The Things Paul Knew
David was a man who endured trials and encouraged himself in the Old Testament. In a similar way, Paul endured trials and encouraged himself in the New Testament. The one-time defender of the Law and persecutor of Christians (even to the point of murdering them) was dramatically saved as he was traveling to Damascus. He gave up his standing as a Pharisee to become a follower of Jesus. He preached to thousands of people at at time when there was no mass communication. His writings have instructed generations of believers in Christians theology and practice.
Over the course of his life, he encountered more than his share of hardship. Consider his words from 2 Corinthians 11:
I have worked harder (than false prophets who bragged about their accomplishments – editor’s note), been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm (vs. 23-28).
Read through that list again. Let the reality of the words sink in. Paul was imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and put in danger, from both his own countrymen and from foreigners. At different times along the way, he was tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold. Paul’s devotion cost him and it cost him dearly. And yet, he was able to write the following words about the costs:
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Paul accepted that difficulties were part of the plan. He didn’t look forward to them, but he didn’t back down from them either. He was willing to go through the trials so that he could accomplish his mission. Paul’s thinking was like a marathon runner (1 Corinthians 9:24). A marathoner goes to the place where the race is to be run, he runs the race, and then he goes home. Paul viewed his mission as the marathon, a long race over a variety of terrain and obstacles. He ran the race with all his energy because he knew he was going home after he crossed the finish line.
Paul’s example begs the question – how was he able to keep going? The answers lie in the things Paul knew. The following list is not exhaustive, but it includes some insights that we can use to run a good race.
He knew who he was
“And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Paul knew that he was an adopted son of God. The All-Powerful Creator of the Universe was looking out for him. As he wrote in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” That doesn’t mean that bad things did not happen to Paul (see above list of hardships Paul endured) – it means that the hardships did not separate Paul from God.
He knew what was valuable
“I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.
I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith (Phil. 3:5-9).
In his life before knowing Christ, Paul had an impressive resume. He was a “real Hebrew if there ever was one.” When Christ came into his life, his ancestry, his standing, and his position all lost their importance to him. The most important thing in Paul’s life was Jesus and becoming more like him. It didn’t matter to Paul what people said about him or what they did to him. It’s not a stretch to think that Paul’s theme song could have been “Take the World, but Give Me Jesus.”
He knew his purpose
“God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God” (Eph. 1:12).
Paul attracted a lot of attention during his travels, but his goal was to direct the attention to Jesus. He wanted Jesus to be praised for the new life He could give people. He wanted Jesus to receive glory for being the way to freedom from sin and its effects.
He knew what he was doing
“So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. And don’t be ashamed of me, either, even though I’m in prison for him. With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News. For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News. And God chose me to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of this Good News” (2 Timothy 1:8-11).
Paul’s mission was to tell everyone he could about God’s love. He used different approaches in different places, but the idea was the same – Jesus was God in the flesh, He gave His life as the sacrifice for our sins, and He was raised again on the third day. He is alive. Because He is alive, we can be free to live the life God created us to live. Paul knew he had good news for everybody. The importance of his mission helped him keep going when things got tough.
He knew where the finish line was
“That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return” (2 Timothy 1:12).
Paul suffered for his proclamation of Jesus’ love, but he was not upset about it or “ashamed” of it as the above verse says. No, he knew that his sufferings were temporary, but God’s kingdom is eternal. The difficulties of the present lose some of their impact when seen from an eternal perspective. One of the most hopeful songs of the last few years is “There Will Be a Day” by Jeremy Camp. It includes the following thoughts –
“There will be a day with no more tears, No more pain, and no more fears. There will be a day when the burdens of this place Will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face. But until that day, we’ll hold on to you always.”
We may have trouble in this life, but when Jesus returns, all those troubles will be gone. If you know that there is an end to the race and what will happen when you finish, you can keep running.
One last thought
All of the above thoughts are things that Paul knew. None is a feeling. Too many Christians live in the realm of feelings. They think that the purpose of Christianity is to make them feel better. Jesus didn’t come to make us feel better – He came to free us from the penalty, power, and (ultimately) the presence of sin. The work of the Holy Spirit in us is to make us more like Jesus. We do feel better, but not because all conflict is removed from our lives. We feel better because we adjust our lives to God’s principles, He draws us close to Him, and we have peace. That’s how the truth sets us free (John 8:32).
“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33).