A Call to Follow Christ
Acts 7:54-8:30, 9:1-9,20-22
What leads a man to travel thousands of miles by sea and by land? To be beaten, imprisoned and ultimately lay down his life?
It was a Call. A Call to follow Jesus; A Call to change the world. This is the story of the Apostle Paul — a man second only to Jesus in his impact and influence on the Christian faith. In these up-coming sermons we will retrace Paul’s journey, and study the remarkable life and life-changing message of the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s life story fills more than half of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. 13 of the New Testament’s 27 books are attributed to him. He started churches across the Roman Empire. He translated the gospel into the philosophical categories and language of the Greco-Roman world. His words have shaped one-third of the world’s population, and he is arguably second only to Jesus in influence on the human race.
The aim of this sermon series is not simply to know about this first-century apostle, but to understand how his life and faith might speak to our lives and shape our faith today.
I love this painting from Rembrandt of St. Paul. Here you see a series and devote man. He is wearing a Jewish skull cap and he is in contemplation about where God was going to lead him. For once he was a avid persecutor of the Christian faith, now God has called him to proclaim Jesus as lord and savior.
Let’s begin this overview of Paul, and the things he wrote and said and did by looking at his life experiences, his training, education and upbringing. I believe that God chose him and called him precisely because of all these things, and they were all useful in God’s hands.
Paul was from the city of Tarsus. Tarsus is located in now what is Turkey. Tarsus was one of the great cities of the ancient world in Greek philosophy and rhetoric. Tarsus was, also, one of the leading cities of the Eastern Empire, with an economy based on agriculture and an important linen industry. Paul was part of a small but active Jewish community in Tarsus. Paul along with his religious studies followed in his father’s trade aa a tent-maker and a worker of leather.
The first time we read of Paul in the New Testament is in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7. Jesus had been crucified a year or two earlier. Shortly afterward, his disciples claimed that he’d been raised from the dead. They began preaching that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah.
The religious leaders tried to suppress these followers of Jesus. They arrested and tried a Christian leader named Stephen. They convicted him of blasphemy; the penalty was death by stoning. It is at Stephen’s stoning that we find the first mention of Paul in the Bible, though using his Jewish name, Saul: “Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him. So, Paul’s role was to give permission, on the behalf of the Chief Priest, to execute Stephen.
After Stephen’s death Acts tells us, ”That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem…Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” In Acts 9 we read, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus… if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
What motivated Paul to volunteer to chase down Christians? I think it was the same thing that led him to, in his own words, “advance in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age.” I think it was Paul’s ambition—his desire to impress the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem. I think his personal ambition, combined with his religious convictions, played a key role in shaping this part of his life.
The same human dynamic is true today. When we fail to surrender our ambition to God’s purposes, when we live to seek our glory and are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, we’re bound to fall. But those leaders who surrender their ambition to God’s purposes, and to helping others, find they are on the path of life. Paul was about to surrender his ambition to God’s purposes.
Paul was going to Damascus with letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest Christians. On the road, he was stopped in his tracks and his life was forever changed….In the midst of the light, Paul hears Jesus speaking to him. I love what Jesus says: “Saul, Saul it hurts you to kick against the goads.” What on earth is a goad? This long tool is a goad. It is used to prod cattle and oxen to move in the direction their owner wants them to go. Think about this. Jesus is saying that he has been prodding or goading Paul in the right direction for some time, and Paul was not paying attention. Failing to pay attention was hurting Paul, and others.
Paul was led by the hand to Damascus and Paul sits for three days, unable to see, his physical blindness a way of helping him see his previous spiritual blindness. He was unwilling to eat or drink. God was working on him in the silence as he came face to face with the fact that his desire to serve God had been blinded by his own ambition and led him to persecute God’s people.
Meanwhile God is prodding someone else, a man named Ananias, a follower of Jesus. Saul likely had come to Damascus to arrest him. Ananias is a Christ follower, and…Jesus tells him to go to the house where Saul is, and to pray for him so that he might see again. As you can guess Ananias is afraid and objects, but Jesus persistently tells him to go. Imagine the courage this took.
Paul’s conversion was a result of both his experience of Christ, and of Ananias sharing with him Christ’s love and acceptance. This is how it works for many of us. Most of us don’t have Damascus Road, blinding light kind of conversions, but we do experience Christ in some way—we feel him speaking to us, we sense his love, we’re moved to say yes. We also have our Ananias’s who come alongside to offer us Christ.
Of all the people God might choose to use to take the gospel to the world and to write nearly half of the New Testament, God chose a man who had been filled with blind ambition, who had given approval to the stoning death of the first Christian martyr, the very man who sought to destroy the Christian movement. If God could use a man like Paul, God can and will use you.
Conversion, as for Paul, happens for us when we stop pursuing our own blind ambition, when we recognize God’s prodding in our lives, and when we finally surrender to God’s will. That’s where the real adventure begins. It is certainly where it began for Paul and it can begin with you and me, once we surrender our hearts to Christ.
This week, prayerfully consider how God is calling you to follow and serve him. During the week, be attentive to opportunities to do things for others that you might have overlooked or been hesitant to do. Look especially for things you can do “behind the scenes” without recognition.