The apostle Paul declared himself to be “less than the least of the saints” and “I am the least of the apostles” (Ephesians 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 15:9), yet he had all of the credentials of education, dedication and loyalty that any human being could ever even hope for among mankind. What, then, was his problem? Was he making a show of humility in order to impress his audiences?
Not so! Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, the man who had obtained all of those credentials, had learned the secret of spiritual life in a true relationship with Jesus, the Christ.
When Stephen was stoned to death, as reported in Acts 7, after his penetrating and convicting message to the Jewish leaders, his clothing was laid at the feet of a young man named Saul (Acts 7:58). And this Saul then went about persecuting those new believers in Christ with great intensity.
On his way to Damascus on the hunt for those believers he was struck down by a bright light and a voice, asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:4-5).
From that encounter, Saul was blinded for three days. A man named Ananias was sent by God to take him to Damascus and take care of him. After his eyesight was restored, Saul was baptized and went immediately to the synagogue to preach Jesus to the Jews.
What a shock it was to him that he and his message were rejected, and he had to escape for his life, being let down the outside wall of the city from a window in a basket. It was a humiliating event, as he recounts in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33. Apparently he went to Arabia for three years before returning to Damascus and later, Jerusalem (Galatians 1:16-18).
Saul, now known by his Greek name of Paul, experienced a rejection much like that of Moses who also was rejected by his Hebrew kinsmen before he was ready to take up his calling from God. Out of this experience and finally, the reality that God was calling Him, Paul, to be the apostle to the Gentiles, not the Jews, it appears Paul came to learn that all of his credentials amounted to nothing but rubbish as far as his usefulness to God was concerned. It would not be Paul’s expertise that would turn the Gentiles to Christ but the Spirit of God working through him.
Therefore, he recounts the Lord’s words to him in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in answer to his pleas:
“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Paul admits he was a persecutor of the church of God, a murderer, the chief of sinners in his writings and tells Timothy, “For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
And to the Philippians he also makes this notable declaration, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Earlier, in verse 10, he had identified his goal was to “…be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.”
Did Paul have an inside look at forgiveness that perhaps you and I have not reached? (But perhaps I speak only for myself.) Simply put, Paul believed God for forgiveness of his sordid past and that takes a certain determination of the will in the face of the deepest feelings of remorse and guilt.
That first of the nine Beattitudes in Matthew 5:3 is not just accidentally in that first position. It is the foundation for all of the other eight, and in fact, the foundation for all spiritual life of faith in Jesus Christ. It says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” An assumption seems to be made in that wording, and this paraphrase is suggested for clarity: “the truly happy are those who realize their spiritual poverty, for then they have access to things of the kingdom of heaven.”
Thus Paul knew he had no spiritual capital whatever, and yet, he was proclaimed by God to be a joint heir with Christ. The Living Bible paraphrases Galatians 4:7 like this:
“Now we are no longer slaves but God’s own sons. And since we are his sons, everything he has belongs to us, for that is the way God planned.”
Note that the wording uses the inclusive “we” to mean all believers!
Therefore Paul could write with confidence and conviction these truths:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
“My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
“Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
“He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
In 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 Paul describes the various difficulties he and his team experienced with an attitude that would not be offensive to the gospel they preached and ended the list in verse 10 with a summation of how they regarded themselves:
“…As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”
Therein is the display of surrendered dependency, the essence of the realization of personal spiritual poverty—the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus that Paul was seeking.
However, we must not forget that Paul was a man born of Adam just like the rest of us, lest we put him on a pedestal and unknowingly, perhaps, worship him as an idol. He wrote in Romans 12:3, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”
The crucial part of knowing our real poverty in spiritual matters is knowing, honestly, who we really are in our Adam-riddled nature. He openly displays that side of himself in Romans 7:14-25, where the dynamic struggle between flesh and spirit is told:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
It is apparent just how intentional Paul was in his commitment to “serve the law of God with his mind,” a commitment of the will, when he noted his action to make sure it was done, and he was not a hypocrite:
“Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. 27 But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
Paul had a clear understanding of redemption and its effect on him when he wrote this in 2 Corinthians 5:17:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
He understood that he would, then, submit to the Lord working in him to accomplish his calling. That is the basis of his directive in Philippians 2:12-13:
“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
Likewise Paul was not one to embrace what now seems to be a central practice of socialism, for he worked at tent-making when necessary (Acts 18:3) and admonished the Thessalonians that “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
His was a high calling, but he did not have a different path to follow than that which God has given us, fellow believers in the Body of Christ. He could challenge us to follow in his footsteps as he followed Christ:
“Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.
“Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern” (Philippians 3:15-17).
A good starting place, once we are saved, is told to us by Jesus in Matthew 6:33:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
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