One of the grievous annoyances of being in professional ministry is the occasion suggestion by someone that you are in it for some personal gain of either riches or self-serving adulation. Though some ministry “characters” out there on TV or in the broad public eye have managed to make a lucrative profession out of serving God, I’m pretty sure most of the rest of us had other ideas about where we were headed in life – a direction that on most occasions would have netted greater material gain. But some “Damascus Road” experience made for a change in life direction.
In the early section of the letter to the Galatians, it is clear that the Apostle Paul was getting some of this sort of accusatory rhetoric. And to combat it he recalls to their understanding the history of his life and of the roots of his understanding of the gospel.
Galatians 1:10 – Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 – I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
13 – For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Here in our early stages of the study of the life of the Apostle Paul, this passage is of particular interest as regards his personal testimony. Paul tells the Galatians that this gospel message is certainly not something he came up with himself, nor was it sourced in any human imagination or teaching. No, Paul’s life was radically changed, and the message was one that came to him directly by revelation of Jesus Christ.
The word “conversion” has the sense and meaning of “going in another direction.” And that is surely what happened to Paul after his dramatic episode on the road to Damascus. A clearly understood part of this revelation was that Paul was going to be especially used to take this truth about Jesus to the Gentile world.
But Paul didn’t just re-book his Damascus ticket for the next week to some Gentile destination to begin his new life work, nor did he quickly return to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles of this Christian movement. No, it says in verse 17 that he went into Arabia, later returning to Damascus and eventually also to Jerusalem (after three years, as it says in verse 18).
So, where is this “Arabia” and what was Paul doing?
When we think of Arabia, like Saudi Arabia, we think of a largely remote area south and east of Israel. Damascus of Syria is to the northeast of Jerusalem. However, at this time in history, both of these areas were largely a part of one Nabataen Kingdom that was centered in modern-day Jordan.
In any event, we can take from this passage that Paul withdrew himself into a remote area after his conversion experience. Obviously his life had changed, and he had much to re-calibrate about the issues of faith, Jesus as Messiah, how this fit with the long-term history of Israel and the revelation of the prophets, and how this message should be communicated to a Gentile world.
This is far from the first time that major biblical figures withdrew for an extended period before they would re-emerge in God’s power with a great message and ministry. We should recall how Moses spent the bulk of four decades in the wilderness of Midian before being called to his great life work. The prophet Elijah wandered in the desert before his great life work, as did the one who later came in the spirit of Elijah – John the Baptist.
And we should remember as well that the other apostles all had three years of teaching and discipleship under Christ himself. Now it was Paul’s time, surely to grow and learn, study and pray. And surely as well there were times when Paul must have thought that life was passing him by.
The Lord often gives all of us certain desert times of personal preparation before He uses us for some ministry project. God likes to sometimes fix us in a sort of “holding pattern” before embarking on a new adventure or opportunity.
This does not always make sense to us. After nine consecutive years of college and graduate school, I was ready to head into full-time ministry. But God let me hang around waiting for almost a full year before leading to my next assignment. There I was in the possession of the finest theological education available on planet Earth … cleaning swimming pools. But looking back, that was a precious year with our first newborn and a productive and enjoyable part-time music ministry.
Multiple times in my life I have felt “stuck” in my circumstances. Surely a good God would have something better and more appropriately fitting for me! But the Lord likes to say to us – “Wait!” … or some version of “sit in the saddle where I’ve placed you!” To use a more biblically-based metaphor, he tells us to be faithful today in the place in the vineyard where we are working.
All of this is to build trust and dependence upon God and His timing. So don’t begrudge times in the desert; they are times of God’s design for our good and His eventual glory.