Know someone that you think is too far gone? Think again. Today, Pastor Ray Galea begins our Celebration Series as we look at the worst of sinners being commissioned to take the message of Jesus to the world.
Our Vision at MBM is to see lives transformed through Jesus Christ to the glory of God. No better example of a transformed life is that of Matt Anderson who sadly died this week at age 30. Facebook alone tells you how many people were impacted by him. He served both here and overseas, in some ways he was just like Paul who said we not only shared the gospel but our very lives, and yet Matt’s story is very different from Paul's.
Matt did not have much of a before and after story, at age 15 he was having hour-long prayer times while Paul in contrast had a massive before and after story: he was the worst of sinners, he was ultimately an example of God’s grace and he was then given the most important job - to take the gospel of grace to the ends of the earth.
We resume our time in Acts. Let's take a step back, Luke in his gospel first told the story of Jesus' life death, and resurrection. In Acts, he tells the ongoing story of the living King Jesus taking the good news to the ends of the earth. After Jesus ascended to heaven and 50 days later the Spirit descend. He turns 12 scared lambs into 12 bold lions preaching, with the threat of arrest and death. The good news spreads from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth. The church spectacularly grows from 12 to 120 to 3,000 to 5000. The church becomes devoted to prayer, fellowship, apostles' teaching, and breaking of bread. With blessing comes persecution, forcing believers to be pushed out of Jerusalem, with them the message spreads to Samaria. Today we see one of the worst persecutors of Christians becomes the preacher of Christ.
Saul was behind the death of the first Christian, Stephen, not satisfied with one dead Christian.
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. ~Acts 8:3 (NIV)
No Christian was off-limits, both men and women. No house or synagogue was beyond his reach. No city was exempted.
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. ~Acts 9:1-2 (NIV)
There was an uncontrolled zeal to wipe out the name of Jesus, to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth, Saul in his own words tells us in Acts 26 - many saints in many cities were dragged out of many synagogues and sent into many prisons - All in God’s name. He is more like a suicide bomber doing it for God’s glory. If they were taking votes on the person most likely to NOT become a Christian, it was Saul. Many thought it was just impossible for him to be saved. Imagine the most unlikely person today to become a Christian and then double it that is Saul! Ruthless, focused and determined in his hatred. No one would have expected him to be saved.
1. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul was onto his next city, arresting even more Christians in Damascus - 220 kilometres, when who should appear on the road to Damascus but the living Lord, Lord Jesus, the absolute last person he expected.
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.” ~Acts 9:3-6 (NIV)
Jesus confronted the persecutor head-on, the flashing light, the voice of the Lord Jesus, and then the question… “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Shouldn’t he have said ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my people?’ Saul was killing Christians, not Christ. Jesus had already ascended to heaven but Jesus stands so close to his people. When you mess with Christian people you mess with Christ, it’s always that personal with Jesus. You cannot love Jesus and not love his church.
But of course, Saul did not know Jesus, when he hears the voice he says, “Who are you, Lord?” That was a giveaway, different from when Ananias hears Jesus and he says “Yes, Lord.” Notice also this is not a private vision. Mohammed and Mormonism rely on private revelations that can’t be verified and fact-checked. When Jesus speaks to Saul, there were others around him who heard the voice as well and they were not Christians.
Ananias, who is a Christian, is in Damascus and he also is given a vision about Saul’s vision. It was at the same time in a different location, independently verifying what happened to Saul really took place. Ananias is told to go to Saul who by this stage has been in Damascus for 3 days. Saul is blind, in prayer and in such deep sorrow he can’t eat. We can only imagine what went on in Saul’s mind those 3 days
How wrong can one person get? So serious that Paul never stopped calling himself the worst of sinners, which means you can only be the 2nd worst. But mercy comes to Saul, the worst of sinners. At the command of Jesus, Ananias lay hands on Saul and he is instantly healed of his blindness and receives the Spirit, and is baptized. The change is so complete he will change his name from Saul to Paul - he is a new creation. Almost without hesitation, Paul begins to speak of Jesus. The persecutor becomes the proclaimer
2. The Persecutor becomes the Proclaimer
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. ~Acts 9:15 (NIV)
This was no simple offer of forgiveness, it was a commissioning not just a conversion. He would not just be a disciple like every Christian but an apostle. Jesus was giving not just a fresh start but a job, He is God’s chosen instrument. His many letters remind us of that truth “Paul, called to be an apostle by the will of God.” This is one job you cant apply for. He will carry the name of Jesus to nations, to kings and before the people of Israel.
Paul’s conversion will take the lead in the mission to the nations. Acts will now mostly follow Paul, taking the good news …to the ends of the earth. And sure enough, as soon as he regains his strength he preaches in Damascus.
At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. … Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. ~Acts 9:20, 22 (NIV)
Notice what he preaches, Jesus is the Son of God – the Christ, the very thing that Jesus was condemned to death for, the very thing Saul arrested people in synagogues for. The one who led the fight against Christianity is now leading the defence for Christ because Jesus appeared as God’s Son and God’s reigning King, that was enough to guarantee his death sentence.
3. The Persecutor becomes the Persecuted
The hunter becomes hunted. Jesus had already lovingly warned Saul
I will show him how much he must suffer for my name. ~Acts 9:16 (NIV)
This warning is not in the small print on page 342, Jesus was upfront with Saul. As Acts unfolds, we will see him beaten, stoned, arrested, shipwrecked, jailed and left to die. Just as he caused many to suffer, so now he will suffer for the name of Jesus. No greater evidence than Saul, a Christian killer, now becomes a Christian witness that Jesus is alive.
I believe in the resurrection of Jesus for numerous reasons, it is not just based on eyewitnesses who were friends of Jesus. The greatest witness to Jesus being alive came from his greatest enemy. That is probably why Paul’s testimony is repeated three times. If you don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead then why does Paul change sides? He lost everything including his life for this Jesus, he got no money, he lost all respect, it was replaced by a life marked by suffering. Can you keep on rejecting this evidence?
The Jewish leaders were just not interested in the truth, the moment Saul preaches, he is persecuted. First in Damascus where he came to arrest Christians…
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. ~Acts 9:23-24 (NIV)
Saul, came into that city with great power and authority, he is now humbled and helpless and finds himself blinded. Flat on his face and led by others and given sight through a disciple of Jesus. Then ended up being lowered at night down a basket through an opening in the wall.
From Damascus, he goes to Jerusalem and it’s no better there… Again, boldly preaching he finds himself with a death sentence and then sent off to his home city, Tarsus, all because he met the risen Jesus. One of many pieces of evidence that Jesus is alive.
4. Brother, Saul
What is clear is that Saul was one terrifying man. Every Christian feared the day he might come into their town, their synagogue and their homes to hunt them down. Imagine you’re one of the only 1000 Christians left in Afghanistan waiting for the Taliban to come knocking on the door.
Now the same followers had to deal with a different issue. Now the issue was welcoming, forgiving and trusting the man who tried to kill them. When Ananias was first told to lay hands on Saul in a vision, he tells Jesus…
“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.” ~Acts 9:13-14 (NIV)
When he comes to Jerusalem, the disciples also were afraid.
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. ~Acts 9:26 (NIV)
You don’t blame them! Every believer was afraid - could they trust him? Was he some undercover spy, like a double agent? Imagine Saul would take his place in this church with the relatives of the late Stephen. How could you break bread with a man who broke your brother, the one who organized your son’s death? How could you drink of cup with one who spilled the blood of your loved ones; who was behind the arrest of your friends and family?
But Ananias said it better than anyone.
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.” ~Acts 9:17 (NIV)
There are two words that stand out for me: "Brother Saul" How hard it would have been to say: "Brother Saul" And how important it would have been for Saul to hear "Brother Saul" Not just "friend", or "sir" but "Brother Saul." Before he had time to prove he was genuine. Before he had time to say “I’m sorry” out came the grace of the Lord Jesus, Brother Saul. The same grace was offered by Barnabas before the apostles.
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. ~Acts 9:27 (NIV)
Barnabas urged the apostles to accept him. He is one of us. What do we learn? We believe in the God who can convert anybody. Nothing is impossible for God
“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. ~Isaiah 65:1 (NIV)
I get shocked when a person says to their loved one: "I don’t want you coming to church unless your heart is in it." What? Who cares. If God can show mercy to the worst of sinners, then He can show mercy to anyone, including you. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. No one is so bad that they cant be forgiven. No one is so good that they don’t need to be forgiven. If God can show mercy to Saul, the worst, of course he can show mercy to you.
There is a dangerous bi-product to grace. We want to sometimes avoid people who God has forgiven. It’s the same problem of having those nations you were taught to hate now as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Whatever happens friends don’t stay away because you have been hurt by thoughtless words about whichever side of the vaccine you may fall. Refuse to define yourself or other in terms of vaccine. Don’t tear down what the gospel of grace has restored.
The early church had to fellowship with the worst of sinners who had killed their family. There is a temptation here, can you see it? Answered in two words Brother Saul.
God has taken our brother Matt home, He taught us not to waste what years we have, he not only shared the gospel, he shared his very life and for that example we thank God.