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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Let There Be Light


 


"But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Acts 9:15


At the start of Acts 9, we find Saul intent on bringing destructive upheaval to the lives of those ‘who belonged to the Way’ (v.2). Upheaval was coming. But it was Saul’s own life that was going to be turned upside down. Saul thought that he had an appointment scheduled with the synagogue leaders in Damascus. God thought differently. Saul was soon to have a life transforming meeting. He had an appointment with the risen Jesus. His schedule was not just going to be rearranged for a day or two. Saul’s schedule was going to be changed for ever. ‘A light from heaven’ (v.3) was about to break through the darkness of his life.


There is a Bible word for this change - It’s ‘conversion’. Our NIV has the heading, before verse 1. It says, ‘Saul’s conversion’. In general, daily use, the word ‘conversion’ relates to the changing of something from one form to another. When we go abroad we may need to change our money. Other countries don’t use UK currency, so we need to change our pounds into euros, or dollars, or dinars. We call this, ‘currency conversion’. We need to know the exchange rate, though. This tells us how much one of our pounds is worth at this moment in time. This rate varies over time. At the moment, against many other world currencies, every one of our pounds is worth… very little! We won’t get much bang for our buck or, more accurately, we won’t get many pesos for our pounds.


In Acts 9:1, God is about to start a process of conversion. Saul, the persecutor of Christians is about to be brought into Christ’s Kingdom. But he has zero value. He is of no use to Jesus as he is. So he is converted. Look at his value now. Useless becomes useful. What an exchange! That would make the news report! In fact, it did. We read in Galatians 1:23. This was ‘the report’ that believers were hearing and rejoicing over – ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’. What a reformation! The persecutor has become the preacher. The inflexible, immovable, rule-rigid Pharisee has been made pliable by the power of God’s mighty hand. Why? Well, as the Lord told Ananias (v.15), ‘This man is my chosen instrument’.


We have previously covered the fact that Saul was a Pharisee, and what the Pharisees were. But we haven’t considered the word, ‘Pharisee’, and what it means. It literally means separated, or set apart. That was how this Jewish sect considered themselves to be. In Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), that I mentioned last time, the Pharisee says these words, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people’. In their minds these ultra-hard-line ‘religious’ believed that they stood out. They weren’t ‘like other people’ – they were better. It was a man-made – invented – separation. They did stand out. Some people were sucked in - they did think that the Pharisees were better. Jesus didn’t, and he regularly challenged their proud arrogance.


Now, though, Saul, the former Pharisee, was to be truly set apart. This was not like before – just in his head – a man-made invention. This was a God-made reality. Saul had a job to do for the Lord and he needed shaping.


Have you ever watched the TV programme, ‘How It’s Made’? It shows how everyday objects are created. Some of these will be instruments of various kinds. I’ve watched an episode filmed at ‘Burgon and Ball’ in Sheffield. They manufacture tools for agriculture including sheep shears. The process started with a sheet of metal, ‘set-apart’ for the creation of this tool. It didn’t end there. First, it needed to go through various processes to make it into the finished product. This included the metal being cut, pressed, shaped, ground and sharpened, heated up to a very high temperature in order to harden it, so that the final cutting edge wouldn’t wear out quickly, before finally being polished and stamped with the maker’s stamp. At the start of the process the metal sheet was useless. I’m not a shepherd, but even I know that nobody shears sheep with a flat metal sheet! However, once re-shaped and finished the ‘chosen instrument’ went far. It was shipped to another country where it was put to good use. What was it used for? Believe it or not – shearing sheep! That was what it had been designed to do.


Saul had to go through a similar process, to make him into the correctly honed ‘instrument’ to carry out God’s task. When did this process take place? Was it done in a moment? Could it all be covered in the ten minutes between advert breaks on ‘How It’s Made’? Well, the truth is extra-ordinary and relevant for our lives.


It would be easy to assume that the re-shaping of Saul took place within the time period detailed in Acts 9 – from his Christian conversion onwards. But I don’t think it was. From that point onwards Saul was indeed conscious of the Lord’s work in him, and in his life, whereas he had been ignorant of it before. But, just because Saul was previously unaware doesn’t change the fact that God was aware, and God was at work.


Galatians 1, which I’ve already quoted this morning, has quite a relationship with Acts 9. It helps to inform us of the time gaps, so that we can better understand the order of later events described in Luke’s concise Acts account. It is also a good place to start in order to consider our current topic. It has Saul’s birth. Saul/Paul, in writing that letter says, in verse 15, ‘God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace…’ Now, I know that some will understand that phrase, ‘set apart’ or ‘separated me from my mother’s womb’, (AV), to refer just to the fact that at birth Saul was literally separated from his mother by the birthing process and consequent cutting of the umbilical cord, which God, whose hand is in all events, oversaw. However, I think it means much more than that and so do others.


One commentary (bibleref.com) says, ‘Paul says he now understands that God set him apart for this role of apostle before he was even born’. And the NLT, which allows greater paraphrasing in order to convey the meaning behind the original words, renders this verse as, ‘even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvellous grace’. Is that what Saul/Paul meant? I think so. And this idea is reinforced when we examine the details of his former life before he meets with Jesus on the Damascus Road and compare those details with the required attributes of the ‘instrument’ which the Lord wanted Saul to be. What type of instrument was in the mind of God when he chose Saul. It is as he told Ananias (v.15), ‘This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’. Saul was to go to diverse people groups to deliver the gospel message. How was he able to do that? It’s all in his origins. He had a diverse background.


Acts 9:11 draws attention to Saul’s background. The Lord’s instruction to Ananias is to go to, ‘a man from Tarsus named Saul’. Tarsus is significant. It was where Saul spent his early, formative, years. What was it is like? Well, it was big! It was the chief city in Cilicia, which is in the eastern part of modern day Turkey and probably had around half a million inhabitants. The great capital city of the empire - Rome - only reached around 1 million at its height. It had getting on for three times the size of population of other cities like Ephesus, Antioch, and Alexandria. It had previously been an important city in the Ancient Greek Empire, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, hundreds of years before. It had become an established centre of learning and philosophy. This continued when it became part of the Roman Empire. It was one of only three such, in effect, university cities under Roman rule. But it wasn’t just the learned that lived there. It was a massive commercial centre on important trade routes. People from across the known world would have lived there. It was a cultural melting pot. At least some of its citizens, including Saul, enjoyed full Roman status, which gave a person a certain legal standing and security and enabled relatively uninhibited travel throughout the empire. Should we find this significant? Well, Saul/Paul did.


There are several places in the Bible where this is apparent. In Acts 21, Saul/Paul is in Jerusalem. What was he doing there? Well, one of the things he was doing was what Tim mentioned last week – he was suffering for the name of Jesus. He was beaten by a mob who ‘were trying to kill him’ because of his Jesus talk. He was rescued by the local leader of the occupying forces - the Roman commander and his soldiers. This passage highlights something else about Saul/Paul - he could speak several languages and to the commander’s surprise talks to him in Greek. He said, ‘I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.’ Paul’s status as a citizen of Tarsus was understood. The commander deferred to Paul and allowed him the opportunity to address the crowd. What did Paul talk about? What he always talked about – Jesus. The account continues into Acts 22, where he tells them about this Damascus Road conversion. His desire was to see them converted.


The Acts 22 account ends with something else significant. Paul uses his Roman status to his advantage. The crowd gets riotous listening to Paul and the commander eventually gets a bit narky. He is losing control of the situation and, in an attempt to regain control, orders that Paul be taken and flogged and interrogated. Paul says to a nearby centurion, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?’ Panic sets in when the commander is told this. ‘The commander himself was alarmed when he realised that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.’ He could have got into a lot of trouble. The situation is defused and, as a result, this gives Paul the opportunity to address the Jewish Sanhedrin with a kind of protected status. This then further leads on towards the end of the book of Acts, with Paul being granted further opportunities to preach Christ Jesus to various leaders, of various people groups, on his way to imprisonment in Rome, where he is awaiting an audience with none other than Emperor Nero, when this book finishes.


And, of course, Saul/Paul was a Jew. Not just any Jew. He was the most religious person that he had ever met (see Philippians 3:4-6) – the most rigorous follower of ‘set-apart’, Pharaseism that you could ever wish for, or not wish for, as the case may be. He had moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem as a lad, in order to continue his education under one of the most pre-eminent teachers of his day. He mentions this when he finally addresses the Sanhedrin in Acts 22:3 – ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors’.


This was ultra-important for the success of his Good News ministry. He knew the Old Testament scriptures like the back of his hand. Once he was converted, he then understood how those scriptures, which outlined the coming of God’s promised Messiah, along with that Messiah’s humble character and ultimate victory through suffering and death, so evidently pointed to Jesus. Acts 9 illustrates this. Here (v.20), Saul immediately starts to ‘preach in the synagogues’. Verse 22 tells us that his arguments had a huge effect. He ‘baffled the Jews living in Damascus’.


I love the world ‘baffled’. It reminds me of when I was seventeen and had my first motorbike. Even though it only had 11 horsepower when new, and over the years a couple of those horses had escaped from their field – even though it could only just reach seventy miles an hour if I laid pan flat on the petrol tank… going down a very steep hill… followed by a gale-force tail wind… I was ‘king of the road’ – ‘set apart’ - in my head at least. It had something called a ‘baffle’. I didn’t really know, or care, what it did. It was at the end of the exhaust pipe. It was held in by one bolt. One day that bolt followed the missing horses and left, followed by the ‘baffle’. Then I knew what it did! Then I cared! So, did the neighbours! The baffle disrupted the gas flow and kept the motorbike relatively quiet. Without it, it didn’t go any faster, but it sure sounded as though it did! Awesome!


That is what Saul did in that synagogue, with his previous Old Testament knowledge and his new knowledge that Jesus was Christ (the Messiah). He put the missing baffles back in! ‘Saul… baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah’. He stopped their gas-flow. He subdued their noise. There was nothing that they could say that could withstand the truth of his arguments. They were totally perplexed. They had no answer.

But perhaps the most crucial piece of Bible evidence of how God’s shaping of Saul/Paul’s early years contributed to the success of his gospel mission, is found in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. His past could now be used positively to serve his Lord and Master for Kingdom growth and gain. He was no longer ‘set-apart’ from others by his own imagined self-righteousness. He was now the ‘Paul’ of Romans 1:1, ‘a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God’. This previously hard-hearted, immovable man, had been made pliable. Useless had become useful.


In 1 Corinthians 9 he speaks of being able to reach non-Jews. His Greek and Roman influences, plus growing up in the cultural melting pot of Tarsus, meant that he knew where those people were coming from in their thinking. It reminds me of Acts 17 where we see the influence of his learning. It gave him the opportunity to discuss Jesus with Greek philosophers in Athens. Paul also mentions, in Corinthians, how he could reach the Jews. He could be ‘like one under the law’ with the greatest of ease. He could identify with free Roman citizens and yet also with slaves, now living a life of service to others himself. He wasn’t his own person anymore – he was just like them. Like those slaves, who were often branded – like those shears from ‘Burgon & Ball’ – Paul’s life was really stamped with his maker’s mark. And, now that his pride had been undone and he was conscious of and not trying to hide his weakness, he could reach those who were struggling themselves. He could ‘become all things to all (kinds of) people’. Why? ‘To win as many as possible’. Paul was made winsome in order to win some - win some what? Minds, hearts, lives… for Jesus, as an instrument in his hand.


None of us are called to be apostles, but Saul/Paul’s example is relevant to all believers. I have said before that our past is irrelevant when we come to Jesus to be saved. But, actually, after conversion, it can be relevant - and useful - as the Lord puts us to work in his service. We live in a broken world. It is full of the effects of sin. The only people that we will reach for Jesus will be broken people – those who have a need. Perhaps our past can help. Perhaps our present struggles can be useful, to help us to identify with others, and them to identify with us. But we’ll have to be exposed. That isn’t easy. Like Paul, we’ll have to become weak in order to win the weakened.


How will we reach people who are weak if we appear never to be so? How will we reach the vulnerable if our guard is always up? How will we reach the unchurched unless we can lose our church clothes and adapt our practised church language, which will be like a foreign language to many others? How will we reach the addict unless we confess our own struggles with addiction? How will we identify with those who are troubled by lust, if we seem above temptation? How will we reach those whose lives are filled with rage, unless we admit to the thin veneer of respectability that covers our own at times? The answer to all those questions is the same – we can’t and we won’t.


When we consider such things, the painful reminders of our own experience, in the past and, all too often, carried by us in the present, it can be really raw. But what light is shined into our darkness by the reach of the Good News. Even the failings and shortcomings of our lives can be used by our Lord for good (as Romans 8:28). If we are pliable in his hand then those things that have shaped our lives – those things that still make us all too human – those things that underline just how previously lost we were, before Jesus stopped us in our tracks – those things can make us more able to identify with those who are lost – adrift from Christ Jesus still.


Brothers and sisters, let us not shy away from God’s revealing light. Let it illuminate the dark corners of our hearts for others to see. It may bring shame to us, but won’t it be worth it if it serves to win some for our Saviour? Then we will know the reality of what Jesus promised in a way which is full and complete.


Jesus said (John 8:12), ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’.

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