I preached for the first time this morning at my new home church, Sylva Church of Christ. In fact, it was the first time I’ve preached in five years! A friend asked if I’d post my notes, but I didn’t write any beforehand. In fact, I asked my church family this morning that if I couldn’t do this from memory, how could I expect them to remember it? But this is what I remember saying and reading (or at least preparing to say):
Good morning and thanks for coming this morning, especially if you heard in advance that I was going to speak. And a very happy Veteran’s Day. If you served, thank you for your service to our country. I don’t know whether you were conscripted or volunteered, but this morning we’re going to talk about how the Lord recruited one of the great soldiers of the cross, Saul of Tarsus.
If you’re visiting with us, our church family’s study of the book of Acts of the Apostles has brought us to chapter nine. But first, to set the stage, we have to roll back to chapter eight. Luke is writing his two gospels in what I believe to be chronological order, so to us he seems to skip from one subject to another. Two weeks ago, Jonathan Wade shared with us a lesson from the stoning of Stephen, which ends with these words:
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Then Luke tells us what happened with Philip, and that provided last week’s lesson from chapter eight. But we pick up with the church in trouble, in chapter nine, verse 1:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Some things worth noting: Damascus was something of a travel hub to the rest of the Roman empire from Jerusalem. Saul was a strategic thinker. He probably thought that the place to stop the spread of this new threat to his religion was the place where the believers would likely go after the persecution that began on the day he watched the coats for Stephen’s execution. Instead, the Lord put a stop to Saul.
(If you missed our Halloween trunk-or-treat, Russ Seagle answered the call to dress like a person or thing from Acts by becoming Saul, and taking our coats in exchange for a coat-check slip.)
A light from heaven strikes Saul blind, but the men with him could see no one; they hear a sound, yet (as Saul-renamed-Paul tells us in chapter 22, verse 9) couldn’t understand it as a voice. So there was really only one witness to what happened here.
(By the way, I hope you like this story, because if we continue to study Acts, we’ll hear it two more times as Paul retells it to a hostile crowd in Jerusalem in chapter 22 and to King Agrippa and Governor Festus in chapter 26.)
Saul sees a light, and hears Jesus. He falls to the ground. A few years ago, I did a little study of scripture and discovered that most of the time, when people encountered God face-to-face, they fell to their knees and sometimes on their faces. I made a commitment at that time to kneel when I pray — you may have noticed me doing it, and I hope it doesn’t disturb you — but it’s my reminder that Whom I’m talking to is the almighty God who created all things, yet is as close as our hearts are willing to draw near to Him.
Saul is struck blind, and the Lord lets him stew about it for three days. Just about the amount of time it takes to get from a cross to the garden outside an open tomb, coincidentally. That had to be frustrating for him. We’re told he didn’t eat or drink those three days of his entombment in darkness. I’ll bet he was fasting. He was a Jew of Jews, and it was the custom to fast while praying. You hardly ever read about fasting in scripture unless prayer is in the same verse, or as in this case, just a couple of verses away. Saul had a lot to fast and pray about.
Don’t you imagine he was praying: “Lord, I didn’t know! I thought I was doing the right thing for You! Please – what can I do to undo the suffering I’ve caused?” But there wasn’t anything he could do to make that wrong right. Jesus alone could, and did, all that could be done. Saul wasn’t ready to hear that yet.
Did you notice that Ananias was told that the Lord would show Saul “how much he must suffer for my name” rather than “how much he will accomplish in my name”? Saul was still steeped in the law, an expert in the fact that sin has consequences. Learning that he would suffer might have even given him some comfort at this point. He wasn’t yet ready for grace. We learn much of what we know about God’s grace from the pen of Saul, later named Paul. But not yet.
And what about Ananias? He had every reason to be frightened about what the Lord told him to do. But he did it. He went right to the house on Straight Street, put his hands on Saul’s shoulders, and called him “Brother Saul.” He had already accepted Saul as a brother. Ananias lived up to his name, which means: “Grace from God.”
So that brings me to the first of three simple points I’d draw from this chapter:
Sometimes God calls people.
Noah comes to mind. Abram and Sarai. Moses. Samuel. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each has a moment to bow in awe before God and an opportunity to do what God asks, whether it’s large and lifelong like Saul … or small and short, like Ananias. Except for Paul retelling this in chapter 22, we don’t hear about Ananias again. But what he was called to do was important.
Let’s get back to the text in the last part of verse 19:
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
23 After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
There’s no indication in scripture that anyone ever preached a gospel sermon to Saul. I’m guessing he already knew what the believers believed; what they did when they believed (because he was baptized). He was a sharp fellow; studied under Gamaliel. Probably was ready to prosecute the cases he was prepared to bring back to Jerusalem. And wouldn’t you guess that almost every time Saul dragged a believer off to jail, he got a sermon from them?
“Saul, how can you not believe? Don’t you see that Jesus’ life fulfills Isaiah 53? His death fulfills Psalm 22?”
The wonder is that Paul begins preaching right away. It’s almost like he can’t help himself; he has to preach! He can’t wait to start doing what he can to un-do the damage he’s done. His audience is confused; isn’t this the one who opposed the Way? — And isn’t that a wonderful name for the believers to be known by back in verse two? Jesus described Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life … now with His Spirit in them, they are that “Way.”
He’s so good at this preaching, that no one can argue with him. So they do what has become the new normal; instead of responding in penitence, they try to kill him. Saul has to be sneaked out of the city away from the assassins in a basket let down from the city wall.
(That, by the way, was Jonathan’s costume from Acts: a brick-colored sweater and a necklace made of a little basket with a toy army man in it, standing in for Saul. He was the Wall of Damascus.)
Does that remind you of something from the Old Testament? It took me back to the story of Princess Michal, who let her husband David down through a window when her father the king was trying to kill him. And her father’s name was … yes, Saul. One of those little ironies of scripture that I find fascinating.
Verse 23 says that it was “after many days,” and it could have been a significant part of the three years that Paul mentions later in Galatians 1:18. “After many days,” Saul came to Jerusalem, where you’d think he’d be wanted by the high priest and charged with dereliction of duty at the very least, and he tried to join the disciples. Like Ananias, they were understandably scared of him. I’d have been afraid he was a kind of double agent, trying to infiltrate the ranks of believers in order to learn who they were so he could arrest them. I’m scared of speaking up; I worry: “Will it cost me my job? Harm my family? Ruin my reputation and influence?”
But not Barnabas.
Barnabas was willing to stick up for Saul. That brings me to the second point I’d draw from this chapter:
Sometimes God lets people perceive the need and step up to the plate.
You’ll find a lot of people like that in scripture, too: Miriam follows baby Moses in the basket down the river and reunites him with his mother … Deborah, Israel’s judge, becomes a military leader … Nehemiah longs to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall … Esther places herself in danger to speak up for her people, threatened with racial extinction. You can probably think of dozens more. They all saw the need, stepped up to the plate, and did what had to be done.
That’s what Barnabas did. He lived up to his name, which means “Son of Encouragement.” He put himself on the line. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been for Saul to do the work that the Lord had in mind for him if the apostles had not been on board with it? Barnabas introduced Saul to them, and told them what Saul had been doing in Damascus. To their credit, they took him in. And Saul went right back to doing what he couldn’t keep himself from doing: talking to anyone he could about Jesus. This ran him afoul of the Grecian or Hellenized Jews, who found they couldn’t win an argument with him and they, too, wanted to kill him. Once again, he has to be sneaked out and shipped off, this time to Tarsus, his hometown and a place where people knew him — as well as a place remote enough that it would be difficult to track him there to kill him.
But that last verse in this section serves as a counterpoint to chapter eight, verse three. The church rests from persecution for a while, and grows in strength and numbers. It says they lived in the fear of the Lord, and I don’t have a problem with the word “fear;” I think it means more than respect. God is a loving and merciful God, but He is also a just and righteous God who hates sin and will ultimately destroy it. You don’t want to be standing too close to sin when that happens.
Now Luke switches gears and locations and tells us another story in the order it happened, and it’s about Peter; let’s pick up in verse 32:
32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”
39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
Tabitha is yet another example of someone who saw a need and stepped up to the plate, and met the need. She brings me to the third and last point that I draw from this chapter:
No act of kindness or service is too small to glorify God.
Tabitha didn’t have a huge ministry that required a board of directors or tax advantages or donation robo-callers. It probably took a lot of her time, her hands, and her heart. She made clothes for widows and helped the poor. She took Jesus at His word when He asked us to look after the poor. And it meant the world to them. If she hadn’t been who she was, she wouldn’t have been loved and missed so much when she died — and what was done through Peter in bringing her back to life wouldn’t have had near the impact. The verses here say that “many believed.”
Tabitha may have been the closest thing to Jesus living in Joppa, and there she was, live as ever after being sick and dead, a living testament to Jesus’ power to bring life to those without one. Tabitha’s Jewish name and her Greek name, Dorcas, meant “gazelle,” an animal known for its beauty, grace and speed. Her name probably brought to mind to her Jewish friends the words of Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Tabitha lived up to her name.
That’s the challenge before us this morning: to live up to our names as Christians.
- Truth is, God calls us all — maybe not in a spectacular way, with a light that blinds us — but it is the light by which we are to walk. He calls us through His Son, His Word, to live lives that glorify Him.
- He waits for us to perceive the needs of those around us, and to step up to the plate to meet those needs.
- And He encourages us with the fact that no act of kindness is too small to glorify His name.
If you don’t know that name, or the story behind it, you’re invited to ask any of us here at Sylva church and we’d be delighted to tell you more about Jesus and why we believe Him.