Several years ago, my wife and I visited the Catacombs of Domitilla, an ancient underground Christian cemetery in Rome, Italy. The land originally belonged to a Roman noblewoman called Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of the Emperor Vespasian and niece of the Emperor Domitian. She was exiled to the island of Ventotene in 95 A.D. for the crime of ‘atheism’, indicating that she was probably a Christian. The vast network of caves was used as a cemetery, beginning from around the 2nd through to the 5th centuries, and is believed to contain more than 26,000 tombs.
As the guide led us down the stairs to the second level of the Catacombs, she pointed out some of the symbols that adorned the walls — The Good Shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders; The Fish (ichtùs); The Dove with an olive branch in its beak or between its feet; and figures representing scenes from both the Old and New Testaments such as Noah and the ark; Daniel in the lion’s den; the raising of Lazarus; and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes — indicating that many of the people buried here were Christians, and may have been martyred for their faith during the intense persecution of the middle 3rd and early 4th centuries.
As we looked at the frescoes on the walls, I mentioned to the guide that I was a theological student, and that I was particularly interested in the writings of the Apostle Paul. In distinct Italian-English, she said to me, “You lika Paulus?” “Yes,” I replied. “Comea,” she said, “I will show youa something speciala.” With that, she led my wife and I into a small alcove and shone her flashlight into the darkness. There, on the wall, was the faded figure of a woman in a praying position with the monogram Chi Ro above her head. To her left was the Apostle Peter, and to her right was the Apostle Paul.
As I looked at Paul, my heart skipped a beat. I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck. It seemed like his eyes were boring into me like a laser; searching, questioning, weighing me in the balance. It was as though he was saying to me, “What have you done with the gospel that I bequeathed to you?” I felt like I was young Timothy, receiving an apostolic charge:
“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” (2 Tim 1.13-14)
Since that day I have felt a special connection with the Apostle Paul — his life, his teachings, his modus operandi. And given the turbulence of the past 18 months, I have been keen to learn how Paul dealt with uncertainty. Remember, we read Paul’s letters from the perspective of the 21st century, knowing how it all ended for him on the Via Laurentina in 64 A.D., and how the Church not only survived, but thrived, in the ensuing years.
But for Paul himself, it was a different matter. He lived with the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow would bring; whether his work would be in vain; whether the gospel he proclaimed would be corrupted; whether the letters he had written would be destroyed; whether the churches he had established would be dispersed.
Sometimes, the tension of not knowing for sure, or of fearing the worst, boiled over. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul said, “I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Cor 11.3). And to the Thessalonians, “For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labour might be in vain” (1 Thess 3.5).
Indeed, Paul’s life was nothing, if not capricious:
“… in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness — besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Cor 11.23-28).
How did Paul deal with his fluctuating circumstances? How did he learn to live with such a high degree of uncertainty? The answer is found in his letter to the Philippians, a church with whom he shared a deep and lasting affection.
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4.11-13).
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is often quoted by unbalanced, hyper-faith preachers as a proof text for spiritual invincibility. Basically, “I can do anything I want to do … nothing is too hard for me … O, yes, and I almost forgot … through Christ who strengthens me.” However, that is not what Paul is saying at all!
In Biblical exegesis, context is everything! In the context of the letter, Paul is stating that he is able to handle wild fluctuations, ups and downs, uncertainty and unpredictability, because Christ is the strength of his life; Christ is the anchor of his soul; Christ is the unshakeable rock on which he stands.
Addressing the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul said, “I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me …” (Acts 20.22-24).
And it was that same kind of transcendent faith that Paul sought to impart to the churches in his care, so that they would not be easily shaken in mind or troubled ‘either by spirit or by word or by letter’ (2 Thess 2.2).
Paul also learned that there were some things beyond his control — things that he had to commit to God and trust Him to guard safely. Facing the last great battle of his life and knowing his departure was at hand, with so many questions still unanswered and so many problems still unresolved, Paul said:
“I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day” (2 Tim 1.12).
If you visit Rome today, and climb the Janiculan Hill to watch the dawn break, you will notice that the first thing that the rays of the sun alight upon are the domes of Christian churches spread throughout the city. Churches where the words that Paul wrote almost 2000 years ago are read with reverence and awe; churches where the gospel that Paul delivered is proclaimed with faith and power.
Caesar is dead. The Roman Empire is in ruins. But the church that Paul helped to establish is alive and well!
I ask you, “Is God able to keep?” Yes He is, my friend, Yes He is.