Summary: His name had been Saul, but that - along with his entire life - was changed when he met Jesus. What changed him and what can we learn from his experience?
OPEN: There is a story about a little girl who proudly wore a shiny cross on a chain around her neck. One day her preacher noticed how proud she seemed to be of her pretty cross, and said to her,
“Honey, don't you know that the cross Jesus died on wasn't beautiful like the one you're wearing? It was an ugly, terrible, wooden thing."
The little girl smiled and said: "Oh, I know that. But they told me in Sunday school that whatever Jesus touches, He changes.”
(From a sermon by Howard Strickland, "Another Testimony", Sermoncentral.com)
Whatever Jesus touches… He changes.
And that’s what our story today is all about.
Jesus touched Paul, and Paul was never the same again.
Now, before we get to our text for this morning, I want to introduce you to Saul.
Of course, those of you who know the Bible well, know that Saul was Paul’s name up until he became a Christian, and after his conversion he eventually became known exclusively by the name of Paul.
Saul was born a Jew in a city called Tarsus down on southern coast of what now call Turkey. Somewhere early in his life, his family moved to Jerusalem and while there Saul had the opportunity to study at the feet of a man named Gamaliel, one of greatest Jewish Rabbis of the day.
Saul was a man who took his faith seriously.
He later described himself this way:
“(I was) circumcised on the eighth day,
of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;
in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
as for zeal, persecuting the church;
as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Philippians 3:5-6
One day he might have grown up to be decent Jewish rabbi. Perhaps he'd have been even greater than Gamaliel himself … if it hadn’t been for Jesus.
Saul hung out with the Pharisees and the Pharisees despised Jesus.
They had nothing good to say about Christ.
And this distaste for Jesus was something Saul would have shared with Pharisees.
So when Jesus was arrested – Saul was probably in the crowd as they cried out:
CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!
But now Jesus … is dead.
And Saul’s thinking: Good riddance.
Good riddance to bad rubbish.
But then there were these rumors that Jesus wasn't dead.
Rumors that He had risen from the dead and appeared to His followers.
And Peter and John - those ignorant fishermen from Galilee - they had been out preaching to crowds of people about this Jesus. They even have the audacity to stand before the Sanhedrin and defiantly refuse to cease their false teachings.
Saul is furious.
How dare these ignorant men challenge the Sanhedrin, the leaders of his people?
That would have been bad enough, but then, there was this fool of a man – this Stephen - who stood before the crowds and lectured them about their history as a people of God. And then this Stephen said that God didn’t need the Temple for worship in, and concluded by saying:
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” Acts 7:51-53
When Saul and the other men in the crowd heard that “…they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” Acts 7:54
Have you ever had anyone gnash their teeth at you?
I don’t have any idea how you could do that, but these men were obviously enraged.
But it was when Stephen said he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God that pushed them over the edge.
Acts 7:58 tells us that when Stephen said that “They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
Why would these men stone Stephen to death?
Because they believed he was introducing a NEW GOD.
Deuteronomy 13:6-10 “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him.