5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:5-11

Notice he calls his entire life rubbish. I’m not sure that translation carries the correct imagery for that word. We think of rubbish as trash, or refuse. This word can also mean dung. So, without being too vulgar, perhaps it might be fair to say that Paul saw his entire life prior to Christ as a nice, big, steaming pile of crap; of zero value; rank and malodorous; buzzing with the flies in a midden heap. How does one come to a place where they can look at their entire life, all the things in which they once placed their hopes and dreams, their security, their very identity, and say it is nothing more than a pile of crap? It surely does not come easily, or quickly. For Paul, it may have taken those fourteen+ years, during which time he divorced himself from a life now pointless. During that time, he realized that the only thing of true value was Christ, and the hope of his Kingdom. Because of that hope, it did not matter what condition of life he found himself in; he was content (Philippians 4:12, the context for the oft-misquoted 4:13 “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”).

In the end, God had so thoroughly removed Paul’s hope of life now that he wrote that he was ready to go.
“6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:6-8

Paul’s was a life transformed by the resurrection of Christ. If Christ be not raised, then “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32) And yet, that last phrase is exactly what we are taught to do in our churches. At least, that is what I was taught. Sure, it was not explicit, but the message was the same. I long for the kind of faith that Paul had, that Peter had; a faith in the resurrection, so sure, so solid, that life itself is singular in purpose. But such a belief does not come easy. A life that you cherish is hard to give up if you do not really believe that what Christ offers is better; that the resurrection and the Kingdom are worth pursuing without hesitation.
“26If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' 31Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. ” Luke 14:26-33

Maybe these words of Jesus are more than a kind admonition to make sure Jesus is number one in your life; a life filled with the pursuit of money, family, activities, church programs, Bible studies; oh, and Jesus, too. Maybe these words show the absolute nature of that desire required of us, the release of all hope and dreams bound to this world, instead wholly casting our lot with this Jesus, and his gospel message. Oh, but the pain necessary to bring that about, to convince us that our lives and everything we value are nothing more than a pile of **** compared to the unsurpassing value of the Kingdom of God... Only God can accomplish that kind of transformation of heart and mind. But be forewarned. The cost is great.

Do we dare ask?

Dare we not?

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