Text: Isa 43:1-10; Ps 71:1-16; Acts 9:1-22; Luke 24:44-48
Introduction (Saul > Paul)
Testimony: This has been a pressured week. I had to deal with various very painful situations in people’s lives when I was in Melbourne Wednesday-Thursday, I got into the car at Perth airport with a very teary wife in the context of a daughter-in-law who had commenced a 42 hour labour which ended in an emergency caesarean.
But as I was out praying in the midst of all this I felt such a power of joy inside me; a joy stronger than anything, a joy stronger even than death.
This is the presence of the risen Jesus who has conquered all suffering and evil for us; the Jesus Saul saw on the road to Damascus (Rom 8:31-39).
The one great thing that makes Paul so important for us is the unique revelation he had of Jesus.
Though he was ethnically a Jew, culturally an ancient, intellectually a genius and an extraordinarily gifted missionary it is his relationship with Jesus that connects him with us.
Contrary to our natural opinions about Paul it through his very human struggles that Christ comes alive to us; he speaks unashamedly of “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:28 cf. Phil 2:28)
“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 2:3-4 cf. Acts 18:9)
and most tellingly, “we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:8-9).
The profile of Paul’s weaknesses in his letters is so strong that it can prove embarrassing.
I was in a meeting with some pastors and when one of them was proclaiming that a real Christian could never be depressed, I confronted him with Paul’s words about his personal struggles; this man was left speechless.
There is a however one great difference between Paul and us, all his personal references to fear, despair and anxiety occur within the context of fulfilling God’s call on his life to reflect the reality of Christ’s resurrection.
The depths of Paul’s life struggles are intimately tied to his religious background.
Saul before he met Jesus
In describing himself as “a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. v.6 … a zealous…persecutor of the church. ..who…obeyed the law without fault.” (Phil 3:5-6)
Paul identifies with those Jews who had taken up arms over the generations to preserve the pure identity of Israel (Num 25:1-13; cf. Maccabbees).
Before seeing Jesus Saul would have approved of those radical Jews who recently set fire to a church by the Sea of Galilee and graffitied its walls with slogans condemning Christians as idolaters and worshippers of false gods. Saul hated Christianity as a perversion of Judaism because in his eyes it was a religion worshipping a man.
As dux of the famous rabbinical School of Gamaliel Saul’s theological framework was highly developed (Acts 22:3). Messiah would supernaturally appear, crush the gentile nations by force, initiate the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement and rule on God’s throne in a restored Jerusalem with a renewed temple to which the conquered gentiles would come up to worship (Pss Solomon 17:21-24). Saul was living a life that reflected this image of the military Messiah for whom he was waiting. The Christian message that through a crucified Messiah the Gentiles could come to God without keeping the Law of Moses was a heresy that had to be eliminated (1 Cor 1:23).
When Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus his dearest views were turned upside down; Messiah had already come, been crucified by his own people and the very gentiles he was meant to conquer, the sins of the world had been removed apart from the Law, the resurrection of the dead and judgement had begun in Jesus a new covenant, a new Israel and a new creation had begun before the End of the world.
This was a message that had to be taken out to all nations.
The persecutor was turned into an evangelist, all because he saw Jesus!
The Jesus Saul Met
As Saul was travelling towards Damascus with hatred in his heart towards Christians “suddenly a light from heaven shone around him”, this was a direct revelation from the realm of God which brought about such a profound transformation in Saul’s life that only one word can adequately describe it, “conversion” (Acts 9:3).
Saul had a 180 degree turn not through reasoned argument or a troubled conscience but solely by “a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12).
I know several people who have had a personal visitation of Jesus but Saul saw Jesus not as he was during his earthly life or even in his immediate post-resurrection appearances but as he will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).
When the awe-struck Saul fell to the ground he heard a voice that brought terror to the core of his being, ““Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”” (Acts 9:4).
His answer reveals his utter spiritual blindness; ““Who are you, Lord?”” (9:5).
The Lord’s answer, ““I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”” testifies of the intimate unity between Christ and the Church Saul was afflicting (9:5).
As has been aptly said; “When the Body on earth suffered the Head in heaven cried out in pain.” Immediately Saul was cut to the heart and forced to acknowledge that if Jesus was the crucified and resurrected Messiah his life was headed in the totally wrong direction (1 Tim 1:12-13 cf. Acts 2:37).
Over the next three days every religious thought of Saul was reoriented around the Lordship of the exalted Christ (9:9).
He saw that all of space, time and history was created to serve Jesus who possessed a dignity that fitted him to be worship and obeyed as God (Phil 2:10-11; Col 1:16).
The vision of Jesus meant the centre of the kingdom of God had moved from the earthly realm to the heavenly realm where Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God (Rom 8:34; Eph 1:10, 20, 22; Col 3:1-2.
All the this-worldly regulations of the Law of Moses were now irrelevant to salvation which came by grace alone through faith in Christ alone with a gospel of forgiveness to be offered unconditionally to all peoples (Eph 2:8-9).
Paul’s own words sum up this massive shift of worldview, “From now on we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! Therefore if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; old things have passed away behold everything has become new.” (2 Cor 5:16-17).
Every revelation of Jesus contains a call to mission. Paul retells the words of Jesus he heard on the road; “rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared…to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me….to the gentiles …I am sending you…” to turn people “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God,” (Acts 26:16-18 cf. 9:15).
This was a revelation of a destiny so inwardly powerful and identity forming that to resist was unthinkable (cf. Acts 26:14).
When the apostle explains in Galatians, “God set me apart before I was born” he unveils a prophetic call and exposes an inner conviction that this call on his life existed from eternity (Gal 1:15 cf. Jer 1:5; Isa 49:1-6).
His direct authority to deliver men and women from spiritual darkness and demonic oppression was that he had been there himself and was now delivered by the Lord. His conversion experience was at the heart of his preaching and his changed life living proof of the gospel message of God’s victory over evil (Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:3-8; Gal 1; Phil 3:12 etc.).
The radical transformation in Saul’s life made him a living image of the future transformation of the whole creation through the power that raised Jesus from the dead. But witness to a resurrected Messiah involves testimony to a crucified Messiah (cf. Isa 43:10; Isa 52:13-53:12).
Suffering with Jesus
Ananias was commissioned by Jesus to tell Saul straight up, “how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:15).
Paul’s unique apostolic authority flows from his likeness to Jesus via experiences of suffering-and-deliverance.
Like Jesus he will preach powerfully but be rejected by his countrymen, like Jesus he will work signs and wonders, like Jesus he will be a friend of sinners, like Jesus he will suffer great injustice (John 1:11; John 12:40; John 19:4; Acts 9:29; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:3; Acts 26:32; Acts 28:26-27 etc.).
In contradiction to much popular preaching the apostle’s beatings, stoning, imprisonments and rejections are the key to his extraordinary Christ-like power (2 Cor 11:24-27).
His was “the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sufferings” in him Christ’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 4:8-10; 2 Cor 12:9; 2 Cor 13:4; Phil 3:9-10; cf. Col 1:24).
The life of Jesus was revealed again and again through Paul’s many deliverances from death (Rom 8:25-37; 2 Cor 4:8-10).
I was talking with Donna about this the other day and she remarked that Paul’s life was a “cruciform” life; a cross-shaped life punctuated by repeated deliverances through Christ’s resurrection power (cf. 2 Cor 1:3-11; Gal 2:20).
This rhythm of grace is the secret of Paul’s life; but I have yet to mention the core revelation of a transformed identity which Saul received on the road to Damascus.
Identity in Jesus
That immediately after his conversion Saul “proclaimed Jesus…saying, “He is the Son of God.”” tells us that the deepest revelation at his conversion was that of Christ’s Sonship (Acts 9:20).
The evidence convincing Saul that Jesus was the Son of God, or, to put it in more sharply, that God had become man, was the resurrection.
The resurrection revealed that Jesus’ relationship with God was so deep, intimate and essential that he had always been God’s Son and God had always been his Father.
This became Paul’s message; “ The Good News is about God’s Son…declared to be the Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit when he was raised from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3-4).
Shaped by this true gospel message the Early Church was humanly weak and afflicted, but their unfailing testimony in the midst of many persecutions that Jesus had been raised from the dead ultimately converted the evil Roman Empire.
BUT I have omitted one essential element of Jesus’ message to Saul through Ananias, ““Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus…has sent me so that you may…be filled with the Holy Spirit.”” (Acts 9:17).
Only when Saul is filled with the power which raised Jesus from death will he be able to fulfil his apostolic commission.
Only the Spirit who raised Jesus from death as Son of God can witness to us that we share by adoption this power of sonship.
In Paul’s words to the legalistic Galatian Christians; “God sent his Son …to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own sons v.6 And because we are his sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.”” (Gal 4:4-6).
Saul’s conversion involved turning away from trying to please God through keeping the Law to receiving the unconditional pleasure of God as Father in Christ (Gal 1:15-16).
At the root of the crisis overtaking Anglicanism in this city it is the failure to experience the difference between what it means to be a servant in the Church and what it means to be a son of God living in the resurrection power of Christ’s Spirit. Alison loves to tell the story of a bishop in the U.K. who when retired spent all his time ministering in Anglican churches teaching the poorly taught, harassed and confused parishioners the difference between the drudgery of dutiful servanthood and the delights of sonship in Christ.
Every convert to Christ now has the light which Saul saw on the road to Damascus living inside them; “God…has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.”(2 Corinthians 4:5-7).
Every convert to Christ has the light of his resurrection power inside them enabling them to reveal him to others. Saul was told to bring light to the nations that they might turn “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God,”; in a day when the darkness of sin and power of Satan is intensifying all around us this is our call to (Acts 26:16 (9:15; 13:47)
To meet Jesus as Saul met the glorious Jesus on the road to Damascus will revolutionise your thinking, free you from your idolatries, impart to you the reality of sonship and fill you with the Holy Spirit’s power to tell others he is the resurrected Son of God (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:5).
As the apostle proclaims, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).
Paul was unashamed to share the gospel in the midst of a life full of tribulation, trial, poverty, sickness, rejection, mocking and finally death (Gal 4:13).
It was this mixture of power in weakness that made him so like Jesus.
For us to meet and follow the risen Jesus will also mean a life of misunderstanding, rejection and the presence of the power of God in a remarkable way. It will mean a cruciform life. Let me use a personal story to help explain.
In my second placement after ordination I worked under a senior priest = rector who I soon discovered was suffering from burnout; to put it mildly, he didn’t like my type of evangelical spirituality.
After about nine months our family was returning from an interstate holiday and we dropped in to chat with some friends in the town of my first placement. They totally shocked me when they said, “We hear you might be coming back to Shepparton.”
Neither my bishop nor the rector had said anything to prepare me for this news.
When I called the bishop he embarrassingly admitted that the rector had been threatening to starve me out of my placement by withholding funds unless I was moved.
The bishop was very happy to leave me where I was as long as the rector changed his mind.
This information led to numerous delegations of lay-people going to see the rector with much emotion, but all to no avail.
I became depressed and embarrassed enough to see if I could return to high school teaching rather than return to my first placement. I remember lying awake in bed the night before our last service, crying and in a lot of pain. In the end we did return to Shepparton, feeling like broken and vanquished people but obediently holding on to the Lord.
What followed was the closest thing to revival I have ever experienced.
Parishioners were filled with the Spirit, a lady walked in to the church and repented of her sins on the spot, there were experiences of supernatural knowledge and so on.
A cruciform life issues in a life where the power of the resurrected Son of God is put on display. This is the shape of the life of Jesus, this was the shape of the life of Saul, and I could multiply stories to testify this in my life also. It is a life wholly worth living!!
Not everyone is called to be a missionary to the nations, but in the midst of the ordinary aches, pains, sicknesses, sufferings and misunderstandings of life it is possible live a cruciform life that images the death and resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
It is possible for others to recognise you as a convert to Christ and not simply as a good living church goer.
Yet such a transformation in the spiritual culture of St Mark’s will, as in the life of Paul, as in the life of Jesus, bring much misunderstanding, opposition and rejection as well as the presence of the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 6:3ff.).
As Saul followed Jesus so unconditionally from his encounter on the Damascus Rd this is our call today.
Will we follow Jesus, will we obey?
Preached St Mark’s 2.8.15