Then the church had peace. Honestly, I felt like this verse should have been located way up around verse nineteen. Paul goes on a mission to kill off the followers of Jesus in Damascus. Along the way, God himself intervenes and Paul turns from being a persecutor to a follower. In the city of Damascus, a Christian named Ananias prays for him and the scales fall from his eyes. This is where I would think that we should find the verse: then the church had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers.
It had peace, it became strong, it grew in numbers because Paul had joined their side. Right? Wrong. It had peace, it became strong, and it grew in numbers because Paul got out of the way.
After he became a believer, Paul immediately began preaching in Damascus. He ended up stirring up trouble and for fear of his life, they sent him on to Jerusalem. Here, he meets Peter and James and also, again, stirs up trouble for himself with his preaching. This time they pack him away on a boat back to his hometown. It is only then that the church experienced peace, became strong, and grew in numbers. It will be many years after being sent away before Paul is ready to return to the public eye as the Paul we know and love today.
In many ways, Paul was the first true celebrity convert for the early church. Here is an educated, articulate, well known public figure who had a major dramatic conversion and as a result had just an even greater passion to preach the very message he was zealously trying to snuff out only days before.
Imagine how we would treat his conversion today. This is front page news type stuff. This is major media circuit, then 700 club feature. Authors would be clamoring to write his biography. Megachurches would be scrambling to slot him as a guest speaker. This is a God given opportunity and we need to make the absolute most of it before the shine starts to wear off. Right? No?
There is something that needs to be said for discipleship before leadership. When God wanted to lead the Hebrew people from slavery to the Promised Land, He first led him out into the desert for forty years. After God anointed David as the next king of Israel, He then had the boy spend 25 years, mostly as an exile and outcast, before having him ascend the throne. And when God commissioned Paul as his missionary to the Gentiles, He first sent him to Tarsus.
Today, Tarsus is a little town halfway between two other much larger cities that are both popular vacation spots. About 25 kilometers to the west you have the beach side city of Mersin. About 30 kilometers in the other direction lies the lakefront metropolis of Adana. There’s nothing special about the city. There never really was.
It first was a frontier town for the Hittites, then the Assyrians, then the Persians. For all these empires, it was about as far from the center of power as one could get. Alexander took it during his campaigns and after his death it became part of the Seleucid Empire. For a while it became an important place of learning. Those who weren’t good enough or couldn’t afford to go to the ivy league schools of Athens or Alexandria came here instead. Finally, Pompeii took the city and added it to the Roman Empire.
Because this city, so far from Rome seemed extraordinarily loyal, and because it was a safe little spot to make a positive public example of such loyalty, the residents of Tarsus received citizenship in 66BC. This was still about the state of things when Paul returned home after his conversion. It was still a “good little city”, a second rate educational center, and a regional capital (though the region had been divided some time earlier and Tarsus was already being eclipsed by its growing neighbor, Adana). It was far from the places of action in government, for this new religion that Paul had joined, and even for trade and education. This was where Paul spent a large majority of the fourteen years after his hasty retreat from Jerusalem until his return to the same city with Barnabas.
We live in a world of the urgent and the rushed. The concept of waiting for the right time, the right moment is something that seems ever more foreign to us. We would rather throw some stale leftovers in the microwave than wait for the pot roast simmering to perfection in the crock pot. Once upon a time we had to wait a week for each new 30 minute episode of our favorite TV show. Now, we binge watch entire seasons online because a week is far too long to wait. And reading the book instead? Who has time for that?
How would you handle it if God were to say to you, I’m not ready to use you. You’re not ready to be used. I’m going to need you to take a decade or four in some out of the way backwater as a shepherd, of real sheep, not people, before you can handle the calling I’ve placed on you. One day you will replace your boss and really make something of this company. But first, I’m going to need you to be the office whipping boy for, oh say 25 years or so so you can have the humility needed to handle the responsibility.
We have a drive, a longing to always do everything right here, right now. In many ways, this is a good thing. It is good to have a passion. It is good to want to make a difference. But are we wanting to do so that we might be seen and known and admired or are we doing it for His glory? If success in God’s eyes ended up looking exactly the opposite of what the world understands as success, would we still strive for it? If getting God’s attention required the world forgetting all about us, would we still want it?
The church had peace, it became strong, and it grew in numbers only after Paul got out of the way. Are we willing to get out of the way, perhaps not just our egos but even our actual physical presence if that is what it takes for the church we know and love to have peace, to become strong, and to grow? Am I?