Sometimes the wisdom of God is a “no-brainer,” and sometimes the wisdom of God is a “head-scratcher.” I suppose that is why the prophet Isaiah wrote, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (isa. 55:8-9).
It isn’t exactly breaking news that God is wiser than we are. Still, it can be frustrating when He works in ways that seem counterintuitive. The life of the apostle Paul is a perfect example of this kind of head-scratching reality. Think back to the beginning of Paul’s story. His background, training, and experience outfitted him perfectly to serve the early church as a messenger to the Jewish people. His thorough understanding of the Scriptures equipped him to counter the arguments of his Jewish brothers. And during the early years of his journey with Christ, Paul’s heritage as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” served him well. On his first two outreach trips, he engaged in church planting by entering synagogues, presenting Christ from the Scriptures, and planting a new assembly among those who had accepted his message. But that would change. In fact, it had to change because God’s stated purpose for Paul was given in the instructions the Lord gave to Ananias when the newly converted Saul had arrived in Damascus: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel’” (acts 9:15, emphasis added).
God wanted Paul, the person best equipped to take the message of Christ to the Jews, to turn his passion toward the Gentiles—all those who are not Jewish in race or religion. In Acts 13, this purpose came to fruition. Paul and his mentor, Barnabas, were engaging the Jewish people in synagogues throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and seeing people come to Christ. But they were beginning to face opposition. In Antioch of Pisidia the opposition was so intense that Paul embraced a change that would rock his world—and ours:
Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth’” (acts 13:46-47, emphasis added).
“We turn to the Gentiles” was a public announcement that the message of the cross was not limited by ethnic, national, or cultural considerations. It was a declaration that the forgiveness accomplished in the sacrifice of God’s Son was available to all people in all lands. Paul’s shift from a Jewish to a Gentile audience set Christianity on a path that will one day be fully realized in the presence of the Father: “They sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation’” (rev. 5:9).
Though the message of the cross had already been offered to Gentiles by Philip (acts 8:26-40) and Simon Peter (acts 10),
it was the special assignment of Paul to take the story of Jesus to the nations. And take it he did. This mission took Paul beyond Asia Minor to Macedonia, Greece, and finally to Rome itself.
The work of creating a global family of faith began with the change that Paul initially feared and resisted. The change and mission that began on the Damascus Road would take him through joy and loss, celebration and suffering, shipwreck and rescue, imprisonment, and eventually death. Yet Paul discovered that this was a mission worth living and dying for. It was a mission rooted in a heart that had been changed by the cross and spirit of Christ (see gal. 2:20). And this same mission continues to draw passion, devotion, and allegiance from followers of Christ today.
This change, however, did not come easily. Christ overcame Paul’s initial fears, doubts, and resistance to finish the transformation that began on the Damascus Road:
• Saul’s ancient namesake was marked by his intense hatred of David, but Saul of Tarsus’ hatred for the church was transformed into passionate love. Christ changes our hearts.
• Saul and much of the Jewish religious leadership saw Christ as doing grave damage to their law. But Paul discovered that Jesus is the means by which the law can be understood, honored, and lived in spirit. Christ expands our understanding.
• The movement of Saul’s heart away from a life and religion that depended
on his own effort to one that depended on God’s wonderful grace was evidence that Christ is more than a historical religious figure. Christ is our life and strength.
• Paul’s mission beyond Israel revealed a God greater than one nation could contain. Christ died for all.
• Paul’s transformation from bringing pain and suffering to others to a man devoted to the development and advancement of others imitated Jesus. Christ was the servant of all.
From Saul to Paul, from persecutor to believer, from protector of Israel to apostle to the Gentiles, Saul’s change is an example of what can happen in any life when Christ is given reign in that heart. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the forgiveness, restoration, and transformation the cross was intended to accomplish.