Today intro on the Apostle Paul, the author of Ephesians and about 1/3 of the NT is either about Paul, or written by him. After Jesus, Paul is clearly the most influential person in the history of Christianity. Some would say Paul wrecked Christianity, more would say that what Paul did prevented Christianity from fading into history as a minor Jewish sect.
The change Jesus brought into Paul’s life is one of the most dramatic stories and radical transformations of a person that you can imagine. Saul or Paul (Saul, Jewish name, Paul Roman name) was born to a prominent Jewish family in Tarsus, capital of the Roman province in what is now Turkey. We know his parents were prominent citizens, because Paul was a Roman citizen from birth. It was relatively rare for Jews to be Roman citizens as citizenship had to be granted by a significant Roman government official.
Paul was born about 5-10 years after Jesus’ birth. At some point he went to Jerusalem as a young man to receive training in Judaism. He undoubtedly heard a lot about Jesus and may have even heard Jesus teach.
Paul was very bright and became a Pharisee at a young age. He describes himself as being “zealous after the Law.” And zealous he was. He was passionate about his faith as a Jew and devoted to its heritage and traditions.
With his sharp mind, Paul could see how this new group, who said Jesus was Messiah and was raised from the dead, that they represented a serious threat to everything Paul held dear. So, Paul became a self-appointed enforcer against “The Way,” as the followers of Jesus were first called. He considered what they were doing was blasphemy against God and should be punished by death.
Acts 8 describes the martyrdom of Stephen—who publicly testified that the new way in Jesus must replace the old way of the Law. Guess who supervises the brutal stoning execution of Stephen? That’s right Paul. He was in charge of the execution. So let’s take a look at what happens to Paul next.
Outline Acts 9: 1-19
Meanwhile, (after the execution of Stephen) Saul(Paul) was uttering threats with every breath. He was eager to destroy the Lord’s followers, so he went to the high priest. 2He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. 3As he was nearing Damascus (150 miles from Jerusalem) on this mission, a brilliant light from heaven suddenly beamed down upon him! 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” 5“Who are you, sir?" Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7The men with Saul stood speechless with surprise, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice, but they saw no one! 8As Saul picked himself up off the ground, he found that he was blind. 9So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days. And all that time he went without food and water. 10Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord!” he replied. 11The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you arrive, ask for Saul of Tarsus. He is praying to me right now. 12I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him so that he can see again.”
13“But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! 14And we hear that he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest every believer in Damascus.”
It would be like saying Osama or Omar had met Jesus while escaping the US attacks and should be accepted into the Christian family.
15But the Lord said, “Go and do what I say. For Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel…17So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may get your sight back and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19Afterward he ate some food and was strengthened.
Several things to learn from Paul’s experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus:
#1. God has a plan in everyone’s life
Paul had a plan. He had it all figured out. He was gonna bag some Christians. Be Super-Pharisee—Save the day for Israel and God. Make a name for him self. Rise quickly through the ranks; maybe become the youngest ever High Priest. And then Paul’s plan was interrupted. He was apprehended by Jesus.
Sometimes we’re cruising along in life and think we’ve got it all figured out. We’ve got our plan and everything is working just fine and then wham!
Something hits us between the eyes. We may think it is just our circumstances, somebody else messes up, or we have a health scare, we get a pink slip at work or a close call on our commute—but is that all it is?
When God interrupts or apprehends us, we may think, “Maybe God is talking to me, but I’m not sure…maybe what happened was just a coincidence.”
There are no coincidences—just God-incidences. God has a plan in everyone’s life. He can use anything in our circumstances, life and relationships to speak to us.
Look at Eph. 1:4 “Long ago, even before He made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in His eyes.”
God chose us to be in Christ before the foundation of the earth. That’s God’s plan for our lives. But look what He chose us for—to be holy and blameless—refers to two processes.
1) What we are in Christ—in our position before God—because of Jesus’ obedience and death on the Cross. God looks at you and me He doesn’t see all the junk, the dumb mistakes and sins. He sees us holy and blameless, without blemish or sin. Pretty cool! He looks at us through the lens of Jesus.
2) But the in language Paul uses, the grammar, it also refers to God process of transformation in our lives—God chose us for that process of transformation—to become holy and blameless—which is the constant, never-ending process of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
Implicit in God’s choosing of us is the process of transforming us into the people He intends us to be. God chose us to change us!
So that gives us a very different perspective on our circumstances—good or bad.
It helps us say: “Jesus what are you trying to show me in this situation. Jesus what are you trying to teach me here—how are you trying to change me?”
Fortunately, Paul had this changed perspective in his own life. Of course, Jesus was pretty forceful & direct with Him, blinding him and giving him some focused time to think about the error of his ways. And sometimes Jesus will be more forceful & direct with us, than He is at other times.
Because you see, #2. God can change anyone
Eph. 3:7-8 “By God’s special favor and mighty power, I have been given the wonderful privilege of serving Him by spreading this Good News. Just think! Though I did nothing to deserve it, and though I am the least deserving Christian there is, I was chosen for this special joy of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ.”
Paul is certainly evidence of the amazing ways God can change a person’s life. He was one of the least likely persons on the face of the earth to become a follower of Jesus. It sorta sounds like he has poor self-esteem, calling himself the least deserving Christian. But Paul does not have a poor self-image, he simple is stating the facts. He was a persecutor, a terrorist against Jesus and His followers.
Paul knows he didn’t deserve the grace and forgiveness of God. He deserved God’s judgment. But then none of us deserve grace and forgiveness. It is a completely undeserved, unearned gift from God.
No matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, no matter who you have hurt, no matter how many times you have turned your back on God, no matter how resistant you have been to God’s love—God can change you.
God wants you to recognize the fact that He loves you, He has always loved you—and He calls you to this incredible relationship with Jesus.
#3. God doesn’t waste anything in our lives
In the vision Anaias had Jesus said: “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel…”
Why did Jesus choose Paul? Trained as a Pharisee, Paul understood the Law, cold communicate the Gospel to Jews. But, Paul’s disciplined and brilliant mind understood more than anyone else, how God intended for His love to transcend the limitations of Judaism. He could put it all together how the history and religious heritage of Israel were designed by God to lead up to Jesus and to taking the Gospel to the whole world.
Paul also grew up in the Gentile world, and so he understood and could communicate the Gospel clearly to Gentiles. He grew up in a prominent family, he knew the world of the powerful, and knew how share the Gospel with the successful and leaders of the world.
Paul was so convinced he was right in persecuting Christians and then Jesus showed him he was dead wrong. That 180 degree turnaround helped Paul understand and communicate better than anyone else, how Jesus’ death and Resurrection fulfilled God’s covenant with Israel and opened the doors of the Kingdom of God to all people.
But God also used Paul’s weaknesses. He may have had a debilitating and painful eye ailment that plagued him much of his life.
2 Cor. 12:8-10 “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Reading between the lines of the NT, it is pretty obvious that Paul was motivated, passionate, bright and had strong self-confidence and without this “thorn in the flesh” perhaps Paul would have been prideful and self-directed, and therefore much less dependent upon God, much less likely to follow God’s leading.
So God doesn’t waste anything in our lives. You may be going through a difficult time right now—God doesn’t cause that suffering, but He loves you so much he will use it to your advantage, draw you closer to Him and help you become more effective in your faith.
Some of the most difficult experiences and times in my life have given me the most growth in my faith. God has used some of the really tough stuff in my life to help others.
Just one example, and there are many. I’ve been a pastor in six different churches. Some of my seminary buddies have been in 2-3 churches in the same period.
Some of the churches I’ve been in have been very difficult ministries, very painful ministries. But here’s another God-incidence: This church went through a very difficult and very painful time 6 years ago, when the founding pastor was asked to leave.
God used my painful and difficult experiences in churches to prepare me for my ministry at Mission Springs—How to help this church go through and grow through the pain.
Now I’m not saying I did all the right things, gave perfect leadership for every situation. But, I do believe God used my painful experiences to teach me patience with the process of getting healthy and used it to help me recognize His work in the painful, difficult times. And this year we have begun to see the fruit of this church’s difficult and painful times and mine.
I have never been more excited or more positive about a ministry than I do now. I’ve tried to put positive spin on things on many occasions, but this is not spin, this is the truth. It going to be fun to see what God does here in 2002!
#4. True significance in life is found in serving Jesus
Acts 20:24 “But my life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about God’s wonderful kindness and love.”
When Paul said this he was saying goodbye to the elders of the church at Ephesus, where he had spent the last three years in the most positive ministry of his life. But, he believed God was leading him to go to Jerusalem, where he faced certain persecution, imprisonment or even death. But Paul knew where true joy came from. He knew where his the real source of significance, meaning and purpose was—in serving Jesus Christ, wherever Jesus would lead him.
Paul traveled about 18,000 miles by land and sea during his ministry. From Jerusalem, to SF and then across the country to NY City. Paul probably walked close to 10,000 miles in his ministry. He was arrested and imprisoned on many occasions, beaten and left for dead twice, shipwrecked three times, hated, 5 times given 39 lashes, a brutal form of punishment.
In 2 Cor. 12 “I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry, and thirsty and gone without food, shivered with cold with not enough clothing to keep warm.”
If you asked Paul, who was eventually imprisoned in Rome and executed for sharing his faith, if you asked him if he would do it all over again, he’d answer: “in a heartbeat…”
I’d have to agree—there is no greater experience of joy, purpose and significance than serving Jesus Christ and being part of His family. I’d like to invite you to join the celebration.