They Were All Afraid Of Him
By Timothy Lopez
“At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”
The United States had a great idea that shaped many lives. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” was a great idea that shaped tons of lives. But there is something that shapes lives much better than a great idea, namely it is a person who embodies that idea. People like John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln had power to change lives because they not only had great ideas, but when people looked at the men themselves, they saw the evidence of the greatness of those ideas. Similarly, as a Christian, there are many doctrines that have a way of shaping lives. Many teachings and passages that cut to the heart. But nothing changes hearts more than the testimony of a real person. Nothing impresses the mind like the doctrine that’s lived out by the lives of real people. Hear in this passage we have such story. The apostle Paul changed the hearts of many on both sides of his life. Before his conversion and after his conversion, by living out the doctrine he spoke of. He went from being the chief of sinners to the hardest working Apostle by the grace of God. There are also those who talk about their conversion, but when others hear about it, it may be questionable. Because they speak like a person who has surrendered their life to God, but when you look at them, nothing seems surrendered. Their job, their friends, the activities they engage in, don’t seem to agree with their ideas. Therefore, their power to transform someone else’s life is quenched. There is no power. Even if the desire to lead someone to Christ is still there, they can’t because they have no power. Those who know them may even be lead to think that it is okay to speak of ideas but have a life that exemplifies something else. Their relationships are normal, casual, but they are the ones that don’t transform.
The apostle Paul once defined a person’s conversion in these words, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17) The old— meaning the old way, the way of sin and of self. The new— meaning the new way, the way of repentance, of faith and of total submission to God. The new also means that our old passions and joys of sin has passed away, and new joy’s and desires to glorify God have come. It is a wonderful thing to see this work of God in Paul’s conversion story today.
As we saw last Sunday, Paul’s story involves the story of another person by the name of Ananias. He is introduced into church history as a disciple in Damascus. We don’t know much about him before and after this story, but we can tell from his conversation with the Lord that he walked deeply with God. In this story we see that he struggled with something. And his struggle is something that we all need to hear, because as it stands is if there wasn’t someone like Ananias, then their might not have been someone like the apostle Paul. Let’s reread 9:10-16. Look at his response to the Lord. He is not informing Jesus of who Paul is as if Jesus didn’t know. Ananias is simply objecting to the mission because of what Paul has done and what he was planning to do. What’s the challenge for Ananias here? It was to practice God’s forgiveness and trust on someone else. This is the first time in the book of Acts where we see someone immediately objecting to a mission straight from the Lord. Many today think that they would out right obey God if He spoke to them directly, but here we see that this is not true. It’s easy to find a reason to object to the mission of God. I’m tired… I have no time… Maybe tomorrow… But it’s even harder when it involves forgiving someone who has wronged us, who has left a painful stain on our hearts, or someone whom we feel is not worthy of God’s forgiveness. It’s easy to sing the praises of God’s forgiveness of sinners from a distance. But it is another thing, when you know what other’s sins are, to forgive them for their sins. In fact, it is probably easier to take the gospel to the jungles of the unknown, than to practice forgiveness and trust to trust an untrustworthy person. Especially in this case, it wasn’t easy for Ananias to demonstrate forgiveness for someone like Paul. He was a killer who didn’t have problem going that extra mile in the cause of religious fanaticism and zeal. But the truth is that this encounter was a meeting made in heaven for the both of them. It had to happen. Ananias didn’t have to evangelize or convert Paul, Jesus had already done that work in his heart. All Ananias had to do was approach him, bless him and commission him. But to do that, he had to first forgive him and accept him as a brother. did he? of he complained a bit, but in the end he did the right thing and warmly took Saul into his heart as Christ had taken Ananias himself. He was great for being the first to do it whole heartedly.
This story is not about loving our enemies, conversely it is about loving our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. And what a good lesson it is to learn. Because Ananias could forgive and bless Paul, he was really one of the most blessed believers. Ananias had such a problem accepting Paul, and if he did, then we can only imagine how others might have struggled to accept him. Paul’s letters are laden with the exhortations to unity and resolving conflict within the church all because people really struggle with forgiveness and acceptance. We are more sensitive then we’ll ever want to admit. To the Corinthians who had many divisions Paul said, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Cor 6:7) To the Ephesians he said, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Eph 4:26) To the Colossians he said, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col 3:13) And to the church in Rome he said: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to god.” (Romans 15:7) Usually that is the secret and the power behind the forgiveness and acceptance that the lord asks his people to exercise on each other, especially on those who like Saul have a past that is humanly unforgivable. “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you” is the grace of god we may all do well to remember. Christ accepted me when I was most unworthy. likewise, I can accept you, and forgive you, and take you in as my brother. it is how Ananias made history in the church.
Christian magazine had a story that I felt illustrated a powerful but difficult act of forgiveness. On October 2, 2006, a man by the name of Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk tanker truck driver, walked into an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and shot ten girls, killing five of them. He then committed suicide. In suicide notes he wrote of immense anger against God. That afternoon Amish neighbors visited Roberts’ wife to express sympathy, and days later more Amish than non-Amish attended Roberts’ funeral. The Amish adhere to Jesus’ teachings to forgive, to care for the needs of others and to believe God can bring good out of all situations. We do well to emulate their example.
And what of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph? He remains the poster child for forgiving one’s own brothers. Rejected and sold by jealous brother, he was transported to a foreign culture and unfairly imprisoned when the wife of a government official lied about him. How much more challenging can life become? Yet Joseph stood firm in his faith. No matter where he found himself— deteriorating in prison, serving as a government official in charge of the managing food for Egypt or raising his family— Joseph conducted himself as a godly man. And God used that man to offer food and eventually preservation to the very family that had wronged him and mistreated him and finally severely rejected him. Joseph had done the almost impossible and forgave his brothers. When his brothers worried that he would seek revenge after his father’s death, he told them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen 50:20) He could say this because he trusted God at every step in his life.
Though forgiveness and trust may not come easily, with God’s help, we can decide to cast our bitterness aside. I’d even venture to say that our oneness and harmony as ministry mostly rests on how well we learn to forgive and trust each other. Again, with God’s help, this is our choice. A choice that will surely bless us personally, and make us a blessing to each other. In fact, let’s say together as a ministry. Let’s say aloud, “With the help of the lord— I forgive my brother and sister from the heart— I will accept them as the lord accepted me!”
But let’s not look at Ananias as if he’s the only one who had a faith and obedience challenge. The Lord Jesus trained him and Paul at the same time. Yes, it’s true that God had forgiven Paul and commissioned him to be an apostle to Gentiles, but not before he was ready to accept Ananias first. The great and accomplished Pharisee would have to let this lowly unknown disciple place his hands on him; he would let Ananias bless him and be the agent through whom the Holy Spirit would come on Saul for him to begin his powerful ministry. Paul’s future depended on him humbling himself to receive this man’s blessing and prayer support. In today’s individualistic society many don’t think it much to receive the blessing of a mature believer before venturing off into God’s mission, or in some other life direction. But all of the greatest servants of God had to be commissioned by someone. For many it will determine the success or failure of their mission or journey or even life direction. We remember Esau who begged with tears for his father Isaac’s blessing even with tears, but did not get it. (Hebrews 12:17) So Paul waited for three days before having to receive God’s blessing. It would have been easier if this was done immediately. But he had to wrestle for it. During those three days, we know that he wrestled to know his sin and he came to know the grace of God. We know that he was severely humbled in his inner being. But no one knows how much the devil tempted him during those three days. A proud man like that was tormented to rebel against God and against all that he had learned as he grew up. His pride against the Christian God could have caused him to abandon God and his grace. Paul had every reason to refuse as he struggled with himself for those days. But finally he genuinely accepted this grace, humbled himself, submitted to God’s discipline to receive blessing from this Ananias— a nobody despised Christian— and to be baptized!
Let’s turn our attention to verses 19b–22. All of Paul’s life he had spent time with highly religious and educated Pharisees. He would now need to spend time with the real disciples of Jesus in Damascus. The last people he was coming to persecute would be the first to accept him as a brother in the Lord. He needed to experience the life and love of true believers. They had to serve him and bless him. How could they do this? It required great faith on their part. They had to really believe that the grace and mercy of God could actually reach a terrible person like Saul. These were disciples who loved Jesus and wanted to protect the church and Jesus’ flock of innocent Christians. It wasn’t easy of course to accept Saul, even if he was now converted. But if someone belongs to Christ then we should be willing to forgive them and accept them as a true believer; especially if they are repentant. And so they did! This was Paul’s first ever fellowship with the church and as a believer. It is the first fruit of his radical repentance. He experienced God’s forgiveness and power through these handful of humble disciples. He had come to imprison them and do them harm. But they had taken him in as a member of their family. What a testimony to Christian love and fellowship it was!
In verse 20, incredibly, after this short time of fellowship in Damascus, Paul begins to preach and debate in synagogues. The twelve apostles had three years with the Savior, as well time with the church before they began the great commission. This is not really a virtue of Paul, but a clear testimony for God himself— a testimony that it is God who grows people in his own time and for his own glorious purpose. Paul never gave himself credit for the miraculous spiritual growth he experienced, but he knew that this was done only by God, and that God was the one who makes all things grow. It is also interesting that the last words we see from Paul before his conversion were, “Who are you, Lord?” But now the first words we see him say after his conversion is that “Jesus is the Son of God” and that “Jesus is the Messiah”. Why is this the first thing that Paul starts to proclaim? And why did Paul start his mission so soon? It’s true that this is Paul’s mission from God, but he is also simply overjoyed with his new found walk with God. He shares the gospel from his great thankfulness for God’s mercy on his life.
Let’s read verses 23-25. Paul was there many days reasoning and preaching from the depths of his heart. But eventually the Jews who had once idolized him and now despised him decided that enough was enough. So now the persecutor has become the persecuted! This was something that most likely didn’t take Paul by surprise. But it still was hard, as Paul was heavily burdened for his Jewish brethren. He deeply loved them as he expresses in Romans, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.” With all the persecution he really bears it all for the love of his own brothers.
After he became a Christian, Paul began to preach the gospel, proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, and the promised Savior. But it was not easy! He had to overcome the distrust of his new brothers and sisters in the Lord. (21) His former friends and family members conspired to kill him. (23) He suffered much in his new life as a Christian worker. But it was no accident nor a misfortune for Paul to face many sufferings in his Christian life, for Christ had promised him that his calling and mission would entail much suffering. Look at verse 16. “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” It was the Lord’s will for Paul to suffer. It was God’s wonderful grace. As Paul later testifies: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…” (Philippians 1:29) How could Paul endure the suffering and hardship of his new life as a Christian? He could do it when he stood on Jesus’ grace from first to last. It was this grace— the grace that forgave and called him that gave Paul the strength to endure all things. God’s grace to you and to me is everything. When I remember God’s grace in my life, there is nothing that I cannot endure; there is nothing that I cannot do for his name’s sake. When was the last time you thought about God’s grace in your life?
Look at verses 26-31. When Paul tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem they were afraid of him, not believing that he had changed. But again Barnabas, a man of faith, became a source of encouragement and blessing in a crisis. It was a time of testing again. How will the church behave towards a notorious sinner who had been forgiven and received by Christ? It wasn’t easy. But once again Barnabas who had once sold his property and set a direction for generosity and sharing in the church, once again rose to the occasion. He intervened and brought healing and reconciliation between the apostles and the former persecutor, uniting the two into one. When they witnessed God’s grace in his life, they opened their hearts to him and even protected him from his own people. Finally they sent him off to Tarsus, where Paul’s missionary life would begin. In today’s story, three people seem to have changed history, and been a great influence on the church, beginning with Ananias, and Saul, and Barnabas. Their testimony of God’s grace and their practical lives didn’t contradict each other, but they lived what they preached. They preached God’s grace and lived it. And so they were a source of healing and forgiveness, and unity in the church. We need to learn from them, and be history makers in the church. God bless you.