"Saul Meets the Saving Sufferer"
May 23, 2010 Acts 9:1-19
FROM BOUNTY HUNTER TO BASKET CASE
This past March, a movie called "Bounty Hunter" came out featuring an ex-cop hired to hunt down and bring to justice his ex-wife. It's a comedy, with some complications to the plot that make it not so straightforward as one might think. But in real life, the work of a bounty hunter can be less than humorous. For over half a dozen seasons now, the A&E channel has featured a reality show called "Dog the Bounty Hunter", starring an actual bounty hunter named Duane Chapman. Looks like a rather intimidating guy you wouldn't want on your tail! One of Chapman's sayings is, "You can run, but you can't hide." Sort of like the saying about the Canadian Mounties, "They always get their man."
Now, I expect you're all for the most part law-abiding citizens that don't generally stay awake at night worrying that a bounty hunter is going to come knocking at (or down) your door. But what if being a Christian were illegal, and you actually had a bounty hunter after you? What if you received a report that someone fiercer than Dog - someone 10 times more zealous, and duly authorized by the authorities - was coming to your community to arrest all the believers and try to force them to blaspheme or be imprisoned? Would you find that scarey? Would that make you reconsider whether this Christianity thing is really worth it? Would you take the easy way out, or stick with the hard way of following Jesus?
Saul was a bounty hunter. It's not there in the Greek, but what he was doing amounts to the same thing - tracking people down and hauling them up before authorities, in chains, for punishment. What's his profile? One commentary sums up Saul's unique qualifications this way. "He was of the tribe of Benjamin; his father, though a Jew, had been admitted to Roman citizenship, and Paul was therefore a 'Roman'; he was born at Tarsus, a Grecian city, the capital of Cilicia; there he had become familiar with Grecian literature, as well as educated in the law; ...while still young he went to Jerusalem to study in the great Rabbinical schools, and had the celebrated Gamaliel for his teacher; he had, according to Jewish custom, learned a trade, being a tent-maker; he was a Pharisee after the strictest manner of the sect...when we first behold him he is a young man, prominent and influential, active in his opposition to the church, and a trusted leader of its enemies." In several of these areas, God was preparing Saul for great impact in missionary service to Greeks and Jews, princes and peasants - though he didn't know that yet.
Saul as a hyper-devoted Jew felt it his duty to weed out heretics and blasphemers, particularly the followers of this so-called 'Messiah' Jesus of Nazareth. Note the intensity in these phrases from Acts describing his efforts. "Saul began to destroy the church;" "all the harm he has done;" "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?"; Saul in his own words in 22:4 recalls, "I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison;" 26:11, "Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them." Note he terms it an obsession! And later in his letter to the Galatians he notes, "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it." (Acts 8:3, 9:13&26, 22:14, 26:11; Gal 1:13) Do you start to get a sense for how fearsome this bounty hunter was?
So we meet him in 9:1, "still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples" - "breathing out threatenings and slaughter" the KJV puts it. Death practically oozed from him. Commentator Robinson says, "threatening and slaughter had come to be the very breath that Saul breathed, like a warhorse who sniffed the smell of battle. He breathed on the remaining disciples the murder that he had already breathed in from the death of the others...The taste of blood in the death of Stephen was pleasing to young Saul and now he revelled in the slaughter of the saints both men and women."
And you thought Dog was intimidating! Saul was at the very 'peak of the pack'. In his zeal to stop the Christians who had mostly fled from Jerusalem, he obtained letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest and incarcerate any who'd gone to Damascus - an important city at the junction of many trade routes. If this new religion flourished there, vast zones far beyond could also become infected.
So, Saul en route to Damascus was an imposing, fearsome figure, sort of a one-man religious SWAT team. Right here is where God begins the process of abasement, lowering and humbling this proud independent got-it-together Green Beret, bring him to the ground - grinding him down to become a most useful tool for God's purposes. 9:3 a light from heaven flashes around him (so bright it blinds him - in v8 when he opens his eyes, he sees nothing). V4 He fell to the ground, perhaps his knees buckled beneath him. Many illustrators picture him falling from a horse, but I don't think so - in v8 his companions 'led him by the hand into Damascus' which I don't think they would do if there were a horse or two handy. They were so zealous for their cause they'd come nearly 150 miles on foot.
Then in v6 another step in abasement: "You will be told what you must do." It really gets in the way of your initiative when you're told to wait until someone else brings further instructions. Independent Saul was suddenly very dependent on others - in fact, dependent upon the very people he was coming to persecute. He would be blind, helpless, completely at their mercy; might they take revenge for all the hardships he'd caused so far to both men and women? (As an aside, think about the grace in the greeting of Ananias: "Brother Saul..." Calling someone 'brother' who'd been coming to throw you in prison and maybe torture you? To be accepted by them and welcomed as a 'brother'? Unthinkable!
There was yet another step in Saul's lowering, to complete dependence on God's grace. After his conversion, he became so powerful in debate in the synagogues proving that Jesus was the Christ that (v23 says) the Jews conspired to kill him. Imagine, the tables were turned, now they're out to do away with their own Terminator! V24, the city gates were guarded in order to kill him. What to do? V25, "But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall." How humbling! How helpless! The bounty hunter had become (literally) a basket case.
So, what was Saul learning through all this? First, that Jesus is alive, is Lord, and has chosen Saul for a special mission. The meeting on the road to Damascus was not a 'vision' but a direct encounter; that he had met and been commissioned by Jesus in person became the basis for Saul's apostleship. 1Cor 9:1, "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" When the Lord speaks in v5, "I am Jesus", the I is emphatic, there are echoes of Yahweh's "I am" statements. Saul had seen with his own eyes, he was convinced. V20 "At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God" - Son of God in the Messianic sense, the special agent sent to save humanity. V22 he baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. All the prophecies in Scripture suddenly made sense; His eyewitness encounter provided the hermeneutical missing key that suddenly made all God's promises about the coming Messiah hang together.
This Risen Lord, Jesus, had set Saul aside for a special mission. Christ had a particular job for him to do. Saul gives more details of his commissioning when testifying before Governor Festus and King Agrippa in Acts 26(16-18): Jesus had said, "I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."
Note that last phrase, 'sanctified by faith in Me.' A second important learning here was that Jesus gives the Holy Spirit. In v17 Ananias says he's been sent so Saul can not only see again but also 'be filled with the Holy Spirit.' Jesus sanctifies by His Spirit, makes us holy as He is holy. Today on the anniversary of Pentecost we recall the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church 50 days after Passover and Jesus death / resurrection. Be sanctified by faith in Jesus: trust Him fully, receive Him, commit yourself to following Him, and He will fill you with the Counselor, His Spirit of holiness.
And a third surprising learning for Saul here is that Jesus identifies with the church and is pleased to delegate awesome tasks to His disciples. What's the first thing Jesus asks? "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" Saul had only been hounding Jesus' followers, not Jesus Himself; yet still Jesus speaks as if it was Him Saul had been harming and throwing in prison, attempting to destroy. The point is repeated in v5 when Saul asks whom he has the privilege of addressing: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus is one with His church, He feels our pain, He identifies with our suffering and hardship. Jesus has a mystical union with His followers. Matthew 10:40, "He who receives you receives me..." 25:40, "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." John 15:4f, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you...I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit..." That's so wonderful!
Notice how Christ shows the reality of this connection. He tells Saul in v6, "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." Would it not have been easy for Jesus to tell Saul what He wanted right then and there, and leave hesitant Ananias out of the equation? Of course! But instead, Jesus chose to delegate it through the Body, sharing His power through us church members. He's designed us to be His hands and feet.
GRACE TO BLESS YOUR WORST ENEMY
What f you'd been Ananias? Suppose you've heard reports of those 'terrible things' (NLT 9:13) Saul had done in Jerusalem, and now this terrorist is coming after YOU! Would you have been quick to sign up?
So there's Ananias, simply going about his own business, trying to stay alive, when suddenly the Lord calls to him in a vision and says to go to a certain house and ask for this man Saul, for (v12), "In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." Now isn't that just swell! "Thanks a LOT, Lord! Why'd you have to pick ME!"
This is the testing ground for faith - where the rubber meets the road. Jesus has a special assignment for you - will you accept the risk involved, and trust Him to look after the outcome if you obediently do your part? Do you believe He knows what He's doing and will make things work out, even though it looks like it's going to take quite a stretch on your part, and things are pretty scarey at the time? Obviously Jesus must have faith in you, or He wouldn't have asked you to do it.
The Lord reassures Ananias (whose name means "The Lord is gracious") by giving him a peek at the big picture. V15, "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel." Three important categories - and Saul was remarkably suited by his lifelong preparation to present the Good News to each of those groups. A lesson here is that God is pleased to work amazingly in and through the people you might least expect. God is the God of the impossible. So don't look down on anyone, the Lord may be pleased to do great things through that someone.
It would be totally understandable if Ananias were not too quick on the uptake, on account of being afraid of the risk. It might entail suffering - after all, this Saul is the guy who'd been clapping believers in jail, willy-nilly! But Jesus gently reminds Ananias that risk and suffering are to be expected in living for Him. Our Leader IS the Crucified One! Mt 10:25, "It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!" Are you ready for what's coming on account of your being a Christian?
Yet what Jesus asks of Ananias in going to meet Saul is as nothing compared to what He'll ask of Saul. V16, "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." What's that supposed to mean?
Saul (later called Paul) is the apostle who suffered much - who was brought by God through many near-death experiences. Jesus showed special grace to Saul in making him like the Eveready Bunny. In retrospect Saul wrote to the Corinthians, "I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?" (2Co 11:23-29)
Risk? Suffering? They would be Saul's everyday experience. Yet, did he consider himself hard done by for that reason?
Saul/Paul came to embrace suffering as part of the mystical union with his Saviour, Jesus. Philippians 1:29, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him..." Romans 8:17, "...we are heirs-- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." 2Cor 1:5, "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death..." And one last one, Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."
Who talks like that these days? It seems the North American church is missing this whole piece about the place of suffering in our connection with Jesus, our Saving Sufferer.
HOW READY ARE YOU TO RISK FOR JESUS?
Are we ready with Ananias to step up to the plate, and do the difficult thing Jesus asks of us? The thing that's risky, may be painful, but which will allow His grace to be released in a hurting world?
In a ChristianWeek editorial titled, "Move beyond 'Slacktivism'", Doug Koop tells of a young woman who was ecstatic with benevolence, saying, "I just raised $2000 for earthquake victims in Haiti." A listener asked how. "I just texted a special number 200 times; every time you text it adds $10 to the account." At that point her listener asked if she realized the donation money was coming from her account, and that it would show up on her next phone bill!
It's easy to be benevolent when it doesn't seem to put us out or cost anything. Koop challenges readers to move beyond 'slacktivism' to real activism, to be like "those who leap into action with genuine compassion, sacrificial generosity and long-term interest in the well-being of people other than themselves." To commit like Ananias in spite of the risk.
An email from the Christian Heritage Party this week focused on the case of Linda Gibbons, a grandmother whose pro-life interventions at abortion clinics have garnered her over 7 years in prison. Her crime? Merely explaining to women who were willing to listen how they could avoid the complications of abortion and be spared the regret she herself experienced after her own decision to have an abortion in years past. In early June her appeal of the 60-foot arbtrary zone surrounding abortion clinics will be heard. This most recent incarceration for her will have been 500 days long - that's nearly a year and five months, just for telling women what their doctors won't. Our country has sacrificed about 3 million lives to the abortion idol, but Linda's efforts have saved over 100 babies who were on their way to the mill. Is there a risk? Definitely. Is it worth it? Linda Gibbons seems to think so.
What are you prepared to suffer for the sake of Him who died to wash away your sin and who gives you His Holy Spirit, sanctifying you by your faith in Him? Let's pray.