My Story: The Damascus Road
1/31/2017 7:56:03 PM
“My Story: The Damascus Road”
January 29, 2017
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Genesis 3:8-24
[pic] Imagine you are on a boat, a ship actually, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It is the 18th Century, which means your ship is a large wooden ship of sail, driven by the wind across the waves of the deep sea. Your journey will take 6 weeks if the weather is favourable, 8 to 10 weeks if the weather doesn’t cooperate. You are headed from England to the colony of Georgia. There you hope to start a new life, receiving some land of your very own!
Among the passengers journeying with you is an Anglican priest. Also on board are a number of Moravian Christians, fleeing persecution in Europe and hoping to find freedom in the New World. The Moravians are Protestant Christians who originated in the Eastern parts of the Czech Republic who fled to Germany. Now this group was heading to the New World to find religious freedom but also to carry on their missionary work.
Partway across the ocean, you notice a flurry of activity from the sailors. You see that the sky has darkened and the waves are picking up. You and the other passengers are told to get below. Your ship is heading into a storm. Huddling below decks, you feel the ship start to rise and fall in the waves. The ship groans as it pitches you back and forth. You feel your stomach heaving. Other passengers are audibly sick.
After a few hours, there is tremendous crack from above decks. You are told by another passenger that one of the masts has cracked and fallen overboard. All aboard are terrified. You go to the Anglican priest to ask for prayer and he is scared too. Then, however, the two of you move to another part of the ship and discover that the Moravians are sitting together singing hymns and praying. Although you and the priest have been praying, the Moravians are clearly not worried. They are full of faith in God and seem to be able to face danger with a deep peace.
The Anglican priest begins to talk to the leader of the Moravians. Their leader asks the priest of he knows Jesus. The priest answers, “I know of Jesus.” The leader asks again, “Do you know that Jesus died for your sins?” The priest answers, “I hope that Jesus paid for my sins.” “But do you know?” The priest walks away deep in thought. You, too, ponder the question of knowing that Jesus died for your sin or not.
In another hour or two, the ship settles and the waves die down. You have safely navigated the storm. You continue on your way to Georgia, glad when you finally reach land.
This is a true story. [pic] The Anglican priest was John Wesley, later involved in the Great Awakening and founder of Methodism. However, at this point in time, journeying to Georgia, he knew all about Jesus, but didn’t know Jesus in a saving way. When his ship endured a storm, he noticed that the Moravian passengers sang and prayed through the ordeal with a kind of peace and faith he could not muster himself. He asked the leader of the Moravians about it and was challenged if he knew Jesus or just about Jesus.
After a time in Georgia, pastoring in a settlement, things didn’t go well and Wesley returned to England. Still questioning his salvation, Wesley sought out other Moravians and, during a service, the Spirit moved in John and brought him to saving faith. But in order for the Spirit to do that, Wesley had to come to grips with the difference between a knowledge about Jesus and a personal, experiential knowledge of Jesus. His time aboard the ship, facing danger and being confronted with the peace of the Moravians which he personally lacked began this change within him.
Some might call Wesley’s experience a “Damascus Road” experience. It was his crisis moment when he was forced to question his relationship with God, question his status before God, his righteousness. Not everybody has a “Damascus Road” experience. As we’ve been learning about, people come to saving faith in a variety of ways. However, we often celebrate or talk about people who have dramatic experiences like Wesley did. Or, like Paul had on the road to Damascus. Let’s take a closer look at that first Damascus Road experience.
Please turn with me to Acts 9:1-22. Last week, as you recall, we read the end of Acts 8. In Luke’s narrative, the Holy Spirit has been working through a variety of people to bring the good news of Jesus to new people. We saw how Philip, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, brought the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch after spreading the word in Samaria.
Who Was Saul?
Who was Saul? You are probably more familiar with him by the Greek version of his name, Paul. Yes, the Apostle Paul is the subject of our text today. When working with Gentiles, Saul went by the Greek version of his name, Paul. Luke, in his narrative, refers to him as Saul up until he begins his missionary work.
Who was Saul, though, before becoming the Apostle Paul? Saul was a devout Jew. He was born in Tarsus, a Roman citizen, which was a very high honour. He was of the tribe of Benjamin and spoke Hebrew, a skill lost by many Jews in that time. He was given the best education, studying under the great Rabi Gamaliel, and eventually became a Pharisee. [Acts 22:3; Phil 3:6-9] Paul was exacting in obeying all the Jewish laws as well as the extra laws of the Pharisees designed to ensure one didn’t even come close to violating the laws of God. According to the laws of the Old Testament, Saul was flawlessly righteous. He had everything going for him. As far as anybody was concerned, Saul was in God’s good books.
When Christianity started, Saul was highly offended. He disliked this Jesus and his teachings. He disliked the challenge to his way of following God. He didn’t like the idea that his form of righteousness may be great on the outside, but not a reflection of his inner life. Jesus had claimed to be God. He blasphemed. He was a heretic in Saul’s eyes and those of many Jewish religious leaders.
As a result, Saul was a zealous opponent of early Christians. We are told later in Acts that when the Jewish ruling council tried Christians, Paul would vote for the death penalty! [Acts 26:10] When, as described in Acts 7, the Christian Stephen was killed, Saul stood by encouraging people, approving of what was happening, holding people’s coats as they threw stones at Stephen to kill him. As we pick up our text, Saul is rounding up Christians to have them brought to trial. Now he wants permission to go to Damascus, the nearest important city which also had a large Jewish population. There he would speak to the Synagogue leaders and round up any Christians he found there too.
The journey to Damascus from Jerusalem is about 240km and would have taken 6 days. On the final day, just outside the city, a light from Heaven blinded Saul. He heard a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul, a trained Pharisee, would have understood that a bright light and voice from heaven would come from God, so he answered, “Who are you Lord?” Lord is both a term of respect, but also a term for God.
Imagine Saul’s surprise when he heard the answer, “Jesus.” Jesus not only spoke to Saul but appeared to him in the flesh. This was the foundation for Saul’s status as an apostle – having personally seen Jesus himself.
We are told that Saul’s companions heard the sound but did not understand what was said or see anything. Interestingly, in John’s Gospel we have a similar event. John 12:29-30 Jesus says, “’Father, glorify your name!’
Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” So the idea of God speaking and only some hearing it and understanding it was not unprecedented. Saul’s companions did not comprehend what was said, they were not able to make out the words, but they heard the sound. So this was an objective event with witnesses, but also a deeply personal event for Saul. [William J. Larkin, Acts, p. 140]
After his encounter with the risen Jesus, Paul was left blind. His companions had to lead him by the hand into Damascus and find a place for him to stay. The leader of the group, the fiery commander who was going to capture Christians, had to be led himself, helpless and weak, into the city. They took him to the house of Judas on Straight Street, the main street running through the city. There Saul waited, blind, confused, his world shattered. He ate and drank nothing, fasting both out of having been overwhelmed but also probably as a sign of repentance for what he had done. For three days, “Saul grappled with his dawning realization that his life, though lived in zeal for the one true God even to the point of persecuting the church, has in reality been one of ‘ignorance in unbelief’ (1 Tim 1:13).” [Larkin, p. 139]
Who Was Ananias?
Let’s leave Saul for a moment and turn to another important player in this narrative, Ananias. Who was
Ananias? Ananias only appears in this narrative in the Bible. Ananias was a disciple, we are told, a follower of Jesus. A resident of Damascus, he was one of those Saul was coming to arrest and take back to Jerusalem to face trial. Not only was Ananias one of Saul’s targets, but he knew who Saul was. He knew Saul had been persecuting Christians. He knew Saul had come to Damascus to arrest Christians and take them back to face prison and jail.
One day, Ananias had a vision in which God called to him. Notice Ananias’ response, “Yes, Lord.” This is similar to the boy Samuel’s reply when he heard the Lord in his youth. [1 Sam 3:4-14] I don’t know how you would respond if you had a vision from God. I know I would be surprised. I think it is commendable that Ananias’ response was one of obedience.
But what does God say to Ananias? He tells him to go to Saul to heal him. What?!? Ananias knew about Saul. He knew Saul’s mission in Damascus. Perhaps Ananias even knew people from Jerusalem that Paul had arrested. He had certainly heard stories! And yet God calls Ananias to go to Saul, lay hands on him to heal him. God goes on to say that Saul is his chosen instrument to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, including their rulers.
Ananias then did something incredibly brave- he obeyed the Lord. He went to Judas’ house on Straight Street. We need to keep in mind that Judas was probably sympathetic to Saul. Not likely he was a Christian. Would he interfere with Ananias? What about Saul’s companions who came with him to Damascus? Would they interfere? Ananias must have been apprehensive.
He knocked at the gate and was let in. He went in to see Saul, lying blind. And what did Ananias say? “Brother Saul.” What a wonderful welcome into the Christian family! He who was once Saul’s enemy welcomed him into the family of Christ. What a display of agape love! He gives Saul his message, lays hands on him and Saul is healed. Saul is also filled with the Spirit! Something like scales fell off Saul’s eyes, he could see! He got up and immediately was baptised. Then he had something to eat, with Ananias! Remember, eating together is a sign of friendship and fellowship in that culture. Jesus was often criticized for the people he would eat with. Here is Saul eating with Ananias!
We must not underestimate the significance of Saul’s baptism. Yes, all Christians are to be baptised, but realize Saul was a Pharisee. He believed he was righteous. To submit to baptism was to turn away from all the things he thought put him in God’s good books! Baptism is a sign of repentance. Saul, as a Pharisee, would not have thought he needed to repent of anything before his encounter with Jesus. Yet now he saw that he needed to know Christ personally, not just know about God, but know God in a way he had never imagined before.
Saul then joined with other believers in Damascus. I’m sure there was a lot of instruction about Jesus during those days. Immediately, Saul began putting his education to new use. His took all his knowledge as a Pharisee and began to apply it with new insight to the case of Jesus. As a Pharisee, he had special access to teach in the synagogues. He used that access to preach his new understanding that Jesus is, in fact, the Christ and the Son of God!
Needless to say, people were astonished. He was the one who hated Christians and all they stood for. Now he was one of them? He baffled the Jews who heard him. He kept proving Jesus is the Christ. With the same zeal with which he persecuted Christians, he was not defending Christians and advancing their cause! The Greek word for “prove” here means to put things together, joining things. Paul was putting together the OT texts he knew so well to demonstrate how Christ fulfilled them. No wonder the Jews in Damascus were astounded! They were “unable to respond to the skilful interpretations of the former student of Gamaliel.” [John B. Polhill, Acts, p. 239]
What can we learn from this? What lessons can and should we take from this passage? First, let me point out one lesson we should not take from it. We should not expect all conversion experiences to be like Saul’s! We should not expect everybody to have a dramatic moment and a radical about face in their conversion.
Now, it may seem like that’s obvious, but far too often we try to precipitate such a dramatic moment when doing evangelism. I’ve personally experienced evangelistic meetings in which emotional strings were pulled, often rather roughly, in order to precipitate a moment of crisis for those present. The goal is to get the people there to have a moment like Saul did, a moment of crisis in which they turn to God. The problem is, fairly often the
commitment that comes so strongly in the moment of crisis also leaves when the moment is over! I wonder if this was part of the reason God left Saul to think, blind and helpless, for 3 days? Maybe God wanted to make sure the moment of crisis wasn’t just a moment and wasn’t dismissed the next day?
But what good lessons can we learn, what positive lessons? First and foremost, we can see that God is the one who draws people to Christ. Paul’s conversion experience needed no evangelist. God worked in Saul directly. As we saw last week, God can use a person as his instrument to share the gospel, just like he used Philip. In fact, this is the most common way God works. God went on to work through Saul this way for many years. But it is not necessary for God to do this. Saul’s conversion reminds us that it is God, not us, who brings people to faith in Christ.
On the one hand, this should humble us. It is not up to us to bring people to Christ. It is not our job to save to people. It is beyond our power! On the other hand, this should encourage us. It is God who does the work of drawing people to himself. It is not up to us to save people! Praise God! Because we screw up. We are imperfect. The salvation of another person is too great a burden for us to carry on our own shoulders. So we can trust God to do it. It is his work after all.
But our role is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to help people take steps towards faith in Christ. Just like Ananias, our response when called upon needs to be “Yes Lord.” We need to obey when God commands us to go to people and tell them about Jesus, to bring healing into their lives, to share our story with them, to have fellowship with them. That is what God needed Ananias to do in Saul’s life. That may be what he needs you or me to do in somebody else’s life. Are you willing to follow where God leads? Are you willing to obey?
The other great lesson we learn from this passage is that even people who are religious and think they are good need to come to Christ. Saul was very religious! He was a good Jew. He was a good Pharisee. He believed he and God were on good terms. But Saul still needed Jesus. He still needed to repent of his sin and put his trust in Jesus to make him right with God, not his own obedience to the Law. And it took a radical intervention by God to show Saul otherwise!
Sometimes religious people, good people, are the toughest people to reach with the gospel. Why is that? Because it is the good, religious people who don’t think they need a saviour. They think they’re doing fine on their own. Sometimes we hear dramatic conversion stories from people who were drug addicts, or alcoholics, or gang members. Their stories are dramatic and the change in their life is dramatic. They experience a serious turn around in their lives. Sometimes we call their experiences a “Damascus Road” experience. But their experience is actually very different from Saul’s. Why? Because Saul was already good. Saul already “went to church” (although actually the temple). Saul already followed the rules. He didn’t do “those things” that got people in trouble. He was a good person who followed God. But he was so wrong about Jesus!
One of the reasons it is hard for good people, for religious people, to come to faith in Christ is that the gospel is inherently offensive. What?!? The gospel is offensive? Yes. It is inherently offensive, especially to good people. How so? The gospel tells us we are not good enough. The gospel tells us we are not good enough for God. We are not good enough to go to heaven or for God to reward us. We are also not good enough to overcome our own sin. Good people don’t like being told they’re not good enough. Good people don’t like to be told they can’t fix their own problems with God.
Religious people are even worse! Their whole religion, regardless of what it is, is all about pleasing God. When you tell a religious person their religious activity, their religious devotion, is not enough, they are likely to get offended. They are likely to be angry about it. That is part of why Saul hated Christians so much. They told him his meticulous observance of the Law as a Pharisee wasn’t good enough. They challenged his religious convictions and in doing so invalidated his religious practice. That is offensive! So religious people and good people are very hard to win for Jesus because they are the last ones who think they need help.
This does not mean we can be offensive when we present the gospel. That the gospel tells people they are not good enough for God does not mean we can tell people they’re not good enough! We are not to add to the offense of the gospel. We need to be gentle and sensitive, even as we are bold. But no matter how tactful and skilful we are, there are those who will be offended by the message that they do not measure up in God’s eyes.
That was the difficulty John Wesley faced. He was already an ordained Anglican priest! And yet he realized he didn’t have the confidence in his salvation that the Moravians did. He did not know Jesus the way they
did. He knew a lot about Jesus. He was trying to obey Jesus. He was serving Jesus. On the outside he was doing everything he could for Jesus. But he had not submitted to Jesus and come to know Jesus in a saving way yet. His faith was still in his own religious actions, not Jesus. And so, when push came to shove and he was facing death, he was unsure. He was scared. He couldn’t trust Jesus the way these other believers did. And that started him on a journey to find the assurance of salvation that they had!
So how do we apply this? What are we to do about these lessons? How can we apply Saul’s conversion story?
First, have you had a “Damascus Road” experience? Most of you have not, but perhaps some of you have. If so, don’t be afraid to share that story with others. Talk about how your life turned around when you had an encounter with Jesus.
If you have had such a dramatic conversion experience, great! But realize it is not the norm. It is not the standard that all must follow. Similarly, if your conversion story is not very dramatic, that’s ok too. We won’t all have dramatic conversions. The two on the Emmaus Road and the Ethiopian on the Gaza Road didn’t have dramatic conversions either. Drama is not the key to authentic conversions!
Now, I want us all to think of our reach one person. Are they a good person? Are they a religious person? Maybe they go to church? Maybe they read the Bible? Do they believe in God? Do they think they are following him? Or are they ignorant about God? Are they disobeying God? Perhaps they know about Jesus but are choosing not to follow him. It can seem daunting to think about reaching them for Christ.
But understand that you don’t have to bring them to faith in Jesus. In fact, you can’t bring them to faith in Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can do that! Your job is not to bring them to a point of conversion. Your job is to pray for them and trust the Holy Spirit to bring them to faith in Jesus.
Suppose your one had a dramatic conversion experience. Would you be willing to be an Ananias to them? Would you go speak to them, welcoming them into the Christian community? Would you be willing to share with them what you know about Jesus?
Maybe right now your one is a person who “breathes murderous threats” about Christianity. Maybe it seems like they could never come to know Jesus. But that’s how the Christians in Damascus felt about Saul! And look what happened there!
God is bigger than the difficulty you think your “one” faces in terms of coming to Christ. So ask God to work in their heart to bring them to Jesus. Along the way, pray for a willing spirit in yourself, an attitude of obedience so that you will cooperate with the Spirit to help your one take steps towards faith in Christ.
If you haven’t already, after the service please put the name of your “one” on a slip of paper and drop it in the box at the front of the sanctuary. Every time you see the box, pray for your one person. Pray for the Spirit to move in them to bring them to Jesus. Pray that you would be willing and prepared to cooperate with the Spirit to help your one take steps in that direction.
Don’t expect your one to have a Damascus road experience. But do pray for them to have a change of heart. Pray that Jesus will introduce himself to them through the Spirit. And trust God with your one. Amen.
My Story: The Damascus Road
1/31/2017 7:56:03 PM
My Story: The Gaza Road
1/24/2017 2:44:37 AM
My Story: The Emmaus Road
1/16/2017 4:05:57 AM
My Story: Cultivating Christians
1/9/2017 1:56:23 PM
1/9/2017 1:48:20 PM
12/25/2016 11:15:53 PM
12/25/2016 11:14:00 PM
God’s Present- Christ’s Presence: The Suffering Servant
12/19/2016 1:10:53 AM
God’s Present- Christ’s Presence: A Place Set
12/12/2016 7:55:15 PM
God’s Present- Christ’s Presence: A Distant Star
12/5/2016 3:58:59 AM