Dying in the Pulpit (Pt 5)

I have often speculated that God prepared and chose Paul to be an apostle for a couple of key reasons. First, it brings great glory to God that the chief opponent of the Gospel became the chief spokesman for the Gospel. And in this conversion we are given confidence, even twenty one centuries later, in the power and authenticity of the Gospel. Secondly – and this seems to receive less attention than the first reason – Paul, like Moses before him, was well trained in the academy of his day. In the case of Moses, though some conjecture is required, it is probable that as a prince in Pharaoh’s court Moses had access to the best universities of ancient Egypt. Perhaps this training was God ordained so that Moses might be properly equipped for the pivotal role God had prepared for him in Salvation History. Likewise, Paul acknowledged his credentials and abilities when he wrote to the Philippians:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Philippians 3:4-6).

And, in the book of Acts Luke records Paul reminding a Jewish crowd that he had been “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel was a highly esteemed Pharisee and rabbi, providing the highest quality teaching in his day. Without question, therefore, Paul was aware that he was a capable and intelligent preacher of the Gospel. Nevertheless, Paul continues in Philippians 3:7-11:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Of course this passage in context is primarily about Paul’s former pursuit of salvation and righteousness by works apart from grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Knowing Christ, Paul says, is the only way of salvation and therefore all his abilities and reputation before conversion account for nothing. At the same time – and this is the point we will look closer at – in this passage Paul admits to an unrivaled intellectual capacity and personal prominence as a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee without equal. Clearly, as can be readily seen in Paul’s letters, Paul did not cease to possess this tremendous intelligence once he became a Christian. Indeed, it seems that God preordained to use the mind and learning of Paul for His purposes. Nevertheless, Paul is the first to recognize that the power of the Gospel did not flow from him or his abilities. The power of the Gospel flows from God alone and in that sense all that Paul was before his conversion he rightly esteems as rubbish regarding salvation. His brilliant mind and elite training did not help Paul to be saved, though once saved God used both by the Holy Spirit for His glory.

To die in the pulpit, therefore, does not require us to throw away or deny the abilities and gifts that God has given us. However, we must constantly remember that these abilities and gifts cannot save a single person. Only God can save. Therefore, we employ all that we have – abilities, personalities, proficiencies – knowing that it is not enough. And so we allow and trust the Holy Spirit to carry us along and use us just as He has used a countless number of servants who have come before us.

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