If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more. … But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ.
More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things — indeed, I regard them as dung! — that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness — a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians — 3:4, 7-11 (NET)
We have talked a lot about “call” during my first semester at Divinity School. At the beginning of my course with Dr. Michael Cogdill, we focused on the call of Paul, also called Saul.¹ Paul is often used as an example of a person who made a radical change of direction — a complete 180º — in his decision to follow Christ. The phrase “she had a ‘Damascus Road experience,'” referencing Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Messiah on his way to Syria, is common vernacular today. Indeed, considering Paul’s position when he left Jerusalem — “I do not believe Jesus is the Christ” — compared with his stance once he arrived in Damascus — “I do believe Jesus is the Christ” — it is fair to say that he made a total change.
A broader look at Paul’s life, however, shows that perhaps this change wasn’t as sharp as it initially appears to be. Paul had always had a deep desire to know more about God. Although he worked as a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3), not a religious professional, Paul devoted his time to studying the faith and the ancient scriptures. He became a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:1-3), the most accomplished teacher of his day. Saul wanted to do all he could to please God and serve him, so he joined the Pharisees — a religious-political sect of Jews that followed the rules of their faith, as they understood them, in the strictest sense possible, holding each other accountable along the way. Even among the Pharisees, Saul’s desire to follow the will of God and serve him was unsurpassed (Galatians 1:13-24).
Saul had spent his life studying the scriptures and prophets and knew them as well, or better, than anyone else of his generation. He was a Roman citizen² (Acts 22:22-29), but he had already decided that following God and serving him was more important than focusing on building a career and amassing money. He valued education, he paid attention to the secular philosophies of his day (Acts 17:16-31) and he valued a hard days work. Above all else, however, Saul was committed to serving God, although his understanding of God had been skewed by his narrow focus (Acts 7:51-8:3).
Clearly, Saul was the perfect person to lead the effort of spreading the message of Christ to the world. He had the knowledge, he had the credibility, he had the resources, and above all, his zeal for serving the Lord was unmatched. He just didn’t quite understand what it was God wanted from him.³ Meeting Christ has a way of bringing clarity to things.
In the same way, whenever we find ourselves at a point of conflicting values — when a dilemma of ethics seems to permeate a decision — studying the life of Christ is the best method for clearly judging a right course of action.
Understanding Paul’s life in this way — recognizing the fact that his love of God and his desire to live a life of service did not begin on the Damascus Road — poses a tough question for Christians today. How do we deal with fundamentalists from other faiths? Can we condemn them for holding fast to what they “know” to be true?
Caught in this situation, even as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!'” (Acts 7:59-60).
Maybe Stephen was just as confused as Saul was. He seems pretty extreme himself. Again, for clarity, I turn to Jesus:
So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:33-34 (NET)
Following Jesus isn’t easy, but as Paul found out, it’s worth the cost.
1. Contrary to tradition, Saul’s name was not changed following his encounter with Christ. The biblical record shows that he continued to be called by both names after his profession of faith. Like many Jews at that time, Paul kept his Hebrew name (Saul) but used a Greco-Roman name (Paul) in common circles. Considering his zeal for Judaism, and the fact that accounts of his early life are generally concerned with his involvement in the faith, before his conversion to Christianity his Hebrew name was used most frequently.
2. Paul received his citizenship through inheritance, which was an unusual thing at a time when most people living under the rule of Caesar were not considered citizens. This indicates that Paul was likely from a wealthy family of considerable influence.
3. The fact that Paul condoned the killing of an innocent man is not lost on me. Clearly, this is not the kind of behavior God desires from anyone, but this gross misunderstanding of God’s very clear instructions (“Don’t kill. Period.”) has been a recurring issue among people throughout history who have thought they were enacting the will of God. Thankfully, Paul eventually came to recognize the wisdom in putting Christ first. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)