Times of Preparation in Paul’s life
In the middle of the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul dominates the pages of the New Testament. We focus on his teachings, but sometimes we fail to see the spiritual insight woven into the tapestry of his Christian experience. On the one hand, he was a trophy of God’s grace, a terrorist turned preacher, one who would pen, “I am what I am by the grace of God”. While at the same time he was a poster child for grit and determination, a man as persistent as he was a peace seeker, a man familiar with weakness and the power of God. He knew he was bad preacher (by oratory standers of his day) but he knew a great God and That God know him. The accounts of his exploits are only surpassed by the Christian character that under girded them. By applying the lessons of Paul’s life to our own, we too can learn to draw upon God’s strength to become people on mission in our times. His life includes an extended period of preparation which I want to focus on in this post. (1)
Lessons from Paul’s Early Christian Life
The Damascus road experience was only the beginning of a long process of preparation in the life of the future apostle. God doesn’t need talented people; He’s looking for people with insight, deep” people. But how many of us proactively set aside the time necessary to deepen our spiritual walk?
A life marked by real root growth can only be cultivated in long periods of time spent in solitude, quietness, and obscurity. Times of preparation and obscurity are concepts foreign to those who live their lives in the hustle of today.
The biblical examples of God’s preparation is quite impressive. Moses spent 40 years tending his father’s sheep. David waited more than a decade to assume the throne. Joseph must have felt abandoned when he was locked up in an Egyptian jail. Elijah hid by a brook, where he was fed by ravens.
During these periods of retreating, these men developed spiritual root systems. They became aquatinted with their weakness. They did not fall prey to the temptation to rely on their talents and ignore the need to rely on God. The cultivated their spiritual roots so they could drink living water in even a dry season.
Paul right after his conversion became an important spokesman for God less than a week after his blinding encounter with the Living Christ. Yet it was God’s mercy did not allow him to continue on the frontlines. He spent the next three years in Arabia. I like to call Paul’s time in Arabia, as God’s Desert school of theology. Their Paul learned to seek the Lord. God dealt with his pride, as this highly educated Pharisee learned to surrender all that had once been important to him. As He learned and developed his theology. He learned the discipline of delay.
Our society glorifies independence and worships at the altar of individual achievement. Paul had the right stuff to climb that ladder. But God taught him the value of dependence at the very onset of his public ministry. Paul was preaching in the synagogues, wowing the people of Damascus. As a result, the Jewish leaders put out a contract on him, ending his newfound popularity. He was forced to rely on his followers, who placed him in a basket, and ignominiously lowered him down through a hole in the city wall to safety.
Then it was on to the church at Jerusalem, where perhaps he expected a glorious reception as the murderer-turned-preacher. What he encountered, however, was mistrust and suspicion. Enter Barnabas, who vouched for him and introduced him to the apostles. Only then was Paul able to have a significant ministry among the believers.
The importance of Barnabas vouching for Paul cannot be under stated. Barnabas cared little about his reputation willing to take on the same suspicion and stigma hanging over Paul. While a double edges sword and should never become a good old boy system, Learners vouching for someone unfairly and unjustly is powerful. Someone suffering under a cloud of suspicion can’t fight for themselves, they are often not privileged to be apart of those conversions. Had Barnabas has a competitive spirit, one who secretly desired the spot light, what would have been Paul’s story? Without Barnabas believing in Paul, and vouching for him we may not have the Letter of Paul in our New Testament.
Although a great hurdle was cleared in fellowship extended to Paul by the Peter, John and James. God was not through humbling Paul’s independent spirit. Paul’s mouth got him in trouble again. Paul had an argument with the Hellenistic Jews, who decided to do away with him altogether. Some unnamed christian, however, saved Paul’s skin, whisking him away to Caesarea and then on to Tarsus.
But hadn’t he been commissioned by God? Was he not promised by God he would preach to kings? What was he going to do back in Tarsus? And how would the Jerusalem Church fare without him? According to Acts 9:31, they were doing great. They fared very well, thank you. Talk about a lesson in humility! When God makes us dependent on those who are less well known, it teaches us to value others instead of flying solo. It encourages us to be humble rather than to promote ourselves. It should motivate us to trust in God, who wants us to do the work in His way.
7 to 10 years later Paul was still riding God’s bench in Tarsus, waiting in the wings. By then he was in his mid-40s. He had probably been ostracized by his family and suffered expulsion from the synagogue. As he waited, the world and, indeed, the missionary mandate seemed to be passing him by. He worked in his trade as a tent maker, sitting and knitting a tent when he was called to so much more.
There are those who feel as if God has put them aside. Perhaps they don’t have the influence they once had; maybe their platform for ministry has evaporated. They have trained and sacrificed, but they don’t feel that God is actualizing His investment in their lives. They should be encouraged by the fact that some of God’s servants like Paul have spent a season of their lives in the shadows, waiting for God’s moment. During these times God creates the depth of character out of which He will later work. God does not call us to ambition; he calls us to patience and surrender. Exceptional work is preceded by extended waiting. As one pastor told me “The word ‘hurry’ shows up far more in our vocabulary than it does in God’s plan.” Learning to deal positively with frustration and failure by knowing God is in control of the process is important.
In Acts 11 we read that a great revival was going on in Antioch. When news of this reached Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas, who was more in tune with Hellenistic culture, to provide leadership for that church. But when Barnabas saw the scope of the work, he realized that he was in over his head. But he remembered Paul, now prepared to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit and not in his own strength. The two had a marvelous ministry together.
I am always encouraged by the fact that it was Barnabas that platformed Paul. It was Barnabas that vouched for Paul. Barnabas ‘the encourager’, a man of hope and vision, saw what others did not see. Without Barnabas we would have no Paul. We need more people like Barnabas’ in the church, single minded when it comes to mission of God, willing to work to make others great more than make a name for themselves. People who seek out those that the church has discarded and makes opportunity out of ashes, much like the Jesus, Barnabas loves.
From the pre-ministry life of Paul we can distill five principles about the dynamic of God’s preparation:
- God’s training includes what we would rather omit, a period of waiting designed to produce patience, trust and Christ like character.
- In the time of preparation we become aquatinted with weakness.
- Humility comes in the shadows, where we learn that we are not indispensable.
- During the waiting period God grants insight into His Person (Who God is) and work (What he is doing).
- When God finally moves us into effective ministry, we neither expect it nor feel qualified.
Considerations from Paul’s Preparation
On a personal level, how do we respond to time of preparation:
- Instead of accelerating your pace, slow down and think. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself on the fast track to superficiality.
- Instead of more talk, try silence and reflection. A retreat helps us to escape the ubiquitous noise of our time, be quiet, and listen to God.
- Instead of pursuing power, try stillness and surrender. Everybody wants to be somebody, particularly in the ministry. But popularity can easily outpace maturity, and you find yourself substituting image for integrity.
- Instead of looking at your lack, take every opportunity to minister to someone as a gift. We have not earned it. We don’t serve it. We have been graced it. How we handle such moment, if they go to our head or remind us to cling to God speaks volumes about our character and in whom we ultimately trust.
(1) Theologians and biblical scholars have noted plot points from Acts 9-13 and Paul’s letters to form a timeline of his early life. Some aspects are debated but a common order exists.
- Paul: Apostle of a Flaming Heart – FF Bruce
- Paul: Apostle of Weakness – David Black
- Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit – Charles R. Swindoll
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