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Beginning well

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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Topic Scripture: 2 Timothy 4:6-8

William Barclay once wrote, “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.'”

I believe passionately in the truth of those words. As we begin a new year, let’s define our “ruling passion.” Let’s ask Paul what it should be. As he looks back over years now gone, we look ahead to the year just beginning. And he can teach us how to begin well.

Define your life purpose

Shalom. I am Saul of Tarsus, known to you as Paul the Apostle. My hometown of Tarsus, located in the southeastern corner of what you call Turkey today, was a cosmopolitan city. Here I learned Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and the cultures both of Rome and of my Jewish faith. Here God prepared me for my life purpose, far more than I knew at the time. He has done the same for you.

Our family traced its descent to the tribe of Benjamin, from which our first king arose. In his honor, they named me Saul.

From birth I was taught the faith of our fathers, so that my life purpose was defined early: to be a Pharisee, a “Separated One,” one of the elite in our nation who kept themselves from all common life so that they might obey the smallest details of our Law. I was taught by Gamaliel himself, the finest scholar in our faith. Again, God would use this training to help me as I wrote half of what you call the New Testament.

Even the great tragedy of my life was used for his purpose.

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

It was AD 33 as you reckon time. Armed with legal letters of extradition from the Jerusalem authorities, I made my way north to Damascus, where a nest of these “heretics” was at work. As with others before them, I would drag them from their homes to prison and death.

Then my sin became my salvation. About noon I 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 me to go into Damascus where I would be told all I had been assigned to do (Acts 22.6-11).

This was the turning point of my 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 my Lord!

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

I would spend the next three years sorting it all out. Jesus made clear to me that I was called to the Gentiles, the cursed pagans I had spent my entire life despising. This would be my life purpose: to bring Christ to as many Gentiles as I could.

Finally I met Peter in Jerusalem, and was called to the Gentile church in Antioch of Syria. And from there, my Messiah would call me to the world.

Looking back, I can see how God defined my purpose and used my past to prepare me for my future. Can you see how he has done the same for you?

Take Christ to your world

All across my life’s work, God has given me partners in his purpose. I began with Barnabas, a good and godly man. We traveled through what you call the First Missionary Journey together. Beginning on his native island of Cyprus, we sailed north to what you call central Turkey.

In Pisidian Antioch I preached in the Jewish synagogue; nearly the entire city gathered the next week to hear the word of the Lord (Ac. 13.44). The religious authorities expelled us from their city, but not before multitudes were saved and filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

In Iconium to the east we preached boldly, and God worked signs and wonders through us (Ac. 14.3). But again the authorities plotted our deaths.

In Lystra, just to the south, the people actually thought we were pagan gods. But again the religious leaders turned them against us; they stoned me and dragged me out of the city for dead. But God revived me, and I would not leave their city until they heard the gospel from me again.

Then we traveled further east to Derbe, where we preached the good news and won a large number of disciples.

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

Barnabas and I returned to the churches we had founded, appointing leaders in each until we set sail for Antioch. And I 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 me back to the churches I had founded in Galatia.

Barnabas returned to Cyprus with his cousin John Mark, while I departed with my new partner, Silas.

When we arrived back in Lystra I met a young disciple named Timothy whose his mother and grandmother had nurtured him in the word of God. He became my “son in the faith” for the rest of my life.

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

Here I saw a Macedonian man in a vision, calling me west to what you call Greece and Europe. We followed the vision. And your history would never be the same.

Perhaps you know of my work in Philippi: Lydia, the first convert in Europe; my beating and imprisonment; the earthquake which set us free; our jailer’s salvation.

We traveled by foot southwest to Thessalonica, where I preached for three weeks until the religious authorities ran us out of town.

Next to Berea, where those who heard me searched the Scriptures to see if what I was saying was true. And they believed.

On to Athens, where I won philosophers at the Areopagus to Christ. Then to Corinth, where I met with Priscilla and Aquila and stayed a year and a half. The synagogue ruler came to Christ, with many others. Finally we sailed eastward, where I stayed briefly in Ephesus, then returned to Jerusalem and back to Antioch once more.

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

First I spoke boldly in the synagogue for three months.

After I was rejected there, I 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 me. And I learned again that God’s power will always accomplish God’s purpose.

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

Trust God’s protection for his purpose

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

The authorities brought charges against me, but the Lord spoke to my heart in the night and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome'” (Ac. 23.11). More than 40 of the Jews formed a conspiracy to kill me, but my nephew heard of their plans and saved my life.

I spent the next two years imprisoned in Caesarea, north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast. I wrote several letters of your 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 I exercised my right as a Roman citizen, and appealed to Rome. And so Rome kept me safe from my enemies all the way to her capital city. We were shipwrecked, but spared. I was under house arrest in Rome, but free to minister the word. I wrote more of your New Testament. And I took Christ to “the uttermost parts of the world” (Ac. 1:8).

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

Finally Nero ordered my arrest and imprisonment, this time enchained in the cold, bleak, lonely Mamartime dungeon. Luke only was at my side (2 Tim. 4.11). The end was at hand. Nero’s henchmen would take me from the dungeon to the Ostesian Road. There I would bow near a pine tree; as was the custom for Roman citizens, they would behead me and bury my remains nearby. But my death was my greatest victory.

Conclusion

I knew my death was imminent when I wrote in what you 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, I 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 I 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 I learned across thirty years of serving Jesus as my Messiah:

God has a purpose, a passion for our lives. Mine was to take Christ to as many Gentiles as I 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 for your new year? Are you fighting your good fight, finishing your race, keeping your faith? Well?