Saul and Paul

June 29, 2014

Every saint has a past, every
sinner has a future.  Those words
were penned over a hundred years ago by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde but they could very well have been written
about a young man named Saul who came to a pivotal point in his life where he
would have to choose to live in the past or to live in the future.
This is week two of our Down the Road series. This summer we
are travelling with Paul on his journey from an obscure reference in a tragedy
involving the first Christian martyr to his becoming one if not the most
influential voice in Christianity.  Paul
wrote the majority of the New Testament and developed and shaped the theology
that would make Christianity distinct among world religions.   And over the next ten weeks or so our
preaching team will be your tour guides along the road travelled by Paul and
his companions.  I think W. Russell Maltby might have been thinking of Paul
when he wrote “Jesus promised His disciples three
things: that they would be entirely fearless, absurdly happy, and that they
would get into trouble.”
Last week we looked at the
death of Stephen, one of the leaders in the early church.  Stephen had been appointed by the apostles to
assist them in their ministry duties within the rapidly expanding church in
Jerusalem and we are told in Acts 6:8 Stephen,
a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among
the people.
And it was because of these
miracles and signs that Stephen came to the attention of the religious
authorities and he was brought before the High Priests under the false charges
that he had blasphemed against Moses and God. 
And it was while he was being questioned by the high priests that
Stephen preaches the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts.  Which was really to be expected, after all
they gave a preacher the floor to speak. 
I’m not sure this is what they were expecting though.  Stephen had been brought to them charged with
blasphemy.  And then the High Priest asks
a fairly simply question, we find it in Acts 7:1 Then
the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these accusations true?”
Now that sounds like it could
be answered in only one of two ways a) “yes they are” or b) “no they
aren’t”.  Instead Stephen reaches back to
the Old Testament and begins with the story of Abraham.  But ultimately his message had the same
recurring theme that all the sermons in the first part of the book of acts had.  “God sent his son, you killed him, say you’re
sorry.” And the account of Stephen’s message concludes with these words, Acts
7:57-58
Then they put their hands over their ears
and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and
began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet
of a young man named Saul.  Let me
reiterate, if I ever preach a sermon that you really disagree with, just tell
me.
But what links last week to
this week are those words at the end of this section His accusers took off
their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And then the story concludes with the
first verse of the next chapter where we read, Acts 8:1 Saul
was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen
. . . This is the same Saul that David read about earlier in the
message, the Saul who came face to face with Jesus on the Road to
Damascus. 
But, then there is nothing
more written about Saul in that chapter, instead we read how Philip went to
Samaria and preached the gospel and we read about the conversion of the
Ethiopian eunuch and how when they came to a source of water Philip baptized
the man.  And then chapter 8 concludes
with these words Acts 8:40 Meanwhile,
Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good
News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.
Sounds like Philip is doing an
awesome job spreading the gospel, maybe he will be the one who will see
Christianity taken beyond the borders of Israel?  But no, the next time we read about Philip is
in Acts 21:8 The next day we went on to Caesarea and
stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been
chosen to distribute food.  Looks
like Philip got as far as Caesarea and settled down. 
And chapter 9 begins with these
words that were read for us earlier Acts 9:1 Meanwhile,
Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.
So what do we learn?  The first thing is that Saul Had A Past When most people think of Saul they think of Paul, the man who
wrote most of the New Testament, the man commonly referred to as Saint
Paul.  But the story of Paul is not
complete unless we also know the story of Saul. 
And that is the truth with most of us. 
That our future is in some ways shaped by our past, that our story isn’t
complete without the early chapters.
Before I was Denn the Christ
follower, I was Denny and I wasn’t a Christ follower. I would like to tell you
that I consciously changed my name to reflect a new beginning in my life, and
while it might be a good story it’s not the true story.  I stopped going by Denny because I felt it
was a little boy’s name. 
But who I am today is partially
shaped by who I was on September 1 1979, even though on September 2 1979 I was
born again and made a new creation,
Don’t know what Paul had
against Christians, but it coloured and shaped who he was.  We are told that he was uttering threats with
every breath he took.  What could
possibly have caused that much hatred? 
Traditionally we are told that Paul and Jesus had never met, outside of
their meeting at his conversion.  There
is no mention of Paul in any of the Gospels and at no point in his writings
does Paul specifically refer to a 
conversation that he had with Christ. 
But listen to the account of
the Last Supper, a scripture that we read almost every time we take
communion.   In 1 Corinthians 11:23 For
I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he
was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread . . .   
And there are those who would tell
us that Paul simply received this in some form of revelation from Jesus, maybe
a dream or a vision.  But what it says is
this 1 Corinthians 11:23 For I pass on to you
what I received from the Lord himself.  Doesn’t
say how he received it.  Hmmmmmmm.
Later in his story, Paul tells
us that he received some of his training as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, he was
close to the same age of Jesus, and he belonged to the religious groups that
brought charges against Jesus. So I wonder, now understand that this is just
speculation, Denn’s mind doing what Denn’s mind does. 
I wonder if the many stories
that Luke told, in his Gospel, of Jesus meeting and debating with the Pharisees
came from a young eye witness named Saul?  Or maybe one of the many stories that are
recorded where Jesus speaks with an unnamed “expert in religious law”, if the
person Jesus was talking to might have been named Saul.   Just
wondering.
I wonder if Saul may have met
Jesus during his ministry years and rejected his invitation to follow him?  And if that is indeed the case it might account
for the hatred that Saul had for those who had met and accepted the claims of
Christ. 
The bitterness that he must
have felt when he saw the grace in the lives of those who had chosen to follow
Christ, the same grace that he had rejected. 
And so to justify his earlier decision to reject Christ he demonized
those who had accepted Christ.  Just
wondering.
You see, we often define Paul’s
greatest sins as his persecution of the early believers, but his greatest sin
was ignoring the grace of God.
Earlier this month we spent
three weeks looking at the story of the Prodigal son, and we often think that
what broke the father’s heart was how the younger son was behaving.  That may have been a factor, but what broke
the father’s heart was that his son had rejected him.  The kid could have been a church going
business man living in a big house with a wife and 2.3 kids and still have broken
his father’s heart by rejecting him. 
And so we see Paul, who in the
eyes of his peers was probably a great guy, a good man, a religious man, a man
who sincerely believed that what he was doing the right thing, but he was still
a man who was separated from God.
Twenty five years ago next
month my lay assistant at Truro Wesleyan was visiting an elderly man in the
hospital and had the opportunity to lead the gentlemen into a relationship with
Christ before he passed away.  I was
asked to do the funeral and I discovered that this man was considered by all
who had met him to be a good man, a good husband, a good father a good
friend.  But for over seventy years he
had rejected the claim of God on his life. 
And the bible tells us that being good is not enough, that we can’t
“earn” a spot in heaven, regardless of how good and sincere we are.  That’s why we are told in Ephesians
2:8-9
God saved you by his grace when you
believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation
is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about
it. Heaven is not a reward for being a good person. 
The message I preached at that
man’s funeral came from this scripture that was read for us earlier.  And the title of my message was “A Good Man
Made Better”.   
But it doesn’t matter what sins
were in Saul’s past.  What matters is
that Paul wasn’t always Paul the Saint. 
That Paul was a man with a past, who if he didn’t actually kill
Christians, wanted to kill Christians and watched as Christians were
killed. 
Every
Christian has a past.  I don’t know what
all lurks in your yesterday but understand you are not alone.  And as far as I can tell the only sin that
can’t be forgiven by God is the sin of rejecting the forgiveness of God. 
Maybe it was his own conversion
that Paul had in mind when he wrote 2 Corinthians 5:17 This
means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life
is gone; a new life has begun!
Which leads us to our second
point Paul Had a future.    Who you were doesn’t have to
dictate who you will be.  Saul rejected
the claims of Christ and did everything he could to destroy the early
church.  And then he goes on to become
the single greatest force in the shaping of Christianity. 
Changed lives are the greatest
miracle of God’s grace.  The old Hymn
says “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was
lost but now I’m found was blind but now I see.” 
Jesus never leaves a person the
way he found them.  Instead he forgives
the past and presents them with a limitless future.  Through the years I have met scores of people
who were radically changed when they turned their lives over to Jesus.  Abusive husbands and wives who have become
loving partners, rebellious teens who have become friends with their
parents.  People who have struggled with
addictions who have been able to put those demons aside.  When they accepted the forgiveness and grace
that God had to offer they became a new person, their old life was gone and a
new life began.   
And not everyone could accept
the change that happened in Paul’s life, there were people who never completely
trusted Paul, they would always see him through glasses that had been coloured
by his past.  There are people in my life
who when they think of me, if they think of me, will think of things that I did
or said before I met Jesus.  For better
or for worse that is how I will always be defined and identified in their
minds.
But regardless of what some
people might have thought of Paul, God had a plan for his life.  If we skip down in the story God calls a man
by the name of Ananias, his job? To minister to this man named Saul who was now
in Damascus.  Listen to Ananias’ response
Acts 9:13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve
heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the
believers in Jerusalem!”   Ananias
knew about Saul’s past but listen as God reveals Saul’s future.  Acts 9:15 But
the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the
Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.”
And that’s exactly what Saul
did.  For the next thirty years he would
travel across the known world, preaching the gospel and starting churches.
It was Saul, who we know as
Paul who would take the church far beyond Jerusalem and Israel, and nobody
least of Saul would have ever expected that. 
It was Paul who wrote most of the New Testament including some of your
favorite verses.  Philippians
4:13
For I can do everything through Christ,
who gives me strength. And Romans 8:38 And
I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death
nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our
worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s
love. And do you remember when 1 Corinthians 13 the “Love Chapter” of
the bible was read at your wedding, those were Paul’s words.
Every person who comes to
Christ for forgiveness and accepts the grace of God receives a blank sheet in
return, a blank sheet that represents their future.  God took Saul, a man who was full of
bitterness and hatred against all things Christian and used him to change the
world. 
In spite of your past, what is
it that God could do through you?
But there had to be something between Saul’s
past and Paul’s future.  Which brings us
to the third point, which if we had of kept reading in Acts chapter 9 we would
have read this Acts 9:19-20 Afterward he ate some food and regained
his strength. Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem Saul stayed with the believers in
Damascus for a few days. And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the
synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!”
Paul Chose the Future Over the Past You understand that God did a
lot of things to get Saul’s attention but the decision to follow Jesus could
only be made by Saul himself.
God will not force anyone to
follow him, he woos us, he invites us to follow him but ultimately we have to
make the decision.  And that decision will
forever colour who we are. 
The decision that Saul had made
to not follow Christ made him the man he was, the man who we was hell bent on
destroying Christianity.  And the
decision that Saul made to follow Christ made him the man he would become, the
man who was heaven bound spreading Christianity across Asia and into Europe.
I come back to this time after
time, we are who we are because of choices we have made.  Good choices or bad choices, they each shape
us.
Paul understood that when he
wrote in Romans 6:16 Don’t you realize that
you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin,
which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous
living.

Today you have the opportunity to start over.  To say “I can’t change my past but I can
change my future.”  Are you willing to
let go of your past?  Are you willing to
define your future by your actions today? 
And it’s tough, if it was easy everybody would be doing it but just as
Jesus believed that the Saul could make the right choice he believes that you
can make the right choice.

 The bigger question though is: do you
believe that you can make the right choice?