God’s Church is Alive August 21st, 2022
Lord Jesus, you taught in synagogues and on hillsides, bringing healing and wisdom to those who listened. By the Holy Spirit, teach us through the words of Scripture and bring us your healing and wisdom. Amen.
Last week we left Saul, whom we know better by his Roman name of Paul, in a home in Damascus, having just been healed by a believer called Ananias who had said to him, “‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” After that encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, Saul, who had been blinded by the bright light of Jesus’ presence, was led by his travelling companions into Damascus where the Apostle Luke tells us “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” (Acts 9:9)
It was at that point which Jesus spoke to Ananias, and said this to him, “‘…Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’” (Acts 9:11-12) Ananias was afraid of Saul because he had heard of the way he had persecuted the church in Jerusalem, and he knew that Saul had come to Damascus to round up any followers of Jesus and bring them to Jerusalem to face the same punishment. But he obeyed the command of Jesus and went to the house where Saul was staying and restored his sight. We’re told by Luke, “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”
While without his sight, Saul had spent his time fasting and praying and had come to accept Jesus as the Son of God and as his Lord and Saviour. Once he regained his sight he was baptized, had something to eat, and was ready to become an evangelist for Christ. The Saul who, only three days earlier was persecuting Christians, gets converted to Christianity. And not just converted, but wildly converted, beyond anybody's imagination. So converted that he turns totally around—from being the worst enemy of Christianity to its strongest advocate and a powerful missionary for Christ. This amazing transformation is an important reminder to us of how even the most lost can be reached by Jesus.
After accepting Jesus as his Saviour and being baptised in his name, Saul joined the other believers in Damascus. He joined the other believers because now he was a believer himself. His old nature was gone, his new nature had started. That’s why, later on, when he was writing to the members of the church in Corinth he would say to them, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17). That is what actually happened to him. He changed from a man who hurt so many into a follower of Jesus who helped so many.
And being the man of action that he was, Saul immediately set to spreading the Good News. And where did he begin to preach? In that same place where he had gone to arrest the followers of Jesus, Damascus. This is what took place, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ And all who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?’”
What a dramatic change! Saul had come earlier with a letter from the High Priests in Jerusalem to the synagogues in Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus and now he came to those same synagogues preaching Jesus as the Messiah. No wonder those in the synagogues who now heard him speak were so amazed.
Later Saul actually takes a bit of a hiatus and goes to the region of Arabia for a couple of years. We know this because he talks about it in one of the books of the Bible which he wrote, his Letter to the Galatians. This is what Saul, who is then known as Paul, wrote, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” So, for some reason Saul spent a period of time in Arabia, which was south of Damascus, before returning there once more.
And when he did return to Damascus he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Luke tells us that “…But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” Sounds a lot like what happened to Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. When the religious authorities were unable to win an argument with reason they resorted to violence.
But, unlike Stephen, Saul was able to escape stoning, his friends lowered him down through a window in a house whose back wall was part of the wall surrounding the city of Damascus and he escaped and went to Jerusalem. The reason they did this was that Saul's enemies would have been watching the gates of Damascus, since he would have had to pass out of one of them to leave the city under normal circumstances. For Saul it was a humiliating exit, smuggled out of the city like a common criminal, just as humiliating as it was to be led into the city as a blind man.
And his welcome in Jerusalem wasn’t any better than the one he got in Damascus, we’re told, “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” They knew his reputation and could not believe that such a fervent enemy could now be a Christian brother. They probably thought that his new attitude of friendliness was only a trick to get into their fellowship, so he could then have them arrested.
But one of the believers, Barnabas vouched for Saul, telling the others about Saul’s encounter with Jesus on that Damascus Road and his subsequent preaching of the Good News in the synagogues of Damascus. This is the same Barnabas which Luke spoke about in Chapter 4 of Acts, saying, “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.” (Acts 4:36-37) Barnabas was a strong supporter of the Christian faith. So, the disciples accepted Saul as one of their own and he began to preach the Word in the synagogues of Jerusalem.
And he met with the same reception which Stephen did when he came up against those same leaders of the synagogues, Luke tells us, “And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.” Those Hellenist were the Greek speaking Jews who lived in Jerusalem, and they began to threaten Saul the same way they had both threatened, and in the end, had had stoned to death, Stephen.
Fearing that the same thing would happen to Saul, his fellow Christians convinced him to escape to Tarsus, which was his hometown north of Israel, in modern day Turkey. Later on in the book of Acts we’ll hear Saul’s own account of how that took place, “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him [Jesus] saying to me, ‘Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me.'" (Acts 22:17-18) So Jesus, himself, spoke directly to Saul, warning him to escape Jerusalem. And this is the last we’ll hear of Saul until much later in the Book of Acts.
Luke ends his telling of the conversion of Saul with these calming and encouraging words, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” Despite all the turmoil, death, and disruption Saul had caused the Church, Christ still prevailed, and his church continued to grow, just as he had promised the Apostle Peter after Peter had said to him, “… ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus replied, “‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” (Matthew 16:17-18)
Those are good words for us to remember in today’s modern, post-Christian world. Jesus Christ is not dead, he is not silent, and he is not uninterested in the world and the progress of his mission and in your life. He is alive and what he began to do in his earthly life he is continuing to do. Although some of the methods may be different in these times, the followers of Jesus and His Church will survive and will continue to grow.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that we’ve seen again what you can do by your power in transforming people. Thank you for the changes you made in the life of Saul and how he became one of your strongest disciples. May it be a testimony to us of the power of God in the life of a person, how you can change them into something miraculous and usable for your glory. Father, we pray that you change some people in our lives. May they come to you by faith and accept your Son, Jesus, as their Lord and Saviour. May we all use our faith to make the world a better place until you come again. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen