Saul, Saul

Acts 9: 1 – 2

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them in shackles to Jerusalem.

In yesterday’s Word of the Day, I attempted to persuade you not to judge people, Catholics specifically but people generally, based on their religious affiliation. Today, I am hoping we can take a step further.

Imagine, if you will, that you were a Christian living in the time of Paul, but before his conversion. Survival alone would cause us to be wary of him. He was passionate about pursuing and killing Christians. At that time, Christians were called followers of “The Way” because Jesus proclaimed himself as the way (John 14: 6). Saul was not a person you would wish to encounter. In fact, he participated in the stoning of Stephen. The Bible says, “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 8: 1). So, who would want to be around this guy? Moreover, how could you help but judge him as dangerous and a hater of Jesus and all who followed him? And yet, God saw something in this man that few of us would have. God saw passion and love for the God of the Jews. Sure, Saul was dead wrong in denying Jesus as the Messiah, but God saw in him something He liked, something He could use. Although Saul went from town to town persecuting Christians when God struck him it was to convert him, not kill him. It seems, then, that being wrong isn’t a sin. Failing to seek truth is a problem, but if one seeks, he shall surely find.

Do you think Saul was a man of prayer? I kind of think so. He was devout in the ways he knew. We know he was a Jew’s Jew and a keeper of the law, so I imagine he gave himself to prayer and was generous in his offerings. Without a doubt, he was a tither. He thought he was serving Yahweh when he rooted out Christian groups and subjected them to harsh, even lethal penalties, for their religious beliefs. I bring this up because it was said of Cornelius that he was a man of generosity and prayer. Both Cornelius and Saul received visitations, so I extrapolate from the passage about Cornelius and what we know about Saul that both men were generous in their giving and that they both were people of prayer.

Second, we can see that Saul was passionate in his service to God, even if he was misguided. Passion and devotion in prayer and offerings seem to be common factors in these two men’s lives. So, my first point is that we too should consider being as devoted as they; that we should give generously and devote ourselves to prayer. Now, this is not the current American Christian culture so we have to make our own concerted efforts in these directions for you will not be able to follow the crowd.

The second point I would like to make is that even though many of us consider Muslims our enemies, an idea which became more pronounced after the 9/11 disaster, we should be praying for them. When I say pray for them, I mean to pray from a heart of compassion. Think again about Saul. I am sure there were people of that day praying against him. I wonder, though, if there were some praying for his eyes to be opened so that he might see the truth. I think so and here is why. When Saul was knocked off his donkey, he arose blind. Well, many of that day would argue he was already blind, otherwise he wouldn’t persecute the followers of Jesus. Anyway, Jesus spoke to a believer named Ananias telling him to go to Saul, lay hands on him and pray. Ananias didn’t want to go because he knew Saul and was afraid of him, but Jesus told him to go revealing that right at that very moment Saul was praying to him. Jesus revealed that he had given Saul a vision of a man named Ananias praying for him. So, I wonder, were people praying for Saul to receive a true revelation of Christ or was it his own passion for God that stirred the trinity?

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. The conclusion of the story is that Ananias obeyed God, prayed for Saul and with the laying on of his hands, Saul’s vision was restored. Metaphorically, it could be said that Saul began to see for the first time. His life completely turned around, later to be imprisoned himself for his belief in Jesus, the Christ.

Whether we like how someone believes or even fear their zealous service to their faith the best thing we can do is pray for them to have an encounter with Jesus. We can pray that the shingles will fall from their eyes as was so with Saul. God can do more with one person of passion than with a boatload of lukewarm Christians. The passion of Saul might have been misdirected, but one touch from Jesus can turn around even a Saul. Our job is to stir up that kind of zeal in our own hearts so that we become people of devoted prayer. Second, pray for those who persecute us so that they may see the truth and be transformed from Sauls into Pauls.

Judgements Aside

Acts 10: 1 – 3

In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment . . .

If you lived in the Apostles’ day, what would you say about a Roman soldier? How would you judge him? The Romans did string up Jesus like a Christmas goose after all! They did torture, berate and mock him. Moreover, the Romans occupied the territory as an unwanted conquering force. Who could like the Romans? They ruled with an iron fist and almost unimaginable cruelty.

I went to a bike ride in the Shenandoah Valley in October. Quite a few of the riders camped and eventually we all had tent neighbors. Because we were camped in the green spaces around a sponsoring church, people put up their tents wherever they could find a bit of space. I ended up with a neighbor named Andy who drove all the way from Arizona to participate in this event.

Clearly Andy is an avid cyclist. It didn’t take long for me to find out that he is passionate about something else. He is a sold out, in love with Jesus, Christian. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, he is also Catholic. Is it hard to believe that a Catholic, or a Roman army officer, can also be a devout Christian? Look at today’s passage in its entirety:

In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God. One afternoon about three o’clock, he had a vision in which he saw an angel of God coming toward him. “Cornelius!” the angel said.

Wow! I like that. Jesus gave him a vision. Not only that, if you read the rest of the story, Jesus actually sent Peter to him. That’s pretty good for a heathen Roman. That reminds me of another chap. There was this guy named Saul. Unlike the Romans soldier, he had all the right credentials. He was a Jew’s Jew, educated in the law of Moses, trained by the most highly esteemed teacher of the Jewish faith. He, however, was the number one persecutor of Christians. He had the right robe, the right papers in his pocket, but he was about as far off track as a person can get. We can sit here today and judge him as harshly as the Christians of his day surely did. However, Jesus appeared to him in a vision too! I guess Jesus just doesn’t know who the saints are. He kept picking the wrong folks. What is wrong with him? Saul was on his way to Damascus with the permits in his pocket to arrest and persecute anyone professing Jesus as the Messiah. He was fervent in his pursuit of Christians, yet he became the great Apostle Paul.

It is interesting to me that there are two stories in the Book of Acts about people receiving visions and, in both cases, these men who received the visions were “heathen.” One was a Jew who didn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. The other was a Roman who did believe in Christ, but was a Gentile. Both were outcasts of the faith in one way or another, but Jesus bothered to visit each personally. What are we to conclude from this?

The moral of the story is that you can dress up in the right Christian garb and utter the proper Christian “speak” but be as much a heathen and just as lost as a Gentile. Alternatively, a person can look like the wrong sort, not have the raiment of proper Christianity and yet receive a visitation from Christ because of his devotion. Some people judge Catholics harshly, but I tell you this, Andy lived his faith in Jesus. Whatsmore, I didn’t hear him judging anyone. He was a good neighbor to have for the weekend and he vocalized his praise to the Lord Jesus for giving him a faith partner for a neighbor. The moral of the story is judge not! We are called to be believers in Christ, not judges and we better get our lives straight on that score lest we incur Jesus’ wrath.

Love all, judge none. Easier said than done, but the command of Jesus none the less!

Perfect Fit

John 16: 2 – 3

They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. And these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or me.

Do you ever feel that you don’t quite fit in? I suppose most people feel that way at one time or another. If not, then we wouldn’t have so much conversation about being yourself and “fitting in”. Well, if you have ever felt that way, don’t worry. You are in very good company. Jesus didn’t fit. He was an outcast and in the eyes of the church leaders, most of his group was not fit for the Kingdom of God. Paul was a well-trained man of the church and though he was highly esteemed by the church at one time he was unacceptable in the eyes of God because he was persecuting all who believed in Jesus. Then he was converted in a very dramatic fashion. He became an important disciple of Christ but he was no longer in the grace of the church. So, as hard as it may sometimes be, do not fear and do not give up hope in our Lord because you don’t feel that you quite fit. Be you because that is who the Lord made you to be.

Seek God! Honestly search Him out! Chase Him with all your heart. When you have done that, He will make all things alright. You will find that He will teach you how valued you are in His sight. He will give you the acceptance that you so crave. Once you know in your heart of hearts that the Lord, our God, loves you just as you are, you can finally love yourself honestly and accept yourself just as He does. You are his precious no matter what anyone else says. And he loves you dearly. That is a promise.

The Gift that Gives Back

Philippians 4: 17

Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account.

The Apostle Paul, in this passage and its accompanying scriptures, taught the Philippians about giving into the Lord’s work. But he was not only teaching them to give into the support of the ministry. He also taught them the principle of sowing and reaping. He told them in this excerpt that their gifts accrue to their own account. You see, God works according to multiplication. He takes what you have to sow and from that creates a harvest. So the Philippians’ gifts to Paul not only supported his ministry but they were also the means God had to get more substance into their hands. I heard Minister Jesse Duplantis say one time, “God isn’t trying to get something from you. He is trying to get something to you.” I think that is Paul’s message in this scripture. As God continues to multiply the harvest back to the sowers, they have their needs met and more besides to support more ministries, to send ministers into every need.

Flashing Lights

Acts 9: 3 – 4

And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice.

Everyone needs a personal meeting with Christ Jesus. It is in this personal contact that we come to know the person of Jesus. Hopefully, most of us do not need a wakeup call as loud as Paul’s though. Paul could not hear the quiet voice of Jesus. He was too busy persecuting followers of Christ to hear the voice of the Lord. He was a zealot pursuing a course of action that he thought was right. Though he was trained in the law, he did not have a relationship with the Father. He never checked in with Father God about what he should be doing. He just decided in his own reasoning that he was protecting the church from heretics. As it turned out, he was far outside the will of God. After his encounter with Jesus though, he learned to follow the leading of the Lord in everything he did. His religion came alive on that Damascus road. It was no longer a book of the law to be rigorously followed; it became a relationship with a beloved Lord. In like manner, we all need to meet the Lord personally. We need to know him personally. That begins with recognizing that he is still alive. Jesus is not dead, he is resurrected. From there you have only to ask him to enter into a personal relationship with you. That is it. That is what this whole thing is about. If Christianity is a stale religion to you, I invite you to meet Jesus personally. Talk to him. The next thing you know, you will be walking in a deep love relationship with the one who loves you.

Abundant Grace

1 Timothy 1: 14                   (Amplified Version)

And the grace (unmerited favor and blessing) of our Lord actually flowed out superabundantly and beyond measure for me, accompanied by faith and love that are to be realized in Christ Jesus.

This passage was written by the Apostle Paul. He was recounting how he blasphemed the Lord and persecuted the church. Yet nonetheless, Christ, through grace, showed him mercy. How is it that the Lord was willing and able to show such kindness to this man even while he was torturing and murdering Christians? The mercy of the Lord and of our Father is beyond comprehension. Jesus poured out on Paul superabundant favor and blessing. It certainly was not because Paul earned it. It comes just from the Father’s deep love.

Paul, unlike so many modern Christians, was able to receive God’s abundance. Why? I believe the answer is two-fold. I think that one of the reasons Paul was able to receive God’s abundant, beyond measure grace is that he, first, completely knew that he was unworthy and undeserving. This freed him to just receive by grace. He did not try to earn God’s favor because he knew that he was way beyond that.

Secondly, I think that Paul was so humble and grateful that his heart was wide open before the Lord of grace. I deeply desire for the church to draw close to God just as Paul was intimate with him. We see the abundant love and grace that the Father has for us. Now if we can sincerely open ourselves to him the way Paul did, we might also walk in the kind of grace that was afforded Paul. Let us not wait for God to knock us off our donkeys though. Let us all, with blind faith, reach out to the source of all and invite him into the deepest part of our beings.

Divine Revelation

Galatians 1: 12

For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul did not have the advantage of walking with Christ the way Peter and John did. That is one of the reasons he is so important to modern theology and thought. Like us, everything Paul learned, he had to learn by revelation from Christ. 

Don’t get me wrong though. I am not saying that we can’t and don’t learn from the teachings of other people. We can receive revelation through other people and we receive revelation through the scriptures. Paul was well steeped in scripture himself having been trained at the most preeminent school available. However, he also knew how to get alone with Jesus in the spirit and receive divine revelation from him. 

Paul tells us in today’s passage that what he taught he received directly from Jesus as a divine revelation. Paul’s training taught him how to meditate in the scriptures and how to connect with the divine source. If you look at Paul’s teachings you will see that he often quoted Old Testament Scripture. My take on this is that He would pray and meditate on the scriptures. He would quiet his soul as we can observe David doing through the Psalms. In this quiet, meditative state, Paul connected with Jesus in the spiritual realm. Jesus taught him about the Kingdom of God; where it is, how it operates, and how we function in it. Then Paul must have lined these teachings up with scripture to make sure that what he received by divine revelation was consistent with what God spoke throughout the generations. This is the reason that Paul tied his teachings back to the Old Testament. Those old teachings were anchors for the revelation he received through his direct connection with Christ.

Paul’s experience is an exact model for us today. We do not get to walk in the flesh with Jesus either. However, Jesus is just as alive and just as real today and to us as he was to Paul in his time. We also need to receive divine revelation because we cannot sit at the campfire and ask him questions. We have two hindrances though; time and knowledge of the scriptures.

After Paul had his Damascus road experience he went away to the desert of Arabia to be alone. His whole theology, all of his education and training had been turned upside down by his spiritual encounter. He needed answers so he went to the desert to meditate and to be alone with Christ. Jesus met him in the quiet of his solitude and Jesus revealed himself to Paul. 

I am suggesting that we all need Jesus speaking into our lives. It is through the quiet, contemplative time spent with Jesus that we discover the bread of life. While not ignoring scriptures, we all need to connect with Jesus in the way that Paul did. In that connection is revelation for our lives.