Missions from a Debtor's Perspective

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Oct 28, 2008 by Alex Mekonnen | 0 Comments

"I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and unwise. So, as much as in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also" (NKJ Rom. 1:14-15).

"The NIV 'I am bound' and the RSV ‘I am under obligation' should properly be translated ‘I am [a] debtor' (AV)" (Stott 2003:59).

In the economy of a missionary labor the apostle Paul saw himself as a debtor. The question is, how can a person be a debtor without having a creditor? Who was Paul indebted to? What and how much did he owe? How does a debtor mentality impact his missionary service? What implication does his missionary attitude have to our life in our context today?

I.  Paul and Finance

A Christian who closely studied Paul's life would know the healthy self esteem and the ethic of hard work the apostle had when it came to financial independence.  He was not flashy and materialistic. He was not running a TV program or an institution that cost him in millions of dollars and put him under the pressure of taking a loan. He was never under the financial mercy of individuals or churches.

In Cor. 9:19 Paul said he was "free of all men."  The context of this text was financial issue. That means he did not owe a penny to anyone. He could preach, teach, rebuke or exhort, counsel and mentor, the Corinthian Christians, looking at their eyes without feeling the guilt of a debtor or feeling inferior or financial parasite to/before his congregation.

 To the Ephesian Christians, in Acts 20:33-34, he said; " I have coveted no one's sliver or gold or apparel...you yourselves know these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me." In the metropolitan city of Ephesus, the second best city in the Roman Empire, the status of a person was measured by his/her silver and gold, or the apparel one wore. Paul did not succumb to the cultural norm of the people including the Christians.  When he said "I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel" he was talking to the Christians not to unbelievers. His hands provided for his necessities and for those who were serving with him. What an industrious and an entrepreneur apostle was he!

It did not then, nor does not mean today, that Paul never had a need or that he was not allowing individuals and churches to participate with him in mission financially. That is not the case at all. He compliments the Philippians saying, "You have done well that you shared in my distress" (Philippians 4:4). Paul had plenty of needs and he had so many who stood with him in prayer, financial support, suffering and encouragement. But none of these helpers had made him feel as a debtor. He was a free man.

II. Paul's conversion and Spiritual Growth

I can confidently say if we have a heart and mind of gratitude, almost all of us are indebted either to our parents, friends, pastors, teachers, etc for our Christian conversion and growth. There are people whom God used to open our spiritual eyes, mentored us in life, discipled us, counseled us, and encouraged us when we felt low, confused and frustrated by the storm and hurricane of life that hit our boat.

When it came to his conversion, spiritual growth and apostolic ministry, Paul was indebted to no one.  He argued with the Galatians who tried to undermine his apostolic authority this way-"But I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received from man, nor was I preached taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ....when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His son in me; I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia and returned to Damascus.  Then after three years I went up to see Peter, remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1:11-12, 15-19).  Paul was telling us that nobody can take a credit for his salvation and ministry. He was who he was by the grace of God. None of the original apostles, who walked with Jesus, saw the death of the savior and witness to His resurrection could say "I am the one who preached to Paul and disciple him." He was free of their service.

I don't mean to say that Paul was a lone ranger who never accepted any spiritual guidance and help. He was prayed for and counseled by Ananias (Acts 9:17-18).  He was introduced to the apostles in Jerusalem by Barnabas (Acts 9:26).  Paul strongly believed and taught that individual faith is nurtured to maturity by living with the community of believers -- "...Paul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus" (emphasis mine Acts: 9:19). He stayed with the disciples for "some days" not months let alone years. "Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the son of God" (Act 9:20). There was no rigorous school program that he went through for years to qualify him for his apostolic preaching and teaching. As he himself stated, yes, he has received the apostolic teachings (1Cor. 15:1-7). And yet, referring to the apostles, he also declared that, "...for those to be something added nothing to me (Gal. 2:6b). Even though he was a recipient of truth from his predecessors, at least from his writings, he does not sound a debtor to them.

III. Paul as a Jew

There was nothing that he owed to the gentiles. As a Jew, he was not an "engrafted branch on the tree of Gentiles." He came from a rich spiritual heritage that continues to bless the whole world. He unashamedly listed his pedigree as a Jew and numerated the privileges and grace given to his people. "If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, Pharisee; ....concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:5-6).  In Romans 9:3-5 he listed their privileges and writes about the painful agony he was going through about the spiritual condition of his "countrymen, according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen."  There was nothing that he owed to the civilized Greeks, to the uncivilized barbarians, or to the imperialist Romans.

Then, what was this debt that made Paul always on the move to preach the gospel even at the risk of his own life? What motivated Paul to bear the beatings, torture, imprisonment, shipwreck, loneliness, insults, hunger, and a sense of filthiness, to make Jesus Christ known and proclaim him as Lord and savior?

IV. Paul was a debtor to Jesus Christ at least in three ways

The apostle Paul knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was what he was because of Jesus Christ. His apostolic ministry, his gift of preaching, teaching, writing, church planting, leadership training, performing sign and wonder, to be known while he was unknown, these and many other blessings happened in his life because of Jesus Christ.

Paul was:

A) A debtor of love.

--"The son of God loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

--"The love of God has been poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5).

---"The love of Christ passes knowledge" (Eph. 3:19).

Paul knew he was loved by Jesus. He felt it in his heart and he knew the difference the love of God had made in his life.  The persecutor of the church became servant of the church. The love of God destroyed the wall of partition between him and the gentiles and made him "all things to all people so that he may win some for Christ."

Through the love of Jesus Paul discovered the meaning of life.  He knew where he came from, why he existed, and where he was going. Despite all the sufferings he went through he lived a very rich life. He challenged us to rejoice, to be content, to press towards the mark, to be productive, to be optimistic, to love people, to love God and to love life.

Paul was a man who understood grace. "Our New Testament contains 155 references of grace; 130 of them come out of the pen of Paul. The word opens, closes, and dominates every letter he wrote. It defines his teaching and his dearest hopes. Grace is the magnificent ideal by which he would measure his life and yours" (Jeremiah, 2006:13). As we try to grasp Paul, the debtor, we should look him through the lens of God's grace.

B) A debtor of gratitude

When Paul looked at himself outside of Christ, he saw a persecutor of the church, a murderer, the chief of sinners, a hypocrite Pharisee, a wretched man in the bondage of sin. He knew he is not worthy to be called in the rank and file of the apostles.  He himself said; "...I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am..." (I Cor. 15:9-10).  "Grace is shocking-something like the heavenly converse of a traffic accident. When love is returned for evil, we can't help to stopping to rubberneck. Grace is the delivery of a jewel that nobody ordered, burst of light in a room where everyone forgot it was dark. Grace turns human politics on its head, right before our eyes. It renounces the entire conventional wisdom of social behavior (Jeremiah, 2006:12).  When the persecutor becomes preacher, he said; it is "by the grace of God."

You become a debtor of gratitude when you are plucked out of fire, transformed from darkness to a marvelous light, given a renewed mind and heart that hates sin and love holiness, when your life changes from wandering aimlessly and geared in a purpose driven way that is focused, goal and result oriented, when you have a noble cause to live for become the citizen of God's kingdom that gives you genuine freedom. Paul exclaimed, "Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). When he gave command to Timothy in regard to his ministry Paul was trying to shed light to his mentoree about the glory and goodness of God. Paul said; "...keep this commandment blameless, without spot until our Lord Jesus Christ's appearing.  Which he will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only potentate, the king of kings and lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen."  (I Tim 6:14-15).

Paul was grateful for his salvation, the revelation he received, the ministry opportunities he was given, for friends, and the many people he brought to the kingdom of God.

C)  A debtor of stewardship

Many NT scholars who exegete Paul's letter know the depth of revelation the Lord gave to the apostle and his sharpen intelligence. But the depth of his theology, the reason for his success in ministry, his writing and leadership skill, had little to do with his intellectual ability.  Paul does not want to be considered as an ivory tower scholar. He said to the Corinthian Christians, "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor.4:11).  When he talked about his excellence of theology, he said,, "For I neither received it from man, nor taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ" ( Gal. 1:12).

The apostle Paul knew that his calling as an apostle and his apostolic ministry, the revelation of redemption, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the place of the church and the mystery of the kingdom of God was abundantly given to him by the Lord. It was freely given to him. He felt as a debtor. As Jon Stott rightly said; "He has not borrowed anything from the Romans which he must repay. But Jesus Christ has entrusted him with the gospel for them" (2003:59). To the Romans as well as others, to pay it back:

  • He served the Lord day and night.
  • He suffered a great deal.
  • He loved the unlovable.
  • He respected the despised.
  • He accepted the rejected.
  • He gave everything he received without expecting to be paid and without withholding that was beneficial to his recipients.
V. The Implication to our Context.

When it comes to serving the Lord in missions, either by going to the field or by sending others, do you feel as a debtor or a creditor? When you think of your salvation, and many other blessing you received through and from Jesus Christ, do you feel superior over  others or you look for an opportunity to serve humbly? Are you thankful? Are you a faithful and good steward? Do you feel free and yet indebted to the Lord for the-

  • Family he has given you.
  • Your academic and professional life.
  • Your financial blessing.
  • Spiritual blessing.
  • Your health. 
  • For the historical time you live in.
  • For the cultural context you grew up in.
  • For teachers, friends, pastors and parents who mentored you to be what you are, where you are and where you're going to be.
  • For knowing Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
  • For eternal life........You can continue the list.

If you feel a debtor like Paul did, your value in life, your management of time and your resource, your attitude towards other races and cultures, your love for the Lord and mission should be radically different. It is my prayer that we would be challenged by Paul, the debtor, and respond to the call of missions as he did in his generation.

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