05 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
5th of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” – Sunday, January 6, 2019
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
Whenever we examine the life of an individual who has come to be known in special ways, maybe even being great, we often learn along the way that there have been times when that person has gone through circumstances and events in which there were problems and hurdles that had to be overcome. Some of those were of some degree of magnitude, quite significant. We see that to be true in the Bible character that were going to come back to this morning after taking a few Sundays during Christmas and also the final Sunday last week to focus on the first coming of Christ as well as his anticipated return someday in the future, maybe very soon – as we turn our attention again to the life and also the ministry of the apostle Paul.
I want to recap just for a few moments. Paul’s roots actually go back to a city that was known as Tarsus. And if you know your geography at least to some degree you’ll see that the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea was where this town was located just a few miles inland in a small province that was called Cilicia. All of this today is modern Turkey, but in that first century time it was known as Asia or sometimes referred to as Asia Minor. Paul was was born a full-blooded Jew probably sometime during the first several years of the first century, maybe only a few years after the birth of Jesus Christ. His lineage was of the line of Benjamin – that was one of the 12 tribes of the nation of Israel. And he was first of all named Saul which was also the name of the most famous Benjaminite in Israel’s history because it was Saul who would been Israel’s first king.
He was reared in the tradition of Judaism. He was sent away probably in his teens as he was educated and trained under an esteemed Jewish leader in the city of Jerusalem, and thus he became totally indoctrinated in the Jewish system of beliefs to the point that as he got older and as he became more involved in that Jewish system and even assumed roles of religious leadership, he came to the place where he had a little if any tolerance for what was emerging as a newly held view of belief with regard to a man known as Jesus. It was this Jesus who was being claimed to be the Messiah, Israel’s promise Deliverer. It was this Jesus who had been crucified only a few years earlier and who had been raised from the dead. And in Saul’s view all who accepted that and became part of that new entity that was known as the church were viewed as a threat and they needed to be stamped out, for good. And so Saul made it his mission to find and to apprehend any who in his mind had foolishly believed all this rubbish. And he even persecuted them if they resisted. He also even assented or gave approval of some being put to death. That was the case with one man in particular whose name was Stephen, the account of which is given in the 6th and 7th chapters of the book of Acts, who gave his defense and before the day was over Stephen was literally stoned to death. And Saul was right there, had watched the entire scene. That’s the reason why at one point he would write later in the book of Galatians, chapter 1, and verse 13, I made it my intent to “destroy the church”.
Now one of his targeted locations was a city that was called Damascus. We hear sometimes about Damascus in our day. There’s a lot of turmoil that goes on in that part of the Middle East. It was located a little over 100 miles north of Jerusalem. And from the opening lines of Acts chapter 9 he was not far from his destination when suddenly he was brought to an abrupt halt by Jesus Christ Himself, who for some time had been pursuing this violent man. God had previously set Saul apart from his birth and He had called him by His grace, and now He was calling him directly. In those moments Saul was blinded by a brilliant light that came from heaven that shone all around him. That was followed by his hearing a voice which was the voice of Jesus Himself. He identified Himself as being the one who was really being persecuted. “You’re persecuting my people, but in essence you are persecuting me,” He said. And somewhere in that brief exchange there was that moment when Saul must have put his trust in Christ which was the very opposite of all that he had held to previously.
That text tells us that he was led into the city blind. The Lord sent one of His servants whose name was Ananias to Saul to declare a message from God to him, to lay hands on Saul to signify that he was accepting him now as a brother in the Lord. Think of that – here he would been the number one persecutor ready to come into the city to lay hands on Christians there, and now Ananias is saying, “Saul, you’re my brother in the Lord; you have truly been restored spiritually.” But not only that he was restored physically because immediately he was able to see, and he was baptized signifying his part with God’s people.
We read in Acts 9 after that, that he spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. And –
Acts 9:20-22 (New International Version)
20At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" 22Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
We can see from this passage that Saul had already established a reputation for himself, and it wasn’t a good one either. And the word had already gotten out that he was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus, as well as all the things he had been doing previously when he had been in Jerusalem and that he had every intention to do the same thing when he got to the city of Damascus. But people now were all of a sudden stumped. Saul wasn’t carrying through with those plans. Apparently something that happened. They couldn’t figure out that he was now preaching the very Jesus he had up to a few days before devoted his life in wiping out every evidence of the name of Jesus.
Furthermore, it tells us in these verses that he was growing increasingly powerful in his new faith. He was “proving that Jesus is the Christ”. The word “proving” here is a very interesting term. It is actually a term that means “to knit together from several different strands”. It was one that would have been used by women of those days who would be taking material and piecing them together. And in essence this is what Saul was already doing in his early Christian life – he was skillfully weaving together, seamlessly delivering with compelling logic the truths about what he knew about Jesus even in those first days, and he did so with remarkable skill. The idea being conveyed here is that he was actually walking his listeners through passages of the Old Testament, which he by the way would’ve known quite well being an ardent Jew himself. And he was presenting now a convincing and an airtight case for believing that Christ was indeed the promised Messiah of the Jews.
If we ever wonder to ourselves about the validity of who Jesus was and is, the apostle Paul is a compelling case for that because how in the world could a man go from believing what he had previously about Christ, discounting everything, to where he now believes that Jesus is the Christ, He is the
Son of God, and he’s devoting himself to Him. He’d have to either be a fool to do something like that, or it is the real deal.
Within only a short time God had transferred transformed this violent Christian-hating tormentor into a passionate proclaimer of Jesus Christ and His gospel. And all of a sudden he is applying the same vigor in promoting the gospel as he did when he was trying to suppress and oppose it. And the more Saul was confronted with the plain truth, his heart seemed to become open to allowing the Spirit of God to reprogram all those deeply ingrained views and beliefs that he had held for so long from all of his past training, that he was discovering now so much of it was wrong, and particularly what had pertained to the person of Jesus Christ.
So these verses here, verses 20 through 22, in essence provide a brief summary of Saul, how he already became a witness during that initial period of his new Christian life and what he experienced in general as he began to learn more about who this Christ was that he had been so wrong about previously.
Now there’s something that Luke the Spirit-inspired author of Acts does not record in this passage that is given to us by the apostle himself in another passage a few pages further on in the little book of Galatians. And there in the first chapter of that letter Paul says that God had set him apart and called him “by His grace” and had been “pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles”, and when He called me, he said, “I did not consult” with “any man nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I immediately went into Arabia” and then “later I returned to Damascus”, and “then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:15-18).
Now because in Acts chapter 9 Luke also wrote about Saul going to Jerusalem further on in verse 26, but he did not make any reference to what Paul wrote about here in Galatians 1 about going to Arabia and then returning to Damascus and that three years had elapsed since that at all happened. So the question is – How we bring these accounts together? And the best explanation seems to be that the phrase that begins verse 23 of Acts chapter 9 that says, “after many days had gone by” is really that period of those three years that the apostle made mention of in Galatians chapter 1, which means that “many days” meant at least a thousand days or more. Remember that Luke is not giving us all the details of what went on in those early years of the church. He’s only giving us some snapshots here and there at certain points. And so what the apostle gave in Galatians chapter 1 adds to, it tells us a little bit more about what was going on. The interesting thing, however, is we’re not given anything more about what actually went on during that phase during that period of Paul’s Christian life. He just simply says that instead of leaving Damascus and going to Jerusalem, I first “went immediately into Arabia,” period.
Now at first that might seem to be a long distance, way to the south. We have our minds that of Saudi Arabia – that’s quite a ways to the south, you know, of the holy land, what we know of as Israel today. But in that first century era Arabia was actually an extended geographical area that went all the way up to not far away from Damascus, maybe in the region that I’ve kind of blocked off there on the screen in red, which could mean that Saul may not have had to journey all that far into that barren wilderness. Furthermore, in Galatians 1 he didn’t say specifically that he spent all three of those years in Arabia but rather that it was “after three years” that he went to Jerusalem, which would include both the time in Arabia plus the time after he returned to Damascus. Other than those small bits of information he did not provide anything more as to why he went to Arabia or what he spent his time doing there for whatever length of time that it was. And of course, this has raised, this has led to various attempts to speculate about what Paul did while he was in Arabia. Certainly it would have provided him with opportunities to be alone with God, to think through some of the implications of his recent encounter with the living Christ that he had experienced on his way to Damascus. Probably many days that he was there he thought about how he could have even been worthy of the grace that had been manifested by God through Christ to him because of the kind of individual he had been in his previous sinful experience. Furthermore, he had already become convinced just in those opening days of his new life that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God. But there was more that he needed to know about Christ. In fact he actually needed to know God and he needed to know Christ more, not just knowing more about Him but to know Him more. And that was what Jesus Himself had prayed to the Father concerning His disciples before He went to the cross in John chapter 17 and verse 3, where He said, “Now this is eternal life that they (that my disciples, my followers) that they might know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” I can’t help but believe that there in Arabia that prayer began to be answered with regard to Saul. Saul came to know God and his son Jesus Christ more in that time alone. And his experience of knowing Christ more filled him with an even greater appetite, a greater hunger and thirst, like what he wrote about in Philippians chapter 3 and verse 10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” He had gotten a taste of that and it would never go away, and there he had learned to know more of who Christ was in his life.
There were also truths that he needed to be enlightened about, because as I said a moment ago there had been many distortions that he had previously come to have about Christ, that had been due to his errant Jewish training. Perhaps he was able to have access to a portion of the Old Testament Scriptures, maybe all of it, which would have been rather rare in that ancient time. In fact, one individual that I read envisioned that Saul may have taken a copy under his arm and walked out into the desert and started reading and reading it again and again, and as he did he began to see what he had not seen in the past. He began to see Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament, in the in the writings of Moses in the law, in the book of Psalms, even in the accounts of Israel’s history, and in the prophets. All of those pointed to Jesus Christ. That’s still true for us today. You go back to the Old Testament – there is so much there that is about Christ. He began to discover perhaps that what others have discovered since – that the Old Testament is as full of Christ as is the New. For example, the sacrifices and the offerings that were made and the tabernacle where people came to present those offerings and sacrifices – all of those were pictures of Jesus. It’s even possible that during that time Saul may have been given directly more divine instructions and revelation from Jesus himself so that he might be freed more from the falsehoods that had gotten lodged in his mind. One well-known Bible teacher and author has written this to kind of sum up what possibly was going on during his time in that barren place of obscurity – there much of the basis for the theology he came to have began to develop and was formed. As he quietly met with God he plumbed the unfathomable mysteries of God’s sovereignty, the depravity of man and of the human heart, the deity of Jesus Christ, the miraculous power of the resurrection, the theme and the doctrine of grace, the church, future things to come, many other truths that he came across. It would become an extensive and in-depth course in sound doctrine from which would flow a lifetime of preaching and teaching and writing.
Remember, he wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. But more than that, it was where Paul tossed aside his polished trophies of what he had held to so dearly and he traded his resume of religious credentials for a vibrant relationship with the risen Christ. He would never be the same when he came back.
We can also envision him during those weeks and months as he began to reflect on that call that God had given him, that the Lord had relayed, for example, through that man by the name of Ananias – this man is to be my “chosen instrument”, he is to be my witness to all men of what he is seen and heard, he is to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel so that their eyes might be opened and they might be turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Some of these words are words that the apostle would declare much later on in Acts chapter 22 and Acts 26 when he gave his testimony, when he gave his defense of who he was.
Now course as we look about what I put here on screen of all these possibilities, we cannot be definite about any of this because the Scriptures don’t tell us specifically. The reason that we might even surmise that this is what was going on is because we know what the outcome was for his life and his ministry later. The further we read in the New Testament, his writings, also in the book of Acts, he more we go further into the truths that were given to us, we think to ourselves something had to have happened in this experience when he was there.
Well at some point Saul achieved his DD degree, that is, his “doctorate in the desert”, we might say, and he made his way back to Damascus. And that’s where the account again picks up in the middle of verse 23 of verse 9. Three years earlier he had amazed people with his remarkable preaching. But this time not everyone appreciated his words. In fact his ministry was met with stiff resistance from the Jews which included the Jewish leaders. They “conspired to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and they lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” (Act 9:23b-25) No sooner had Saul gotten back to Damascus than he became a hunted man. He had a target on his back. His enemies wanted him so badly that they actually posted guards at key entry and exit points throughout the city with round-the-clock surveillance, “day and night,” it says, to prevent any possibility from him getting away without them detecting it. But there were some who had become followers or disciples, as they are referred to in the text, who became unnamed accomplices for Saul. They set in motion an escape plan to ensure his safe getaway. And I can almost imagine them getting together with him huddled under the cover of darkness and saying, “Saul, we’ve got an idea. We can get you out of here. But here’s what we’re going to have to do. There’s brother ‘so-and-so’, he’s got his little place that is next to the wall of the city and there’s an opening there, and we can get you through that opening, it’s just big enough for you, but we don’t want to just drop you right there. We’re going to have to lower you down. So another brother who is a guy that is known to be a fisherman, he’s going to bring his fish basket, and we’ll have you crawl in there and we’ll lower you down so that you can be able to get away from it all.”
I’ve always found it interesting when I’ve seen this account how God can work to teach some humility in a person’s life. Can you imagine the prideful individual that Saul had been as he grew in knowledge of all of the things that he learned in Judaistic tradition, being a very proud man, and now he’s asked to crawl inside a smelly fish basket in which he is going to be lowered down by a rope so that he can be able to escape?
You know what’s also very interesting – about 20 years later when the apostle wrote what is titled in our new Testaments as the book of 2nd Corinthians he recounted this very episode there at the end of a segment of chapter 11 of 2nd Corinthians where he had been speaking of many of the hardships that he had gone through that he had endured. But there had been one incident in particular when he says in the middle of the night in order to escape after the governor of Damascus had the city guarded to arrest him he had climbed into a basket at the end of the rope – we might say he became literally a basket case – and at the hands of others, he said, “I was lowered” to the ground (2nd Corinthians 11:32-33). And it had been an experience he had never forgotten as it became a reminder for him of humiliation and weakness. That night when he had been lowered in that basket he began to learn as maybe he had never learned before that God did not need all of the abilities he thought that he had to offer God, nor did God need his privileged background and his ancestry and his knowledge and his training and so on. God needed just him as a person. And so Paul could say in 2nd Corinthians 11, verse 30, “Look, if I’m going to boast about anything, here’s what I’ll boast about – I’ll boast about the things that show my weakness,” because as he would go on to put it in the next chapter, “When I am weak, that is when I become strong” (2 Cor. 12:10b), because Christ would make him strong.
So that night Saul slipped away undetected. The question was – Where was he going to go? Well, my suggestion would have been, “Why don’t you just go back to Arabia? There’s probably no one out there that’s looking for you. It would be less threatening certainly out there in that barren area.” Let’s read what happens in the next part of the episode beginning at verse 26 –
Acts 9:26-30 (NIV)
26When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Now remember, Saul was very familiar with Jerusalem. That’s where he had spent a significant number of years in training. But surely this was going to be different than the reception he had been given in Damascus, because here he was familiar with the town and he was probably familiar with even a few the people, even though it had been a few years. It just seemed to be the perfect place to restart his public ministry. And he starts in. And what kind of reaction does he have? Well, some were skeptical. They kept their distance. And if we ever think to ourselves that we’re ready to judge any of those people for feeling that way, we maybe should ask ourselves how we would have felt. Here’s persecutor number one just coming into town and he’s telling us that he knows Jesus Christ now and his life is changed. You think you’d accept it just right off the bat? I doubt if I would have. They’re not sure if they can truly believe him.
But it’s at this point that one of them steps in almost out of nowhere to become an advocate for Saul. His name – Barnabas. The first part of that name means “son of” and the last part means “encouraging”. Putting them together, Barnabas’ name means “son of encouragement”. And what an apt name it was for this man. Barnabas somehow had been able to already trust Saul despite his many past sins. And so he took Saul with him to visit the apostles – you know, Peter, James, John, and the rest. And there he stood and vouched for this former persecutor, this relatively new brother in the Lord, and he let them know, “This guy is the real deal. I know you’re skeptical but you can accept that he truly has come to know the Jesus that he once fought against.” Barnabas’ words opened the door for ministry opportunities for Saul in Jerusalem, so that it tells us here he could go about freely and he spoke openly about Christ. Furthermore, it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship between these two. Later on they would become ministry partners as they journeyed from place to place for a period of time.
But it was not long before Saul again faced opposition. Like in Damascus there was a contract that was put out on his life in Jerusalem. Some tried to actually kill him. But notice again, just like in Damascus, there were some brothers who came to the rescue. Their names are not known – they’re just called “brothers”. And they helped him to escape. They got him down the road to the seaport city of Caesarea and supposedly he sailed for his home town of Tarsus. And there he would spend quite some time in obscurity. I find it interesting that the man whom God had called as His chosen instrument to take the gospel message to the Gentiles is being put on hold for a period of time to await what God wants to do with him next.
It’s also interesting that during that time that he was away the church really wasn’t adversely affected. Verse 31 of Acts 9 says (NIV), “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened and (it was) encouraged by the Holy Spirit, (and) it grew in numbers, living in fear of the Lord.” The church not only went on but it actually flourished even without Saul, because the secret to blessing in the health of any church, both then as well as now, lies not just in one individual but it lies with Almighty God.
Now it’s going to be at least 4 or 5 years that goes by, some people think even as much a 7 to 10, before Saul is going to come up on the scene again. It was during that time further preparation for him was made so that he could be used to carry out the mission to which God had called him. And while he did not play a key role during that intervening period, he would, which we see next when we come to the next episode that is given about him in Acts chapter 11, which also involves Barnabas, because there a great work of God was going on in a particular place and Barnabas needed help, and who does he think about first that could help him the most? He thinks about Saul. And it tells us that he went to look for him and he brought him along with him. And that was the beginning of Saul’s ministry that would be vibrant, that would be far-reaching, and that would take him throughout the Mediterranean Empire to see literally hundreds, if not thousands of people’s lives changed because of Jesus Christ. Sometimes when God puts people on hold for a period of time, it doesn’t mean that He’s through with them but rather that He’s still got great work for them if they will just wait to follow His ways. And that’s still true for us today.
Well, let’s look to the Lord in prayer as we close this service.
Heavenly Father, thank You for handpicking, we might say, this servant of Yours who in many respects should not have been qualified at all just because of him being so sinful and had performed such acts of evil in his pre-Christian life. And yet Your grace reached out to him, just as it does with any of us. I pray, dear Father that as we see the change, the transformation that was made in this man’s life that we know of as Paul today that we might continue to see transformation like this in our lives and that because of how You use us, transformation in the lives of people whom we have contact with, whom we may have an opportunity to affect ourselves. There so many who are lost in darkness today who need the light of Jesus, just as Saul did back there. And I pray that You would use us to be the same kind of gospel carriers just as he was, maybe not that will be as effective in the same way but effective nonetheless. I pray that You would use us to touch some life even this week. We pray this all in the name of Jesus our precious Savior and Lord. Amen.