“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”—Acts 20:24 (NIV)
In this month’s discipleship lesson, we find ourselves near the end of Paul’s life just before he found himself in jail in Rome. Paul very bluntly proclaimed that his life was not worth anything compared to his responsibility to share Christ with others. He was more than willing to suffer to help further the spread of the gospel.
When he was imprisoned, Paul used his time to write encouragement to other believers, pray, and share the gospel with anyone who could hear him. He was literally finishing his life testifying about God’s grace.
Thinking about this month’s discipleship lesson brought to mind an article that Sandy Wisdom-Martin, WMU executive director/treasurer, wrote about her trip to Rome several years ago. Read Sandy’s words and imagine what she saw:
In the heart of Rome is a sacred place few know about. Millions will be within steps of this ancient treasure as they walk to the Roman Forum or Colosseum. We had the museum to ourselves the day we went. Our small group politely looked at the archeology artifacts for what we considered an appropriate amount of time. I found myself anxious to put my feet where he had been. Someone finally asked, “Will we get to see the actual prison?” The museum official said, “Yes, I will escort you below.”
We exited the main floor of the museum down modern metal stairs placed above the hewn rock steps built by the Romans 20 centuries ago. The reality of what the Apostle Paul experienced during his imprisonment came to life before my eyes. It was vivid and painful. On the first level underground, we saw where prisoners were dropped through a hole in the rock floor into their cell.
Then, we descended into the actual cell where he was kept. It was a room with rock walls and an uneven rock floor. It was cold and damp and dark and brutal. The latrine was simply a cavity in a rock with no drainage. I can’t imagine the constant stench. Most men died in prison because of the conditions.
It was in this setting Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, knowing his time was short. From that wretched location, he challenged Christ followers to make themselves useful for God’s special purpose. (See 2 Tim. 2:21.) This from a man who had been beaten, whipped, shipwrecked, stoned, imprisoned, and eventually martyred for his faith.
The spread of the gospel was rampant in the first century thanks to Paul’s missionary journeys. What compelled him to forsake everything and endure suffering for the cause of Christ? Gratitude fueled his passion. His own experience of being set free by the grace of God constrained him to share the message of hope with everyone he met. A pastor I know reminds his congregation, “Paul never forgot what God did for him.”*
So many questions flooded my mind after I read this article. How could someone in the situation Sandy describes worry for anyone but himself? How could someone write letters of encouragement and share God’s love with others in the same horrible setting? How did Paul stay so focused on the gospel when all of his senses had to be overwhelmed with a jail cell like this? He had to know his life was hanging in the balance, didn’t he? And yet, he seemed at peace in his suffering.
Paul very clearly put the gospel message above his own welfare. I know many Christian workers and believers around the world put the gospel above their own safety on a frequent basis, but for our students and most of us, we may struggle to grasp this idea simply because we may never have to face the consequences of being a believer the way Paul did.
So, how do we apply this verse and Paul’s life to our own lives?
For modern believers living in a relatively safe place, putting the gospel first above everything else may mean we prioritize a conversation with a nonbeliever over spending time on a hobby. It may mean we neglect something we’ve wanted to do in favor of taking care of an ailing neighbor. Or it could mean we reach out to someone who is not like us to invite them to a Bible study. Putting the gospel before our own welfare can take on many forms, but one thing is for sure: It will take us out of our comfort zones and directly into the center of God’s will for our lives.
When we help students see how sharing the gospel in the context of their friend groups, family, school, and community is the most important thing they can do, we will help them become disciples of Christ who are making disciples.
Heather Keller is the editor of Missions Journey: Students and a consultant at national WMU. Heather and her husband, Tommy, are raising two boys in Birmingham, Alabama.
*Sandy-Wisdom Martin, “From Missionary Ridge,” October 2017.
Photo by Spencer Davis on unsplash.com.