I've known a lot of people who said 'I'd believe in God if he'd show himself to me'. Which I think meant 'I won't believe in God unless he makes it blindingly obvious and actually appears in front of my very eyes'. I'm sure you'll have heard it too. Some of you will have said it yourselves; you may even be thinking it now. In our scientific culture it sounds sensible – we want to see the evidence. But, there's always a chance that we've seen enough evidence and we're just choosing to ignore it.
In our passage this evening, in Acts chapter 9, page 1172, God actually shows himself to a cynical unbeliever. The man in question is the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, better known now as the apostle Paul of Tarsus. And the passage we look at tonight marks the turning point in Saul's life, where Saul the unbelieving cynic became Paul the believer.
And to get the full impact of this passage we need to remember two things – the context in Acts and Saul’s role in persecuting the church. In Acts 1:8 we're given a sort of program, or preview. Jesus says the witnesses will testify about him in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. By the time we get to chapter 6, the church is established in Jerusalem and there are many converts from among the Jews.
But from chapter 7 the religious and political establishment become increasingly aggressive towards the church. In chapter seven Stephen’s martyred – stoned to death for his belief that Jesus is Lord. And his death sparks a full-on persecution. In 8:3 we read:
'Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison'.
This was an attempt at a systematic destruction of the church and Saul was leading it.
In chapter 8 we see one effect of this persecution– it drives the believers out of Jerusalem. The church scatters taking the gospel with them. So chapter 8 shows how the persecution leads to the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to the disciples – the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and towards the ends of the earth.
Persecution has had a positive effect, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. And as chapter nine begins it’s about to get worse. Having decimated the church in Jerusalem, Saul turns his attention to those who are scattered. And what follows can be broken down into three scenes:
Verses 1-2: Saul the violent enemy of the Church,
Verses 3-6: Saul's encounter with the Living Lord; and
Verses 7-9: Saul the meek follower of the Lord Jesus
So we’ll look at those scenes in turn. Let’s start with scene one, where we see Saul, the violent enemy of the church.
Look at verse 1:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples.
Saul’s like a raging bull, snorting out violence. And these aren’t empty threats – Paul says later that he actively voted to have Christian’s executed for their faith. Let’s read on:
1…He went to the high priest 2and 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.
Saul was so zealous it wasn't enough to destroy the church in Jerusalem; he wanted to destroy the church, full stop. He was so enraged by the claims of the church, so opposed to the name of Jesus that he would go to any lengths to wipe it out. Damascus was about 140 miles away, some five days’ walk. That’s quite a commitment to destroy the church. It’s saying to the Christians ‘you can run but you can’t hide’. He was intent on exterminating the church and putting a stop to the preaching of the gospel once and for all. So the persecution programme is ramping up dangerously. The persecutors will only be content when the church is no more and there is no more preaching the name of Jesus.
It must have been terrifying for the young church. Not bad enough that persecution had driven them from their homes, their friends and their families. Not bad enough that they were now refugees fleeing for their lives. Now they were also fugitives, pursued by rough justice. Saul, this wild bull of a man, was coming to get them. They weren’t safe in Damascus, would they be safe anywhere?
How many, I wonder, may have begun to doubt their faith? How many may have begun to doubt that Jesus was with them after all? How many may have begun to question their commitment to the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord? And how many may have begun to think that the church’s days were numbered, that the future was bleak for Christianity, that they might not survive to tell the gospel to the next generation?
Their situation is all too familiar to Christians in places like Iraq and Northern Sudan today. In many parts of the world the church still suffers persecution like this. In recent years we’ve heard of terrible atrocities in the Sudan and India. Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan have been targeted severely. Many hundreds of thousands around the world live as refugees and fugitives, a price on their heads because they dare to believe that Jesus is Lord. Under Islam conversion is punishable by death and even in Britain there are increasing reports of so called honour killings.
And how can we understand this opposition to the gospel? It’s not because God’s abandoned us, nor because God isn’t in control. We need to remember that Jesus said we’d be persecuted. He suffered death and we who follow Him have no sovereign right to peace and security. Of course we won’t invite persecution or welcome it, and if we can avoid it and oppose through legal and political process, then all the better; by all means get behind the Christian Institute and get involved in politics and work to oppose persecution in our society.
But we also all need to be ready to suffer for the name of Christ. How many of us here would be prepared to go and live in Orissa, India? How many would live in North Africa or the Sudan or Iraq? And if we did, how many of us would own the name of Christ in the face of persecution?
Who knows what might happen in the future, it may be that the West will experience the sort of opposition we read about here – or it may be that some of us will be called to go elsewhere and encounter it there. If that’s the case, will you be ready? Will you be prepared to stand for Christ even in the face of serious opposition?
And if we do encounter opposition, how will we respond? I trust it won’t be with violence to advance the gospel. We notice that though Saul was a violent man and a persecutor, Jesus wasn’t violent, and after his conversion Paul was violent no longer. Jesus overcame his enemies by laying down his life and dying for them and Jesus will return to Judge. So Christianity doesn’t progress by the sword, there’s no violence in our message. There may be times and places where Christians have political rule or civic responsibilities that give rise to the need to judge, or even to go to war – but those things are not for the sake of the advancement of the gospel as such, but to ensure peace and security.
Now that’s taking us away a little from the text – the early church was under threat, but Jesus is Lord. How could He protect them?
This leads to scene two: Saul's encounter with the Living Lord.
Look down to verse 3:
3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6"Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
This has been described as, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the most significant event in the history of the world. That may be overstating things a little, but this is a massive turning point in Acts and in the life of the church. This is the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, and this time it’s not to one of his disciples, not to one of the men and women who followed him and listened to his teaching, but to his fiercest opponent, his most violent critic. By this appearance Jesus turns Saul’s life upside down and so ends the first wave of persecution against the church and sets the scene for the first deliberate mission beyond Israel.
And when we look at it the first thing we should notice is the similarity between this and the descriptions of God appearing in the Old Testament. Just as with Moses and Isaiah and Daniel, Paul experiences a brilliant light that’s so bright it‘s blinding. And just like those others who encountered the Lord’s presence he is struck down to the ground.
These similarities help us and Saul to understand that this is the God of Israel that he’s encountering, the God he claims to serve and worship. They also remind us of the character and power of God – when Moses asked to see God’s glory God said that he would show him only his back, because no man could see him and live (Exodus 33:19-34). God’s glory and power are such that his presence is overwhelming. And as we see in Isaiah 6 it’s above all God’s holiness that confronts us. In the light of God’s overwhelming holiness our sin is exposed and we can but fall to the ground. And so it is with Saul.
And as he lies on the ground surrounded by this blinding light Saul hears a voice calling to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
Saul doesn’t know it, but this is Jesus speaking. And though Saul has been persecuting the church, Jesus says Saul has been persecuting him. That’s how closely Jesus identifies with his church. He’s so close to us that when we’re persecuted, he’s persecuted. He never leaves us. He’s with us whatever we go through, he feels it with us. And so we know that he’ll strengthen us to bring us through whatever we face: because he’s the victorious Lord – we know we won’t be defeated.
And Jesus identifying with his church also shows the real source of Saul’s anger and hatred. It’s wasn’t so much that he hated Christians, as that he hated Christ, and that hatred was poured out on Christ’s followers. That’s helpful to remember when we experience anger and rejection because we’re Christians. Jesus said it would happen. John 15.20: ‘no servant is greater than his master, if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’. When we’re opposed or persecuted for being Christians, people are responding to Christ. When we find the gospel gets a frosty reception, they’re responding to Christ.
Now the combination of the brilliant light and the voice speaking from heaven leave Saul in no doubt that this is an encounter with God. But it’s very confusing for him – after all he’s God’s servant. He’s on a mission to protect the honour and glory of God’s name by hunting down blasphemers. So how is it that the Lord says that he’s persecuting him? See how he responds in verse 5:
‘Who are you, Lord?’
He’s clued up enough to know this must be the LORD, but he’s the Lord’s servant. How can the Lord say he’s persecuting Him?
How the answer must have stunned him, look at the second half of verse 5:
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’
The Lord is Jesus, Jesus is Lord? Saul’s life has been dedicated to the glory of God, or so he thought. And in his dedication to God he was absolutely convinced that Jesus was his enemy, God’s enemy. His life was dedicated to stamping out the very name of Jesus and eliminating his followers, in the name of God and God’s glory and honour.
But here is Jesus, showing all the signs of being God himself. Jesus, who Saul thought was dead and buried. Jesus, who Saul was convinced was a liar, a blasphemer and a fraud. Jesus, who Saul now recognised as Lord.
Have you ever had that feeling when you realise you’ve been drastically in the wrong and your head is spinning and you feel sick to your stomach? If you have then you might be able to imagine how Saul must have felt. His whole life was dedicated to opposing God, when he thought he was serving God. Imagine the confusion, the sense of shame and guilt, the unravelling of all that seemed so solid to him just a couple of minutes earlier.
The big thing that Saul needs to understand, the thing that he is confronted with beyond all ability to doubt is that Jesus was, that Jesus is, Lord. Jesus is risen from the dead and Jesus is reigning at God's right hand. Jesus is the promised Messiah that the Jews have been waiting for. He was no fraud, he wasn’t a liar or a blasphemer.
That meant the priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the teachers of the law were all wrong. They put Jesus to death for speaking the word of God to them. And Saul was as guilty as any one of them. He despised and rejected God’s ruler. He was God’s enemy. He had personally taken it upon himself to oppose and fight God's plan, God's King and God's rule.
The very ground is shifting under Saul's feet. All that he thought he knew was wrong. His life was based on a terrible mistake. He was living for a lie, and he was in big trouble.
He had to turn around and change, and fast.
What would you do in Saul's situation?
That's not just a hypothetical question – because Saul's experience here is a paradigm for all of us. Saul was a real, unique person, this was a one-off historical event. Jesus actually appeared to Saul in a way that he doesn't appear to the rest of us. But Saul is like us in that all of us by nature have lived in opposition to God and his purposes. Just as God confronted Saul so in the gospel God confronts all of us. However much we may have thought that we've been serving God, however religious, or even zealous we've been, if we've not been living for Jesus and serving Jesus, then we're on the wrong side. Like Saul we've been opposing God and his work in the world and we're in big trouble. We may not have been as vocal or as violent, we may not be so obviously in the wrong as Saul was. But unless we’re actively living for Jesus then we’re on the wrong side and we’re just as much God’s enemy as Saul was.
And just to clear up a misunderstanding – if we’re acting as God’s enemies, sincerity won’t make it OK. Saul was sincerity itself, he was fully convinced that he was doing the right thing. But he was sincerely wrong, and his sincerity only made his error worse His sincerity gave rise to zeal that made his error dangerous and led him to persecute the church. God doesn’t ask us to be sincere regardless of what we believe, that’s a nonsense. God demands we get on his side. Sincere belief isn’t the key: following Jesus is the key.
Finally and very briefly the last verses introduce a very different Saul – the meek follower of Christ:
6"Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." 7The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
Jesus commands and Saul obeys. We'll hear more about this next week, so I won't go into any sort of detail. But here we see a very different Saul emerging. No longer Jesus' sworn enemy, he meekly does as Jesus tells him to. He emerges from this encounter with God shaken and very much stirred. He can’t see and for three days neither eats nor drinks. It seems the combination of shock and shame and repentance leads him to shun food and drink, at least for a while. 'For three days' reminds us of Jesus’ three days in the tomb, and so it points us forward in expectation of what might happen after those three days. And we'll come to that next week.
But for now I want to leave you with some implications from what we've seen. Saul was the sworn enemy of the church. And for a time it seemed like he was winning. He destroyed the Church in Jerusalem and was all set to track down the disciples where they were scattered and destroy the church everywhere. But God was with the church then and He’s with the church now. Jesus said the disciples would testify to him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth – so no opposition could stop the spread of his gospel message. God took this sworn enemy and he stopped him in his tracks and turned his sworn enemy into his meek follower.
Today as God's people, God's witnesses in the world we're faced with many who oppose the gospel, from Richard Dawkins to religious fanatics. And we often feel under fire, helpless, sure that we can't survive this assault on the gospel. But God is with us. To this day they attack Jesus as much as they attack us, and he will emerge victorious from every contest because he is the Lord of all. He’s already conquered death and every enemy will be subdued before him.
So we can trust Jesus and we can have confidence in Him no matter what our circumstances. We don't expect dramatic intervention in every situation, even in Acts the church was scattered – but whether God intervenes or God allows us to suffer we can be sure that he is in control and he will uphold us in each and every circumstance.
So we can have confidence to pray for our enemies – who knows what God might do with a Richard Dawkins or a converted Imam. And we can pray for the security and spread of the gospel – here and in places like Iran, Iraq and the Sudan. And we mustn’t be afraid to face opposition, whether it’s physical or just mocking in the class room or at work or wherever. Don't be concerned when it comes, but pray that God will enable you to stand in it, and that he will make it an opportunity for the gospel.
And if you're like Saul and you're not living for the Lord Jesus, if perhaps you're still waiting for God to reveal himself to you. Can I suggest you content yourself with learning from Saul's experience. It's no small thing to be confronted by the living God. No one can stand in his presence. Better to learn from Saul's example and to recognise Jesus as Lord now, than to wait till he chooses to confront you – because by then it might be too late.
Shall we pray:
Lord God you are great over all. We praise you for rescuing your church by turning its great enemy into its great servant. And we pray that you will watch over the church in this and every generation, and we ask that you will go before us and strengthen and enable us so that we can stand in whatever situation we find ourselves in. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.