“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
St. Paul has always been known for his boldness, and was never one to shy away from astonishing proclamations. We may not think about it too much, having always been taught it and knowing it to be true. But these words carry great weight.
We look to God and his peace to guard our hearts and our minds and put our trust in Him. Yet we are completely incapable of understanding Him. The desire to rationalize God and his workings has persisted since the beginning, and is why we see doctrines of methods such as transubstantiation concocted. In our human nature, we all – perhaps to varying degrees – have some form of resistance to what is unknown. If we can’t observe it with our five senses or understand the exact way something happens or what the effects of it are, we usually don’t want anything to do with it. But there are times when that unknown pulls at us in a way such that we make decisions that don’t otherwise make sense. St. Paul was no exception.
[Now, the term unknown isn’t perfectly applicable to God Himself or to His will, for He has blessed us with the Scriptures. We know His laws for us, and the saving grace provided for us in Christ. Yet what is unknown to us is the direction in which He will pull us; which doors will be opened for us and which ones will be closed. He never forces us into anything but clears paths in front of us.]
Paul’s mission was to eliminate the followers of Christ and suppress His teachings. A Pharisee, Paul concerned himself only with the Law (and all the unwritten laws the Pharisees developed themselves). To him, the proclamation of this man who walked among the people just a couple years prior as God was blasphemous. To fight this blasphemy, the punishment was death, and Paul positioned himself to lead the persecution.
Paul was on his way to Damascus for another round of persecution. Heading that way to persecute Christians, he returned after an occurrence as one of them instead.
It was never a path Paul expected God to lead him on. He built up the persecution to new heights, and now was among those whom the persecution targeted. He who persecuted Christians now had to seek their trust and acceptance when he set out to proclaim the Gospel. And yet God chose him to help build the early church, and to write letters that have survived for two millennia and form much of the basis of New Testament doctrine.
Why God chose this most certainly surpassed Paul’s understanding, and yet his faith did not waver even when he was sent to be executed on account of his faith and the spreading of the Gospel.
Like the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the cow grazing with the bear, or the lion eating straw like an ox (c.f. Isaiah 11:6-7), God called Paul to turn around 180 degrees in his tracks, literally to repentance, and utilized him in doing great things.
God’s work in this way did not stop with Paul. In fact, it persists today. Like Paul, who proclaimed “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” (1 Timothy 1:15b) we see even today persecutors of the Church become leaders within it. There are numerous stories of ISIS militants becoming Christians and even preachers in these past few years. And then there are all the common stories that occur everyday in less extreme settings. Perhaps the Gospel was revealed to you when you weren’t looking for it, or were brought into the church in unexpected ways. Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, one path you were going down had the door slammed before your face and the next walkway brought you closer to the Gospel.
God will choose whoever he wills, and it is important to remember that none of us who have been called to Him and into His Church were worthy of the call on our own merits that others don’t have. When it comes to proclaiming the Gospel in a world where more people are non-Christian than those who have the Gospel, we all have a bit of Moses at the burning bush in us. “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice” (Exodus 4:1b). “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10b). Yet we learn, from Moses and from Paul, that no matter our weaknesses, God’s strength and the Gospel will prevail. Sure, we wouldn’t have been capable of leading our people out of slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea by ourselves, but neither was Moses. Paul again tells us, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Paul’s mission turned from that of persecution to that of love and proclaiming God’s Word. Paul, like Moses, shows us that God’s will is stronger than our weakness and will prevail. But there is still another important aspect to their stories. Moses was a murderer and Paul oversaw many murders of Christians. Yet both were called by God into his family in addition to being leaders in it. So not only did God work through these people to do his work, but God came to these people in his Gospel and gave them the promise of salvation all Christians today have. The major thing to draw from this is that there is nobody in this world that is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit. Our mission is to spread the Gospel to all people in all nations, no matter how unlikely it would seem to us that they may become believers. Our mission is that all people from our local communities to Southeast Asia and the heart of the Middle East would come to know the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthews 28:19-20).