Jesus the Redeemer

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           As the chosen people of God we need to hold on to the truth that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. Because of that truth we can be confident that we will not be overtaken, we will not be overcome. We will be victorious. However as we learned a couple weeks ago in our study of Stephen victory in the kingdom of God looks different than victory in the world. In Stephens case victory was dying for his faith.

            After the death of Stephen the church was scattered yet confident and growing. Saul was hunting them down and trying to wipe them out but as we saw last week with Philip God was using this persecution to bring more souls to life. Besides bringing the dead to life the other miraculous work God does is involve us in the process. The same power that rose Jesus from the grave lives in us, and empowers us to proclaim the Gospel, and be the hands and feet of Christ. We will see examples of this in Ananaias laying hands on Saul, and being used to restore his sight and see him filled with the Holy Spirit. God gives us the power to love our enemies while they persecute us, forgive them and serve them. This is Jesus power, this was how he approached us! Like Saul before any believer comes to faith they are Christ’ enemy. Like Saul but God we would all continue to be His enemy, so the beauty here is that Christ didn’t come to save the kind of messed up, He came to save the dead, redeem His enemies, He claims victory by adopting those who are opposed to Him and making them His heirs and entrusts them, US, with the continuing of His mission to redeem others. Before we dig into today’s text lets take a minute to learn about Saul, the enemy of God.

Who was Saul?

            Saul was born in Tarsus Acts 22:3, he was a moderately wealthy tent maker, Roman citizen, and educated in Jerusalem Acts 22:3 (Holman) under the tutelage of Gamaliel, who was a renowned teacher of the law who was respected by all people. He was a devout Jew, this made up a huge part of who he was, phil 3 “circumcised the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamen, Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, persecuting the church, as to righteousness that is in the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:5-6)

         Saul was not only present at Stephen’s execution but was in a position of leadership at it. The people actively stoning Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet. They stoned Stephen because they were so enraged by his words in declaring Christ as the messiah and fulfillment of the Old Covenant, as well as indicting them for His unjust murder. The final straw was Stephens declaring a vision of Jesus in heaven at the right hand of Yahweh. In his lasts breathes Stephen prayed for those who were persecuting him, using the same words as his Lord, “Father forgive them they know not what they do.” After murdering Stephen Saul sought to cleanse the earth of the followers of Christ. Here are three things to remember about Saul:

1 he was religious 

2 he was ravaging 

3 he was relentless

            Of the three characteristics that described Saul before He encountered God the last continued to describe him afterwards. God cleansed him of his religiousness and rage but redeemed his relentlessness. When Saul began to persecute the church it was not enough to cleanse Jerusalem, he got permission to travel 150 miles to hunt down the followers of the way. He was willing to go to great lengths to complete the task he was devoted to. After God chose him and redeemed him Saul would go on to write 13 of the books of the New Testament, walk an average of 20 miles a day, and suffer greatly for the sake of spreading the Gospel. On one occasion Saul was stoned for preaching the Gospel, dragged out of the town of Lystra (Acts 14) and left for dead. When he regained his consciousness he went back in to town preaching the Gospel. Relentless barely does Saul justice. When I think of him I have a vision in my head of a pit-bull that just won’t let go. They literally had to kill him in order to get him to stop preaching the Gospel. Now that you know a little about Saul let’s dig in to Acts 9 and study the account of his redemption.

The Damascus Road

9Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” he said. “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink. Acts 9:1-9 HCSB

            So up until now Saul had been an enemy of God, ravaging the church like a wild animal, resolute in his mission, and sure of his task. The only thing that changed Saul was Christ’s taking hold of him while he was on his way to apprehend those who belonged to Christ. Paul states this late in his epistle to the Philippians 3:12, He says that he makes an effort to take hold of spiritual maturity because Christ has taken hold of him. Christ acted first, then Saul responded. Lets take a look at Paul’s retelling of this account elsewhere:

Acts 26  “King Agrippa, while on the road at midday, I saw a light from heaven brighter than the sun, shining around me and those traveling with me. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ b15 “Then I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ “And the Lord replied: ‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting. 16 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. 17 I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles. I now send you to them 18 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.’ 19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Acts 26:13-19 HCSB

Galatians “13 For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I persecuted God’s church to an extreme degree and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me, so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles.” Galatians 1:13-16 HCSB

            My point, Saul’s point here is that his conversion was not the result of realizing he was a bad guy, but God moving and freeing him from the domain of darkness, the grasp of the devil. God also didn’t merely save him and say be free, He saved him and said I have a purpose for you. His purpose like all believers was to join God’s mission and preach the Gospel.

Six features typical of biblical conversions:

 1 conversion is a result of divine initiative.  Jesus approached Paul, while Paul was heading in opposition.

 2 There is a personal encounter with Christ (vv. 4–6). We all meet Jesus in different ways; but if we are converted, we have met him and entered into a personal relationship with him.

 3  he surrendered to Jesus’ Lordship, repented and sought God through prayer and fasting

 4  the importance of the body of Christ in the process, Ananias, and others

 5 conversion is individual not individualistic.  We all are saved in a personal unique way, but for the same purpose.  Not to be saved alone, but to join the mission.

 6 God does not promise an easy life, in fact He promises we will suffer for Him

            Now that we have studied his encounter with Christ lets move on to his baptism and see how God used others in his conversion.

Saul’s Baptism

10 There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. And the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Here I am, Lord!” he said. 11 “Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord said to him, “to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, since he is praying there. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so he can regain his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles kings, and the Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” 17 So Ananias left and entered the house. Then he placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 And after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Acts 9:10-19 HCSB

            Here we see that God uses His people to help save others and bring them into the fellowship. God could have finished what he started with Saul, but he desired to use Ananias in the process. This brought Saul into relationship with other believers, and did a work in Ananias heart. Like Jonah being sent to Nineveh, God sent Ananias to Saul his enemy who was persecuting his fellow brethren, and a risk to himself. In saving people and redeeming them to right relationship with Himself, God also desires to redeem relationships between man. It seems in using Ananias in Saul’s conversion he also brought maturity to Ananias faith, showing him and us today how to love and serve those who persecute us, and welcome everyone God decides to save into His family.

            Through this text I also asked myself is there meaning to the fact he was referenced as ravaging the church, then when he received the Holy Spirit scales fell from his eyes?  He indeed was an enemy of God, like the snake. Jesus and John the Baptist called the pharisees vipers when rebuking them, and similar imagery was used to describe the Sanhedrin.  Lets take a look at some verses and explore the imagery used in the narrative.  

Matthew 12 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflo of the heart. Matthew 12:33-34 HCSB Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers

Matthew 23:33 33 Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? e 34 This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and hound from town to town. 35 So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 I assure you: All these things will come on this generation! Matthew 23:33-36 HCSB Jesus again uses the terminology of snakes and vipers to describe those who oppose Him. He also here foretells the work of Saul.

Luke 3:7 “He then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance”. Luke 3:7-8 HCSB John the Baptist calls unbelievers a brood of vipers, and warns them not just to be baptized but to truly believe, to bear fruit.

Acts 7:54 “54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him.” Acts 7:54 HCSB When Stephen called the priest and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin stiff necked unbelievers the text says they gnashed their teeth at him.

In Acts 8:3 “Saul, however, was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.” Acts 8:3 HCSB The language used of Saul was that he was ravaging the church, this language was describing it in animal savagery.

            This all evokes the imagery of the snake in the garden. In Genesis 3:15 when God curses the snake he said the seed of the snake would be an adversary of the seed of the woman. The seed of the snake as we see in the New Testament are any who oppose God. The devil used men to attack Jesus, and Jesus declared them as belonging to the snake. The devil attacks by using God’s image bearers against Him, and God does likewise. He crushes the head of the serpent by redeeming the lost, by adopting His enemies as His children then giving them purpose in saving others from death. While the Devil is already judged, no man is beyond redemption. Saul was an enemy of God, BUT God changed him. At the moment Saul receives the Holy Spirit the text says something like scales fell from his eyes. God changed Saul’s identity, and his worldview. In receiving the Spirit he finally understood the scriptures he knew and as we will see next in the text he was empowered to take that knowledge with the insight the Spirit provided to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

Saul Proclaiming the Messiah

Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some days. 20 Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” 21 But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. 23 After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the wall.” Acts 9:19-25 HCSB

Here we see the importance of fellowship. Saul was included in the family, and had opportunity to teach. While learning and growing in his faith, he was surrounded by community, and they watched out for him and kept him safe. This is the function of the church. We are to surround fellow believers and walk with them to spiritual maturity, giving them opportunities to proclaim their faith, and keeping them safe from harm.  

Saul in Jerusalem

26 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they attempted to kill him. 30 When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.31 So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace, being built up and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers. Acts 9:26-31 HCSB

Again here we see God use one man to love on a new convert and bring him into the fellowship. These people had seen Saul take part in Stephen’s murder, and ravage their church, their family, yet God used Barnabas to welcome Saul and include him in the family. Saul again was given opportunities to grow, then his new family again kept him safe and God used the threat of violence to grow His church by sending Saul off.

Application

            In the text we saw that Saul was relentless, which is a good quality but for the wrong reason. God used this trait after he redeemed Saul.   What are you relentless for? What would you persist even through great persecution or simply hardship for? Maybe athletics? Do you endure hard workouts to achieve a certain goal, or work long hours to make a salary, or even spend great amounts of money and time on a hobby just to enjoy it? What would it look like if you were relentless about your faith, your relationship with God? Could you endure 10 minutes a day reading your bible, or praying? Could you risk having conversations with your unbelieving friends or coworkers? I challenge you to make one new commitment this week to be relentless for God.

            Another takeaway for me in this text was that we can’t make assumptions about the state of a persons heart. Saul was extremely knowledgeable of scripture, and maintained a seemingly moral life beyond reproach. We must continue to be Gospel focused not just outside the church but among professing Christians. There are many who profess to know God but do not yet have a personal relationship with Him. We must continually gospel each other and speak into each other’s lives out of love.           

             We also saw today that God used His people to invite others into the family. Not merely welcoming new Christians but redeeming enemies. The very act of Saul coming to faith was an answer to Stephens final prayer as he was being murdered. Stephen while being persecuted was praying for those who were doing him harm, and later Saul received that forgiveness and relationship with Christ. I believe God wants that same heart change for us as well. We need to be praying not just for the lost generally but for those we personally struggle with. We often pray for this situation in a prayer of deliverance for ourselves, but as we see in scripture led by the Holy Spirit Stephen prayed for deliverance for his oppressors. Then Ananias and Barnabas did the work of accepting one of those oppressors as a brother. So lets think of one person this week that we can pray for, and love on, and lets pray for God to empower us to love them, for us to desire their hearts to be changed, and for opportunities to serve them.  

            Finally also consider your relationship with Christ. Do you know him on a personal level, or like Saul do you just have head knowledge of scripture and are religious? Maybe this is your first time hearing of God’s redemptive work on your behalf. Know that you are an image bearer of God, part of His creation. Because of the presence of sin, which comes from our inheritance through Adam we all are naturally born sinful and are unable to live a perfect life, we are all broken and opposed to God. But God showed His love for us in sending Jesus, the God man to live a perfect life then die in our place on the cross. Then God rose Him from the dead, and by this act Jesus paid the debt of our sin which redeems us to God by faith in Jesus and His work. There is not a work you can do, prayer you can pray to save yourself, just a mighty God who did the work for you. If you are feeling God convict you of your sin respond by agreeing with him about your state of brokenness and need for Him to save you. This conviction and repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit in your life which will then produce fruit of faith and growth in spiritual maturity. After agreeing with God about this and receiving His grace respond by making a public profession of your faith by being baptized.