A boy grows up in a wealthy family in a major city of a sophisticated culture. As a child he is immersed in the orthodox religion of his country and attends one of the most well-known worship centers in the land. In that setting he becomes a disciple under one of the most influential leaders of this tradition. He becomes a zealot for his faith, passionately devouring its teachings and passionately pursuing its enemies. And, then, something amazing happens. Somehow he becomes convinced the very persons he has been opposing were right about their faith. And through they are small in number and despised by his religious leaders and culture, this young man joins the ranks of those he had zealously opposed. He enters into a period of intense study, praying and fasting in order to fulfill a calling he believes he now has to take his new faith to others.
In subsequent years, although his convictions and his actions cost him his reputation, his comforts, his freedom, and ultimately his life, this man of faith never wavered from his calling.
What was his name?
His name was not the apostle Paul, if you were thinking that as I was reading this story. Life sounds pretty close to Paul’s conversion……… but it’s not Paul.
His name was Jibreel al-Amreekee. He grew up in Atlanta attended a well-known Baptist church before becoming a Muslim, joining allies of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and dying in 1997 while participating in a jihadist attack intended to “plant a flag for Islam” in Kashmir.
His life transformation sounds very similar to the conversion of Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus.
The biggest difference was their calling of God. The parallel in the lives of these men of faith are quit striking. Each had different cultural, and religious backgrounds that both felt compelled to promote to others. Each one was willing to study, strive and sacrifice for the calling he believed his God had placed upon his life. But we also realize that these conflicting callings cannot be both from God. This causes us to stop and ponder the facts and identify what kind of calling is genuine and what is counterfeit.
How does scripture identify a genuine calling?
Does examining the call of Paul, a blueprint to our genuine calling in the Christian faith?
You and I were never blinded by a strong light on the road of Damascus.
You and I never had Jesus, Himself, stand before us and speak audibly.
You and I were never given special revelation to pen 13 letters of the New Testament.
I’m not suggesting the same kind of confirmation is necessary for you and me. BUT! I am suggesting that we can see the calling of God graciously opens for examining the effects of a true call on the life of a believer. And by examining Paul’s call, we can see and examine our own calling that it leaves on one’s life and one’s heart.
A True Calling is captured by God’s goals (v1-v6)
When compelled by the beauty of the gospel a believer is captured or captivated by God’s goal and desires. As Joshua said “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." Joshua 24:15. In John’s gospel we read “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe." (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." John 6:61-69
What Joshua said and the response from Peter is as a beautiful picture for us to see what it means to be captivated by God’s calling on our life through the gospel. Though Paul resides under house arrest because of a bogus charge. He was arrested on false charges made by Jews from the province of Asia who were visiting Jerusalem. They accused Paul of taking a Gentile into the forbidden area of the temple, though he had not done so. Paul has faced numerous hearings before the Sanhedrin, before Roman governor Felix, before Felix’s successor Festus and even before King Agrippa. Paul was allowed to stay in private quarters with a soldier to guard him as we see in (Acts 21-27 & Acts 28:16). And although Paul was arrested on Jewish charges, Paul did not consider himself a prisoner of the Jews.
Although he was imprisoned by Roman authority, he did not consider himself a prisoner of Rome. Although he had appealed to Caesar, he did not consider himself Caesar’s prisoner.
Who was Paul a prisoner of? (v1) “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you gentiles.” Paul was a minister of the gospel that was bought with a price and given a special calling to preach the gospel to the gentiles. With these words of “imprisonment to Christ” reveal to us the genuine heart and desire and intentions that God instills in His called children to die to self and serve and proclaim the glorious news to others. Our passion has to be God’s passion and that passion is what? “Who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:4. And that begins here in Paul’s letter to Jewish/Gentile believers in Ephesus.
A True Calling is willing to die to self (v1- v2)
Paul’s willingness to die to the priorities of his own glory is evident in the titles that he used to describe himself. The first title was his name change from Saul to Paul. Before his name change to Paul, he had same name as the first king of Israel who was chosen for his strength, demeanor and stature above his peers. This was a picture of the apostle before his conversion…..people feared him and for good reasons.
The name “Paul” means “small” This Jewish holy man has gone from “Big Saul” to “small Paul” and with that it brings no narcissistic glory for one-self. Isn’t that a beautiful name? To be described as someone who is hidden in Christ and pictures for us a child who depends upon the strength of another to live? See dying to self involves a willingness to sacrifice privilege, prestige and glory. Paul gave up all his own personal glory, because he truly understood what it meant to be a prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this over and over again in the scriptures…..“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” 1 Cor 15:9
Paul classified his own personal gain and prestige as nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3:3-11
Remember what Paul called himself in the letter to the Romans? “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom 7:24-25. This man who was known for prestige and power now sits in a Roman prison cell awaiting his accusers to call for his death. Yet while destitute, despised and forsaken…Paul viewed his life in this moment as fulfilling God’s call upon his life for the glory of Christ. Even while under arrest he took every opportunity in his incarceration to proclaim the good news of the gospel to people who would not otherwise hear the message of hope and rest. It’s taking every opportunity captive for the glory of God. We live in a world that would question this calling on God. The world system at large would view this new changed lifestyle as a negative and not a positive. He was a man who uses to order Roman soldiers around and now he is under their commands. He used to be a man admired by his people and now he ministers to a world about a crucified Rabbi from a forsaken world and people groups. He once was a man to be served but know he is a man who serves others.
Now please here me! I’m not claiming anything when I say this or thinking that I’m just like Paul! But I know what it means to lose or too willing give up the pleasures of this life for the sake of the calling. I had a great job where 6-10 guys who looked up to me every day. I had the privilege to travel all around Canada, stay in the nicest hotels and hang out with some very interesting people. It was sort of the glamorous lifestyle in the Auto Industry. The pay/benefits/prestige and the people around me were my friends and it’s where I called home. But the Lord had other plans for this man who thought he had his life all figured out at the age of 30. Now this doesn’t mean that this will be the same for all of us here! Some and many of you, God has and is calling you to different means of sacrifice for the glory of Christ. But Julie and I, and even my kids, can relate to not knowing if daddy will still have a job at the end of the week. Not knowing if we will be able to pay our bills because we don’t know what tomorrow holds. Living a life where people will accuse, make false claims against me or about me, and even stab me in the back if they have the chance. The calling of God removes all the glory from oneself to the sustaining Lord of the universe for the glory of His name and His gospel. What I’m trying to get at is this…… Paul is demonstrating for us that a genuine calling requires a willingness to forsake personal privilege and honor. This is true whether you’re a pastor like me, businessman, an athlete, an educator or a mom, dad or young person. As the hymn song goes “be content to fill a little space if God be glorified” How do I know if my calling is genuine because many counterfeits are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the cause?
For example a Kamikaze pilot in World War 2 or a Middle Eastern foreign /domestic terrorist who sacrifice themselves with dynamite strapped to their body in a crowed place. But the true test to that is if personal sacrifice is necessary than who gets the glory in the sacrifice? Dying to self also involves a willingness to deny merit. A great way to see this in action is consider the various ways that people handle their loss of privilege. Some are willing sacrifice as long as they earn or get something in the end. Yet Paul’s willingness to die to self-included not only a willingness to forsake privilege, but also a willing to deny himself of any merit. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” Phil 3:8. Whatever he did and whatever he went were under Christ’s control. He gave up everything and he lived with total trust in God’s purposes whether they were good or bad, according to our present world system. Paul’s denies that what he has done, suffered and sacrificed earns him anything and that is how we are to examine our calling. Our lives are for His glory and His glorious message as prisoners of the Lord Jesus Christ. Can and are you truly dying to self for the glory of Christ?
A true calling is willing to live for others (v3- v6)
A called life is willing to die to self with a desire and passion to live for others. Remember Paul said “I, Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of the gentiles. Paul says the message he brings is an extension to God’s sovereign grace and He has given Paul the stewardship to minister that message to the Gentiles. A called Paul sees his life as a prisoner for Jesus Christ and a stewardship to others with the gospel.
A beautiful example of this is found in a man named Martin Burnham.
Martin and his wife were missionaries for New Tribes Missions for 17 years to the Philippines when they were captured and made prisoners of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group for 376 days. During that time Martin was often used to carry the terrorist’s supplies in dangerous and treacherous terrain. But while bearing their loads he never complained, viewed even his servitude as a calling of God and an opportunity for the gospel. Though the Burnham’s were increasingly weak and malnourished, when relief agencies managed to get food packages to them, Martin would share their food with other captors. At one point Martin even repaired a satellite phone for his captors.
Martin in these times would say to his wife “The Bible says serve the Lord with gladness. Let’s go all the way. Let’s serve Him all the way with gladness.” The impact they had on their captors were playing on their heart strings as they would debate about who would chain him up every night. Each captor hated to be the one to chain him, because every night he would thank them.
How could someone express so much joy and thanksgiving in a time like this?
The answer to that is over and over in the evenings Martin would patiently explain the gospel to his Muslim captors. Remember what Jesus said "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5:43-48
Like the Apostle Paul, Martin was living his life for his captors, and viewed his situation as a calling of God to minister the mysteries of the gospel to a lost peoples group. Unfortunately like the apostle Paul, Martin’s life and ministry was cut short. Friday, June 7, 2002 after radioing to their base for permission to liberate the prisoners, the U.S.-trained Rangers launched an attack. During the two-hour gunfight that ensued, Martin Burnham, 42, and Yap were killed, and Gracia Burnham was wounded. It was not clear if they were shot by their captors or hit in the crossfire. Gracia Burnham, was evacuated to a military hospital where she underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg.
"I was so happy when I got out of the jungle," she told doctors. She reportedly also and said her husband's death was "part of God's plan."
Living for others involves a willingness to reveal gospel mystery at any cost. For Martin is cost him his life and for Paul it cost him to be under house arrest for something he never did. It’s taking every opportunity to be used for the glory of God. That’s the beauty and the mystery of the gospel. “Mystery” is something that was previously hidden and according to Paul’s letter the gospel was hidden from the Gentiles, but now according to (v6) gentiles have been brought into God’s family and that’s been revealed to them through the Spirit. Paul knew how difficult it was going to be for Jews to see Gentiles as equal heirs with Christ in the Kingdom. …..(Eph 2:18-20). Especially when the Jews believed the Gentiles were created to fuel the fires of Hell. BUT! Paul, none the less knew that his calling from God, wasn’t about him and his comforts. It was all about the glory of God being magnified so that the gospel would penetrate the hearts of sinners to be reconciled to a holy God. This is what each and every one of us is called to, whether you like it or not. Our calling as God’s children is first to die to self and live for others to proclaim the gospel to a hostile world, even if that means you live a life that ends like Martin Burnham. Live your life willing to dies to self, to live for others and to delight in the gospel that unites sinners together. When we observe our calling through the lens of scripture a believer is not only captured by God’s plan and goals but also enraptured by God’s grace. As Jim Elliott before going off into a strange land, with strange people, not knowing what tomorrow will bring said these truthful words
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose...!!!”