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Monday, September 21, 2009

A Little Life Lesson

God will at times stir us to notice some little, insignificant detail of ordinary life and lead us down a path of thought that helps us to understand truth. Jesus once pointed to a flower and made his disciples notice the colorful beauty of a simple flower. He saw in that flower a reminder that God provides clothing for even a flower...how much more will He provide for us?

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: (Matthew 6:29) And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:30) Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28)

A small detail concerning the Apostle Paul can remind us of the change that God brings to the life of one who loves and trusts Him. And by "small" detail, I mean literally, "little"!

Paul, a servant of God

The name of Paul is common, and common names seem to lose impact when we use them. But names are derived from words that have meaning and significance. Paul's name comes from a Greek word, Paulos, meaning "little". A person introduced to Paul would immediately form a first impression based on the idea of smallness or humility. Paul often mentioned his "leastness", or an aura of smallness that characterized his appearance to the world.

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea,and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you...For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. (2 Corinthians 10:1,10)

Paul was evidently so small physically that he could fit in a basket when being rescued from persecution!

And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands. (2 Corinthians 11:33)

Paul rejoiced in his weaknesses and smallness because it allowed God to show Himself great...none but a great God can work powerfully in a small, weak person.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul was humbled by the tremendous support and confidence given to him by God.

Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; (Ephesians 3:7-8)

Paul was a living example of his name, a physically small, weak man, whose only claim to success could be that he loved Jesus and he allowed God to work through his life.

But Paul was not always known as "Paul". His given name was Saul, and that's how he is introduced to us in Scripture: Saul the Pharisee, a legalistic, ultra-religious Jew, bitterly obsessed with destroying anyone who followed the "heretic", Jesus Christ. We see this first when Saul helped to kill the young Christian, Stephen:

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul...And Saul was consenting unto his death. (Acts 7:57-58, 8:1)

Paul the apostle would later write about his old life:

...If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church...(Philippians 3:4-6)

Paul's given name was Saul, which is from a Hebrew word, "Sha'al", which means to ask, inquire, request, or to demand. Does Paul's life before Christ show evidence of assertiveness, demanding information or obedience of others? Was the character of "Saul the Jew" different than that of "Paul the Christian"? First, let's see some example of how the Hebrew word, "Sha'al" was used.

In the Old Testament, Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, journeyed to the country of the Philistines, looking for refuge from famine, and immediately ran into conflict:

And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon. (Genesis 26:7)

The word for "asked" used here is not a simple request for information, otherwise Isaac would not have felt fear. The implication is that the men demanded that Rebekah be available for their "social pleasure". The demand implied that nothing should stand in the way of their desires, so Isaac lied to save his own life. (Actually, Rebekah WAS Isaac's cousin! See Genesis 24:15)

The great Writer of Songs and Oracle of Wisdom, King Solomon, spent time in his youth tasting of all that life could offer.

And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. (Ecclesiastes 2:10)

The word, "desired" is the same Hebrew word used to express "demand". Solomon didn't merely ask for luxury and pleasure, he demanded them. Incidentally, Solomon eventually realized that unlimited pleasure was empty and vain unless one's life is lived to glorify and enjoy God. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-14)

Saul/Paul the Apostle also used this word, or at least he acted out the intent of that word before he gave his life to Christ. Saul the Jew was vehemently opposed to Christians and actively sought authority to destroy their faith.

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And DESIRED of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

Again, Saul did not simply ask for the letters of authority...he didn't weakly desire them. The clear intent expressed in this verse is that Saul aggressively demanded the letters. The word "Sha'al" carries the implication that it is a demand for something due...Saul felt he deserved the authority and that he owned the right to persecute heretics.

Paul would later write of this phase of his life,

For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of of the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

Saul's violent, aggressive, demanding nature continued until Jesus Christ Himself put a stop to it, suddenly and decisively:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou,Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. (Acts 9:3-9)

Saul the Demander became Saul the Follower. He allowed a Christian named Ananias to heal his blindness and teach him the truth about Jesus, and he accepted the Lordship and spiritual calling given to him by God. God took an agressive, self-righteous, demanding unbeliever and filled his life with a new purpose and love. God said of Saul,

...he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel... (Acts 9:15)

Scripture does not record when or how Saul's name changed to Paul. Most likely, he himself changed his name to reflect his new life, but those who knew him before probably continued to call him Saul. It's entirely possible that Saul began to introduce himself as "Paul, the Little Man Who Follows a Big God". His new friends would call him Paul, and his old friends would refer to him as "Saul, also known as Paul".

It is significant that Scripture would begin to refer to Saul as "Paul" during a conflict between the Apostle and a Jewish sorceror, the false prophet named Elymas, or "Bar-Jesus". The sorceror worked for a Roman proconsul named Sergius Paulus, who was seeking to learn more about Jesus Christ. But the sorceror opposed Christianity and attempted to use deceit and trickery to destroy the proconsul's growing faith. Saul confronted Elymas:

Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. (Acts 13:9-11)

The sorceror was rebuked and made blind through the faithful ministry of a man who himself once was blinded during a violent rampage against Christians. How ironic! How God-coincidental!

Don't take this focus on humility as a condemnation of assertiveness. There is definitely a time for bold, assertive action, especially concerning the truth and character of God. One vivid example comes to mind: Peter and John's courageous stand for God before the Sanhedrin. They boldly contradicted the council's express command.

But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:17-20)

Be bold for the truth, but humble for yourself!

If you feel small and insignificant, if you suffer from weakness or inadequacy, don't feel too sorry for yourself. Instead, turn your weakness into a prayer to God for Him to show Himself great in your life. Turn your loss into praise for a God who sees, who is sovereign and who is in control, who can work through little and make much.