A Surprising Runner (Week 1)
“So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!”
2 Corinthians 5:17
Although I am not a runner and do not desire to run anywhere physically (!), I am a runner for God! God has called all of us to live in ways which parallel what we see in long distance runners. The apostle Paul often used such illustrations to picture the Christian life. He was one who ran the race of life well, and we can learn from his example to do the same.
You have probably noticed that we are calling our memory verses “Energy for the Race”. God’s word brings spiritual energy to us in the same way that food, particularly food high in carbohydrates, provides physical energy for the race. My hope is that you study these lessons day by day, as they are designed, because in so doing, you build up your spiritual life as food builds up the body. Without a consistent diet of God’s word, we are unable to complete our races.
In this study we will look at Paul’s race and the example he has left us. How did Paul become a runner for Jesus? How did he start the race? You may be familiar with the story, but read it this week from the perspective of those who knew him at that time. It must have been quite a surprise to them to learn that Paul was a runner for Jesus!
Today we will look at Paul’s background. You will note that his Hebrew name was Saul; early in Acts that was the name used for him. His Greek name was Paul or Paullus. This was not a name change; the author of Acts simply began calling him by his Greek name when his ministry focus turned to the gentile world (Acts 13:9).
Paul, here called Saul, is first mentioned, seemingly in passing, in Acts 8:1-3.
Scan Acts 6:8-7:53 to get the context. Then, read Acts 7:54-8:3 carefully.
1. What do these verses reveal about Paul at that time?
2. Based on what you just read, would you agree with the statement that Paul became a surprising runner for Jesus? Why or why not?
Read Philippians 3:4-6.
3. List what you learn about Paul’s background from this passage.
Extra Training: Research the Pharisees in your Bible resources or an online website.1 Write down any insights you gain into them and Paul.
4. How does Paul’s description of himself in Philippians help explain his motivation in persecuting followers of Jesus?
5. Sharing question: Write a short description of your past, as Paul did in Philippians. Paul lists his positives here. What would you include in a listing of who you are and what you have accomplished? (Be prepared to share this with your group. God has placed you in this particular group for a reason. God’s kingdom is based on community, and you are a vital part of this small group. Of course, don’t share so much that you inhibit others from sharing! Be sensitive so that everyone has a chance to talk! Be a true friend by listening to the stories of others and not just telling them about yourself!)
6. Responding to God: Thank God that he can use everything in your past—all of your background, accomplishments, and mistakes as a runner in his kingdom. Write out your prayer below. After the study, it can be a wonderful blessing and reminder to go back through the prayers that you have written.
We continue the story of Paul the apostle, who was called Saul at this point in the text. The event we study today likely occurred around 33 A.D., about three years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Read Acts 9:1-9.
7. Write your own account of what happened here as if you were writing it for a news report. Good reporters tell who, what, when, where, why, and how about their stories; they investigate eyewitnesses; and they write a headline to capture the attention of the reader. (I am giving you fewer questions today so you can spend more time on this one! Use your creativity and have fun! You don’t have to share it if you don’t want to—but please volunteer!)
Extra Training: Read one or both of Paul’s own accounts of this event in Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:12-18. What additional insights do you gain?
8. We are not told how Paul felt so we can’t speak for him, but we can consider how we would have felt in his place. How would you have felt at this point in light of what you had been doing and what you had just experienced?
9. Sharing question: Have you ever been proven wrong about something? Describe what it was and how you discovered that you were wrong. How did that affect you in both the short term and long term?
10. Responding to God: Thank God for humbling experiences. Ask him to continue reminding you that you can be and are often wrong! Write out your prayer below.
Review Acts 9:1-9 and read Acts 9:10-19a. (If you are unfamiliar with the letters after verses, they refer to the parts of the verse—“a” being first, “b” second, etc.)
11. What were God’s instructions to Ananias and how did he respond?
12. In your view, was it okay for Ananias to respond to God as he did? Why?
13. What was God’s answer to Ananias’ issues with Paul? What do God’s words about Paul suggest about what would happen to Paul as his life went on?
14. Read 2 Corinthians 5:14-17. How does v. 17 (our memory verse this week) help explain why God expected Ananias to help Paul?
If you have not begun learning this verse, now is a good time to do so! You may want to place your memory card in your car so you can refer to it at red lights—but not while driving:)
Extra Training: What other Bible characters were surprising choices for God to use? Review their stories in the Bible. If you can’t think of any such people, feel free to research what scholars say in commentaries or online about the three accounts of Paul’s conversion instead (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:12-18).
15. Sharing question: Are you running for Jesus, i.e., are you a Christ-follower? If not, where are you on your spiritual journey? We all begin in different places, and it often takes us down many roads before we believe in Jesus. Share where you are on your journey. If you are a follower of Jesus, how did God work in your life to bring you to faith?
16. Sharing question: What makes you a surprising runner for Jesus? We all are in some way or the other. Your background? Your upbringing? Your sins? Your lukewarm attitude toward God?
17. Responding to God: Write a prayer or poem of thanks that God uses surprising people for his kingdom, especially you!
Read Acts 9:19b-22.
18. What did Paul do in Damascus according to these verses?
Read Paul’s account of events from his early Christian days in Galatians 1:11-17.
19. Is there anything in his description of himself here that you find significant? Write down his travel chronology.
Some scholars place Acts 9:19-22 after the trip to Arabia and some would place it before. Luke, the author of Acts simply skips that part of Paul’s life, forcing some speculation as to the specific chronology since he spent time in Damascus both before and after Arabia.
Extra Training: Study the chronology of Paul’s life, or better—compare at least two resources. A commentary on Acts or Galatians may be helpful.
Now we’ll go back to Acts and pick up the end of Paul’s time in Damascus, which may have begun in Acts 9:22 or 23. Read Acts 9:23-25.
20. When Paul returned to Damascus, to whom was he preaching? How did they respond? What happened as a result?
21. Sharing question: Clearly those in Damascus were as surprised as Ananias that Paul was now running for Jesus! Sometimes the past takes a long time to overcome. What in your past has been most difficult to overcome as a believer? Your reputation? Your habitual sins? Your guilt or shame? Your old ways of responding to life?
22. Responding to God: Pray your memory verse back to God with your name in it. Ask him to help you believe that you are a new creation and that he empowers you to overcome the things you wrote in the previous question. Write down your thoughts below.
Read Gal. 1:18-20 and Acts 9:26-29. Most scholars believe these two passages describe Paul’s initial visit to Jerusalem as a Christian around 36 A.D.
23. Paul had just been forced out of Damascus to avoid being killed. Then in Jerusalem, believers questioned his commitment to Jesus. What feelings may Paul have had in light of all these events? What would you have done?
With Acts 9:27 in mind, also read Acts 11:19-30.
24. How did Barnabas prove himself as an encourager, the meaning of his name?
25. Describe the church situation in Antioch at that time. How did they show confidence and trust in Paul?
Extra Training: Read Gal. 2:1-10, apparently Paul’s account of this second trip to Jerusalem around 46 A.D. What do you learn from Paul’s example?
26. Sharing question: Can you think of a person who has believed in you, perhaps even interceding positively on your behalf? Is there someone who encourages you to believe that God is at work to give you the grace and power to overcome your past? If so, mail her a note thanking her for that encouragement. Tell your group about the ways she has encouraged you. If you can’t think of someone like that, seek out a woman who believes that God is in the process of changing you. When you find yourself needing a word of encouragement, invite her to get coffee or dessert. Take the initiative to get the encouragement that you need. Write this down as your prayer request for your group this week.
27. Responding to God: Consider what great grace and mercy God has shown you by giving you a race to run despite all of your failures and sins! If you struggle with believing that he has forgiven you and can use you, write out what continues to haunt you. Write your memory verse with a marker right over the list! Thank God for the grace he gave you to become a surprising runner!
If you have done one of my studies before, you know that I always include a real life story that brings reality to the truths of our lesson. Hopefully, through this lesson you have seen that we are all surprising runners for Jesus. This woman is no exception.
Who was it who said, “Our part is to run away from God as far and as fast as we can and God’s part is to come after us and save us,” or something like that? Well, that’s what I was doing and that’s what God did. It’s surprising that God chose me because before he did I didn’t know anything about him and I really wasn’t making any effort to find out.
At the time I left home for college I had been to church only a handful of times in my life. I had never even read, much less studied the Bible. My thoughts about God and religion were purely philosophical. I had never heard the gospel, at least that I can remember. I definitely had no understanding of what a “personal relationship with God” meant. In fact, I really had no interest in God at all. Never mind—he was interested in me anyway. And that’s the really surprising part.
At school I was suddenly surrounded by people who had everything I didn’t—a relationship with God that was real and personal, based on knowing him from His word (the Bible) and belief in His Son Jesus who died to take away their sin and rose again to eternal life (the gospel). At first when they tried to talk to me about it, I either ridiculed them or just literally shut the door in their faces. I argued and debated, and I thought I had all the right intellectual answers based on good reason and logic. My testimony could be something like Paul’s: I thought I was pretty smart. In a worldly sense most people might have agreed with me. But God wasn’t impressed. He knew my reasoning and logic couldn’t come close to his wisdom. Now I see that what was once my greatest source of pride and accomplishment causes me the greatest sense of shame and humility. But thanks be to God, he hadn’t given up on me and his grace is bigger than my sinfulness, pride and stupidity.
Despite my stubbornness and refusal to listen to most of the people who tried to talk to me, God was breaking down my resistance and beginning to speak to me through a few individuals. Through their prayers with and for me (which were met at first with, “Sure you can pray for me. I don’t think it will do any good, but if it makes you happy knock yourself out.”), kindness, and even time talking to me about what the Bible really says, eventually God showed me that he’s real, and it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks about him. He also showed me that I’m a sinner and his Son Jesus is the only one who is uniquely qualified to take away my sin, and that he did. It surprised a lot of people when I stood up at a campus evangelistic meeting and declared my faith in Jesus Christ, but it didn’t surprise God. He had plans for me.
Would anybody from my past be surprised to see me following Christ and spending my time and energy on his activities rather than the things that motivated me before? Yes, pretty much everyone who ever knew me would be! That fact has caused some painful conversations over the years, but it’s also created some great opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality of 2 Corinthians 5:17.
What an incredible responsibility I have as a mom. I am not only a runner (a surprising runner) for Jesus, but I am also training up the next generation of runners. Desiring to be a godly example and a spiritual encourager to my children has been a powerful motivation for spiritual growth in my life.
In order to run the race well, we need to focus on the race ahead instead of looking back at things that could hold us back. How do we as moms overcome the struggles we have had in the past and the guilt and shame that may still remain from our background, our sins, and our wrong choices? Satan would love nothing more than to keep reminding us of our failures. Scripture calls him the “accuser of the brethren.” When we agree with his accusations and his assessment of our situation, we may be paralyzed and unable to experience what God wants to do in us and through us. Thoughts that keep us looking back at failures instead of looking forward to God’s plan and purpose for our lives do not reflect the truth of our being a new creation.
One thing that I have found helpful in my own life is to counter the lies of the enemy with specific verses that reveal the truth that God wants me to know. For example, when I feel inadequate as a mom and say “I can’t,” I can remind myself that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13 NKJV). When Satan reminds me of past sins or failures, I can renew my mind by reminding myself of 1 John 1:9 (NASB), “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Action Step: Identify one stumbling block that is holding you back from being the kind of mom the Lord wants you to be. Ask the Lord to help you not merely know but also experience the truth of His word. Find one or more “weapons” verses to counter the lies of the enemy. (Our memory verse for this week, 2 Corinthians 5:17, is a good place to start).
1 For example, bible.org has an article called “The Pharisees” by Dr. Allen Ross. I found it by searching “Pharisee” on the site. Then, I looked at the listing of articles for the one that seemed to be about the Pharisees in general. You can use this type of search for many biblical topics.