What are you called to be?
Often we ponder what our life’s calling is. What am I supposed to do or be? As a child, we usually think of that future job. We don’t really think of it as a job so much, but something generally awesome that everyone loves. Maybe it was a fireman, or maybe a policeman. For some it is a famous musician (a la the American Idol craze), for others maybe a fighter pilot or the President. Whatever it is, it is something that is famous and very popular.
For Saul of Tarsus it was to be the most righteous, law-abiding, knowledge-filled scholar and teacher of the Holy Scriptures. He desired to be as holy as anyone could be according to the traditions and laws of God’s people (the Jews). He was so zealous for this, he became what he called the Pharisee of Pharisees. He even reached the pinnacle of this and sat on the ruling council of the Jews casting his vote for the affairs of the nation. Paul achieved his life long desire. He had arrived. He was important. He was sought for his knowledge and his wisdom. Yet, he was clearly miserable. The problem is that Saul didn’t know God. Saul was so caught up in his tradition, that he missed the glorious shining light of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. He heard Jesus, watched Jesus, likely even questioned Jesus directly. In his pride and arrogance, he missed the very thing his hallowed scriptures revealed. The result was a bitter angry zealot. In his mind, he was doing God’s work. In reality, he was at war with God. He even became responsible for killing some of the first Christians.
On a trip to Damascus, everything changed. The Lord temporarily took his sight away from him so that his physical blindness would match his spiritual blindness. Why? Because Jesus loved Saul and wanted to get his attention. Jesus had a different plan for Saul. Jesus said to Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Jesus had been poking Saul and directing Saul where He wanted him to go. Saul, like an obstinate ox, when poked with a goad, was kicking back at Jesus. But, like an ox, this only served to cause more pain for Saul. Jesus was about to change Saul and make him something new. Jesus changed Saul into His own image. He was born again and Jesus renamed him Paul. Jesus was about to reveal the calling He had for Paul and it was far different than what Paul had chosen. Jesus was going to use all of that scripture knowledge that He had already given Paul, but now it would be used to further the true kingdom of the Lord.
Years later, Paul recounts this story to King Agrippa. In Acts 26:12–18 (NKJV), Paul says this:
12 “While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,13 at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. 17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, 18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’
Jesus had a new calling for Paul, to be a minister and a witness. There are many different words translated as ‘minister’ and all of them generally mean ‘servant’. The Greek word that is used here is ‘huperetes‘. It literally means ‘bottom rower‘.
The word refers to a slave who is chained to the lower deck of ship and rows in cadence with all the other slaves. Think of those old movies of ancient Rome with their triple-decked ships (triremes) and those long oars sticking out. Perhaps the movie Ben Hur comes to mind with Charlton Heston chained to a seat and rowing. This bottom rower slave is the lowest of low. The bottom rower, being on the bottom deck, couldn’t see where the ship was going. He would be sitting in human vomit and other foul waste. He would have little food, just enough to sustain him. When storms came, he would be swamped with sea water, yet would still row onward.
This is the kind of servant Paul was called to be, a bottom rower. This is also the kind of servant we are called to be. Can we set aside our pride and row? Do we hear our Lord’s cadence, “stroke, stroke, stroke…” and follow? Can we labor without knowing where we are going, just trusting in the direction of our captain? Can we lift all others up above us? Just as Jesus lowered Himself to be the lowest form of servant or slave for those He loves, we are called to the same.
Can we be ‘bottom rowers?’