Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-30)

Jesus gave to his listeners an exposition of his kingdom, which we might assume was a way of making it easier for them to understand what he was teaching. Yet we can see from verse 12 that his disciples were puzzled by this method because it must have been a different one from what Jesus had used previously. They asked Jesus why he was using this method and his reply might have surprised them and it should surprise us because we often think that parables are a way of making something easier to understand. No doubt, that is true of some of the stories that Jesus taught, but it is not the explanation for the parables in this chapter.

Instead, in speaking in parables, Jesus was acting in judgement on those who had refused to accept to his message or accept the witness of his miracles. He had spoken about his coming kingdom and his miracles had shown that he was the promised Messiah. But since he was being rejected by the people he started to teach in a manner that hid truth from them rather than making it straightforward. Indeed, he says that what was predicted of Isaiah’s ministry when he was called to serve as a prophet (Isa 6) was also fulfilled again, but in a more serious way, when the descendants of Isaiah’s rejecters now rejected the divine prophet himself.

In contrast, he says that the disciples are blessed because they have divine understanding – they have been divinely enlightened. Moreover, they have been privileged beyond the Old Testament prophets and other believers because they did not live in the days of the Messiah. They may have predicted his coming and looked forward to his coming, but they did not see it. We can list the famous names of the Old Testament and say about each of them, ‘He or she did not see the days of Jesus on earth.’ Of course, someone might say that all believers since the ascension of Jesus have not seen such times either. Yet we can say in response to such an assessment that we live in the days when the Holy Spirit has been poured forth and when the kingdom of Jesus is expanding.

Since that is the case, one question that should come to mind concerns what the kingdom of Jesus looks like. I suspect that is the issue that Jesus deals with in this set of seven parables as he provides several pictures of life in his kingdom. The pictures apply to every period of his kingdom and to every location. What he describes here will be seen repeatedly while his kingdom on earth lasts. This will be the case even although his kingdom will be growing.

Jesus explains for his disciples the meaning of this parable. One surprising omission from his explanation is that he does not say who the sower is. This could have been because it is obvious, or it could be that there is more than one sower. What are the options? One is that the sower is Jesus, and that would certainly have been the case in a literal sense at that time. Another is that every person who scatters seed is a sower, which could refer to preaching and evangelising. Personally, I suspect the answer to the identity of the sower is to combine the two suggestions. Jesus functions as the sower but he uses his servants to scatter the seed. Paul reminded the Ephesians that Jesus had come and preached peace to them. Yet Jesus had not travelled physically to Ephesus. Instead he had gone there through his servants and declared the gospel to sinners in Ephesus.

There is something very solemn and sad about this. People literally heard the good news of the kingdom from the lips of Jesus and refused his gracious invitations. Today, people hear the good news of the kingdom from the servants of Jesus and refuse his invitations. Such a refusal is serious because those who do so are not merely rejecting the offer of a mere man – instead, they are rejecting an offer that comes straight from the King himself.

Before we look at the parable in more detail, we should observe its structure. There are three bad responses and there are three good responses. This is a reminder that there is variety in the life and experience of the kingdom. The three bad responses involve rejection of the message and the three good responses involve different degrees of fruit-bearing. We can think about the two types of response.

The bad responses
As we can see, one of the bad responses to the message of Jesus is immediate and the other two occur later. Jesus points out two factors as to why there is a rejection of his message in such a manner. First, the individual does not think about it – does not understand it. It is impossible to understand a matter if we don’t think about it. There may be lots of reasons as to why no thought is given. Nevertheless, we see that the message of the kingdom is directed to our minds. Second, a failure to think about the message allows the devil an opportunity of removing it from our minds. It is not difficult for him to do this if we don’t think about the message. The picture of snatching suggests the speed with which this can be done as well as indicating that the individual does not realise that it has happened. Why would he since he is not thinking about it? This is a reminder that the devil looks at people hearing the message with the aim of removing it from their minds, usually by suggesting something else to think about.

The second wrong response is revealed sometime later. Again, this response is made by someone who has not thought about the message. Instead, his response was only an emotional one – he was full of joy, but joy by itself is no proof of conversion. In addition, there has to be what Jesus calls ‘root in himself,’ a picture that the message has taken firm hold within him. This wrong response, says Jesus, shows itself when trouble comes along that is connected to the message of the kingdom. It is striking that Jesus uses the word ‘immediately’ twice to describe this response. There is an immediate response when he hears the message and there is an immediate rejection when trouble comes. We can say of this person that he has not counted the cost. Part of the message of Jesus is that those who follow him will face opposition for their faith and true disciples will take that into account. Sadly, many a person has given up the faith because someone laughed at them.

The third wrong response is revealed when a person’s priorities are tested. Things go wrong in life. Everyone knows that. The Saviour says that if people live for the wrong things those things will choke the word, which is a very graphic illustration. They prevent spiritual life developing and they don’t grow spiritually. I suppose in the illustration thorns prevented the seed from getting sunlight and moisture, and the things of this world, if they dominate our thinking, will do the same in a spiritual sense. This individual has not been enlightened regarding what he should live for and eventually it becomes clear that he is not living for the kingdom.

What should be our response to this stark statement from Jesus? First, we have to say that it is accurate because there are many who have done this. Second, if we are listening to the gospel, but have not professed, we should pay attention because the devil is waiting to snatch away the message from our minds. Third, if we find the symptoms of the second and third wrong responses in our hearts, we should be afraid and come to our spiritual senses. This warning is given by Jesus because he knew that this is what would happen in connection to his kingdom.

The good responses
As we look at the description of a good response to the message of the kingdom we see in verse 23 that this individual understands it. This is what made the difference. Therefore we should ask what is meant by understanding it. The answer is that we have to recognise two sides to such understanding. On one side is the enlightenment that the Holy Spirit gives to a spiritually blind person. This occurs in the experience of every person who becomes a true believer. From seeing nothing they move to seeing who Jesus is. On the other side is the searching that the individual makes, and the length and intensity of this search will vary between those who become genuine Christians. Some search for a while whereas others seem to find the answer quickly. Also, some make deeper discoveries about themselves (conviction of sin) than others do. And some have deeper and stronger sense of assurance at the time of conversion.

The other area that Jesus mentions is the subsequent development in the spiritual lives of believers. At one level, it is not the amount of fruit but the genuineness of it that is highlighted here. They all bear fruit, but they don’t all bear the same amount. Yet we should observe that Jesus describes the harvest as good, whatever the size. It seems that in Palestine at that time a harvest of tenfold was regarded as successful. So when the disciples heard this illustration they would realise that all true believers bear a lot of fruit. Perhaps our minds go to the words of Jesus in John 15 where, when speaking about himself as the vine and his disciples as branches, he said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit.

What is the fruit that Jesus has in mind here? One suggested answer is that it refers to converts, yet that is unlikely because very few believers have been great soul winners. So it is much more likely that Jesus is referring to Christian character, the type of life he described in his Sermon on the Mount or the fruit of the Spirit as detailed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5. 

Why is there such a difference between the amount of fruit that is produced? I would suggest that the answer to this question is twofold. One aspect is connected to God’s sovereign bestowal of spiritual gifts. He gives certain gifts to some people that he does not give to others, so it is inevitable that in those areas of spiritual living some will have more fruit than others. The other aspect is connected to the use believers make of their spiritual resources, or means of grace. Unlike the first aspect, which we cannot adjust, the second aspect from a human point of view highlights the importance of dedication and delight in utilising those means of grace. 

Application 
We can summarise our study by four words and they are differences, dangers, dependence and determination. With regard to differences, we have seen that there is a clear difference between true disciples and false disciples, even if it takes a while for false disciples to reveal their colours. We have also seen that there is a difference between Christians regarding fruit bearing.

Next, we have seen the dangers connected to a shallow and unthoughtful response to the message of the gospel. The danger is connected to self-deception, because at one stage in their lives those in categories two and three of the bad responses would have stated that they were genuine believers.

The final lesson is to realise that a true believer is marked by a combination of dependence on Jesus and determination to continue serving the Lord whatever comes along in life. Such have understood the message of the kingdom that the heavenly Sower declares through his servants.





Was Adam a son of God? (Gen. 1)

The question, ‘Was Adam a son of God?’, usually is not asking whether Adam became a believer in God through his grace after falling into a state of sin. Instead, the question usually concerns the status of Adam before he fell into sin when he was tempted by the devil to disobey God’s revealed will concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam after his fall could have become a member of God’s family through faith, although one cannot be certain about that because the Bible does not say one way or the other.

The matter of whether Adam was a son of God by nature arises from several biblical verses that use terminology connected to such a relationship. Luke, the author of one of the Gospels, says in his genealogy of Jesus that Adam was the son of God (Luke 3:38). The apostle Paul, when explaining his message to the council in Athens (Acts 17:28-29), cited statements from pagan sources when stating that humans were the offspring of God (Paul was not saying that the sources had a full biblical understanding of anthropology, but he was acknowledging that their opinion at that point was correct). Those verses from Luke in his Gospel and in the Acts indicate that in some way Adam, before he fell into a state of sin, and humans in general have a relationship with God that is one of children to a father.

This does not mean that the status enjoyed by Adam before he fell was the same as the sonship that is given to those who believe in Jesus. Nevertheless, it must be the case that the relationship he enjoyed was part of the dignity that he was given and which we need to understand in order to appreciate the significance of humans as creatures of God. After all, the relationship with God would have been different if there had not been a paternal aspect to it.

The privileges that Adam enjoyed

The accounts of Adam’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2 do not describe him by the specific words ‘son of God’. Yet since Luke says that Adam was a son of God, there must be signs of that status in what is said about Adam. There are three pointers to this status that indicate he was a son of God.

The first pointer comes from asking if other creatures are described as sons of God. There are, and they are the angels who are so described in the Book of Job. They appear before God at a gathering in which reports are given (Job 1:6; 2:1). So we can deduce that part of the dignity of their sonship is that they served God in specified roles.

Moreover, angels are later described in the same book as involved in divine praise that is marked by understanding, wonder and joy: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’ (Job 33:4-7). The angels understood to some extent what God was doing, his capabilities filled them with wonder, and the response was marked by exceeding joy. While that response happened at the time of the creation of the universe, we can note that the same features appeared in the angels who were sent to inform the shepherds about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2:13-14).

So far we have seen that angelic sonship involved intelligent service of God and intelligent, joyful praise of God. Both the service and the praise given by the angels was corporate. It would not be difficult to deduce that the community of angelic servants, as creatures of God with the status of sons, should be regarded as a family. And it would not be difficult to deduce that Adam was also a son because the same features of service and worship marked his relationship with God.

The obvious difference between Adam and angels was that Adam initially was not part of a community, but since it was intended by God that Adam and Eve and their descendants should produce children it meant that it would not be long before Adam was part of a community, that of the human race. This method of producing a community also points to another distinction between humans and angels. Adam was regarded by God as the head of the human race and its representative in the sense that whatever he did in the role assigned him by God would affect his descendants. This role is explained by Paul in his exposition in Romans 5:12-21 when he explains why Adam’s sin affected every one of the human race as well as himself. There was not a similar relationship with the angels. Instead, when some of them participated in the rebellion of Satan, the entire angelic community did not fall.

Another pointer to Adam’s status comes from another group who are called sons of God in the Old Testament and they are rulers or kings. It is possible that it is rulers who are described in Genesis 6:2-4 as abusing their power in forms of sexual oppression, although that interpretation is disputed, with some arguing that sons of God there refer to the descendants of Seth, and others that they describe fallen angels. Whatever the interpretation of that verse, there are other biblical passages such as Psalm 82 that describe human rulers as sons of God. It should not surprise us to see dominion and sonship linked together because that is what Adam received at his creation. In Genesis 1, he is given authority over all the lower creatures as God’s chosen ruler. This authority was later shown in the way Adam decided names for other creatures (Gen. 2). Adam, if he had remained unfallen, would have been king of the world under the authority of God.

One other feature of the various statements made about Adam and Eve by God at their creation that we can consider is the significance of them being made in the image of God.  Whatever the image includes, it points to humans being like the God who created them. While the aspect of infinity would not have been given to a creature, man was like God in that he could communicate, in that he could love God’s requirements, in that he could express holy affections, in that he could make wise decisions, and in that that he could assess situations.

The concept of likeness is usually regarded as part of the meaning of sonship. Paul reminds us that the notion of fatherhood that exists everywhere comes from God. In everyday life, a father or a parent gives an inheritance to his children. There in Genesis 1, at the beginning of history, God gave an inheritance to his human creatures, made in his image, which would have been theirs for as long as they remained in a right relationship with him as their Father.

What happens after the fall?

Sadly, the relationship that existed between humans and God was affected when Adam and Eve sinned. Instead of living in an environment of blessing, a divine curse was placed over the activities of man. Death, pain, disappointment and other problems would mark life everywhere. Yet some traces of the pre-existing situation remain after the fall and here are some of them.

First, everyone receives their existence from God. Each person is a divine creation. It is true that each is connected in various ways to their parents, yet each person is also an individual formed by the hand and care of God, as the psalmist mentions in Psalm 139 when he considers the significance of having come into existence because of God’s plan.

Second, everyone retains aspects of the image of God. This reality is mentioned in the Bible as reasons for not engaging in sin, whether it be the serious sin of murder or lesser sins such as those mentioned by James in his letter. It is because humans retain those aspects that we know the difference between right and wrong (conscience), that we show kindness to others and express sympathy for others, and we can learn and use that knowledge for the betterment of life (as the descendants of Cain did in Genesis 4).

Third, everyone enjoys the bountiful provision of God. How much care does God expend on the world each day? Who looks after the crops as they grow? Who sends the rain and caused the sun to shine? Of course, the world is not now what it could have been, but this shortfall is not the fault of God. In his common grace he provides abundantly for his rebellious creatures who have estranged themselves from him.

Fourth, everyone is outside the immediate family of God. This is the devastating consequence of the sin of Adam. With one bite he moved from the family of God and became detached from it. No longer did he love God as the Father, no longer did he trust in divine protection but immediately became afraid of divine power, no longer did he want to communicate with God. A sign could be placed inside Eden beside where Adam fell which read ‘Unimaginable Disaster.’

What does the gospel offer?

Many different blessings are offered in the gospel and here are some of them. We can think of forgiveness of all our sins, the reception of a new heart that now loves God, the promise of interaction with God through prayer as we bring our concerns to him, the reality of belonging to a community with shared interests under God’s guidance, the promise of going to heaven when we die, and the prospect of being with God forever in the world of glory. What holds all those features together? It is membership of God’s family. Those who are forgiven join the family of God, all who are in the family of God have new hearts, prayer to the heavenly Father is engaged in by all his family members, the invisible church is composed of those who belong to the family of God, and the new heavens and new earth is the eternal inheritance of the family members.

One of the parables of Jesus that is well-known is called the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is possible that this parable is miscalled because there were two rebellious sons in the parable and they depict self-righteous people (the elder brother) and unrighteous people (the runaway brother). A stronger reason for having another name for the parable is connected to the fact that the message of the parable is actually about the father who depicts God. What does Jesus say about the father that reminds us of the heavenly Father?

Here are five thoughts to observe. First, God allows people to choose the path of their rebellion, as indicated in the choices of the two sons. Second, God looks for the return of those who wander far away from him. Third, God rushes to embrace those who do return to him. Fourth, God provides freely to those who do return. Fifth, God and those who are penitent are happy for ever. What an amazing insight into the heart of the heavenly Father! I wonder who he is rushing to embrace just now. He will be doing so all over the world today. Have we known his glad embrace, or are we like the returning prodigal so focussed on our defects that we don’t fully listen to what the Father says when he restores the wayward son to family privileges and status?

How do sinners estranged from God become his children? There is a divine side to the process and there is a human side as well. From the divine side, sinners need to be made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit – this is termed regeneration and must occur before a spiritually-dead sinner will respond positively to the gospel. This activity of the Spirit involves enlightenment regarding themselves as sinners and of Jesus as the Saviour. How do we know that we have been enlightened in a manner that is connected to being regenerated by the Holy Spirit? The answer to that question is given by John in his Gospel when he says that those who know the answer are those who have received Jesus by faith (John 1:12). To receive something means to take what is offered by someone. Jesus in his grace offers himself to sinners and once they have received him they discover that they are also full members of the family of God by a new birth (they have the right to be so-called, says John).

Responding to the gospel brings us back into the family of God. We don’t come back into a relationship that is the same as Adam had. The one that Adam had was for sinless people, the one that we have is for changed sinners. The one that Adam had could be lost, the one that changed sinners have can never be lost. The one that Adam had did not involve the presence of the Elder Brother (Jesus) with his people whereas all those in the new family connection are united to Jesus is a personal and powerful way by the Holy Spirit.

It is good to be restored to the family. Earlier, we mentioned that for Adam, he could serve and praise God like the angels did, that he could rule on behalf of God, and that he was like God. Those who come into the family through divine grace also serve and praise God, they reign with Jesus forever, and they are renewed in the image of the One who created them.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Responding to God’s Servant (Matthew 12:15-50)

In this passage of his Gospel, Matthew describes several responses to Jesus as he preaches about his kingdom. We need to remember that this period in the ministry of Jesus occurred before the cross and he had to instruct people about their expectations regarding his mission. There was the danger that they would attempt to bring in the kingdom of God in a wrong way and this explains the instruction of Jesus to those he healed that they should not make him known. His kingdom could not appear until after he had died and risen again. He had to deal with the punishment of sin and provide the basis of forgiveness before sending out his disciples to the world to declare the gospel and describe entrance into the kingdom.

Matthew inserts a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah 42:1-4 that describes the nature of the kingdom of Jesus. In verse 18, we have the words that God the Father announced at the baptism of Jesus when he received the Holy Spirit. The Father on that occasion declared that he was well-pleased with his Son. The following verses in the prophecy go on to say that the Messiah will focus on the needy among the Gentiles and will instruct them in a gentle manner.

We can observe the way Isaiah describes the Gentiles whom Jesus will help – they are like bruised reeds. A bruised reed is a reed that has been stood on by a person or an animal and since it is unable to recover it is regarded as worthless. It is a very appropriate image for describing those who have been damaged by their sins. Such cannot recover themselves and often they may regard themselves as of little value. Others may think the same of them. Yet the prophet predicted that Jesus would show compassion on such people and heal them from the effects of their sins. In his earthly ministry he had occasionally helped Gentiles, but soon the time would come when Gentiles would come into the kingdom in vast numbers. As Jesus said on one occasion, many will come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom.

This outcome was not what the Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus expected to happen. Yet they should have done so because that was what their prophets had said would take place. We could say that at this stage in the ministry of Jesus described by Isaiah most of the prediction after verse 18 had not yet happened, and would not occur until after his resurrection. Nevertheless, people could respond to what Jesus was saying and doing, and Matthew mentions several wrong responses.

The unforgiveable sin
Jesus had healed a blind and deaf man who had been demon-possessed. It is not surprising that the people, when they saw such an amazing miracle, wondered if Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Pharisees had a very different opinion about him from that of the crowd, which was that Jesus had performed this miracle with the help of the devil. They stated that Jesus was an agent of the devil rather than being the agent of God.

Jesus responded to this suggestion by saying that it was both silly and serious. What made it silly was the idea that the devil would fight against himself, which is what they had suggested when they said that Jesus was using the devil’s power to cast out demons. The Saviour also mentioned that he was not the only person casting out demons; in fact, some of their followers were doing so and he asked if all such were using the power of the devil as they did so.

What made their allegation serious was their failure to see that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of the Spirit. The Pharisees were spiritually blind and this made them unable to tell the truth about what Jesus was doing. They did not realise that he had come to defeat the devil (the strong man) and free people from his grip. This would happen after he had defeated the devil on the cross and then the Gentiles living in spiritual darkness would be set free from their chains by Jesus.

The Pharisees had a choice to make, which was to follow Jesus or to oppose him. At that moment they were opposing him and in danger of sinful misinterpretation of his mission. The danger was connected to what Jesus called the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which he said was unforgiveable, whereas all other sins, including sins against him, could be pardoned.

This verse has caused distress to many people who had no need to be distressed by it. How do we know that is the case? Because a person who has committed this sin hates Jesus and despises his kingdom. No one who loves Jesus and wants his kingdom to prosper has committed this sin.

Nevertheless, there is a warning that there are some sins that take the sinner beyond the possibility of forgiveness. One such sin is the refusal to repent before God for our sins. If we die in that state, we will not be forgiven. A decision to give up following Jesus can lead to the sin of apostacy, although we can never judge if someone has committed it. The best response is to avoid such awful consequences by going to God through Jesus and asking him to forgive us. If we continue engaging in this response, we are safe from divine judgement.

The Saviour reminds the Pharisees that their words reveal what is in their hearts. They spoke about Jesus in this wrong way because their hearts were evil. Our words usually reveal what we think about and what we love. If we love Jesus and his kingdom, we will think about it and speak about it. If we don’t love Jesus, we will think about something else and speak about it. Yet we are reminded that our words may come back to haunt us on the Day of Judgement. It is a solemn thought that everyone will give an account for every careless word they uttered, and that our words now already indicate what the verdict will be then. If we are for Jesus now, our words will reveal it very clearly.

The Sign of Jonah
The next incident that Matthew mentions occurred when some scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to prove that he was the Messiah. Of course, this request was a statement of unbelief because Jesus had already given numerous signs that revealed that he was the promised Deliverer. We only need to think of the response Jesus gave to John the Baptist when he sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah. In his reply, Jesus mentioned several signs that showed he was the Messiah, signs such healing people of their diseases.

The Saviour chose to inform the scribes and Pharisees that they would yet see a great sign. It is possible that they may not have grasped at that time what Jesus meant, yet they would hear about it in a short while and then they could repent of their sins. The future sign was his death and resurrection which he likened to the experience of Jonah when he was swallowed by a great fish. We know that after Jonah was delivered from the fish he took a message of grace to the Gentiles in Nineveh and although it was very unlikely beforehand the inhabitants of the city repented and the threatened judgement was averted. In a far greater manner than Jonah, Jesus after he would rise from the dead would take the message of grace to the Gentiles, as predicted by Isaiah, and would do so gladly, unlike Jonah who was annoyed that the inhabitants repented of their sins against God.

Would those people follow the example of the inhabitants of Nineveh? Jesus reveals that they would not because he says that they yet will be condemned on the Day of Judgement by the people of Nineveh for not listening to him. He also reveals that the Queen of Sheba will also condemn them for not listening to Jesus who was physically beside them. In contrast, she had travelled many miles to listen to the truth as spoken by Solomon.

Jesus here speaks as a prophet as he describes what will take place on the Day of Judgement to the people, including those scribes and Pharisees, who were in danger of rejecting him and his mission of grace. They might have imagined that grace was not for Gentiles, but even the Old Testament revealed that it was. The question that applies to us is will the inhabitants of Nineveh and the queen of Sheba stand up and condemn us for not listening to the Saviour who was sent to deliver Gentiles from the penalty of their sins.

The danger of half-heartedness
Jesus then told a story to illustrate what was happening to those who were listening to him. In the story, he refers to a person who has been delivered from an evil spirit, but who then allows that spirit, along with seven worse spirits, to retake control of his life. What does he mean?

For a while, Jesus had been popular with people and they had responded to his message and given up certain practices. In doing so they had been delivered to an extent from the influence of the devil and his agents. Those agents are still looking to destroy them and now discover that those persons are not truly following Jesus. The powers of darkness retake control easily and those who once looked to be potential disciples of Jesus now are his opponents.

What was wrong with those people? Their connection to Jesus had been lukewarm and their hearts had not been involved. They had conformed to some extent externally but had failed to give their affections to Jesus and to repent of their sins against God. They had not taken his message seriously, and it is not surprising that the powers of darkness could retake their old location. The only one who could help those people was Jesus and he was the person they did not ask for help.

In other passages in the Gospel we are told about people who gave up following Jesus because he did not fit in with their expectations. One such example was those who wanted to make him King after he had fed thousands in a miraculous way. Yet when he refused to become a king in an earthly political sense they stopped following him. It takes more than participating in a miracle to get a changed heart.

The family of Jesus
Around that time, the mother and brothers of Jesus come to his house and ask to see him. Probably there was a crowd of people preventing them from getting in. The request gives to Jesus the opportunity of describing who belongs to his family. It is not those who have a physical connection with him, like his mother and brothers. So if it is not them, who can they be?

Of course, we should not imagine that at that moment his mother Mary was unconverted. She had been a devout believer since she was young as we can see from passages that describe the birth of Jesus. Nor are we to imagine that his brothers would not yet be converted – they were after his resurrection and we find them gathering with the disciples waiting for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). So Jesus was not indicating here that they did not belong to his kingdom.

The point of this incident is that it is easy to work out who belongs to the family of God. Those who do belong to the family obey what God the Father commands them to do, not because they are working their way to heaven, but because they show their gratitude for his mercy by doing what pleases him.

Here were several responses to Jesus. The malicious Pharisees, the seekers after signs, the careless listeners, and the connection by family ties. Each of them fell short. Instead, we should trust in Jesus and follow him.

Preaching to Pagans (Acts 17:16-33)

Luke, in this chapter, continues his reports of what took place in different places when Paul and his colleagues took the gospel of Jesus to them. We can see that there was a variety of responses ranging from hostility (Thessalonica) to eager interest (Berea) to curiosity and scepticism (Athens). Yet whatever the response of those who rejected the message it is striking to note that there were always some who accepted it. This was the case whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether they were average or intellectual in ability. So while we can say that the devil was at work trying to hinder the progress of the gospel, it was also the case that God was at work gathering in his people and extending his kingdom.

As we focus on Paul’s address in Athens, we can observe some things about his strategy. As he did elsewhere, he took his message to the synagogue because he knew that they would listen to an exposition connected to the Old Testament and the promised Messiah. Paul also mingled with people in the marketplace, where they gathered daily, and spoke about the gospel to whoever would listen to him. In both contexts, he reasoned with those he was interacting with, explaining the good news in a logical manner, making it possible for them to respond to him. Sometimes they did not understand what he was saying, as was the case in Athens because some thought he was speaking about two different deities, one called Jesus and the other called the resurrection. But at least they responded initially by saying that they wanted to know more about what he was saying.

Two other details come out in Paul’s approach. One concerns his feelings and we see a reference to them in his response to the number of idols in the city. He was disturbed by what he saw, and no doubt a number of reasons caused this response. The denial of glory to God and the blinding of the people by such superstitions would have been two factors in his response. The other detail is his desire to find a bridge that he could use to cross into their world and explain the gospel to them, and he located the bridge in the form of an unusual idol dedicated to what the Athenians called ‘the unknown god’. They did not have the true God in mind when they erected the idol, but Paul realised he could use it to draw their attention to the true God.

Two groups of people are mentioned by Luke – the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were they? Epicureans did not believe in divine intervention and instead focused on attaining a life of pleasure, albeit within the confines of what could be experienced at that time. Moreover, they did not believe that humans were made by a divine being or that they are accountable to him after this life is over. Stoics were different in that they argued that humans should be self-controlled and not governed by their passions and thus would be able to exist in all kinds of situations without being disturbed or excited. The problem with both sets of ideas is that they were trying to make sense of life without involving the requirements of the true God, and they could not involve him because they did not know about him.

Paul’s task was to introduce them to the true God, who he was, and what he has done. We face something similar in our times. It is common for us to say that people don’t accept the existence of God as if that was a new insurmountable barrier whereas it is the situation that Paul faced. What did he do? He told them the truth. So let’s observe what he said.

Who is God?
The first detail that he mentions about God is that he is the Creator of everything, which means that he is the source of everything, including our existence. If Paul had been asked how God did this, he would have referred to what is said about the activity of God in Genesis 1, of how he spoke the universe into existence, and of the orderly process he followed.

Then Paul pointed out that God is sovereign over everything. Paul mentions that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. Whatever powers exist anywhere are under the authority of God. We know that he governs over human authorities, and if Paul had been asked on this occasion he would have said that God ruled over all angelic governments, including those who were opposed to him. This is a reminder that God is interested in what is taking place in our lives.

Third, Paul pointed out that God is simultaneously everywhere. We are not to imagine that somehow he is confined to a temple or religious place, or even to a location such as a country. Rather the true God is everywhere at the same time. He does not fill space in the way that we do, with part of us here and part there. All of God is everywhere. This means that he is very different from us.

Fourth, Paul stated that God is independent in the sense that he does not need us to serve him. An employer needs his employees, a master needs his servants to do things for him, and a ruler needs subjects to obey him. While God wants servants, he does not what them because they can provide something that he lacks. He is self-sufficient always.

The obvious deduction to make from this description is that God is very big, very powerful, totally competent, and transcendent. He is unique and to have a street full of competitors, as they did in Athens, was to say the opposite. Their unknown God would be a bit different from the others they imagined, but he would not be like the real God whom Paul wanted to speak about to them.

Who are we?
Paul also dealt with another important question, which is ‘What is man?’ He had mentioned God had created humans, but was that all that he had done.

The first detail that Paul mentions in this regard is that we all come from one man. All the nations of the world have a common origin. Why are they divided into different countries and peoples? Paul’s answer is that God arranged this so that they would seek and find him. We know that the vast majority of people did not do this, yet we also know that there are references in the Old Testament to people from different countries who had come to know God. There are Job and his friends, there is Jethro, and there is Melchizedek. Of course, they came to know God through his grace and mercy, but their awareness of God reminds us that people from different places did seek for him and find him.

Then Paul tells his listeners that God is close to each of them, that he is the one who keeps each of them alive. Every breath that they took was evidence of God’s kindness and nearness to them as individuals. In one sense, he is saying that God is inescapable, but in another he is saying that God is good to those who were not thinking about him or worshipping him.

Paul took a statement from a philosopher to help his argument. The philosopher had deduced that humans can be regarded as the children of God. When Paul used this statement about humans being God’s offspring he was not saying that they are God’s children in the sense that all believers are. Yet he was saying that there are ways in which children are like their parents. So since we are made by God it means we are like him, so why should we deduce that he is like an image we create, which is obviously inferior to us? In saying this, Paul showed the stupidity of making an idol. We are meant to worship the God who is seeking us.

Where are we going?
The third question that Paul deals with concerns our future. He states that there will yet a day in which he will judge everyone. The date is already fixed in the divine diary and none will fail to keep the appointment. How do we know that this is true? The answer to that question is the resurrection of Jesus.

This leads us to think briefly of the resurrection of Jesus. Obviously for Christians it is a very comforting doctrine because it assures us of our immortality and that eventually we will have glorified bodies like Jesus has. Yet his resurrection does not only affect his people. One way to think about this is to recognise what it means for Jesus to be exalted. There are four stages in his exaltation, and two of them have occurred, the third is happening, and we are waiting for the fourth. The two that have taken place are his resurrection and ascension, the one that is happening is his rule from the throne of God, and the one that is yet to occur will be his role as Judge on the great day.

Imagine it was tomorrow. After all, there will yet come a day which will be the one before the Day of Judgement. What would you do if somehow you discovered that today was that day? I suspect that you would engage in trying to find out how you should prepare for meeting with the Judge. You would not wish to focus on any other set of activities. The salvation of your being would become your only priority. Of course, the question then becomes why wait and fail to become right with God. After all, there is more than one way of ensuring that we appear unready at the judgement seat, but there is only one way of being ready.

The requirement that falls on us to do before the day of judgement comes is to think about it. God says to us, ‘Do you think that there is ample evidence that Jesus rose from the dead?’ The answer to that question is yes. He then says to us, ‘If you take the resurrection of Jesus seriously, you will repent of your sins and ask for mercy.’ Repentance is a realisation that we have sinned, is accompanied by sorrow for those sins, and is marked by a leaving of those sins. We go to the One against whom we have sinned, the true God, and ask him for mercy.

The response
There were three responses to the message of Paul and those three responses usually occur. The first was derision, the second was delay, and the third was decision. As we think about it, maybe we can change our responses to delay, decision and delight. Those who are delighted are the ones who already have believed the gospel and while it is still an awesome thought to think about appearing at the judgement seat there is still gratitude and joy connected to having experience mercy. The rest of us will be categorised by delay or decision.

Perhaps such can be helped by thinking about the persons Luke mentions at the close of the account – ‘Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.’ Almost two thousand years have passed since they made their decision to believe in Jesus. Where are they now? Their souls are with Jesus and their bodies are awaiting the resurrection and the Day of Judgement when they will be acquitted by the Judge. Do you think that they regret the decision they made that day on the Areopagus when they listened to a stranger tell them about who the true God is and what he has done for sinners?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19)

Luke records the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience three times in the Book of Acts. Two of them are taken from accounts Paul gave in trial situations and are recorded towards the end of the book. The other account is the one described by Luke in Acts 9. Given that Luke was an intimate companion of Paul he would have heard the story from Paul’s mouth. In the early days of Paul’s Christian experience, he is addressed as Saul, which may reflect that he was then ministering primarily in Jewish settings.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the great turning points of history because of the incredible consequences that followed. All we need to do is recall the places to which Paul took the gospel and the books of the New Testament that he wrote and which have influenced life all over the world since then. The conversion was also an occasion of great personal change for Saul. As Calvin put it, ‘such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd.’

The man the devil was using

How does Saul appear at the start of the account of his conversion? We could say that he was an agent of the Jewish authorities as they attempted to crush the church. Or we could say that he was an eager participant in the process, even initiating new attempts to destroy the church beyond the borders of Israel. Yet we would also have to say that Saul was a man the devil was using in his attempt to defeat the church.

The devilish nature of the activities of Saul is shown in the intense hatred he had for the disciples of Jesus. Luke’s description that Saul was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ indicates that he had no other thought in mind. All his energies and capabilities were focused on this aim. How many believers he did this to we cannot say, although he does say later that he was an injurious person.

Nevertheless, we can learn from Saul’s experience that someone engaged in promoting the devil’s attempts to destroy the church may not be far from the kingdom. The devil may have been suggesting to Saul what he could be doing, but the person in charge of the process was Jesus, and he could intervene at any stage and change the circumstances at the moment he would know would be best.

It looks as if the Christians in Damascus did not believe that such a person as Saul could be converted. Neither did the apostles in Jerusalem when Saul later returned there. We see this Damascus response in the way Ananias reacted to the news that Saul had been changed. When those believers discovered that Jesus had overcome his opponent in love, they would have greater awareness of the amazing and gracious power of their Saviour.

In passing, we can note that the Christians had given themselves at title – they called themselves ‘the Way’. Why they did this is not known, but one reasonable suggestion is that they connected it to the title Jesus have to himself when he said that he was the way to God. As used by the Christians, it reveals that they realised they were the ones who had found the path to a right relationship with God.

A Christophany

What kind of experience did Saul have on the road to Damascus? Obviously, he saw the risen Christ, and he says in 1 Corinthians 15 that this qualified him to be an apostle (since seeing Jesus in this way was a qualifying mark of such). Yet he did not see the risen Saviour in the way that others saw him during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Jesus was in a different state when he appeared to Saul than what he was when the disciples saw him ascend. Now Jesus was glorified, and to Saul of Tarsus was given the great privilege of being the first on earth to see Jesus as the exalted Saviour.

In Acts 22:6, Paul says that the incident occurred about noon, which is the time of day when the light of the sun is brightest. At noon, on that day, Saul saw a light in addition to the sun, which could indicate that whenever Jesus reveals himself there is no need for a source of light apart from himself. What could have gone through Saul’s mind when he saw a source of light other than the sun? Did he think of Genesis 1, which says that light existed before God made the heavenly bodies?

The experience Saul had was similar to divine visits given to certain individuals in the Old Testament when God revealed himself in spectacular ways. Such visits are called theophanies and they created a sense of awe and fear in those who experienced them. The individuals realised that they were in the presence of God. And Saul too recognised that he was in the presence of God because his response was to ask, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He would have been shocked when he heard the reply, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting?’ Bruce Milne says it was a reply that ‘in an instant both shattered and re-formed Paul’s entire world’.

We can deduce two things from this divine encounter. First, Saul discovered that Jesus was divine, which would have incredible consequences for his ideas about God. Saul did not believe that God is a Trinity before this moment, but now he would have to learn more about God and about how one of the divine persons had become a man and all that was and is involved in God’s plan of salvation. Second, he would have learned that all his religious activities until then were not connected to the service of God. Instead, he had been sinning against the Lord. Those two thoughts must have been in Saul’s mind as he was led by the hand to Damascus.

The process of conversion

The Saviour did not tell everything to Saul immediately. Instead he was told to go into Damascus and more would be revealed to him there. We can imagine Saul at this time. Instead of being an initiator, he has become dependent. Instead of arranging events, he has to wait for what will happen. In those three days of physical darkness, he had to depend on Jesus and wait for him to do something. We can see how in a moment any confidence in his own abilities would have been removed. What could he do? Nothing apart from praying and thinking and fasting.

We have seen that Saul had discovered that Jesus was both divine and an exalted man. Moreover, he had discovered that he himself had been fighting against the kingdom of God. Saul would also be able to recall what he had learned about the Messiah and his kingdom from the Old Testament. On the Damascus Road he had been given the key that would open the meaning of those passages, and we can see that he had used it because he was able to preach about Jesus in Damascus as soon as sight was restored.

When a person is converted, they are enlightened about Jesus and they discover that he is the Saviour. One cannot be a Christian without this enlightenment. They also know that he is a Saviour from sin. Paul had both these details. Those converted also begin to pray, which is speaking to God because of Jesus. Paul had engaged in numerous formal prayers in his previous life, but he had never truly prayed. He now was experiencing the amazing change that occurs when someone is converted – they start to speak to God and do so because they know he is the One who sent the Saviour. This engagement in prayer was the sign to Ananias that Saul was a changed man and had become a believer.

The confirmation

Jesus informed Ananias through a vision that he should go to Saul and lay hands on him in order for him to regain his sight. Although he was initially surprised and afraid, Ananias was persuaded to go when the change in Saul was outlined. Jesus could have given Saul his sight without involving Ananias, but then there would have been no witnesses to confirm Saul’s story. Imagine how difficult it would have been for anyone to believe Saul if the Lord had not sent Ananias to him. In addition, how would Saul know what the response of the Christians would be to him? He had been told that Ananias would come, but what about afterwards?

When Ananias reached the house where Saul was, he said one of the most significant words in Saul’s life in particular and in human history in general. Remember Saul is blind when he feels the touch of the hands of Ananias. The first word he hears from another Christian after his conversion is the beautiful word, ‘brother.’ He had travelled to Damascus to arrest Ananias. Now he hears Ananias welcome him into the family of God.

The he heard Ananias announce the sovereignty of Jesus. This sovereignty extended to Ananias as well as to Saul. Both he and Saul were servants of the same Master. Ananias knew, since Jesus had informed him, that Saul was going to be a greater servant than him. Yet he also knew that no matter what Saul would do in the future, he would only be a servant of Jesus. Saul has been told by Jesus on the Damascus Road some of the matters that he would yet preach throughout the world (Acts 26:17-18).

The third detail that happened to Saul was his experience of a miracle when his sight was restored. Whatever else the miracle showed him it revealed the power of Jesus to perform physical miracles whenever he wished.

Fourth, Paul received the Holy Spirit in a special manner, which I would say is connected to the fulfilment of the special calling he had received from Jesus to be his apostle. The Spirit had been working in his heart during the previous three days revealing to him truths about his own state as a sinner who had rebelled against God and about Jesus who had come to save sinners. Yet he also needed the Spirit as the enabler who would empower him to fulfil the calling that Jesus detailed to Ananias about Saul, a calling that would include witnessing as his ambassador to different peoples and rulers as well as intense suffering.

What is the message that Saul would bring to the world? He describes it in his testimony in Acts 26 and which he says he received from Jesus on the Damascus Road. It would be about Jesus and what he could do for sinners. Through the declaration of the message sinners would be taken from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, they would be forgiven their sins, and they would find themselves now set apart to God. Though he did not know this at that time, many thousands in his own lifetime would hear the gospel from his lips, and since then many millions have been helped by his testimony and his writings to discover the way of life.

Three comments

The encounter with Jesus caused physical and spiritual turmoil for Saul of Tarsus. Physically he was blinded for a few days. Spiritually, he had discovered a fact that changed everything – Jesus is God. Later, when writing to the Galatians, Paul described his conversion as ‘But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.’ This discovery was an action of the Father as well as being an activity of the Son.

Saul received his first insights into a living doctrine that would have a strong emphasis in his teaching, that of union with Jesus. On the Damascus Road, Saul was informed that Jesus is united to his people. Saul had been persecuting Jesus when persecuting Christians.

There is something poignant in seeing that the one who had caused deep suffering for believers would himself experience similar suffering from others, all for the sake of Jesus. Saul would become a household name because of the great change he had experienced, but he also would go through many an ordeal for his faith, some of which he lists in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28: ‘Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.’

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Paul’s Days of Ignorance (Phil. 3:1-7)


On several occasions, Paul refers to his way of life before he was a Christian. He says that he grew up in Tarsus before moving to Jerusalem to study under a famous rabbi called Gamaliel. Paul was aware of the significance of Tarsus because he describes it in Acts 21:39 as not an obscure city. Tarsus was the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia and was noted for its schools of philosophy and rhetoric as well as being a centre for trade – it had a large harbour and ships sailed there from many parts of the world. It was inevitable that Paul would have been influenced in some ways by such an environment. Moreover, a sizeable Jewish community lived there, which would have provided Paul with a sense of belonging and a culture to absorb.

When was Paul born?
Again, there is no way to be precise about this. He became a Christian several years after Jesus ascended to heaven around the years 29 or 30. At the time of the death of Stephen, which was about three or four years later, Saul is said to be a young man (Acts 7:59). Maybe he was in his late twenties or early thirties then, which would mean he was born a few years after the birth of Jesus around BC6.

The family of Paul
Paul belonged to a Jewish family that identified with the Pharisees. He says in Acts 23:6 that his father was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would adhere strongly to the religious beliefs connected to that group, such as the hope of the resurrection and to the existence of spiritual beings such as angels, both of which were denied by the Sadducees. He also would have a strong commitment to the religious traditions embraced by the Pharisees, and those traditions were very numerous and affected most ways of life.

The family tribe was Benjamin and this connection probably explains why he was given the name Saul, the first king of Israel, who came from the tribe of Benjamin. Many in the tribe were proud of the connection, even although Saul turned out to be an unfaithful king as far as obedience to God was concerned. It was common for individuals to have several names, so it is also possible that he had been given the name Paul when he was a child as well.

His family status also gave him another privilege, which was that he was a Roman citizen. Luke tells that when Paul informed the city officials of Philippi that he was a Roman citizen they became afraid because such persons should not have been punished in the manner that they had beaten him. Later, when speaking about his Roman citizenship with a Roman tribune who had purchased his citizenship Paul says that he was freeborn.

It was common for Jewish males to have a trade and on several occasions Paul worked as a tentmaker. Perhaps his family were engaged in that trade and he may have learned to practice it when he was young. It is possible that he took up the trade after he became a Christian, but it is more likely that he learned the trade when he was young.

Saul probably was not the first member of his family circle to become a Christian. In Romans 16, he refers to relatives who were in Christ before he was and who had moved to live in Rome. ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me’ (Acts 16:7).

In Jerusalem
Saul was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, probably as a young teenager. The period of study would last for several years and Paul had family in Jerusalem where he could stay. He mentions a nephew from Jerusalem who helped him there when he was arrested a couple of decades later for being a Christian (Acts 23:16). The reason for this choice of location by his father was because he would have wanted his son to be instructed by a Pharisee. Although he was a Pharisee, Gamaliel was regarded as a moderate as far as his beliefs were concerned. Yet he would be very different from the teachers connected to the Sadducees, among whom were the priests, because most of them denied the existence of a spiritual world.

It looks as if Paul’s family had earmarked for him the role of a rabbi. Since he was from the tribe of Benjamin he could not serve God as a priest or a Levite. So he was sent to Jerusalem to be taught by Gamaliel. Before he went, he would have been educated by instructors in the synagogue in Tarsus or by a rabbi in the city. He would have become familiar with the Old Testament and would have seen the predictions it contained about the coming Messiah. No doubt he wondered when the Messiah would appear.  

In his letter to the Philippians Paul mentions regarding himself that as far as outward obedience to the law was concerned he was blameless (Phil. 3:6). By the law he probably means the ceremonial as well as the moral law. He was confident that he had not failed to observe all that was required of him. So he was consistent as well as dedicated to the law of Moses. Each detail of it he regarded as important and necessary to obey.

Paul would have recognised that he was not living in the glory days of Israel’s experience. The nation had descended into being a vassal state of the mighty Roman empire. There had not been days of greatness for Israel since the time of David and Solomon, and they were a thousand years away. How did Paul react to such a situation? He resolved to serve God as best as he could and he would oppose anyone among the Jews who suggested otherwise.

We can deal briefly with a couple of questions that are asked about this period in Paul’s life. One is whether or not he saw Jesus during those years when he was in Jerusalem. Given that Paul would have attended the Jewish feasts that Jesus also attended, it is very likely that he was in the vicinity of Jesus. But that does not mean that he ever saw Jesus or heard him speak, and since Paul was a Pharisee he would not have heard any of his friends suggesting that they should listen to him.

The other question is whether or not Paul was married. It is impossible to know the answer to this question. Yet some have suggested he was because of his comment in Acts 26:10 that he cast his vote to condemn Christians in Jerusalem, which could suggest that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, and members had to be married. If he was married, then he must have become a widower, and again his comment in 1 Corinthians 7:8 (‘to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am’) could be read as indicating that he had remained unmarried after losing his wife. But it is not possible to state that he was definitely married.

Paul the persecutor
At some stage in his life as an adult in Jerusalem Paul became a very strong opponent of the Christian faith. Later in life, he viewed those days as a time when he was ‘a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent’ (1 Tim. 1:13). Moreover, he says that he then ‘acted ignorantly in unbelief,’ so although he had imagined he was serving God when he put people in prison he later discovered that he was not. His aim was to destroy the Christian church and remove it from the earth.

Given that Luke, the author of Acts, was a companion of Paul, we can be assured that some of the details mentioned by Luke came from information that Paul provided. One such detail is the account of Stephen. When Stephen was put to death, Luke says that the mob placed their clothes at the feet of Paul, indicating that he was in charge of the execution. This indicates that the authorities had confidence in him.

The followers of Jesus living in Jerusalem before that time had not yet commenced evangelising the Gentile world. Instead they remained somewhat connected to the practices of Judaism, such as attending the temple at the time of prayer, as we can see from the early chapters of Acts. Initially they were popular with the people in general. Opposition to the disciples of Jesus came mainly from the Sanhedrin, and it was dominated by the Sadducees who strongly opposed a message that centred on a claim that the founder had risen from the dead. They wanted to crush the new movement, but it was the Pharisee Gamaliel who advised the Sanhedrin not to oppose the followers of Jesus in case it found itself fighting against God (Acts 5:34ff.). On the assumption that Paul would have agreed with the view of Gamaliel rather than that of the Sadducees, why did he then become such a strong opponent of the followers of Jesus? The answer seems to be connected to the story of Stephen and what he taught about Jesus.

Stephen had a very effective ministry in the city. He was opposed by several groups of Jews, among whom were Jews from Cilicia (Acts 6:9), which is where Paul came from. Eventually, Stephen was put on trial for his beliefs and his speech explaining his opinions is recorded in Acts 7. Luke then says in Acts 8:1-3 that a great persecution arose against the church that day under the leadership of Saul. This is what Paul was engaged in when he set off to Damascus to deal with the followers of Jesus there.

We can see from the speech of Stephen that he highlighted the regular unfaithfulness of Israel and minimised the ongoing importance of the temple. He grasped that the coming of Jesus had changed many things about the worship of God. No doubt, those ideas if they became popular would have strong effects on the people of Israel. People were beginning to see that the church was not really a subset of Judaism, but instead was a very different kind of gathering.

At that time Paul determined that the church had to be destroyed. Whether this determination was the outcome of something that had been simmering in him for a while, or whether it was a recent decision connected to the ministry of Stephen in Jerusalem, cannot be stated with certainty. Whatever the cause, Paul became a fierce persecutor of the church.

Divine preparation for service
We can see several ways in which Paul was being prepared for serving Jesus later. The divine Potter was at work shaping the man who would become so important in the life of the church. First, he was given a thorough grounding in the Old Testament – all he needed in a sense was the key to open all its rooms, and he found that key when he met Jesus.

Second, Paul would have realised the inadequacy of legalism for becoming right with God and for maintaining a relationship with God. His adherence to the requirements of the law were incredible, but of no value in a spiritual sense. He stressed this repeatedly in later years.

Third, Paul was to engage with people of all cultures as an apostle. He would have interacted with such and understood their ideas from the years he spent in Tarsus as well as with people he met later in Gentile-dominated Jerusalem.

Fourth, Paul’s personality was renewed when he became a Christian, but many of his traits would remain but now devoted to the service of Jesus. He was disciplined in his habits, determined in his goals, and devoted to God (as he thought). Those features are prominent too in his Christian life.

Fifth, his religious and civil privileges gave him access to places, even if he was eventually expelled from some of them. As a rabbi, he had access to the Jewish synagogues and as a Roman citizen he had certain privileges that he could use when he so wished.