Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Once Sorrowful, Now Always Rejoicing...Paul

Sunday at lunch after church the conversation turned to the apostle Paul. We were discussing how that before his conversion, he had been a very determined fellow and very efficient and effective in his wrong-headed zeal, but after his conversion he found himself weakened, laid low by God, yet used very mightily by him to accomplish his mission. God had told Paul, "My strength is perfected in your weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In this way it was evident that it was God who was doing great things, not Paul. Paul liked it that way, too. He now gloried only in the Cross, boasted only in Jesus Christ, and this was the best thing that had ever happened to him, by far. In fact, in comparison, all the "success" he had known before was now, to him, only like so much rubbish (Philippians 3:8)!

Our conversation turned to the sorrow that Paul carried always with him over his terrible treatment of believers before his conversion. He had dragged many out of their houses into prison; he had brought grief and heartache to many a family and many a church; he had been an accomplice to, if not outright doer of, murder. When Stephen, the godly and spirit-filled deacon in the early church in Jerusalem, was stoned to death for his testimony of Christ, Paul (Saul in those days) had stood by holding the coats of the men who stoned him... in other words, giving hearty approval.

We then thought of a wonderful thing. Just before Stephen died, he saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father, waiting to receive this, his first martyr, into the heavenly realm. Stephen was so enraptured with this view of the risen Christ and the glories of heaven, I think it quite drew his attention away from the evil actions of the men who were about to take his life! Paul was standing right there, heard Stephen cry out in amazement at the vision, coldly watched as the angry mob carried out its grim purpose. And that, he thought at the time, was that.

But years later, this forgiven, weakened apostle had an amazing experience of his own. He was taken to heaven while still alive. There he heard things "that cannot be told, which man may not utter". The experience was so great, so glorious, that an affliction was given to him to buffet him about (even more than he already was!) to help him resist any sinful pride in this great privilege. Paul, who had stood by watching as Stephen died with eyes fastened on heaven, had now been transported there himself, to enjoy a brief foretaste of what Stephen had seen, and what Paul himself would soon be enjoying forever.

What did Paul see? What did he hear? We don't know because God said "No" on any reporting back about it. Paul is the only mortal man we know of who had this experience--a visit to heaven and return to this life, before death. (I'm sorry--no, glad--to say that we are to discount others' claims to this, like the "90 Days in Heaven" guy. Those stories just do not bear the weight of truth.) And how kind of God to grant his sorrowful-yet-rejoicing, always-bearing-in-the-body-the-death-of-the-Lord-Jesus apostle this wonderful experience. Paul, it may be safe to say, suffered more for righteousness' sake than any other except for the Lord himself. He was uniquely called to a life of hardship, sorrow, pain and loss. And so the Lord Jesus tenderly brings him to the dwelling place of God, just for a brief moment. He lets Paul take it all in, hear and see what no one has heard and seen and returned to tell about, soaking into his wearied soul, I'm sure, the glory to come, the unbelievable joy awaiting, marveling at the astonishing purposes and councils of the just and holy God, predetermined before the foundations of the world, all being perfectly executed by the willing and obedient angels.

And did he see his brother Stephen there? We don't know. As we were talking around the table, the wideness of this mercy and goodness of God to Paul sort of made us sober. Our eyes got big. What could we say? This was God's doing, this bringing his faithful apostle up for a taste of the good things to come, and to see first-hand the very things that his faithful deacon and martyr Stephen had seen on that day long before, that day when Paul had stood by, holding the coats.

Painting: The Conversion of Saul by Caravaggio

No comments: