On Facebook, I saw someone talking about a movie they saw.
The first person said they were watching a movie: “It’s about a guy’s wife who is brutally murdered by a serial killer who leaves his son physically disabled. In a twisted turn of events, the guy’s son is caught up in the killer’s net, and he must track and chase the killer thousands of miles with the help of this mentally deranged chick.”
The second person said, “oh yeah, what movie was that?”
Sometimes, what we expect isn’t what we get. It’s all in the ‘hook.’
Today, I want to introduce you to one of the heroes of the church: the Apostle Paul.
I could’ve called the sermon “Crazy Guy Who Murders Christians For Fun Ends Up Knocked Off His Ride By A Blinding Light, Meets Jesus, Snakes, Shipwrecks, Ends Up In Prison, And Helps Start The Early Church.”
A little wordy, I admit, but seriously…
When we first meet the apostle Paul, he’s no apostle. He’s the cold-hearted, rule-following Pharisee named Saul who holds the coats of the men who stone Stephen do death (Acts 7:58). By Acts 8, it says that Saul approves of Stephen being stoned, and that while godly men buried Stephen’s body, “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). You might be confused if you never heard this story before: seriously, this is the guy who wrote his fair share of the Bible?
It’s truly amazing the way that God works, constantly turning zeros into heroes. But the conversion of Saul is one of the spectacularly life-changing experiences anyone has in the Bible. To understand the kind of faith involved in the Epistle to the Romans that we’ll start looking at next week, we need to understand the author first – the man who rose up as a persecutor of the Christians and became their strongest advocate.
In Acts 9, Saul is on a one-man mission to destroy the Christians. Jesus has risen into heaven and his disciples are sharing what they have experienced with others, but to Saul, Christians are just heretics, people who are watering down the Jewish law and belief system. And they must be eradicated, destroyed.
Saul is so fired up about what he believes that goes to the high priest in Jerusalem, and asks for letters condoning the arrest of Christians in Damascus. Having received those letters, he sets out on a journey for Damascus that doesn’t go the way that he thought it would at all.
On the road, before he had arrived in Damascus, “a light from heaven” flashed around him. Can you imagine what made that happen? Can you imagine what that would’ve been like to see and experience? I imagine today that people would say that they’d been abducted by aliens or something!
But Saul falls down – and we know that his eyes are closed – as a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Now, think back to Matthew 25:31-46 where the shepherd, the king, separates the sheep from the goats, and neither the sheep or the goats remember ever interacting with him. Here, Saul has no idea who this voice speaks for or why the light has shone down from heaven. He doesn’t understand, and so he asks, “who are you?”
Unlike the answer that Moses got from God (“I AM WHO I AM”), the voice says that it is Jesus whom Saul has been persecuting. Right away, Saul knows that what he has been doing to Christians is associated with the voice from heaven. When he opens his eyes, he’s blinded – and the people around him are stunned. It’s implied that Saul somehow saw Jesus but the soldiers with him only heard him fall to the ground amidst the blinding light.
After three days of waiting, not eating or drinking, Saul is visited by a man named Ananias who God sent to him. Ananias is wary of going to see Saul because he knows what he is really like, and God says, “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.” Think about that for a minute: God sent a faithful person to instruct an unfaithful person about how God was going to use him!
Ananias prays over Saul and he’s miraculously cured of the blindness. Actually, Saul is cured from his blindness as God fills him with the Holy Spirit and he is baptized. He thought he could see clearly as he followed Jewish teaching, he couldn’t see when he was blinded, and now he can see again physically but he can also see spiritually as well.
Now, we’re going to look at the short version of Saul’s life from here on out.
Saul begins to learn more about the early church – and even preaches about Jesus as the Son of God to the surprise of everyone who knows what he used to be (9:19-22). There’s plenty in Romans to unpack, but think about that moment in Saul’s life for a moment. Is there ever a time when people who know you before you met Jesus or maybe before you got “serious,” look at you and go, “But, but, but, I know that guy…”
For Saul, who grew in his ability to communicate the gospel, who had been trained as a Pharisee, who knew lots of head knowledge before God filled him with heart knowledge, having met Jesus on the road to Damascus meant he had to share. But it says that enough people saw him preach and still remembered what he was like, so a plot to kill him originated among the Jews, and he had to be let down through a hole in the wall out of the city (9:23-25). Saul made it back to Jerusalem and those disciples were too afraid of him – they thought he was part of a sting operation! But Barnabas shared Saul’s story and the Jerusalem church welcomed him. Still, he had to flee again when the Hellenistic (or Greek) Jews tried to kill him, all the way to Tarsus.
Because of Barnabas, Saul ended up working with the Greek Jews in Antioch, sharing his story and teaching them about Jesus (Acts 11). Soon enough, Saul is helping to disciple John Mark, and the Holy Spirit sent Saul and Barnabas out to share the good news with those who had not heard. They were the first missionaries of the church, blazing a trail of the gospel into a world still holding to the legalism of Judaism without understanding the grace of Jesus.
Along the way, Saul makes a stand boldly, having been captured by Jesus’ love but possessing the personality of a fighter, an orator, and a person of deep conviction. He talks down a sorcerer who was preventing others from hearing the good news, he presented the gospel as important to both the Jew and the Gentile and was kicked out of city after city for doing so, he healed a lame man (14:8), he was left for dead after a stoning (14:19), and he and Barnabas kept planting churches.
That’s when it gets really interesting. Some of the Christians who were Jews first went to some of the churches formed by Gentile Christians (those who weren’t Jewish first) and said that they had to be circumcised – they had to become Jewish first. This obviously concerned those churches, and they sent Paul and Baranbas to Jerusalem to speak on their behalf.
Paul argued, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (15:7-11).
Ultimately, the final ruling came down to the viewpoint of someone who had lived with Jesus, and heard him preach. Jesus’ brother, James, said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
By Acts 16, Paul and Barnabas have parted ways, but Paul has taken another mentee, Timothy, under his wing. When Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, begging him to come and help, they got up and went there. They ended up in Philippi (where we get Philippians) and Paul befriends one of his best supporters, Lydia. But things weren’t always kosher. After casting a spirit out of a girl who others were using to make money, Paul and his other mentee, Silas, ended up in prison.
It says that Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns, that the other prisoners heard them, and that the result was a violent earthquake that freed the prisoners. But Paul and Silas stayed so that they could minister to the jailer and his family, and all of them were baptized. When they were ordered freed, Paul showed his feisty personality – he refused to leave until they apologized for falsely imprisoning them.
In Acts 17, in the midst of traveling to Thessalonica and Berea, Paul gave his most famous sermon. He was debated by a group of Greek philosophers, who said that they wanted to understand what it was Paul was saying. They weren’t necessarily saying but they wanted to test out these theories. So Paul stood up, and this is what he said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Of course, like any sermon, some people got it and some people didn’t. In fact, some of them made fun of Paul to his face!
Along the way, Paul made some great friends (Aquila and Priscilla), who were part of the church of Corinth. And God continued to encourage him, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”
Paul’s preaching influence grew as he influenced people to understand the Holy Spirit, and to recognize the kingdom of God. It says that for two years he preached to Jews and Gentiles in Asia so that all of them heard. Seriously. He traveled everywhere he could, like the early church’s version of John Wesley, preaching and teaching anywhere that he could be heard.
Now, I promised that this would be the highlights of the story of Paul. I would be remiss to ignore that one night while Paul was preaching, a young man fell asleep as (the NIV says) “Paul talked on and on” – he literally bored someone to sleep! But Eutychus, the young man, was sitting in the window, and as he fell asleep, he slipped out of the third story window and fell down, and died. What a tragic ending to the sermon! Thankfully, Paul threw himself on the young man and raised him from the dead. Whew.
After Paul was arrested for stirring up the people – for basically becoming a threat to the Jewish status quo – he kept telling the person in charge that he wanted to speak to the emperor about Jesus. The official would say something like “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Paul would not give up, would not back down – he believed that everyone, even the emperor, should know.
But even on the trip to Rome, to meet the emperor, Paul was trying to save everyone else. He knew that the ship they were on was not meant for the season of sailing and he told the captain of the centurions, but the man wouldn’t listen (Acts 27:23-28:2)
A terrible storm rose up, and they tied ropes underneath the bottom of the ship to keep the boat together. But soon they had to throw cargo overboard, and finally, the tackle was abandoned. When they finally had gone for days without food, Paul first said, “I told you so,” and then worked to build up their morale. “Now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. “
At the end of the second week, they ran aground on a sandbar, and the centurions intended to kill the prisoners to keep them from running away. But Paul’s life was spared, and he was safely ashore to ready for his trial… and he was bitten by a viper(28:3-6). Everyone expected that he would die, but he never showed any ill effects. For two years, Paul wrote many of his letters from chains, under the watchful eye of the Roman centurion (28:16-31). He was even allowed to preach while in chains, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.
Next week, we’ll get into the first of his Epistles, Romans. But as we do, I hope you’ll reflect on the life of Paul. A Jesus-hating, Christian-beating Pharisee who saw a vision, realized his mistake, and pursued his calling to share the good news no matter what it cost him.
If Paul isn’t a Pharisee first, then he doesn’t know the Bible well enough to argue it before scholars and religious leaders.
If Paul isn’t a Roman, then he never ends up before the emperor, as his right to appeal.
If Paul isn’t an outsider first, then he probably never understands the importance of sharing the good news with the Gentiles.
If Paul doesn’t meet Jesus, then the early church, the Bible, and our lives are forever changed.
But Paul had to accept all of those if/thens to be the person he became, what about your life is God willing to use to be a blessing to others? Even if it feels like a burden, or a curse, right now.
What are you willing to give up in the name of following Jesus?
Have you had that moment where God has grabbed your attention, or are you just skating by?
How can your life be used by God to share the good news of forgiveness and grace found in Jesus Christ with people you haven’t even met yet?
The good news of the gospel, the message of the kingdom of heaven, was the real deal for Paul. He knew he was putting it all, even his life, on the line.
Are we willing to do the same?