Persecution and Expansion: Saul/Paul, Instrument of God
We all know that the background of a story matters. If an employee shows up at your place of work late, or a student shows up late to class, or your child comes home after curfew, and as they come in the door they declare, “I’m so sorry, I was in a wreck,” after you look them over and make sure they aren’t bleeding profusely or horribly injured, you might want to ask, “How did this wreck happen?” It matters if the person was speeding down the road at 100 miles per hour. It matters if they had been drinking or doing drugs. It is a completely different story if someone hit them out of the blue, or the car spun out of control in a freak rainstorm with slippery roads.
Every story has a background—the setting for where it is happening—and the foreground—the actual characters and people involved and what happens. This is one of the moments where we want to actually focus on the background for a moment as well as the foreground. When we look at the background of this section of Acts we see it happens amidst persecution.
Last week we looked at Philip as he evangelized in Samaria and the Ethiopian eunuch along the road. We don’t know for sure why or how Philip picked Samaria, but we do know why he wasn’t in Jerusalem—persecution.
“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”—Acts 8:1–4 ESV
Persecution: God’s Sovereign Plan
Persecution is hard to talk about. No one wants to ask for persecution. Yet, it becomes clear with a simple overview of Scripture that God has a very different take on our comfort and how we should think about persecution.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10–12)
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22–23)
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12)
There is a persecution that Scripture says we should expect and accept. It is a persecution that comes from the righteousness of Christ at work in us. We see this kind of persecution throughout Acts where those who are Christians on mission for the gospel of Jesus are attacked in different ways. That is also important to note for what it is not saying. We are not talking about persecution that comes from a lack of tact, lack of love, lack of care. This would be persecution because you have forsaken the righteousness and love of Christ. Neither are we talking about persecution that comes from a dictator's whims, hatred for people groups, or the acts of insecure bullies. These are always the evil of sin working in our world. Rather, we are told to expect persecution that comes from living righteously. Persecution that comes from having a Christ like demeanor.
Application: This is a hard proposition to many of us. We often don’t expect that persecution is part of the package that comes with our trust in Jesus. And even if we have somewhat expected that persecution will come, I think it is the variety of persecution that can be most difficult. On the one hand, I think many Christians have thought about and would be willing to be killed for their faith. When I go to Ethiopia this next week I am very aware that there are people in that country that vehemently hate Christians, and I could face very violent persecution. I think I am prepared if that is what God wants. But I think you and I often have a much harder time with when our Christ-like demeanor causes us long-term or low-level disruption to our lives. The difficulties of a work environment hostile to Christians. Family conflict around religion. Friends worried about the cool factor over Christlikeness.
Are you willing to accept that kind of persecution? There is a way to live and engage others where you are subtly trying to hide your Christianity for fear of persecution. Perhaps you might be passed up for a promotion because an unbelieving superior thinks less of you if they know how fervently you love Jesus. Perhaps a particular neighbor won’t like you or let their kids play at your house because of your faith and walk with God. I find I have to examine my heart in this area often.
It is helpful to remember what God promises us even in persecution of all types. First, we won’t be lost:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 8:35–39
Second, we will find strength in Christ in persecution:
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.—2 Corinthians 12:10
We find our real strength is in Christ through persecution.
We don’t always get to know what God is doing in persecution. Here in Acts at the very least, God was using persecution to help the earliest Christians to move out and live out their spreading mandate. Yet, in Acts 9 we also see one thing God wanted to do in the midst of this persecution: save one of the most prolific evangelists and pastors our world has ever seen—Paul.
Now, imagine if someone had told the Christians in Acts 8:3, who were being imprisoned, that this was part of God’s plan. His plan that the very man who was persecuting them, Saul, was someone he was going to save. Do you think they might have had a different view of “putting up” with what Saul was doing?
It is out of this background of persecution that we move to the foreground of this story and see some more particulars about persecution and how it plays out in the lives of believers and not-yet believers. Our main character is Saul. The man we would later call Paul the Apostle doesn’t start out quite that honorable. This is the same Saul who stood by as Stephen was stoned. The men stoning him placed their coats at his feet, a sign of his approval and perhaps even his bidding that this would be done. And God is after this man! In Saul’s salvation we see the amazing grace of God in several ways.
Persecution: The Unknown God
First, we see that this persecution is happening because Saul doesn’t even know Jesus. He doesn’t know and recognize his God. It is on the road to Damascus that Jesus appears to Saul and Saul says:
“Who are you, Lord?”
Contrast that with Ananias, who unlike Saul, when he is called by God he says:
“Here I am, Lord.”
Ananias knows immediately who is calling him! It is his God. But Saul doesn’t.
Persecution happens because people don’t really know God. They might know about him. They might know of him. But they don’t really know him. Yes, every rock and stone, sunrise and rainbow scream out to them that God exists. Their own soul knows it was created for God’s glory and knows the reality of their sin and its weight on their conscience. Yet they ignore the reality they see. They buy into the deceptions and lies of the world that their sins are good, they don’t need to worry.
Persecution at its root is the conflict between an unbeliever, hostile and deceived, and the bright light of hope and mercy of Jesus in a believer staring right at them. This kind of persecution happens, not because they are mad at you, but rather the God they see in you. In the life of a believer, a persecutor has to come face to face with the lie they believe and the truth they want to kill. Whether the persecution is silent despising and animosity or the genocide of a people group, it all has to do with the knowledge of God and the lies they want to continue to buy.
And here’s the paradox, Christian brothers and sisters: it is the same life actions from you and me that both lead to persecution and to the salvation of unbelievers. The same glories of Jesus that we proclaim both in our actions and in our words at one moment might cause persecution, and another moment might, in the power of the Holy Spirit, cause glorious wonder at a God who saves in Jesus.
Persecution: God Saves Persecutors!
And praise God this is true! If persecution is the animosity an unbeliever has when confronted by the truth, then it shouldn’t surprise us that God calls his people to embrace persecution that occurs for his name—otherwise no one would be saved! God saves those who persecute, including you and me.
Scripture is clear, at one time we were all enemies of God (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21), hostile to his word of truth and salvation in Jesus. By the grace of God someone risked persecution to save and help you! It may have been a parent who risked the scorn of a child who finds them ignorant and silly in their beliefs. It may have been a good friend who risked the loss of community and acceptance to bring the word of God to you. You came to know Jesus in his love while you were still a sinner—a persecutor of Jesus through your hate of him in his witnesses.
It is in the salvation of Saul that we are reminded of a second point: that God is after even persecutors like Saul. Paul is very clear how he sees himself. In 1 Timothy 1:15 he says:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
Application: You will undoubtedly have moments where you wonder if your sins are too much for God to forgive. Saul stands as a reminder that all our sins are dealt with in Jesus, and that you have been chosen by God for his purposes at great cost to himself. Do not doubt that God can move in your life if he chose to move in the life of someone like Saul!
And, like Saul, don’t think that the circumstances of your life dictate God’s love to you. Notice what God says about Saul to Ananias:
“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”—Acts 9:15–16
This was not punishment or anger with Saul that God said he would suffer. In fact, Saul only receives his mission from God as a grace in his life. In Romans 15 he calls it,
“the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Romans 15:15b–16)
God has a plan for your life and wherever he calls you and whatever it entails it is a grace from him to you!
Persecution: God Sends His People
And how does God most often choose to accomplish this? For persecutors to be converted, God sends his people. Even though Jesus miraculously appears to Saul on the road to Damascus, he still involves his people in the process. Jesus comes to Ananias and commands him to go to Saul. And Ananias replies, frankly, like most of us would:
“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”—Acts 9:13–14
Lord, you know that employee at my work hates all Christians, right? God, you know my sibling has never wanted to respond to the gospel, and it makes family gatherings really awkward if I have tried to talk to them about you recently? God, I like going to the Starbucks by my house; they aren’t going to be happy if I tell them about Jesus…my coffee might not be made quite the way I would like the next time.
Application: Friends, who is it you don’t want to go to? You have felt God’s tug at your heart, yet you know there might be consequences to sharing the gospel of Jesus with them. Are you willing to be a light in someone’s life even if it might mean persecution?
Jesus could have performed the whole process with Saul on the road, but he wanted to use his people. He sends Ananias who prays for Saul and says:
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”—Acts 9:17–19
We have this amazing picture of what was going on in Saul’s life. He was blind to who God was. Scales covered his eyes. We are told this is who we all are outside of Jesus. Deuteronomy 29:4 and Jeremiah 5:21 tell us we are sons and daughters of a rebellious house, who have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. And it is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that God changes that in any of us!
When Saul recounts this same story later in Acts 22, listen to what he recalls Ananias says to him:
“And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”—Acts 22:12–16 ESV
God wants to use your words! Ananias has very clear words for Saul. The very God he claims to serve has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, very literally for Saul on the road, and it is this Jesus who Saul needs to call upon. Ananias gives a clear presentation of who God is, and a clear call of what to do. Rise and be baptized and call on his name!
Application: Friends, don’t forget that your call to a hostile world and people includes giving them a clear call to Jesus! We want to have all interactions with people be in true love and friendship, but it must be accompanied by a clear call to call on the name of Jesus for forgiveness of your sins, putting your faith and trust in him—usually shown by being baptized—and live your life to his glory.
Christian, the background of your life can actually turn quite literally into a wreck if you don’t embrace what we are talking about this morning. If the goal of your life becomes comfort, then you will likely never step into the purpose God created you for—to declare his glory everywhere and to everyone.
God is sovereign over all persecution. Persecution for the sake of his name and righteousness at work in you will never be to your downfall, rather, as you find yourself in Jesus Christ alone you will be strengthened in your faith. And if persecution is a hostile world’s reaction to the grace of God in your life, then you shouldn’t be amazed that it will happen. How else will God save a people who are hostile to him—just like you and I were—if his people won’t enter willingly into possible persecution? Be the people of God, like Ananias, who are willing to go to scary places, where you might be rejected, scorned, imprisoned, or even killed. Because it is through his people that God brings his word to a world that is dying to hear it. And sometimes he will use that witness as part of their salvation journey. No one, even someone like Saul—even someone like you and me—are too far away or too sinful for God to redeem. If you are that person this morning, hear that and respond to God’s mercy for you! Put your faith in Jesus like Saul did and trust his righteousness is enough for you. And for those of you who love Jesus, be sure to bring words and a clear call to those outside God’s grace, that they might know clearly what to do.