We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.
Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.
But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22
I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!
Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.
Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.
Saw None of the Others
During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.
After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.
To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.
I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?
What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.
More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…
- Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
- To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
- To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
- To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightening by Paul.
- To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.
Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.
How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!