There are a number of instances in the letters of Paul where he opens to us his personal history and sets himself forth as an example for all believers. The most poignant and pertinent of these instances are probably Acts 20, 1 Thessalonians 2, and really all of 2 Corinthians.
Paul’s calling as an apostle authorizes his labor and qualifies his statements on imitating him.
Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ. –1 Cor. 11:1
The things which you have also learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things… –Phil. 4:9
Paul’s vocation (calling) profoundly changed his identity and redirected the course of his life. The Lord’s call intersected his life and redefined him.
His call to apostleship is not a familiar episode in his own personal history: ‘The call to be an apostle is a paradoxical occurrence, lying always beyond his personal identity’ (Kierkegaard).
His calling, coming simultaneously with his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a crisis, after which nothing was the same. In an instant, like a car wreck, an entire career, in which festered the confidence of the flesh (Phil. 3:4), was irrevocably torn down, and all his life after, Paul maintained a steadfast refusal to rebuild it (Gal. 2:18).
With no conscious preparation, Paul found himself instantaneously compelled by what he saw and heard… Formerly, all the elements in his life and thought were organized around the central focus of the law. When the revelation of Jesus Christ showed him in a flash the bankruptcy of the law, the law could no longer be the magnet which drew all those elements together in a well-defined pattern. With the removal of the magnet they would have been dispersed and disorganized, had the law not been immediately replaced at the center by the risen Lord, around whom Paul’s life and thought were reorganized to form a new pattern.
–F. F. Bruce
I also count all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord… and count them as refuse that I may gain Christ. –Phil. 3:8
Paul’s new knowledge of Christ produced a spontaneous and total reassessment of his former identity as dog food. The flash of light beyond the brightness of the sun produced in him, what Witness Lee called, a “blessed blindness.” Although outwardly blinded, the eyes of his heart were enlightened (Eph. 1:18). After looking upon the Christ in glory, Paul looked back, with new eyes, at his immaculate resume in Judaism and saw it as heap of trash, full of decayed leftovers, unwanted scraps of food fit for dogs, and who KNOWS what else.
The revelation Paul received evoked a momentous reversal of the status quo. To the Jews, the Gentiles were considered as dogs (Matt. 15:26), but after his conversion Paul viewed his former Jewish contemporaries as dogs and his entire career in that system as refuse worth throwing to dogs (v. 8 in Phil. 3 alludes back to v. 2; Paul sees his former identity in Judaism as σκύβαλον (skybalon)- trash that is thrown as food to κύνας (kynas); σκύβαλον is a compound word formed from κύνας- dogs, and βάλλω- to throw).
John Gill defines the word as:
What is fit only to be cast to dogs, as the word signifies; and intends every thing that is base, mean, and worthless; as the feces of men, the dregs and lees of liquor, the falling of fruit, chaff, stubble, the dross of metals, dung, and what not.
Needless to say, this represents a profound shift in Paul’s entire outlook on life and sense of value. He counted all things as loss. This accounting operated continuously in Paul and motivated him in his service. He displays an almost reckless abandon in the face of affliction. Finishing his course is paramount. He chooses to be an apostle to the end, even if that means being ‘sent’ to prison.
But I consider my life of no account as if precious to myself, in order that I may finish my course and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus to solemnly testify of the gospel of the grace of God. –Acts 20:24
Acts 20:18-36 provides an intimate glimpse into Paul’s life of service, which is laid out in all its poignancy for our imitation.
In addressing the Ephesian elders at Miletus, Paul’s apostolic consciousness is evident. Here we see him as F. F. Bruce saw him, “man of vision and man of action.” For instance, two times Paul testifies that he “did not shrink from declaring” (v. 20, 27). The Greek word behind “shrink” is ὑποστέλλω (hypostello), which is the converse of ἀποστέλλω (apostello, verb form of apostle). It’s the same Greek root, just with a different prefix. ‘Hypo’ means ‘under’ while ‘apo’ means ‘off or away’. Hypostello then means to withhold out of sight, or to shrink back. Paul surely has his commission in view here. To shrink back (hypostello) would be to contradict his own identity and calling (apostello). Paul did not shrink back. He embraced his identity as an apostle, even though it involved tears, trials, plots against him, imprisonment, afflictions, and ultimately death.
Three things we can learn from Paul, as the conspicuous apostle of the New Testament:
- Our regeneration and calling produce a radical change in our identity
- We should radically embrace our new identity and be faithful to it
- The goal of our service is the radical realization of the Body of Christ