In Acts 9, Luke narrates the account of Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:1-8). God then sent Ananias to Paul (Acts 9:9-17). After Ananias spoke with Paul, he regained his sight, was baptized, ate some food, and began spending time with the believers in Damascus (Acts 9:18-19). So, what did Paul do immediately after his conversion? This is what Luke says:
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20 ESV)
So, according to Luke, Paul immediately began proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul did not spend several years alone with God preparing for “ministry” before he began proclaiming the gospel and serving people.
But, in some circles, especially around the seminary, this is exactly what is assumed. Where does this come from? Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:15-18 ESV)
In this passage, Paul is claiming that God had called him as an apostle, and that he accepted that role without consulting anyone else. God told him to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles, and Paul accepted it as coming from God himself.
Paul says that he did not go to Jerusalem to talk with the other apostles immediately after his conversion. Instead, he left Damascus for Arabia, then returned to Damascus. Three years after his conversion, Paul finally went to Jerusalem and met with Peter.
But, somehow, Paul’s narration of events following his conversion have turned into a three year stint in the Arabian desert where God taught Paul and prepared him for “ministry.” I’ve heard Paul’s three years in the Arabian desert as justification for people spending three years (or more) in Bible college or seminary during which time they can focus all of their energy and resources on study. Why? Because this is their “season” for study and reflection just like Paul had his “season” for study and reflection in the Arabian desert.
There are several problems with this. First, we see that Paul begins proclaiming the gospel and serving people immediately after he was converted.
Second, Paul does not say that he was in the Arabian desert. Paul says that he went to Arabia, but Arabia was a large place. He could have meant only a few miles east of Damascus, or any of several cities with large Jewish populations in the Arabian peninsula.
Third, Paul does not say that he spent three years in Arabia. Paul says that he went from Damascus, to Arabia, then back to Damascus. Then, three years after his conversion, Paul traveled from Damascus to Jerusalem.
Fourth, Paul does not say that he spent time “alone with God” or “studying and reflecting” during his time in Arabia. In fact, Paul does not tell us what he did while he was in Arabia. If we examine Paul’s habits, it would seem likely that wherever Paul was in Arabia, and however long he stayed there, he was proclaiming the gospel and serving people.
I don’t see any justification for substituting study and reflection to proclaiming the gospel and serving people. So, is it wrong to study or go to college? Of course not. But, we should never let school or college (or work or whatever) take the place of loving people in the name of Jesus Christ. Study can supplement our evangelism and service, but it should never take the place of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and caring for people in his name.
When Paul was converted, he immediately “came out of the blocks running.” That’s a pattern that we should follow and encourage other believers to follow – even new believers.