Last Sunday we looked at 1 Timothy 1:12–17. To encourage and strengthen Timothy for the work he was to do in leading the church in Ephesus, Paul shared his own faith story telling Timothy how it was that the Lord strengthened him to endure suffering and to remain faithful. He shared how he was “the foremost” sinner, yet God poured out on him his super-extra-overflowing grace. This grace is why he, formerly a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent, was appointed as an apostle by the Lord Jesus.
What is amazing to me is Paul says the Lord judged him faithful. When Jesus appeared to Paul as he was on his way to Damascus to continue persecuting followers of Jesus, Jesus appeared to him and interrupted Paul’s rebellion against him. It is at this point that Jesus judged Paul faithful—declared him righteous. It was also at this point the Lord Jesus appointed Paul to his service as an apostle. Jesus told Paul to enter the city of Damascus where he would be told what he is to do.
When he arrived in Damascus he was met by Ananias. The Lord had revealed to him in a vision that Paul would be an apostle to the nations. Now that Paul, too, was a witness of the resurrection and having received his appointment to the office of apostle by Jesus, he was to fulfill his role as apostle.
To understand the significance of this we must know something of Paul’s personal timeline. He was probably born in the year AD6 in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey). He was a Roman citizen by birth. Sometime between the years AD20–30 he studied Judaism in Jerusalem under the famous rabbi Gamaliel and became a Pharisee. Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead in the year AD30 and ascended into heaven. Shortly after this Paul began persecuting Christians, beginning with approving the execution of Stephen in Jerusalem. About three years later Paul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him, declared he was righteous, granted him faith and repentance, and appointed him to be an apostle. For nearly three years he had angrily and with great passion persecuted Christians, and now he was a Christian and appointed to be an apostle of the Lord Jesus.
As an apostle to the nations Paul was to travel to the nations and proclaim the gospel of Jesus and establish churches. For the next three years, however, he remained in Damascus and engaged in ministry there. After three years his life was in danger and he escaped from the city by being lowered down the wall in a basket. He fled to Jerusalem and tried to join the church there but many remembered him as a persecutor and struggled to accept that he was now a follower of Jesus. He was sent to Tarsus for his own safety. He spent the next eight years engaging in local church ministry in Tarsus. Then, around the year AD44, he was invited to the church in Antioch by Barnabas. Finally, in the year AD47 or 48, the church in Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas as apostles and sent them out to proclaim the gospel and establish churches.
Let me summarize that timeline. Jesus appeared to Paul in the year AD33 and appointed him to the office of apostle. Then, at least fourteen years later, the church in Antioch sent him out as an apostle. Jesus appointed him to be an apostle and it took fourteen years for him to do the work of an apostle. Was Paul being disobedient to Jesus’ commands? Was the church being disobedient for waiting so long to send Paul as an apostle?
No, they were not, for when Jesus called Paul to be an apostle, he knew Paul was not ready to actually do the work of an apostle. Jesus had some work in Paul to do. Think of Paul’s life. He was a go-getter. He was aggressive in pursuing what he believed to be right, which had included approving the public execution of a man. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians that he stood out even among the Pharisees. At the time there were only about six or seven-thousand Pharisees, and they were highly regarded among Jewish folk, for they appeared to have incredible zeal for the law of Moses. Having that same zeal Paul going to do the right thing regardless of what others thought—and regardless of who he hurt.
Had Paul been sent as an apostle immediately after Jesus appeared to him, the results would have been disastrous. It was great that Paul was a go-getter. It was great that Paul could determine to do the right thing even if it made others angry enough to hurt him or even kill him. It was great that Paul could serve the Lord with single-minded devotion. However, if that spirit of being a go-getter was not brought under the Holy Spirit’s control, Paul would have harmed many. If Paul’s determination to do the right thing regardless of the consequences were not brought under the Spirit’s control, the results would have been horrific. And can you imagine Paul’s self-righteousness early in his walk with Jesus? Yikes!
Paul had to deconstruct his former beliefs. He had seen the world through very specific lenses about righteousness and God’s plans and purposes for the nations. He had been filled with a strong sense of cultural superiority that needed to be rooted out of him if he were to fulfill his calling as an apostle, particularly his calling to the nations.
We see what “angry Paul” looks like in his letter to the Galatians. These churches he planted were flirting with abandoning the true gospel and so Paul told them that if anyone preached “a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). To put this in more vulgar terms, Paul said if anyone preached a different gospel, that preacher “can go to hell”. This is angry Paul, but Paul’s anger is under the control of the Holy Spirit. If Paul had been unleashed on people earlier in his walk with Jesus, the damage of an out-of-control Paul would be enormous. It took fourteen years of preparation and growth in spiritual maturity for Paul to be ready to fully engage in the work Jesus appointed for him. It took fourteen years for grace and love to replace his former self-righteousness.
When we look at Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, it is clear that Paul understood the importance of character. The qualifications for the office of overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are all character qualities with the singular ability to teach as the only “job qualification”. Think of what was going through Paul’s mind when he wrote in 1 Timothy 3 that an overseer must be “self-controlled” and “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome”. He was probably thinking as he wrote these qualifications, “pretty much not me when I was in my 20s as a young follower of Jesus”.
One thing I’ve emphasized over the years is God uses means. God can work directly in this world but most of the time he chooses to work through people. He worked directly to call Paul to faith and repentance and to appoint him as an apostle, yet he worked through the church in Antioch to determine when he would work as an apostle. Luke makes this point in his account of the sending of Paul (then called Saul).
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.Acts 13:1–4 ESV
So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
The church was gathered together seeking the Lord. The Lord made it clear to them that now was the time to send Paul as an apostle, along with Barnabas. Luke says “they…sent them off”—the church in Antioch sent them. Then he says they were sent out by the Holy Spirit. Wait a minute. Who sent them? The Spirit of God, acting through his people. God uses means.
The church, being led by the Holy Spirit, determined the time was right for Paul to assume the office of apostle, as the Lord Jesus had appointed for him, and for Barnabas to assume the role of apostle, as the church appointed him. (Remember that only the Twelve plus Paul held the office of apostle while many were in the role of apostle, which is quite like our concept of “missionary” today.) It is important that the church recognize the necessary qualifications in Paul for such a heavy responsibility.
Whatever your responsibility is, God has called each one of us to a life of faithful service to him. For some, that means vocational ministry or leadership in the church. For others, that means serving behind the scenes. Regardless of the nature of our service to him, the church should play a role in this. For years the apostle Paul’s ministry was under the leadership of others in the church, serving as he had opportunity.
Can you imagine how Paul must have felt, knowing from the beginning of his salvation that he had been appointed as an apostle yet not serving as an apostle for fourteen years? He must have been frustrated, particularly as Paul was energetic and very task-oriented and wanted to be productive. It’s important to note that not functioning in his office as an apostle did not keep Paul from serving the church. Whether he was in the church in Damascus or the church in Antioch, he was involved in ministry, even if that ministry was not the role Jesus had appointed for him.
It is not uncommon for people to question God’s timing. We long for answers to our prayers, whether for healing or for a material need, for victory over sin or for someone’s salvation. We long for God’s promises to be fulfilled. We long for better days. It can seem that God is just delaying but what Paul’s example demonstrates is God is not delaying but working. He had to work in Paul to bring Paul to the point he was ready to do what he was appointed to do. So God is also at work in us—and in others—to prepare us for whatever it is he has promised.
One of the most difficult things for us to do is to exercise patience. The tried and proven method of creating patience in us is making us wait. God’s timing may not be our timing, but God’s timing is always perfect. We need to recognize that God is not just sitting around doing nothing. He is at work behind the scenes getting everything ready. One day soon he will make it clear that the time has come. Until then, let us be faithful and serve the Lord, trusting his timing.