“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Who was the smallest Christian? We may think of Zacchaeus, who was “small in stature” (Lk. 19:1-10), but Paul claims he was the smallest. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described the “mystery” made known to him (Eph. 3:1-6) and then the “ministry” entrusted to him (Eph. 3:7-13), which was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul considered this commission an enormous privilege. “This grace,” as he called it, was given to him by God despite the fact that he was “the very least of all the saints.”
This is a striking expression. What did Paul mean by it? First of all, in Paul’s writing, “saint” (one who is holy or consecrated) is a title for every one of the Lord’s people. All Christians are “saints,” being consecrated by God in Christ and having redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7). Paul was certainly a “saint” but he categorized himself as “less than the least of all the saints” (NET).
Paul was stretching the Greek language for his purposes. He used the superlative “least” or “smallest” (elachistos) and turned it into a comparative “leaster” or “less than the least” (elachistoteros). This may have been a deliberate play on his name. When Paul’s mission brought him into primarily Gentile territory Luke ceased referring to him by his Hebrew name (“Saul” i.e. Shaul = desired) and began referring to him exclusively by his Roman name, “Paul,” which is Latin for ‘little’ or ‘small.’ Tradition says (take this with a grain of salt!) Paul was little in stature as well. Perhaps Paul is saying, “I am little in every way: little in name, in stature, and spiritually littler than the littlest of all Christians.”
But the apostle was not groveling in self-deprecation or indulging in false modesty. He truly meant what he wrote. In other places, he describes, with excruciating sincerity, his deep awareness of his unworthiness even to be saved let alone be chosen as the Lord’s apostle. Taking three of Paul’s self-descriptions in chronological order is instructive:
- First, Paul said he was “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because” he “persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:9, ~ AD 55).
- Next, as we have already noted, he said he was “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8, ~ AD 60).
- Later in his life, he said God had appointed him to service “though formerly” he “was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. But he “received mercy because” he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for” him “with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:13-17, ~ early AD 60’s)
As he progressed in his faith, Paul’s view of himself diminished while his view of God increased. This personal humility, however, never hindered him from executing his mission as Christ’s apostle. On the contrary, God's overflowing grace and mercy filled his ministry with divine strength. He “worked harder than any” of the rest of the apostles, though it was not him, but rather God’s grace at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10). When his apostleship was questioned by false apostles he vigorously defended it (2 Cor. 10-11). He appealed to—even commanded—Christians on the basis of his apostolic authority (2 Thess. 3:6). While minimizing himself and magnifying his office, Paul, the ‘littlest’ one, was glorifying his Lord.
“By your endurance you will gain your lives.”
Louis Zamperini was an Italian-American World War II officer who was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. But that was just the beginning of his trials. On his life raft, he was attacked by sharks, threatened with starvation, and fired at by Japanese aircraft. He was adrift forty-seven days before his boat reached land after a 2,000 mile-long journey, the longest ever recorded, when, instead of salvation, he was captured and tortured in a brutal prisoner of war camp. His story is told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, & Redemption (2010).
The Greek word hupomonē is sometimes translated “patience,” “endurance,” “resilience”, or “perseverance” because there is no single English word that fully captures its rich meaning. In secular Greek literature it was used to describe one who was forced into labor against his will but worked on, one who suffered the sting of grief but continued on, a soldier who fought a losing battle but fought on, or a plant growing in an inhospitable environment.
This kind of resilience is something all Christians need (Heb. 10:32-39). In fact, this word is used in the New Testament many times to describe Christians. It is connected with suffering (Rom. 5:3). Our commitment to Christ is tested when we encounter pain (2 Cor. 6:4) and persecution (2 Thess. 1:4). It is what we must have if we are to remain faithful unto death (Rev. 1:9; 3:10; 13:10). It is also connected with faith. When our faith is tested it produces “steadfastness” (Jas. 1:3). In a cyclical pattern, endurance perfects and strengthens our faith to endure difficulties in the future. This all leads to hope. Endurance produces character which produces “hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Hope for a brighter future is what fuels endurance (Rom. 15:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:3). Endurance also brings joy. Beyond just hoping for a better future, we can live with joy and gratitude in the present despite the circumstances (Col. 1:11-12).
How can a person be joyful, possess such hope, and endure such trials with such faith? Because the most common use of hupomonē in the New Testament is in connection with the goal of glory. For the Christian, the greatest things are to come after this life (Rom. 2:7; Heb. 10:36; 12:1; 2 Tim. 2:10,12; Jas. 1:12; 5:11; etc.).
Jesus, preparing his followers for the destruction of Jerusalem, said, “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Lk. 21:19). But this endurance was no passive waiting or idle patience. Hard times provide the occasion to faithfully bear witness to the truth (Lk. 21:13; cf. 8:15; 18:1-8). Persecution can lead to the death of the body, but not the cessation of one’s life (Lk. 12:4-5), because at the heart of Christian resilience is the hope of resurrection.
Perseverance is not simply the patience which waits passively for the storm to pass. It is the spirit which stares down the storm. It is the spirit which bears difficulty, not with resignation, but with blazing hope because it knows glory is coming. Perseverance is not the grim patience that waits for the end but the radiant patience that hopes for a new beginning. It is the background upon which courage and glory are painted. It is what keeps one’s stubbornly, joyfully plodding on against the wind. It is what transforms the hardest trials into quests for victory.
Perseverance is that grit and determination within Christians in the first century that enabled them to publicly deny Caesar as Lord and affirm Jesus as Lord. It enabled Paul and Silas to not just endure being beaten with the absence of murmuring but to explode in songs of praise in the darkness of their jail cell (Acts 16:22-25). It is what empowered the apostles after being flogged for speaking in the name of Jesus to rejoice “that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (Acts 5:40-42) You must persevere!
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
Job lost almost everything — his wealth, children, health, and public honor. His friends commiserated with him in silence for an entire week. Then Job broke the silence, beginning a cycle in which his friends respond to his complaints with the prevailing, but mistaken, wisdom of the day: the innocent prosper and the wicked are punished. If Job would only repent, they reasoned, God would restore him. But Job maintained his innocence.
In the process of working through his pain, Job began to wonder about God’s character. He saw God as being out of touch with human suffering, even unmoved by it. Job wanted someone to explain God to him and him to God (9:33; cf. Jn. 1:18).
In the end, God broke the cycle of empty human wisdom by giving two speeches. First, God asked Job whether he understood how creation was governed (38:1-40:2), to which Job pleaded ignorance and pledged his silence (40:3-5). Then, God contrasted his power with the most terrible creatures in the ancient world (40:6-41:34). Again, Job was humbled (42:1-6).
Instead of answers to Job’s questions, God gave him something more valuable: perspective. God is the king of the universe. He has perfect knowledge and hidden purposes which are above us. Job knew he was out of his depth and changed his attitude (42:6).
And through his suffering, something beautiful occurred. Job was not beat down into the dirt of discouragement. Just the opposite. He was lifted up to new heights. He had seen God in a new light. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). In his pain, he felt entitled to question God, to bring him down to his own level as if God were answerable to him. But after coming face to face with the Almighty, he had a deeper understanding of God. But this was an understanding he would never have known had he not experienced such loss.
God makes a habit out of meeting people in their pain. Jesus came to share in and take on our pain. He became that “arbiter” that Job prayed for in Job 9:33. Through Jesus, we can not only endure suffering but be transformed by it (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:31-39; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Heb. 12:5-11; Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-9; Rev. 2:10; etc.). James encourages patience in suffering and points to Job and the good “purpose of the Lord” as motivation (Jas. 5:11).
When our pain seems too much to bear, the cross reminds us of God’s power and wisdom. In Christ, even when we suffer we know that his divine compassion and mercy have not failed (Lam. 3:23). Job had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. He had no understanding of God’s purpose for his affliction (Job 1:6-2:7) nor its outcome (42:10-17). Many times, neither do we. But what sustains us through the furnace of affliction is God’s control to cause all things to work together for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). The happy ending in Job is just a shadow of what we will receive if we remain “steadfast under trial” (Jas. 1:12).
Hezekiah was sick unto death (Isa. 38:1) but endured his sickness by faith. He said, “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back” (Isa. 38:17). Hezekiah had discovered a new appreciation for God’s love but he did so through “great bitterness.” So it will be for us when we confront the evil and bitterness of this world with faithful endurance.
Now, we “see in a mirror dimly.” God’s image is obscure. But as we persevere by faith our spiritual perception of him will continue to sharpen until we finally see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:8).
And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand! For as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one male.” Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.”
1 Samuel 25:32-35
There are times when God, in his sovereign wisdom and mercy, restrains us from committing terrible acts against him, ourselves, and others. 1 Samuel 25 illustrates this restraining mercy of God. David, the Lord’s anointed but not-yet-sitting-king, was traveling through the wilderness when he sought the aid of a rich man named Nabal. But Nabal was “harsh and badly behaved” (1 Sam. 25:4) and regarded David as a rebellious upstart. He repaid David’s kindness to his shepherds (1 Sam. 25:6-8) with dismissal. In a moment of anger, David had his men prepare for battle and sought retribution from Nabal by destroying his entire house (1 Sam. 25:9-13, 21-22).
But Nabal’s wife Abigail, a “discerning and beautiful” woman (1 Sam. 25:4), heard the news of her foolish husband’s treatment of David and interceded with words of wisdom, humility, and kindness (Prov. 15:1) as well as gifts for David’s troop (1 Sam. 25:14-31).
Not only was David’s wrath placated and Abigail’s house delivered from death, but David himself was saved from the “bloodguilt” of revenge (1 Sam. 25:26). Abigail knew David would be king and wanted him to take the throne with a clear conscience. She said to David, “And when the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation himself. And when the LORD has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.” (1 Sam. 25:30-31)
Because of Abigail’s faithful intercession, David could see clearly again. But David understood that it was really God who sent Abigail to stop him from doing violence and breaking the covenant (1 Sam. 25:32-35). He was saved from the pain of guilt he would have suffered later had he committed murder.
God’s restraining mercy is still active today in our lives. His word restrains us from great evil but, as in the story of David and Abigail, when we forget his words he may also send his servants to remind us of what is right. This is one aspect of God’s providence; God provides what we need in the moment (Gen. 22:8, 14). He is able to place certain people in our path to help us on our way.
I can’t count the number of times Rachael has “restrained” me from doing wrong or speaking out of turn and “delivered” me from embarrassment or much worse. The same can be said of my brothers and sisters in Christ who, through their good example and wisdom, hinder me from sinning and help me choose what is right.
The obvious question is are we the kind of people God can use to encourage others to do what is right and discourage them from doing what is wrong? (Heb. 3:12-13) We can be like Abigail and God can use us to limit evil and promote righteousness. Is this not what Jesus meant by being “light” and “salt” (Mt. 5:13-16)?
Whenever we experience God’s restraining mercy, let us do what David did by recognizing the Lord’s hand and praising him. “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” (2 Thess. 1:3)
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
The word “awesome” is abused in our modern vernacular. I know I’ve been guilty of using it to describe rather trivial things. But in the Bible, “awesome” most often describes the works God has done, the places God has been, and the character of God himself. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word yaré means something so big, terrifying, and powerful, it causes astonishment and awe in us. The same word translated “awesome” in Deuteronomy 10:17 is translated “terrifying” later in verse 21.
Whenever God ‘made an appearance’ among his people, they were consistently awestruck. Israel was scared to death at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when God gave the Law through Moses. Ezekiel saw God riding on a lightning storm/cosmic chariot across the plains of Babylon and responded by falling down as if he were dead. Isaiah met with God in the heavenly throne room and declared his own ruin in the face of the King’s holiness. An astonished Daniel saw the “Ancient of Days” giving the dominion of the universe to one “like a son of man.” When John turned to see the voice of many waters he came face to face with our resurrected and glorious Lord. John responded just like Ezekiel, “I fell at his feet as though dead.”
These “theophanies” (intense visual manifestations of God’s glory to humanity) broke all categories of human experience. They were so awesome, that when the biblical writers tried to convey their encounters with God, they resorted to the words “like,” “as,” “had the appearance of” or “the likeness of” because what they saw was so unique it was far beyond the limits of their vocabulary.
Among the many attributes of God which make him “awesome,” is his tenderness toward the lowly. In fact, his condescending grace is rooted in his transcendent greatness. God is awesome because his love reaches across the infinite gap between us and him. We see these ideas in Deuteronomy 10, particularly in verses 17-19.
God is transcendent, the “God of gods and Lord of lords.” On the basis of this greatness, God is “not partial” and “takes no bribe.” God is self-sufficient and needs nothing outside of himself. God does not take bribes not only because he is just (Deut. 16:19; Prov. 17:23) but also because he has no motive to take a bribe. He who already owns everything cannot be bribed with anything.
He shows no “partiality” for the same reason. He does not try to curry anyone’s favor through special treatment because he has no need to. God is above all that. He doesn’t need to create a debt with anyone through favoritism because all created beings are intrinsically and eternally in his debt already. If he wants to get something done, he will do it. He doesn’t need coercive strategies.
On the basis of his transcendent self-sufficiency, Moses says, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Since God can’t be bribed by the rich and has no deficiency to be remedied through favoritism, he cares for those who can’t afford bribes and have nothing to attract his partiality — orphans, widows, and refugees.
The application for us is to love like God loves. We are beneficiaries of God’s kindness. If we will recognize our widow-like, orphan-like, refugee-like spiritual condition of helplessness (Mt. 5:3), and rely on God’s love and power, we will have the power to love as he loves. This is why James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas. 1:27)