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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Strength’s Super Source


"Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” Acts 9:22

Verse 21 tells us that Saul had ‘began to preach in the (Jewish) synagogues that Jesus is the son of God’ and verse 22 tells us that he was ‘proving that Jesus is the Messiah’. It’s rather timely that we have reached this point in Acts at the start of December. Was Saul preaching a Christmas message in what we are told in these verses? After all, what is a ‘Messiah’? Well, it’s derived from the Hebrew word, ‘māšîaḥ’. It comes from the Hebrew language that most of the Old Testament was written in. Now, although the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language of the day, in some of the English translations, including our NIV, we find this Hebrew-derived word, ‘Messiah’ used. It features during the events surrounding the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

In Luke 2:8-20, we have the wonderful account of ‘shepherds living out in the fields near’ to that town. They were ‘keeping watch’ ‘at night’. Part of their job was to spot predators and ward them off. It was a job that had been done in much the same way for millennia. We know this because the bible record of 1 Samuel tells us of events that happened almost exactly a thousand years before. They tell us of a youth named, ‘David’. He used to guard his father’s sheep in these same fields and he had to deal with fierce, frightening, predators, like bears and lions, intent on carrying away the sheep as a tasty snack. We have several youths here today. Put yourself in that situation. Faced with such a threat, what weapon would you take to hand? I suspect that many of us wouldn’t use our hands. We’d use our feet and run faster than we’ve ever run before – ‘Dad can buy some more sheep’ is what we’d think! The youth in 1 Samuel didn’t. He had a warrior type spirit and he had more than that – he had God. He spoke of this when, still a youth, he was given an audience with the King of Israel. That king had the same name as the guy in our reading today. He was also called Saul.

King Saul had a problem – he had a ‘giant’ problem. Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, had challenged them to war, but they had a cunning plan. They were saying, in effect, ‘let’s not have a huge battle, with huge loss of life, and see who the last man standing is – let each side choose their ‘last man standing’ at the beginning. These two men can fight. Whoever wins, their side wins the whole battle and their side will rule over the other’. Why had they suggested this? Because they had a giant of a man in their ranks, called Goliath. He could beat anyone. He was a ‘Marmite’ type character. If you were a Philistine, you loved him. If you were an Israelite, you hated him. Not a single member of Saul’s armed forces was willing to take up this challenge. Not surprising. No-one, expect one, and he wasn’t even a member of the army. It was this young shepherd in 1 Samuel. His older brothers were in the army. He had only gone there that day to bring their ‘snap’, as they say in Yorkshire. He had fetched their sandwiches that day. He volunteered to fight Goliath. What was his reasoning? Was it, ‘I’m big and bold and brave and in my own strength I’ve managed to overcome wild animals in the past – I’m sure I’ll be alright’? No. David wasn’t confident in his own strength. But he was confident in the awesomeness of his God. The Lord had delivered him before. The Lord would deliver him now. David said, ‘The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.’ ‘Saul said to David, ‘Go, and the Lord be with you’’ (1 Samuel 17:37). And the Lord was. Because he always is with his people.

David defeated Goliath and eventually became King of Israel himself. Similar to what we were looking at last time in Acts 9, David was God’s ‘chosen instrument’ for the task of managing the nation of Israel for a period of their history. Like Saul/Paul in the Acts account, his life has been shaped from his birth, so that he was suitable for this task. David’s birthplace, the town of Bethlehem, was named after him.

Hopefully David’s life can be used to illustrate another point that I want to make a little later. But, now, back to Bethlehem and those shepherds in the fields in the Luke account. That night was like no other. They ‘were terrified’. Not because they saw a lion or bear - they saw an angel. ‘But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’

‘He is the Messiah’. Saul, in Acts 9, is delivering the same message as the angel at Bethlehem. That Hebrew derived word means ‘anointed one’ – it’s God’s promised, anointed one. It conveys the idea of someone chosen and anointed to liberate and lead a people group. So, what is the New Testament Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘māšîaḥ’? It is ‘Christos’, which we more regularly translate as ‘Christ’. ‘Jesus Christ’ means the exactly the same thing as, ‘Jesus the Messiah’. He is ‘The Anointed One’ (see Daniel 9:25 & 26 NIV – this is ‘māšîaḥ’) promised by God, and then sent, to deliver a people group – to set them free from the grip of a mighty foe.

That message of the angel may be particularly on our minds at this time of year. Maybe, maybe not. Because Christians have differing opinions on whether we should celebrate Christmas as a kind of festival, and how we should, or should not, do that. Many churches do have a special focus on the birth of Christ at this time of year, perhaps using it as an evangelical opportunity. I think it is wrong to say that they shouldn’t. I think it is also wrong to dictate that they should. It’s the same with Easter time. But, whether or not the themes of Christmas or Easter, and all that surrounds them, are made a point of special attention at special times of the year, they should be a constant theme for Christians. What do I mean? Well, Saul/Paul can help.

Paul, had some very serious words for the church in Galatia, in Galatians 1:6-10. People had introduced a message which was subtly undermining the true Good News message. They were telling those non-Jewish believers that they couldn’t be genuinely saved unless they added some of the Old Testament Jewish practices to their life of faith. It was a perversion of God’s new revelation. It undermined the deliverance that Jesus ‘the Messiah’ had achieved. Paul reminded those believers of the Gospel freedoms they had received when they came to faith. That was the message that he had preached. He warned them to avoid any other religious teaching, even if it came from him or the main church leaders. He said, ‘even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!’ That is serious. Paul was saying, in effect, ‘stop listening to me’ – ‘sack me’ – ‘turn me over to the Lord to judge me’, if I tell you anything that detracts from the full and free deliverance of Christ Jesus. And, I’ll say the same to you. Because, I have a position of privilege standing here, and so does Tim, and I know he will agree with me.

The messages that we bring must have the constant themes of Christmas and Easter. At their foundation, they must be about Christ Jesus, born into this world to save sinners. At their heart, they must be about Jesus, ‘the Messiah’, dying on a cross in order to defeat our greatest enemy - sin - in order to set us free. Everything we exhort you towards, must be based on the fact that Jesus rose again from the dead, never to die again, and on the huge implications of that truth for us. As Hebrews 7:25 says, ‘because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’ Even in front of God’s all-seeing eye, we, as his new people, should have no fear – because Jesus is near - always. If that isn’t what is being preached here then you know what to do. Sack us - hand us over to the Lord - stop listening. Because, whatever we may say, and however we may get your attention, we won’t be bring good things for your souls or truth to your lives.

Saul preached Christmas and Easter in those synagogues. He preached Jesus the Messiah and he preached Jesus the risen Messiah. This wasn’t a message without hope. In verses 20 and 22, he wasn’t telling people about the consequences of an awful mistake. Saul didn’t say, ‘We got it wrong, Jesus was the Messiah – Jesus was the Son of God, but we killed him because we got it all wrong. Now it is all over. He cannot do what God sent him to do’. No. This was a message of abundant hope. In God’s Old Testament promises about the Messiah he had already spoken about how he would be rejected – how he wouldn’t be recognised – how he would suffer – how he would be put to death (see Isaiah 53). In Christ’s death and rising again, lies his victory over sin and its prospect – death and judgement (see Hebrews 9:24-28). Saul wasn’t preaching ‘Jesus was the Son of God’. Read it in those verses. His message was, ‘Jesus is…’ still! - ‘Jesus is the Son of God’. ‘Jesus is the Messiah’.

And Saul, went from strength to strength - literally. Verse 22, which we examined briefly last time, says, ‘Yet Saul grew more and more powerful… proving that Jesus is the Messiah’. What do these things mean? Well, how could he prove that Jesus is the Messiah to these Jews? He did it as God’s ‘chosen instrument’ using God’s wonderful shaping and training. He made use of his Old Testament education. He now pointed to those scriptures and their Messianic details and description and showed what they were describing. They were describing Jesus. Nobody could argue against what Saul was claiming. So convincing was his logic that they were ‘baffled’ – silenced, shut up – not knowing what to do or say. Consequently Saul, ‘grew more and more powerful’. I think this is pointing us to his boldness increasing, despite the opposition that he faced, which is described in verse 23. People couldn’t stop his arguments so they decided to stop him – ‘there was a conspiracy… to kill him’. How could he have found strength in such circumstances?

Well, the Bible, as always, has the answer. I used the word ‘strength’ in place of the NIV’s ‘powerful’. There is a reason for that. In the vast majority of English Bible translations the original Greek word is translated as ‘strength’. Of the 15, I checked, only the NIV and NLT and one other go for ‘more powerful’. All bar one other translate as ‘more strength’ or stronger. Now, I’m not saying that I think the NIV is wrong – after all, ‘more powerful’ and ‘stronger’ mean much the same thing. It’s just that, to think of it terms of ‘strength’ is useful in order to understand where Saul’s ‘strength’ came from in Acts 9. And it is useful, so that we can understand where we, in similar situations, must be looking, in order to be strong and steadfast too.

The original Greek word is ‘endynamoō’. It only appears in six other places in the New Testament. All of those other six are found in the letters of Saul/Paul. And, in the NIV, in all six other instances, it is translated in terms of strength – either as ‘strength’, ‘strong’ or ‘stronger’, depending on the surrounding context. Also, and this is perhaps the important point, in all six cases the source of a believer’s strength is seen within that immediate context. Let’s take a look.

In Romans 4:20, Paul says this about Abraham – ‘… he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God’. In Ephesians 6:10, Paul instructs those believers - ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’. In Philippians 4:13, Paul has been detailing how he could remain contented regardless of his present circumstances. He says, ‘I can do all this…’ We might be thinking, ‘I wish I could!’ Well listen to Paul. He says - and we’ll only be able to say this, if the source of our strength in adversity is the same as his was – ‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength’. The word is then translated as strength/strong three times in Paul’s writings to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul says, ‘I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength’. In 2 Timothy 2:1, he instructs Timothy to ‘be strong’. He doesn’t tell him to ‘be strong because you’ve got to be’. He doesn’t tell him ‘be strong because otherwise everything’s going to go to pot’. What encouragement would that be? That would have just piled the pressure on that young believer. No. Paul tells him to ‘be strong’ because he has reason to be strong. Paul says, ‘be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus’.

Lastly it is used in 2 Timothy 4:12. Tim referred to this recently in his Colossians series. You may remember him speaking about Luke and the time when Paul said, ‘only Luke is with me’. Tim mentioned that, in 2 Timothy, we are also told of a time of persecution when everyone deserted Paul for a time. It is sad reading, and a warning for us. But there is real encouragement there as well. Paul was swallowing a very bitter pill but, even then, he tasted real sweetness. Though ‘everyone deserted’ him, yet ‘the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth’.

Does that remind you of anyone?!! It is almost exactly what David had said over a thousand years before – ‘The Lord… rescued me from the paw of the lion’. Why this similarity? Because the strength of believers must always be in ‘the Lord’. Another two thousand years have passed since Saul/Paul said what he said, but we must say the same. If our strength, as believers, isn’t rooted in our Lord, then we will fail - miserably.

The rest of this section in Acts 9 has some wonderful details about the Lord’s strength and deliverance. Sometimes it will come in the form of being given a greater resolve just when we need it, and it may seem miraculous to us. When we are ‘strengthened in (our) faith’, like Paul says about Abraham, let us make sure that we don’t take glory to our own name. That would be stealing. Let us give ‘glory to God’. It belongs to him.

Sometimes, deliverance will come in other ways – sometimes, in really simple ways. Saul is threatened with death. That is serious. What is God’s solution here, in verse 25? Just a simple basket, and the help of fellow Christians. In verses 26 & 27, Saul finally arrives in Jerusalem and, not surprisingly, considering his past, the believers there are ‘afraid of him’, thinking that this is just a scam so that he can imprison them for their faith? What is the Lord’s solution there? Again, it’s a fellow believer, shaped to be the person God needs him to be. We’ve met him before, in Acts chapter 4. It’s Mr ‘Encouragement’ himself, that faithful disciple called Barnabas who speaks on Saul’s behalf and makes things right.

Then in verses 29 & 30, when Saul’s life is again threatened, what is the solution? Again, it is ‘the believers’ – other Christians who act in that moment and take charge and make the correct decision for the apostle. That’s three instances in just a handful of verses where the Lord’s solution is found within his people, and the help that they can offer in time of need. And, I’ll tell you something else – very, very often, that is the Lord’s solution. When we are in need – when we need strength – tell a brother or sister in Christ. You may be amazed at how much is solved by doing something so seemingly simple.

And so we reach the end of this first section about Saul/Paul. We read of the wider church movement in verse 31, and how they then enjoyed a period of peace and strength – of building up. The last thing we are told about the church, here, is that it ‘increased in numbers’. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that this was due to the relative ease that it then enjoyed. But that would be wrong. That would go against what we considered back in Acts 8, where the church experienced scattering, and exile, because of bitter persecution. At that time, the church also increased. Why? For the same reason as here – believers found strength in the Lord and were faithful. The reason is here in the text – ‘living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers’.

How will Riverside increase in numbers in future? In the same way. Only, if we are, ‘living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit’. So, whether it’s Christmas or Easter, or other times of the year, let us make sure that what we are listening to has the truth of Christmas, and the truth of Easter, at its centre. Then we will be encouraged in ChristJesus. And may we ‘be strong’, in the way that Paul instructed believers, in Ephesians 6:10, so long ago – ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’.


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