“Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished. “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.” (Acts 22:1-11 ESV)
My oldest granddaughter will turn eighteen on Sunday. That makes me feel old. I guess it should, I am. My body reminds me of that fact, daily. Someone once told me, growing old isn’t for sissies. As I’ve grown older, I often find myself reminiscing and remembering things from my childhood. To be honest, I’m just glad I can remember them because sometimes I realize I’ve forgotten someone’s name when I encounter them around town and I haven’t seen the in quite a while. Ah, wonderful senior moments… do you have them? I hope not. Apparently, my mind is also reminding me, daily. Often, those things I remember from my childhood are events that I should forget. Memories of my own stupidity and foolishness. Do you have those? Honestly, I hope so… Just so I’m not alone in my childhood stupidity.
In all honesty, I’m less afraid of what I’ve done as a child and more afraid of what might happen in the days and years ahead. I have several fears as I grow older, most of them have to do with failing memory. I have little doubt that much of my fear stems from my family’s experience with the horrific consequences of Alzheimer’s and dementia. I think our personal fears often circle around those physical issues that seem to plague our parents and siblings. Will that happen to me, too? While none of my family has suffered from blindness, that I know about, I’m certain that it may concern some of you. One thing I learned from a friend who was blind, a physical disability may impact you but it doesn’t have to define you. God has the ability and the right to define you…
This week’s focal passage deals with the Paul’s response to the mob of Jews who attacked him, drug him out of the Temple and started beating him. As the Roman soldiers hoist him over their heads and carry him away from the mob, Paul speaks directly to the Roman tribune (military officer rank above a centurion – would generally command approximately 10 centurions X 100 men each = 1,000 soldiers) asking if he may address the mob. When the tribune hears Paul speak in Koine Greek (common, or language of the masses), he is shocked and replies to Paul’s question with one of his own. He asks, based on the mob’s response to Paul, if Paul is a notorious Egyptian leader of a band of assassins. Interesting question, right?
Why would the tribune assume that Paul was this notorious leader of a band of assassins? At first, that seems a bit outrageous. Doesn’t it? A humble and meek follower of Christ is mistaken for a murderous brigand. That’s very odd. Why would he make this apparent leap of mis-identification? It seems that his assumption is based on the mob’s response to Paul and Paul’s actions or words towards the mob. In fact, you could say that the tribune is responding to the crowd’s zealous response to Paul. Something has set this crowd off and it must be something big, like this Egyptian assassin he’s heard about.
As mentioned, it seems that the tribune’s assumptions regarding Paul’s identity is, at least somewhat, somewhat based on the mob’s response. The tribune doesn’t seem to expect a riotous response to a religious issue or confrontation. A zealous response like this must be politically based, right? Why would you get this excited and upset over something as trivial as a religious disagreement? Sounds a bit like some folks response, today. Religious beliefs are just cultural superstition, emotional pacifiers and personal preference, right? None of them can be uniquely true, can they? They just provide us with some means of handling or suppressing our questions and fears about life and death, don’t they? Paul’s request to address the crowd is granted, and his response gives us tremendous insight into these questions and Paul’s faith. Let’s take a look…
First, notice that Paul begins by addressing the crowd in their own language. He had just addressed the tribune in Greek and now he begins to address the crowd in Hebrew. In all likelihood, Paul spoke to them in Aramaic which is a local dialect of traditional Hebrew. They hear him speaking and silence quickly spreads through the mob as they try to hear what he has to say. We could stand to hear and learn this lesson, when it comes to responding to the crowd’s fearful response regarding our Christian actions or beliefs. Not only must we be willing to speak the gospel in the local dialect, we must also be willing to address to their questions and fears.
I’m not suggesting, in any way, that we change or weaken the message of the gospel and the truth of scripture. However, I am suggesting that we must be culturally sensitive and relevant and that the biblical gospel is perfectly poised for that kind of response. In fact, I would insist that this is the true beauty of the gospel and an indication of its timeless truths and divine source. In fact, scripture says: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV) In addition, Isaiah tells us: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 ESV)
Today, many who claim to follow Christ seem to think that the church needs to change and adapt her beliefs and teachings to become culturally relevant. To use their term, we are “on the wrong side of history.” They insist that many Christian beliefs are “old fashioned” and simply out of step with the culture. Therefore, they believe we need to drop these “old fashioned” beliefs, get with the times and just admit that there are some things in our beliefs that need to be adjusted or dropped to “fit in” today.
To be perfectly blunt, that is just utter foolishness. If God is the source of salvation and the author of life then His word and His commands and demands are not where these changes need to occur. Those changes MUST occur in us and to us! We desire to change His word to fit our assumptions rather than to change our actions to fit His demands. In reality, this is nothing new and is the same issue that Adam and Eve faced and in which they spectacularly failed. They were faced with the demands/commands of a Holy and authoritative God and they decide that God must be wrong and that their personal desires and feelings must be right. Nothing new, is it? Isn’t it the same issue we face each day? Isn’t it the same issue in which our culture is telling us, “you won’t really die – those old words/commands of God’s are just holding you back, keeping you from reaching your full potential and becoming who you are truly meant to be (see Genesis 3:1-7).”
Confronted by God
After Paul gets the crowd’s attention, he tells them of being confronted by his encounter with God. He relates to them his belief that he was doing God’s will and work in seeking out and destroying the followers of “this Way.” He was zealous in his religious beliefs and intent on putting a stop to these heretics, even when it meant he had to silence his conscience and overlook the very Word of God. Paul is admitting that his beliefs, while culturally aligned, were not in alignment with God’s proclaimed Word and God’s will. He goes on to relate that this encounter can be verified by those who accompanied him on the journey to Damascus. They saw the light and heard the voice, even though they were unable to understand the words.
In essence, Paul is testifying as to what changed his life and his mind about these people and their beliefs. He has come fact-to-face with his worst nightmare, the proof that he was wrong and they were right – the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. Paul is overwhelmed by a divine light – brighter than the noon-day sun. I think it is important to note that Paul makes certain to point out that this was NOT the light of the noon-day sun, he was accustomed to that. No, this was a light from heaven that is obviously brighter, much brighter than the sun at noon. When we encounter a bright light, we naturally respond by squinting or closing our eyes. Our eyes are unable to receive that much light without damage. When we encounter God, our lives are unable to receive that much truth without being dramatically changed.
I stated that Paul comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare and you might be surprised to hear me call it that. But, most of us are comfortable living in the lie we’ve built around our lives. Paul had built his life around the lie of his personal piety and righteousness, but was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the stark reality of the truth – his sin. Are you willing to be confronted by the stark reality of the truth as revealed in Jesus? I hope so, that’s my prayer for you this Christmas. I also find it fascinating that Paul recognizes that the light that surrounds him is more than just mere light, it is the light or glory of SOMEONE. Of course, the voice he hears helps with that revelation. I have often wondered if Paul’s blindness was the result of being unable to look away, or if the light was simply so bright that to close his eyes or to look away was simply ineffective. Let me be very direct here, there will come a day when you too will be overwhelmed with the glory of Christ and be unable to turn away. Will the light of His glory reveal your sin or His righteousness?
Paul’s personal pride and zealousness for the law had blinded him to the grace and love of God, as revealed in Jesus the Christ. God took this zealous but spiritually blind guide and enlightened him to eternal truth through real, physical blindness. It wasn’t until Paul couldn’t physically see that he really saw the truth, Jesus is the Son of God and “this Way” is the only way to life with God. Blindness actually gave Paul sight!
But, notice Paul’s response to this revelation – “what do you want me to do, Lord?” Zealous disobedience brought Paul into confrontation with God and that confrontation brought him face-to-face with the truth, his undeniable rebellion and sin against this holy God. His zealous disobedience is now transformed into radical, zealous obedience and absolute surrender to God’s revealed will. His blindness to the truth in God’s Word is now transformed into incredible insight throughout God’s Word. What he was unable to see before, he now sees clearly – the revelation of God comes to life, in Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to just “tell us about” God, He is God in human flesh. Emmanuel – God among us, with us, taking up His dwelling within us.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, my hope and prayer for you is that you are able to see the light, the glory of God come to earth in human flesh. Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God. If you don’t know Him, I pray God will blind you to the things around you so that you are able to see the truth found only in Him. If you know Him, I pray that you will be radically and zealously obedient to His Word. Just ask Him, “what would you have me do, Lord?” Then go…
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