FEARLESS Saul / Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17; Acts 9, 22, 26)
A very country-fied family—husband, wife, and son—went to a very large city for the first time, checked into a 4-star Hotel, and were bedazzled by the grand surroundings. As they headed for their room, the wife stopped at the gift shop. While waiting for her, husband and son stared at the ornate elevator, not really knowing what it was. Before long, an elderly lady hobbled to the elevator, went inside, and closed the door. About a minute later, the elevator door opened and out came a beautiful young woman. Instantly, with no hesitation, husband patted son on the arm and said, “Quick, boy, get yo’ mama!
“…therefore if any man be in Christ He is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We of all people should know well that Jesus makes old lives new! What the country folks thought the elevator did, Christ really does in a different way. As we are seeking vision and courage to go to work more effectively for the kingdom, today we’ll visit the inspiring story, the Saul-to-Paul story, a new creation story!
In many respects, he was an unlikely choice, but God chose him anyway. In my lesson, I may call him Saul, Paul or even Saul-Paul. Saul was his Jewish name, Paul his Gentile name. I think he answered to either all of his life and used whichever most blessed his efforts to tell people about Jesus. In Jewish company, Saul, in Gentile company, Paul. He himself said, “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV)
Before meeting Christ, he was Saul, devotedly Jewish, religiously anti-Gentile. He tells us his story in several places: Acts 26:5, Philippians 3:5, and 2 Corinthians 11:21b-33, et.al. Boiled down… He was a Pharisee (strict, legalistic keeper of Moses’ Law in tiniest details)… had the equivalent of a Ph. D, earned from the best Jewish professor of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel… well-positioned among the Jewish religious elite. He might have been in line for a high position, perhaps on the Sanhedrin, the Jews’ Supreme Court. And he knew Jewish Scripture through and through, what said about God, and what it said about the Messiah.
Saul was pro God but strenuously anti Jesus. Jesus didn’t fit the popular Jewish Messiah mold of a national leader and victorious warrior. Rejecting Jesus as the long-promised Savior made him a passionate persecutor of Christianity which he saw as a threat to the traditional religion of his people. We could call him rabid. Proof would be him making threats of imprisonment and execution against followers of The Way (early Jesus movement name). His life goal was to “punish” The Way followers however he could, anywhere they were. He ran out of Christians to persecute in Jerusalem, but pursuing his agenda with gusto, he was given authority to go to synagogues in other cities to find Christ-followers, and finding them, men or women, he had permission to bring them as prisoners back to Jerusalem.
Let me give a bit more background... As The Way grew rapidly, Jewish religious higher-ups became enraged. One day a Christian evangelist named Stephen was preaching about Jesus, offering undeniable proofs that He was the promised One. As they seized him and dragged him out of the city to “stone” him to death, Saul approvingly participated as guardian of the brick-throwers’ clothes. Stephen’s death was the opening salvo of the intense persecution Saul may have led. Many Christians feared for their lives and left the city (cf. Acts 8:1-4), “scattering throughout Judea and Samaria…” but “[they went] everywhere preaching the word." Of course, Saul wanted to pursue them. Luke describes him as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Paul himself informs us that he “persecuted the followers of this Way to their death” (Acts 22:4). He had a single-minded mission to destroy the infant church and stop the movement… also his own words: “I too was convinced that I should do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did” (Acts 26:9-10). Saul was probably like us – a fervent believer in God, doing what he believed God wanted him to do! He described himself so while offering a legal defense of his activity for Jesus before King Agrippa: I am a Jew… born in Tarsus but brought up in this city… trained in the law of our fathers under a man named Gamaliel… I had a passion for God!! But I persecuted followers of Christ’s way to their death, arrested men and women, and also punished them as well! (Acts 22:3-4). No denying that Saul was devoted and passionate… he wrote later that His Jewish brothers had “…a passion for God…, but… not a passion based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). That was who he had been, avid but not enlightened. His problem is a common one: he knew about God but he didn’t know God! He was so simmered in party-line thoughts and expectations of the Messiah he had no way to see Jesus of Nazareth fitting them. He was certain he was doing God’s work, unaware all the while that he was harming the God he loved! Do you know his conversion story? On his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to continue persecuting The Way there, Jesus stopped him in his tracks along the way with a flash of bright light and a voice that buckled his knees, asking, “Saul why are you persecuting me?” Startled, unsure of who was asking, he asked the Voice, “Lord, who are you?” Jesus identified Himself, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, the One you’re persecuting… go into Damascus and you’ll be told what you must do there.” One blinded to the Light was now one blinded by the light! One who in-tended to hit Damascus like a whirlwind of God’s punishment was led in stunned, blind, and helpless… to be changed from persecuting Saul to preaching Paul, stopping The Way Saul to spreading The Way Paul… death bringing Saul to life bringing Paul… Christian murdering Saul to nearly murdered for Christ Paul, defiant against Jesus Christ Saul to devoted to Jesus Christ Paul.
He became Jesus’ bond servant to tell the Gentile world all across the northern Mediterranean world that Jesus died on a cross but was resurrected to save them all, and all men. Saul/Paul preached Jesus everywhere he went or was sent, and his message always contained this statement: “It’s a faithful saying worthy of being fully believed and accepted: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the greatest” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Jesus moved him from prominence to serving as a slave, his passion in the right place, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and he lived in love, joy, contentment… and FEARLESSNESS. So he would write, “Rejoice in the Lord all the time” (Philippians 4:4) and “I have learned to be content in whatever situation I’m in” (4:12) and “I can do all things through Christ who gives me His strength” (4:13). Think “buried with Christ his Redeemer and a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)! Think the country folks’ elevator, Saul stepped into God’s “elevator” and got Jesus’ real transforming power.
You can see it in other places in Scripture: the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, Zacchaeus, all the eleven apostles (and others) after the resurrection. People are radically changed when they really see and meet Jesus. I believe Saul’s remaking was underway before he heard the Voice on the Damascus highway, but he stubbornly resisted… As he later told King Agrippa his story he related something obscure and easy to miss Jesus said on the road: “it is hard for you to kick against the goads” [Acts 26:14]. The NIRV says there, “It is hard for you to go against what you know is right.” Was he not impressed with the manner in which Stephen died? It’s unheard of for a fellow being stoned to pray for his killers. Was he not impressed by how Peter and John behaved so FEARLESSLY as they were tried and flogged by the Sanhedrin? Surely he would not have disagreed with Peter – that God’s people must “obey God rather than man.” Like an ox resisting a yoke and plow must be goaded into plowing, God was pushing Saul by his encounters with Christians to open his heart to see Jesus. Some say Saul changed because he had an ulterior motive… maybe wealth or fame. But he already likely had both those things. And with Jesus, though he certainly became famous, he also became poor. Some want to say he was insane. Governor Festus thought so… maybe because a guilt-ridden conscience. But Saul/Paul himself said that his conscience was clear (Acts 23:1). He said that he once behaved out of ignorance but God gave him mercy for it [1 Timothy 1:13]. Read his letters. You will not see the writings of someone detached from reality. Only one thing explains it… Saul saw Jesus who redeemed him and recreated him, washed away all his sins, and made him Paul, the Gentile apostle. Changed from persecutor to persecuted, he would also lead the charge in “turning the world upside down” for Jesus by FEARLESSLY telling his Jesus Story, unashamed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” And he wrote over half of the New Testament to share it with us. He saw Jesus more than once, probably spent time in Arabia and time in visions with Him. Yet as his life drew near its end, he burned to know Jesus more and better: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, share in the fellowship of his suffering, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10-11).
Many a thought in his epistles model FEARLESSNESS and strength for us as we face the world, as we attack it, as it attacks us: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)
If God is for us, who can be against us… (Romans 8:31)
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21)
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, [a] 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, (Colossians 1:8-11)
I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. (1 Timothy 1:12)
At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 2 Timothy 4:16-17
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6)
Jesus can accomplish His kingdom here in this place, in our day, by us, if we will give our hearts to Him like Paul did and simply understand that we must FEAR-LESSLY tell people about Jesus everywhere , all the time. Remember our “Who’s Your 1?” year… Starting today, let’s make our lives a “Tell Your 1” life. Make your own bold plans to FEARLESSLY turn Bono and the Westside School District area upside down for Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.