Sunday, April 14, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
When God’s Story Intersects Yours
Part 7—Paul’s Story


ILL: Once, just out of high school, I was telling my story at a church.  I wanted to make a point—that you don’t have to have a big dramatic story.  Not everyone is converted from a life of crime or drugs.  I wasn’t. So I started by spinning a yarn, saying that I had been a drug user and a criminal, a murderer—I went on and on. Finally I said, “And then, praise God, I was saved when I was six.”  I was making a joke, but no one laughed.  Even though I went on to tell the truth, and make my point that every story counts, large or small, they were still pretty mad at me.

Every story counts!  Some are big and dramatic, and others are small and quiet.  But every story counts.  And every person needs Jesus, no matter how bad or how good you are.  

Today I’m going to tell you the story of a big conversion.  This man who was the Osama bin Laden of his day.  His name was Saul (or Paul) and Jesus changed him in a big way.  It’s a great story!

Introduction and offering:

Thanks Alyssa for sharing your story.  God really did some wonderful things in her life and her family through this accident.

This is part 7 of our Story series.  We are telling the story of God and us, as it is told in the Bible, and we’re talking about how our stories are changed by Jesus.  My little story has meaning as part of God’s Big Story.  We’re telling the Big Story in 9 parts:

  • The start of the Story.

  • The story of Abraham.

  • The story of Moses.

  • The story of David.

  • The Story of Jesus.  (Easter weekend)

  • The story of Peter.

  • The story of Paul.

  • The story of us.

  • The end of the Story.

The Big Idea: The Bible is the story of God and us.  When God’s story intersects yours, you begin to live a new story.

If Peter is the guy we all relate to, Paul is the guy who challenges us.  Paul is all in.  Paul inspires me; he sets my hair on fire to go change the world!  Here is the story of Paul.

1. Saul’s life before Jesus.

Saul was his Jewish name—he was from the tribe of Benjamin, and was named after Israel’s first king, Saul.  Paul was his Roman name.  Saul was born in Tarsus, an influential Greek university city in the Roman province of Cilicia (modern SE Turkey).  He was born into a devout Jewish family, and was also a Roman citizen by birth, with all it rights and privileges.  He grew up speaking Greek and knowing Greek culture.  This multi-cultural heritage (Roman, Greek, and Jewish) would be a valuable asset later in his life.  When he was still a boy, he was sent to Jerusalem, where he was trained by the famous Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel.  Saul became a member of Judaism’s strictest sect, the Pharisees, known for their meticulous obedience to the law of Moses.  He was very proud of his Jewish heritage and his strict obedience, describing himself as “faultless” when it came to legalistic righteousness.  That’s a remarkable claim—and evidence of the proud delusion he lived under!  

ILL: Anyone who thinks he is faultless is living in denial!

I once met a man for coffee.  He told me that he hadn’t sinned in several years—he was faultless.  When it was time to go, he asked me for a ride home.  He explained that he had lost his license because of multiple speeding tickets.  So much for being sinless.

We’re about to see that Saul wasn’t as good as he thought either.

In Jewish religious circles, Saul was an up-and-comer.  He was advancing in Judaism far faster than anyone else his age, and by his own words, “was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”  So when the new Jesus movement started threatening those traditions, Saul went crazy.  

When Stephen was arrested for being a Christian and stoned to death, Saul was there as a witness and accomplice (he guarded the stone-throwers coats).  This experience launched Saul on a fanatic crusade against Christians.  He began going door-to-door through Jerusalem, arresting and jailing Christians, trying to destroy the church.  

His persecution was so intense that the Christians of Jerusalem scattered to other cities.  Not wanting anyone to get away, Saul got permission from the Jewish Council to go to these cities, find the Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem to imprison them.  At their trials, Saul always cast his vote to put them to death.  He did everything possible to oppose the Christians, to the point that he described it as an “obsession.”  He hunted Christians down, beat them, tried to force them to recant, to blaspheme Jesus, and when that failed, had them jailed and killed.

To the Christians, Saul was Public Enemy #1. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day.  Saul had declared jihad, a holy war against the Christians.

And he might have succeeded…if it weren’t for God.  

2. Saul’s conversion.

Saul had gotten written permission from the Council to go to Damascus (modern Syria) to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem for trial any Christians he could find there.  As Saul neared Damascus, suddenly a bright light flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”  

“Who are you, sir?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”  (When you hurt Christians, you hurt Jesus.)

When Saul got up, he was blinded by the brilliant light, and had to be led by the hand into Damascus.  For the next three days, he was unable to see.  He didn’t eat or drink anything while he waited, wondering what was next.  Imagine how vulnerable and helpless he felt. He came here with power, and now he was powerless.  He came here the hunter, and now he was the hunted.

God let him sit there for three days—blind, waiting in suspense.  

On day three—one of God’s favorite days—God spoke to a man named Ananias.  He was a Christian who lived in Damascus, and he had heard that Saul had come to Damascus to arrest the Christians—including him!

God said, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he said.  By the way, that’s always the best thing to say when God speaks to you.  Let’s just practice.  “Yes, Lord.”  

The Lord told him, “I want you to go over to Straight Street (one of the main streets in Damascus) to the house of Judas.  Ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul.  He’ll be praying when you get there—he’s seen a vision of you coming and placing your hands on him and restoring his sight.  He’ll be looking for you.  Any questions?”

Yes, sir—Ananias had some questions.  “Lord, I’ve heard about this guy and all the harm he’s done to the Christians in Jerusalem.  And he’s come here to do the same to us!  You said he’s blind—maybe we should just leave him that way!  Are You sure You want to heal him?  This is Osama bin Saul!”

But the Lord said, “Go, Ananias.  This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the Gentiles.  And I will show him how much he must suffer for me.”  

“But Lord…”

“Go, Ananias.”

Here’s where our practice comes in handy.  What do we say when God speaks?

“Yes, Lord.”

So Ananias went to Judas’ house on Straight Street, and found Saul praying.  He placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul (that must have been hard to say), the Lord—that is Jesus who appeared to you on the road—has sent me so that you can see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Immediately, Saul’s sight returned.  

What was the first thing he did?  He hadn’t eaten anything for 3 days.  First things first—he got baptized.  The old Saul died with Christ, and a brand new man came up out of the water—a new person in Christ.  The old was gone, the new has come.  Saul was now a full-on follower of Jesus.  

Just as before he had been obsessed to wipe out the Christian faith, now he was obsessed to spread it!  He had met Jesus, and the trajectory of his story totally changed.  A 180!

Saul began telling people in Damascus about Jesus.  “He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  He created such a stir that the Jews decided to kill him!  They were watching the city gates to capture him, so Saul’s friends let him down in basket from a window in the city wall at night.  This is like a movie!  It would be the first many narrow escapes for Saul.  For the rest of his life, everywhere he went, Saul started revivals and riots.  He made disciples and got in big trouble for it.  

When he got back to Jerusalem, he tried to join the church there.  Can you imagine how that went?  Everyone was terrified.  No one believed he was sincere; they all thought it was act to infiltrate the church and arrest them all.  But Barnabas knew the whole story, and came to Saul’s defense, telling everyone about his conversion, and how he preached in Damascus and got run out of town.  “He’s one of us, now—he’s on the run too!”  

Saul immediately started spreading the good news in Jerusalem, and quickly was targeted again—the Jews put a price on his head.  Some Christians whisked him away and sent him home to Tarsus—far enough away to stall any trouble, and give the church a little peace!

Saul’s story is one of the most remarkable conversions in history.  It’s so dramatic!  I want you to take two things from it.  

First, no one is ever too bad or too far gone for God.  If you had taken a poll of those Christians and asked, “Who is least likely to ever become a Christian?” Saul would have won hands down.  Don’t ever think that you’re too bad—or that someone else is either.  God specializes in hard cases.  

Second, some of you might feel badly that your story is not so dramatic.  We hear these kinds of stories—like Saul’s—and they are wonderful.  But some of us feel like second-class Christians because we don’t have a Big Story like that.  

ILL: Alyssa began the written version of her story like this: “I made the mistake of believing that I didn’t have much of story. I wasn’t saved out of a life of crime. I hadn’t spent years wandering from Jesus. Jesus found me young and at the tender age of five I accepted him as my savior. What I didn’t realize then, but I know better now, is that my story only began that day.”  

The best part of your story happens after you meet Jesus—and that is true whether you have a big story or small.  There are all kinds of stories—ordinary and extraordinary, big and small.  Every story can be redeemed and made great in its own unique way.  Some people get saved from the hood, some from suburbia, and some from church—but we all need Jesus and He redeems all our stories.  So tell your story, Big or Small—every story matters.

So Saul gets sent home to Tarsus.  He drops off the radar for about 10 years.  When he resurfaces, he becomes the major player in the story of the early church.

3. Paul the apostle.

When the gospel reached Antioch of Syria, the third most important city in the Roman Empire, Barnabas was sent to teach and train all the new believers.  He soon realized that he needed help and thought of his old friend, Saul.  So Barnabas tracked him down in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch, where the two of them taught the believers for a year. This church was the first that was primarily made up of Gentiles rather than Jews, and it was there that the believers were first called “Christians.” And Antioch was about to become the new center of the worldwide Jesus movement.  It all started at a prayer meeting.

One day the leaders of the church in Antioch were praying together when God spoke to them: “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And they responded: “Yes, Lord.”  So they prayed for Barnabas and Saul and sent them off.

This word from God launched Paul on what would be his life’s work!  It was the first of three extensive missionary journeys.  On these journeys, Paul (he used his Roman name in his travels throughout the empire) would go to a strategic city, preach the gospel, make disciples, plant a church, appoint pastors, then leave for another city.  This story is told in Acts 13-28.  All this began with a prayer meeting—while they were praying, God spoke the word that changed Paul’s life and ultimately changed the world!

So Paul became an apostle.  The word means, “an official emissary, delegate, envoy, messenger.”  Literally, it means, “one sent away.”  Paul was sent by God and the church to be the messenger that carried the gospel where it had never been.

This guy was a beast!  I told you he did three extensive missionary journeys.  Let me show you some maps to give you an idea of what he did.

Here’s the first journey, into Asia Minor, what we know today as Turkey.  This covered well over 1000 miles, much of it by sea, but many miles on foot over very difficult terrain—I’ve been there and seen it.   In almost every city, Paul faced severe opposition.  (leave map up)

  • In Antioch of Psidia, they were persecuted and expelled from the region—driven out of town.

  • In Iconium, they had to flee town when they learned of a plot to kill them.

  • In Lystra, some folks from Antioch and Iconium followed the Paul and turned the crowd against him.  They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, leaving him for dead.  The disciples prayed for him and he recovered miraculously and went back into the city!  He’s a beast!  They left the next day for Derbe.

  • After making many disciples in Derbe, they headed home.  But notice which way he went.  At Derbe, he was less than 200 miles from home.  But instead of taking the short way home, he returned the way he came.  He deliberately went back to these cities where crowds had tried to kill him, so he could check on the new believers and appoint pastors.  He deliberately went the hard way home.  He was a beast!  

He returned home to Antioch of Syria for a rest and reported what God had done.  While he was there, word reached Jerusalem that the gospel was spreading rapidly among the Gentiles.  Some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were very concerned about this, so they sent representatives to the church in Antioch telling them that the Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be saved.  Paul had a fit!  After a big debate, the church sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to hash this out with Peter and James and the other original apostles.  

The story is in Acts 15, and it was a huge moment in the Jesus movement.  If the Jewish Christians had their way, Christianity would be another religion spelled D-O—all about what we do for God. Fortunately, Paul and Peter and the others agreed that we are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus, not by keeping the Jewish law.  They kept the gospel as D-O-N-E—all about what God has done for us in Christ.  This was huge!

From Jerusalem, Paul started his second missionary journey.  As you can see, he revisits the churches from the first journey, and then goes on to Macedonia and Achaia—what is now modern Greece.  This journey covered more than 2500 miles, over half of it on foot!  Paul planted churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus.  Again he did this in face of extreme opposition. Here’s an example: in a letter to the church at Corinth, Paul defends his apostleship by describing his hardships.

2 Corinthians 11:23–29 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

The guy was a beast!  Paul returned and reported to his home church in Antioch, rested awhile, and then was off again.

Here’s Paul’s third missionary journey.  As you can see, he retraces his steps, revisiting all the churches he started to strengthen and encourage them.  The most notable thing on this journey is that he returned to Ephesus and spent at least two years and three months there—his longest stay at any city.  During that time, the gospel spread all over that entire province.  This seemed to be one of Paul’s church planting strategies: plant a church in a large city that would serve as a hub for the gospel to spread in that region.  Paul’s time in Ephesus ended because of a riot—are you surprised?  The gospel was hurting the local economy—the new Christians weren’t buying idols anymore.  The silversmiths guild started a riot at the theater.  Here’s a picture of the ruins of that theater that seated about 25,000 people.  

Paul escaped to Greece, and as he finished his tour of the churches, he believed that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem, rather than returning home. Along the way, people warned him not to go, that it was too dangerous.  A prophet even predicted that he would be bound and arrested.  Paul said, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart.  I am compelled by the Holy Spirit to go.  I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for our Lord Jesus.”  The guy was a beast!

In Jerusalem, his enemies started a riot and began beating Paul.  Roman soldiers came to break up the riot and arrested Paul.  For most of the next 5 years, Paul would be in jail.  He was kept in jail in Jerusalem until the commander learned of a plot to ambush and assassinate him.  Paul was moved under heavy guard to Caesarea, where he spent more than two years, and was tried two governors, Felix and Festus, who both determined he was innocent, but kept him in jail because they wanted to curry favor with the Jews.  Paul finally appealed to Caesar—this was the right of any Roman citizen who felt like he wasn’t getting justice locally.  It is like appealing your case to the Supreme Court.

When King Agrippa visited, he too heard Paul’s case.  Paul shared his conversion story with Agrippa.

“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Agrippa asked.

“Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me may become Christians!”

I love this.  When Paul has a chance to speak to people who could free him, he is more interested in sharing the gospel than pleading his case.  Agrippa agreed that Paul was innocent, but because Paul had appealed to Caesar, he had to be sent to Rome.

On the voyage to Rome, Paul’s ship was shipwrecked on the island of Malta in terrible storm.  Paul shared the gospel there—he was still a missionary, even in chains.  Eventually, Paul made it to Rome, where for two years he lived under house arrest.  From his house, Paul shared the gospel with any visitor who came, and with the Roman soldiers assigned to guard him.  He was unstoppable!  Imagine being locked up with Paul for two years!  You’re probably going to become a Christian!

Luke ends the book of Acts there—with Paul in house arrest in Rome for two years.  What happened to him?

4. Paul’s legacy.

There is nothing in the Bible about the end of Paul’s life.  But there are sources outside the Bible that tell us what happened.  

Clement of Rome (a bishop or pastor near the end of the first century) writes in 95 AD that Paul traveled to “the limits of the West”, believed to be a reference to Spain, the most western part of the Roman Empire.  This means that Paul was probably released from this first Roman imprisonment and took the gospel all the way to Spain and back, something he said he wanted to do (Romans 15:24).  

Eusebius wrote a history of the early church around 325 AD.  He wrote that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero, the madman.  It was during this persecution that Peter was crucified.  Both were buried in Rome.

So Paul died for Jesus, one of the early martyrs of the Christian faith.  And his legacy was huge!  God used Paul to spread the gospel across the Roman Empire, from Syria to Spain.  He traveled more miles, planted more churches, and suffered more hardship than any other apostle.  

Perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy is the letters of encouragement and instruction he wrote to those churches and to their pastors.  We have thirteen of these letters in our New Testament: Romans through Philemon.  When you read them, Paul’s passion for Jesus shines out.  He never forgot what he was before Jesus or how much Jesus had changed his story.  

He is one of the most admired figures in Christian history—and one of the most influential.  But he always pointed back to Jesus. He was a Jesus’ man through and through!  I’ll let him say it in his own words.

1 Timothy 1:12–17 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Paul says, “If Jesus could save me, he could save anyone!  He could save you!”  Paul was so transformed and grateful that he lived the rest of his life full on for Jesus.  

How about you?  Have you had that kind of life-changing encounter with Jesus?  Have you let Him rewrite your story?