The In-Between Years - Part 48
Series: The In-Between Years
September 05, 2021
The In-Between Years — Part 48
Luke introduced us to a rising star among the Pharisees at the end of Acts 7. His name was Saul. He held the garments of those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul — later to be known as Paul — was so zealous for, so passionate about his faith, he tried to stamp out what he thought was a blasphemous aberration of Jews known as “the Way.” They followed Jesus, whom they claimed was the Christ, the Messiah.
He drug Christian men and women out of their homes and into prison. He tried to make them recant their faith, most likely by some kind of torture or certainly threats. He even executed them.
But as we began Acts 9 last week, we saw how God employed his power of providential override to save that very same man and eventually use him to win the Gentiles to Christ. Saul met Jesus in a blaze of heavenly light on the road to Damascus. Saul was blind until a man named Ananias was called by God to go and pray for him. But at first Ananias didn’t want to…
13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. Acts 9:13–22 (ESV)
That’s where we left off, so let’s pick up with v. 23 this week. Real quick, though, for clarity and efficiency’s sake, from here out I’m just going to go ahead and refer to Saul as Paul even though that change doesn’t actually happen in Acts until chapter 13…
23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. Acts 9:23–25 (ESV)
Paul hung around Damascus for a good while, long enough for the Jews to want to kill him. Why? For the same reason they wanted to kill Stephen. Paul preached Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God and they couldn’t refute him.
I said it before concerning Stephen, and I’ll say it again with Paul. This is just an age old adage played out. If folks don’t like the message, they’ll kill the messenger. This happened to Jesus too. The city, like most ancient cities, was surrounded by a protective wall they locked up at night. The Jews watched the gates, so the disciples snuck Paul out by lowering him down in a basket.
This is crazy. The same man who had been murdering Christians is now shielded by them from those who wanted to murder him.
Something else stuck out here when I read this, something I hadn’t seen before, I guess because of all that’s going on in our country right now with the pandemic. Paul had been miraculously saved and called by God to be a missionary to the Gentiles. I mean, what would he have to be afraid of? Surely if God was going to protect anybody it’d be him.
Yet Paul and the disciples didn’t not say, when they found out about the assassination plot, “Why, I’d like to see them try. Faith over fear ya’ll.” They took the threat seriously and snuck him out. They’ll do it again in Jerusalem later on. Why is that?
I have an idea. Remember when Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness and the devil came to tempt him? One of the temptations was to hurl himself off the temple. If God were going to protect anybody it’d be his son, right? Especially since it wasn’t time to go to the cross yet. Scripture even said that God’s angels would bear him up lest he dash his foot against a stone.
But Jesus shot back with more Scripture from the book of Deuteronomy that commands, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” In this instance I understand Jesus to imply, “Don’t knowingly and willingly put yourself in a situation where God is forced to save you. Use common sense.”
I believe in faith over fear, but I also believe in not putting God to the test.
Anyhoo, Paul crept out of Damascus…
26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. Acts 9:26–27 (ESV)
Like Ananias, the disciples had heard of Paul’s wrath and were afraid. Think about it. What more genius of a plan could there have been than for Paul to pretend to get saved so as to infiltrate the church? Good old Barnabas, whose name very fittingly means son of encouragement, saw Paul’s genuineness and stepped in to vouch for him. He was so respected and loved, they listened. Paul and Barnabas will end up becoming two peas in a pod, at least for a good while…
28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Acts 9:28–30 (ESV)
Paul hasn’t been saved too awful long and twice he’s ended up on the Jew’s kill list. He’ll stay on that list the rest of his life. What we miss here is that after fleeing Jerusalem he went home to Tarsus, where his Jewish family, Jewish friends, and Jewish community was. I can’t imagine the pain he experienced as he was ostracized, maligned, rejected by his own people. Paul would lament over that the rest of his life, not so much that they rejected him but that they rejected Jesus.
We need to get this, especially as modern Western Christians and especially as modern Western American Christians: Paul’s life as a Christ follower was one of… suffering. It began with suffering and ended with suffering and there was suffering all in between. Let’s remember what Jesus said to Ananias about Paul…
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:15–16 (ESV)
That’s not what you’d expect for the one who would become the greatest Christian, theologian, and missionary ever to live, is it? You’d expect his life to have been more glamorous and less murderous. Even before his ministry began, though, Jesus made it clear, Paul's being chosen meant experiencing suffering.
That suffering continued to the day he died. It included things like beatings and muggings and shipwrecks and a whole lot of stress. We know this because in 2 Cor. 11, Paul addresses the Corinthian church’s acceptance of false apostles, ones who evidently boasted of their credentials and were in it for the money and attention. Being an apostle was kind of cool, kind of fun for them. It afforded them some recognition and means. The Corinthians ate it up much like we do the Christian celebrities of our day.
Paul responds by saying, okay, if we are going to throw around credentials and be all braggy, here I go…
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a fool to talk this way, but I serve him better than they do. I have worked harder and have been put in jail more times. I have been beaten with whips more and have been in danger of death more often. 24 Five times my own people gave me thirty-nine lashes with a whip. 25 Three times the Romans beat me with a big stick, and once my enemies stoned me. I have been shipwrecked three times, and I even had to spend a night and a day in the sea. 26 During my many travels, I have been in danger from rivers, robbers, my own people, and foreigners. My life has been in danger in cities, in deserts, at sea, and with people who only pretended to be the Lord’s followers. 27 I have worked and struggled and spent many sleepless nights. I have gone hungry and thirsty and often had nothing to eat. I have been cold from not having enough clothes to keep me warm. 28 Besides everything else, each day I am burdened down, worrying about all the churches. 29 When others are weak, I am weak too. When others are tricked into sin, I get angry. 30 If I have to brag, I will brag about how weak I am. 31 God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, knows I am not lying. And God is to be praised forever! 32 The governor of Damascus at the time of King Aretas had the city gates guarded, so that he could capture me. 33 But I escaped by being let down in a basket through a window in the city wall. 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 (CEV)
One pastor observed, “Never make the mistake of asking Paul, 'How are things going?’ But what a blog this guy would have. Today I was shipwrecked and then after dinner I was beaten with rods. Paul’s autobio: Your Worst Life Now .”
But the same guy who suffered so, the same guy whose autobiography would be titled “Your Worst Life Now” is the same guy who wrote…
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:7–14 (ESV)
How could the same guy who suffered so from day one say that?
Paul was able to reconcile his suffering as a Christ-follower, even rejoice in it, because he focused on the bigger picture of Christ and his kingdom and his place in it. You see, following Christ made Paul right with God, not because of what he did but because of what Jesus did in living the life he should have lived and dying the death he should have died. And that made it possible for him to become a citizen of heaven and that means he would be in on what happens when Jesus returns and sets up God’s kingdom on a new earth, when all things are set back right.
Paul was able to endure the pain, the trials, the loss, even thank God for them because his love for Christ was greater than his love for anything else.
When your love for Christ is greater than your love for anything else, you become invincible (not emotionless, mind you, not immune to sadness or depression). But ultimately you are able to press on because you know this world and all that comes with it is just a vapor. The best is yet to come.
I will have been a Christian for 40 years last month and I am just now figuring this out. I’m not saying I’m living it, just figuring it out. Finally, I think I understand what Jesus meant when he said…
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25–27 (ESV)
For so long I hated that. I avoided it. I didn’t know what to do with it. But I now realize that Jesus wasn’t saying to be mean to, to reject our loved ones, he was saying our love for him should surpass all others, even our love for our family. NT Wright explains it this way…
Imagine a politician standing on a soap-box addressing a crowd. ‘If you’re going to vote for me,’ he says, ‘you’re voting to lose your homes and families; you’re asking for higher taxes and lower wages; you’re deciding in favour of losing all you love best! So come on—who’s on my side?’ The crowd wouldn’t even bother heckling him, or throwing rotten tomatoes at him. They would just be puzzled. Why on earth would anyone try to advertise himself in that way?
But isn’t that what Jesus is doing in this astonishing passage? ‘Want to be my disciple, do you? Well, in that case you have to learn to hate your family, give up your possessions, and get ready for a nasty death!’ Hardly the way, as we say, to win friends and influence people.
But wait a minute. Supposing, instead of a politician, we think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcards home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely that several of us won’t make it back.’ We can understand that. We may not like the sound of it, but we can see why it would make sense.
And we can see, therefore, that Jesus is more like the second person than the first. Since Christianity has often, quite rightly, been associated with what are called ‘family values’, it comes as a shock to be told to ‘hate’ your parents, wife and children, and siblings; but when the instruction goes one step further, that one must hate one’s own self, and be prepared for shameful death (‘take up your cross’ wasn’t simply a figure of speech in Jesus’ world!), then we begin to see what’s going on. Jesus is not denying the importance of close family, and the propriety of living in supportive harmony with them. But when there is an urgent task to be done, as there now is, then everything else, including one’s own life, must be put at risk for the sake of the kingdom.
Paul was able to press on through the pain, the sadness, the loss because he focused on Jesus and his kingdom.
Gracie visited a church not too long ago and the pastor there preached a message on being Jesus focused, but it was from this perspective: the reason things aren’t going good in your life is you aren’t focused on Jesus. If you want a better year than you had in 2020 focus on Jesus. If you want your life to come together focus on Jesus. If you want to suffer less, focus on Jesus. She came home and said, “Dad, that is not the gospel.” Bless her heart.
God does want the best for you but its his best not yours and it may very well bring the worst suffering you’ve ever known. I’d make a terrible celebrity preacher, wouldn’t I? I don’t follow conspiracy theories, I think humility is where true strength lies — not cocky arrogance — and I preach a gospel that guarantees suffering.
Conclusion: Finally today, let’s look at how things turned out after Paul left town for about ten years…
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. Acts 9:31 (ESV)
After Paul left, the church enjoyed peace and things got quiet. Losing their rising star like that had to have been a blow to the Jews, the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel. They probably regrouped for a while. Laid low. I mean, let’s not send our best out anymore. That verse though, I think we need to have a sermon on it alone. And we’ll do that after I return from vacation.
We can’t go until I offer you a chance to respond.
If you’re here and you’ve never followed Christ — or maybe you thought you had but realize now not so much — God offers you a promise…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)If you have followed Christ then pray, in response to what your Word has shown me today, what should I do?
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