Sunday 30 June 2013

Saul (Acts 9:1-31)

Three things I want us to see from today’s passage: (1) How Saul is chosen, (2) How the church is strengthened and (3) That Jesus is Lord. And what I want us to see is a connection between the three. Saul is chosen in order that the church is strengthened, in order to remind us that Jesus is Lord.

1. Saul is chosen

Firstly, Saul is chosen. He is introduced to us in verse 1 as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. This is a guy who is really angry. Every breath that comes out of his nostrils, he is saying, “I hate those guys. I can’t stand those guys.” (Ever met someone like that? I hope not!) Saul was someone who obsessed with hatred; obsessed with revenge.

You see, back in the beginning of Chapter 8, Saul was responsible for “destroying the church”. That’s actually what it says in Chapter 8, verse 3, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” As a result, people moved away from Jerusalem – it was too dangerous to stay here or to meet as the church – so they left the city and they moved out of Jerusalem. In a sense, Saul succeeded in “destroying” the church.

But it didn’t work. That’s why Saul is so angry here in Chapter 9. The Christians who were forced out of Jerusalem ended up telling other people about Jesus and as a result, more people got saved and more churches were planted.

So by the time we get to Chapter 9, Saul is angry. He is frustrated. And he decides that what he needs to do is go out and catch all these Christians and bring them back home to be punished. “He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus,” – that’s way up north from Jerusalem, about 200km – “so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” So, that’s the plan. Go up north to Damascus. Find the Christians who are hiding in the city and in the synagogues, that is, amongst the other Jews in the city. Bring them back. Why? Because Saul doesn’t want these Christians “infecting” the other Jews. He doesn’t want more people believing in this guy called Jesus because as far as Saul is concerned, he’s a fake: Jesus didn’t die for our sins. And to say that he did, well, that’s blasphemy! That’s why Saul hated Christians so much. Christianity was a perversion of Saul’s Jewish religion. It was a cult that turned good, religious Jews away from the true God of the bible to worship a man on the cross!

We need to understand that from Saul’s perspective, Saul thought he was doing a God a favour by destroying the church; by killing Christians, which by the way, he did in the case of Stephen’s death back in Acts 7. And it was because Saul was so convinced that Jesus could not be – he could not possibly be – the Messiah. Jesus could not possibly be God.

Until, that is, Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
Acts 9:3-5

The last person Saul expected to meet on that road that day was Jesus. He fell to the ground and said, “Who are you, Lord?” The response he heard was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” How those words would have shocked him – “What? Jesus? Alive?” How those words would have wounded him. “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” I am the one you are trying to kill.

Verse 7 tells us the men travelling with Paul didn’t see anything. This vision was just for Paul. And when he got up from the ground, in says in verse 9, “when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.” He was struck with blindness.

Imagine if the story ended here. A whole lot of people would be going, “Yes!” wouldn’t they? “That evil man finally got what was coming to him.” Saul is struck blind. He is helpless and he is humbled.
If the story ended here, why, it would make perfect sense. The bad guy gets punished. The Christians are safe all thanks to Jesus.

But Saul is not chosen in order to face judgement. He is chosen in order to be saved. And as we’ll see next, he is chosen to strengthen the church. That’s our second point.

2. The church is strengthened

In the second half of the story, we meet another guy, Ananias, who also talks to Jesus, who also receives a vision from Jesus. You see, there is a second half to the story and it’s actually our story as the church. Because what Jesus tells Ananias to do is welcome Saul into the church. What Jesus tells Ananias to do is welcome Saul into the family. Look at what Jesus says to him in verse 10.

In Damascus, there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Acts 9:10-12

Essentially Ananias responds by saying, “Are you sure you want me to do this?” Ananias (very respectfully) reminds Jesus, his Lord, that Saul is not one of the good guys. If Ananias heals him, Saul is just going to cause more trouble for Ananias and the other Christians living in Damascus.

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Acts 9:15-16

You need to think about this: Why does Jesus send Ananias to heal Saul? If Jesus was going to heal Saul anyways, why make him blind in the first place?

I want us to see that the second half of this story is there for our benefit. Jesus wants us to understand that despite all the evil that Saul has done in his life, Jesus has forgiven him. Despite all the harm Saul has done to other Christians, Jesus chosen him to be saved; to become a Christian.

Ananias got that. He goes to the house on Straight Street, just as Jesus told him to. He places his hands on Saul, just as Jesus told him to. But listen to what he calls him as Ananias places his hands on Saul. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus… has sent me so that you may see again.” Saul is no longer his enemy but his brother in Christ. Ananias understood the reason why Jesus sent him to Saul: to welcome Saul into God’s family.
Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is enabled to see again – something like scales falls of his eyes – and he is baptised. Meaning, the point of Ananias’ visit again was not simply to heal him physically – that’s verse 20 where Saul eats some food and gets better physically, like when you are recovering from the flu. No, Ananias was there as part of God’s plan to heal Saul spiritually. The giving of the Spirit symbolising new life. The scales falling from his eyes symbolising the removal of his spiritual blindness. What was happening was: Saul became a Christian that day.

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, I want to say that this is what makes Christianity a supernatural faith, by which, I don’t mean that it’s magic. No, what I mean by supernatural is that only Jesus can make you a Christian. No amount of sincerity, no amount of church attendance, no amount of bible reading can turn you into a Christian. It might turn you into a religious man like Saul but it won’t turn you into a Christian.

No, being a Christian is something that Jesus does through his work on the cross. He forgives us of our rebellion. He takes our punishment for sin upon himself and exchanges it for his righteousness. And often times, your Christian friends will tell you how Jesus did this for us when we were still rebelling against him, when we still didn’t want anything to do with him. He came to us and he removed our spiritual blindness so that we could recognise him for who he really is: our Lord, our Saviour and our God.

3. Jesus is Lord

That brings us to our final point today: Jesus is Lord. The question is: How do we see the lordship of Jesus Christ? In your own personal, day-to-day life: How would the lordship of Jesus Christ be seen, if someone were to follow you around and record the events in your daily life?

Would it be seen in your successes? You got a first. You got that job. You’re getting married. Jesus is Lord. Would it be seen in blessing over your family, your health, your church?

Saul the persecutor has just become a Christian and I want us to see: How is this evident from his life now that he has become a Christian?

In verse 19, he immediately begins to tell people about Jesus. “At once,” it says, “he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Now remember the plan. The original plan Saul had was to come to Damascus, round up all the Christians, bring them back to Jerusalem. Verse 21, “All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’”

But instead of arresting all the Christians, what does Saul do? He goes to the synagogues where all the Jews are gathered - and remember he has all these letters of approval from the chief priests in Jerusalem, so they are all welcoming him as their honoured guest and inviting him to speak to the whole gathering as their important guest speaker – and what does Saul say? “Jesus really is the Son of God!” Saul was supposed to get rid of the Christian heresy. Instead he is now telling Jews to follow Christ.

Is it any wonder then why they tried to kill him?

After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
Acts 9:23-25

It is possible to read this story as if Paul was some kind of hero, as if this was Die Hard, and Paul is Bruce Willis evading the terrorists out to assassinate him. “How cool and exciting his life was as an evangelist,” we think. Some of us, guys especially, think that it’s a manly thing to preach the gospel and in the process, try to offend as many people as possible, thinking that that’s what it means to be an evangelist.

The truth is, when Paul recounts this episode in 2 Corinthians 11, he refers to it as one of the most embarrassing and humbling events in his entire life. He says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (and he goes on to tell about the time he was lowered in a basket in a wall). It’s not fun to have a load of people hate your guts and want to kill you, especially when they are supposed to be your brothers, especially when your intention is to tell them about Jesus. It’s actually quite painful and humbling to be hated that much. But then you remember, don’t you, the words Jesus said to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”? Saul the persecutor has become the persecuted and this is part and parcel of his mission to as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

The same thing happens in Jerusalem. In verse 26, he goes to Jerusalem. Everyone’s afraid of him, thinking it’s some kind of trick. But Barnabas sticks his neck out and brings Saul to meet with the apostles. He puts his reputation on the line and says to them, “Saul is the real thing. Jesus appeared to him. Jesus saved him. He is a follower of Christ and we should not treat him like our enemy but welcome him in as our brother.”

We will look at Barnabas again in a few weeks, in Acts 11, but for now, I wonder how many of us are willing to be a Barnabas or an Ananias here in the Chinese Church? When you welcome someone new here in the Chinese Church, you have that opportunity – and  it’s a real opportunity – either to welcome that person or to ignore them completely. By all means, introduce yourself but why not invite to hang out with you and your friends after church today? All of us remember coming for the first time to church, how awkward it can be, how scary, maybe, it can be, and some of us remember how good it was when we met a Barnabas or an Ananias, who called us, “Bro,” or “Sis,” and welcomed us and made us feel part of the family.

That was Paul’s situation with the Christians in Jerusalem. With the Jews, however, the same thing happened as in Damascus: They tried to kill him. Verse 29, “He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him.” Notice, it wasn’t a personality thing. It was because Paul was proving from their own Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. That’s what it says in verse 22, “He baffled them,” meaning it was right in front of their eyes in the bible; they couldn’t deny it. Same here in verse 29, where he talked and debated with them. The reason they wanted to kill him was to shut him up. They didn’t want someone like Paul walking around using the bible as evidence for Jesus as God. As a result, verse 30, the Christians shipped Paul off to Tarsus, his hometown, far away from the death threats.

Now, look with me to the way the whole account ends in verse 31.  We have been focusing on Paul, but the story actually ends with the church. There is a connection there between the two. And here is the summary statement:

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living the fear of the Lord.
Acts 9:31

Literally, it reads, “Therefore, indeed, the church… enjoyed peace… it was strengthened (or built up).” That is a huge conclusion to an episode that began with persecution in Chapter 8, with the death of Stephen, the destruction of the church in Jerusalem, the scattering of the Christians away from their homes, away from their church. This is a conclusion that says: Here is the turning point to all that suffering that resulted in peace.

What was that turning point? Saul of Tarsus becoming a Christian. Friends, when you think of persecution amongst Christians in the world today, what do you pray for? For justice to be done? For protection of the weak? For God to hear the cries of the innocent and come down and do something to show the nations who he is?

Friends, God does all that here in Acts 9 – he rights the wrongs, he protects the innocent – but don’t you see? He did all that through Saul of Tarsus, through his conversion and through his commission. He did it not simply to show that he is God, that he is powerful and just. He did it to show us that Jesus is, indeed, Lord.
Look back to what Saul said when he met Jesus on that road to Damascus.

He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

It’s an amazing response: Who are you, Lord? Saul doesn’t know who he is talking to. And yet, he calls him, Lord. Friends, it isn’t enough for you to know God as God. You need to know Jesus as Lord. Look at what Jesus says to Saul in verse 5.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Jesus reveals himself to Saul as the Lord of the persecuted church, or to be exact, the one whom Saul has been persecuting. What we see in Acts 9, is the lordship of Jesus Christ. To Saul, Jesus reveals his lordship over Saul’s life by calling him to suffer. That’s unexpected because it isn’t in order to punish Saul for his past sins. No, it is part of his commission to Saul to witness to the cross. Saul will speak boldly on Jesus’ behalf but as a result many of his hearers will reject his message and in the process, they will reject the messenger.

We see the lordship of Jesus in the suffering of the church. So closely does Jesus identify with the suffering church that he is able to say to Saul, “You are persecuting me.”

But finally we see the lordship of Jesus in the spread of the gospel. In verse 31, it is not simply the church in Jerusalem that is blessed, but the whole church which has now grown to include Samaria and Galilee. There is absolutely nothing that will stop Jesus in his mission to bring the message of salvation to the nations. Such is the lordship of Christ that he is able to use both our obedience and our disobedience, both situations of blessing as well as persecution, to bring about his sovereign purposes. 

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