26 February 2009

A sketch of Paul the apostle

We often think of those we call “heroes of the faith”—men like Abraham and Moses and King David, Esther and Sarah, and Rachel. It’s easy for us to make these people out to be these larger-than-life figures that we could never understand, we could never be like these people, or, “How can I learn from what happened to King David way back then?” Very easily. One thing we need to remember is that these were real men and women. These are not fictional, made-up figures of someone’s imagination. These were men and women who were made of flesh and blood just like you and me. They had their faults, they made mistakes, they doubted God, and they sinned against God. Yet if you read the “Roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11, it mentions these folks who are called “faithful.” By faith…Abraham obeyed…Sarah conceived…Isaac blessed Jacob…Moses forsook Egypt…the harlot Rahab…Gideon...Samson...Jephthah...David. All these people are held up in the Scriptures as being “faithful.” Being used by God. In fact, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, David are all in the ancestral line of Christ.

Why? Because God uses imperfect people. No kidding! Imperfect people—kinda like saying “There’s some cold snow coming down.” Just like there’s no other kind of snow besides cold, there are no other kinds of people other than imperfect. How can we relate to the people mentioned in the Bible? Because they were just like us. Imperfect, doubting, sinful. Yet God used them. And today we are going to talk about one man that God used greatly to spread the gospel very quickly after the death and resurrection of Christ. If you’ve been here a while you’ve heard me mention a fellow by the name of “the apostle Paul.”

In Acts chapter 7, starting in about verse 54, there is a young man named Stephen, who is speaking to a group of devout Jews who rejected this Christ. In fact in the previous chapter it says Then there arose some from…the Synagogue…disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Stephen goes through the history of Israel, how they were always rebelling against God and killing His prophets, and that finally God sent His own Son and they rejected Him and killed Him as well.

Then it says, Acts 7:54When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Now, whenever they stoned someone, they didn’t just pick up rocks out of their driveway and pelt the person with little stones. The person was literally crushed under boulders. So these men, who did not want to hear that they had killed the Messiah—the Anointed of God they had been looking to for thousands of years—they don’t like the message, so they did what anybody else does when they odn't like the message--they killed the messenger. And so they take off their robes and they hand them to a young man named Saul.

Saul was a Pharisee. He studied under one of the most famous rabbis in Jewish history, a man named Gamaliel. This would be like learning football from Vince Lombardi. Gamaliel was the most widely respected rabbi in all of Israel at the time. And this young man named Saul was his prize pupil. This Saul was such a devoted student that he would gladly go out searching for Christians and take them to Jerusalem to be killed. For blasphemy. If you recall, when the Jews were calling for Pilate to crucify Christ they said that “According to our laws, He is a blasphemer and He must die!” And Pilate said, “Psshaw on your laws, this is my territory!” And we see in Acts 7:59 and going through the first part of 8:1And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Now Saul was consenting to his death. This Saul basically said, “Yep, he’s a blasphemer. He must die.”

That was his job. To make sure that anyone who confessed Jesus Christ as Lord should die. He went from city to city seeking those who worshipped Christ. And he was very efficient at his job. Now, if this was a movie, and Saul is the bad guy, we would expect him to die a very explosive death at the end, would we not? But that’s not always how God works. Saul is allowed to continue executing his duties--and executing Christians--for another couple of years.

In fact we find this in the next verses—At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. So for Saul, everything’s going good. He’s learning from the finest school for rabbis, he’s probably next-in-line to take it over, he’s got fame and admiration from his peers, he’s probably making good money, and he thinks he’s serving God by carrying Christians to their death.

I want to point out something in this passage. Look at verses 3-4As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. Therefore—they didn’t stop preaching Christ—they went out and preached it. They didn’t stay home in their houses, and in fact they were more bold in their witness by taking it to the people. This Saul had the power to go into people’s houses, drag them out and throw them in prison for preaching Christ. Don’t think that won’t happen in this country one day. It’s already happening in Britain and in Canada.

Then we read about Phillip and the Ethiopian, and Simon Magus (a sorcerer that tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter and John), so we fast forward to the beginning of chapter 9. Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Apparently Damascus was out of his jurisdiction, so he had to get what would today amount to an extradition order.

But ya know, is there ever a time when God doesn’t know what’s going on? This Saul had been going around, killing Christians. Did God know this was happening? I think He had an idea this might be happening. So here is Saul, on his way to collect a bounty in another region of the Middle East, and all of a sudden, Jesus says, “OK, now that I've got you alone, we need to talk.” And in verses 3-9--I just gotta read this from the King James--And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the goads. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. If you ever hear the phrase “Damascus Road experience”—that’s where it comes from. When a person is rebellious and hard-hearted against God, God gets a hold of the person and tells them “You're mine” and they become a whole new person, they say they had a "Damascus Road experience", this is where it comes from. This is how Saul met the risen Christ.

Now, I'm supposed to be talking about Paul, so who is this “Saul?” Well, in chapter 13 we read that Saul, who also is called Paul… This is where we find that this Saul has changed his name to Paul. Saul was his Hebrew birth name. However, because he was born in a Roman colony, he was officially a Roman citizen, so in order to go out and take the gospel to Gentiles he referred to himself by his Roman name, Paul. In Romans 3:29, Paul writes, Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also. If Paul was going to convince Gentiles that God is not just "the Jewish God," he would be more able to relate to Gentiles if he went by a Gentile name. And, according to some people, if he cussed and told dirty jokes.

Now wait a minute! You mean to tell me that one day this guy is arresting Christians and taking them to slaughter, and a couple days later he’s preaching Christ?” Yes. Flip back to Acts 9:13. Paul is sent, by God, to the house of man named Ananias. God tells Ananias, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying." Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” Ananias says, basically, “Wait, wait, wait! Who of Where?” But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel." We don’t understand that. But many times God calls us to embrace someone who has caused us pain and grief. Ananias went out, found Saul, took him into his house and fed him. Verses 19-20So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. So yes, one day he’s killing Christians, and a few days later he is preaching Christ.

Can you imagine what the disciples of Christ were thinking? "Yeah, Saul got saved! Congratulations, welcome to the family!" Not quite. This was not Purpose-Driven™ church. They needed a little more proof than someone saying a little prayer. Verse 21Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” They were cautious. Certainly, if this were true (and it was), it was cause for wonder and amazement. But in a situation like this, caution is a very natural sentiment. "He’s just here to spy us out and to arrest us." But look down in verse 26, And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.

Now, some folks might wonder, “Well, why would God choose a man like Saul? I mean, this guy was a murderer; he opposed the gospel so harshly. Why wouldn’t He use one of the apostle who followed Christ and who were so faithful to Him?” Who better to preach Christ and show Christ from the Scriptures—and, which Scriptures did they have at that time? Did they have the New Testament? No. All they had was the Old Testament. And who, at this time, was the most knowledgable and most well-trained Old Testament scholar in Jerusalem? For someone to show Christ from the Scriptures, they had to have a pretty good knowledge of the Law and the Prophets—the Old Testament. That someone was Saul of Tarsus.

So, after he meets the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he goes out and preaches Christ. This is about the year 34 AD—about maybe a year or two after the death and resurrection of Christ. He spends the next 20-25 years going around Greece and Syria and Turkey and Israel preaching Christ and planting churches. If you read the rest of the book of Acts, it gives you rather detailed account of Paul’s life after he met Christ. And I say “detailed”--as detailed as you can get in a relatively short volume. Luke, who wrote Acts and the book of Luke—which were probably one book when he wrote—he manages to cram a whole bunch of information into such a short space. We don’t have ALL the details of Paul’s life in the Scriptures, but we can build a pretty decent biography from Acts and from Paul’s letters.

Now, the books of the Bible that Paul wrote—from Romans to Philemon—they are actually letters that he wrote.

  • Romans to Thessalonians were letters to different churches to deal with some kind of false teaching, or to comfort, strengthen a church in a certain city.
  • Timothy, Titus, Philemon—these were written to individuals.
  • Timothy and Titus were for teaching about what is expected of a church elder.
  • Philemon was written to show that we are not just simply people that go to church together—we are indeed brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now, it would be real easy for Paul to be conceited, to think he was better than anybody else because God used him so greatly. But listen to how he described himself in his letters.

Romans 1:1Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.
1st Corinthians 1:1Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God.
1st Corinthians 15:9--the least of the apostles
Galatians 1:1Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead).
Philippians 1:1Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.1st Timothy 1:15--chief of sinners.
Philemon 1:1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

He could have bragged, he could have boasted, he could have gloried in himself because he was so special that God picked him. But Paul realized that God did not call him because he had done something to impress God that made God say, “Ooh, wow! I have to use him! He is so wonderful!” He knew that it was not because of anything he did that made God sit up and notice. But rather it was God who called him for no other reason than the good pleasure of His will.

Romans 7:18, 24For I know that in me nothing good dwells…O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Galatians 1:15-16…it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles…Galatians 6:14But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Philippians 3:4-7If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. In fact he goes on to say that those things he counted gain—the respect of his peers, the admiration, the applause, the accolades—for Christ, he suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.

So that’s who this Paul fellow was. He was an expert in all things that had to do with the Old Testament. He was a man who went about killing Christians and delivering them to their deaths. One day while he was doing his job, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him, saved him, and used him to proclaim the name of Christ throughout the land. The books we have here are letters he wrote to correct false teaching, to demonstrate true teaching, to comfort us, to give us hope in Christ, to show us how to serve God, show us why He deserves our worship and show us how to find eternal life in Christ.

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