Who Are You, Lord
By Teddy Hembekides
Key Verse 9:5
“’Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.”
The early Christians were amazing! They were deeply devoted to Jesus. They were deeply commitment to the cause of the gospel. They truly loved each other. Let’s not make them perfect nor sinless, because they were neither. But the truth of the matter is that once they turned their hearts to Jesus in their faith, nothing could turn their heart back from him nor from the mission he set their hearts on. And what’s that? It was obvious to the youngest and most recent convert to the Christian faith that it was the kingdom of God. That’s where their hearts were set on. And as long as they were alive in this world, they shared this gospel with others. Not that they didn’t struggle with the temptations that trouble all people living in this world. But Acts 2:42 reminds us of what helped them fight these worldly temptations: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Of course, they also had the Holy Spirit who enabled them to remain faithful to all these things that are vital to the health of a Christian’s soul. And the Holy Spirit gave them this great sense of fellowship with one another that pulled them together. In other words they weren’t alone on that journey for the kingdom which we’re all on. It’s never easy to make the journey to the kingdom alone, which many seem to want to do in this generation. And that’s why we see so many Christians fail. But our forefathers didn’t fail because they understood the value of fellowship, because they understood the value of the kingdom they had inherited. And so they also understood the importance of working together in the Holy Spirit as they made their way to the kingdom. They fellowshipped together and in doing so they put up a good fight against all that came against them.
Why are we saying these things here? Because this loving fellowship and sense of oneness they had didn’t sit well with others, especially with those who couldn’t understand such a devotion to Christ— the kind of devotion ready to give up everything in this life for a kingdom no one could see. Before Christ came and men and women put their faith in him and were changed through the new birth of the Holy Spirit, the world had never seen Christ-like characteristics manifested among people. Now such things as love and servantship were being manifested freely in a way the world has never seen before. It angered people. It challenged and threatened them. It was as if God had invaded the very stronghold of evil kicking dust all over the place. Who do you think was among those who felt uncomfortable among them, looked at these weird Christians with contempt and saw them with suspicious? The very man Saul who had stood at Stephen’s stoning and had started an extensive persecution of Christians (Acts 8)— the very Saul also indirectly responsible for Philip’s outreach to the Samaritans— the same Saul who will become one of the greatest heroes of the Christian faith in history, and our champion.
What kind of man was he? Best to hear it from his own mouth! In regards to his ego, he had the highest confidence in who he was as a pedigree Jew with immaculate credentials before God and man. He said: “If anyone … thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:4-7) But that isn’t enough to tell us what was on the man’s heart, here’s what he also said: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man…” (1 Timothy 1:13) It’s hard to understand such a person, with an ego the size of a mountain, and a passion to match! It is said he was mentored by one of Israel’s greatest teachers of the Law Gamaliel, which gave him a sense of superiority in Biblical knowledge. Saul thought he loved God. But when a man surrenders to his own passion in serving God, he shows that he loves himself a whole lot more than he loves God. When he first encountered the Christians, he probably scoffed at their asinine faith to worship a crucified Messiah Risen to God’s side. The God Saul thought he knew was zealous for Saul to punish blasphemers. Jesus was a fraud and so was the Stephen to who’s stoning Saul gave approval. (8:1) And Saul was absolutely sure that this misguided man’s stoning would bring an end to the Christian movement.
But it didn’t. Stephen’s martyrdom seemed to have intensified the Christians’ fervor. Saul mercilessly persecuted them. But the persecution only added fuel to their fire. And something else seemed to have happened as a result of Stephen’s martyrdom. Something happened to Saul during that stoning. It lingered in his heart and distressed him more than he cared to admit. Instead of weeping and pleading for mercy as it is with those facing a horrible death— this saint did something Saul had never imagined anyone would do. Stephen prayed. And it wasn’t for God to forgive his sins. This man’s prayer was sincere and confident as Saul heard him say: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then falling on his knees he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60) It’s hard to imagine how these words fell on Saul’s ears. “Imagine the audacity of this wretch asking for my forgiveness”, Saul may have thought. Imagine having such peace at a time like this! But it was this righteous prayer than had done the most damage to Saul’s self righteous ego and spirit. In his one moment of death, this follower of Jesus seemed more at the doors of God’s kingdom than Saul had ever been in all his Law abiding and disciplined life. It was more than Saul could bear.
In a situation like that, people are either deeply broken by the situation admitting their wrong and are desperate for God’s mercy, or they fight against it with all they’ve got, even turning violent if necessary. He needed to shut out that voice in his heart that constantly nagged him that his way was wrong, that Stephen’s way was right. But to admit that it would mean that he would have to put aside his whole life’s learning and the ancient Jewish way and all that he grew up with and felt comfortable with, and begin newly. Saul was not ready to humble himself at all, not to even entertain the idea that these Christians may be right in what they believed and taught. Naturally then, the only way to shut out the voice of his nagging conscience was to fight and destroy everything that brought him the biggest challenge of his life— and made his heart struggle with the very things he thought he was so sure of. He wanted to silence the very thing that made him question how a young martyr and his Christian friends could have such a hold of God’s kingdom— a kingdom Saul himself could neither see nor enter but only hoped to enter someday. And so his journey begins— the journey that would change his life and the world forever.
Look at verses 1-2. He was now determined to eradicate this new growing cult. It had now become a passion of his that drove him to gain whatever authority was needed in order to find and capture these renegade followers of Jesus in Damascus. But that wasn’t going to happen. God had other plans for this man. We’re not sure why God chose him, but just the fact that it was him whom God had chosen of all people in the world, an enemy of God, in order to save him and to eventually to use him as an instrument of salvation for the world. And this is his famous story which he retells three times in his life journeys as recounted in Acts.
Something happened to him before he was able to reach Damascus to carry out his evil scheme. Read 3-6. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” This is not the first time God intervenes in a person’s life. He came to the Samaritan woman at the well. He stepped into Peter’s boat. He walked with the run away disciples to Emmaus. Jesus intervened in Saul’s life. He came to him. And he challenged him to turn aside from the life direction he was taking and begin a new life direction centered around Christ. It’s what Christ does as he challenges all whom he visits and intervenes in their lives. It is amazing how Christ visited this violent and repulsive man and spoke so tenderly to him leading him to see his life and all that he was doing in a way that surely brought horror to his own heart. And he spoke to him like one speaks to his own son, as God usually speaks to all whom he loves and calls. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And who would mistake the voice of the glorious Risen King who sits in glory at the right hand of God! No one. Neither did Saul. It was a loving voice as that voice that once called all the sinners of the past and transformed them into the great servants of God in God’s history. It was the voice of a father pointing to his son the error of his ways. Jesus should have condemned him to hell for what Saul had done. He should have rebuked him for his murderous spree and punished him by hanging him in the town square for all to see. But Jesus the shepherd who knows each one’s heart, knew Saul’s heart and spoke to him in a way that brought out the error of what he was doing. He didn’t tell him to stop. He didn’t frighten him nor threaten him. It was a voice that spoke to his conscience, the same voice that asked Adam, “Adam, where are you?” It was meant to help Saul come to his senses. And it did. So many proud people would not even after hearing God’s gentle voice. But Saul did. He listened, and he came to his senses. In other words, he turned, he repented. And his life changed.
“Who are you, Lord? Saul asked. I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul never forgot this one most important moment of God’s grace in his life. And it became his life testimony. Literally, Paul used this moment of Jesus’ intervention in his life as a source of strength all his life. It was like a marker to which he could always look back on whenever he struggled or felt discouraged. No matter where the Lord took him and how famous and important he became, he never forgot his life testimony. Of ten he wrote these words “By the grace of God I am what I am.” They helped him remember who he was and where he came from, and what he had become as a result of God’s grace. And it was because of this truth that Paul didn’t stray from God but remained close to him all his life. It reminds me of king David after having been given the kingdom and all things that made him one of history’s most beloved kings, said something similar when he prayed: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (1 Chronicles 17:16) These are the moments of grace a person never forgets in his or her life that keep them humble whereby they cannot stray from the Lord, no matter how dark the times may be. Who among you has this kind of testimony? We need it in our hearts and on our lips if we are to keep ourselves from the world and fulfill our God given mission. Without this Christian mark of Jersus’ grace on our soul, you and I are nothing. Paul said “By the grace of God I am what I Am.” But he also said: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
When Saul asked the voice to identify himself, Saul already knew who it was, for as we said, no one could mistake that voice to be the voice of God. Still, Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” He wanted to associate the voice of God with Him whom he was persecuting, that is Jesus, for the voice had said, “Why do you persecute Me?” And so God revealed to Saul his identity. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” It was necessary that it happened this way. Saul needed to be humbled. He needed to believe that the Risen Jesus whom the Christians were preaching had not only truly Risen, but he speaks as God almighty in heaven. Saul needed to be broken in this way, to see that he had been fighting not only against people and a church of rebel renegade Jews, but he had been in rebellion against God, fighting against God himself. Not long ago, it was Gamaliel, Saul’s own teacher who had cautioned to leave these Christians alone lest they find themselves fighting against God. Saul had not listened. Now he found out the depth of his pride. Now he found out the depth of his arrogance. And it was done in a most gentle way, as the voice of the Shepherd spoke to him, Saul’s heart began to ache and then it must have broken into a thousand pieces. At first, he felt a sense of condemnation, even though there was no condemnation in God’s voice. Then he must have felt a sense of grief and overwhelming guilt and shame, that same guilt and shame he felt earlier but multiplied a thousand times. Then he must have been overcome with a sense of unbearable sinfulness. What to do, when God does not condemn you but only points out your sin? Saul knew enough to feel remorse and then repentance must have washed over his heart. God never leaves a person to struggle with their sins without a hope, a vision, a glimpse of how they can make things right with God. It was the beginning of a new life for Saul. Humility— repentance— starting newly— giving up all that I once knew in order to open my heart to God’s new teaching! That’s not easy. But it is the way to make things right with God.
It was a deep conviction of sin that Saul experienced that afternoon. It was a moment in time. But it was a moment he would never forget, as we said. It was the moment God’s grace had visited him. And so God didn’t just leave them there. He also gave him a challenge of faith. Look at verse 6. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” What a difficult thing to do! He’d been so independent; he’d always done things for himself, and he’d always been a leader of others all his life. A new beginning for Saul would begin in doing God’s will by doing what he is told to do. In a way this marked the beginning point of his new life in Christ, a life that will be lived in faith and by faith alone. He had lived by the law and done everything according to the Law. Now he would have to trust God and learn to listen and obey God by faith. It reminds us almost of when God called Abraham and challenged him to being a life of faith, and asked him to go to a place he would later tell him where. For Abraham it was a great challenge of faith. So also for Saul, it would be a beginning of a new life and relationship with Christ the Lord— a relationship forged by Christ’s one sided grace and marked by Saul’s faith to trust Christ in all things. But to change his ways and to begin anew, Saul would now have to humble himself and embrace a life of repentance, faith and obedience. What a change from who he was before Christ intervened in his life. May the Lord who intervened in our lives continue to show us mercy and help us remember his grace every moment of our lives.