'But God' - From Paul's spiritual birth to physical death


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Bible Study Series: 'But God Bible Verses' 

'But God' in the life of Paul - From spiritual birth to physical death


by I Gordon

But God in the life of Paul Bible study

Well it has been a few weeks since my last study but I see the world hasn't got any saner in my short absence! There has been a crazy, and in many people's opinion (including my own), fraudulent US election that is still far from over and just keeps on giving. There is more craziness in the name of Covid going on. One example I read during the week, was that in the state of Oregon, possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other lethal drugs is no longer a crime. But you could be jailed for up to 30 days for that terrible crime of having more than 6 people sitting around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. And the state Governor was urging residents to watch their neighbors and call the cops if they see more than six people sitting around the turkey! I'm sure that will really end well... Is this 2020 or 1984?

But watching everything going on in the world can become quite overwhelming. More are struggling mentally, losing their means of income, and losing hope. Turning to the Bible, when Daniel saw a vision of the last days, he then recorded this:  

Dan 8:27 I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I arose and went about the king's business.

I recently saw one believer quote this verse online. His comment was 'this is how I feel watching everything that is going on and also how I am going to get out of it.' I like that... a lot. It can be overwhelming just concentrating on all the things that are moving in the wrong direction in this world. It can make one feel exhausted. But we need to arise, not stay down or get overwhelmed, and go about the Kings business. King Jesus that is! 

So that is what we are going to do today. And that business is to teach and hear His word and focus on Him! So let's do that. Let's do another in our series on 'But God'. The New Testament, and the whole Bible for that matter, is about Jesus. It is a living testimony about who He is, what He did and who He will be when revealed to this desperate planet once more. It is also a testimony of what He does in the life of those that follow Him. And today I want to focus on a man that was radically transformed and used more than any other in the early Church. Ooooh that's tough... who could that be? Ok, so that's in the easy-peesy-lemon-squeezy quiz question category.  It's the Apostle Paul. Everything about his life screams 'But God!' From his spiritual birth, and his entire ministry, to his eventual passing into the presence of Jesus Himself, it all has the stamp of 'but God' all over it. 

So in this study we'll look at three 'But God' aspects from the letters of Paul, looking at why they were so real in his life. This will involve 'But God' in:

  • The initial salvation
  • The difficulties of life and ministry
  • The end of our days

I'll also include some relevant (hopefully!) 'but God' testimonies from members of my own family of how God has moved and turned things around in difficult times. Ready? Set? Go!

Spiritually dead - But God rich in mercy...

Let's start with Paul's spiritual new birth. Hopefully we all know the story of how he was persecuting the church, 'breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord' as he went to Damascus to find more Christians that he could imprison... or do something worse to! And yet, right in the midst of such murderous actions, the Lord Jesus revealed Himself to Paul in the most radical way! It is no exaggeration to say that in one day Paul went from being the Church's greatest human threat to their greatest asset. The transformation was so incredible that even the early church didn't believe it! Ananias, when told directly by the Lord to go to Paul replied (in so many words) with a 'um, I know this man. Not sure that is a wise thing to do Lord! Are you completely, utterly, absolutely sure?' (Acts 9:10-17) When Paul came to Jerusalem all the disciples gave him a very wide birth! They were all afraid of him not yet believing that this man, of all men, could have found salvation. Maybe it was a cunning ploy? Thankfully Barnabas believed Paul and was brave enough to introduce Paul to the other disciples (Acts 9:26-27). There is a lot we could say about Paul's salvation yet to reduce it to the fewest number of words it is this - 'But God'. Ok, well, if we desired to reduce it even further we could just say 'God!' The radical nature of his and our salvation comes out in Paul's letters. Let's look at two 'But God' passages concerning this.

Rom 5:7-8 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Would you die for another? Very occasionally someone may lay down their life for their friend. We see this especially in times of war, where someone puts their life on the line to save another. I read a recent example from World War II.   

An example - Laying down your life

"Boarding the SS Dorchester on a dreary winter day in 1943 were 903 troops and four chaplains, including Moody alumnus Lt. George Fox. World War II was in full swing, and the ship was headed across the icy North Atlantic where German U-boats lurked. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. "She's going down!" the men cried, scrambling for lifeboats. A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. "I've lost my life jacket," he said. "Take this," the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each chaplain gave his life jacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. Lt. Fox and his fellow pastors were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross."
Today in the Word, April 1, 1992

Now that's an awesome example of giving your life for others. 'But God', in the person of Jesus Christ, even gave His life for His enemies. It is incredibly rare, even unheard of, that someone would lay down their life for their enemies! But Paul knew that Jesus had done this. He knew this personally for his own life. He knew that he was not a good man being more than willing to see believers unjustly imprisoned or killed to achieve his goal of exterminating the church. Paul knew that there is no way that he deserved Jesus to die for him! But that is what amazed him so much. Look at the progression, or actually regression, in Paul's opinion of himself as time went by:

1Co 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Eph 3:8 Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,

1Ti 1:15-16 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. (16) But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

He goes from being the least of the Apostles, to the least of all God's people, to, near the end of his ministry, the worst of sinners. But his life, he wrote, was an example to all of God's grace. He knew that Jesus died for him and loved him, even while an enemy of God. Thus Paul could write 'I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.' (Gal 2:20).

He gave...

That phrase 'gave Himself' reminds me of the following story:

"A chaplain was ministering to a soldier in the hospital and said, “You have lost an arm in the great cause.” The soldier replied, “I didn't lose it—I gave it.”

So it was with Jesus. He didn't lose His life either. He willingly gave it for us so we could be reconciled to God. We were His enemies, but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Paul would continue this theme in his other letters and probably none better than in Ephesians chapter 2. Here again is another example that truly lays out the extent of our fall and position in sin, contrasted with His act to raise us up again. And it all pivots on another wonderful 'but God' example. 

Eph 2:1-7 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, (2) in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (3) Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (4) But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, (5) even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (6) and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (7) so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn't beat around the bush to try to talk around the problem here. You were dead in your sins he says. You walked according to the prince of the power of the air, that same spirit that works in the sons of disobedience. You were children of wrath, full of lust. Hmmm... if this were the Psalms I'd put a 'selah' there. Pause and think on that. Maybe you think, "well, you know I'm not that bad. Yeah I did some things that weren't very good... but, well, that's kind of hard to explain because I am a good person." Too many think like that. But God's assessment is the true one. Let me tell you a related story from the life of my sister.   

Fiona's Testimony

One day, many years ago, my Mum was singing 'open your heart and let him in. God will remove all your sorrow and sin' when a little voice piped up behind her saying 'how do I open my heart to let Him in? I don't know how.' It was Mum's young daughter Fiona, my big sister. So Mum explained how and Fiona, at 8 years old, asked the Lord into her heart. Through Fiona's teens however, God didn't seem so close. Thinking that maybe she should go forward for salvation again, she did that at several Church services but nothing ever seemed to happen. She had always been a 'good girl' and other seemingly 'bad people' were having wonderful salvation experiences... but not her. One week in particular it came to a head. She had been in a bad mood all week annoyed that nothing ever happened for her and partially doubting the reality of God. Yet her boyfriend at the time asked her to go to the youth group so she reluctantly accepted and went.   

As the youth group sat in a circle the youth Pastor asked them all, in turn, to say what God was doing in their life. Argh! Talk about her worst nightmare... this was not what she wanted to be asked... Not this week! Getting each person to confess their sins to each other publicly would have been more enjoyable! Person after person had there turn, giving testimonies to the wonderful things God was doing while Fiona sat there... desperately trying to think of something, anything, that she could say. She had something planned when it finally came round the circle to her turn. And yet what came out was not what had been planned. When it was her turn to speak she just blurted out, in front of the whole group of smiling happy young Christians 'Oh! I don't even know if there is a God!' And with that she burst into tears and ran outside.   

Her boyfriend and others came out and prayed for Fiona, thanking the Lord for her. And as they thanked God, an amazing thing happened. Fiona was lifted up and had a personal experience with the living God. She saw herself being presented by Jesus to the Father as His daughter - saved and kept by the Lord Jesus. And she heard the Lord speak to her. It was a verse from Isaiah - He said 'All your righteousness is as filthy rags'. Upon coming home her first words to Mum were the opposite of what she had blurted out at the youth group just hours before. She said 'Oh, I know there is a God now!'

As Fiona recounted this experience in our home group a few weeks ago and spoke of her experience of being presented by Jesus to the Father, tears welled up in her eyes once again. And she said that the verse she received about her righteousness being as filthy rags was not spoken with any condemnation. It was simply a fact. One that this 'good' young girl needed to know. Yes, her righteousness were as filthy rags before the Lord... 'But God' saved her, accepted her and gave her an eternal spotless garment that is the righteousness of Christ. And this is what He does for all believers in the Lord Jesus for we were all lost, sinful, children of wrath. But God turns it all around and gives us a new home, a new family and the a new standing before Him!

Difficulties and depression - you can be used in a 'but God' experience!

So moving back to Paul's life we see that he had a truly radical conversion experience. But life was not going to be at all easy for him. It was actually going to be incredibly difficult. He would experience both tremendous joy alongside daily struggles. On the day of Paul's dramatic conversion, can you remember what Jesus said to Ananias about Paul? Come on, think! It was this:

Act 9:15-16 But the Lord said to him (Ananias), "Go, for he (Paul) is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake."

By necessity, the most amazing 'but God' experiences come from the most troubling times. They come out of times when God alone is the only answer. And Paul knew all about such times. Look at this partial list of what he experienced. When some false 'apostles' were questioning Paul's credentials he wrote to those in Corinth:

2Co 11:23-33 Are they ministers of Christ?--I speak as a fool--I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. (24) From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. (25) Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; (26) in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; (27) in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness-- (28) besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. (29) Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (30) If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. (31) The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. (32) In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; (33) but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

Each story in that list above is it's own amazing 'But God' testimony. Each one involved life and death and saw the hand of God stepping in to protect His servant. But he knew about daily difficulties. He knew about daily sorrow. He even knew about sorrow and depression. Note the following two passages: 

Php 2:25-27 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. (26) For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. (27) Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.

2Co 7:5-7 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. (6) But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; (7) and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.

Paul often didn't have a lot of support. Epaphroditus was one that did support Paul and worked hard for the sake of the gospel. And yet he was dying being gravely ill. You can imagine how Paul felt. 'Oh, please spare him dear Lord!' And so we read Epaphroditus was dying, 'but God' had mercy and healed him, and, at the same time, spared Paul 'sorrow upon sorrow'. Can you think of a time when God has stepped in and has done that for you or someone you know? On another occasion, Paul was depressed. He says he was afflicted on every side. The arrows and battles were just coming from every direction. There were constant conflicts without and fears within. 'But God' who comforts the depressed, comforted Paul by sending Titus. Yes, even the Apostle Paul had fears within. You aren't alone there! Yes, even the Apostle Paul got depressed at times. You aren't alone there! And yes, God would comfort the Apostle Paul, as He does you, through various ways when needed most.  

But what I like about this 'But God' example is that it was God that comforted Paul... but He did so through a person. It is still God doing it. But He is giving the privilege of including and using someone to be His hands and feet - in this case, Titus. And all of us can be used by the Lord as the 'but God' in someone else's life who needs help. We really can. We just need a willing and prayerful heart, and a open and attentive ear. Let me give you an example from my Mother's life and how she had a 'but God' experience, with God using other people, right in the midst of the deepest, darkest depression.

Mum's Testimony

In the year 2000 my mother had a nervous breakdown. It really was the culmination of years, actually decades, of trying to cope with my Dad. I've spoken about that before so I won't go into that again but simply to say that the net effect on Mum lead to a full nervous breakdown and deep depression. Let me just say that this wasn't just feeling a little down or depressed. This is full panic attacks and being bed ridden for months, unable to cope with any real input. Even listening to the radio was too much for her. But in the midst of the breakdown, the Lord gave Mum a verse to hold onto from the Psalms. 

Psa 18:16-18 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy...They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support.

It was the first part of this passage that spoke to her the most. 'He drew me out of the deep waters'. And deep waters, far too great for her, was what she was experiencing. So she received comfort and hope from this but it didn't mean that everything suddenly changed. The depression and breakdown continued. But she had the word of the Lord to hold onto. The second confirmation came soon after. My brother got Eddie Cairns, the head of Mission Outreach in our town (and a wonderful godly man!) to come and see Mum. When he saw her (and she wasn't good) he said somewhat surprisingly 'there is nothing to worry about here. This is fertile soil for the soul.' And he went on to say that God had given him the image of a ship coming out of deep and troubled waters into a safe still haven. This was confirmation number 2. Another picture speaking the same message... the Lord will bring her out of the deep waters. The third confirmation came shortly after. A lady who had not known Mum personally, but had heard that she had had a breakdown and experienced something similar, sent her a letter from another town. In it, she had cut out a Bible verse that had been posted in the local paper. It was this: Psalm 18:16 'He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.' Yep! The same verse that the Lord had given Mum at the start. 

To cut a long story short, Mum did come out of the deep waters and did come into a a still safe haven. But I don't want to minimize this experience by making it sound easier than it was.  It was a difficult time with a lot of uncertainty in the natural... but God operated in the spiritual. It was definitely a 'but God' experience and God used people in it. He used people, that had heard from Him, to encourage and give hope.  It is a great encouragement for all of us. If you are struggling, take hope in the Lord that He will draw you out of the deep waters as well. Or maybe you are the one who will be used by God to help others in need? Is that your desire and something that you look for?  

'But God' to the very end

As I said earlier, there are so many 'but God' examples in the life of Paul. His whole life was full of them. But I want to move to the end of his life now. In one way it is gives great encouragement. In another, sadness. But it finishes again with great hope. Encouragement, sadness, hope. Do you know which letter was Paul's last? Yep, 2nd Timothy. It's 67 or 68 AD and Paul was a prisoner in a Roman dungeon when he wrote this and he knows and states that his race in now complete. It is finished. Earth is passing. Heaven awaits. He writes: 

2Ti 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. (7) I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (8) Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Personally, I love this testimony. How awesome to get to the end of your life and know that you have completed the race that the Lord had for you. How great that despite all the fiery arrows and attacks, all the fears, all the moments of weakness throughout your life, you made it... you kept the faith. During the week I heard a Pastor ask this question - 'What is your most prized, most important, possession?' So I'll ask that to you... what would you consider your most important possession? Almost immediately we think of 'things' that we have. 'Oooh, I really like my car... or well, it's definitely not my car!' This Pastor rightly said that your most important possession is your faith. Faith in God. That is what is more important than anything else. That is what holds you in the difficult times. That is what will see you through in the crazy days to come. And when Paul got to the end of his life, this is what he was pleased to be able to say - 'I have finished the race and I have kept the faith!' Awesome.

But here comes the sad part because this testimony comes as Paul stands on trial in Rome knowing that this is his last hour. So let me ask you... Who stood with Paul in this his darkest hour? No one. Why? Because they couldn't get to Rome? Not really... Probably more fear based because he writes that 'everyone deserted me'. 

2Ti 4:16-18 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. (17) But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth. (18) The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Think of all the Churches he started and all the people he helped. But there is no one that came to support him when he needed it most. And yet, at the same time, someone is with him. Someone incredibly faithful. Paul writes that 'no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me... But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength!' In the midst of a sad and dark ending, in pours streams of light and hope once again! 'But the Lord', or 'But God' stood at my side. The One who promised to be with believers right to the very end of the age (Matt 28:20) is the One who is standing with Paul right to the very end of His life. As He does with all believers.  

 Here he (Paul) lays down his pen. The Letter is finished. His ministry is ended. But the fragrance of his life and testimony abides with us still, and we shall meet him again and talk with him about the grand themes of the gospel and the church.
William MacDonald, Believer's Bible Commentary

Conclusion

So to conclude, we've seen that the beginning of Paul's life in Christ was a miraculous 'but God' experience. But to be clear, every salvation is miraculous for we were all 'dead in sins' and 'children of wrath' 'but God' was rich in mercy, taking our place, paying our debt, and saving our life. Selah! We've seen also that through Paul's life many trials and difficulties came his way. 'Conflicts without, fears within' was how Paul put it. Many were too much for him... 'but God' made the difference. And so He does in our life. God can safely bring someone through the deepest darkest depression as He did for my Mum! And finally we saw that even at the end of Paul's life, sadly everyone deserted him, 'but the Lord' stood with him as He has promised to do. 

In these days of a so-called 'pandemic' lock-downs and the proposed financial and social 'great reset', there is a lot of concern and fear over the changes taking place on this planet. A lot of people aren't coping. But I just want to encourage you once again that the Lord will be with the believer right to the very end. He stands with us as He did Paul, even if we have no one else to do so. And the words of Paul will again find their fulfillment for us when he wrote:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

As believers we have the sureness of the hope of His coming, a heavenly home to look forward to, and the Messianic Kingdom here on Earth where in righteousness and goodness and all things that are right and true, shall dwell! And until that day, in whatever we face, we have the presence of God and the knowledge, even in the most trying of circumstances, that there is always the 'But God'. 

May God Bless.