I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace, given me through the working of His power. Though I am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to illuminate for everyone the stewardship of this mystery, which for ages past was hidden in God, who created all things. (Ephesians 3:7-9 BSB)
The teaching is clear, but temptations to draw the wrong conclusions surround this passage. Paul was in prison due to his ministry among the Gentiles, yet he said his calling to be a “servant of the gospel” – which is the clearest explanation of what it means to be called of God to any type of Christian ministry – came by the gift of God’s grace. Grace is unearned favor from God, and God chose Paul – the most unlikely of candidates from a sheer human perspective – to be His medium to teach this truth, that believing Gentiles were coheirs with believing Jews in Christ.
Grace through Faith
The first temptation we face in misinterpreting Paul’s ministry is the temptation to glorify sin. Paul said he was “the least of all Christians” in his own view, because he had persecuted the church. He described himself in that stage of life as “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” or “violent man” (1 Tim. 1:13). But when the grace of God in Christ came to him, “he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Tim. 1:12) and “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14). This was the personal working out in his life of the principle expounded in Ephesians of “by grace” and “through faith”: “For by grace are you saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8).
Paul faced the challenge that many others of us have faced, to explain that he was saved completely through the grace of God, that he was undeserving of this favor, and that prior to his salvation his life was headed in precisely the opposite direction. He was guilty and felt the shame of his guilt. But he must also stress what he did do – he repented and believed. It was through faith that the grace of God came – grace and faith must go together. He did not glorify his life before Christ – as some are known to do, almost bragging about how sinful they used to be – rather he admitted it in shame. But he had believed when the gospel came to him – that he did right. He stressed his faith not to boast, but to clarify and to set an example for others.
We should remember that for the first several years of his life as a Christian he was rather quiet, somewhat anonymous, sometimes just simply being among the believers (Gal. 1:11-2:10). Initially after his conversion he boldly and clearly proclaimed Christ, publicly debating the Jews in Damascus. But then nothing more is heard from him for several years. No doubt the potential was there, with Paul’s background as a learned Pharisee – he was a trained biblical theologian – but the timing of God was not right. He spent three years along in the Arabian wilderness (Gal. 1:17), then to Jerusalem and then disappears from the historical record for several years. Barnabas is the one who went to Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, and found Paul and brought him back to Antioch where he began teaching (Acts 11:25-26).
So Paul was not suddenly elevated from his days as a persecutor of the church to being a leader. It was several years – perhaps as many as fourteen – from his conversion until his first missionary journey. Why the delay? We have to trust God with that answer – God prepares both the preacher and the hearers to come together at the right moment, so we must be content to assume God was going to use Paul at the right moment – when Paul was ready and when the people to whom he would send him were ready – and He did.
Application: We should be careful not to glorify sin in sharing testimonies. It should always be the grace of God that is glorified, and to help people realize that God delivers out of sin. Sin is neither fun nor funny. It is a heart-breaking evil in this world.
Grace Means Christ Bore our Punishment
The second temptation is to think that Paul’s suffering as an apostle was somehow payment for his persecuting the church. Even at his conversion the Lord said to Ananias: “He is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffering for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Did this mean that because Paul had made others suffer for their faith in Christ, that he must suffer also for his?
This is a bit more difficult to explain because there is a moral principle that God has woven into the universe that, generally speaking, we reap what we sow in life (Gal. 6:7). Christ said: “Do not judge, or you will be judged. For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2). Generally speaking people treat us as we treat them, and though the working out of this principle is mysterious and not always perfectly executed, it is certainly a reality of this world.
But does the suffering we do for our sins while on earth somehow figure into the payment for our redemption? Do our sufferings contribute somehow to the payment that Christ made for our forgiveness? The answer to that must be a clear and strong “No!” Only in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins are our sins atoned for and forgiven. In Him and in Him alone are we forgiven. Isaiah wrote:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
The Biblical position is that only through Christ are our sins paid. When we reap the painful results of our own sinning on earth, those sufferings are not atoning payments for our sins – they may be our “just deserts” but not atoning sacrifices on our own behalf. We read:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
The grace of God in Christ is a gift, not a cheap discounted purchase on our part. Our sufferings do not figure into the payment for our sins.
So what did God mean when He said that Paul would suffer? Scholar Albert Barnes wrote that this was an encouragement to Ananias, who had seen Paul as an enemy and as a threat, that these words meant that Paul “would not merely profess repentance, but would manifest the sincerity of it by encountering trials and reproaches for [God’s] sake.” The words did not suggest a quid pro quo for Paul. Rather it was a prophetic word about the dedication of Paul and the proof of his conversion that he would show through his own sufferings.
Grace Means Privilege
We cannot leave this passage without pointing out that Paul considered his calling, and thereby the revelation of God that came to the world through him, a privilege of grace, and not a curse. He would suffer much, as others had and have as well, but he did not lose sight of the honor that God had bestowed on him to be an apostle and a messenger of the New Covenant in Christ. He had been more than compensated through the spiritual blessings in 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. 3:8-11)
In the joyful receiving of his calling and even the sufferings that came with it, he joined the early apostles who rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
It takes a Christ-centered and an unselfish heart to rejoice like this, despite the sufferings. So there is an example for us to follow, not just to undergo sufferings for Christ, but to do so cheerfully. Our sufferings may be slight compared to others, and they may amount to nothing more than being misunderstood or perhaps a bit of ridicule – not the stern imprisonments, tortures, or martyrdoms of others. But whatever they are, if we are serving Christ and helping people to grow in knowledge, if we are touching people with His hand of love, if we are helping to redeem others in Christ’s name, then there is privilege enough in that. What we do for Christ will last for eternity.