Yesterday we continued our look at the story of the first church in Acts as told by Luke. This week we see how God can bring boosts to His kingdom work from places we would never expect them to come. But, if this is going to happen, He needs something from us. Read on as we talk about what that is.
Foes to Friends
Kanye West is not a man well-known for his modesty and humility. Over the course of his career, he’s bounced around from one name to another and one grandiose claim to another. He’s been crude and crass and just downright rude. One of his biggest moments in the spotlight came when he grabbed a mic out of Taylor Swift’s hands when she was accepting a music award in order to make the case why she shouldn’t have won it. He was never known as a friend to Christianity.
Then he became one.
Last October, Kanye announced that he had become a follower of Jesus. Now, he had started holding “Sunday Services” a full year before, and rumors had begun swirling about his conversion, but anyone who knew his reputation didn’t put a whole lot of stock in this talk. Most figured it was just another attention-seeking effort on the part of the egomaniacal celebrity. And then he made a public announcement that he had become a follower of Jesus. Again, this was mostly greeted with skepticism. But then he started doing things that backed up his claim. Meaningful things. Meaningful things with which he remained consistent far longer than he had with anything else he’d done. This included the release of a new album called Jesus Is King that is not only really good musically (in my opinion at least), but also theologically sound. He started holding Gospel events that by most accounts were really powerful times of worship.
Now, do I think we need to look to Kanye now as the church’s savior in a season when our cultural stock is falling fast? Not for a second, but his announcement coupled with his celebrity resulted and will likely continue to result in a whole lot of folks giving the Christian faith a consideration they would have never given it before. Sometimes, kingdom boosts from our heavenly Father come from places we would have never expected.
Well, this morning we are in the eighth stop in our series, Telling Our Story, journeying through the story of the first church as told by Luke in the book of Acts. This has been just an amazing journey so far. I mean, just put yourself in the shoes of the apostles for a minute. From where we are now, just a few months ago, you were sitting around completely shell-shocked at the fact that the guy you thought was the Messiah was lying dead in a tomb—incontrovertible proof that He was not, in fact, the Messiah. And then He walked out of His tomb and everything changed. Just a few weeks later, though, He told you He was leaving, and it was your job to take over the work He had started. Once again, you were set to reeling, but you knew you were going with whatever the guy who had predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection said, so off you went, sometimes doing little more than taking one step after another.
From there it has really been a whirlwind. The Spirit came, the church exploded into existence, the religious elite pushed back, you kept storming forward, you overcame some challenges, and then they finally struck hard. One of your brightest stars was snuffed out and the religious elite began a concerted campaign of terror intended to squelch the rest of the movement. This was all led by a young man named Saul who seemed poised to succeed where everyone else had failed to stop the church.
But God had a plan.
Now, Saul had been viciously successful in Jerusalem itself, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. He wanted more. I can’t emphasize enough, though, just how much Saul hated the church. He hated it. He hated us. If you’ve ever been in a place where you hated the church and Christians and everything they stood for, Saul is your man. He didn’t just want the church discredited, he wanted it destroyed. He wanted all its members rounded up and at the very least put in prison. If he got his way, they would have all been put to death for their blasphemies. I know we want to jump right on over to Paul, but we’re not there yet. Saul wanted the church gone and he wasn’t satisfied with gone in Jerusalem. He wanted it gone everywhere. This is where Luke picks up the story. Find Acts 9 with me.
“Now Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
Do you have the picture now? Saul was out for blood…Christian blood.
But God had a plan.
This is one you’re going to have to read for yourself in its entirety because this story is simply amazing. Let’s hit the high points here. Verse 3: “As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I would have lost my stuff at this point. It just would have been gone. Saul gets hit by an actual light from heaven and then hears a voice. Specifically, he hears Jesus’ voice. You know, the guy who rose from the dead and whose movement Saul was trying to stamp out of existence. Yeah, that Jesus is tired of what Saul is doing and decides to reveal Himself in a special way because He has special plans for Saul. Plans He isn’t going to share with Him just yet. Instead, He’ll let him sit and squirm for a few days. Also, he’s going to be blind the whole time. “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days and did not eat or drink.”
Now, the next part of the story is hilarious. I’m not sure if Luke meant for it to be, but I think it’s an absolute riot. Once we get Saul safely to Damascus with both him and everybody with him totally baffled as to what is happening, the scene shifts to the house of a follower of Jesus there in the city named Ananias. We don’t know anything about Ananias except this wasn’t the same guy who dropped dead when he lied about how much money he was giving to the church a few months back. From some of his comments a couple of verses over from this, we can guess at least that he was not a recent emigrant from Jerusalem. It may be that he had been in the Pentecost crowd and had taken his faith home with him. All we know is that he was going about his business and suddenly had a vision from the Lord. The Lord wanted him to do something. Check this out in v. 11. “‘Get up and go to the street called Straight,’ the Lord said to him, ‘to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus…’” Now, up to this point, Ananias was surely ready to say, “Yes, Lord,” and get to work. Maybe he had heard of this Judas fellow before, but that doesn’t matter. God wanted him to go to his house and ask about a man from Tarsus. Easy peasy. Except for this: “…ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul since he is praying there. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so that he may regain his sight.”
Did I mention how much Saul hated the church? Yeah, it was a lot. His hatred was actually pretty well known. His reputation for ruthless efficiency and brutality in his extermination attempts had spread pretty far and wide as believers fleeing the city took the news with them so that if anyone heard about his coming, they could hide—or flee—before he arrived. Ananias was one of those folks who had heard this and was ready. In fact, it may even be that when God gave him this vision he was praying for wisdom and protection ahead of Saul’s imminent arrival. And now God was telling him to go and heal Saul’s blindness. He responds pretty much like you or I might have responded to this command: “Umm…Lord…are you sure?” Jesus confirms His instructions to Ananias leaving him with a choice: Does he do it or not. What would you do? I mean, sure, God had told him to go, but if he had said no, would anyone ever know? After all, this was Saul. He was the single greatest threat to the church and here he was totally incapacitated. Why not just leave him as he was so the church could continue to grow and thrive?
But God had a plan.
Ultimately, Ananias makes the truly courageous decision to do what Jesus told him to do. Verse 17: “Ananias went and entered the house [knowing that he was taking his life in his hands…or at least trusting it more fully into God’s hands than he ever had before]. He placed his hands on [Saul] and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” Saul was convinced. This Jesus wasn’t the enemy. He was the Messiah. He was baptized right there.
In a couple of the letters he would later write, Saul—then Paul—makes the argument that people who aren’t following Jesus have minds that aren’t working quite right. He’s not saying they’re dumb. They just are seeing the world through a broken set of lenses and can’t see things the way they actually are. That was Saul before the scales literally fell off of his eyes (and in case you’ve ever wondered where that expression came from…this is it). Once he could see, though—both literally and figuratively—he took all of his passion and intelligence and debating skills and put them to work making the argument that Jesus was the Son of God. This was shocking like Kanye’s conversion was shocking, but on an even bigger scale. Everybody knew who Saul was. He was the brightest star in the Jewish world. This dramatic of a turnaround caught everyone completely by surprise. But they recovered quickly and set on him the same way they set on Stephen. Jump down to v. 22: “But Saul grew stronger and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him…” Saul escaped the city and headed for Jerusalem by being lowered down from a window in the walls (big cities then had thick walls surrounding them; thick enough that some people actually lived in homes built in the walls) because his enemies were watching the city gates to ambush him when he tried to leave.
Once he made it to Jerusalem, he bee-lined for the disciples in hiding there. And can you imagine how that went? Knock-knock. Hello? Yeah, hi, it’s Saul. I’m on your side now, would you let me in so we can talk? Luke puts this in Bible-speak in v. 26: “When [Saul] arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple.” Lying to gain entrance in order to take them all to prison was exactly the kind of thing they expected Saul to do. He had no doubt overseen the arrest of some of the people with whom he was now seeking shelter. They may have had loved one martyred at his direction. And he wanted them to let him inside? Yeah…no. Finally, Barnabas spoke up for Saul (yes, the same Barnabas who gave the huge sum of money to the church a few chapters back), and got him a meeting with the apostles. Under their direction, he started back up like he had done in Damascus, proving Jesus was the Messiah, until the Jews in Jerusalem tried to come after him the same way they had in Damascus. Finally, the apostles thought it best if he got out of town for a while, so they sent him back to his hometown of Tarsus. And when this foe became a friend, “the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”
Once again, just when it looked like something was going to rise up and stop the incredible advance of the church, the church proved itself—we proved ourselves—to be entirely more resilient than anyone could have imagined before it happened. That’s kind of been our story all along, hasn’t it? When Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church, He really did mean it. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. It doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. Again and again and again. And every time we rise up and keep going. We’ve seen that again and again on just this journey. It looked like we weren’t going to be able to get started when Jesus left and then we did the next right thing until the Spirit arrived. It looked like the Jewish leaders were going to frighten the disciples into submission and we boldly refused to be silenced. It looked like one internal issue after another whether a lack of character or organizational chaos was going to have us fall on our faces before we got very far out of the starting blocks and then character prevailed and selfless service led the way. It looked like violence was finally going to put a stop to things when Stephen was martyred and the disciples had to flee the city and then they went on their way preaching the word and the church continued to advance.
Here we see yet another threat and this one was different still from all the rest. Here we see a test of obedience. Would we be willing to obey God even when it didn’t make any sense; even when such obedience seemed like it would be contrary to our interests…contrary to the interests of His church? You see, Saul gets all the attention in this story, but Saul wouldn’t have become Paul without the obedience of Ananias—obedience that didn’t make any sense at all. Again, Saul was the guy who was coming after the church to destroy it. Ananias had absolutely zero evidence that any of that had changed when Jesus told him to go and minister to him. He had Jesus’ command and nothing more. Now, sure, that command should be good enough, but can we be honest enough to acknowledge that when what looks like reality is staring us in the face, God’s commands that seem to contradict or ignore reality aren’t so attractive as they are when they’re easy? When God says, “Go,” it’s really tempting to say, “no,” especially when saying, “yes,” is going to make our lives more difficult than they already are. There are times when it doesn’t make any sense not to say no. Saul was destroying the church. There was nothing to be gained by healing him.
But God had a plan.
God always has a plan. But if we want to be a part of it, we can’t say no. When God says, “Go,” we can’t say, “no.” We can’t see things from His perspective. We don’t know the ins and outs of His plans. We can only imagine things in a single set of terms—human ones. Jesus is working on an entirely different scale. When God says, “Go,” we can’t say, “no.” And here’s why: Because you just don’t know when what seems like a little bit of work you do is going to change the world. Again, Ananias’ only role in this story was to obediently go and heal a guy. Now, sure, it was Saul, and there was obviously a lot of baggage associated with him, but absent that, he didn’t seem to do anything extraordinary. And yet his doing it has arguably more to do with why you and I are in a church today than just about anything else in the world. Now, could God have used somebody else if Ananias had said no? Of course, He could have. God’s kingdom plans aren’t limited by our disobedience. But think of what the world might have missed out on if he had refused. When God says, “Go,” we can’t say, “no.” It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter where it means going. It doesn’t matter who it involves. When God says, “Go,” we can’t say, “no.”
Because God has a plan. Let’s join in on that plan and see what He accomplishes through us. That’s the story of the church whenever it has thrived in its history. It is nothing more (though nothing less) than faithful men and women who have said, “Yes,” to God, whatever the cost, and gone along faithfully for the ride of their lives. When God says, “Go,” we can’t say, “no.” So let’s not. Let’s commit to saying, “Yes,” and experiencing the wonder of His kingdom expanding in our midst.