Acts 9:1-19 (click to display NIV text)
April 22, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ “
The risen Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples a number of times, and then to over 500 people, and then ascended into heaven. Then he appeared to Paul, when he was on his way to Damascus, determined to stop the spread of those who believed in Jesus Christ. In this appearance, Jesus does not speak peace to Paul, as he did on several occasions to the disciples. He does not show Paul his hands and side as evidence that he is risen. He does not have a time with Paul to extend forgiveness or healing, like he did with Peter on the beach in Galilee. He simply asks Paul a question: “Why?”
“Why do you persecute me?”
Paul is stunned. “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
When you meet the risen Lord Jesus it is not always a joyful occasion. Sometimes it is a confrontation. Sometimes it requires you to change your thinking, and your behavior. Paul faces the one he was convinced was dead. He faces the one he thought was a fraud. He was persecuting the believers in Jesus because he cared about them and he did not want them to follow a false prophet, a dangerous teacher who had been crucified. He persecuted them so that they would return to the true faith, so that they would repent and honor God by following the traditions of Israel. But now Paul faced the living Lord Jesus Christ, and realized that everything he had been so convinced about was not true. Since Jesus is risen from the dead, there is no answer to the question Jesus asked. There is no reason to persecute his followers.
If Jesus is risen from the dead, then his teachings are true, and you should listen to him. If Jesus is risen from the dead, then his miracles are true healings from God, and you should follow him. If Jesus is risen from the dead, then he does have power to forgive sin, and you should ask for mercy and you should change the direction of your life. Paul was convinced that Jesus was in fact alive, and he had no answer to the question Jesus asked. He believed, received his commission, stumbled into Damascus and waited for Ananias to restore his vision and baptize him.
What changed in Paul’s life when he met the risen Lord? He stopped persecuting people. He lived by faith in Christ. He received a commission to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.
I see three other deep changes in his soul that resulted from him becoming a follower of Jesus. The first is a change in values. Paul moved from valuing zeal for the Lord most highly, to valuing love in the first place. He writes of love in I Corinthians 13, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” “And now these three remain; faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Before Paul met Christ, he was convinced that zeal was the highest virtue in life. Zeal is the willingness to live completely for God, and the willingness to go to every means to protect God’s honor and truth. It is the willingness to die for your faith, but also to kill for the sake of God. Because of his zeal, Paul was willing to do whatever it took to bring an end to this new way of Jesus. He even went to the High Priest to get letters so he could arrest those on the way of Jesus. It was very unusual for a Pharisee like Paul to go to the Sadducee High Priest, because the Sadducees were much harsher in their judgments than the Pharisees. But Paul was zealous; he was willing to go to extremes for what he thought was right. He knew that Israel could not have a crucified Messiah. He knew the temple practices and traditions must be kept.
When Paul met the risen Jesus, he changed both his mind and his values. No longer could zeal be kept in first place. He found out that zeal cannot discern the truth; it cannot guide a person to God. Zeal needs to be instructed and directed. Zeal must be subordinate to love. When Paul replaced zeal with love, two things happened to him. He ceased to be a violent man, a man filled with anger, even righteous anger. He discovered the strength of the Lord working even in his weakness. He found power in proclaiming the cross of Jesus. The other thing is that he became vulnerable himself. Instead of being respected, feared, well armed and protected, he was himself persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, often without a place to rest. There is a vulnerability in the way of love that goes against our natural inclinations for protection and power. There is also a strength in love, which changes hearts far more effectively than chains and prison cells.
There is a problem with love. It seems to be the longer, more strenuous way. There are always shortcuts to accomplish what we want. Love is patient. We are in a hurry. Love is kind. We need to get things done now. Love never fails. Love is able to guide us in our thinking and actions. It hopes and perseveres and even uses our zeal in doing the work of the Lord. Love finds the way of Christ, the risen Lord. Has faith in the Risen Lord caused you to change what you value most highly, and replace it with the way of love?
Next, meeting the risen Lord caused Paul to change his creed, his “I Believe” statement, from the traditions of the Fathers to the Gospel revealed by Jesus Christ. Alan Cole writes that “the traditions of Israel” were “the increasing body of material that had, over the centuries, grown up around the Torah like a protective fence.” These teachings were found in the Talmud, which had two parts, the Mishna and the Gemara. There was a saying, “The scriptures are water; the Mishna, wine; but the Gemara, spiced wine.” Paul knew the tradition very well, and was deeply committed to it. But when he came to meet the risen Lord, he saw that the tradition was distorting the meaning of the Word of God and not just protecting it. He came to understand a Gospel, revealed by Christ, that led him to a true relationship with God and love for his word. Now he was free to do the will of God.
What does it mean to you to read a revealed Word of God rather than a ma made text? What does it mean to hold to Jesus rather than tradition? The Gospel does not eliminate tradition, except when the tradition distorts the Gospel. But tradition does not always guide us to do the will of God or to fulfill the commission. The Gospel does not eliminate tradition, but it renews it, puts life into it, so that it serves the Lord rather than serving itself. The danger about tradition is that it tends towards comfort and self-protection and away from the teachings and call of the Lord. It tends to move away from risk, but also away from courage, faith and commission. Open your heart to the Gospel. Let it shape your life. Let it be the guide, and tradition the servant.
Finally, when Paul met the risen Lord he gained a new vision. Instead of looking for the Kingdom to come to Israel, he looked for the kingdom to come to the world. Paul always had a great love for his people. In Christ he came to expand that love to include the Gentiles. It is our inclination as humans to place our deepest hope and vision into our children, our family, our tribe, our race or ethnic group, our nation, our people. We make our most significant commitments for “me and mine.” We want the best for “my child,” root the loudest for “my team,” work hardest for “my business,” feel most passion for “my political party,” and reserve our patriotism for “my country.” That seems right, until loyalty and belonging and pride become feelings of superiority and actions of exclusion.
In Paul’s day a Jew had a long-established habit, second nature, that he would add the word “dog” every time he said the word “Gentile.” He did not even have to think about it. When Paul met the risen Lord Jesus, he received a commission to make disciples of all nations. No doubt he had to break some habits of language to do that. His vision of God’s Kingdom changed, so his language changed, his attitudes changed, his politics changed.
When you meet the Risen Lord, he makes changes in your life. New values, new creed, new vision are given, and so that means new thinking, new view of people, new beginnings in how you feel and what you know and how you vote and how you use your money and what you are trying to accomplish in life. When you meet the risen Lord, he changes your heart.