Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)
Since the first week of July we have been learning from the first few chapters of Acts. Today will be the seventh message of nine messages in this series. Let us recap what we have learnt so far. In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Each situation that confronts us needs to be evaluated for its own merit. What worked yesterday might not work today.
Then from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new age of the Spirit had begun while the old age characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. The two ages inevitably clash because their agendas are different. The old age is ruled by death while the new age of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus.
In the third sermon we saw that healing happens today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death. We saw that the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, like illnesses and debilitating conditions, are but a sign of the reign of death which God has overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas.
Then from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 we learnt that the Spirit promotes a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old age tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old age tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.
n Acts 7 we dealt with the martyrdom of Stephen. We saw that he was open to the realm of heaven in which the death of Jesus is given cosmic significance that runs contrary to the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. And we saw that Stephen imitated Jesus in his death—a death of which Saul of Tarsus was a witness. We saw that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Last week we learnt from Act 8 about the effect that Saul’s persecution and Stephen’s death had on the church. We saw that persecution is a foolish thing to undertake because it forces the church to behave like a body. We also saw that the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53 applies to Jesus but not to Jesus alone. Rather, it applies to all who follow Jesus. I ended the sermon with a call to recovering this essential element of our calling in relation to the world.
Today we will learn from Acts 9 what happened to Saul—the feared persecutor of the church. Let us track Saul’s journeys in Acts 9. At the beginning of the chapter he is in Jerusalem and on his way to Damascus. As he nears Damascus, he sees a vision of Jesus. He is helped into the city where, after three days, Ananias comes to him and completes his conversion. He begins proclaiming the gospel and incurs the wrath of the Damascus Jews. He escapes from the city and returns to Jerusalem. Saul probably took different routes to and from Damascus that reflect the changes that he had undergone. On the way to Damascus, he probably avoided going through Samaria. He probably crossed over to the East bank of the Jordan around Jericho and then returned to the West bank around Scythopolis. At the Southern end of the Sea of Galilee he probably crossed the Jordan again before proceeding in a Northeasterly direction to Damascus. This route would have served three purposes: avoid Samaria; avoid the deserts; and keep the hilly terrain to a minimum. On the way back to Jerusalem he probably went by a hillier route, crossing the Jordan North of the Sea of Galilee. Then to keep contact with Jews to a minimum, he probably went through Samaria and finally to Jerusalem. There he meets the leaders of the early church and is befriended by Barnabas. Saul begins proclaiming Jesus in Jerusalem and some Jews again plot to kill him. He is then sent to Caesarea—where if you remember Philip is—and from there to his hometown Tarsus.
Something happened to Saul on that road to Damascus that changed him from a persecutor of the church to a defender of the faith. We will dig deep to uncover what happened to Saul. But first let us hear the text for today. I have asked Clem to read the text for us.
Do you know that there is a similarity between Jesus and Judas? Both of them died hanging from a tree. Given what we know about Judas what would you say if you met someone who claimed that Judas was God’s deliverer? Would you nod your head politely, thinking all the while, “This person’s quite insane”? Or would you present objections to this person’s claims and try to convince him that his claims were faulty? Or would you initiate legal proceedings against this person for holding such a belief? This final option seems quite unlikely. After all, we live in a country where the freedom to adhere to one’s beliefs is upheld. The church and state travel parallel tracks that do not meet. But what if you were living in a country where religion and politics are knit together in a bond somewhat like marriage? And what if the measure of both your faith and your patriotism depended on your taking precisely such a drastic measure as Saul did?
If you can imagine what such a world would be like, you will have, at least in part, entered the world of Saul of Tarsus. A practicing Pharisee, Saul was educated by Gamaliel, whom we read about in Acts 5. The attitude of patience toward the church that Gamaliel advocates seems to indicate that he belonged to the school of the Rabbi Hillel, a liberal Pharisee, who was the founder of one of the two main branches of Pharisaism in the first century.
Like any good student, Saul did not agree with his teacher on all counts. And the issue of leniency toward blasphemers was one of the issues over which he disagreed. Blasphemers should be dealt with as suggested in Torah—killed by stoning. And so Saul supervised the stoning of Stephen. Over this issue Saul agreed with the more conservative school of Rabbi Shammai than with the school of Hillel. It is quite possible that the leniency of the Hillelites fit poorly with the zeal he had for God’s truth. He quite probably went over to the school of Shammai.
But why did Saul think that the early Christians were blasphemers? In the sermon on Stephen, we saw that because Jesus died on the cross, he was evidently under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. Saul would have known about the manner in which Jesus had died. He also would have heard from other Pharisees that Jesus had been doing miracles by the power of Satan. That is, after all, an accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees in the Gospels. To Saul, therefore, Jesus was a sorcerer, a magician, a messenger of the prince of darkness, who was deceiving the Jews so as to worship demons rather than God. And Deuteronomy 21.18-23 is clear about what should be done to such people. They were to be put to death on a tree.
So Saul concluded that Jesus was under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23 because he had tried to lead the Jews away from worshipping God. According to Saul, God had vindicated himself by putting Jesus to death.
But along comes this bunch of Galileans—uneducated, untrained, and unsophisticated. And they were saying that this Jesus was alive and they were doing miracles like Jesus. So Saul concluded, if Jesus had been working with Satan, surely his disciples also were. And they were lying about what God did to Jesus. After all, if Jesus was under God’s curse how could he be alive? And how could he have been God’s deliverer? That was absurd. God’s deliverer was to be victorious over the enemies of Israel, but Jesus was put to death by Pontius Pilate, an official of the enemy. Jesus could not have been God’s deliverer. He was only a seducer of God’s people. He deserved to die. And the followers of Jesus also deserved to die because, like Jesus, they were lying about God.
It is in light of such thinking that we should see Saul’s persecution of the church. He was not an evil man. He was not killing for pleasure. His persecution was not sadistic or malicious. Rather, he was being as true as one could get to Deuteronomy 21.23.
With such zeal he gets a warrant for the arrest of the Christians in Damascus. Now on Saul’s way from Jerusalem to Damascus, something happens to him that changes his perspective completely. He sees a bright light, is blinded by it, and hears a voice that asks him, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul responds with a question, “Who are you, Lord?” to which the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” A very brief exchange between Saul and Jesus but one so filled with power that the way in which Saul viewed the world changed.
“Who are you, Lord?” This is Saul’s question. During his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Saul gets at the same issue but from a different angle. Jesus’ question starts with the knowledge of Jesus and then moves to identify him in terms of known categories—a prophet, or Elijah, or Messiah. Saul’s question starts by acknowledging that the person addressing him was Lord and then associates a name with the office. This difference is crucial. Let me explain. During his ministry, Jesus’ disciples had full access to him. They knew his habits, his manner of speaking, the things he did, and the way he treated others. Given this knowledge of him, he was asking his disciples to fit him into a known category. Soon after Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus rebukes him for not understanding the Messiah’s call. In other words, even the office of Messiah, into which we think Jesus perfectly fits, was not so clearly defined as to fully describe Jesus. Jesus, one could say, was a square peg in a world filled with circular holes. In fact, no human can be adequately described by predetermined categories. Therefore, we should avoid labeling people for a label produces a one-dimensional caricature, not a whole human.
In contrast to the disciples, Saul starts with the confession that the person addressing him was Lord. Saul had identified the hole correctly. He now had to find the peg that fit. Saul could not have started where the disciples did. After all, he had no personal knowledge of Jesus. All his information was hearsay. He could only start by identifying the role. But what did he see? What made him conclude that the person talking to him was Lord? And what did it mean to say that someone was Lord?
Luke actually provides us with this information in Saul’s words. But after twenty centuries of Christianity we have become blind to it. Luke tells us that, after Ananias ministered to him, Saul began to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.
Now the phrase ‘Son of God’ is a title. And it does not imply deity. In the Old Testament, the Israelite king was called ‘son of God.’ Prime examples are 2 Samuel 7.14 and Psalm 2.7. Israel itself is called ‘son of God.’ Hosea 11.1 is one example. In other words, ‘son of God’ refers either to God’s king, or to God’s people, or to both.
Here a word of explanation is in order. I affirm Jesus’ full deity. At the same time I also insist that Jesus’ deity rests not on the title ‘Son of God’ but on the witness of the earliest Christians that he revealed God perfectly. In other words, Jesus is God but not because Jesus is called ‘Son of God.’ We should resist the temptation of reading into the New Testament concepts that were hammered out during the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. That would not only be irresponsible, but would obscure what scripture is attempting to tell us.
So by calling Jesus ‘Son of God’, Saul was saying that Jesus was God’s king and an essential part of God’s people. Being an essential part of God’s people meant not being under God’s curse.
So let’s go back to Saul’s question: Who are you, Lord? By identifying the person speaking to him as ‘Lord’ Saul was identifying the person as king. But more importantly, because Saul was a member of God’s people, he was saying that the person addressing him was Israel’s king. The person was at the right hand of God and was reigning over the world. The person was God’s anointed one or Messiah.
Can you imagine what Saul felt when he saw the heavenly vision? In Isaiah 6, we hear of Isaiah’s vision of God sitting on the throne of heaven. Isaiah did not plan the vision any more than Saul did. Rather, just as heaven opened up to Isaiah, heaven opened up to Saul. Both of them were, as it were, summoned into the throne room of the universe to catch a glimpse of the real situation. Isaiah recognized Yahweh as the one on the throne.
Saul, however, grasped for a name by which to call the king. “Who are you, Lord?” or “I know you are king. But what is your name?” And given that in the bible one’s name reflects one’s character, Saul was asking, “What is your character?” or in context, “What kind of a king are you?”
“What kind of a king are you?” Why did Saul have to ask this? What did he see that was shaking him? Luke provides us with no clues. But in order to explain Saul’s transformation from one who inflicted suffering on others to one who desired to suffer with Jesus and for Jesus, I believe there is only one answer. Saul saw something similar to what John saw in Revelation 5. In that vision God holds the scroll of history and asks for someone worthy to come and open it—that is, put history into motion. Initially no one is deemed worthy and John begins to weep. Then an angel tells him, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” John turns to look. But, instead of seeing a fierce lion, roaring loudly, and spreading terror, he sees a slain lamb standing before God. A weak slain lamb held the authority to unveil history.
I believe Saul saw something like this vision. He saw someone at the right hand of God who could only be God’s king. But—and this is crucial—this person bore the marks of crucifixion!
“Who are you?” he asks. “This does not fit my picture of a king. Yet this one is a king. What kind of a king is this? How does he rule and conquer?” And the answer stared him in the face: This is a king who has conquered by dying willingly for others—a strange way to rule, an absurd way to conquer. What could Saul do? His theology and his experience clashed. His doctrine said that God’s king would vanquish God’s enemies and kill them. His vision said that God’s king vanquished God’s enemies by letting them kill him. Something had to give. The conflict between theology and experience was tearing him apart.
Now I have often heard Christians say that we cannot base our theology on experience. I have heard them say that we move from doctrine to practice. But here we have a valuable corrective because Saul surrenders his theology in light of his experience. His vision altered his doctrine. Many of us might feel uncomfortable with this. But if we believe in a God who reveals himself with wisdom that seems foolish and strength that seems weak then we cannot have it any other way! After all, to believe that God reveals himself is to believe that apart from this revelation we would be ignorant of God.
At the same time, it does not mean that experience always holds sway. As I just said, we have here a valuable corrective—something that brings the issue back into balance. Theology and experience are two sides of the same coin that comprises faith. There may be times when we need to hold on dearly to our theology despite all evidence to the contrary in our experience. And at times our experience might be so strong as to require a change in theology. Theology and experience are not related in a static one-directional manner. Rather, it is a dynamic two-way street with each affecting the other.
Now we don’t have to be ashamed that, at times, we rely on our experiences. That would be a cause for shame only if we assumed, as the heirs of the Enlightenment incorrectly assumed, that thought is the highest capacity of humans. That is blatantly unscriptural because according to Genesis 1 the highest capacity of humans is to imitate God.
And this is what changes Saul. In his vision he sees that God was quite pleased with his king. Otherwise, God would not have exalted the king to his right hand. This means, of course, that God had declared that his king had perfectly imitated him.
So Saul asks, “Who are you?” It is not enough to know that God’s king has conquered by dying, that God’s character is revealed most clearly in the submission of the king to undeserved death. The identity of this king is all-important. “What is your name?” is what Saul asks and Jesus tells Saul his name. Yeshua. That is Jesus’ name in Hebrew. And it means Yahweh is the Deliverer. Jesus’ name encapsulates his role. He is the one through whom Yahweh delivers his people. And the deliverance comes through his death.
Having received this revelation, Saul is left with it—and only it—for three days. He is blinded so that the vision could work on him. For if he had been able to see, the things he saw—primarily the fact that the Romans still ruled over the Jews—would have distracted him from the vision and made him doubt its veracity. Three days of sheer darkness that nevertheless shone a bright light on the way things really were. Jesus was alive! He was God’s king. But what about the crucifixion? What about the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23? And Saul then realized why Stephen died as he did, why he was able to forgive even as he was being killed. Jesus, by virtue of his innocence, had placed himself under the curse—and had transformed it into a blessing. Death was now not something to be feared. Rather, death was but a doorway to Jesus’ presence. Indeed, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. That was what enabled Stephen to die in faith. And what fruit his death produced!
In the first sermon on Acts I had said that the decision to find a replacement for Judas was wrong. I had said that Jesus had a twelfth apostle in mind. That is what Stephen’s death made possible. Saul, Jesus’ twelfth apostle, first encountered Jesus in the death of Stephen. At the time, he viewed this willingness to die as a crutch, a sign of weakness. However, when Jesus showed him that it was through this weakness that he had conquered, Saul became Jesus’ twelfth apostle. Like Isaiah who, upon receiving the vision of Yahweh on the throne, was sent with a mission, so Saul, upon receiving the vision of Jesus on the throne, was sent with a mission.
So what does all this mean for us today? Jesus still sends people, and in this sense we could say some people have apostolic ministries. But there are only twelve apostles of the original kind. At the same time, there is much to be done. Large parts of the world are non-Christian or nominally Christian.
Later in Acts Saul—then called Paul—says that he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Now you and I may not feel called to be great evangelists as Paul was. But have you received any such vision? Has God shown you something? Is some concern gnawing at you? Do you lose sleep over it? Does it occupy your waking thoughts? If so, I urge you to share the vision. You never know who else will catch the vision and fly with you. You never know if your vision is only a part of a larger vision.
And if you haven’t received a vision, it does not mean that life goes on as usual without any change on your part. All of us can ask ourselves a few questions. Why don’t we all just demonstrate more love instead of being torn apart by hatred or indifference? Why don’t we share both our joys and sorrows rather than being afraid of appearing vulnerable? Why don’t we actively work to bring peace instead of supporting explicitly or implicitly all sorts of violence and war? Can we not act with patience rather than in haste? Why haven’t we treated each other with kindness instead of being rude? Why do we not consider the welfare of others before ours instead of looking out for number one? Why don’t we exercise self-control rather than be tossed about by every fickle fad? Why would anyone want to be like us when we are no different from most others?