after Arabia: finding encouragement in the timeline of Paul
I would not call myself a history buff. Sure, I enjoy an occasional biography (especially of the missionary variety). One of my boys in particular loves history, and I enjoy seeing him enjoy it. But it surprised me recently, as I invested some time in researching the backgrounds of Paul's letter to the Philippians that I'm working on for a women's Bible study that I'm writing, when I found myself really truly enjoying the puzzle-sorting of passages and piecing together the chronology of Paul. I honestly didn't expect that studying the historical backgrounds of the book would wind up being an incredible source of encouragement as I connected his experience to our own journey.
After Paul's dramatic conversion, and true to his personality, he threw himself into confessing Christ immediately - but the people were confused, and not quite ready to listen to this one who so recently had been hellbent on persecuting the Church.
So God did what He so often does to prepare his servants - He took Paul to the wilderness of Arabia (modern day Jordan). And it's not for certain how long he spent there, but upwards to three years. His own testimony in his letter to the Galatians: "I did not receive [the gospel I preach] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. ... When [God] was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia."
In his own sort of private seminary experience with the greatest of all Teachers, Paul sat at the feet of Jesus, unlearning the errors that he'd learned in his prestigous studies under the honorable Jewish instructor Gamaliel, and learning the Truth.
After Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus, but the Jews there plotted to kill him. So he went on back to Jerusalem. There that man of consolation Barnabas spoke on his behalf. But even there, they were still trying to kill him.
And so they sent him off to Tarsus, his hometown. And Acts 9 continues on with Peter - because it's not a history of Paul, but a history of the Church. But Paul stays in Tarsus for somewhere between four and ten years! - years that we know very little about.
When Paul is in his late thirties/early forties, in Acts 13, Barnabas sees what God is doing among the Gentiles and remembers the man God had so dramatically redeemed to Himself for the purpose of preaching among the Gentiles and he goes and finds him and establishes him in the work of the ministry in Antioch.
My heart longs for a Barnabas, someone who will recognize the work God is doing and just know that this is what we were called to do. And it may not happen exactly like that, but praise God for the way He still connects people and brings together those perfect fits for the furtherance of His Kingdom.
But seriously, the simple fact that Paul was right around forty before God situated him in his calling, that fact alone is a huge blessing to me. I'm so prone to want to measure my life by the timeline of Christ who's earthly ministry climaxed when he was 33. But then 33 came and went without fanfare.
And it may not seem like much, but for me, it was significant.
And the Spirit whispers, "What did you expect? That your timetable would match up with Mine?"
Of course not. I should know better. For the Word speaks it plainly: "My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts, saith the LORD."
So in this waiting, as Paul in Tarsus, let us find contentment in learning faithful obedience, and confidence that He will make His way plain before our faces, in His time and for His glory.
And no one who is qualified to promise such things has ever promised it would be easy. But it is promised that those who are called according to his purpose will find that all things work together for good, and that nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8).
Multiplied grace and peace,