Antioch: A Special Church (Acts 11:19-30, Acts 12:25—13:3)

Some of my favorite memories in my years of ministry have been the opportunities I have had to be with Christians in more remote places where the gospel is not wide-spread. Several times I have mentioned the very great blessing of being with a church in France just four years ago – a congregation of people with whom my college son Jesse associated during his studies there. What a wonderful group of highly committed people! Our church we’ve partnered to help plant in Kazakhstan is another. Just this week a letter has come from the pastor there with pictures of the growth taking place in a less-than-ideal environment. Some years ago I was blessed to be with a group of Iranian Christians in England – a group very similar to that which our friends the Kurtykas are seeing incredible growth in Scotland.

There is simply something very refreshing about a new and exciting work of God. And that is what we encounter in our passages today that talk about the church in Antioch of Syria – a location about 300 miles north of Jerusalem.

Over the years of the Christian church, from Jerusalem down to today in places like China, persecution has served to have the opposite effect of its intent. In the desire to eradicate the presence of the gospel message and associated believers, the hostilities and subsequent sufferings rather have become the impetus for the spread and expanse of the message. It is like trying to stomp out a fire with your feet, only to have that action actually spread sparks in multiple directions that enflame new fires. The early Christian writer Tertullian wrote in his most famous work “Apologeticus” (about A.D. 197) said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The persecution that broke out in Jerusalem upon the death of Stephen was an incident having the effect of spreading the gospel message in varied directions, including to Antioch – the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.

Acts 11:19 – Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

The authoritative center of the belief in Jesus as Messiah and Savior was still in Jerusalem. As we’ve written already in this series, it was still not very widely understood that this new belief system was distinct from Judaism. But with numbers of Gentiles coming to trust in Christ now in Antioch, it began to be clearer that this was an entirely new and more intentionally expansive work of God.

Barnabas was a man from Cyprus who was a Levite, and he was highly regarded in Jerusalem circles; so he was sent to ascertain what was really happening in Antioch. Seeing the Gentiles coming to Christ, Barnabas knew just the person who would be able to make this work flourish – Paul/Saul.  Knowing he was in Tarsus, Barnabas went looking for him to bring to Antioch, which he did. Certainly Barnabas had previously also known from earlier association with Paul that a special ministry to Gentiles was a part of Saul’s understanding of his life’s calling.

Acts 11:27 – During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Acts 12:25 – When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.

13:1-3 – Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Antioch was a sort of church that I would like to see TSF increasingly come to be like. There existed a plethora of gifted leaders with varied skills, but not only this, they were a very varied group ethnically and in terms of background. It was a special place, and it was from this place that God began the first organized mission work to expand the gospel message.

Especially selected for this new work were Paul and Barnabas. The very best leaders in the church were those who were sent to go out to new places with the message of the cross. We can be, and in fact we already really are like the church at Antioch. Imagine what our congregation would be like if the six of our church families who serve in missions work in other places of the world were instead home here with us! That would amazingly enriching, but their calling and work in other places is their (and our) priority. What a privilege to be a part of this work!

The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest thing on planet Earth. What a blessing to be a part of it! Let’s make TSF a special place for the work of the gospel, just as Antioch was in the first century!

The Double Whammy of Being a Turncoat (Acts 9:26-31, Galatians 1:18-24)

When we think of someone who committed treason, probably the first name that comes to the minds of Americans is Benedict Arnold. There is even a saying used when someone seems disloyal … to call them “a regular Benedict Arnold.”

Most folks don’t remember some of the amazing military accomplishments that Arnold accomplished in the early Revolution. He was instrumental in victories at Fort Ticonderoga, and he also used his smaller fleet to prevent the British from seizing New York. His greatest effort was a daring and successful assault at the Battle of Saratoga. He felt unappreciated and plotted the surrender of West Point while switching sides. His evil plans were discovered, and Arnold avoided being captured and went to England. He was never really entrusted with much rank of distinction by the British, while actions such as burning Richmond added to the sense of betrayal by the Patriots. He died in a state of destitution in England in 1801.

It is actually difficult to be a traitor! If you think about it, it is a lose-lose situation. The original group is angered to the core by the betrayal, and the new group never really trusts you since you weren’t a part of them at the beginning. The only way to make it with the second group is to have an advocate, and then to prove your genuine loyalty over time.

This sums up our focus today on the story of Paul in his return to Jerusalem about three years after his conversion to Christ. After the stoning of Stephen, he had risen to a high rank of persecuting Christians; but now he was returning to Jerusalem and essentially continuing the very work that Stephen had done in the promotion of the gospel. This was a defection and changing of teams we can surely applaud. Here are the pertinent accounts in both Acts 9 and Galatians 1 …

Acts 9:26-31 – 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 Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Acts 9:31 – Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Galatians 1:18-24 – Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

It is certainly understandable as to why the apostles and other early believers would be skeptical of Paul upon his arrival back in town. His track record was well-known. Was he being a “Trojan Horse” seeking to fool them?

But Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement” as his name meant, was truly an encourager who saw the best in other people and in what they could be for Christ. He was the ultimate discipler. I think Barnabas is my favorite biblical character, and if I could be one person in the Scriptures, he is the one I’d want to be. We all need a Barnabas in our lives at some point, and the church would be a lot better off if we would choose to see other people in the family as did this man. Do you think like this? Do you consider how God might use you as a person of great impact with a newer or younger believer? Such ministry is at the very heart of our philosophy as a church.

Staying in Jerusalem with Peter for 15 days, just imagine the conversations that took place! Again, Paul’s persuasive debating skills created a large stir and a resultant group who wanted to kill him. So he was taken to the seacoast town of Caesarea about 65 miles from Jerusalem, and from there Paul was sent back to his home area of Tarsus in Cilicia.

Over time, the fruits of Paul’s faith became obvious to the early believers, especially back in his home region. And in Jerusalem there was also a brief time of peace that aided in the expansion of the gospel. But this is a story just getting started. The only believers at this point are Jews, Samaritans and proselytes. But all of that is going to change, and the Apostle Paul will be at the heart of a new spread of the message of Christ to all peoples.

Paul, A True Basket Case (Acts 9:19-25)

Have you ever been gobsmacked? (You can’t see it here in this online platform, but as I typed that word, the spell-check does not recognize it, underlining it in red!).

Is that a new word for you? It is British slang to reference something that leaves a person utterly amazed and astonished. For example, it is that feeling you have every time you hear me preach! Oh… you didn’t connect to that illustration? Really? That leaves ME gobsmacked!

Well today we read about some folks in Damascus who were gobsmacked at the preaching of Paul in his first efforts at proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah…

Acts 9:19 – 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 Messiah.

Before we talk about preaching, you might be wondering about the order of things here. Yesterday we wrote about how the passage in Galatians chapter 1 said that Paul quickly went off to the desert of Arabia for three years, but here it looks like he immediately began preaching in Damascus. It depends upon where the “at once” in verse 20 belongs with the rest of the surrounding words (Greek word order is different than our English translations). Various translations have it at different points, and the different New Testament accounts select incidents without an effort to always be completely thorough with every detail. So some commentators believe that the trip to Arabia happened after the paragraph above (and before the following verses below), while others think that Paul rather soon after conversion went to Arabia and that these events today occurred after he returned briefly to Damascus three years later (and I agree with this).

In any event, Paul’s preaching to the Jews was very powerful and left them gobsmacked… or “astonished.” This same Greek word is used elsewhere in Acts to talk about the amazement on the day of Pentecost by all who heard preaching in their language, or later in Acts 12 when Peter was miraculously released from prison and showed up at the door of the “gobsmacked” folks who were praying (but not really believing) for that very thing to happen!

The preaching of a message of Jesus as Messiah to a Jewish audience, especially by a guy who was clearly remembered to be one who had originally come to town to arrest the early followers of the way, was sure to have a controversial effect. Likely some were persuaded, though surely more were violent in rejection of this message…

Acts 9:23 – After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews 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. 

The same event is recounted by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:30-33 … If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

I have never had to escape a church or flee from town after a sermon (more likely the listeners are the ones escaping). But Paul’s preaching created such controversy that, in the minds of some, the best method to end this was to kill Paul. With a walled city, the only way in or out was to pass through the checkpoint of the main city gate … or have your friends drop you out the window and down the wall in a basket. This was the first of many escapes for Paul in his life. And what an irony that the one who came to do the persecuting soon became the persecuted!

We need to understand that in any day the preaching of the gospel is not popular in a lost world. It is a message that divides. People don’t like being told that they are sinners who are lost, hopeless and spiritually dead and on the road to eternal separation. But once a person’s mind is quickened by the Spirit to understand this truth, it becomes for that person the most precious message of life. Our role is to preach and share the truth. It will not always be popular or well-received. But we must be faithful to do it as our commission to a lost world.

Time in the Desert (Galatians 1:10-17)

One of the grievous annoyances of being in professional ministry is the occasion suggestion by someone that you are in it for some personal gain of either riches or self-serving adulation. Though some ministry “characters” out there on TV or in the broad public eye have managed to make a lucrative profession out of serving God, I’m pretty sure most of the rest of us had other ideas about where we were headed in life – a direction that on most occasions would have netted greater material gain. But some “Damascus Road” experience made for a change in life direction.

In the early section of the letter to the Galatians, it is clear that the Apostle Paul was getting some of this sort of accusatory rhetoric. And to combat it he recalls to their understanding the history of his life and of the roots of his understanding of the gospel.

Galatians 1:10 – Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 – I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 – For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Here in our early stages of the study of the life of the Apostle Paul, this passage is of particular interest as regards his personal testimony. Paul tells the Galatians that this gospel message is certainly not something he came up with himself, nor was it sourced in any human imagination or teaching. No, Paul’s life was radically changed, and the message was one that came to him directly by revelation of Jesus Christ.

The word “conversion” has the sense and meaning of “going in another direction.”  And that is surely what happened to Paul after his dramatic episode on the road to Damascus. A clearly understood part of this revelation was that Paul was going to be especially used to take this truth about Jesus to the Gentile world.

But Paul didn’t just re-book his Damascus ticket for the next week to some Gentile destination to begin his new life work, nor did he quickly return to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles of this Christian movement. No, it says in verse 17 that he went into Arabia, later returning to Damascus and eventually also to Jerusalem (after three years, as it says in verse 18).

So, where is this “Arabia” and what was Paul doing?

When we think of Arabia, like Saudi Arabia, we think of a largely remote area south and east of Israel. Damascus of Syria is to the northeast of Jerusalem. However, at this time in history, both of these areas were largely a part of one Nabataen Kingdom that was centered in modern-day Jordan.

In any event, we can take from this passage that Paul withdrew himself into a remote area after his conversion experience. Obviously his life had changed, and he had much to re-calibrate about the issues of faith, Jesus as Messiah, how this fit with the long-term history of Israel and the revelation of the prophets, and how this message should be communicated to a Gentile world.

This is far from the first time that major biblical figures withdrew for an extended period before they would re-emerge in God’s power with a great message and ministry. We should recall how Moses spent the bulk of four decades in the wilderness of Midian before being called to his great life work. The prophet Elijah wandered in the desert before his great life work, as did the one who later came in the spirit of Elijah – John the Baptist.

And we should remember as well that the other apostles all had three years of teaching and discipleship under Christ himself. Now it was Paul’s time, surely to grow and learn, study and pray. And surely as well there were times when Paul must have thought that life was passing him by.

The Lord often gives all of us certain desert times of personal preparation before He uses us for some ministry project. God likes to sometimes fix us in a sort of “holding pattern” before embarking on a new adventure or opportunity.

This does not always make sense to us. After nine consecutive years of college and graduate school, I was ready to head into full-time ministry. But God let me hang around waiting for almost a full year before leading to my next assignment. There I was in the possession of the finest theological education available on planet Earth … cleaning swimming pools. But looking back, that was a precious year with our first newborn and a productive and enjoyable part-time music ministry.

Multiple times in my life I have felt “stuck” in my circumstances. Surely a good God would have something better and more appropriately fitting for me!  But the Lord likes to say to us – “Wait!” … or some version of “sit in the saddle where I’ve placed you!”  To use a more biblically-based metaphor, he tells us to be faithful today in the place in the vineyard where we are working.

All of this is to build trust and dependence upon God and His timing. So don’t begrudge times in the desert; they are times of God’s design for our good and His eventual glory.

A Tough Assignment for Ananias (Acts 9:10-19)

Once upon a time in my life some years ago I felt a very strong sense of calling to confront a prominent person about a difficult matter in his life. Fearing I might be mistaking the calling of God for indigestion, I essentially told the Lord that if this was to be true that He would have to bring this person whom I knew only casually across my path. Within hours, it happened. It did not go exceeding well, though I came away from it believing I had obeyed God. I did not like that assignment!

But my assignment was nothing compared to what Ananias of Damascus was called to do. Going to meet Paul was probably about like going to North Korea and telling Kim Jong-un to give up the keys to his nuclear program!

Here is the account in Acts chapter 9 …

Acts 9:10 – 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 holy people 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 proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to 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.

Let me ask a series of questions today …

Was Paul looking to find Christ and be saved?  Of course not. It was Christ who found him. We have no reason to believe Paul was anything short of 100% convinced of the truth of his convictions, hence his relentless zeal to carry them out. Salvation is a work of God from start to finish. Like Paul’s blindness, there may have been circumstances in our lives that opened us up to hearing and receiving the gospel, but even those events and our warming heart to truth were the result of God’s working.

Could God have saved Paul apart from Ananias?  Well yes, of course. But God chose to use one of his disciples to be an instrument of His divine working, likely using him subsequently to minister to Paul in the coming months and couple of years. We need to be open to however God may choose to use us, and sometimes it might be a bit scary and awkward.

Are all of the small events of life a part of all of the bigger events in life?  Again … yes, for sure. God is working at all times and in all things. We may often not see or understand it, but God has a larger plan … with connections to the grand plan of building the church and his kingdom. Ananias was a player with a role to fulfill … that Paul might join the team to which he was now called … in order that Paul might be used especially to move the gospel beyond Jewish circles to the whole world … even down to us today. All of the small pieces of the puzzle are a part of the larger puzzle of beauty that God is putting together.

Is the Christian life always easy and filled with victory?  Not at all. God said that Paul must know “how much he must suffer for my name.”  As shared and illustrated in the opening message of this series last Sunday, the Life Race will have joys and victories along the way, with the guarantee of the ultimate crown at the end; but the process is filled with times of difficulty and peril.

But there is no better race to be a part of than the Life Race. The alternative is the temporary “death race” of living only for this world and being eternally separated from God and the victors’ crown that is given to those who love Christ.

So, rejoice Christian that you have been called by God to be on His team, the ultimate winning outfit. And tighten the laces of your shoes for the unique race that God has called you to run. Run on! Keep moving.

Paul Sees the Light (Acts 9:1-9)

It is a challenge for us in biblical interpretation to truly put ourselves into the sandals of Bible characters. The effort to do that – to have an understanding of what they saw and knew (or didn’t know) – pays rewards in making a text come alive.

Yesterday we talked some about what Saul/Paul was thinking and how this was motivating him to action. He certainly believed this “Jesus teaching” was damaging to the Jewish nation and hopes of a messianic kingdom of God’s blessing being established. This Jesus crowd was irrational in exalting a character who was crucified as a criminal. They had to be stopped!

But even so, it goes beyond sensibility that the violent actions being entered into by Saul/Paul could have any justification whatsoever. But here is an additional angle that perhaps was a part of his thinking. Let’s recall what might seem like an obscure story from Numbers 25. As Paul was hoping Israel was on the cusp of entering into a time of a messianic kingdom, the Israelites of Moses’ day were on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. But there was an apostate faction in the camp who had immorally aligned themselves with Canaanite peoples and gods, bringing about God’s wrath …

Numbers 25:1 – While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.

4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

A grandson of Aaron the priest named Phinehas heard this and took the action of actually driving a single spear through a Jewish man and a Midianite woman. And this was applauded in stopping the curse …

Numbers 25:8-9 – Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

Might it be that Paul saw his actions as analogous to this, and thereby justified? We don’t know, but putting all of this together within the full context of that era helps us to understand Paul a bit more. And looking again further into Acts chapter 9 …

9:1 – 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.

The background to this is that the Romans granted occasional authority to the Jewish religious leadership to enforce certain matters within their system of belief. The Romans believed this helped to maintain a modicum of order within conquered ethno-religious territories. Paul had gained such authority for arrests and extradition, and he was on his way to Damascus to enforce it.

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.

I can remember all of the way back to my high school days when attempting to share the gospel with people as to what struck me as the major obstacle. If we think of salvation as being “found,” then it was necessary for the person hearing the message to believe first that they were “lost.”  I have often said of evangelism that you have to get a person lost before you get them saved (meaning to get them to believe that they are lost and need a savior).

Paul did not have any sense that he was lost. Totally the opposite! He saw himself as standing strongly within the truth, privilege and blessing of being an Israelite. He needed a divine intervention!

Frankly, most people today don’t see themselves as being lost, therefore they see no need to be “found” by the gospel. But the reality of the biblical message that dates back to the very beginning of humanity is that we are terribly and totally lost. We are dead in trespasses and sins. There is no hope, no life, no spark, nothing that is capable of response. It is darkness; we are spiritually blind. And it is the grace of God in the truth of the resurrection of Christ that brings life … just as it did for Paul. And we’ll talk more about that tomorrow!

Paul the Persecutor (Acts 8:1-3, Acts 9:1-2)

Imagine the following scenario. There is a small group of Christian people who come from varied areas to our three-state region and associate themselves with Tri-State Fellowship. They are excited about our strong biblical teaching emphasis and our desire to effectuate a multi-generational ministry, and they therefore throw themselves into our church with great passion. We come to truly like these folks and the energy they bring. However, at a point in time they become ardent followers of a nearby evangelist who is around for a brief season before mysteriously departing.

These passionate people return to the church and begin to teach that this itinerate minister was actually a second coming of Christ and that we are terribly foolish to have missed this truth. A few of our people are even led astray by this teaching and it begins to create a rift within the church community.

If with great conviction we believed these folks to be in error and endangering the church family, we would vehemently oppose them with every avenue of opportunity open to us. It would be the responsible and honorable thing to do, especially as leaders.

Perhaps that illustration helps us understand the intense aggressiveness of Saul in the very earliest days of the church era. The first Christians were all Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, rejected by the nation. Therefore those who were opposed to this conviction saw it as a schism within Judaism … an inside threat, not one from outside. They would believe this to be thwarting the genuine work of God in bringing about the true kingdom. Paul was 100% of this opinion, and being a man of action he was aggressive in his response.

Again, it was upon the stoning of Stephen that we see the Jews (including Saul) totally lit up when hearing of this teaching on Jesus. Here is how Stephen concluded his extended remarks …

Acts 7:51 – “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Yep, those are fighting words that could get you pelted with stones. And Saul is introduced to the scene…

Acts 8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in 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 both men and women and put them in prison.

The beginning of the next chapter details some more of Saul’s activism …

9:1 – 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.

But no person is beyond God’s grace. And Paul is an “exhibit A” of that principle.

Some years ago I spent some time with a man who struggled terribly to believe that God could forgive him and be gracious. “You can’t begin to imagine how bad I am,” the fellow said to me as we went for a walk in the fields around the church. “I did some terrible things in Vietnam … true atrocities in villages with women and children. So I cannot imagine that there is any way that God could forgive and save a person like me. It wouldn’t be right.”  Over a period of time that man came to understand that Jesus paid the price for what he had done.

There is no way we can imagine the immensity of God’s grace. And apart from God in grace opening our minds to grasp and understand and accept it, we would continue in a lost state in our sin. God stepped into Paul’s life, and the Apostle never ceased to marvel at the extent of it all. He wrote in summary about it, saying …

1 Corinthians 15:9-11 – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

See there … it not only God’s grace that saves us, but His grace also that works through us toward any good effect that flows from it. If Paul is “exhibit A,” then let us each be “exhibit B” as we work our way through these studies over the summer.

Can Anything Good Come from Tarsus? (Acts 22, Philippians 3)

Most of us have a mixed bag of stuff from our past, from our formative years. We may possess both opportunities, perhaps in education, but possibly also some challenges from family dysfunction. Or perhaps it could be just the opposite. Just as a strong background can surely prepare a person for lifetime successes, there is no guarantee it will evolve in that direction. Likewise, a less than stellar upbringing can be overcome, as many rags to riches stories attest.

The Apostle Paul could boast a very strong background, especially in Jewish circles of association. His credentials could match just about anyone else. Even so, thinking ahead in the story, we know that this strict Jewish education did not position him to naturally gravitate toward the new teachings of a crucified and resurrected Messiah with a gospel message for all mankind. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

As we consider Paul’s background, it is rather certain that Paul was born relatively close to the same time as Jesus Christ (maybe about two years older?), and that he would therefore live into his upper 60s.

From the city of Tarsus (south-central Turkey), we can infer that Paul came from what must have been a relatively affluent family. Though ethnically Jewish, they met Roman citizenship requirements as land owners and were likely among the leading people of the city. Paul’s family could trace their lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, his name “Saul” being after King Saul of that tribe, with Paulus being a Roman name given him by his Roman/Jewish father.

He possessed the finest of educations, what we might consider like a Harvard/Princeton equivalent, sitting also under the most famous of instructors. In an uproar in Jerusalem during his ministry, Paul sought and received the soldiers’ permission to address the rioting Jewish crowd …

Acts 22:1-3 … “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.

So this is about as good as it can get in terms of a background for a Jewish boy in the Roman world. Paul gave a summary of it when writing to the church in Philippi – who were dealing with Jewish legalists and their proud lineage …

Philippians 3:4-6 … If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 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 righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.

Like all responsible Jewish families, boys were taught a trade – for Paul, tent-making. The area from which he came in Cilicia boasted a particular type of high-grade fabric from the prevalence of goat herds, and this skill would prove valuable for Paul in his travel years as a missionary.

Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.

We first encounter Paul on the pages of Scripture in the book of Acts, in chapters 7 and 8, upon the occasion of the stoning of Stephen after his sermon …

Acts 7:54—8:3 — 54 … When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

For Paul to be a Pharisee, he would have had to be around the age of at least 30, and this works with the presumed timeline of his life.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in 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 both men and women and put them in prison.

So this event was a sort of “coming out” event for Saul/Paul, where his Jewish zeal and faith moved him to radical action (that would not have been endorsed actually by Gamaliel). And it is a couple of chapters later that we see Paul’s incredible conversion story, and we shall study again over these weeks all that came from the new life he found in Christ.

So Paul was uniquely qualified to serve God as he did – combining the great Jewish background of theology, the education of the Greek culture, and the opportunities that Roman citizenship could open for him. But his ultimate success was not because of these things, not primarily. It is not as if God chose Paul because he was the candidate with the best resume to miraculously redeem from the other side. No, Paul ultimately was the great leader of the early church because, by God’s grace, he was empowered to accomplish all that he did. His fleshly credentials were not his best asset, and his liabilities (such as apparently not being the healthiest guy around nor the best orator) did not diminish his success or limit what God could do through him.

So education is grand! A wonderful and godly family is an asset. Having great natural skills of personal and professional interaction are resume builders for sure. But none of it matters for eternity without the empowering blessing of God working through you. And no lack of these natural skills and blessings can thwart what God can do through the life of a yielded Christian. When we are weak, He is strong… as Paul knew and wrote!

A Life Worth Studying and Emulating (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

So why should we study the life of the Apostle Paul and give an entire quarter of our year – 13 weeks over the whole summer – to one theme and person?  Quick answer: because God told me to! True story – I knew there would be a total of 60 dates to cover with devotionals in the 12 weeks between the total of 13 Sundays. So I went to work on a chronological study of Paul’s life and began to write down a list of topics and titles. Completing this first draft after a number of hours, it looked to me like the list was just about the desired length; and when I counted the titles it came out to exactly 60!  So … it’s a God thing! Obviously!

Look, I know what you’re thinking. You see the first sermon series in the post-Chris Wiles era as Randy gravitating toward his life passion of sports and running. Hey, it’s not my fault that Paul liked the same things I do and that he used athletic competition and running in particular as a metaphor for the Christian life!

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 … Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Galatians 2:1-2 … Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

Galatians 5:7 … You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

Philippians 2:14-17 … Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.

2 Timothy 2:6-7 … For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

And even though Paul did not write this, he would have shouted a hearty “amen” to the writer to the Hebrews who said (12:1) … Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us

Again, why study Paul? His amazing life is beyond our reach as mere Christians of the 21st century. Yet again, here is a man like us in so many ways … a person with a broken past that was redeemed by God’s grace. It can be argued that if God could turn around and use a person like Saul/Paul, surely we can be effective servants for the Lord in our day.

Over the years there have been a variety of writings about Paul that poke fun at the notion of finding the perfect pastor for an open position. Many have put together a humorous resume of the Apostle Paul that presents a person no pulpit committee would ever consider. Like this …

“Gentlemen: Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I’ve been a preacher with much success and also have had some successes as a writer. Some say I’m a good organizer. I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been. I’m over 50 years of age and have never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places, I have had to depart town quickly after my work caused riots and disturbances. I must confess to having been in jail three or four times, but not because of any real wrongdoing. My health is not strong, though I still accomplish a great deal. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities. I’ve not gotten along well with religious leaders in the towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me and even attacked me physically. I do not excel at keeping records – forgetting whom I have baptized. However, if you can use me, I promise to do my best for you.”

As we go through this series and our total of 60 associated writings, we are going to see again many of the details referenced in this humorous piece. Along with Paul’s considerable list of attributes and assets, we will be struck over and over about a startling number of liabilities, both internally and externally.

The reason that a study of Paul has value for us today is that we recognize from our own experience the reality of a Life Race that has its share of ups and downs. In our salvation in Christ, we are incredibly blessed with the greatest gift known to man – a relationship with the creator God of the universe, His living presence in us, and a life manual for how to run our individual races successfully. We become part of a team of fellow life runners.

But these tremendous assets do not promise for us that we will have a life filled with only victory after victory. Quite the opposite. Our inevitable liabilities and weaknesses will arise. But as we learn like Paul to rejoice in them as opportunities for God’s strength to shine even more greatly through them, we can learn to run our lives in a way that yields personal success and blessing to others and for the cause of the Kingdom.