It is not easy to accept that you have made a fundamental mistake. Every true athlete is fully committed to his sport. He may be in the spotlight just briefly, but that moment is the result of years of training. To find out that you are in the wrong race would be devastating.
Paul’s remarkable encounter with Christ led to a serious evaluation of his life. Paul writes, ‘I have counted’. Translation scholars render this verb in English as ‘I reckon’, ‘I consider’, ‘I think’, ‘I look upon’ all things as loss. By stating, ‘I have counted’, Paul highlights the importance of human judgement. This thought is highlighted in the scriptures. Isaiah conveyed the Lord’s message to his people, saying, ‘Come now, and let us reason together’, Isa. 1. 18. One translation reads, ‘I, the Lord, invite you to come and talk it over’ CEV. The situation in Israel is not identical to Saul who is sitting in blindness in the house of Judas on Straight Street in Damascus. What the two cases do have in common is that God wants people to use their minds, their faculties, to make appraisals. We are not robots.
Paul writes to the Romans, ‘For with the heart one believes unto righteousness’, Rom. 10. 10. Undoubtedly the term ‘heart’ is important as the source of emotions, but we must not discard its even greater importance as the centre of will, the place where we make decisions. The Jewish understanding of the term ‘heart’ includes the whole person – all that he or she is. A commitment to the Lord Jesus is not something we make superficially, but rather with due consideration we make a thoughtful, serious decision.
In New Testament times it was common to risk serious problems when you publicly acknowledged Jesus as Lord. These could involve rejection by your family, loss of employment, even danger of martyrdom; you did not make the decision for Christ lightly. The apostle’s decision to follow Christ was made after he seriously considered all the options involved. This did not take a lot of time. He did it by analysing his life. In other words, he made a careful examination of what he reckoned were his assets. In Paul’s case, the result was devastating. Compared to Christ, he had nothing of value. His commitment to Christ radically changed his whole life forever.
It was in Damascus that Saul began reevaluating everything in his life. The phrase, ‘what things were gain to me’, v. 7, suggests an effort to built up one’s own ego. After all, he had studied under Gamaliel, possibly one of the greatest scholars in the history of the Jewish faith. He excelled in his studies above many of his contemporaries. He became a Pharisee, adhering to the strictest party of his religion. By his own account he kept all the regulations of the law to the point that he was blameless. As a result, he considered his real treasures to be these achievements, his only authentic gains. He was extremely proud of his accomplishments.
Now he contemplates them in an entirely new light. The glitter has disappeared. Their value has been reduced to zero. Gone are the glories of his life in which he boasted. Spiritually, he is bankrupt. He salvaged nothing, absolutely nothing, from his previous self-made life. There is always the danger of a conversion experience with no apparent change of values. When Christ is simply an addition to a life already formed, there are no fundamental changes.
Near Damascus, Saul was surprised by the overwhelming wonder of Jesus. He was surprised by truth, by that which is authentically real. Above all he was surprised by the glory of God so powerfully shining through Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing he had so carefully gained in thirty years of life could compare to the reality of the Lord Jesus. At that moment, everything in Saul’s life paled into insignificance.
What does the apostle mean by the phrase, ‘But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ’? It is important to define the phrase for it can have different meanings. Imagine we have a friend and we know that person is in need of something. So we purchase it for him in order to help him, that is, for the sake of our friend. Paul did notrenounce all he had achieved in life in order to benefit Christ, to help Christ. Rather, it was because of the inescapable fact of Christ that Paul radically re-evaluated his life. Some of the old translations highlight this fact, ‘What things were gain to me these I counted, on account of Christ, loss’ JND, and these I have counted, because of the Christ, loss’ YOUNG.
We should not take lightly the very impressive list of Saul’s inherited family traditions and personal achievements. He was not a spoiled son who lived off the wealth of his rich parents. He came from a working family. From the training he received from his parents he developed a formidable life through hard work and sacrifice. Paul never minimizes the importance or the privileges of his Jewish heritage, for it contained God’s written word. However, something happened to Saul just outside Damascus city that fundamentally changed him. Luke tells the story, ‘Suddenly a light shone around him from heaven’, Acts 9. 3. Years later Saul, now widely known as Paul, refers twice to the experience. Believing that Paul had introduced a Gentile into the temple in Jerusalem, a mob almost killed him. Fortunately, he was rescued by Roman soldiers and given the opportunity to speak to the crowd. He referred to the unforgettable Damascus experience of many years ago, stating, ‘Suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me’, 22. 6. Yet, it is to King Agrippa that Paul gives the most in-depth description of what happened, ‘I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun at midday’, 9. 3; 22. 6; 26. 13. We remember that the experience took place at noon. That light was not of this creation. It was God’s glory.
What was Saul’s first reaction to the sight of this glory? Did he believe that God had given to him a glimpse of the divine glory while he was still on earth? Knowing the record of the theophanies recorded in the scriptures, many pious individuals in Saul’s generation longed to see God’s glory. In the case of Moses, the glory of God was so intense, so beautiful, that it left an impression on Moses’ face that lingered long after the encounter itself, Exod. 34. 29-33. For a moment, did Saul believe that he had been granted this honour?
It may be difficult for us to grasp how profound the impact was on Saul when the person in the midst of the supreme glory answered his question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’, by simply saying in clear Aramaic, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth’. The Hebrew dialect, Aramaic, was most probably the language spoken in Galilee where the Lord Jesus grew up and was most likely the language He usually spoke. It would be overwhelming for Saul, and even for us, to try to grasp the awesome truth that a man from Nazareth in Galilee, speaking Aramaic, is standing and revealing the majestic splendour of deity!
The Lord Jesus is there because He belongs there. All that He accomplished here on earth through His death and resurrection opened the door to bring ‘many sons to glory’, Heb. 2. 10. Because He is there, Paul later writes boldly, ‘We rejoice in hope of the glory of God’, Rom. 5. 2.
With Jesus in the midst of the divine glory, two things shattered Saul’s previous life. First, Jesus was the Messiah, and second, he, Saul, highly educated and very religious, had been tragically mistaken. Out of that experience he wrote years later, ‘What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ’, Phil. 2. 7. All that Paul was in the religious world of his day was nothing compared to the reality, the glory and the wonder of Christ. What Saul was in that previous world, that previous race, had kept him from Christ. He did not make his decision in a vacuum. For the first time he saw himself as he really was, lost in a pompous religious world. And he saw Jesus radiating the splendour of God’s glory. The judgement was made. With loathing, which is not too strong a word, he turns away from his former life. With joy, he turns towards Christ. He is now in the right race.
In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes us into the wonder of that Damascus moment, for he writes, ‘For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’, 2 Cor. 4. 6. Unhesitatingly, Saul jumped tracks and began running in the right race.
To be continued
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