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The Nobel Prize: how to leave a legacy

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was announced this week: three scientists have received the award for discovering the brain’s “GPS system.”  John O’Keefe, Edvard Moser, and May-Britt Moser will share the award for discovering how the brain knows where we are and how to navigate from one place to another.

Prof. O’Keefe and the Mosers did not include me in their studies.  That’s understandable, since they are in Great Britain and Norway, respectively.  But if they had, I might have skewed their findings.

You see, I am “directionally challenged.”  My wife tells me that when I come to an intersection, I should decide which way to go, then go the other way.  She can find a place she has never been; I cannot remember how to get to a place I’ve visited 10 times.

For years I thought I was just dumb when it comes to directions.  Then I learned that there is actually such a thing as “spatial intelligence,” and that some people have less of it than others.  It turns out, I have much less.  The GPS in my car has been God’s gift to me.

So the people who discovered our brain’s GPS now have their Nobel.  Upon careful study (actually, I consulted a website), it turns out that some deserving inventions didn’t get such recognition:

  • Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but received no prize for it or anything else he created.
  • The Wright Brothers were never recognized by the Nobel Prize for their airplane.
  • Henry Ford was never recognized for the automobile.
  • Jonas Salk was never recognized for the polio vaccine.
  • British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed the idea for the World Wide Web in 1989 and created the first website in 1990, but received no Nobel.
  • Francis Collins led the team that created the first map of the human genome, a process that cost $3.8 billion and took 13 years.  It has been the foundation for all genomic science and medicine since, but received no Nobel.

In our series on life’s ultimate questions, so far we’ve asked what happens when we die and how to live a life that matters.  Today let’s ask: how do we leave a legacy?  Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated that great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.  How do we do that?

Meet Paul

Our text comes from a man with two names.  His Jewish name was Saul, while his Roman name was Paul.  This was not an unusual arrangement in the first century, especially for Jews who were also Roman citizens.  He was born in Tarsus, located in the southeastern corner of what we call Turkey today, so that he is often called Saul of Tarsus.

His was a cosmopolitan city and upbringing.  As a young man, Saul became fluent in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, and learned the cultures of Rome as well as his Jewish faith and tradition.

His family traced its descent to the tribe of Benjamin, from which the first Jewish king arose.  In his honor, they named him Saul.  As a young man, he became a Pharisee, a “Separated One,” the most elite band in the nation.  There were never more than 6,000 Pharisees.  They separated themselves from all common life so as to obey the smallest details in the Law.  Think of them as ultra-Orthodox Jews today.  As a student, he was trained by Gamaliel, the finest scholar in their faith.  That training would eventually help him write half of our New Testament.

When the followers of Jesus the Nazarene began preaching that he was the risen Lord and Messiah, Saul became convinced they were misleading his people into idolatry and blasphemy.  And he would stop them.

The year was A.D. 33.  Armed with legal letters of extradition from the Jerusalem authorities, he made his way north to Damascus, where a nest of these “heretics” was at work.  He would drag them from their homes to prison and death.

Then his sin became his salvation.  About noon he saw a bright light from heaven and heard a voice say, “Saul!  Saul!  Why do you persecute me?”  The voice identified himself as “Jesus of Nazareth,” and told him to go into Damascus where he would be told all he had been assigned to do (Acts 22:6-11).

This was the turning point of his entire life.  This Jesus must have been resurrected, as the Christians preached.  If he was raised from the dead, he must be God, as he claimed.  He must be Messiah.  He must be Lord.  He must be Saul’s Lord!

Saul was blinded by his light until a Christian named Ananias prayed for him and he recovered his sight.  Immediately he began preaching the gospel of this Christ, until the religious authorities drove him from Damascus.

He would spend the next three years sorting it all out.  Jesus made clear to him that he was called to the Gentiles, the cursed pagans he had spent his entire life despising.  This would be his life purpose: to bring Christ to as many Gentiles as he could.  Finally he met Peter in Jerusalem, and was called to the Gentile church in Antioch of Syria.  And from there, his Messiah would call him to the world.

Looking back, we can see how God defined Saul’s purpose and used his past to prepare him for his future.  Can you see how he has done the same for you?

Take Christ to your world

All across Saul’s life’s work, God gave him partners in his purpose.  He began with Barnabas, a good and godly man.  They traveled through what we call the First Missionary Journey together.  Beginning on Barnabas’s native island of Cyprus, they sailed north to what we call central Turkey.

In Pisidian Antioch Saul preached in the Jewish synagogue; nearly the entire city gathered the next week to hear the word of the Lord (Acts 13:44).  The religious authorities expelled them from their city, but not before multitudes were saved and filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

In Iconium to the east they preached boldly, and God worked signs and wonders through them (Ac. 14:3).  But again the authorities plotted their deaths.  In Lystra, just to the south, the people actually thought Paul and Barnabas were pagan gods.  But again the religious leaders turned them against them; they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city for dead.  But God revived him, and he would not leave their city until they heard the gospel from him again.  Then they traveled further east to Derbe, where they preached the good news and won a large number of disciples.

Along the way, Paul received word that some of their new converts in the region were being led into legalism.  And so he wrote the letter we call Galatians, standing firmly for salvation through grace alone.

Barnabas and Paul returned to the churches they had founded, appointing leaders in each until they set sail for Antioch.  And he learned that God’s purpose will always create persecution.  Expect God’s enemies to oppose you.  But know that your God is greater.

Later God called him back to the churches he had founded in Galatia.  Barnabas returned to Cyprus with his cousin John Mark, while Paul departed with his new partner, Silas.

When they arrived back in Lystra, he met a young disciple named Timothy whose mother and grandmother had nurtured him in the word of God.  He became Paul’s “son in the faith” for the rest of the apostle’s life.

Together they strengthened the churches of Galatia, then traveled west to Troas, on the western coast of our Turkey.  Here Luke the doctor joined them.  He would be Paul’s personal physician for the rest of his ministry.  With him, their missionary team was set.  God will always give you people to help you accomplish his purpose for your life.

Here Paul saw a Macedonian man in a vision, calling him west to what we call Greece and Europe.  They followed the vision.  And our history would never be the same.

In Philippi, Lydia became the first convert in Europe.  Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned, but an earthquake set them free and led to their jailer’s salvation.  They traveled by foot southwest to Thessalonica, where he preached for three weeks until the religious authorities ran their missionary team out of town.

Next to Berea, where those who heard Paul searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was true.  And they believed.  On to Athens, where he won philosophers at the Areopagus to Christ.  Then to Corinth, where he met with Priscilla and Aquila and stayed a year and a half.  The synagogue ruler came to Christ, with many others.  Finally they sailed eastward, where he stayed briefly in Ephesus, then returned to Jerusalem and back to Antioch once more.

And from Antioch he set out on his third missionary journey, traveling through Turkey and the churches they built there to Ephesus, the “Light of Asia.”  God led Paul to stay there two years, the longest anywhere in his work.

First he spoke boldly in the synagogue for three months.  After he was rejected there, he rented the lecture hall of Tyrannus, speaking each day from 11 AM to 4 PM, when the hall was available.  In this way, all the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Ac. 19:10).  The sick were healed, the demoniacs cleansed.  Those who believed burned their pagan scrolls, valued at 50,000 days’ wages.  And the word of the Lord spread widely.

Then came the famous riot, started by a silversmith who made idols to the pagan goddess Diana.  God used the city clerk to quiet the crowd and protect Paul.  And he learned again that God’s power will always accomplish God’s purpose.

He continued on into Macedonia, our Greece, taking a collection for the starving Christians back in Judea.  When it was done, he returned to Jerusalem despite the warnings of prophets who predicted he would be imprisoned and persecuted.  But they were right.

Trust God’s protection for his purpose

The Jewish leaders soon arrested Paul on the false charge of bringing a Gentile into the Temple.  The crowd started beating him, and would have killed him if the Roman commander had not arrived.  He arrested Paul, who preached the gospel to this mob under his protection.

The authorities brought charges against him, but the Lord spoke to his heart in the night and said, “Take courage!  As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome'” (Acts 23:11).  More than 40 of the Jews formed a conspiracy to kill him, but his nephew heard of their plans and saved his life.

He spent the next two years imprisoned in Caesarea, north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast.  He wrote several letters of our New Testament, preached the gospel to Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla, then Portius Festus after him, along with King Agrippa and his wife Bernice.

Finally he exercised his right as a Roman citizen, and appealed to Rome.  And so Rome kept him safe from his enemies all the way to her capital city.  He was shipwrecked, but spared.  He was under house arrest in Rome, but free to minister the word.  He wrote more of our New Testament.  And he took Christ to “the uttermost parts of the world” (Acts 1:8).

Then Paul was released.  He took the gospel westward to Spain, back to Crete, to Miletus, Colossae, and back to Ephesus, Philippi, and the city of Nicopolis.  He learned that our lives are not done until our purpose is fulfilled.

Finally Nero ordered his arrest and imprisonment, this time enchained in the cold, bleak, lonely Mamartime dungeon.  Luke only was at his side (2 Timothy 4:11).  The end was at hand.  Nero’s henchmen would take him from the dungeon to the Ostesian Road.  There he would bow near a pine tree; as was the custom for Roman citizens, they would behead him and bury his remains nearby.  But his death was his greatest victory.


Paul knew his death was imminent when he wrote in what we call 2 Timothy, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure (v. 6).  For Christians, death is merely a departure to life.

When the end came, he could say in victory, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (v. 7).  Can you make the same statement?  Then he could rejoice, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (v. 8).  And to you.

Here is what Paul learned across thirty years of serving Jesus as his Messiah:

  • God has a purpose, a passion for our lives.  His was to take Christ to as many Gentiles as he could.  What is yours?
  • God will give us the preparation, the people, and the protection we need, so long as we are faithful to his purpose.
  • We can expect persecution and opposition, but our God is greater.  And our death is departure to eternal reward.

Are you living in his purpose today?  Are you fighting your good fight, finishing your race, keeping your faith?  If so, your legacy will last forever.

In 1946 the National Association of Evangelicals published an article on men who were “best used of God” in that organization’s five-year existence.  At the top of the list was Chuck Templeton.  One seminary president called this young evangelist “the most gifted and talented young man in America today for preaching.”  Many were certain he would be the heir to D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday, the next great American evangelist.

Templeton started well—very well.  But eventually he turned his intellectual gifts to himself rather than his Father.  He lapsed into academic arrogance and agnosticism.  The last book he published before his death in 2001 was titled Farewell to God.

Years ago, when Chuck Templeton began his crusade ministry, he eventually developed a preaching partnership with another young evangelist.  A man the 1946 article never even mentioned.  The son of a North Carolina farmer named William Franklin Graham, known to his family and small circle of friends as Billy.

It doesn’t matter how you’ve started in the Christian faith.  You may have had a great beginning, or a rough one.  You may have fallen on your face again and again.  What matters in the most important race of your life is how you finish.

The next step is yours.