Imagine for a moment a flashback “alternate reality” of a different scenario for Paul’s life, as is sometimes ingeniously portrayed in modern motion-picture fictional storylines.
After this experience on the road to Damascus, in this alternate reality, Paul returns to Jerusalem and offers as an expedient explanation to the religious leaders of his failed mission that he could find few if any Christians in Damascus. He judiciously keeps the details of his Christian conversion to himself for the time being.
But Paul is so transformed by his newfound faith he then proceeds to live an exemplary life, rising to the top of the leadership in Jerusalem while marrying a wife and raising a family according to rabbinic tradition (Jn. 18:13). His leadership skills and his influence in Jerusalem are so highly regarded that when he prudently begins to share his faith in Jesus Christ as the messiah and savior, he is successful in bringing many of the leading Pharisees and scribes who were previously somewhat confused, ambivalent, and undecided about Jesus of Nazareth, to the Christian faith.
In other words, if Paul in a moment of reflective hindsight, towards the end of his actual missionary journeys, had the opportunity to go back and rewrite the course of his life according to a more worldly conventional scenario close to the alternate reality described above, would he have regretted the actual course of his life according to the challenging, difficult, narrowly structured ways and plans of God for a world-class missionary evangelist to the first-century Greco-Roman world…and instead thought he could have written a better and more effective life-script himself?
From our time-wizened viewpoint of hindsight, the Saul of Tarsus of the alternate reality, returning to Jerusalem to assume a position of religious and political leadership, no matter how exemplary in terms of worldly conventional thinking, could never have written the inspiring and insightful New Testament letters to the early Christian churches.
Conventional normalcy at its highest level of achievement and expression is incapable of excavating the subtly deep issues that separate truth from error in this broken world.
God knew in advance that Paul would give up his claim to worldly conventional normalcy, if a journey of faith through the danger zone would lead to the “all truth” that Paul so brilliantly articulates in his New Testament letters that have blessed untold millions of people down through the past twenty centuries.
God knew that Paul would willingly choose the way of the cross, with all of its difficult challenges and positive breakthroughs, if this path took him to the place where both his mind and his heart told him he wanted to go.
The challenges, tribulations, and sufferings of the Christian life in the danger zone, so beautifully documented in the New Testament book of Acts, disembark in a vertical tangent from the horizontally conventional thinking of this world, producing a fulfilling and eternally productive adventure of faith for Paul. This new adventure of faith was unimaginable to Saul the Pharisee prior to his conversion. Paul, from the most intense personal experience, can write to the Corinthians: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
A walk of faith following God sometimes entails huge risks and requires the most adventurous spirit of discovery, within the context of the one, single lifetime we enjoy.
Going deeper still, the message that Paul brings to his audiences in the Greco-Roman world…is precisely and exclusively this exceptional adventure of faith that he himself is experiencing. What Paul has is what he gives. Paul’s message cannot be separated from his life as recorded in the book of Acts. Salvation, redemption, forgiveness, and grace are an inseparable part of Paul’s story. So also is a dynamic, living journey of faith following Jesus Christ into the discovery of “all truth.”
An exemplary life according to worldly conventional normalcy would not produce Paul’s letters to the early churches…because the message itself is formed and shaped by his God-composed life-script…purposed and directed out of the imaginatively creative mind of God.
I believe Paul wrote the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews chapter eleven, Paul recounts the great journeys of faith in the Old Testament from the vantage point of his own adventurous journey of faith.
This point is critical to understand for today’s Christian. Living in a faith-dependent relationship following Jesus Christ sets up the precise conditions for Christians to have something valuable to give to others…the one thing that is of eternal value…a personal relationship with God…likewise based on and indivisible from a faith-journey.
“That I may KNOW HIM, and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10…capital letters mine)…occurs within our God-composed journey of faith…and not within an alternate reality of worldly conventional normalcy lived …at even the highest commendable level.
But it must always be remembered that the leading of God for born-again Christians, no matter how daring and adventurous, is always in accordance with the scriptures, and always results in morally correct choices, increasingly higher levels of ethical behavior, a better acceptance and performance of responsibilities, a noticeable improvement in personal character traits, and more love towards others. With time and spiritual maturity, God’s leading eventually results in blessings to a larger number of other people in whatever theater of action God has placed us in.