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What Difference Does Jesus Make?

Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)

Written By Paul Wong

Paul is the campus pastor at Singapore Management University’s Christian Fellowship (SMUCF). Prior to that, he was a ministry trainee at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, where he spent two years in full-time ministry training, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer in the City of London. In his free time he enjoys photography, reading popular history, and spending time with his family. He is presently thinking about exercising more.

 

Jesus doesn’t really make life better

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV)

The man who penned those words wrote them from a cold, lonely prison cell in about AD 60, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard. As he writes the letter, his reputation and good name are being dragged through the mud by rivals, jealous of his influence over the churches in Asia and Macedonia. Indeed those very same churches he planted, including the one at Philippi to whom he’s presently writing, are under the threat of persecution or apostasy. In short, much of what this man has labored for, and achieved, in the last decades of his life is under attack and at risk of being destroyed.

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus (c.5–c.64/67)? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. But not in a good way.

When Paul writes that he has suffered the loss of all things, he really means it. Status, security—all of it gone. And all because he has spent much of his adult life in the single-minded proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus.

So the big, gaping question for us has got to be: How could he consider that “gaining Christ” was of “surpassing worth” when compared to the loss of literally everything? Why does he describe his previous comfortable life as “dung” (as the old King James Version translates it), when he now languishes in jail? Those are extraordinary things to write.

I think Paul would have said that it has all to do with his deep assurance of the love that God has for him, and how that love was ultimately displayed when Jesus showed up. Paul knows something which, for him, changes everything. ‘Tis the Season, so I’ll try and explain it in Christmassy terms.

 

 

Christmas I: Forgiveness and relationship

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea (today’s West Bank) that first Christmas, He came for a reason. The events surrounding His miraculous birth attest this. One eyewitness record of His life tells us that He is named Jesus (meaning “God saves”) “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That means that His singular purpose on earth was to rescue men and women from the punishment that we deserve for our rejection of God.

I wonder what you think of that. Perhaps the concept of a creator is so alien to you that you think this is all hogwash (in which case I’d encourage you to read some of the other articles in this series). Perhaps you think you’re a good person at heart—so this idea of punishment for “sins” is just ridiculous.

But Paul of Tarsus would look you in the eye and ask you to be honest with yourself: are you truly “good”? Who gets to decide anyway? Paul would say to us that in virtually everyone’s books he was a good person—blameless under his understanding of the Jewish laws (Philippians 3:4-6)—and yet a total failure in the eyes of a holy and righteous God.

Here’s why: God doesn’t merely view “sin” as the bad stuff you and I do wrong every day. What he says is far more offensive. He says that we are living in darkness and in rebellion to Him. Humanity is living in His world (trashing it even), using His stuff and breathing His air, all without any reference or deference to Him. And that’s a problem because if God is holy and just and good, and if I’m living as if He’s a nobody, then that kind of behavior deserves judgment—just ask any parent.

But God, in His deep love for His creation and His desire for a relationship with His people, administers the antidote Himself by sending Jesus. God provides forgiveness and a way out from our otherwise inevitable judgment. And the way that happens is by Jesus dying on a Roman cross, taking on our behalf the punishment that we deserve for living in God’s world as if he didn’t exist. Jesus’ sacrifice secures our forgiveness. He stands in our place—condemned as a sinner so that we might be pardoned. Christmas happened for Easter, as my old pastor puts it.

Trusting in that sacrifice means that God now sees us as He sees Jesus. The Bible describes Christians as being “hidden with Christ”. Incredibly, God no longer sees our sin, but the righteous perfection of His Son instead. Crucially, repentance (turning from our rebellion) and faith (trusting Jesus) bring us into relationship with God. As a Christian I can listen to Him speak in His Word, the Bible, and speak back to Him, knowing He hears me because I trust in Jesus.

This is the knowledge that changes everything.

Because he is a Christian, Paul of Tarsus can be sure that he need not fear the judgment of God. He is certain of the forgiveness won on his behalf at the cross. So even as he sits in a dirty jail cell, incredibly, he cannot help but rejoice at the receipt of this free gift. He might die condemned as a criminal, but ultimately he knows that he has been made right with his maker.

What difference does believing in Jesus make? He offers forgiveness for our rejection of God, and a relationship which begins now and lasts forever. And that is everything.

 

Christmas II: A different time frame

For Paul though, that’s not the end of the story (though there is plenty to cherish already!). The rest is all to do with the time frame.

Before Jesus died, He promised to return. There are two Christmases if you like, and the second is still to come.

Jesus promised that when He returns, He does so as judge of the world. And for those who trust in Him, there is a promise of eternal life—but not here on this broken world. In a place where the frustrations of this life will be a distant memory. A perfect heaven without sin, suffering, or pain.

Now here’s the thing. Being a Christian doesn’t make your life better now. In fact in all sorts of ways it makes your life more difficult (just ask Paul!). But what being a Christian does is to radically shift your time frame. It stretches this idea of “life” past our short 70-90 years on earth and into eternity.

Crucially what Jesus promises is a relationship with Him that is satisfying and soul-quenching because it is not temporary. It’s a relationship with the God of the universe which begins now but stretches on beyond your death, which means that Christians are those who will eventually be satisfied forever. That is knowledge which changes everything.

That has been my experience. Living life as a committed Christian in the world today isn’t a walk in the park (I doubt it has ever been for any Christian through the ages). The fight against sin brings me to my knees in prayer.

My work as a campus pastor is often very busy, and sometimes stressful and discouraging. Some of my non-Christian family continue to describe my job as useless. There seem to be challenges and discouragements at every turn. I do sometimes wonder how life could be more stable and secure if I had stayed on as a corporate lawyer. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be, humanly speaking!

But these wobbly moments are steadied in the face of the glorious truth that I am already forgiven, and headed for a better, brighter, eternal future with my savior. If the Bible is true (and I encourage you to test its veracity), then the frankly infrequent difficulties of being a Christian are but a blip on God’s eternal timeline.

The words of Paul are comforting: For I consider that the sufferings (if you could even call them that!) of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV; parenthesis mine)

So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. And in the best way possible. When Paul writes that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth, he really means it. Forgiveness assured, relationship with God secured, and an eternal happiness to look forward to. And all because of salvation through trust in Jesus.

Can I ask: will you consider putting your trust in Jesus this Christmas?

 

Editor’s Note: This is the last article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here.

Paul Wong: Hotshot Lawyer to Devoted Campus Pastor

Featured Photo By Ian Tan
Written By Janice Tai, Singapore

As the son of one of Singapore’s top legal minds, Paul Wong seemed to be headed in a similar direction.

After studying law at Cambridge University, Paul landed a job in a prestigious law firm in London. The firm—Linklaters—was considered part of the “Magic Circle”, a term for the top five law firms in the United Kingdom.

As a corporate lawyer, he helped FTSE 100 companies—or the 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange with the highest market value—raise billions of dollars by drafting documents to help them sell their shares.

But at the prime age of 30, Paul decided to give it all up and walk in his heavenly Father’s footsteps.

Not that he ever thought he could or wanted to fill his earthly father’s shoes. Paul’s father, Lucien Wong, was recently appointed as Singapore’s Attorney-General in November 2016. Before that, the elder Mr Wong headed one of Singapore’s largest law firms—Allen & Gledhill—as its chairman and senior partner.

Paul’s legal career in Britain also seemed to hold much promise. When he quit his job two years ago, he was drawing an annual six-figure salary. A run for partnership was also possible if he stuck it out for the next two to five years.

Instead, he resigned and went for training to be a Bible teacher and preacher. At the end of August 2016, he returned to Singapore to become the campus pastor of the Singapore Management University (SMU) with the Christian Fellowship group.

From a gigantic law firm that employed some 2,000 lawyers, Paul moved to a workplace that had only one full-time paid staff—Paul—and an intern.

So why did he make such a huge career switch?

Paul-Wong-(4)

Photo By Ian Tan

 

Hitting rock bottom

Ask the 33-year-old if full-time ministry was ever on his radar, and his quick answer would be: Never.
As a teen, he had his fair share of rebelliousness. He skipped classes at Raffles Junior College a few times a week to play pool at Lucky Plaza or catch a movie in town.

Yet he made sure to tick all the obligatory boxes as a Christian. He attended Wesley Methodist church every Sunday and played guitar in its youth ministry. And when he was in London, he went to a local church that was a half-hour drive from where he lived and worked.

“Church was just a Sunday morning affair for me and had little impact on my life, decisions, and worldview,” says Paul. “When it came to church commitments versus work, work always won.”

Then, he was pulling very long hours at work. He was in office six days a week; it was considered a good day if he could leave the office before midnight for a full night’s sleep. On one occasion, he pulled all-nighters two nights in a row and did not leave his office for three days in order to meet a deadline.

“My thinking was, if God put you in a university or law firm, then the most God-glorifying thing you can do is to be the best student or the best lawyer. But I have grown to realize that this is a mistaken idea,” says Paul.

According to him, his spiritual walk hit “rock bottom” when he stopped living and thinking like a Christian altogether.

 

The awakening

On one particular Sunday in 2011, Paul was feeling the inertia of having to go to church. He was already in his office, and was reluctant to leave and return to office to finish up his work. His colleague suggested going to another church that was just five minutes’ drive away.

He went and was impressed by what he saw and heard. “I had heard many good sermons in the past but it was always one ear in, one ear out. But there I saw the Word being preached boldly and for corrective purposes, and people living those values out. It was God’s Spirit working through his Word that changed everything,” says Paul.

He started to attend this church regularly and also joined a Bible study group. The group was then studying the book of Mark for one year. It turned out to be a humbling experience for Paul.

“I thought to myself, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels in the Bible and I have already read it at least 10 times. Why do we need one year to study it?” he says. “But in the process, I found out that I really didn’t know how to read the Bible at all. It was a very humbling experience. What was modeled to me as a child was that it was okay to treat the Bible as a magic book where I ripped things out of context when ironically, as a lawyer, I knew that was the worst way to read things.

At one session, the group was reading Mark 8, in which Jesus told the crowd that whoever wanted to be His disciple needed to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow Him. “I realized that I called myself a Christian but I was still living for myself. It got me thinking about what it meant to follow God, and I realized that I hadn’t understood discipleship at all,” says Paul.

With that epiphany came drastic changes in the way Paul spent his time. He began to serve in a lunchtime ministry at Linklaters and hold one-on-one Bible study sessions for people from his office and church. To make time for these activities, he cut back his working time by at least seven hours a week. With his billable hours going at a high rate, the move costed his firm a hefty sum—and probably his career prospects.

“I had an understanding boss and I felt I no longer needed to be the best lawyer—I wanted to be the most faithful lawyer. All I had to do was to work hard and with integrity and to make God known to people around me,” says Paul.

The sudden change in his priorities shocked his mum, who thought he had joined a cult. She wanted him to focus more on his legal career.

“I could have fallen away from faith in those years but God turned my sin into good,” reflects Paul. He married his now-wife Angela three years ago and they have a one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

 

The new life

Angela’s support was instrumental in the next turning point of Paul’s life.

As Paul started to teach the Bible more frequently, Paul’s church leaders began urging him to consider entering full-time ministry in 2013. He discussed it with them, talked it over with Angela, and prayed.

Paul did not have a supernatural “calling” from God in the form of dreams or impressions. “Some people experience that but I don’t think one needs a special calling into vocation. The only call made in the Bible is to respond to Jesus. Since I am told I have the gift of teaching and that I should use it, I decided to obey and consider using that for God,” he says.

Besides, he thought, continuing work as a lawyer would mean limited time to use his gift of teaching. The impact of his work could be multiplied, he reasoned, if he became a teacher who equipped other students or office workers instead.

So he took the plunge in 2014, signing up for a two-year full-time ministry training course before joining SMU’s Christian Fellowship in 2016. The group has about 90 undergraduates. Paul preaches when they meet every Tuesday, and also trains student leaders to run Bible study groups on campus. “It is a joy to see their hunger for God and to guide them at a time when they are forming their identities and ideas about the world,” he says.

Paul-Wong-(3)

Photo By Ian Tan

He still works six days a week because he prefers preparing sermons on Sundays, but says the nature of the stress that he faces now is more meaningful—instead of chasing deadlines, he now worries about people and their spiritual growth.

“The most difficult part in going full-time is not the decision in itself but explaining the decision to people around me,” says Paul. His wife was supportive and surprisingly, so was his dad, who told him to do whatever he thought was right.

Interestingly, his mother—a lay leader in church who had brought Paul up as a Christian after his parents separated—was the one with the strongest objections. She felt that he ought not to waste his “good degree” or “bright future”, but work longer to build up a retirement nest egg. But she has since come round to the idea and is now fully supportive of his ministry.

Indeed, Paul had to cut back on his spending while he was undergoing training, as he was not earning anything during that time. That meant not taking taxis or eating out at restaurants. Now, he earns a stipend that is pegged to the median pay of a teacher. His wife looks after their daughter as a stay-at-home mother.

Paul Wong 2

Photo By Paul Wong

The biggest sacrifice for Paul, however, was not a financial one. It was having to curtail a sense of pride or self that came with his ambition. “Despite my career and earning potential, the status or position I occupy is dramatically different from my peers. But I would not trade what I am doing now for anything in the world,” says Paul.

His favorite verses in the Bible are from Isaiah 25, which paints a picture of the eternal future and hope to come. The verses in this chapter motivate him in his long-term goal of laying up eternal rewards—and not earthly treasures.

“It shapes the way I view this world,” he says. “This physical world is just going to head for destruction and the only thing that is going to be left is God’s people. It shapes why I live, how I live, and why I do my job.”

 

Write to us at contribute@ymi.today if you know of someone who has made a radical choice because of his or her faith. #FORTHISREASON