1 Corinthians 15:9-10 reads “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
The Apostle Paul is a man with a past, one he probably would have loved to forget if he could. He’s a man who made mistakes, big mistakes, just like we all do. Paul’s past, though, doesn’t define him. The important thing for us to see is what does define him. Does your past define who you are…? What, or who, gets to tell Paul who he is…?
1 Corinthians is the letter that Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth. They had issues in their lives that Paul had concerns with, and he spent the first fourteen chapters of his letter dealing with these issues, trying to correct them. In chapter 15 he defends his authority to say the things he said. The Church in Corinth would most likely have known what was in his past (bad news travels fast, right?), and they may have questioned his authority because of that when they received the letter. As a result, Paul has to defend his authority to them to make sure he is heard.
So what was in Paul’s past…? Violence, and lots of it. Before he came to Christ, he was Saul, the Pharisee. Saul is the guy who you find in the Book of Acts as the “chief persecutor” of Christians. He’s the guy locking up men, women and children for their beliefs, the guy “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), and the guy who gave his consent to the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1). While Stephen was stoned to death, Paul just stood there, doing nothing.
Not exactly Apostle material, right…? If there’s anybody who you would think should be excluded from the Church, and especially from a position of authority in it, it’s a guy with a past like that. And Paul agrees with you, but only to a point. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15:9, he says, “Yep. That was me. I did that.” But then comes the really important part, where he disagrees. He says, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Paul accepts his past, but it doesn’t define who he is. You can’t count him out as an apostle of the Church just because of his past.
So if Paul’s past doesn’t define him what, or who, does…? It’s not his work, that’s for sure. As a leader in the church he could easily point to what he does and say, “That makes me who I am.” But he doesn’t. Yes, he’s done great things as an apostle, and he says so himself, but he admits he’s only done those things because of Christ. Look at what he just said, and what he says next. “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.” Paul tells the Corinthians, and us, straight up, “I’m not who I was, and Christ is why.” Christ makes Paul who he is, and Christ didn’t make a mistake.
“In vain” means useless, something that misses the point. If you work really hard in math class, pass all your tests and then fail the final exam and the entire course, your work has been in vain. You wasted your time. Christ didn’t waste his time when he chose Paul to be an apostle. He didn’t make a mistake taking a guy who worked hard at locking up Christians and turning him into one of the leaders of the Church. In the end, because Christ makes him who he is, Paul is exactly who he needed to be at exactly the right time. He is enough, even with his past.
And now Paul’s not ashamed of his past anymore. Yes he made mistakes and he hurt people but because of Christ he’s forgiven and that’s not who he is anymore and that’s that, as far as he’s concerned. As an apostle, he can take issue with their issues all he wants.
Next question…so what? What does all this mean to you and me today…? We all have pasts, and we’ve all hurt people and been hurt, and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of, just like Paul. And we might think that those things keep us from Christ and from all that’s good in life. It’s easy to think, for example, that because of things you’ve done, or because of what happened to you, you’re never going to be any different than you are right now. Your past screams out that you’ll always be this way. Maybe there’s a moment that defines how you think of yourself, a time when you got hurt really bad or you did something you regret or something bad happened that you couldn’t control. A moment that tore your world apart, and now you think it will never be the same again.
And the “So what?” is that that’s not true. When you come to Christ, those moments don’t get to define you anymore. They become a part of you, yes, a part of your story, but they don’t get to be the whole story anymore. They stop being something to hide behind, to make excuses for, and they become something that happened to you once that you learned from, or that you grew through, and that made you a better person. You are enough right now, in Christ’s eyes, even with those moments, and you don’t have to hide from those moments or let them define who you are.
If you don’t know Jesus, you may be tempted to just dismiss this entirely, but I would say that I do not believe such transformation is possible without Him. I don’t say this to guilt trip anyone, but rather as an encouragement. Jesus did this for Paul, and I can say from my own life experience that he has done, and is still doing this, for me. If you need to come to terms with your own past, He can help you with that, too.