You might not recognize the reference 1 Corinthians 13, but if I began reading verse 4, you would instantly recognize it. It’s the wedding passage … love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It goes on and on all about love. And you maybe didn’t even realize that was in the Bible, but that’s where it came from.
You also might not recognize Philippians 4:13, but I’m sure you’ve seen it on a coffee cup or a bumper sticker. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
Here’s something I’ve been coming back to over and over and over again: the man that wrote those famous verses, and so many more we could recognize instantly if we saw them – was a Roman prisoner. His name was Paul. And Paul the prisoner was much more than a prisoner, he was a preacher and much more than a preacher, he was a slave of Jesus, as he so often liked to write. And, here’s something I started geeking out about lately, the Wycliffe Bible translators, as well as many other Bible translators throughout history have gone to far flung seemingly God-forsaken lands, to people that civilization forgot about and they invented written language for so many languages that were, to that point, only spoken.
Did you catch the enormity of that? For hundreds of years, Bible translators have gone to cultures that had no system of writing at all, and they invented writing so that the letters from a Roman prisoner and the rest of the New Testament could be preserved, and communicated to cultures in their native heart language.
Now maybe somebody will email me about some time this happened that I didn’t know about – but I can’t think of any equivalent example for anyone inventing writing so the letters of any of the Caesars could be preserved. Here we are thousands of years later, and the writings of some random Roman prisoner are better preserved and protected and distributed than all of the rest of Roman writings put together.
Can you even fathom how a man who died in a Roman prison wrote letters that have not shaped generations, or decades, or centuries of people but literally all of world history. I talk all the time about how the students I lead and care so much about will change generations because they lived and because they loved Jesus. This is a whole entire different ball game. It’s not even on the same planet. Paul’s letters changed world history.
And I keep coming back to the man behind it all. What do you even think Paul thought as he wrote these letters?
I can’t prove any of this, so you can just blow on by and that’s ok. But Paul is human. And I don’t think Paul was much different than any of us. Paul had spent years of his life on the fringes of society. He started a number of churches, he worked hard and he was busy doing ministry and all the stuff that’s wrapped up in there. And I’m no pastor and I’m no church planter, but as I read how he cared for people, I identify with him. He longs for people to know Jesus. He wants them to know that God doesn’t hate you, He loves you. Not for the good things you have planned in the future, or the good things you did yesterday. He loves you because He made you. And He has a better plan for your life than you have for your life, even if it ends up being a harder plan.
And one day Paul found himself in court. Not an unusual experience as Paul was frequently ticking people off by preaching the name of Jesus, and was often beaten, and was often defending himself about preaching the name of Jesus, and just as often would turn his defense into another opportunity to preach the name of Jesus.
But one day it was all a little different. And Paul appeals to Caesar. And Paul earns a one-way ticket to Rome. On board a Roman slave ship. Or, actually, several Roman slave ships, as he is repeatedly shipwrecked and bitten by venomous snakes – but that’s a whole separate story.
And, knowing that Paul is human, and knowing that he is ever so slightly a little like me, I have to wonder what Paul was thinking as he’s sitting in a tiny horrific jail cell in Rome, just waiting for his execution. What was going through his mind as he wrote letters to his protege Timothy? What do you think he thought as he wrote his letters to the Corinthian people he loved and knew he would never see again on this side of eternity?
My daily reading this morning brought me to 2 Timothy 2, and I just tried to picture the deep emotion Paul must have had as he wrote this final letter to his adopted son in the faith. I thought about what I would say to my students if I knew this was it, the last thing I would ever get to say to any of them. And with that context in mind, Paul beings, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” You can almost hear the emotion in the writing. Timothy, don’t forget. Stay strong. Remember me. Don’t forget all that I taught you. Timothy, “keep reminding God’s people of these things.” (v14) Keep leading. Keep doing what I entrusted to you. I believe in you. I care for you.
Now here’s where I potentially read too much into what is happening, but I have to wonder if the reason Paul even wrote all these letters is because he thought, “Well, what else am I going to do?” I wonder if, while chained up to Roman guards, he thought his purpose in life was over. I wonder if he thought as I sometimes think, the best is behind me. The people I cared for, the people I pastored will soon forget me and everything I ever taught them.
I wonder if this was a spiritually dry season in Paul’s life. I wonder if he felt like the fire and passion of an incredible ministry was just over. I mean, there was a time when people brought pieces of cloth to touch Paul in the hope that they could use it to heal other people. To go from that to being chained as a prisoner has to be rough.
And so I wonder if the very premise of writing these letters was a desperation to be useful while he still lived and breathed. I wonder if he thought, “I can’t do what I did, but I’ll do this and hope that God uses it.”
Could you even imagine trying to explain to Paul how people invented written languages just so what he wrote could be saved and preserved? Do you think Paul could imagine how God could have taken these letters and preserved them through millennia to encourage and grow the Church that Paul sacrificed everything to build? Do you think that Paul could have ever known or predicted how God would take what was likely to be a very dark time in his life and use it to change literally all of world history?
Listen, listen, listen. I know this will be a leap because none of us are Paul. But when you’re ready to give up, and when you’re feeling dry, and when you’re not sure why you should go on and do anything in maybe even the darkest time of your entire life. Keep going. Don’t give up. In the depths of my dry season I wrote this in my journal and I keep coming back to it for encouragement:
You have NO IDEA who or what hangs in the balance. Stay faithful.
Paul had no idea that the entire 2,000 plus year history of the Church hung in the balance. You have no idea what hangs in the balance of your faithfulness, of your obedience, of your generosity, of your sacrifice. You have no idea who or what hangs in the balance. You have no idea what God is going to do through you, even after you’re dead and gone. Stay faithful.