For one in Saul’s position, hearing those blasphemous words of the Christians that a man named Jesus was actually God become flesh – there was only one course of action: a stop had to be put to this “Way.” These followers of Jesus must be silenced or put to death. What other conclusion could a devoted Jew come to? What other course of action could he follow and remain true to God?
No need to introduce Paul – of all the apostles, perhaps of all of the biblical characters, we know more about Saul become Paul than any other.
· He had a sterling pedigree. From a very young age he was groomed to be a man of God.
· His personality we learn from his letters as a Christian. There was an intensity to his style – a single-focused, relentless zeal with which he pursued his goals. As a young Pharisee he was no less intent on accomplishing what he set out to do – For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14).
· In Acts 7, we first meet Saul standing in the midst of the crowd listening to Stephen defending himself and his faith. Listen to how he concludes his lengthy defense – “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:51-56).
· The crowd rushes upon him and stones him to death. But where is Saul? And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:1-3).
· In Acts 22:4, Paul reflects back on that dark moment – “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison.”
No one was more feared than Saul. The mention of his name sent Christians running for hiding. His presence meant their lives were in danger. I guess what is most remarkable to me is that Saul, at this point in his life, feels completely in harmony with God’s will – I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them (Acts 26:9-11).
· He is convinced that God has called him to persecute the church and put Christians to death.
· Here is a man who is shouting a resounding “YES” to God and his will. His devotion, his sincerity, his zeal are absolute.
· For several weeks we have focused our attention on men who have said “No” to God – Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Peter. They have said, “Get someone else, I’m not your man.”
· But now, Saul is a different story. He tells God, “Yes! I’m your man.” And he sets out with a dedication that can only be fired by the conviction that you are on a divinely appointed mission.
Can we even begin to imagine the crisis that Saul experienced that day on the Syrian road to Damascus? Not just the terror of the moment – but the moral dilemma. Here he had been convinced he was doing God’s will, only to realize that he was doing exactly the opposite – that he was actually putting to death God’s people.
· The blinding flash of light – the voice thundering out of nowhere – “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” “Who are you Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
· Saul is commanded to rise and go into Damascus to a particular house in the city and wait for the one he will send to tell him what to do.
· For three days, Saul wrestled with himself and the crushing realization that he has – not just failed God – but opposed him.
· Saul is devastated. When Ananias finally comes to the house on Straight Street, he does not find the ferocious, murder-breathing Pharisee he expected, but a man who is humbled, understanding the enormity of his sin – expecting the very worst – but who will receive the very best.
Only a man like Paul, who has experienced this tremendous pardon for his sins – one who went head to head with God and is given a second chance – Paul, who once relied up on his accomplishments, his heritage, his works, now sets them all aside – But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Phil. 3:7-9).
Only Paul can really write as he writes about the gift of grace:
o 1 Cor. 15:9-10 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.
o Eph. 3:7-8 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.
o 1 Tim. 1:14-16 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.
· None of this “God is lucky to have me” stuff from Paul. He, more than anyone realizes what he deserves. Perhaps he, more than anyone can appreciate what he has received in spite of himself.
· It makes “Saint” Paul a little less intimidating, a little more human, a whole lot more like us – as much in his sin as in his absolute need of God’s mercy and grace.
Paul has taught me some powerful lessons about saying “Yes” to God. I hope they are some lessons that each of us takes home with us this morning and into our jobs and schools and families this week.
1) Sincerity is not truth
· It’s one of those quick substitutes we try to make for the real thing. How many times have I heard well-meaning people tell me, “Well, we’re all going to the same place, we’re just going on different roads.” I don’t care how hard you paddle, how fast you go, how straight you steer – if you’re not on the right road, you are not going to arrive where you want.
· Jesus said plainly, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
· Saul KNEW he was doing God’s will – until Jesus knocked him to his knees and got his attention. At that moment Saul was locked in a crisis where he was forced to make a decision. What he had believed all of his life was wrong. Would he abandon it and follow Jesus into the unknown and uncertain? Or would he ignore this and say it was all a bad case of indigestion and continue on the path of comfort and certainty.
· Sometimes what we KNOW to be true, isn’t true at all. And all the sincerity in the world isn’t going to change that fact. We are forced to make a decision. Will we abandon what we believed in order to follow the truth? Paul did.
2) Zeal doesn’t make up for error
· Like sincerity, zeal is a mask we wear to convince us we are doing what is right.
· Paul agonized over his fellow Jews who were just like he had been when he writes in Romans 10:1-3 – “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
· Self-righteousness is like throwing a rock down an empty well. It clangs and echoes, and makes a lot of racket, but when it finally hits bottom, there just isn’t anything there that will refresh the soul.
3) Only grace can change the heart
· Only grace could have the effect of changing a Saul into a Paul. Law couldn’t do it. Reasoning couldn’t do it. Shame couldn’t do it. All of the things we normally rely upon to make someone into a “better” person, are ineffective and powerless to change a person’s heart. Oh, we might change a person’s mind – he might think differently – we might get him to attend church more often – but it takes something so much more powerful to change his heart and his life.
· This is not a cheap grace – a grace that says, it doesn’t matter what you do, how you live, what you believe – a cheap grace that serves as a license to sin. That’s not grace.
· But grace that recognizes the price that has been paid by God for our redemption from the slave block. Grace that rejoices that God has delivered us and freed us. Grace that acknowledges the claim God has made upon our lives. Grace that compels us to gratefully acknowledge and gratefully respond with all our lives.
· When the Lord sent Ananias to Saul in that house in Damascus, he told Ananias this in Acts 9: “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.” And suffer he would.
· Only that kind of grace could cause Paul to endure the suffering and persecution that were poured upon him when he learned the real meaning of saying “Yes” to God.
· When Ananias came and found Paul, blind with scales on his eyes, crushed by the weight of his sin – Ananias told him that the Lord was calling him to service. And he asked him one of those crucial, life-changing, decision-making questions.
And if you are not a Christian this morning – if you have thought you were saying “yes” but realize you have been saying “no” and are ready to turn your life and obedience over to God – it’s the same question I would ask of you “And now, what are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
When Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died in 1916, his was the last of the extravagant imperial funerals.
A processional of dignitaries and elegantly dressed court personages escorted the coffin, draped in the black and gold imperial colors. To the accompaniment of a military band's somber dirges and by the light of torches, the cortege descended the stairs of the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna. At the bottom was a great iron door leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna.
The officer in charge followed the prescribed ceremony, established centuries before. "Open!" he cried.
"Who goes there?" responded the Cardinal.
"We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand Duke of Lombardy, Venezia, Styrgia … " The officer continued to list the Emperor's thirty-seven titles.
"We know him not," replied the Cardinal. "Who goes there?"
The officer spoke again, this time using a much abbreviated and less ostentatious title reserved for times of expediency.
"We know him not," the Cardinal said again. "Who goes there?"
The officer tried a third time, stripping the emperor of all but the humblest of titles: "We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all!" (from David Seamands – Healing Grace)
Whether emperor, or the apostle Paul, or you or me – we all stand at the foot of the cross with empty hands, desperately in need of God’s grace. And amazingly, that’s exactly what God offers us.