Life Lessons in Arabia
In the opening comments of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle shared part of his testimony in order to establish that his message and authority were from God. Referencing his manner of living prior to his conversion, he acknowledged that his persecution of the Church had been “beyond measure.” Then he told what happened shortly after his conversion and the revelation of his call to preach to the Gentiles. We read, “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus” (Galatians 1:15-17).
We do not know a great deal about Paul’s time in Arabia. The facts given are simple and brief: Paul went into Arabia; he spent time in Arabia; he came back from Arabia.
Arabia stands in contrast to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the scene of revival, where hundreds and even thousands had been saved. It was a place of preaching, singing, testifying, praying, and the moving of the Spirit of God—in fact, reports of what was happening in Jerusalem were circulated all over that part of the world. Arabia, however, was different. It is thought that the geographic location was an area about one hundred miles or so southeast of Jerusalem. That was (and is) a desolate region, not a thriving metropolis. It is wilderness; it is hot, dry, and lonely.
These are times of communion with God rather than communication with men. It is when God reveals Himself through His Word—when He makes known His demands, and quietly commands His blessings.
Perhaps Jerusalem could be likened to occasions such as summer camp meetings, youth camps, and revival meetings. Arabia compares to isolation, when circumstances are difficult and we are shut away, desperate, and utterly dependent upon God. These are times of communion with God rather than communication with men. It is when God reveals Himself through His Word—when He makes known His demands, and quietly commands His blessings. There are invaluable lessons to be learned in Arabia.
John’s wilderness experiences
Many individuals in Biblical history spent time in Arabia. John the Baptist was one. He knew Arabia, or at least Arabia-like conditions. Scripture relates that he grew and waxed strong in spirit in the wilderness—perhaps even the same geographic area where Paul went a few years later. The wilderness was where John learned that he must decrease so Jesus might increase. It was in the wilderness that the word of God came to him. It was in the wilderness that he was given the understanding that he was the one of whom Isaiah spoke—the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
The Bible says John was in the desert until his showing to Israel (see Luke 1:80). When God’s appointed time came, John left that wilderness and came to the area around Jordan, where he began preaching the message God had given him: that men and women ought to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. John compared the rugged terrain where he preached to a wasted, hopeless life that was bound and shackled by sin. He taught what change the remedy would make when applied to that life. In Luke 3:4-6 we read, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
These verses give us a picture of the change that results in a life when an individual responds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord smooths out situations that man cannot resolve. A crooked past is straightened out. It is a new way of life! The message John received in the wilderness and then preached in the area around Jordan was that God would accomplish that transformation in a life when an individual repented.
Jesus in the wilderness
Jesus certainly knew of Arabia-like conditions; He too had a wilderness experience. After He was baptized by John, we read, “And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Two of the other gospels state that He was “led” of the Spirit into the wilderness, a word that also could be translated “brought.” Either way, the sense is that the wilderness is not the most desirable place to be, but that there is a purpose for time spent there. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. He was there forty days, and there He overcame whatever the devil threw at Him.
We read in Hebrews 2:18, “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” In order for us to fully identify with Him, Jesus had to endure this time in the wilderness. There, He faced and overcame temptation. Because He did so, when we are suffering, we can be assured that He really does understand what we are going through! Jesus’ wilderness experience provides encouragement for us, more than two thousand years later.
The wilderness experiences of Moses, Elijah, and John the Beloved
In the Book of Exodus, we read of Moses being forced to flee to the backside of the desert to escape the wrath of Pharaoh. He spent forty years there. While the location may not have been of his choosing, it was there that he saw the bush that was in flames but not consumed. It was there that God called him to deliver the Children of Israel from enslavement in Egypt by God’s strong arm.
After Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel with King Ahab, he fled a day’s journey into the wilderness upon hearing that Queen Jezebel had declared he would forfeit his life by the same time the following day. A day’s journey was not far enough, though. As Elijah sat under a juniper tree and wished to die, the angel of the Lord appeared and gave him food that sustained him to go forty days further into the wilderness. There, in the same area where Moses had his experience with God, God spoke to Elijah as well, in a “still small voice.” There, God gave him direction to crown two kings and commission Elisha, the prophet who would succeed him in ministering to Israel.
John the Beloved also had an Arabia-like experience when he was exiled to the Isle of Patmos. It is thought he was in his nineties at that point, and was not expected to survive—he was sent there to die. There was no one around, but the Lord was there, and God communed with him. His visions are recorded for us in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation.
Thriving in Arabia
Arabia is a lonely place. If you are longing for affirmation and pats on the back, that will not occur in Arabia. However, there is much to be gained in wilderness experiences. By the grace of God, we can thrive there.
While Arabia is a lonely place, it is not the place to have a “pity party.” It is where we learn to eradicate the pity from our party! It is the place where God can bring about significant growth in our spiritual lives.
Arabia is where lives are permanently altered. It is where we learn to be utterly reliant upon God. It is where He teaches us and makes demands of us—it is often in these solitary times that God reveals Himself most clearly. While Arabia is a lonely place, it is not the place to have a “pity party.” It is where we learn to eradicate the pity from our party! It is the place where God can bring about significant growth in our spiritual lives.
Our Arabia may bring heat. Some people thrive in the furnace of affliction; others wilt. Let’s purpose to be among those who thrive! In Jeremiah 12:5 we read, “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?” The prophet was saying, in effect, “If you are weary under normal conditions, how can you contend when you face conditions that are desperate? How will you survive when the current is strong against you?” In the wilderness, we can gain strength and stamina to face the greatest challenges of life.
Paul’s experience in Arabia
Looking back at our text in the first chapter of Galatians, we are not told how much time Paul spent in Arabia. We do know it was less than three years because Galatians 1:18 indicates that “after three years” he went up to Jerusalem for the first time. Paul had not needed to go to Jerusalem immediately after his conversion to confer with the Apostles and make sure he rightly understood what had happened when the light shone from Heaven on the road to Damascus. He spent three days in prayer in the city of Damascus until Ananias came and prayed with him, saying that the Lord had showed him that Paul was going to be a witness to the Gentiles. Then Paul “conferred not with flesh and blood” but went to Arabia and let that great experience settle into his soul.
Paul would find out later—as would the Apostles when he did meet with them—that his experience on the road to Damascus was consistent with what they had received as well. There is one Gospel. One does not have to be reared in it to experience it. There are those throughout the world whom we do not know and will never meet in this life, who have also received the changing grace of God. In every case, it delivers. It purifies. It empowers.
Paul also learned to keep himself out of the way. That is an important lesson we learn in Arabia.
In Arabia, Paul grew and waxed strong in spirit, as had John the Baptist. There he learned to bring himself into subjection. Paul also learned to keep himself out of the way. That is an important lesson we learn in Arabia.
It was in Arabia where Paul learned, like John, that he must decrease and God must increase. Paul had quite a résumé. There were many aspects of his life that he previously had felt elevated him above others. We read about his background in his epistle to the Philippians. He had been circumcised the eighth day according to the Law. He was of the stock of Israel—if he had taken a DNA test, it would have revealed that he was 100% a descendant of Jacob. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was also a Pharisee, and the strictest among them. He kept the Law blamelessly, and was so zealous in his faith that he persecuted the Christians even unto death. He actually stood by and held the coats of those who killed Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Now he grasped that although he had been sincere in his zeal, he was wrong. None of his “advantages” of background and privilege could change his heart. However, something real and life-transforming had happened that day on the road to Damascus—he had an encounter with Jesus! It takes Jesus to change the heart, and Paul had that heart experience.
Arabia is where Paul learned, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). He had become one with Christ, dying to his old life. That is really what each of us wants for our lives. We want to live a life that is by faith in the Son of God.
Coming from Arabia
After Paul returned from Arabia, we do not read that he ever went back. A Christian life should not be an experience of staying forever in Arabia, working things out. We come from Arabia. While the word of God came to John in the wilderness, he did not stay in the wilderness. Nor did Jesus, Moses, or Elijah—and neither should we.
Paul left Arabia a different man than when he had arrived there. He came back preaching Christ. The believers of the Early Church were amazed that this man, who had previously sought to destroy their faith, was now preaching it! He came back purified; he came back empowered; he came back a victor. That is a portrait of the Christian life; it is victory! Yes, there are challenges, but if the hallmark of your life is an ongoing struggle, God has something better to offer you. He has victory!
In another of Paul’s epistles, we have a hint regarding what may have happened in Arabia when Paul prayed three times that he might be delivered from an affliction. The third time, the message came through to him. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 we read, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” That was enough for Paul. He did not have to deal with that subject anymore. He lived on the victory side. He was imprisoned for years, but as we read the letters written from those prisons, we see no indication that he was depressed, overwhelmed, or feeling sorry for himself. On the contrary, he was shouting the victory despite the immense difficulties and circumstances that he suffered.
We need both Jerusalem and Arabia
The focus in Jerusalem is fellowship with believers, and that is important. We thank God for Jerusalem experiences—for times of revivals—and we want to hear and talk of them more. We thank God for individual revivals as well; people testify of answers to prayer, the victories God has given. They are singing again, and they have joy in their hearts. That is Jerusalem, when there is rejoicing and everybody knows it. However, not everyone who experiences a season of revival stays revived. A period of revival does not necessarily bring about spiritual stability for the rest of the person’s life.
The focus of Arabia is fellowship with God. We do not talk so much about Arabia, but you are a different person when you come out of that wilderness experience. You live a life of stability thereafter.
Life will bring both Jerusalem and Arabia experiences. We need both—and there can be victory in both! If you find yourself living the Jerusalem experience today, rejoice. But remember, it is simply not the same experience as Arabia. There are vital lessons to be learned in Arabia as well. A place alone with God can be in your closet at home; it can be around the altars in the sanctuary or in the pews; it can be during your commute to work or to school, or it can be in your home somewhere. We need those times alone with God, just as we need our times in fellowship with the saints of God.
Paul—as well as Jesus, John the Baptist, Moses, Elijah, and John the Beloved—spent time in Arabia and came out with renewed vigor, purpose, and insight. May that be our experience too.