The apostle Paul, called to his office by the Lord, “out of season (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8), is an interesting study for a myriad of reasons.
Paul was a persecutor of the church, a blasphemer, and an ardent enemy of the cross (cf. Acts 7:58, 9:1; 1 Timothy 1:13). He put men and women in prison for their faith, and even voted to execute more than one of the saints because of their adherence to Christ. Yet, Jesus appeared to Paul, convincing him of the truth of the resurrection, and, having thus converted Paul, Jesus promptly commissioned Paul as an apostle to the gentiles (cf. Acts 9). To this commission, the once unbelieving Paul was more than faithful. Paul planted churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe. He penned a goodly portion of the New Testament, and influenced another portion in the writings of Luke. Eventually, Paul, who had suffered poverty, shipwreck, beatings and stoning, was executed for his faith, a testimony to the genuineness of his conversion.
Why did Jesus choose Paul? And what was the purpose of making Paul an apostle?
Paul, we should note, was ever mindful of his own unworthiness for the office, as well as of his duties. We know this because, being a writer, he had occasion to pontificate upon these things, mentioning them in more than one place.
Paul would write to Timothy, saying, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16; ESV)”
It is hard to imagine many crimes against the Lord much worse than those committed by Paul, who actively killed and imprisoned Christians. Yet, such is the grace of Christ, and such is the merciful nature of Christ, that Jesus was not only willing to forgive Paul, He was willing to actively work to seek out Paul for salvation, and He was willing, once Paul was saved and forgiven, to entrust Paul with great responsibility.
This is no different than how Jesus works with each of us. Jesus actively came to seek and to save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10). He didn’t wait for us to recognize our need before He took action on our behalf. Likewise, once we are forgiven, we are raised by Christ to positions of glory and honor. Each Christian has a place in God’s own family. There are no second-class Christians. No matter what your sins were before coming to Christ, Jesus is willing and able to work with you and through you. Whenever you think that Jesus might not want to save you, just remember that if Jesus was willing to forgive and save Paul, there is no-one who He will not save.
Paul also wrote, concerning his commission, that he was, “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son,… Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Romans 1:2-5; ESV).”
Paul’s goal as an apostle was to bring about “the obedience of faith.”
When we think about faith, and we think about the gospel, we need to do so ever mindful of the necessity of obedience to the message. Jesus has a message of salvation, but it calls for a response on our part. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, and sent him into the city to wait, He told Paul, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do (Acts 9:6; ESV).” Jesus was willing to save Paul, but Paul still needed to obey. Days later, Jesus sent Ananias who commanded Paul to, “arise and be baptized, washing away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).” There was the saving message and it would become the message Paul himself would preach to others, as he sought to bring about, “the obedience of faith.”
When we believe in Christ, there is a subsequent call to obey, that we might be saved. Obedience was necessary on the part of Paul, and it is necessary for us as well.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.