Sunday 7 July 2013

Who are you, Lord? (Acts 9:1-31)

What do Christians mean when they say that Jesus is Lord?

The story is told of a group of tourists wandering through corridors of the House of Lords only to encounter Lord Neil Kinnock, dressed in ceremonial black robes and a white wig after a session at Parliament. A friend sees Neil from afar and calls out to Lord Kinnock to attract his attention. “Neil! Neil!” he cries out to him from across the hall - upon which the group of tourists promptly fall to the ground on one knee!

In the passage we looked at last Sunday from Acts Chapter 9, Saul of Tarsus falls to the ground - he falls to his knees - upon encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Saul does not recognise who it is who stands before him. Yet, curiously enough, Saul address him as Lord.

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” he replied.
Acts 9:5-6

In this passage, we learn four implications of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus is lord over our ignorance. Jesus is lord through his death on the cross. And Jesus is lord over the church.

1. Jesus is Lord over our ignorance

In Galatians, we learn that Saul “was advancing in Judaism” beyond many of his peers (Galatians 1:14), meaning, he scored top marks in all his theology exams at Cambridge. As an esteemed member of the religious party known as the Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus strictly observed the law of Moses - putting into practice all the traditions of his father into everyday life. This would have included offering up the prescribed worship and sacrifices at the temple and keeping the Sabbath laws and the Jewish food laws.

Yet for all his religious zeal and piety, Saul did not know Jesus. If anything, his religious upbringing had only served to turn Saul against Jesus. It had made him reject any notion whatsoever that Jesus could be God’s chosen king, much less, that Jesus could ever be God in the flesh.

It was only when Saul met with the risen Christ personally did he learn the truth of his ignorance and the folly of his rebellion. The encounter left Saul blind for three days, indicative of the sorry state of spiritual blindness Saul had experienced his entire life up to that point.

No amount of religious exposure can take the place of a personal encounter with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. The bible clearly teaches that the Old Testament scriptures are able to “make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Yet, Jesus says warns those who search the scriptures diligently thinking that in them have eternal life. To such diligent and able bible scholars, Jesus can say, “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

When teaching the Scriptures in our church, bible studies and Sunday schools, we must pray for our friends to meet with the Jesus of the Scriptures; to encounter the one whom Scriptures testify to. Those of us responsible for teaching the Scriptures must take special care not to “innoculate” our hearers against Christ, that is, to give them just a small taste of religion - just a small dose of spirituality - but just enough to build up their resistance against the real thing. We want our friends, we want our bible study group members and we want our Sunday School kids to know Jesus. That’s why we open up our bibles because the bible is God’s word to us speaking about who Jesus is; about what Jesus came to do.

It means that when someone does meet Jesus for the very first time, they may have more questions than answers. “Who are you, Lord?” is an excellent question to ask because it is such an honest question. It is the question of a man humbled before his Lord. It is a question the Lord Jesus himself answers is such a personal and powerful way. Jesus chose to reveal himself to Saul. It was an act of great mercy and condescension but most of all, it was an act of revelation.

In answering Saul’s question, Jesus was revealing what it meant for Saul to address him as his lord. It meant seeing Christ’s glory revealed through his suffering. It meant understanding that Jesus became Lord through his death on the cross.

2. Jesus is Lord through his death on the cross

In his first public sermon at Pentecost, the apostle Peter stood before a crowd of thousands of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem and said these words:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Acts 2:36

Peter claims that Jesus entered into his Lordship by dying on the cross. In fact, what he says to all Israel is that they crucified Jesus - they killed him by publicly executing Jesus on the cross - but God made him Lord and Christ. The two events - the crucifixion and the coronation, as it were - are not independent of one another. God planned for both to coincide on the cross. Jesus was rejected. Jesus was raised.

When Saul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, he encounters his Lord in magnificent glory and awesome power as light from heaven envelopes him and even blinds him. Saul has no choice but to fall to the ground in submission before Jesus’ majestic presence. This is the risen Christ who stands in the presence of God the Father, descending from heaven to meet personally with a mere mortal, this persecutor of Christians, this destroyer of the church (Acts 8:3) named Saul.

And yet, how does Jesus introduce himself to Saul?

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Acts 9:4

Jesus speaks to Saul, calling him by name. He knows Saul. Jesus has seen all that Saul has done and tried to do. He knows of Saul’s deep hatred of Christians (Acts (9:1). He knows Saul was there when the mob killed Stephen in cold blood (Acts 8:1). Jesus knows of Saul’s master plan to round up all the Christians in Damascus and transport them back to Jerusalem to face punishment and perhaps even, death (Acts 8:2).

But Jesus does not say to Saul, “Why are you destroying my church?” “Why do you hate Christians so much?” No. What Jesus says to him is, “Why do you persecute me?”

Such is the connection between Jesus and the church - particularly through their suffering - that Jesus can say that he is being persecuted. That, in a sense, he is being killed. That should not come as any surprise to those of us who know Jesus through his death on the cross. That’s how we first came to know him as Lord. He gave his life as the ransom for our freedom. His death was the means by which all the debt of our sin was fully paid. And the bible tells us that Christians become united with Jesus through the cross, as if to say, when Jesus died, I died. When Jesus was raised, I was raised. We are united to him - joined to him - through his death and resurrection on the cross.

What is so striking about this passage is that it reveals how Jesus is united with us in our suffering. As the church is persecuted, so Jesus is being persecuted. As we are rejected by the world, it is but an extension of the world’s rejection of Jesus as Lord.

To be clear, Jesus’ death on the cross was a once-for-all event in history. “Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26)

And yet, Saul (who was later, better known as Paul) can write to the Colossian Christians, saying, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) Our suffering does not pay for the sins of the world the way Christ’s did. But what our suffering does is display the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross. His suffering means my suffering is not wasted. His suffering means my suffering is not because I’m being punished, even though I know deserve to be punished for my sins, but that he has taken all my punishment upon himself once for all on the cross. His suffering means I can suffer - and I will suffer in this lifetime - but continue to boast in the midst of my suffering, knowing that it produces perseverance, character and hope, being reassured of God’s love for me every step of the way (Romans 5:1-5)

On the road to Damascus, Jesus reveals himself to Saul the persecutor as the Lord who is persecuted. And later on, Jesus says of Saul, “I will show him how much he (meaning Saul) must suffer for my name.” Anyone reading this would be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was punishing Saul for his past deeds - “He must suffer,” Jesus says. But unless we forget, Jesus reveals the reason for Saul’s suffering. It is for his name. Saul would become Jesus’ chief messenger of the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul would proclaim Jesus as Lord to the nations; as Lord over the nations. But with that privilege of proclaiming salvation in Jesus’ name comes the privilege of suffering for that name.

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,” Paul writes to the Philippians (Philippians 1:29), understanding how the core of our witness to Christ is our witness to Christ’s suffering on the cross, and the core to our witness to his suffering is our suffering for his namesake.

3. Jesus is Lord over the church

But finally, we see that Jesus is Lord over the church. For the focus is not solely, or I would argue, even primarily on Saul of Tarsus, despite the personal encounter and vision he has of the risen Christ.

The immediate next section (verse 10 onwards) focuses on Ananias, to whom the Lord also appears, to whom Jesus also speaks and gives specific instructions, this time to Ananias to go to Saul in order to heal him of his blindness and welcome Saul as a brother into the church.

And while Saul is featured again (verse 20 onwards) preaching and teaching in the synagogues at Damascus, escaping an assassination attempt at the city gates, then going down to Jerusalem, where he is viewed with suspicion but thanks to Barnabas, is eventually introduced to the apostles and gains the trust of the believers there, only to have the assassination attempt made on his life, this time by the Grecian Jews - while Saul is clearly the the focus of Acts here, notice that Saul quickly fades into the background again. By verse 30, Saul is shipped out of Jerusalem, back to his hometown in Tarsus, never to be heard of again till Chapter 11.

Why? Because, Acts wants to bring our focus back to the church.

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

The account of the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem beginning with Saul attacking the church in Acts 8 ends with peace, blessing and growth. Despite the difficult circumstances, God actually uses the persecution of Christians to spread the gospel across the country, such that the church expands to include the whole nation of Israel (Judea, Galilee and Samaria). God does this, not so much by punishing Saul, the person chiefly responsible for the outbreak of trouble, but by showing him mercy. Jesus reveals himself to Saul, graciously giving him of his Spirit (Acts 9:17) and commissioning him as his apostle to the nations (Acts 9:15).

It isn’t only to Saul that Jesus reveals himself as Lord, but also to his church, which enjoys a time of peace, which is strengthened, which is encouraged by the Holy Spirit, which increases in numbers. What a wonderful reminder of the sovereignty of Christ. Jesus has received all authority in heaven and earth from his Father and he is in fully control of the situation, using even the persecution of Saul to bring blessing and peace to his people.

Yet that isn’t all that verse 31 says was a result of Christ’s lordship. You see, it also says that the church lived in fear of the Lord. Did you notice that? There was a deep awareness amongst the believers of what it meant to call Jesus Lord, of what his Lordship is meant to look like here in the church. It is seen in our growing submission to his authority. It is seen in the spread of the gospel.

Jesus said to his followers in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I think there was a fresh understanding of these words then in the church as they saw Jesus carrying out his mission to the nations through their obedience and disobedience, through their growth and decline, through men like Saul and through martyrs like Stephen. Jesus was demonstrating his Lordship through the building of his church, which is his body. Jesus was demonstrating the unstoppable power of the gospel going out to the nations and establishing his kingdom here on earth.

One day, all creation will see him again and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess him as Lord (Phil 2:10). But you see, Acts 9:31 gives us a glimpse of that reality today. It is seen right now, right here in the church, as men and women live under the Lordship of Christ, empowered by His Spirit, and they are sent out to proclaim salvation in Jesus’ name.

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