In a country like Japan, where Shintoism and Buddhism influence every aspect of life, it takes a long way for one person to come to faith in Christ. First of all, one needs something to make him/her want to read the Bible. And it usually takes a long time before a person decides not only to read the Bible but also to go to church. The reason for wanting to read the Bible or go to church may be that the kindergarten or school one attended was Christian, that one had a friend who was a Christian, that one read a book about the Christian faith, or that one had a problem and looked to Christianity for a solution. Perhaps it is not just one of those triggers, but a combination of several that lead one to seek the Christian way. And after seeking the way, it may take more time before a person decides to believe in Christ, gets baptised and lives as a Christian. The situation is different in so-called Christian homes, where both parents are Christians, but even those raised in a Christian home will take a long time before they are sure of their intention to continue to attend worship services of church. Whether one is brought up in an ordinary home or in a Christian home, a particularly important part of the long process of becoming sure of one’s faith in Christ is the encounter with Jesus Christ himself. In other words, what is important is, not only the fellowship with the person who encouraged you to read the Bible, or the person who led you to go to church, or the parents who brought you up in the faith, but also the encounter with Christ himself speaking through the Bible and in the church service, which makes your fellowship with Christ himself begin.
The encounter with Jesus Christ himself is the starting point for a person’s Christian life. In mathematical geometry, the origin of a coordinate axis allows one to define the position of a point in a plane or space. In the same way, the origin, i.e., the starting point of an encounter with Jesus Christ himself can define where one is living now as a Christian. In the life of faith, we may suffer persecution from those around us, we may stumble in the company of Christians, or we may feel lost in our own hearts. However, if we are clear about the starting point of our encounter with Christ himself, we will know that we have suffered, stumbled and strayed because we have tried to follow Christ and to advance from the starting point. Therefore, we can go back to the starting point and start all over again. As people who have encountered Christ, we can try to persevere in persecution, we can try to rise up from our stumbling, we can try to go back to where we began to stray and start again. A life of faith without the origin of an encounter with Christ is like a kite with a broken string: once one starts to wander, he/she doesn’t know where he/she is going.
Of all the biblical figures, the apostle Paul is probably the one with the clearest origin of faith. In other words, Paul has the clearest encounter with Christ among all Christ’s disciples. In the verses 15 and the first half of 16 of today’s Scripture passages, Paul describes his starting point as “when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” “when he … was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,” must refer to Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, who speaks to him from heaven, and his conversion, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul, as a zealous Jewish teacher, was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians. On his way there, he heard the voice of the risen Christ in heaven speaking to him with a strong light, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me (Acts 9:4; 22:7) ?” “Saul” is Paul’s Jewish name. Paul fell on the ground, blinded, unable to eat or drink, and was taken to Damascus. He was then baptised in Damascus by a Christian called Ananias and converted to Christianity and became a Christian evangelist proclaiming Jesus Christ. This experience is described in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 26, verses 16-18, where Paul was addressed by the risen Christ in heaven as follows.
“But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Thus, Paul describes the event of his conversion on his journey to Damascus, when he heard the voice of the risen Christ in heaven, as an experience of God the Father revealing Christ the Son to Paul in order that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles. And this is the origin, i.e., the starting point of Paul’s Christian life. What is interesting about this starting point is that it links the event of Paul’s conversion from persecuting Christians to believing in Christ and becoming a Christian with the event of his calling by God the Father to be an apostle who preached the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. In other words, for Paul, his belief in Christ and his proclamation of the gospel of Christ to the world were not two separate things, but one, and this became the starting point of his way of life.
God, who made Paul to be a preacher of the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, had planned for him to be such even before he was born. In other words, in verse 15 Paul refers to God as “he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace.” He says that even before he was born into the world, he was chosen to be a preacher of the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. This is very strange. If Paul’s parents had been Christians and he had been brought up with a Christian upbringing from childhood, it would have been natural for him to say, “he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace.” However, Paul’s parents were Jewish and from a young age Paul received an advanced education to become a Jewish teacher. And as a Jewish teacher, he severely persecuted Christians. Is it not strange indeed that such a man was chosen before he was born to be a Christian evangelist?
It seems likely that Paul inherited from the Old Testament prophets the belief that God had chosen him before he was born to be an apostle to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. In the Old Testament there is a book of prophets called Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah is the prophetic book of the prophet Jeremiah, who preached God’s words to the people from the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 6th century BC, when the Kingdom of Judah was in decline and destroyed. How God spoke to Jeremiah when he was called as a prophet is described in Jeremiah 1:4 and 5.
Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah was a child of a priest. Therefore, the normal way of life would have been to carry on the work of his father and become a priest, performing temple duties and teaching God’s Law. Jeremiah, however, was called by God to be a prophet who heard God’s voice directly and communicated it to the people. This is because God chose Jeremiah to be a prophet before he was born and even before he was formed in his mother’s womb.
There are also what are known as “the servant of the Lord” prophecies in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, which prophesied about Jesus Christ and the apostles who would proclaim Jesus. Among them is the prophecy in the second half of Isaiah 49:6 that “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is the passage quoted in Acts 13:47 as a prophecy of the apostles’ activities. This “servant of the Lord” was also chosen by God to fulfil a special mission from the time he was in his mother’s womb. Namely, the second half of Isaiah 49:1 says: “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” This means that apostles like Paul were chosen before they were born to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Inheriting these traditions of faith from Isaiah and Jeremiah, Paul may have written in today’s passage that “when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” In fact, Paul’s accurate knowledge of the Old Testament as a Jewish teacher was a great help to him when proclaiming Christ’s salvation. He was able to accurately proclaim what Christ’s salvation was, according to the Old Testament teachings.
In the second half of verse 16 and verse 17 of today’s passages, Paul describes his steps after his conversion and call as an apostle to the Gentiles as follows: “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” When Paul writes that he “did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me,” he is trying to show that his authority to preach Christ is not human. “Those who were apostles before me” may be Peter, one of the twelve disciples of Christ, or “James the brother of the Lord,” one of sons of Mary and Joseph, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church. Paul did not consult with other men or receive letters of recommendation from the leaders of the Jerusalem church before he began to preach Christ. It is because he had been given the commission directly from Christ himself to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles.
According to Acts 9:20 and following, Paul began to preach Jesus Christ to the Jewish people immediately after his conversion. The Jewish people must have been astonished that Paul, who until recently had attacked Christianity and persecuted Christians, suddenly began to preach Jesus Christ. There is nothing in the Acts of the Apostles about Paul’s subsequent retreat to “Arabia.” This is probably because the author of the Acts of the Apostles had no material of Paul’s stay in “Arabia.”
According to biblical scholars, this “Arabia” is a country called Nabatea, which flourished in ancient times. The Nabatean Kingdom was centred on the city of Petra, which was roughly halfway between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, and lasted more than 270 years, from about 170 BC to 106 AD. The city of Petra, built on a rock face, is a World Heritage Site, and images of it are often shown on television programmes. Paul must have been preaching Christ during his stay in “Arabia,” i.e., the Nabatean Kingdom. This is because there are references in the New Testament that suggest that Paul had been singled out by King Aretas of the Nabatean Kingdom as a person of interest and was about to be arrested. It is written in 2 Corinthians 11:32 and 33 as follows: “At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” This may indicate that after Paul’s stay in the Nabatean Kingdom, he was still being watched and tried to kill by King Aretas of the Nabatean Kingdom, even after his return to Damascus.
Thus, Paul had a solid starting point as a Christian and an apostle. When the evangelists who came into the Galatian churches preached “a different gospel” that one could not receive full salvation without keeping the Old Testament Law, especially the Law of circumcision, and when the Galatian congregations were attracted by such “a different gospel,” Paul did not waver in the slightest. He had the solid starting point: his encounter with Christ. Today, we do not hear the voice of Christ speaking to us directly from heaven as Paul did. We hear Christ’s voice through the Bible. But once we have heard Christ’s voice through the Bible, it becomes the starting point for us in our life of faith. Even when we go through difficult experiences in the stormy waters of life and history, the experience that “I have encountered Christ and heard his voice of salvation in this way,” becomes the starting point of our life of faith. And the starting point of our life of faith is continually rediscovered as we continue to listen to the words of the Bible. Not only do we keep the memory of encounter experiences in the past, but also we can continually rediscover the meanings of our past experiences in the light of the words of the Bible. By continually rediscovering the origin of our faith in this way, the origin of our faith is made more certain and the life of faith is made unshakably strong.