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Paul, An Example from Scripture

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

As we've talked about in previous blogs on God's perspective and viewing things through his telescope, I know that the farther I go in following Jesus, the clearer and more profound these insights have become. This is especially true when trying to understand hard things, like the global pandemic we are faced with right now; it seems impossible to understand God's perspective when faced with difficulties.

God’s desire is for me to understand and know Him and, as a result, to see and live life His way. To do this I must gain His perspective. To do that, I must let Him get me to His end of His telescope. In the process, I will be totally transformed.

Independent of the benefit of all this to you, you may be wondering whether there is an example in Scripture that illustrates what we've been writing about in these blogs. I want to suggest there is, in fact, a very powerful example. It is the apostle Paul.

You probably have heard or read previously this interesting observation about Paul’s descriptions of himself over the course of his ministry:

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is believed to be the earliest of his Epistles, written in either 49 AD or during the period 53-56 AD. In it, Paul defends his apostleship, basically saying he is equal to any of the other apostles. Here are examples of what Paul says:

Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead) Galatians 1:1

For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:12

But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me. But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Galatians 2:6-9

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is dated 56 AD. In it, he says he is “the least of the apostles” and “not fit to be called an apostle”:

For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Corinthians 15:9

Then, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, written in 60 AD, Paul says he is “the very least of all saints”:

To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ. Ephesians 3:8

Finally, in his first letter to Timothy, one of the last Epistles Paul writes, in 62 AD, he describes himself as foremost of all sinners:

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 1 Timothy 1:15

So what is going on here? Is Paul “backsliding”? That certainly looks like a downward progression: “equal to apostles”; “least of apostles”; “least of saints”; “foremost of sinners.”

No, I think we are seeing Paul testify to his own continued growth to spiritual maturity and his gaining of God’s perspective. The phrases above show Paul’s growing understanding of his own depravity and infinite unrighteousness, i.e., who he is apart from Jesus Christ. And when we read the rest of these epistles, we see Paul’s growing grasp of the infinite righteousness that is his in Jesus Christ and also of the magnitude of God’s grace and love toward him.

A believer only appropriates (draws on) as much of God’s grace as he perceives he needs. And he only thinks he needs as much grace as it takes to bridge the gap between (1) his view of God’s holiness and righteousness and (2) his view of his own depravity and unrighteousness. When his view of this span is small, so is his view of God’s grace. But when he sees God’s holiness as infinitely to the +, and his own depravity as infinitely to the -, then he has truly grasped the magnitude of God’s grace and the price Jesus paid for him.

Gaining true perspective from God’s end of His telescope is what leads one to say what God writes through Paul in Philippians, an epistle he wrote from prison at about the same time as his first letter to Timothy:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:7-11

From Paul’s life, we can see that getting to God’s end of the telescope is a process. It takes time. And even when we get to God’s end, we will continue to grow in our understanding of Him and the view of life we see from there. So getting there is not the end of the journey; it is only the beginning. From there we can begin to really grasp intimately the greatness of our God and the length and breadth and height and depth of the love He has for us. From there we also can begin to really experience the wonder of the life He created us to enjoy, and which is available to us again through Jesus.

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