Putting Your Past In Its Place
I am Paul
My parents were hardworking but well respected citizens of Tarsus, Cilicia—located in what is now known as southern Turkey, just 20kms from the Mediterranean coastline. Although I grew up learning the family trade as a tent maker, we were well connected in the Jewish community and well respected in our Roman city. My home was a significant city in the Roman Empire, where it enjoyed the political favour of the Emperor and was even given tax-free exemption because of its political connections. Many cultural personalities and influencers called Tarsus home, and I was exposed to some of the greatest philosophers of my generation from a young age. I grew up with the privileged position of living in one of the first Roman cities to entrust Jewish inhabitants with Roman citizenship.
Very early on in my youth, I was exposed to the teaching of my Jewish faith and showed understanding and passion for it beyond my peers. Soon after, my synagogue teachers recommended further tutoring in the Jewish capital, Jerusalem. As my family relocated, my ongoing studies led me ever deeper into the religious spotlight, soon catching the eye of the foremost religious instructor of the first century, Gamaliel. Under his tutoring and rabbinic leadership, my passion for the Law was unmatched, and I excelled in my studies even more—fuelling my love for national religious purity, as well as my hatred for any who set themselves up as opposing God’s righteous rule.
As I progressed in religious zeal, a growing movement of rebels caught my attention—unschooled nobodies who flaunted our faith and way of life, claiming that acceptance with God couldn’t be gained apart from following a man named Jesus—a self-proclaimed messiah.
I sat in on countless discussions as we sought to counter the claims and attacks of this rebel Jesus, and it was with great relief that it was all finally put to an end with his movement’s failure—culminating with the public execution of this so-called Christ.
Yet these fanatics would not let the movement die. More and more people were being swept up in the lie that the Christ had come—hundreds of my fellow Jews were abandoning the traditions of our Fathers, and there were even rumours that Gentiles too were joining their ranks.
Something had to be done! Someone had to put and end to this madness once and for all!
So when the day came that they dragged a battered and bleeding follower of Jesus to my feet, I sneered in his face, spat at his feet, and laughed as they crushed the breath from his lungs. I willingly held the cloaks of those who hurled the stones, and nodded with approval with where this would lead.
As the old saying instructs, ‘Cut the head off the snake and it will die’.
But it didn’t.
We killed Jesus. We killed Stephen. But still it grew.
I sat in the darkness of my room, tears running down my face as I cried out to God—“I want to serve you. I want to please you. So if the death of two of these rebels was not enough, then I will kill a thousand of them if it will honour your name!”
So it became my living, breathing passion. I devoted my entire life to ensuring this name would be stamped out, and that only the name of Jehovah would remain. My power and domination grew day after day, week after week. When the cowards fled the city, I followed them. I would hunt them to the ends of the earth if it meant I could destroy every single memory of the name of Jesus.
It was on one of these trips—the papers had been drawn up, and my travelling party gathered—that all my dreams, all my passions, all my zeal were thrown to the ground in a blazing flash of light.
Damascus was the destination to advance my infamy, but it would be the place where I would be humbled beyond my wildest imaginations.
Where I had thought it was I who walked in the light, and that others were deluded by the darkness, now I discovered that it was, in fact, I who was blind.
Yes, here I sit, eyes open but not seeing anything—physically blind, but more significantly, spiritually blind.
I’d had a revelation of the risen Jesus—now everything else that made sense about my life was burnt to ashes.
Now as I pray, the last remnants of my pride and self-assurance are crumbling away under the burning light of Jesus’ glory, then I feel a hand on my shoulder, and a soft voice whisper in my ear—“Brother Saul”—then light.
Once I was blind, but now I see.
The account of Saul’s conversion is first recored by Luke in the book of Acts, and can be read in Acts 9:1-19. But on a couple of other occasions we have an insight into this event given by Paul himself. So consider one of those insights as we read about it in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
As we reflect on Paul’s journey to faith, one of the questions that comes to my mind is, how did Paul reconcile his life prior to knowing Jesus as Lord, with his life following that event?
It’s an important question. Because many of us have been on this journey, and you know many others who are still on this journey.
What do we do with that part of the story that leads up to meeting Jesus?
Let Philippians 3:2-14 guide us as we consider that question.
Our history shapes us—but doesn’t define us
Paul’s history, his journey, shaped his unique contribution to the Christian world following his conversion. The fact that he was a Roman citizen gave him insight and access that he wouldn’t normally have had. The fact that he was one of theforemost leaders in Judaism prior to his conversion, helped him counter the claims of his opponents as he argued for the sufficiency of grace alone through faith.
Paul’s journey shaped him, but it didn’t define him.
Your journey has shaped you, but it doesn’t define you.
Paul’s identity had been radically reformed. No longer did the trophies of his past define his worth or commend his character. Paul’s identity was wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.
Everything that once held significance, everything that once would have been put forward to define who Paul was and what his place was in the world, was now completely turned on it’s head.
Your history, your journey—whether commendable or filled with regret—can be today counted as less than rubbish. Your journey may have been something worth boasting in, or maybe it’s something you’ve laboured long and hard to try and bury, but I want you to know this today—it does not need to define you. In fact, in Christ, it does not define you!
Today, who you are and what your place is in the world, is defined and shaped by Christ alone. It may be that your history has uniquely prepared you for the future, but it doesn’t define who you are. The power of the gospel is unrivalled—transforming the terrain of your journey and redefining the story of your life.
Only Jesus can do that.
Our history—our journey—will lead us to one of two places. Either we will be filled with pride over what we’ve accomplished and who we’ve become, or we will be filled with shame over our failure to succeed and what we’ve done. But the gospel destroys both those positions. Both pride and shame are uprooted and burnt in the blazing light of the glory of Jesus.
Only Jesus could reshape and redefine a religious terrorist like Paul, and only Jesus can reshape and redefine the contours and chapters of your story.
Our history shapes us—but does not define us.
Our history shapes us—but doesn’t carry us
We live in an age of platform manufacturers and portfolio developers. What I mean by that, is that most people spend huge amounts of time, energy, and financial resources and creating a social environment where other people will take them seriously and listen to them.
The reason Facebook had 1.94 billion active monthly users at the end of March 2017, and the reason social media platforms are one the fastest growing modern phenomenons, is because humanity has a fatal obsession with self-marketing. We want the rest of the world to see us through an Instagram lens—shaping a projected reality to ensure we won’t live and die in isolation.
It would seem that modern man’s greatest fear is obscurity. So we are feverishly building platforms from which we hope the world we stop and notice us, and maybe pause long enough to appreciate the things we have to say.
And while engineers and artists build portfolios to showcase their work and secure future contracts, we are gathering ‘followers’ and ‘subscribers’ in an attempt to showcase our worth and carry us forward on our quest to be know.
Brothers and sisters, our history shapes us—but it doesn’t carry us.
What carried Paul? What was it he relied on to propel him forward?
His past? His achievements, his accomplishments, his successes? No!
Not one single aspect of Paul’s ‘platform’ was able to carry him forward. In fact, Paul says that everything about his past was to be left in the past.
Two truths gripped Paul’s heart and carried him forward:
1. Christ had made him his own (v12)
2. Rather than what was behind, it was what was ahead that carried him forward (v13-14)
What’s carrying you forward in your journey with Christ?
Your childhood can not carry you forward. Your experience at Youth Group can not carry you forward. That mission trip you did, can not carry you forward. That ministry you led, can not carry you forward. That time you led someone to the Lord, can not carry you forward. Nothing about your journey, or your story so far, has the power to carry you forward—the only thing from your history that can do that is this: that Christ Jesus has made you his own—that’s it.
Like Paul, everything else in the back story of your life can be abandoned and be left where it is. Nothing else matters, and nothing else counts. Everything you once counted on to lift you out of the stagnant pool of obscurity needs to be dropped like dead weight. All you have to cling to is the fact that God in Christ has made you his own. In Christ, you are known by the only one that truly counts—known and loved.
It’s not what’s behind you that carries you—it’s what’s in front of you. There is a prize waiting—the upward call of Christ.
So run. The finish line is just ahead. Christ himself stands cheering you forward. He has made you his own, and he himself is the prize. So run.
Our history shapes us—but doesn’t carry us.
Your journey can shape someone else’s journey
Just in case you understand me to say that your journey doesn’t matter, I need to stop and look at one more important truth.
Paul doesn’t say that his journey was of no importance—he just says it wasn’t worth counting on. Yet, the journey is of some significance.
Look at what Paul says in Phil 3:17—people’s journeys matter, and in fact, one person’s journey has the power to impact another person’s journey for their benefit. Without any sense of pride, Paul was able to say, “Imitate me”, and he even says, “Shape your journey by watching others who walk like we do.”
Did you realise that God desires that your journey—despite the fact it doesn’t define us or carry us—should intersect with someone else’s life in such a way that it can change the whole direction of their story? That’s what happened to Paul and we can read about it in Acts 9:10-19.
We know pretty much nothing about Ananias—he was just a certain disciple who lived in Damascus. But Ananias’ journey just so happens to intersect here, just at the moment when it was needed most. Full of doubts, and full of fears, Ananias tentatively obeys the leading of the Lord, and walks into the presence of a murderer—the perpetrator of torment and hate toward every Christian alive—and laying a hand on his shoulder say, “Brother Saul…”.
Can you imagine how sweet that must have heard to Saul. Do you realise the power that was communicated in that short phrase?
Saul’s story had been filled with misguided zeal, hatred and death—but in that brief moment, the entire trajectory of his life was changing. Saul the church destroyer would become Saul the church planter and builder. Saul, the one who would inflict suffering for the sake of Christ, would become Saul, the one who would experience suffering for the sake of Christ.
Over and under this radical transformation was the awesome power of the gospel and the miracle of new life that comes through Jesus Christ, but quietly, with his hand resting on the shoulder of Saul stood an obscure disciple named Ananias—a man who was willing to go where Jesus sent him, and allow his journey to intersect with someones else’s journey.
Where is Jesus sending you? Or maybe it would be better to ask, who is Jesus sending you to?
We have no idea of the journey people have been on, and we have no idea of the journey God has yet in store. The journey is not our concern, their story belongs to God. But are you willing to go? Are you willing to rest a hand on someone’s shoulder? Are you willing to let your journey cross paths with someone else’s journey?
Maybe, just maybe, you will have the honour of saying, “Brother Saul”.