In Galatians 1:17 Paul makes reference to a time in Arabia. The first years of his walk with Christ were the most difficult, how the vehement enemy of the Church became the greatest apologist for Christ.
17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 1:17.
This is the only reference we have concerning Paul in Arabia. It is obvious by studying the spiritual trajectory that some processes were put in motion to put Paul into the direction of becoming one of the most influential apostles of his time. Two things must occur before this, first he must be connected to Barnabas and taken to Antioch. However for these to take place I surmise that his time in Arabia were crucial to develop the most prolific of Church planters in history. What we have to think about is how far removed Paul was before the Damascus Road encounter with Jesus, and how his theology could not be reconciled with what he saw as a sect like any other that had sprung up over the decades. So what did Jesus have to do to break down the walls to dovetail the eternal plan into Paul’s theology, and what did Jesus have to reveal?
From exclusivity to Open election by Grace through Faith
When we picture a learned scholar with Gamaliel as his teacher we must consider what understanding the Jews had concerning the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic Law, and then see how God had to somehow show Paul that his rigidity resides in ignorance of what Jesus accomplished at the Cross. Some of the tendencies that Paul came to Christ with contrast with some of our own. Paul needed to come face to face with Grace. Today we need to come face to face with Holiness as we have come to a whole different place, by extending Grace to its limit in licence to sin. The fact is as Christians we have little understanding that Jesus was not a Gentile, rather a Jew, and the foundations of our faith reside in the Abrahamic covenant and Mosaic law. For us to understand Grace as Paul did, we need to see what the punishment was for all who live outside the covenants, and who are transgressors under Law. The charge and punishment for these is death. The type of death which Isaiah 53 describes in graphic details is not only the extent of the punishment that this affords, but also the extent for which Jesus took on our punishment for our forgiveness, our curse of exclusion for our adoption as sons, and our death for our new life in the Spirit.
We must understand that the exclusivity of the children of Abraham had some pride about it, and God in Christ breaks this. The mystery unfolded from Romans 9,10,11 show us the process that Paul had to embrace. The Jewish rejection of Christ, Messiah, of a man from Galilee had a wider plan. Continuing in this exclusivity blinded them for a Messiah who extended covenant to a people who were not counted ever to be the People of God. Isaiah 26 refers to this, as being the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone of a whole new house called Grace. I find that whatever we fall into, whether it be denominational pride, whether it be our knowledge we acquire, whether it be the possessions and gains we make, God always makes a way in our lives to break and bring us into degrees of humility. I find that God always confounds our perception of having it together, and then suddenly we are found in weakness and powerlessness that our perception must return to total dependence on the fact that without Him we know nothing, without Him we own nothing, and without Him we progress to nothing. It is a very hard training ground.
Jesus alludes to the scholars of the Pharisees having the key of Knowledge yet do not enter it themselves, or they would know the Kingdom, nor would they allow others to enter. It is against this “key” that Jesus would confront Paul. Make no mistake the jews, the Pharisees became from initial good zeal to becoming enemies of the One who is embodied in the Law and the Prophets. They are hard hearted and hot headed. I get the sense with all of us we share in these processes in our preparation. God has to break our dependencies, and bring us out to realise that He is all in all for us. Pride in any realm must be knocked out of us. Whether it be a church we once attended where we were never taken seriously, or where we fell on our faces for our conceited attitude. In the formative years there are great advances but even greater breakings of self. In fact if we were to see these we would see the dangers of our advances, and the blessings of our breaking.
It is not about ourselves, it is not coming from us, nor do we earn Salvation, it came via virtue of the finished work of Calvary, even when we were yet sinners, He died for us. He did not depend on our reaction to die, His death came anyway. We are not the centre of His Plan, Jesus is the Centre of the Father’s plan. So nothing we are, nothing we know, nothing we have can make us candidates for His Saving Grace. This in itself is humbling, and is totally against everything we know humanly. It is through this narrow door we enter the Kingdom. And Paul needed to consider as he speaks in Philippians 3 that he had to consider his achievements as nothing. Grace is extended because of Christ, and our receiving it is dependent upon Him. This in comparison with Law observance, and the requirement of being descendants being done away with in Christ, no more a requirement is dismantling a life that existed for centuries. This illumination was and must have been so difficult to accept. Sometimes God has to dismantle so that He can construct His Plan in us by a whole and new different way. The danger here is whilst we delight in our study of the Word, Matthew 2 reminds us that whilst teachers and scholars knew where the Messiah would be born, they were ignorant of the signs, and were absent at His birth. We can know, but we must realise it is not enough to know. Paul had to realise this, however hard and heartbreaking to realise.
The Blood of the Son, a New Priesthood, our new posture
The Mosaic Law, the covenants resided around the importance of Blood, and those who were to administer the ordinances, now Jesus would provide His own Blood, and be at the Same Time the Priest, who would offer His own Blood. He would perform in one time, for all time, the Sacrifice that would redeem and annul the power of sin and death over men. All we need to do is to arrive at His presence with Boldness and faith. We would in turn become participants of the great and holy salvation. All these aspects had to be faced by Paul. What a different perspective! All that he knew would be a foundation for something more complete, more perfect. What Paul had to let go of, was the endless round of sacrifices that would only cover sin, for a time, but now the Blood of Jesus redeems and erases the authority and dominion of sin over mankind. Our Eucharist/Communion time is a reminder of this one time act of Jesus on our behalf, and as we partake we are reaffirming our faith in this one time for all time act.
What is dismantled is unified, what is broken is made anew
The trajectory of Paul in the first years, whilst very difficult, there comes a season when all what we see of our past dealings with God, our knowledge, suddenly we see a foundation. In Zechariah 4 we see the oil flowing, and then we come to a foundation, where the Spirit is evoked about all might and power, because how this foundation came to be is through the declarations of Grace, when the plumbline of God comes to bring us to a perfect foundation where complete and perfect illumination comes to bring us to a place of knowing Him and bringing others to know Him. The Lord needs to visit His Church afresh and break our vision of Jesus, from the Suffering Servant only, to face Him as King of all and Judge of all the earth. We must discern His judicial acts in our lives and in the earth. God does not break us to destroy us, rather He brings us into a great restoration as we recognise how He is preparing us, and submitting to the process to its completion. The foundation is as important as the roof, that is why when Abraham saw the eternal city he first saw the foundations. Paul had to have foundations that would carry his writings for 2000 years, sustaining the Church throughout many generations.
God is causing us to see His preparation work in our hearts, for we shall see a new foundation planted so that His work can become a generational work, where sons and daughters enjoy the benefits of a holy legacy. For this to happen, every human tendency must face the dismantling, the ruins of our pride, so that in embracing the fact He is the centre, we like Paul will become great people of the order of David, who were followers of God’s own heart. This preparation is necessary because the depth of preparation determines the power of our representation of the Messiah. The signs and wonders that followed Paul were part of the fruit of this preparatory work.