called to be an apostle,
set apart for the gospel of God”
I am convinced that if Paul ever had a business card, this is how it would read.
That’s because in this verse, Paul gives the most exhaustive description of how he thinks about himself. If you ask Paul who he was, he would first say, “I am a servant of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
Years ago, I read an article from my friend and Bible teacher Deverne Fromke. Commenting on this verse, Deverne pointed out that Paul views himself here as a man called on three levels or with a threefold calling. He has a general calling which every Christian is called to, a special calling that is unique to Paul, and a specific calling that lies at the heart of his apostolic ministry.
The general calling comes to every believer; that is to become the servant of Jesus Christ. Deverne pointed out that the word servant is the Greek word doulos, which is sometimes translated in newer versions by the English word bondservant. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek two hundred years before Christ appeared (Septuagint), doulos was the word used to describe a Hebrew who fell into debt and could not pay it (Exodus 21:1). In that case, God allowed that Hebrew to become an indentured servant for six years to pay off his debt at which time he was free to leave.
But within those instructions was an allowance that, during the time he was fulfilling his duty, he could decide not to leave after his legal obligation was fulfilled:
“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever” (Exodus 21:5-6).
The Greek Old Testament used the word doulos to describe that servant—one who no longer served out of obligation but out of love. Using that term to describe his relationship to Christ speaks volumes. In his former life as a Pharisee, he served out of obligation trying to keep the Law and earn his own righteousness. But when Christ Jesus died and released him from his attempts to earn his own righteousness, he was free to serve out of love rather than duty.
The general calling is followed by his description of his special calling; “called to be an apostle”, and his specific calling, to be “set apart for the gospel of God.” In this blog, I will not deal with these two other aspects of calling. Instead, I want to simply point out something that is very important when it comes to the whole issue of from where Paul derived his identity. It is the simple truth that he primarily identifies himself by his general calling before his specific or special callings. In other words, it was not what Paul did in ministry that defined who he was, but who he was in his relationship to a Person: his glorious Lord Jesus Christ,
This is at variance with what we often see today, especially when it comes to how leaders view themselves. Rare indeed is the leader who identifies himself first as a servant of Christ Jesus before he identifies himself by his ministry calling. Attending various leaders’ conference, it is quite routine for leader’s to talk primarily about their specific work—how many speaking engagements they have gotten or how many people they have coming to their churches. This is more than mere verbiage. It reveals that many leaders find their identity primarily from ministry rather than their relationship with Christ Jesus. No wonder there is such insecurity among leaders! They are using a fallen measure (gifting) to derive their identity. God never arranged for our identity to be derived from what we do but from who we are (servants of Christ Jesus).
Paul derives his identity primarily from the same place Jesus got his—from his relationship with his Father. Jesus spoke frequently of his God consciousness, that He did nothing unless it was something He saw the Father doing and spoke nothing that his Father was not speaking. His whole identity was submerged in his Father whom he lived to please. So also, the apostle saw his entire identity submerged in Christ Jesus whom He served gladly. Phrases such as in Christ were not mere positional truths to the apostle. Rather, they were life statements that Christ was the pivotal Center from which he lived.
It is certainly biblical to include our specific and special callings as part of our identity. But it is only safe to do so by first making our general calling the center and circumference from which we live. Reversing it leads to performance based living—who we are at any time is based on our personal production. This accounts for why there is so much burnout in ministry. Leaders who do not make their general calling the place of identity are always pushing themselves to produce more and therefore can never give themselves opportunity to rest.
Thanks again for further teaching on identity. Very necessary for current church leadership. God bless you Neil.
This ties in so well with what you preached Sunday how God desires an intimate relationship with us and how our own relationship with our earthly father may taint our perception of our Heavenly Father. I thought I had been freed from perceiving God incorrectly until then. I’m still meditating on those thoughts and long for intimacy that I haven’t believed God promised or desired. Thanks, Neil.