“A God Worth Knowing”
September 9, 2018
Pastor Lucas Bitter
Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)
9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,[a] ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
“Christianity is the worst. It’s ruining the Jewish way of life! For 1,500 years we have carefully guarded the traditions of our fathers, but now this man named Jesus comes along telling people that you don’t have to follow the Jewish law in order to be saved. His message got him killed – crucified by Roman soldiers – and that should have been the end of it. But now his followers refuse to let it go! They still won’t stop talking about Jesus. They’re spreading around the poisonous lie that he rose from the dead, and people are starting to believe it! Christianity is getting out of control. We need stop this this nonsense once and for all.”
Saul had it all figured out, didn’t he? He had a very clear picture in his mind of what Christianity was, and he didn’t like it one bit.
There are many people today who feel the same way. They have a very clear picture in their mind of what Christianity is, and they don’t like it one bit. Now I’m not talking about violent persecutors, or extremists who want to kill Christians. No, I’m talking about very rational, thoughtful, and kind people who know very well from the experiences they have had exactly what Christianity is all about.
It’s about people who think they’re better than everybody else.
It’s about talking one way on Sunday mornings, and acting a different way the rest of the week.
It’s about spewing out hatred for anybody who disagrees with you.
It’s about hammering people with rules and laws and pressure and guilt.
It’s about pastors and church leaders dangling salvation over your head, so you just can’t quite reach it no matter how hard you try.
It’s about pouring out years of your life, and all of your energy, into an organization that leaves you feeling exhausted, empty, and alone.
There are many people today who, just like Saul, have it all figured out. They have a very clear picture in their mind of what Christianity is, and they don’t like it one bit.
Can I confess something to you this morning? If Christianity is all those things I’ve just listed, then I don’t like it one bit either.
But it’s not! When it comes down to it, Christianity is a very different religion than most of the people in our world realize. When you truly dig into the heart of Christianity, when you drill down to the main point of the Bible, you might just be surprised at what you find.
Saul was certainly surprised.
Let’s talk about Saul for a few minutes this morning. You already heard the story of his conversion, both in the reading from Acts and narrated for the children. But I think it’s worth our time to dig a little deeper into his life before he became a Christian. There are a couple of things it’s important to understand about pre-conversion Saul.
First, Saul was a good Jewish boy. He came from a good Jewish family – his father and grandfather had been members of the Pharisees, the strictest and most traditional sect of Judaism that there was. He had a good Jewish education – at age 5 he started studying the Scriptures, at age 10 he started studying rabbinic law, and at age 12 or 13 he was sent to Jerusalem for advanced studies under a very prestigious rabbi named Gamaliel, which was a really big deal! Years later, as Saul looked back at this time in his life, he said, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” You could go right down the list of his credentials. “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 righteousness based on the law, flawless.” According to Jewish law, Saul had checked every box that he could check. He wasn’t just a good Jewish boy – he was the best. And he knew it.
Second thing to understand about Saul before his conversion – he was a great persecutor. His education, his connections, and his obsession with Jewish tradition made him the perfect attack dog for the Jewish leaders. He would do the stuff they weren’t willing to do themselves. He would get his hands dirty, if necessary, to stop this dangerous new religion of Christianity. Looking back again, Saul writes, “I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did . . . . On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.” In fact, Saul went to the High Priest in Jerusalem and asked for letters to all the Jewish synagogues in Damascus – which was nowhere close to Jerusalem, 135 miles away! – so that if he found any followers of Jesus there, he might bring them back to Jerusalem for Judgment and hopefully, death.
Saul was a great persecutor. He was tremendously effective. The Christians were fleeing for their lives. During those early, formative years of the Church, Saul came closer to completely wiping out Christianity than any other person ever has.
So who could possibly have guessed that within in a few short years, Saul would begin doing more to spread Christianity than any other person ever has?
What could account for this incredible change? Well, it was this little episode that happened on the Road to Damascus.
Saul himself tells the story, “I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied.”
In that moment, I can only imagine that a series of disturbing thoughts began to occur to Paul, one after the other.
1.) Jesus really did rise from the dead.
2.) Jesus really is the Son of God!
3.) I’ve made a huge mistake.
4.) I am about to die, probably by being struck with a bolt of lightning from heaven.
But there was no bolt of lightning from heaven. Instead Jesus told Saul, 16 ‘Get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
This event was a major turning point in Saul’s life. After this day he changed his name to Paul. He stopped persecuting the Christians and become a Christian missionary. He planted dozens of churches throughout the Roman world, and wrote letters to those churches that make up nearly 1/3 of the New Testament. He ended up being persecuted himself and finally dying for his Christian faith at the hands of Emperor Nero. I think it’s worth asking, “What was it about this experience on the road that so drastically and permanently changed him?” It’s not just that this was the day he saw a dazzling light. It’s not just that this was the day he got to talk to Jesus. No, it’s the fact that this was the day he finally realized who God was.
Up to this point, Saul had lived his whole life under the assumption that God’s love is conditional upon our obedience. In other words, if we want to be accepted by God, we have to be good people and live good lives. That’s why Saul had worked so hard to keep all the Jewish laws. That’s why he had fought so hard against the Christian religion, which he perceived as a threat to his own.
But now, as Saul knelt in the road blinded by dazzling light, the truth was painfully obvious. He had NOT been a good person. He had NOT lived a good life. In his obsession to destroy Christianity he had torn apart families, put innocent people to death, and opposed the Son of God with all his might. Saul had done everything wrong! And yet God accepted him anyway.
For the first time, Saul realized that God’s love is not conditional upon our obedience. God’s love does not depend on whether or not we are good people, who live good lives. In fact, it is precisely because we are NOT good people and we do NOT live good lives – it is precisely because we are sinful – that God sent Jesus in the first place. To live a more perfect life than we could ever live. To die on the cross and pay for every single one of our sins. To rise from the grave and conquer death and open heaven to all who believe.
And none of this depends on us. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” If it was “from ourselves,” if it was “by works,” if God’s love is conditional upon our obedience, then Saul would never have had a chance. Maybe Jesus would have let him keep on marching down that road. Maybe Jesus would have let him fall into a pit. Maybe Jesus would have let him get struck by lightning so he would stop persecuting Christians. But he didn’t. Instead Jesus came to this man who had gone out of his way to be his enemy, and Jesus went out of his way to become his friend.
The fact that Jesus even appeared to Saul in the first place is about as powerful an example of grace as you could ever wish to hear.
That’s how Saul felt about his conversion. He wrote to his friend Timothy, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for this very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
I hope you and I can learn from Saul’s example. I hope we can take from this story the powerful encouragement that God loves us with all his heart. The fact is, it doesn’t matter what sins from the past you’re still ashamed of. It doesn’t matter what sins from the present you’re still struggling with. If God had forgiveness enough for Saul, then he has forgiveness enough for you. If God had a purpose for Saul, then God has a purpose for you. If God had a place in heaven waiting for Saul, then he’s got a place in heaven waiting for you.
Thank God for this reminder of his grace. Thank God that his love is not conditional upon our obedience, but rather it comes to us as a free gift with no strings attached. This is the good news that lies at the very heart and core of Christianity.
But almost nobody knows it! When people today think of Christianity, they may think of a million different things besides grace. And you know why that is? It’s because grace is a foreign concept to the human heart. All of us naturally view the world the same way Saul did: in terms of laws and rules and things we’re supposed to do, pride and comparison when we think we’re doing them better than other people, guilt and despair when we know we aren’t doing them good enough. This is the way the world works! And in contrast, the Bible’s beautiful message of free grace with no strings attached comes as a completely unexpected surprise.
It took a miracle of God for Saul to even learn about it.
We want to be that same kind of miracle for the people of Atlanta. That’s why we’re starting Intown Lutheran Church.
On Tuesday, September 25, we’re starting up our next round of what is called Bible Basics Class. It takes place at 7:00 PM; I’ve already got the room reserved at a local coffee shop. The point of Bible Basics Class is not to judge people for being skeptical, or to pump their minds full of obscure Bible trivia answers, or even to convince them to become Lutherans. The point of Bible Basics Class is to help people fall in love with Christianity again. Everybody should get a chance, at least once in their life, to hear what the Bible is actually claiming: that God loves you so incredibly much that he gave his only Son away so you go to heaven for free.
As soon as I’m done preaching today, I’m going to put this signup sheet on the back table by the coffee, along with some invitation cards. I’d love for you to check out the class. I’d love for you to bring a friend. And I’d love to rejoice with you in the amazing grace of a God who is truly worth knowing. Amen.