Often I’ve heard those who’ve had a close encounter with death speak reflectively about what they have learned from the experience. They may have heard a very frightening prognosis for a medical condition and then recovered against the odds. Or they had a near-fatal car accident, or almost drowned, or were gravely injured in war, or survived a lethal assault.
There are a few very common, almost universal realizations for humans in this circumstance. I’ve heard them repeatedly in counseling sessions, ministry situations, support groups, and more personal communications.
People will often say that they have a new appreciation for the value of life once they’ve experienced the imminent threat of death. They are more grateful for the life and opportunities they possess and don’t want to take anything or anyone for granted. They encourage others to tell the people they love how they feel while they have the opportunity. These people who have come back from the brink of death remind us that we could lose those we love without warning, or they might lose us.
Another comment that I frequently hear is that their lives were spared—they were saved, in other words, for a reason. They may or may not have a full understanding of what that reason is, and for what purpose they were given another chance at life. But they take it on faith that God has a reason.
This is where Scripture came to life for me while reading the opening chapter to the letter of Paul to the Galatians. As we learn in this letter, in other letters, and in the book of Acts, Paul was saved from death in a few ways. Spiritually, he was saved by faith and welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God; mentally, he was saved from his own distorted version of God’s demands upon him that were leading him to peril, and physically, he was saved from physical death many times once he switched teams and started preaching Jesus.
Speaking in part about these transformational experiences, Paul writes,
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being… (Gal. 1:14-16)
The book of Acts records the metamorphosis that occurred in this man following the day he met the Lord on his ill-fated trip to Damascus. He went from being a religious zealot, a rising star in the Orthodox rabbinical community, to a humble, persecuted, extremely dedicated servant of Jesus, whom he had declared his Lord and Master.
In this letter to the believers in Galatia some years later, he recaps the highlights of this transformation process. He had had enough time to reach the understanding that God had a very specific reason for saving him, and it went far beyond just the assurance of eternal life for himself.
Paul acknowledges that he was saved through the sovereignty of God, who called and set him apart even before he was born. But then he adds the declaration that God chose to “reveal his Son in me” so that “I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He was saved and called and sent out for a reason—to bring truth and life to Gentiles who had been living in darkness, shut out from the promises of God to people everywhere, whether Jew or Gentile.
This overarching purpose must have brought great confidence and comfort to Paul. He understood that whatever he might experience, the Lord Jesus was directing him, and would not let him die until God’s purposes in him were fulfilled.
Paul’s testimony can also be applied to us, and can also bring us confidence and comfort.
Salvation through our relationship with Jesus Christ is the best gift that could ever be given to anyone. That is the greatest prize, in itself. We didn’t deserve it, didn’t earn it, and didn’t pay for it. God owes us absolutely nothing, and yet he purposed long before we were born that we would be redeemed through our mediator, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. What more could we need or ask for?
Yet, we come to understand that when we occupy our new position as children of the kingdom of God, we are given both an assignment to fill, and a generous benefit package. The benefits include Holy Spirit empowerment, Scriptural wisdom and instruction, assistance from angels, and ongoing advocacy and intercession from God’s throne room.
As for the assignment, that varies from person to person, and sometimes from season to season. For some of us, it may take many years to get full revelation of our purpose in God, but be assured, there is one for each of us.
Paul waited 17 years before he was commissioned and blessed by the other Apostles to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. In the meantime, God was teaching him who he was designed to be in Christ, and what he was saved to accomplish.
We all have different audiences and different spheres of influence, and that is why he calls us to different ways of participating in his work in this world. He wants us to say yes to our unique assignments, whatever and wherever they may be. When we do, we experience fruitfulness and great reward. He will keep us moving forward until he decides we are finished.
He saves us because he loves us, and this is his good will toward us. He wants us to be secure as his children, now and forever. And, I believe that he saves us with a call to serve him, to speak well and often of him, to reveal him to others, and to live in his light so that others can also find their way to him.