Can we start things off a little differently today? Read through Galatians 1:11-24 so that we're on the same page as I move forward in my thinking:
"Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. 12 I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.
13 You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. 14 I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors.
15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.
When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. 17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.
18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.
21 After that visit I went north into the provinces of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And still the churches in Christ that are in Judea didn’t know me personally. 23 All they knew was that people were saying, 'The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!' 24 And they praised God because of me."*
In the last chapter of Holley Gerth's book, "You're Already Amazing: Embracing Who You Are, Becoming All God Created You to Be," she describes Paul: "The same Paul who ended up writing to the early churches started out being belligerent, overzealous, and an oppressive leader. After Jesus appeared to him, Paul was determined, enthusiastic, and an encouraging leader."
Paul said this about himself in 1 Timothy 1:13- "even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief."
And this: "This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all." (1 Timothy 1:15)
Also this: " 'I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.'" (Acts 26:9-11)
Remember, Paul also had this to say for himself in Galatians 1:13-14 (NLT)- "You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors."
As he writes this letter (and many others), Paul is the same man with the same characteristics, but they are readjusted, molded, and shaped to be used for God's glory by God's amazing grace. God uses Paul to reach some of the very people he was persecuting. Do you realize that the first time we met Paul in Acts (Saul of Tarsus at the time), he was standing to the side watching Stephen (an apostle of Christ) be stoned to death? And he joins in on that crusade, hunting and killing Christians for the God of Heaven? He was basically a religious terrorist!** But Jesus himself grabbed a hold of Paul and reworked every part of him. He took the loud, opinionated, judgmental, overzealous pieces of Paul's heart and He molded them like clay to be something he could use for His glory- reaching out to Gentiles (non-Jewish people) and leading them to Jesus with grace and truth.
Do you see that Paul didn't go around talking to Jesus's apostles or asking around for advice. He went straight to God himself to get the message he shared over and over again throughout the New Testament. Look at this with me: "When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus." (Galatians 1:16b-17) Look at that line in the middle of verse 17, "I went away to Arabia." In his book, "Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit," Charles Swindoll makes a compelling case for that line. He suggests- with the support of several other Bible scholars- that Paul went away for possibly up to three years and in that time, God spoke to Paul, changed Paul, got inside of Paul and showed him His perfect way so that Paul was better equipped to go out and share God's grace.
The other cool thing we learn about Paul in this passage is that he isn't afraid to air his dirty laundry and let everyone know what was going on with him before, during, and after his run-in with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He puts it all out there and lets God use it however he wants to use it. So often as Christians we think that we have to hide all of the imperfections. The enemy whispers in our ear that we can't be used, we aren't good enough, we aren't strong enough. We just aren't enough period. And it's all a lie that we're falling for. Especially as a woman, I fall for this one constantly. I hope it isn't just me. Even now, as I write this, I can hear that whisper happening- "You're the only one who feels that way." And I know it's a lie, but there's a part of me that wants to believe it.
I want to end with this: You never know what God is going to use from your past to affect His future. Look at these words from Paul: "All they knew was that people were saying, 'The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!' And they praised God because of me." (Galatians 1:23-24) We do not have to be- nor should we choose to be- prisoners of our pasts. We are free in Jesus only because of Jesus. It's time to let go of that past, let God use it however he wants to, and live here in the present fully committed to doing what Jesus asks us to do in our lives. If Paul can move forward and share this amazing grace with millions of people after his past, surely we can do our level best to share that same amazing grace with ourselves and others right here in the present.
* Selection of verses borrowed from Biblegateway.com, New Living Translation
**Check out Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit By Charles Swindoll for more interesting information about Paul's life.