“Then I said, ‘Who are You, Lord? ’ And the Lord replied: ‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and of what I will reveal to you. I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles. I now send you to them to open their eyes so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that by faith in Me they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified.’” (Acts 26:15-18 HCSB)
When I was growing up, my mother and several of her sisters worked in the Oklahoma child care system in various capacities. As such, we often had foster children as a part of our family in addition to all of the normal craziness of a house full of boys, their friends, and our extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Honestly, we didn’t see the foster kids as an “add-on” to our family, we saw them as a normal part of our family and just more family to enjoy and love. Now, I look back on those times and I recognize that this wasn’t just my mother’s way of “doing her job” but was one way in which she was living out her faith in God. As we consider today’s passage, I want you to consider the ways in which God calls us to live out our faith in a challenging culture, changing political environment, personal and shared challenges, our jobs and our families.
In today’s focal passage, Paul continues giving his defense before King Agrippa and Bernice as he relates the results of his encounter with the risen Jesus. As you study a passage of scripture, especially a story that is told and retold in several places, it is interesting and informative to reread all of them and notice the subtle differences. Let me be clear here, subtle differences in the story as it is told and retold is not an indication that the story is false, as some skeptics claim. In fact, it is the opposite – it is an indication that the story is true. The same story can be told and retold with different emphases and perspectives and be completely true in each retelling.
In this version of Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul doesn’t note how he was physically blinded by the intense, overwhelming bright light but he does note the purpose of Jesus’ appearance, to open the eyes of “the people” and the Gentiles. This seems to imply that the blindness Paul experienced is not unique to him but is shared by many who are just like him (the people – more on this in a moment) and those who are not at all like him (the Gentiles – most of you who are likely reading this post). In fact, this same spiritual blindness might be something you have experienced (to borrow a phrase: “can I get a witness?”) or might be currently experiencing.
Don’t assume that just because you are religiously experienced or actively seeking God that you can’t be spiritually blind to God or His purpose. Paul was very religious, very devout and completely orthodox in his beliefs about God, yet he was blindsided by the truth in this encounter with the living God. Last week, I talked a little bit about the “goads” that Jesus references and how God used people and events to poke and prod Paul to this life-changing encounter. God was using specific irritants and pain points to bring Paul to a direct confrontation with the truth and a personal decision moment. Are you dealing with irritating or painful circumstances that God might be using to get your attention? My prayer for you is that you’ll listen to Him and respond to His offer of grace, forgiveness and submit to His Lordship. Keep those things in mind as we progress through today’s passage.
When Paul encounters Jesus, he is also confronted by the authority Jesus possesses and His right to exercise that authority over Paul’s purpose and direction in his life. In our self-focused and individualistic culture, we tend to focus on our personal worth in the redemption story; God loves ME so much that He was willing to die in my place. Sometimes, because of this cultural focus on ourselves, I think we tend to sit back and delight ourselves in our status and position as Children of God and heirs in His family. While that is certainly true, I want you to pay closer attention to the relationship that Jesus emphasizes with Paul in this relationship: He is LORD and Paul is His SERVANT and WITNESS. Instead of lounging around the kingdom and acting like pampered and spoiled children of the King, we’ve been called to a task, given a higher, deeper purpose for our “royal” lives: obedient servants of the King and witnesses of His grace and glory.
Somehow, at least in the Baptist circles I move in, we seem to emphasize one aspect of redemption while ignoring others. We’ve emphasized our change in status as a child of God while diminishing our status as disciples and obedient servants. We really like to emphasize what is called “the security of the believer” or, in old fashioned Baptist terms, “once saved, always saved.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in and have often taught and preached on the security of our salvation. But we must not neglect the continuing call upon our lives, like Paul’s, to be servants and witnesses of our Lord. It feels a bit like we want to misapply the doctrine of eternal security to give us a license for disobedience instead of seeing it as a means of hope when our culture rejects our message and causes us to fall back into fear and despair. Maybe we should change this phrase to “once saved, always saved and called to serve and witness.”
Notice that Paul is to be a witness of what he has seen and what will be revealed to him. Many of us struggle with this idea of “witness” because it carries with it negative images of door-to-door witnessing and cold-call visitation to “win people to Jeeessuuus!” (You have to say that with a southern drawl to get it just right.) But seriously, the idea of being a witness for Jesus can bring on palm sweating and heart palpitations for those of us who tend to be a bit shy and an introvert but it can even be daunting for those who are gregarious and outgoing. Why? Because personal rejection is our greatest fear.
Maybe it would help if we approached this a bit differently, like Paul. Jesus tells Paul that he is to be a witness of what he’s seen and what will be revealed to him. Paul has just been confronted by the reality of the resurrection. He has personally seen the risen Jesus. I know what you’re thinking, good for Paul but I’ve not had that privilege. The real issue here is not so much the physical appearance of Jesus as much as it is our confidence in the truth of His resurrection. Admit it, we all struggle with doubts, fears and questions. We ALL struggle with them. Not something you hear in church often, is it? But Jesus said,
“Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Those who believe without seeing are blessed.” (John 20:29 HCSB)
In other words, our ability to have faith without seeing physical proof of His resurrection will bring true blessings. We often assume that the Apostles and early believers who had witnessed the resurrection or who knew one of them were the ones who were really, really blessed and they never had doubts or fears. In other words, if we could have seen the resurrected Jesus like Peter, John or Paul then our faith would never waver and we wouldn’t hesitate to be a bold witness for Christ. But Jesus states that those of us who believe without seeing are the ones who are truly blessed. Our faith has to reach deeper into our souls and spread wider across our lives because we lack that physical aspect of belief.
Right now, some of you are experiencing deep fears and anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear doesn’t always drive us away from God, they can drive us to Him. When I was a young man, I began to wrestle with my salvation and relationship with Jesus. I had doubts about my salvation. I had a pastor, when I was a young, who basically said that if you didn’t know the day, hour and minute that you were saved then you really weren’t saved. This caused deep doubts in my heart and mind about my salvation because I didn’t know the specific date. I struggled with this for several years. I knew I had placed my faith in Christ when I was about eight years old, but I couldn’t tell you the exact date. What eight year old remembers dates other than their own birthday?
So, as a young man I realized I had to resolve this nagging doubt in my heart about my salvation. As I studied and prayed, I began to realize that my pastor had been wrong. My salvation wasn’t dependent upon my ability to remember a date, according to scripture, it was dependent on the grace, forgiveness and power of God through faith in Jesus alone. My ability to remember a date wasn’t a factor, but my ongoing, absolute trust in Jesus as the living Son of God was. In my heart, this time of doubt had felt a lot like the story of Jacob when he wrestled with God and then walked away from that struggle with a limp but a quiet confidence of God’s presence and of his place in God’s plan. I came away from this time of doubt with a few spiritual scars, but a quiet confidence in God’s saving grace and my place in His plan.
What about you? Are your doubts eating you alive, right now? Does this pandemic have you questioning the future and, thus, your future? God has the ability to bring peace to our lives in spite of our circumstances. No, really. He does. Peace is possible despite our circumstances because peace is not the absence of conflict or living under idyllic conditions. Peace is the presence of God in the midst of our circumstances. I want you to see this in our focal passage, today…
Jesus says, “I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles.” The word that is translated “rescue” here means to “snatch out” or “take from among” them. In other words, Jesus is going to pull him out from among “the people,” which is a term that refers to the Jewish people, and from the Gentiles. This seems to be a reference to Jesus act of redemption for the Apostle as He pulls Paul out from among them and to Himself. Then Jesus says, “I now send you to open their eyes…”
Did you see it? If not, go back and read that last paragraph, again. He takes Paul out from among them and then sends him right back to them, but there’s a difference… He WAS among them, but now he’s being SENT to them. Paul had formerly been “one of them” and now he’s no longer “of them” or “among them” but has been transformed and is now being “sent to them.” Same people, same crazy circumstances, different person, different result. Paul now goes with a confidence and power that is not his own, he possesses a peace that is not based on his feelings, circumstances or surroundings, and he is on a mission for the Lord.
You too can know that same peace and power. Peace and power in the midst of a people who want peace but are driven by fear because have no power over their circumstances or COVID-19. Peace and power because you are not “of them” but have been sent to them by the Lord who drives out fear and brings unimaginable peace.
Which brings me to my final point, this week. Paul’s mission is to open their eyes to what Jesus wants to do in them. I discovered the peace I sought, years ago, as I wrestled through the question of my salvation. I found that salvation is by faith alone, in Jesus alone. It wasn’t dependent on anything I needed to remember or achieve. In today’s passage, he tells Paul to take that same message to those who are blind to these truths, to open their eyes just as his were opened that fateful day. To turn from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the power of God and then Jesus summarizes the gospel, “that by faith in Me they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified.”
It really is that simple. Faith, forgiveness of sins and a place in the story of redemption. We often try and make it more complicated, but those are Jesus’ words not mine. What about you? Ready to trust Him? If you have questions, you can post them here. If you have prayer needs, go here and submit your request and I’ll get a text message almost immediately and I’ll begin praying for you. If you’d like to talk, send a prayer request (see above link) and it will include your email address, I’ll reply via email.