If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 1, verses 13 through 24. Paul says:
For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I persecuted God’s church to an extreme degree and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.15 But when God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me, so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before me; instead I went to Arabia and came back to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas, and I stayed with him 15 days. 19 But I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 Now I am not lying in what I write to you. God is my witness.
21 Afterward, I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia.22 I remained personally unknown to the Judean churches in Christ; 23 they simply kept hearing: “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
When I was about 6 years old, National Public Radio did a series where listeners would write in to Paul Auster at the studio and tell him meaningful stories from their lives, about childhood pets, near-death experiences, recollections from the war, and so on and so forth.
I would like to read you one of those stories. It’s called, “The Chicken,” and it’s from a woman named Linda Elegant from Portland, Oregon:
“As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.”
That’s all. That’s the end.
On a completely unrelated note . . . Paul says in verse 15 that he was “set apart from birth” to reveal God’s mercy in a lost world. A lot of people take that to mean that God passed over the masses of people and grabbed Paul and said, “This one has a special purpose. I’m going to invest in this one. I’m going to stake my plan for the world on this one, because he’s special.”
You ever heard someone say that “way back at the dawn of man,” God “looked down the corridors of time” and saw some really exceptional people, so he plucked them up, “set them apart,” and then used them to Do Big Things In The World? Usually when you hear something like that, it’s from a motivational speaker who is chastising you (in a really happy-sounding tone of voice) that You’d Better Make Sure That You’re One Of The Exceptional People rather than one of the Unexceptional People, because God does big things in the world with exceptional people and God just, kind of, tolerates unexceptional people. You know what I mean? They’ll say “Be a St. Paul,” “Be a Henry Ford.” “Be a John Rockefeller.” They’ll say, “God set some people apart to change the world, and it might just be you.”
And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that some people are genuinely exceptional. Ted Jones makes killer bluegrass music – that’s exceptional. Our church is filled with exceptional cooks and exceptional artists and those things are good, but that’s not quite what Paul’s getting at here when he says that he was “set apart from birth” because God was “pleased to reveal his Son in him.”
Because if you think that God “passed over the masses,” “looked down the corridors of time” and “saw something exceptional in Paul,” you have to rather nonsensically assume that God was on “autopilot” with the rest of us. You have to, kind of, nonsensically assume that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is “spaced out” most of the time but he “snaps out of it” every once in a while, presses some buttons on his control board and makes some cool stuff happen before putting his feet back up on his desk and taking a nap the next couple hundred years. And it sounds silly when you put it that way, but if we’re honest with ourselves I think a lot of us really do think that, right?
But what Paul actually says is that he was “set apart from birth” because God was “pleased to reveal his Son in him.” And when he says that, he’s not really claiming anything unique for himself. Of course God was “pleased to reveal his son in him.” Right? Why wouldn’t he be? What’s the alternative? There is no one on planet Earth that God is not “pleased to reveal his son” through. There is no one on planet Earth that God is not pleased to reveal his mercy in. There is nobody in this room that God isn’t eager to glorify himself by revealing his mercy through you. God created you in order to turn you into a walking image of his mercy. God created you to be a human gospel tract.
And because that’s the case, weird stuff is gonna happen. God is going to co-opt you in such a way that you will fulfill the purpose for which he created you. He will glorify himself in you by revealing his mercy through your witness. That can happen the easy way or it can happen the hard way, but it’s gonna happen some way no matter how much you put up a fight on the front end because this is the purpose that you were created for.
And we see that in the way Paul narrates his life in today’s passage: Verse 14 says the Paul grew up “zealous for the traditions of his ancestors,” and he tells us that he proceeded to “advance in the Hebrew faith beyond many contemporaries.” That sounds like a good thing, but the devil is industrious, and so Paul managed to turn “zeal for the traditions of his ancestors” into a curse rather than a blessing.
Because he grew up zealous for the traditions of his ancestors, but like a lot of people he failed to recognize the way that Jesus is what the traditions of his ancestors were pointing us towards. So when Jesus arrived on the scene and began fulfilling the promises that God had made to us throughout the Old Testament, people like Paul perceived him as a threat rather than as what he was: As God himself, come to redeem his world and his people. And from there it’s not a stretch to see how, before his conversion, Paul saw a potential threat in the early church and wanted to snuff it out before it became a real threat, so in verse 13 Paul tells us that he began to “persecute the church to an extreme degree” and “try to destroy it.”
So we see in the book of Acts that Paul became, kind of, a “Dog the Bounty Hunter” typed figure, so he went from town to town, digging up any information he could find on which church was meeting at whose house, lure all the leaders out into the town square, and stir up a lynching. So he plays an instrumental role in criminalizing Christianity at the local levels, and then incites the public into violence toward their leaders. So if you’d never heard of Christianity and didn’t know anything about the New Testament but somebody handed you a copy of Acts and you were reading through it, your primary question at this point would be “Who is this guy, and when is God gonna kill him?” Right?
But rather than “turning the tables” on Paul, God stops Paul in his tracks, he meets him on the Damascus Road and says “Why are you persecuting me?” Which is a strange question to ask. He doesn’t just confront him and say, “Paul, you picked the wrong side on this and now you’re gonna get your comeuppance.” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” That throws a spoke in the wheel of the mission Paul thought he was on. It forced Paul to rethink everything.
So much so that, before long, Paul had left behind his crusade and the word started to spread – verse 23 – that “the one who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy.” That is not the norm. That is well outside of what we’ve come to expect, but – verse 16 – God was “pleased to reveal his son” in Paul, “so that he could preach him among the Gentiles.”
God was pleased to reveal himself in somebody I would have strangled to death if I’d been given the chance. But when God got a hold of him, instead of “putting him out of our misery,” God was “pleased to reveal himself,” not by making a big show out of his power and crumpling him up as a warning to those who would do the same, but by pouring out his mercy onto him. God is “pleased to reveal his son” through folks who make our blood boil. That’s how relentless his mercy is.
God’s mercy is so relentless that he would set even somebody like Paul “apart from birth and call him by his grace.” That’s what’s noteworthy about Paul, here. Not that God set him apart and therefore he’s “exceptional,” like this is all some kind of game that God plays. What’s noteworthy about Paul is that God’s mercy is so relentless that he would set even somebody as horrifyingly vile as Paul apart by his grace to reveal his mercy through him.
Paul had this plan for where his life was going, and God had a very different plan. Paul wanted to destroy the church because it posed a threat to everything he held dear, but God co-opted Paul and used him as the fuel that would catapult the church into every corner of the known world at the time, because “God is pleased to reveal himself” in us, to the point that if you are a believer in Christ, you have been “set apart from birth and called by the grace of God” to join in to his mission. Without knowing anything else about you, I can tell you with all confidence that that is the purpose of your life. You have been “set apart from birth and called by the grace of God” to join in to his mission.
Which is very different than the message that we’re used to hearing, right? Like, there’s not a movie from the last 30 years or so that’s not at least halfway about “finding yourself,” right? Like “figuring out your destiny” – or maybe better put, “determining your destiny.”
Almost nobody wakes up in the morning and says “I’m going to fulfill my created purpose today!” – I assume. Maybe a handful of you. Almost nobody goes into a job search saying, “I want this job because it’s ideal for embodying the purpose that God created me for.” Almost nobody chooses their spouse with the reality that God created you for a specific purpose in mind. It’s okay, you can be honest. I’m not your parents, you don’t have to lie to me. Most of us have absorbed our culture’s assumption that you are responsible for determining your life’s purpose.
And yet, in Ephesians chapter 1 verses 3 & 4, Paul says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he set us apart in him before the foundation of the world.” God is pleased to reveal himself in us, and it pleases him so very much to reveal himself in us that he “set us apart” before he created the world. God “set us apart before the foundation of the world” to “bless us in Christ” with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
I don’t know what job you’re supposed to have, I do not know who you are supposed to marry, I do not know what you’re supposed to have for dinner tonight. I can’t tell you what you’re supposed to do in those categories, but what I can tell you is that your life is about revealing the mercy of God. Your life – your whole life – is about “enjoying every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” because God glorifies himself by pouring “every blessing in the heavenly places” out onto you through Jesus Christ. And so whatever you do for work, wherever you live, whoever you marry – if you get married – all of those things are extensions of this one purpose.
The purpose of your life is to “glorify God,” as he “reveals his Son in you,” as you enjoy “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” through Christ, grabbing people and pointing them towards the source. That’s the whole thing.
Now, I can’t tell you what that’s going to look like in your life. Only you know how that’s going to play out in your own day-to-day, right?
Like, one of my friends is working his way up to be a lawyer for the Innocence Project. That’s a group that tries to re-litigate bogus trials that landed people in prison or on death row illegitimately. If you ever look into the numbers on how many people get life sentences and then turn out 20 years later to have been falsely accused, get ready to have your day ruined. If you look into the same numbers involving death row, you’ll have your week ruined. And after having his day ruined and then his week ruined, my friend devoted his life to advocating on behalf of the wrongly imprisoned.
So he’s at law school with a bunch of folks who would “sell their mothers for a beach house,” or something – his words, not mine – and when they ask him what he wants to do once he passes the bar, he tells them exactly that. So the conversation usually goes something along the lines of, “You know there’s not really any money in that, right?” And he says, “Yeah, I know.” And they say, “Why would you put all this time and energy and debt into a job this punishing if you won’t even turn a profit for it,” then he says something along the lines of, “I got rescued from a death penalty I did deserve, so I spend my life pulling people from the brink of a death sentence they didn’t deserve. I was guilty and God forgave me through Jesus Christ, so I’ve devoted my life to advocating for people who aren’t guilty.” When that’s the image that people have of the mercy God shows us in Jesus Christ it rattles you, right?
But not everybody is called to litigate on behalf of the falsely accused. Most of us couldn’t do that anytime soon even if we had the energy to, right? You’d have to go back to school, pass the bar, work your way up the system. But every single one of us is called to enjoy the mercy that God has poured out onto us in such a way that it illustrates the gospel of Jesus Christ to a watching world.
I was a server at an IHOP – way less consequential than my lawyer friend – I was working 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts, which was not a great situation, living in a rental house with my friend in a, kind of, sketchy part of town, and I was interning at the church I was a member of, but next to nothing fruitful happened as a result of that internship. It’s on my resume, you can look at it, on paper it makes me look more qualified than I am, but next to nothing happened growth-wise due to that internship. While things were stagnant at my church job, God was drawing people to himself at an IHOP in Oklahoma because as I went about my day-to-day life, conversations would steer their way towards my faith in ways I didn’t even really engineer or aim for.
Like, you don’t have to do the bait-and-switch thing. You know what I’m talking about? Where you’re like, “Hey Susan have you read any good books lately?” And she’s like “Yeah, I’m reading this romance novel called–” and you cut her off, and you’re like, “Cuz I’m reading the Goodest Book Ever!” and you throw your Bible at her and you’re like “Would you like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior today???” You know I’m talking about? You don’t have to do the bait-and-switch thing.
When you are enjoying the mercy that God has poured out onto us in Jesus Christ, something “radiates” from you. I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it to you, but something radiates from you and it makes people curious in ways they won’t understand either as God prepares them to meet him by meeting you. That’s the whole thing.
Books that are “this thick” about complex evangelism methods are probably a good financial investment for publishing companies – they probably sell pretty well – but I’ve never read one that was very true-to-life, right? Because the actual process is very simple. God has “set you apart from birth” to “reveal his son” in you and he is preparing your neighbors as we speak to meet him by knowing you.
So at IHOP a handful of my coworkers decided for the first time in their lives that God might actually be real and that it was something they had a good reason to look into. Conversations gradually made their way from “Do-you-want-to-go-smoke-by-the-dumpster-I’ve-got-a-break-coming-up?” to “Do-you-know-where-the-next-vacation-bible-school’s-gonna-be,-I-want-to-take-my-kids-next-time-one-rolls-around.”
The grimiest dude there came clean and said he’s “known his whole life” that something was wildly wrong and that he “needed to get right with God” but that he’d been in denial since he was a kid. A couple of regular customers ended up asking me to counsel them through their marital difficulties, and I was like, “I’m 20 years old and not married, what am I going to tell you?” and they were like, “We trust you to help us see God’s will for our marriage.”
And all those things just happened. I acted there the way I act here. I wasn’t slapping gospel tracks in everybody’s hand that I met, I wasn’t hijacking conversations about last week sports game and trying to turn them into conversations about How Jesus Won The Real Super Bowl 2000 Years Ago On The Cross, right?
All I was doing was devoting myself to enjoying the mercy that God has “set us apart” for and poured out onto us in Jesus Christ, and it caused me to become someone that people were drawn to. Enjoying the mercy that God has shown you in Jesus Christ on a day-to-day basis will mold you into somebody that people are drawn to their father in heaven through. That’s the whole thing.
That is everything I know about evangelism. That is everything I know about “growing in grace.” I have no complicated formula for you about how to “mature in your Christian life” outside of that, because that is quite literally the purpose we were created for. And we are never more joyous, we are never more at peace, we are never better off than when we are throwing ourselves into submitting to the purpose that God set us apart for.