“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to everlasting life.” 1 Timothy 1:15-16
My favorite animated movie is Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. A once-spoilt, selfish prince was turned into a hideous beast by an enchantress after turning her away from his castle, and only if a beautiful damsel were found to love him would he be set free from this curse. But who could possibly ever love this ugly Beast, and undo the sad fate that had befallen the once-proud prince? The odds seemed irrevocably stacked against him, and he resigned himself into inconsolable despair… until Belle came along.
The real-life version of this fantasy, more than any, is the story of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. As sinners go Paul, once known as Saul, was the worst of them all. Not so much because of what he did, but because of who he did it to. He mercilessly persecuted God’s people, and in the process became God’s foremost enemy. There is no greater sin in the world than to hurt someone for whom Christ’s blood was shed on the Cross. Jesus Himself said it were a far bearable punishment for such a person if a milling stone were tied around their neck and they were thrown into the ocean! Paul deserved the worst possible punishment.
And yet, again, it might well be that Paul received a far greater revelation of how gross his sin (any man’s sin) was before a holy God…. Whatever the case, Paul knew he deserved nothing but the worst form of judgement from God.
But God took this man, His most virulent opponent, and made him his closest ally in revealing the grand plan that His Son Jesus Christ had come to fulfill on earth for the salvation of mankind. Having freely forgiven him of his sins, God transformed him and invested in him all the wisdom of His revelation – Paul knew the Lord Jesus in a way the other apostles did not. God also used him to spread the Good News on a scale none of the others would.
But God would do even more through Paul…
God chose Paul for a very specific reason. By saving this ‘chief’ of sinners God purposed to show the abundance of His mercy to all who would believe on Him. Through the grace that He would bestow upon such a man in freely saving him and cleansing him of his sins, God wanted to make known that He is able and willing to do just that to anyone who comes to Him.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ (by grace you are saved)… that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” Eph. 2:4-7
When we think of the word ‘mercy’ we have the idea of this mushy, cuddly, loving, fatherly care and concern coming to us from God. And, indeed, that is the reception we get from Him right from the start. The minute we receive Jesus into our lives, God instantly sets us free from the power of sin, He heals our diseases, and does many other wonderful things to confirm to us that He is indeed our loving, caring Father.
More importantly, He gives us His Holy Spirit who brands this all-important truth onto our hearts.
Many Christians wish – and many more assume – that the story of our salvation should end there, and all we need to do is just hang around and await the rapture. And probably as we are waiting for Jesus to come and take us to Heaven, we could enjoy a bit of life here on earth as the King’s Kids?
In this kind of scenario, the most that we could expect God to bother us with as His sons and daughters would be for Him to assign us a simple task which we could happily fulfill while munching a hamburger. We might even be tempted to contemplate taking on a great responsibility like the one He was about to give Paul through Ananias: “For he a chosen vessel to me, to bear my Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15), as long as no real suffering is involved. We could get noticed!
The above scenario might have become the happy ending to Paul’s encounter with Jesus were it not for the fateful words that Jesus added as He was giving Ananias instructions concerning Paul: “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my Name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).
This, and Jesus’ many references to losing our lives painfully brings us to face the truth that the reality of our calling is not so simplistic. In the spiritual kingdom, you cannot have your cake and eat it. We cannot live for both the heavenly and this world.
Jesus’ words to Ananias henceforth shaped the character of Paul’s mission and ministry. Only through the suffering that God put him to would Paul become a vessel of honor to carry the life of Christ wherever he went. God made Paul to understand in his spirit that without the working of the Cross in his life, the life of Christ would not be manifested in him. As Paul allowed the hand of God to mold and shape him through the sufferings he endured, he was able to spread the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ – the Good News – throughout the entirety of his ministry.
It is no wonder, therefore, that his letters are replete with references to the Cross of Jesus Christ: but not in the traditional sense that the Cross is understood by many Christians today. The Cross that Paul talks of in his epistles is something beyond Jesus simply dying for our salvation. The revelation of that Cross in our hearts is the power that will bring death to the carnal nature residing in us. And when that carnal nature dies in us, we will bear fruit in the spirit and please God, no matter the nature or size of our ministry to Him. God is not so much interested in what we do as in what we become through the working of the Cross in our lives.
Dying with Jesus (by the power of the Cross) is what we need if we are to become true ambassadors of Christ here on earth. “For the preaching of the Cross… is the power of God” 1 Cor. 1:18.
“But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumblingblock, and to the Greeks foolishness; but to them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” vv 23, 24.
It is interesting that, although the apostles did many and mighty miracles during their ministry here on earth, yet nowhere do we see them talking or writing about these things. They wanted to represent something spiritually far more superior, the inner transformation that only the revelation of the Cross can effect in a man. To them, this changed life represented the true power of the gospel.
The Apostle Paul worked miracles, yet he would not boast in that. Rather, he boasted in the grace that enabled him to identify his life with the life of Christ in His sufferings and death: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Gal.6:14
Jesus was not simply a mighty man of signs and wonders. He was, in the final analysis, “the bread that came down from heaven.” He did miracles all right, but in Himself He carried something infinitely more important which He desired to give to mortal man: the very life and nature of God. He did that by dying on the Cross.
Man also would only be able to appropriate this new, Godly nature by dying to the old, carnal nature through the Cross.
Miracles do not make us spiritual. Nor does material or physical well-being. The Cross, working in us, does. That is what God meant when he told Ananias: “For I will show him (Paul) how great things he must suffer for my Name’s sake.”
Many preachers who work miracles today will be rejected by Jesus at His return simply because they did not allow their lives to be touched and transformed by the mighty hand of God. They did not align their lives with the Cross of Jesus in the spiritual sense, where their lives, crushed by the Cross, would unveil the riches of Christ to a spiritually dying world. They did not allow the Cross to deal with their pride, the lusts of their flesh, their idolatry, etc. On the contrary, these preachers gloated in the miracles that God would do through them and they became proud, vain men. Their very lives would testify to that: “By their fruits you shall know them” Mat. 7:10
The power of God’s grace in the life of Paul is summarized in his own words to Timothy: “But you have fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, persecutions, afflictions…” (1 Tim. 1:16). The power of the gospel brings this kind of lifestyle and fruit in a Christian’s life.
I am blessed to be a member of CTMI where the undiluted revelation of the message of the Cross, the power of God, is preached and lived, wherever this gospel has been proclaimed. Along with hundreds of other pastors in so many countries, I know that I am also a direct beneficiary of God’s powerful, magnificent, and matchless grace.
A Merry Christmas to all who visit this blog! May God’s grace warm your hearts during this holiday season.