In the Scriptures, we read of the Apostle to the Gentiles both as a young man and as ‘Paul the aged’, and between these two points is stretched what may surely be called ‘the life of unparalleled suffering in the service of Christ’.
At the beginning of that life, the Lord told Ananias that He would show Saul how great things he must suffer for the sake of His name, while at the end the Apostle wrote to Timothy saying, ‘But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at I.ystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me’, 2 Tim. 3. 10, 11. No one but the Lord knows all that the Apostle suffered, but it is left on record that so great was the weight of his sufferings in Asia Minor that there he utterly despaired of life. Nevertheless, he welcomed sufferings inasmuch as by them he was able to share the portion that had been Christ’s when He was here; and for the comfort of others, he uttered some of the boldest words that faith ever expressed, 2 Cor. 4. 17, 18, since he was so assured that one day he would share with every other member of the body of Christ the portion of its Head, where He now is.
He who eventually was to suffer so much for the saints is first portrayed as a grievous wolf inflicting suffering upon them. Fierce and marauding in the dark, in him was fulfilled the word, ‘Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf. Luke said, ‘He made havock of the church’, and Paul himself added, ‘beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it’. The reason for his blind and wicked zeal is not hard to find: Saul had no place in his proud heart for Jesus of Nazareth. He did not know Him. He was not aware that the One, who made himself of no reputation and became obedient unto death, had been highly exalted by divine decree to the place of highest honour and greatest glory. He had no knowledge also that by one Spirit the Lord was completely identified with His disciples, as they were with Him.
But ‘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?’, Acts 9. 3, 4. Saul’s first direct encounter with the Lord was devastating. In the heavenly vision he saw that the One whose name he was bent on destroying was God’s anointed, and in the question he was asked he could not escape the fact that the disciples he was persecuting were to Christ what the members of a body are to its head. Blinded, brought down and broken, he yet obtained mercy, and henceforth for him, the Lord’s newly acquired bondslave, it could only be, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’
The immediate direction that he received was ‘Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do’. We watch him being led into the city, there to find his way into the company of the disciples. We are reminded of the transformation of that day when the Lord shall reign, and the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.
‘And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ Both to Saul and to Ananias, the Lord made it plain that from the moment of his conversion he was a sent one.
When standing before king Agrippa and testifying to his calling, the Apostle recalled that the Lord Jesus had said to him outside Damascus, ‘But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me’, Acts 26. 16-18. And from the lips of the devout disciple Ananias he had received confirmation of this: ‘The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard’, Acts 22. 14, 15. These two references will suffice to show the character and scope of the Apostle’s calling. As to its character it was heavenly and divine, and as to its scope it was world-wide and to all men.
Like all the other Apostles he was a first-hand witness, but with this difference: they had seen and heard the Lord on earth while he had seen and heard Him from heaven. Consequently it was the heavenly calling that the Apostle Paul most fully preached. He unfolded the one hope of the Christian calling, not that we wait for the Lord to return to earth in order to enjoy all blessedness with Him here, but that, as those now indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, we live now by faith in Him where He is, waiting to share His heavenly glory when He comes again.
In preaching the message of Christ’s glory and God’s grace, it was always his object to reach those not already evangelized. Seeking fruit for God in every nation under heaven, he declared ‘For there is no difference … for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’, Rom. 10. 12,13.
Blind as a Persecutor, always bold as a Preacher, the Apostle was blameless as a Prisoner. The last phase of the Apostle’s life came as no surprise to him. In city after city, as he moved about serving the Lord with all humility, he received the testimony of the Holy Spirit that bonds and afflictions were to be his lot to the end.
It was at Jerusalem, to which at the first he had brought the disciples bound, that he himself was taken prisoner by the Romans. From that time, first for two years at Caesarea and then for two years in Rome, his Roman birthright to liberty availed him little or nothing. In the unsearchable ways of God, the Apostle became a prisoner – a prisoner of the Romans, and yet of the Lord – a political prisoner, and yet for the sake of the Gospel – a prisoner in chains, and yet always ‘free indeed’. During those years of privation, yet with contentment, he bore witness to governors and kings, begat Onesimus, stimulated fearful brethren to confidence, and wrote at least five divinely inspired letters. Throughout, his overwhelming desire was that Christ, who formerly had been so magnified in his preaching, should now be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death.
How many a servant of the Lord may have desired to finish ‘in harness’, and discovered that it was ordained that he finish ‘in chains’. How blessed to be in spirit like the Apostle Paul, who said ‘none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy’, Acts 20. 24.