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God’s power for God’s purpose: God arrests Saul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 9:1-31

On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. The cross was not the end of the story, praise God. On Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then. A car remote is now available to start your car from a quarter-mile away, so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.

But much has not. We’re still afraid of death, even more so with the terror alerts which are now part of our national existence. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.

Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success (v. 1)

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” A recent business bestseller is titled, Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. Time was when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1). “Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why? Because of “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking as far as the distance from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could meet with the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a member of the Pharisees, the elite corps of Judaism, and a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian. But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now . . . I’m only asking him to help out with things.'”

And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.”

Experience the Easter encounter (vs. 2-9)

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history. It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Acts 26:13). He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon. It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding. The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (Acts 9:7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.

He knew it was God: “Who are you, Lord?” “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.” And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6).

Here is the moment of decision, the crisis of life and soul.

Commentator William Barclay: “There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul. . . . Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do.” (emphasis his).

Remember what the Italian grandmother said: “‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave . . . but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours!'” Paul would do what God wanted him to do. God would no longer be a means to his end, but his life a means to God’s. And you know the results.

What will you do with the risen Christ? Religion as a means to your end? Easter worship as a tradition to make you feel good or spiritual? Christianity to help you with your problems, to help your life succeed?

Or will you “go into the city” and do as you are told? Will you make the risen Lord the Lord of your every day? Will you meet him every morning in Bible study and prayer, to get your directions for the day? Will you serve him in witness and ministry? Will you worship him each Sunday and each day?

Will it be God for you, or you for God? The good or the great?

Serve the Easter Lord (vs. 10-31)

Obedience always comes with a price tag. And often our obedience affects others who must pay that price with us.

Oswald Chambers warns: “Stagnation in spiritual life comes when we say we will bear the whole thing ourselves. We cannot. We are so involved in the universal purposes of God that immediately we obey God, others are affected. Are we going to remain loyal in our obedience to God and go through the humiliation of refusing to be independent, or are we going to take the other line and say—I will not cost other people suffering? We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but we shall be a grief to our Lord. Whereas if we obey God, He will look after those who have been pressed into the consequences of our obedience. We have simply to obey and to leave all consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God as to what you will allow to happen if you obey Him.”

In this case, Saul’s conversion caused a believer in Damascus named Ananias to risk his life. His name in Hebrew meant “the Lord is gracious,” and here he lived up to it. With ramifications which would echo for all time.

The Lord called him to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street (perhaps the only street worthy of such a description in the entire town, as tourists to the city today can attest). Here he was to ask for Saul of Tarsus, who had seen a vision that an Ananias would place hands on him that his sight might be restored (vs. 11-12). Ananias already knew what Saul had come to Damascus to do but had remained in the city anyway, proving himself a man of unusual courage and faith. But even his character was tested by God’s request. Nonetheless, he complied. What would have happened to Christian history if he had not?

Immediately Saul began to preach in the same synagogues he had earlier planned to enlist in his persecution of Christians. But now his message shocked all who heard it: “Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 20). He “baffled” the Jews by “proving” that Jesus is the Christ” (v. 22), the first mention of the apologetic ministry which would characterize so much of his life’s work (cf. Acts 17).

Then came the first of many persecutions to follow, as the apostle escaped the city in a basket, fulfilling the warning of his Lord: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (v. 16). At the end of the ministry begun in this city, Paul would conclude, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 4:12). With no exceptions.

One more person will pay the price of Saul’s conversion in our text. When he fled Damascus for Jerusalem, the church there was afraid of him and skeptical of his conversion (v. 26). Note that these were the same apostles and believers who had stayed in the city to brave the earlier persecution which Saul and his fellow officials had begun against their movement (Acts 8:1). As with Ananias earlier, even their stalwart faith was tested by this man.

So Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) arose, the second to live up to his name for the sake of the future leader of the apostolic movement. He testified personally to Saul’s radical conversion and faithful ministry in Damascus. Given his earlier standing with the community of faith (cf. Acts 4:36-37), his testimony won the day.

So Saul continued his ministry in their city, again sharing the gospel and debating its opponents. Again his brilliance, education, and Spirit-led persuasion won the day. Again the enemy of truth threatened his life. Again he was forced to flee, this time to Caesarea and on to Tarsus. Later Barnabas would find him in his hometown and bring him back to the pages of Luke’s story (Acts 11:25-26).

In the meanwhile, the Father gave peace and rest to his people. Now they have expanded the gospel from Jerusalem to gain footholds in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and beyond. Through the man converted in this chapter, they would soon take Christ to the “ends of the earth.”

Ananias and Barnabas each faced remarkable opportunities to serve God as a means to serving themselves. Each could have stepped into Saul’s role of prominence and prevented his advancement in faith and ministry. Each could have refused God’s call for the sake of their own safety and status. Both chose the eternal great over the temporal good. All of Christendom is in their debt.

Conclusion

This is a good week to examine our motives. Why do you teach? Why do they listen? Why do I preach and write? Why do we pray, study, worship, give, and serve? Are we serving ourselves or our Lord? Are we willing to be used anywhere, for anything, at any time, no matter who knows or cares? Ore are there limits to our obedience? Someone observed, “If you want to learn if you’re a servant, see how you react when you’re treated like one.” Are we serving God, or do we want him to serve us?

NBC reporter David Bloom died in Iraq last April 6 from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 39. The next week, his colleagues paid tribute to his professional success. But there’s more to the story.

Two years earlier, Bloom came to a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and started a very real faith journey. In Iraq, he had been listening each day to Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest. That day he heard the reading from April 5, which closes, “Every human being can get through into the presence of God now because of what the Son of Man went through.”

Moments later he climbed out of his tank, took a few steps, and collapsed. His last words were this e-mail he had just composed to his wife Melanie: “Here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, but I could, frankly, care less. It’s nothing compared to my relationship with you and the girls and Jesus. I’ll tell you Mel, I am at peace.”

He went from good to great. So can we.