Acts 21:37 – 22:21
We left Paul last week in Jerusalem being carried up the steps to safety by the Roman soldiers who had just rescued him from a riot in the Temple courtyard.
With incredible courage, Paul doesn’t seek the escape that would get him as quickly as possible out of the riot with literally thousands of Jews screaming “away with him!” Instead, at the foot of the stairs leading to Roman barracks and safety, Paul stops and asks the commander for permission to speak to the people who had just tried to kill him.
The commander is surprised to hear Paul speaking in the Greek language – you see, he assumed Paul was the Egyptian revolutionary they had had trouble with some time earlier. But Paul persuades him and he walks out onto the steps to speak.
Luke wants to make sure we have enough details to feel as though we are standing in the middle of the crowd listening to Paul. And of all the details, he especially emphasizes the connection that Paul immediately creates with these people who would have killed him.
He says that when Paul motioned to the crowd they became silent, but now as he begins to speak, you can hear a pin drop.
He has their attention because now he speaks in Aramaic – not just another language – their mother tongue. And it makes all the difference in the world.
You and I try to share the gospel with the people around us, and so often we meet with deaf ears. And part of the reason is that for some people we are speaking in a foreign language. No – we’re speaking in English, but we aren’t talking their language. We aren’t communicating in ways that relate to the world’s experience. It’s like we are in a different culture, and don’t have the first clue how to connect. A professor of mine in college described it by saying we’re shelling empty foxholes – we’re answering questions people aren’t asking.
Let me give you an example: We look at the world and think that the burning religious questions of the day are which version of the Bible is correct, whether instrumental music is scriptural, or whether a woman can pray out loud in the presence of a man. The religious questions the world is asking are: if God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world; how can Christianity claim to be the only way to God; hasn’t science really replaced a need for believing in God?
We aren’t talking about compromising the message, we are talking about making the message relevant. The gospel is timeless. It relates to every culture, in every language, in every generation. We are the ones who shackle it when we impose our own culture, our own time-limited traditions on the gospel and refuse to let it speak in ways that the world around us can understand and relate.
Illust – A Century at a Time
And there are hundreds, if not thousands of little congregations across this country who have dwindled from 100 members to 50 to now 20 members in their 70’s and 80’s who hold dogmatically to their small-minded, culturally bound ideas of church and gospel – fighting among themselves over minutia like dress-codes and carpet colors and versions of the Bible and style of music, giving every argument the weight of heaven and hell, and condemning everyone who doesn’t agree with their point of view. All the while they watch their younger members slip out the back door because they’re tired of watching the drama and wondering, who cares?
Paul had the ability to step between cultures – to relate the gospel to Gentile and Jew. And here in Jerusalem he draws decisively upon their shared heritage – he begins, “I am a Jew.” You may remember Acts 18:6 when Paul shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” – and while Paul’s focus of ministry changed, his heart never did. In most of Paul’s letters he returns to his roots and speaks of his regret that his own countrymen, his beloved family in the flesh have rejected the very Messiah who had come to bring them salvation.
Nor does he laud it over them in some kind of “holier-than-thou” – “I have it, you don’t” way. He describes his own obsession with destroying these Christians – Acts 22:4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
He has set the stage – assuring them of his own orthodoxy and loyalty. He has stood where they stand. In the very act of going to Damascus to seek out and bring Christians to punishment, his own life ran into a brick wall – Acts 22:6-7 About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
Three times in the book of Acts we will hear this story. Paul never tires of telling it – it is his most powerful testimony. It is as if to say, “If God can change me, he can change anyone.”
“Who are you Lord?” This is the question Paul asks – the first words out of his mouth. Until that very moment he had rejected this Christ. He himself had put Christians to death. And yet, this brilliant light and voice from above can have no other origin – “Who are you Lord?” He knew that he was in the presence of God – no doubt, no hedging, no arguments. Immediate recognition, immediate willingness to obey.
And you’re thinking, “Well, if the Lord were to speak to me… If he would come down and let me know he’s here – boy would I listen!” But would we? When you read his Word – no less authoritative than his voice on the Damascus road – do you listen intently? Do you immediately and willingly obey as though your life depended on it?
We already know that Paul spent three days in a house in Damascus, blind and waiting for… what, he doesn’t know. We also know the name of Ananias – you really have to feel for him. What if the Lord told you to go to a man you know is there to hunt you down and put you to death – and now the Lord is telling you to go find him?!? His legs must have been jelly – you think Jonah felt like running in the other direction? But Ananias went – he trusted the Lord. Just like you and I need to trust the Lord when he sends us to our neighbors and friends with the same message of forgiveness and grace.
There’s not a letter of Paul’s in which grace doesn’t figure prominently. Grace was the banner of the gospel message. But most of all, Paul could never step very far away from the fact that of all the people God had forgiven, he had forgiven him the most. Grace wasn’t just an abstract theological concept that he taught – he had experienced it personally in all of its fullness and depth.
Oh, in Philippians Paul reminds them of the things he had given up – that he left behind a lot to seek Christ first. But more often, he reflects on what God had to overcome to extend his grace to him – his persecution of the church, his own personal rejection and betrayal of his Lord lay heavy upon his conscience. And so in the 1st Corinthian letter he reflects: For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:9-10)
There are some Christians you wonder what difference grace has made in their lives – you see no change, no love, no fruit, no good news.
When you looked at Paul there was no question of what grace had accomplished – it had compelled him and propelled him – it had empowered him and freed him to live the good news. He writes, “it was not without effect.”
1 Timothy 1:13-16 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
Paul saw himself as a living object lesson – God’s greatest illustration of what he can do with a life that has been surrendered to him – “For that very reason I was shown mercy…”
That was Paul’s story – it really began long before the road to Damascus. But on the Damascus road, Jesus finally got his attention. For some people it only takes a tap on the shoulder – for others it takes a 2x4 upside the head.
What’s your story? Where was your Damascus road? When did God finally get your attention and turn your world upside down? That’s what we call “conversion.”
It may be a 12 year old girl whose heart is touched for the first time with the enormity of what Christ did for her on the cross – and she comes to confess that Jesus is Lord and be baptized.
But it may also be a 40 year old man who was baptized 28 years ago and always thought being a “good ol’ boy” was good enough (after all, what more could God want from me than to show up on Sunday mornings most of the time and throw a spare $20 in the collection plate every now and then?) And suddenly he has come face to face with the realization that Christ demands so much more – he may have been baptized, but he was never converted. And he comes to rededicate his life to put Christ first in everything.
Conversion is that moment when we realize that the only thing that really matters in life is Christ – and we are willing to do whatever it takes to be in a right relationship with him. Can you point to that moment in your life? It may not be as dramatic as Paul’s – it may simply have been the day you decided it was time to quit playing church and get serious about living for Christ.
I’m not much of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher – but the road to hell is crowded with people who are satisfied with a “minimum entrance requirement” type of Christianity. And I would hate to find myself standing before God trying to explain why I had always thought that would be good enough for him. Or to find myself in the position of a man I knew a few years ago who had come with his wife to church for years (and he was a good ol’ boy). And all of the pleadings of his wife and all of the sermons on becoming a Christian fell on deaf ears. He always intended to become a Christian, but had just never found the right time – always had some excuse for why he was putting it off – right up to the tragic moment his truck ran headlong into a semi on a 2-lane Texas highway, and all those intentions amounted to a mountain of regrets for his family – and an eternity without God. What would it take to get your attention and capture your heart this morning?
When will the Lord finally have the opportunity to take your sinful life and pour out his grace upon you? Will today be the day when you finally hear the words, “And now, why do you wait? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” and do something about it?
Posted on Sun, February 27, 2011
by John Roberts