Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 23. Paul (2)
2 Cor 1:8-11 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers.
Doing Paul Justice: When we came to the end of yesterday’s study about Paul, I felt very much that we had sold Paul short, if I may put it like that. We covered the idea of ‘good people’ needing redeeming and we noted something of Paul’s background as a good religious, even zealous Jew, and yet one who was obviously pointing in the wrong direction. He must have been of good reputation to be able to have gone to the high priest to get authority to go to Damascus in the name of Judaism to arrest heretics who had abandoned their background for the new thing referred to as ‘The Way’. But much of the New Testament is filled with his writings and his activities and they reveal a man who has been so transformed from the religious zealot that he had once been.
Refocusing Redemption: Now perhaps before we continue here with Paul we need to remind ourselves of our theme and what is at the heart of it. We have said a number of times that it is not only about the initial act of redemption but also the ongoing life of redemption, a life where God is working to reshape us (like Jeremiah’s Potter’s clay pot – see Jer 18) into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18). Now what many of us fail to remember is that this ‘reshaping’ isn’t only in character reformation, it is all about the overall purpose, direction and drive of our lives, i.e. how we in our unique way come to express something of the kingdom of God, the will of God, and the purpose of God, in our lives and to the world.
Understand Individual Calling: Now the reassuring thing, for some of us, is that we are not being called into the likeness of Paul, or even of Jesus as we see him in the Gospels. The thing is that God has a unique plan for each of our lives (see Eph 2:10). Jesus, for instance, never ministered outside the general area of Israel, while Paul traveled far and wide. Jesus performed many, many healings and miracles, while few are recorded of Paul. Jesus’ primary purpose was twofold: to reveal the love of the Father in his ministry and then to die on the Cross for our salvation. Paul’s ministry similarly appears twofold: first to take the Gospel to both Jew and Gentile and then, second, and he would never realize this, to provide a written body of teaching and revelation for us the church down through the ages, that opened up and explained the meaning and purpose of the coming and outworking of Jesus’ ministry, in a way that goes way beyond the Gospels.
And Us? So when it comes to us, when we look at a ministry such as that of Paul, we can be stirred and challenged but must realize that God has a unique calling for each of us that may completely mess with our previous perceptions of spiritual versus material aspects of life. The main thrust of a life might be in business, say house building, but a secondary kingdom issue that may emerge is to provide housing for the homeless out of profits made. It is always a challenge, a) to see all activities within the ambit of calling, and then b) to see if there is something additional the Lord is calling us to do as an extension of our main activity in life.
Back to Paul: So here is this good Pharisee, jealous for the name of Judaism, reaching out to bring a halt to this new ‘Way’ and he gets stopped by Jesus. As a result of his encounter on the road to Damascus, “when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.” (Acts 9:8a) so that “they led him by the hand into Damascus,” (v.9b) and “for three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.” (v.9) He has been completely immobilized and can do nothing. It is then that the Lord sends a Christian by the name of Ananias to speak to him and give him his marching orders: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (v.15,16). When Ananias prays over him he is filled with the Spirit and regains his sight. Immediately he starts preaching in synagogues (where his fellow-Jews would meet for worship and teaching), “that Jesus is the Son of God.” (v.20)
Redemption is about Jesus: In the Old Testament this obviously did not feature but once we move into the present day we have to say that, first and foremost, redemption – God delivering us out of our old bad life into a new life of freedom – is about a relationship with God that only comes about by means of the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. This may sound obvious but there may be those who would want a new life but one that comes by self-effort, or New Age techniques perhaps, or other self-help approaches enabled by ‘experts’ or even ‘counselors’. Redemption is not about all this; it is only possible via the work of the Son of God, and the requirement is twofold: 1. That you believe he is the unique Son of God who came to the earth to reveal God the Father and 2. That he came to take the punishment for your sins which, once acknowledged and repented of, are dealt with once and for all and removed and a new life given by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Redemption is a free gift: When we come to the teaching of the apostle Paul we find he is most emphatic, it is not by our efforts that we are saved: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” (Eph 2:8,9), it is a gift from God through Christ’s death on the Cross and now enabled by the Spirit: “does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:5) Now again this might sound something fairly obvious, but the truth is that so often we drift from our original faith foundations and find ourselves like the Galatians reverting back to relying on appearance or effort or even ritual. Paul was a ‘doer’, an activist, he was always out there doing the stuff. Before he came to Christ it was dealing with this heresy as he saw it. After he was saved he just had to share the gospel. The danger is that when we are very active we start to rely on that activity as the means or basis for our relationship with the Lord. It isn’t. It is only the work of Christ, received by simple faith, and then the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and all of that cannot be earned, but just received as a free gift from God.
Redemption is about imperfect people: So God’s work would continue on in Paul and we might expect that with a spiritual giant like this, all we would see is a picture of gloriously sanctified holiness. However, and it is difficult to tell when these various things applied, there are indicators that if we were looking for perfection, there are things that would detract from that. Without doubt Paul was a great teacher and yet sometimes his teaching was sufficiently complex that the apostle Peter commented, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand,” (2 Pet 3:16) The positive take on that is that revelation sometimes needs some thinking about; the less positive take is that Paul could have made an effort to be more simple for the less able of his readers!
It is difficult to know if Paul was wise and submitting to the rest of the body around him. When Luke records what happened at Tyre, he says of the believers there, “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem,” (Acts 21:4) but Paul clearly disregarded that. Shortly afterwards a prophet declared of Paul, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:11) What follows does seem messy and, yes, Paul; testifies to kings and ends up testifying in Rome, but it seems a very tortuous route and one wonders if the Lord had had a better path for Paul that would have continued his ministry more widely.
Then of course, earlier, there had been the falling out with Barnabas: “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” (Acts 15:39) The more gentle hearted Barnabas wanted to still include John-Mark despite his past failings. Paul clearly did not suffer fools gladly, we might say today, and so wrote off John-Mark; there was a somewhat hard-nosed attitude about the ministry in him (but what do you expect from a man who endured such things as he had done – see 2 Cor 6:4,5, 11:24-27). Paul, like us, was a ‘work in progress.’ An amazing man who turned many to Christ and brought revelation and understanding to us, and yet still a man, a man who still had the potential for pride, so much so that the Lord had to allow him a ‘thorn in the flesh’. (2 Cor 12:7-9)
The Apostle of Revelation: A Pharisee persecuting Christians. That could have been all that Paul ended up being, but instead Jesus apprehended him on that road to Damascus and we are all the richer as a result. Paul referred to the revelation he received in 2 Cor 12 that we’ve just referred to, and it is difficult to sum up the amazing riches of revelation we find at Paul’s hand in the New Testament, but this perhaps more than anything else shows us the wonder of the work of God in redemption in this man.
There is his justification by faith in Romans 3-5, his understanding about sin in Romans 6 & 7 and the work of Christ and the Spirit in Romans 8, and so much more in Romans. There is the challenge in Galatians to a life of faith not works. In Ephesians the wonder of the church, of our redemption, forgiveness, predestination, especially in those incredibly truth-packed verses of chapter 1. And so it could go on, his diagnosis of the problems of church life in 1 Corinthians that leads into the amazing revelation of gifts and ministry of the Spirit in the body of Christ in chapters 12-14, his humility and anguish in 2 Corinthians, his pleading with an old friend for the sake of a Christian slave in Philemon, so much more of such variety.
And us? Some might legalistically want to challenge us to be Gospel-bringers, church planters, like Paul and so on, but I suggest in the light of what we have just been considering the biggest challenge is to get to grips with all this teaching from Paul that we find in the New Testament and ask the Lord to help us become people who can likewise, through the intimacy of their walk with the Lord, be people of revelation, people of the Spirit, freedom-bringers, peace-bringers, comforters, all the things that Paul talks about and, yes, Gospel-bringers and church-planters if that is what He calls us to. This redeemed life challenges us in all these things. May we rise to them