When I was 12, I spent a month in the hospital fighting for my life. At the time I did not know how serious it was. I only knew that I lost track of time, that lying in bed was the very best I could manage. Unrelated to that, two years later I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I accepted it pretty easily with no concept of how deadly a disease I now had. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I discovered that in my generation, half of those diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in childhood died before their thirtieth birthday. By that time I had an idea of how precarious things could be, having been rushed to the hospital a few times when things went awry.
I realized that death was close to everyone. A driver ignores the painted line between our lanes, or some random germ floats into my lungs or life is sacrificed for a handful of dollars. Although I can take precautions and improve percentages in some areas of my life to avoid certain kinds of death, in the end I have no choice how or when that ultimate life experience will occur.
When Saul was growing up in Tarsus, like all people in that era, he would have witnessed death from his earliest years. For men, life expectancy barely reached 40 so if he knew his grandparents at all, it might not have been for very long. So much ended life prematurely. There was plague that frequently swept through, randomly choosing its victims. Or famine signaled that the weak would go first, feeling their bodies grow ever weaker. Invading armies marched through, infuriated by those who resisted and meting out punishment to any remotely related to the resistors. Accidents and crime and executions and who knows what else all took their toll. Perhaps the young Saul saw himself nobly dying in battle, a casualty who laid down his life to free the Promised Land from these cursed oppressors. Was he not named for the only king who came from his tribe of Benjamin? We cannot know what went through his mind but we can say with confidence that death was real and it was present and like all those around him, it was ever near like a shadow cast on an otherwise sunny day.
Perhaps that is part of the reason that his interests turned to eternal matters, those realities that endured beyond a single person’s lifetime, that were not defined by a birth, a life and a death. The things of God, who stood above the millennia of time, were more real to him than the dusty streets of Tarsus or the tent repairs that only delayed the eventual destruction of the canvas. His allegiance to these truths and his studies to understand them allowed him to qualify for a place at the feet of the great teacher Gamaliel in Jerusalem. There his mind was challenged and his heart enlarged. He had thought he loved God and the things of God supremely but as he learned more he found that he was only at the beginning. The problem was that his growth in knowledge was void of any tolerance of those who were less enlightened, less committed to his narrow view of God’s nature. He shared the opinion of some rabbis that taught that those outside the Jewish race and faith were fit only to be fuel for the fires of Hell. God would laugh, Saul thought, when He cast these unworthy people away in judgment.
It is not entirely surprising then, that Saul’s first appearance in Scripture is at the mob execution of Stephen (Acts 7). Although he did not personally cast a stone, he gladly held the cloaks of those who did. His presence and his cooperation were consistent for his growing hatred of this new sect that followed Jesus of Nazareth.
Fueled by what he witnessed, Saul set out on a murderous campaign when he was no longer a supportive bystander but threw himself into the task of not just arresting the Christians but seeking to put them to death (Acts 9:1). He found life in the pursuit of other people’s death.
We cannot know how long he would have continued down that path had it not been for Christ’s dramatic interception of him on the road to Damascus. The zeal that had propelled him to kill others was now eclipsed by his fervent witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. And what was his reward? For the first time in what would be many times, his life was threatened. The man who boldly marched down the road toward Damascus with murderous intent, found himself in the middle of the night meekly lowered in a basket from a secluded spot on the city wall to escape with his life (Acts 9:24,25).
Nor was this scrape with death to be an isolated incident but part and parcel of his new life. No longer Saul of Tarsus, he became known as Paul the Apostle. In one of those marvelous twists that God alone could have brought about, the man who believed in the utter destruction of the Gentiles became the chief agent for sharing the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ with the Gentile world. His former allies became his fiercest enemies because of this. With their growing hatred of him came a more fanatical desire to see him dead.
In summarizing what he faced when he wrote the church in Corinth, Paul gave a stunning list of the dangers he faced: “I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm”(2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Death dogged the apostle, ever reminding him that this very day could be his last.
Although at this point the many attempts on his life had been unsuccessful, there was a point when there would be no escape, no chance for another chapter to be written. Generally, the view of scholars is that the arrest of Paul detailed in Acts ended in his being set free. But his freedom was did not last long.
The dark clouds of persecution of Christians that had been gathering on the horizon now erupted in a deluge of death and destruction. The city of Rome became the epicenter as the wicked Nero blamed Christians for the imperial city of Rome going up in flames. Resentment had been growing across the empire as Christianity first gained followers among the servants but then seeped upwards until even in Caesar’s household there were believers. The rise of Christianity also ruptured the otherwise unified Jewish faith as some believed in Christ as the Messiah while others stubbornly refused to believe in this next step for Judaism. Local persecutions such as the riots that victimized Paul resulted in some deaths. But now with imperial authority, the enemies of Christianity were given license to vent their full anger and frustration on the infant Faith.
Although afforded some protection because he was a Roman citizen, even this shield failed at last. The exact circumstances and the formal charges against him have been lost to us but the end result was that Paul was in prison. And he had every confidence that this time it would not end with his release. His destiny was to be found with the growing list of those who were martyred in the name of Christ.
Tradition states that Paul spent his last hours in Mamertime Prison, a stone hole that offered not a single comfort to those it held. The conditions were harsh beyond words. By design it assaulted the senses at every level. Here the humid air was heavy with the smells of urine and feces, stale sweat and old vomit. It was a paradise for disease, as prisoners were dumped without regard to number. Only the occasional death relieved the overcrowding as the bodies were slid down a chute to the waiting waters of the sewer below. Nor were the natures of the prisoners tamed in the least as they all knew that should they survive that place, it was only to face the executioner or to be carried away as live victims as a spectacle for the hungry crowds in the nearby Coliseum. So brutish men became more brutish, with nothing to live for and nothing to lose. Here in this place, in this horribly dark and desperate place, Paul spent his last days and hours.
What could he have thought? Here was the man that had abandoned everything for Christ to find himself abandoned in his final hour. He who had walked until his blisters had blisters, now could only move a few feet in either direction. Did he wonder, “Have I served Christ all my life to end up like this?”
Here is where we meet Paul. We cannot choose the means by which we will die or even the exact time. I suppose if we give it any thought at all, we would choose to lie down one night and enter into eternity as part of some beautiful dream. Or if we were conscious, to be surrounded by those we love the most and slip away having kissed them one more time and said the words we most wanted them to remember. For many, death will come like that. But others will die violently, briefly noted on the evening news. Others will die in excruciating pain as disease or injury exacts their price. Still others will have had their minds depart before their bodies and die not knowing who stands near them or why they are there. Paul lived his life not knowing the means by which he would die. Nor do we know.
But Paul knew how he chose to die. He had given it thought, proclaiming at one moment to dearly beloved friends, “For me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better” (Philippians 1:21). He would die faithful.
At the point he was in prison, he knew that as a Roman citizen he would be beheaded. Though gruesome, it was a quick death. But what he likely dwelled on were those last few moments of life. He could sing until they came to get him. He could still speak to the soldiers who escorted him. And he could even say a word to his executioner. What most thrilled him was that he would enter into the presence of the Lord on his knees. The Roman officials would see it as the posture of a condemned man. Paul saw it as the last gesture of submission to his Lord, the opportunity to offer his very last breath, his very last conscious thought, his very last prayer before seeing his Lord face to face.
Paul knew the lesson that we must also learn. We cannot chose the means by which we die but we can show the world how to face death and in the end, how to die. We can do that because our last moment here coincides with our first moment in the presence of the Lord.