“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.” (Jonathan Edwards)
If there is one thing that the Apostle Paul learned it was how to access grace to bring God glory! In the weakness of his flesh, he could do nothing. (Romans 7:18-19) And yet, Paul learned that he could “do everything through Christ, who gives [him] strength.” (Philippians 4:13) Even (and especially) when he could not manage what was on his plate, Paul learned that Christ’s grace was sufficient for him – because God’s strength is perfected in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
What was Paul’s secret? How did he do it?
One thing we know about this man is that he had a great relationship with Jesus – after he quit persecuting Him, that is! Really, he’s heaven’s “comeback kid,” going from very negative numbers to becoming a spiritual superstar in his eternal ratings. What awesome lessons we can learn from him, if we unpeel his life to see how he came to such wisdom…
Paul started out a bit rough in his ministerial career. Of course, he didn’t know it, and those he was hanging out with were likewise blind. (That’s what religion and spiritual pride will do for you!) They didn’t know they were on the wrong side of things, but God surely did and so did the Church.
If there ever was a know-it-all whiz kid, it was Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul, before Jesus got hold of him). No doubt, he was extremely intelligent with a phenomenal pedigree, the pet student of the leading rabbi of his day. He was a guru in training, an up-and-coming spiritual leader with passion and zeal … all going in the wrong direction!
However, when the Lord knocked him off his high horse and turned his blindness inside out (Acts 9:1-18), everything changed. After he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul spent years alone with God on the backside of the Arabian Desert. (Gal 1:11-2:2) Jesus, of course, did the same thing when He began His ministry, but it only took 40 days for Him to emerge in power of the Spirit! (Luke 4:14) Regardless, it was time well-spent. When Paul returned from the desert, his was another story altogether – because he was another man, altogether.
Through it all – somehow, by God’s grace – Paul wound up a winner. He became someone we should all follow – and if you don’t believe me, just ask him! In 1 Corinthians 11:1, he unashamedly says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” This is not the heady statement of an unbroken upstart, but the humble truth from a man who earned the right to say, “Follow me.”
Even so, it’s kind of hard to understand Paul, today… Though he was a great man of God, highly gifted and articulate, he lived a very different sort of life than we do. Paul was a true apostle, and they were the “off scouring” of the world. (1 Corinthians 4:9-13) That is why, when God called Ananias to pray for Saul’s sight to be restored, He told him that He must show him what he would suffer for His name’s sake. (Acts 9:10-16) Paul earned his stripes! (2 Corinthians 11:23b-33) He had been broken, and therefore, can be trusted to emulate, but it helps to understand how he operated…
Plainly put, Paul found his sufficiency in Jesus. By the time he penned much of what is now the New Testament, his heart (and his motives) were purified. For him, to live was Christ. (Philippians 1:21) All he wanted to do was help each believer mature in love and service to the Lord, to see Christ formed in them. (Colossians 1:28-29; Galatians 4:19) Paul should be followed, because he had no agenda apart from the glory of God.
Even when he asked for money (for himself or others), Paul was “not seeking [his] own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:33) Basically, he had grown selfless. God taught Him to get along with or without human help, because He would be there to sustain him in plenty and in want. So, Paul walked in a remarkable level of freedom from the cares of this world and wanted others to emulate this in him. Listen to what he says to the believers who renewed their financial support for him in Philippians 4:9-14 …
“The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress.”
Paul knew how to lean on God; he understood the process. That’s how he could be grateful for their help and even more excited about the benefit the believers at Philippi would receive. His selflessness is obvious, as he continues to share his heart in verse 17, “I don’t say this because I want a gift from you. Rather, I want you to receive a reward for your kindness.” Not only that, but he encouraged them (and us) to find the same grace he did: “And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from His glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
But how? That’s the big question… How do we actually live like he did? It all sounds good, but how do we learn to trust God so completely? How can we endure hardships, like Paul did? How can we be in such need – and not be weighed down? Well, Paul knew the secret, but thankfully, didn’t keep it a secret! Simply put: Do like Jesus! Humble yourself, be obedient to God, and live to give – not to get. Listen to what he says in Philippians 2:1-8…
“ Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
In short, Paul exhorts us to let love unite us and to become humble, make ourselves “of no reputation,” to become “a nothing” in our own eyes. This is what Jesus did, and this is what Paul did, too. No doubt, that is why his end was far greater than his beginning! After all, just take a look at what happened to Jesus, Paul’s example…
“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Though it may not be obvious in our day, Paul’s “secret” was actually common knowledge in his. James knew it… “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4:10) And so did Peter, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1Peter 5:6-7) They got it – and so can we! God still does things His way; we just need to get on the same page. Though not many talk about humility, today, the need for it has not changed. We may be a little behind those in ancient times, but we can still bring glory to God – if we benefit from their wisdom!
So, mystery solved: Ultimately, Paul scored BIG in his service to the Lord by becoming “a nothing” and walking in freedom from self. Through his trials, he learned that God gets glory, when we get grace – and we get grace, when we humble ourselves. It’s a process we must embrace to serve the Lord. Jonathan Edwards, a prominent preacher during the foundational years of America, also understood the process. That’s why he said, “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”
“Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen … May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philippians 4:20, 23)