I originally had planned to discuss a different topic today, but a few days ago I was reading the story of Saul's conversion in the book of Acts in the New Testament and came across a verse that stopped me in my tracks. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes I have read a verse hundreds or thousands of times, but one day it really hits me and I see it in a way that I had not seen it before, and that is how this verse hit me when I read it and I read if over and over and said, "Wow, that is intense." I will get to the verse in a minute, but it was something the Lord said to Ananias about Saul and not anything the Lord said to Saul directly, and I am not even sure if this tidbit was passed on to Saul because the Bible doesn't say. Also, if any of you are wondering, I am reading from the NIV or New International Version.
A little background on Saul, the man known throughout most of the New Testament as Paul. Since Saul was both Jewish and Roman he was given dual names, and since he was extremely proud of his Jewish heritage it made sense to go by his Hebrew name of Saul, but when he started preaching to the gentiles it also made sense to switch to his Roman name, Paul. In one of his discourses after conversion, Paul says that when he was advanced in Judaism well beyond most of those of his age and that he was extremely zealous in his duties to the Jewish culture.
As a result of his zealous nature, Saul was one of the more prominent persecutors of the Christians and he authorized the stoning of Stephen, now I user authorize lightly as he had no legal right to authorize capital punishment as only the Roman government had that power. Some historians point out the fact that when Stephen was stoned it was toward the end of Pontius PIlot's reign, not long before he was recalled, and he had already lost all respect from his subjects and lost most of his favor with Rome. Pilot was called back to Rome after he was accused of putting men to death without a trial and he was charged with being cruel and oppressive to his subjects. Not long after returning to Rome he killed himself, on orders from Emperor Caligula.
The reason I mentioned all of that is because in other places in the New Testament we read that only the Roman government had the authority to order summary justice and that is why when the Jews would flog someone they would stop at 39 lashes because they believed 40 lashes would kill a person. They were basically saying, "We almost killed you this time, so don't make us mad again." Apparently Rome didn't care about their subjects beating each other to the brink of death, but death itself was something only an official of Rome could decide.
When Saul approved of the murder of Stephen he was putting the stamp of approval of the Jewish leadership on it, like that symbol you see on food in the grocery store telling you that it is kosher, which in no way made it legal but did make it acceptable to anyone who followed the Jewish leaders of the time. It was acceptable but not legal, and since there was so much unrest that Rome had to deal with they could slip a few murders under the radar.
Saul was a man on a mission, and his mission was to destroy the works of Jesus, destroy all he taught and to ensure His message would never be taught again, and he was well on his way to doing so, or at least he thought he was. I am sure you have heard the saying, "Jesus finds me where you are," and it is 100% true. Jesus found Saul where he was, and Saul didn't just disbelieve in Jesus, he was a self proclaimed enemy to Jesus and all that He stood for.
Jesus could have just let Saul fall in a hole to die and everyone would have forgotten about him but He had other plans for Saul. We may think otherwise, but there have been times in each and every one of our lives when we have been every bit the enemy of God that Saul was even if, like Saul, we thought we did God a service. While we were still enemies to God, not after we turned our lives around, while we were actively engaged in sin and in opposition to God, Jesus died for us. Hallelujah!
Saul did not deserve forgiveness, he didn't deserve grace, he didn't deserve a second chance and he wasn't in any way worthy of Christ condescending to meet him in his wretched state, and he most certainly wasn't worthy of the death Christ died for him and for all. God meets us where we are and lifts us to a better place and forgives us our sins, not because we deserve it or because we somehow earned it but because He wants to give us this free gift out of love.
When Jesus met Saul where he was, on the road to Damascus to persecute the Christians, He asked him why he was persecuting Him. It must have been a great surprise to Saul for Christ to appear because he thought he was dead for good and probably thought the resurrection was just a story made up by the believers of Jesus instead of something that actually happened. Have you ever been so sure of something that you were doing in your life that you had no doubt you were right, only to discover that not only were you wrong but dangerously so? What a humbling experience. I would like to say I haven't been there, but that wouldn't be the truth. That was where Saul was in his life, going a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction. Up to that point in his life, Saul had likely never been more sure of anything than he was that he was supposed to end the Christian heresy, as he saw it.
No matter what road you are on or how far you have gone down that road, Jesus can meet you. You may say, "Yes, but you don't know what I have done," and that is true, I don't know and I don't need to know. Regardless of what you have done it is highly unlikely that you are as far gone as Saul was when he was on the road to Damascus to persecute, harass and even murder Christians, and even if you are where Saul was, or worse, Jesus can meat you. To say Jesus can forgive one amount of sin but another amount is more than He can or will handle is ludicrous. If God has the power to speak the universe into existence than He can surely forgive your sin, if you let Him. God won't take anything you don't freely give Him.
The reason Jesus met Saul out on the road wasn't because he started changing the course of his life and was now just good enough for Jesus, quite the opposite. Jesus came to Saul in his most rebellious and sinful state and that is what got him to change his life. Don't think you need to get better or stop a specific sin before you can approach God and before He will save you, that is what the devil wants you to think. You can and should approach God just where you are and how you are, the sooner the better, and Jesus will meet you there, but He won't leave you there.
Saul was on his way to Damascus with the intent of persecuting, and murdering if necessary, the Christians of that town. Jesus met Saul on the road and asked him boldly why he was persecuting Him. Don't worry, I am getting to the verse that stopped me in my tracks, I promise. I am going to go through chapter 9 from the book of Acts, stopping periodically for comment.
'Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.'
The way is what the gospel of Jesus Christ was called shortly after His death and resurrection to reference when Jesus said He was the way, and I would add, the only way. So, we see that Saul was headed to Damascus with murderous intentions, despite the fact that it was against Roman rule and he could be put to death for his defiance, but it was that important. Saul also intended to arrest any person who continued to preach the words of Jesus.
'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. 'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'
'The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.'
I often wonder if the men who were with Saul were converted as well, though the Bible narrative never tells us what happened to these men, and as far as I can tell, never mentions them again. For their sakes, I hope they were also converted.
'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.'
'Lord,” Ananias answered, 'I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.'
Ananias was understandably scared and a bit reluctant go to Saul because he knew what type of man he was, what he had done to other Christians, such as Stephen, and what he intended to do to the rest of the Christians. Jesus knew Saul's future and was looking at it not his past, but Ananias could only see what Saul was, not what he was to become. That is a problem a lot of us have event today; we judge others based on what they have done in the past instead of looking at them with the kindness and compassion Jesus looks at us with.
'But the Lord said to Ananias, 'Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.'
And that is the verse that inspired this episode, the verse that caused me to think about it for several days straight. "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." Wow, that is heavy. It is interesting that Ananias knew what God had planned for Saul before Saul knew it. I wonder if Jesus told Saul at some point after his conversion that he was going to suffer greatly for the sake of the gospel, because that doesn't seam like a good sales pitch to me. it was basically, "give up everything that is important to you, and oh yea, you are also going to suffer greatly. Welcome to the team."
I have to wonder if Ananias told Saul his entire conversation with God, or if he left something out, like the part about the suffering perhaps. I think I would have left it our unless I was told to say it. I would let Saul figure it out for himself, especially since He was new to Christianity from being one of its biggest opposers. Even without being told though, Saul had to know that his life had changed forever and many, of not all, of those who once looked up to him would now look at him as a traitor. Paul must have know that his new life would come with suffering, but I doubt he had any idea just how much he would be in store for. The story continues.
'Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.' Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
'Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.'
You notice that Paul didn't waste any time before preaching the word and repairing some of the damage his previous actions had done. It says that at once he began to preach. Saul's preaching turned a few heads as well.
'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?' Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
'After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch 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.
'When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.'
You can't blame the disciples and apostles for not initially trusting Saul after him going out of his way earlier to try and kill them and destroy everything they stood for. From the Biblical narrative It doesn't sound like the other apostles ever completely trusted Saul, and sometimes I think they were a little jealous of his success since he was not only a former enemy but a johnny come lately to their cause. I often think of Paul as a galvanized Christian, and since I have never said that phrase to a single person who immediately knew what I was talking about I will explain.
During the American civil war when Confederate soldiers were captured by the Union they were often times given an alternative to prison, which was to swear loyalty to the Union and join the Union army. When Confederate soldiers chose to join the Union army to avoid prison they were called 'galvanized yankees' and instead of forcing them to continue with the war and fight their own family and friends in the south they were sent to keep the peace in Indian territory. Another reason for assigning them somewhere other than the war was to keep them from continuing to fight for the south once they were in a battle. Saul was, in my opinion, a galvanized Christian because when he joined the cause instead of being sent to preach among the Jews he spent most of his life preaching to the gentiles. OK, now that you know know what a galvanized Christian is I will return to Acts.
'So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
'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.'
OK, so I didn't read the entire chapter; I stopped at verse 31 because past that it goes on to talk about Peter, and while his work was important, it has nothing to do with the subject of this episode. Also, in case anyone wonders, the Hellenistic Jews were those who spoke greek and adopted or embraced the greek culture.
Let's go back to verse sixteen for a minute. 'I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.' That would have to be a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that it was only in and through the grace of God that you are saved but that you will suffer greatly for the sake of Jesus.
A lot of people now days are only into Jesus so long as they are getting something out of it but will jump ship at the first sign of inconvenience or discomfort. I call those people the "donuts and coffee crowd" for reasons that should be obvious, but just in case, many churches offer free donuts and coffee and that is why people show up, not for the message and not for the people. I have known people who will turn around and walk out if the sanctuary is more than half full.
Paul the apostle was not of that mindset at all and he never gave up when things got difficult, and in fact, things were difficult right out of the gate for him. In the book of 2 Corinthians 11: 23-29 Paul talks of some of his trials.
'I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.'
I think, had God actually told Paul immediately upon his conversion that he would suffer greatly for the sake of the gospel that Saul would have still jumped in feet first. Some of other apostles rejoiced and said they felt blessed to be considered worthy to suffer shame for Christ's sake. There have been times I have been treated poorly because I was a Christian, but have never had to worry about my physical safety as a result, and I am pretty sure I have never rejoiced that I suffered for Christ's name sake, which is just another indication of how much I actually need Christ in my life.
I hope that I never have to suffer greatly for Christ's sake, but I pray that if I ever am that I will have the strength and the attitude to praise God through it. With all Jesus has done for me I need to share His word with as many people as I can so that some of them may have the hope and peace that I have as a gift from God. I pray often that through this podcast that I may be an instrument in God's hand and that lives may be touched as a result.
I will end with a short story I read somewhere years ago about a blacksmith who became Christian and his life basically fell apart and he lost both his wife and his daughter to illness. Of course the blacksmith's friends noticed that after becoming Christian his life became more difficult instead of less difficult and asked him about it one day while visiting his shop.
"Why do you continue to serve God when He let all those horrible things happen to you?" the friend asked.
The blacksmith asked his friend if he had ever observed how he treated the metal when he was making horseshoes and other items, and of course the friend had paid little attention.
"I take a piece of metal, heat it up until it is glowing red and pound on it with my hammer, plunge it into water, than heat it up again and pound on it some more, over and over until it is the shape I need it to be," the blacksmith said, than put his hand on the friends shoulder and with the other hand pointed to a pile of scrap metal in the corner. "Do you see that pile of scrap?"
The friend nodded his acknowledgement.
"Sometimes I get a piece of metal that can't handle that sort of treatment and I can't use it for anything. I throw those pieces into that pile. I just hope that I can handle what God puts me through so I can fulfill the purpose He has in mind for me and not wind up getting thrown into the scrap heap."
Thanks for listening. Next weeks episode I will discuss some of the reasons why it is important to have a church family and not just worship at home like a lot of people at least claim they do.