Persecuting truth-seekers…Persecuting Jesus. (The conversion of Saul in Acts 9)

ConversionStPaul

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest…” (Acts 9:1)

Saul was on a mission. He passionately believed in church as he knew it: a highly organized system, very biblically based, with a strong focus on the future coming of a messiah. You could say that Saul’s church pointed to the messiah.

But when Jesus showed up on the scene, he shook that highly organized system to its core. He said things that were earth-shattering. He challenged the church leaders about almost everything. He repeatedly told them that they had things all wrong. They had added tradition upon tradition, law upon law, program upon program – completely losing sight of what God had actually said. And on top of that, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.

The church pointed to the messiah, but when the Messiah came and dwelt among them, they didn’t recognize him. In fact, they despised him. Saw him as an enemy. A terrible threat.

The church leaders hated how right Jesus was all the time. Over and over they were left speechless and fuming, unable to respond to the charges he brought against them without losing face in front of the crowds. And they were quickly losing credibility. They grew more and more angry with Jesus, to the point of plotting to kill him. And they succeeded.

But Jesus had followers. The truth that he had shared grew and spread, and more and more people came to see that he was the Messiah that the prophets had foretold long ago. He was the one Israel was waiting for. More and more of the flock began to hear the voice of the true shepherd. And now they were living different lives. No longer were they bringing sacrifices to the priests. No longer were they coming to the synagogue to hear the Rabbis preach. They were teaching that Jesus fulfilled the law, and that the Temple would end up being destroyed. And they were holding their own meetings! And they called one another “brother” and “sister” – no one was called Rabbi or Teacher, not even the leaders. It was radical!

It was trouble!

The church leaders – the wolves – were of course nervous and angry. They thought killing Jesus would solve everything. But now the problem was growing and multiplying. So they tried to kill the apostles, but they somehow always managed to slip out of their grip. Finally they killed Stephen, a disciple of Jesus.

After they killed Stephen, the wolves started persecuting all the believers. The people scattered. They ran for their lives. But the persecution was only fuel for the fire, because the scattered ones took the truth wherever they went. They spread the word. They talked. Maybe they wrote. And more and more people came to faith in Jesus. More and more people walked away from life – and church – as they knew it. They too started doing things differently.

The threat to the church was growing.

Saul oversaw the stoning of Stephen. It was part of his mission. Threats to the church must be eliminated. And eliminating threats was Saul’s forte. He was bloodthirsty. And here he is breathing out murderous threats against those troublemaking followers of Jesus.

And he went to the high priest. The high priest was a man who was supposed to be deeply trustworthy. He was to handle the most sacred of tasks: seeking forgiveness for all of Israel’s sins, keeping peace between God and Israel. And it is this man that Saul seeks out. With murder in his heart and on his lips he seeks an alliance with the very man who is supposed to cleanse Israel of all sin.

“..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 9:2)

Murderous Saul asks the high priest of Israel to give him written permission to round up the followers of Jesus. The high priest, after all, pointed the way to God. He had to eliminate these people who were rocking the boat, who were spreading this heresy that Jesus himself was the Way. How can a person be the way to God? No! The way to God was through systems, structure, law, rituals, programs. Not a person.

Besides, the high priest knew that the messiah was supposed to be a glorious king. Not this humble carpenter with calloused hands and a face that didn’t stand out in a crowd. No, the Son of Man would sparkle. He’d be a rock star. He’d be rich and powerful. He’d have big money and great power at his disposal, and he’d use his might to fix all of Israel’s problems. He’d rally the troops, declare a holy war, and he’d win. He’d make Israel mighty and powerful!

The real messiah wouldn’t live such a humble life as Jesus lived, and then die young. This the high priest knew for sure. This Jesus guy was a fraud. A false prophet. And his followers were continuing to spread his false teachings. They had to be stopped. Israel had to be protected from going off track. The flock had to be protected from going astray following this dead guy who clearly was not the messiah.

And these followers of Jesus who claimed that he had risen from the dead – that everything he had said was true – they were pure trouble. They had to be eliminated.  Wiped out. The high priest was sure of it.

“As he [Saul] 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?'” (Acts 9:3-4)

Saul believed he was fighting for God. He thought he was persecuting those who were trying to lead the church astray. He thought God would be pleased with him. He thought he was on mission. So imagine his surprise when the voice from heaven says, “Why do you persecute me?”

When you attack truth-tellers and truth-seekers, you attack the one who said, “The truth shall set you free.”

When you shun people for asking reasonable questions about things that the Body of Christ has a right to know, you are shunning Jesus.

When you fire someone for proposing that the church is heading in an unbiblical direction, you are firing Jesus.

When you threaten to destroy someone just because he pleads with church leaders to treat one another with impartiality and fairness, you threaten to destroy Jesus.

And Jesus takes it very personally.

The church is the bride of Christ. All of us who follow him are his bride. We are one Body. And we are one with him. And when any of us is treated unjustly, Jesus responds like a protective husband. It doesn’t matter who is doing the attacking – it can be the high priest of Israel himself!

So here Jesus confronts Saul on the road to Damascus. And Saul is confused about whose voice is coming out of the cloud. He thought he was fighting for God, killing off threats to the church, but this voice from the cloud sounded an awful lot like what you would expect God to sound like.

“‘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 9:5-6)

Jesus!? But…he was supposed to be dead! You mean those truth-telling troublemakers were right? What! Jesus is alive? Saul’s mind must have been racing.

He must have been shaken to the core. So much of what he thought was right and true…wasn’t.

“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.” (Acts 9:7-9)

Saul needed some time to grasp what was going on. Jesus had confronted him with the truth, and Saul was floored. Maybe his mind was racing with possible ways to deny what he had just experienced, to erase what had just happened. But the blindness! It was undeniable proof that Saul’s mission was terribly off track.

Saul was stuck. Like an animal caught in a trap, just laying there panting.

“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’

“‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered.

“The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.'” (Acts 9:10-12)

Saul, like any church leader, was a man of prayer. He had likely prayed countless prayers in his lifetime. And here he is calling out to God for answers, for help. And God answered him with a vision of a certain man. A man who would help him to see clearly again. And God tells Ananias: it’s you who will open Saul’s eyes.

“‘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)

Ananias is scared. He’s heard reports about Saul’s violence and the abuse he’s put so many Christians through. And he knows that Saul is backed by the authority of the highest spiritual leaders in Israel. This is not someone that Ananias wants to encounter. And it’s certainly not someone that he wants to help.

“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. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.'” (Acts 9:15-16)

But God assures Ananias that he has chosen Saul to preach the gospel to many people. He would be God’s tool to spread the news of Jesus – that he is the Messiah, that he died and rose from the dead, that he is Kind of kings, and he will change the world. All the broken ways of men – all the corrupted systems, the tainted priesthoods, the oppressive kingdoms – will fade away. And in its place will be the kingdom of heaven. And it’s here now! It’s in the heart of every true believer! It’s in our midst when we fellowship in spirit and in truth!

And Saul would suffer. Jesus offers forgiveness and an amazing fresh start; a truly new life. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to suffer, especially if we have sinned against God and his true followers like Saul did.

There is no cheap grace with God. You really want to repent? Great! But you still need to face the real-world fruit of your sin. And you may need to go through a great deal of suffering as you work to undo the damage you’ve done.

Saul would go on to become an incredible stone in the foundation of Christianity. He would author most of the New Testament. But despite being an amazing teacher, church planter, and a highly gifted writer, God did not give Saul a large salary, a beachfront house and a pampered life with lots of bling. No! Despite his great talent, God had in mind that Saul would suffer greatly, that he would work a blue collar job to pay his own way, and that his ministry would not last very long.

“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.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:17-19)

Saul’s eyes were opened. He could see again, physically. And he was forever changed. He would see for the first time spiritually. He would repent. And he would embrace God’s plan for him with his whole heart – suffering and all. And the new life he would lead, the new ministry he would devote himself to, would leave an incredible legacy for us all.

A legacy worth dying for.

Shaun Smith

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