“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23)
We’ve talked about a lot of contrasts over the past weeks as we’ve been covering the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: flesh and spirit, foolishness and wisdom, maturity and immaturity. These contrasts, which are found all over scripture, help us process our life today so that we can be more clear about our life today and our eternal destination.
- Romans 5 forces us to ask if we are “in Christ” or “in Adam”.
- As we saw last week, 1 John forces us to ask ourselves if we are walking in the light of God’s love as it overflows from us to others, or walking in the darkness of hatred.
- Ephesians 4 asks believers to evaluate themselves by asking if they are living as the “old man” we used to be before we knew Jesus or the “new man” we are now because we have been born again in His name.
- God asks us if we are acting as children of God (John 1:12) or
- children of the devil (Matthew 13:38, Eph 5:6),
- friends of the world or friends of God (James 4:4),
- as people who know they have a great inheritance waiting for them or as those who won’t inherit anything (1 Cor 6:9, Rom 8:17).
- We see the contrast between sinner and saint,
- righteous and unrighteous,
- lost and found,
- godly and ungodly,
- alienated and reconciled,
- cast out and chosen,
- cursed and accepted,
- guilty and forgiven,
- defiled and cleansed – and the list goes on. (Source: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/scrptcont.html)
I believe God gives us these contrasts for a purpose – to remind us that in the end there really will be a final, stark, uncompromising division of humanity. There will be the saved and the unsaved, the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats, those who live in eternal life and those who live in eternal death, those who experience everlasting paradise and those who experience everlasting hell.
There won’t be a mushy-middle when it comes to eternity, and so, I believe God gives us these contrasts so that we can evaluate ourselves in light of them. Is my life characterized by wisdom of folly? Is this decision driven by my fleshly temptations or my spiritual maturity? Am I acting like an immature child right now or as a mature adult? Who do I see myself as? Where is my identity? What has God said about me? Where am I going?
These questions call us to introspection, which is exactly what I believe Paul is calling the Corinthians – and by extension us – to in our passage today.
My Dual Personalities
I was forced to do a little introspection over the past couple weeks. A little while ago someone told me that they were having a conversation about me and the person said something interesting. They said that they like me when I’m at their house or outside the church, but that I become a different person when I’m preaching. They like normal Al, but they don’t like preacher Al.
And it caused me pause for the last little while. I don’t ever want to be a hypocrite – saying one thing and doing another. Nor do I want to be some double-minded, dual-personality pretender who is a totally different person depending on where He is. If the true test of a man’s character is what they do when no one is watching, then surely there must be something to trying to be different people depending on where I am and who is around, right?
So, I’ve been chewing on that for a little while and have come up with my own little conclusion about why it might seem like I have dual personalities. I think it’s because I’ve made a commitment to myself to take serious things serious and not-serious things not-serious. My sense of humour is pretty situational and kind of goofy – sort of an acquired taste, if you will – and it’s gotten me in trouble a few times. Plus, I struggle with pride. So, since I’m trying to honour God and not draw attention to myself but Him, I tend to leave my personal side-comments out of my sermons. It’s not that they’re not rolling around up in my grey matter, it’s that I don’t let them out very often.
Is that being hypocritical or two-faced? I don’t think so, and I hope not. I’m just the kind of guy that will, in the same night, read a biography of a 16th century preacher, and then lie in bed watching the newest episodes of My Little Pony. I’m all of that, all at once, so I don’t think I’m a hypocrite when I choose to emphasize one or the other – but here’s the problem. I can’t be sure. That person may be more right than I want them to be. Why? Because no one can fool me like I can.
The first thing that God says through Paul here, as he closes this section of the letter to move on to the next is this: “Let no one deceive himself.” Another translation says, “Don’t fool yourselves”. There’s no deceit like self-deceit is there? I can do all the introspection I want, but if it is not informed by an outside eye like my wife, my kids, a Christian friend, or God’s Word and God’s Spirit, then I could easily be fooling myself.
So what was happening that caused God to tell Paul to write that? What were they deceiving themselves about? You likely already know by now if you’ve been following along. They thought they were wise, but they were actually fools. They had given up Godly wisdom for worldly wisdom and believed themselves to be something they weren’t.
Here’s what was happening: There was a man named Apollos who was a popular preacher who toured around the great cities of the ancient world. Before he met Jesus he was already an eloquent and powerful speaker who was greatly learned in the Jewish scriptures. He had heard about Jesus being the messiah and, even though he had never met Jesus personally, had been teaching that to people – but he had some holes in his knowledge. In his travels he met a couple named Priscilla and Aquila who were attending Pauls’ church in Corinth. They worked to fill in what Apollos didn’t know and Apollos rose quickly to becoming an even more powerful and popular teacher in the area.
He was the Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, John MacArthur, or Rick Warren of his day. Huge crowds followed him and that meant that there were a lot of people who were envious of him. They wanted what he had. They saw men like Paul and Apollos and wanted to copy them so they could have their influence. So they would attend all their talks, learned what they learned, even mimicked their way of speaking in hopes of gaining a following like theirs.
But what they didn’t copy was their godliness, humility, love and prayerfulness. They saw what they were on stage and copied that, but didn’t see all the blood, sweat, tears, study, pacing, and prayers that went into each sermon. They wanted their abilities and audiences. They wanted to be seen as wise, smart, clever, popular, and fashionable, but they didn’t want to do the time in their prayer closets. They wanted the fruit of godliness without suffering, the influence without the dependence on God, the benefits of discipleship without actually following Jesus.
Doing the Work
One time someone came over to my and saw my devotional bible – which is almost destroyed, has no cover, is covered in tape, stains, highlights and pencil marks – and asked me how they can get one that looks just like it. My answer was, “Go buy a new one and read it for 20 years.” He wanted the look of a person who had studied his bible for years and years, without actually having to read it.
We have a lot of things like that around us. You can go to the store right now and buy pre-worn, pre-wrecked, clothes. New, vintage clothes. They’re brand-new, but the t-shirt logo is mostly gone, the sweater has holes, and the jeans look like they’ve been through a warzone. Now, I grew up in the 90’s when grunge was just coming around, so I have a soft spot for that style, but back then we had to borrow our dad’s old, messed up work clothes and concert t-shirts to get that kind of look. Now, you can by vintage things brand new.
You can go to antique stores and buy new antiques too. People make perfectly good boxes, dressers, shelves, and floors, and then beat the heck out of them with chains. They call it “destressing” or “antiquing”. The look of an expensive, old, full of character, piece of furniture, without having to wait 100 years to get it.
That’s just clothes and woodwork, but people do that with their lives too. They want the look of having character, but don’t want to do the work it takes to develop it. They want the look of being wise and godly, but don’t actually want to go through repentance, mortification of sin, study, prayer, and spiritual disciplines required to actually become wise and godly.
This passage is a warning against that! Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself.” Who is he talking about? The person who thinks they possess profound insights about God and the universe, when in fact they have no relationship with Him whatsoever. The person who thinks they have the meaning of life all figured out, without factoring God into the equation. The person who lies to themselves about who they are, who God is, and why they exist.
The self-deceived ones who try to explain the deepest questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where did we come from? Where are we all going? What is most important?) by themselves, coming up with answers that make sense to them. These people may have great knowledge and abilities, but they remain ignorant of reality. They may say things that make sense to them, and are agreed upon by other big-talkers, but end up being utterly devoid of either wisdom or truth.
We are enveloped by this stuff today. It’s extremely popular, especially among the intellectual elites today, to come up with insanely bizarre explanations for the origins of the universe. They actually have meetings and conventions to talk about them.
Recently, a bunch of high-profile scientists and philosophers got together to debate whether or not the universe is actually real or if we are all living in a vast computer simulation. Popular scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, went on record saying that he puts the odds at 50-50 that we are all basically living in the Matrix; a program running on some super-being’s hard drive. And he was serious! (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-we-living-in-a-computer-simulation/)
Weirdly, while he’s fine with the idea of our reality just being a huge computer program, and promotes a Super-String theory that states that at the sub-atomic level we are able to see self-correcting computer code, he also mocks any religion who believes that there is a God who created everything and sustains it by His will. And that contradiction makes perfect sense to anyone who follows him.
These worldly wisemen look at Christian teachers who don’t have their level of speaking abilities or scholastic degrees, and think them to be fools who preach ridiculous, unscientific garbage. And then have the audacity to grab a microphone and blather on about theories about simulated universes on alien computers – which might sound like science, but is actually total mysticism! You cannot test it, study it, or prove it, but that doesn’t stop physicists from talking about it. They generate a lot of heat, a lot of words, a lot of headlines – but absolutely no light.
This is the type of people, and those who think like them, that are being addressed in this scripture. The worldly-wise who are actually fools. They mock the truth and promote utter folly. And God says here that eventually, it will catch up with them. God “catches the wise in their craftiness” and “knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile”. The “wise” here aren’t the ones living with godly wisdom, but human, worldly wisdom that will invariably be proven to be total garbage. People who believe their theories to be clever, but are ultimately devoid of meaning.
What do they gain by doing this? Why concoct the lie and work so hard to believe it? Simple: freedom from the constraints of a moral God. Everyone – everyone – needs to answer the big questions about their existence and purpose and final destination, but not everyone wants an answer that includes a moral God who requires their worship and obedience. And so they grab on to anything else that gives their universe meaning.
They are the masters of self-deception and they do all they can to suck people into the lies they tell themselves. Atheist apologist, Lawrence Krauss, who actually won the Atheist of the Year Award this year, said this:
“I can’t say for certain there is no God, but I can certainly say I wouldn’t want to live in a universe with one.” (https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/new-atheists-dont-want-to-believe/)
Another atheist, and Professor at NYU, Thomas Nagel, once famously said:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/57677.Thomas_Nagel)
What a strange and ironic mingling of self-awareness and self-deception. But God promises, here and throughout scripture, that in the end their worldly wisdom will be shown for what it is and that the futility of their thinking will be exposed.
People are Masterful Self-Deceivers
Let me close with this: God gives us some stark categories that give us some tools to help us look inside and be honest with ourselves and Him – but doing that it requires a lot of humility and effort.
Which is why people are such masterful self-deceivers. It’s easier to lie to ourselves and concoct our own reality than submit ourselves to the truth. This week, my challenge to you is to look deep within to find the places where you have accepted the world’s wisdom and exchanged God’s truth for a more pleasurable lie.
Ask yourself how you have been lying to yourself, and others, about who you really are. In what ways are you like that pre-worn shirt and ripped pants, faking your character, but not doing the work of building real character.
In prayer this week, ask God to show you your true self. What does He see? It doesn’t matter how you present yourself? All that matters is who you really are. Your reputation with the people around you isn’t as important as you think it is – what’s important is your integrity and your reputation with God.
I watched a little Francis Chan clip this week where he used a great illustration, and I’ll use this to close: Imagine if I interviewed all the people closest to you – your friends, spouse, kids, parents, coworkers – and asked them to tell me about you. What would they say? Now imagine that I could do the same thing with God. What if I could come before the throne of God and ask Him what you are like. “What’s he/she like, Lord? What are your thoughts about them, their actions, their motives, their thought life, their love for you? What’s are they really like?” What would He say?
What would the two reports look like? Would what your friends and family and coworkers say about you be much higher than what God would say? Is it possible that you’ve been far more concerned about your reputation than you are about your character?
I would add this. What if I were to sit down and ask you who you are? Tell me about yourself. Would that report look like what God sees, or are you deceiving yourself about who you really are? Have you created a crafty, futile, foolish self-identity, formed to fool even yourself about who you are? Why?
Chan closes with this: “There is such a silliness to faking it when something so big is on the line. Why would you fake it? Take it to the very end. You’ve fooled everybody!… And so you die, and you go to hell… and you think, ‘Yeah, but everyone thinks I’m in heaven!’ That’s your goal?! How long is that joy going to last? It’s time to get honest.”
It is silly to try to fool yourself and everyone else about who you really are, because God already knows and you can’t fool him. So why bother trying to fool anyone else?
There are a lot of illustrations that God uses to describe His people. Jesus and Paul, likely because they lived in an agricultural culture, often used natural illustrations. In John 15, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, God is the gardener who prunes and strengthens the branches, or burns the fruitless ones. In the parable of the four soils, Jesus compared our hearts to hard or soft soil that God was sprinkling the seeds of His Word on (Matthew 13). In Matthew 13 the gospel and believers are likened to yeast that works itself through a whole batch of dough – becoming an unseen force that changes the composition of the whole loaf. In Matthew 5 Jesus calls His followers salt and light – forces of good, preservers of life, enhancing the flavour of the world, spreading the truth for all to see. Jesus calls us a city on a hill, a net full of fish, a field of wheat mixed with weeds, a group of children, a flock of sheep, innocent doves and crafty serpents.
When Paul is teaching about how Christians can be very different but still work together, he tells us we are like different parts of a human body, and Jesus is the head (1 Cor 12). When talking about new believers he calls us babies who need milk. When we are more mature and able to wrestle with more difficult spiritual things, we are like adults chewing a tough piece of meat. When talking about the spiritual war going on around us, we are soldiers, strapping on the armor of God and preparing for battle (Eph 6). When the church is praying or singing, we are like priests who burn incense that rises to the heavens (Rev 5:8, 8:-4).
Each of these illustrations (and there are many more) are meant to help us understand the many different sides of what it means to follow God and live in this world.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked what it’s like to be a Christian or what it’s like to follow God, but it’s not an easy answer. “Well,”, you say, “sometimes I feel like a baby who has no idea what they are doing, but just trusting their father to take care of me. Other times I feel like a tool in the hands of a carpenter, being used to do amazing things I could never do on my own. Other times I feel like being a piece of clay spinning in the hands of a potter, where He’s gently but firmly moulding me into something new. Other times being a Christian feels like I’m a battle-hardened warrior, hurting, bleeding, covered in cuts and bruises, but standing once again to take on the enemy because I love my King and my Kingdom. Being a Christian also feels like being part of a huge family of people that you love but have never met – while at the same time, once God gets a hold of your heart, it’s like the whole world has flipped upside down and you now live in a foreign land full of strange customs that you waver between finding tantalizing, disgusting and incomprehensible. Sometimes I’m on the mountain shouting praise, other times I’m resting by still waters, and then there are times when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then I would imagine that you’ve felt at least some of that, and you can appreciate why the Bible is so full of varied illustrations describing a believer’s experience.
Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and let’s read two more illustrations that Paul gives to explain how to live the Christian life. We’ll start at verse 1 again so we can get the context:
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”
That’s where we left off last week. Let’s keep reading:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
The Format of Paul’s Letter
First, and as always, we need to remember the context. The Corinthian church had some maturity issues and God told Paul to write a letter to them explaining some things to them. Paul had planted the church during his second missionary journey, had been their pastor for a year and half but had gone on to plant other churches. He wrote this letter from Ephesus during his third missionary journey, after getting reports from a bunch of people that things in Corinth weren’t going very well. In fact, the whole letter is written in response to those reports, and to answer the questions that a delegation from Corinth had brought to him.
Chapters 1-4 address the first, and most pressing problem, that being the divisions that had cropped up in the church. You see that in 1:11 where Paul says, “it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.” So Paul takes the first part to address that problem. Then in chapter 5 the next section starts with addressing another report Paul has received: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” and Paul takes two chapters to deal with that issue.
Then, starting in chapter 7 we see a list of “now concernings” where Paul addresses the questions the delegation brought him. In 7:1 we read, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:” and Paul answers their questions about marriage. In 7:25, he says, “Now concerning the betrothed…” and answers questions about unmarried people. In 8:1 he says, “Now concerning food offered to idols…”, in 12:1 we read “Now concerning spiritual gifts…”, in 16:1 we read, “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” and in 16:12 we read, “Now concerning our brother Apollos…”
Paul is writing a letter to a group of Christians that shows concern for their spiritual health, condemnation of their reputation for sin, and then gives counsel about how they need to alter their understanding and their behaviour to become more in line with what God wants them to do. And this ties right into Paul’s illustrations in chapter 3.
To build the foundation of the rest of the letter, Paul wants to make sure that they understand two very important things: First, they need to understand the truth of the gospel, which they had forgotten. So he reminds them in 1:30 that “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” isn’t found anywhere else other than in Jesus Christ. He reminds them that the human wisdom they’ve been listening to is foolish, and that all that they require to be right with God has been done through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They don’t need any more special knowledge, or crazy experiences, or demonstrations of power, or anything else. Their salvation is by their faith in Jesus Christ. Period. In other words, God has done all the work.
Which is why what Chloe’s people says they are doing bugs him so much. The church wasn’t full of the love of God, but instead was full of strife and jealousy, splitting into factions, and putting their favourite preacher up as their de facto leader. A servant of God doesn’t want any of that. It breaks God’s heart and a Christian’s heart to see people divided. But to hear that they are using your name as a point of division would be even more painful.
Little side-bar here. God hates it when his people are divided. Literally hates it. Listen to these words from Proverbs 6:16-19,
“There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
In light of that, what do you think he felt about this discord ridden, strife-filled church, full of people who were abusing one another? He hated it. And so did Paul. God really hates it when His people can’t get along because it is then that they are most unlike Him and are actually playing into the hands of the Enemy.
And so Paul, to remind them that dividing into factions over their favourite preacher was sinful and ridiculous and then says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
His point is that humans, even amazing ones like Paul or Apollos, are a just tiny, miniscule, little parts of accomplishing God’s will for the world. What is Paul? A servant, a worker; that’s it.
Paul’s first, brief, illustration is that the church is like a field and Paul and Apollos are just field hands. God tells them where to go, gives them the tools to dig, gives them the seed, and then causes the rain to fall, the sun to shine, and the seed to grow. It is ridiculous to try to elevate any preacher or teacher, no matter how gifted, to any kind of level, because their contribution to the church is negligible compared to the work of God. Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Paul and Apollos were all merely farm hands.
Each of these men were sinners who God chose to use for a time, not because of their ability, but despite their disabilities. More often than not, their great abilities actually became a problem for them!
- Billy Graham was born in the Southern US, a hard-core American, who was reluctant to get saved and wasn’t much for public speaking, but God called him anyway.
- Charles Spurgeon was a British man who was a gifted speaker, but was often in physical agony and suffered crippling depression, sometimes barely able to stand in the pulpit because of the weight on his heart and the pain in his body, but God used him anyway.
- John Calvin was from France, and by all accounts I’ve read, was a super-intellectual hermit who loved books way more than people (and was kind of a jerk), but opened his heart to God and God used him anyway. More than once people had to convince, cajole and even threaten Calvin just to get him to leave his books and obey God’s call to preach.
- Martin Luther was a foul mouthed, blue-collar, superstitious, German, with no understanding of the Gospel, who only decided to become a monk because he was almost hit by lightning, but one day God opened his eyes to see salvation is by grace through faith alone, and though he struggled with his many personality weaknesses for his whole life, God used him anyway.
- The Apostle Paul was a Christian killer before he met Jesus.
All these men, regardless of how different they and their contexts were, had two things in common: 1. God called them to work His fields and 2. They knew that it was God who gives the growth.
Paul is adamant (and if you read any of the biographies of these great, Christian men, so are they) that they are responsible for very little of the success of their ministries. In fact, it usually came by total surprise – and sometimes, despite their terrible failures. And because of this, they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that whatever good they had done in their lives was solely attributed to the work of God.
Sure, they sowed some seed by preaching the gospel, and watered by teaching the people the Bible – they are “God’s fellow workers” in that way – but it is God who really did all the work, not them. And what’s amazing is that God is still going to give them the “wages according to their labour”. Even though they have no power over the growth, maturity or harvest, if they have done the work faithfully, they will receive their reward. That’s an amazing grace.
No Magic Formula
Here’s the thing: There is no magic formula you can use to cause someone to get saved, grow in maturity, or grow a church.
There’s no magic words you can say to a non-Christian or backslidden child, spouse, parent, or friend that will suddenly make them want to put down their sin and turn to Jesus. I know this is a struggle for some of you. You have a friend, family member, or work mate that you feel drawn to share your faith with, that you want to see in the kingdom, that you know needs God’s grace – but they won’t receive it.
And you blame yourself. You think, “If only I had the right words… more answers… knew more about the Bible… had a better testimony… shared it differently… then they’d be saved by now. If I was part of a cooler church or acted a little cooler, or knew more cool shows, then they would listen to me. If I was way more holy and less sinful, had less temptations, fasted more, prayed more, studied more, then they would turn their life over to Jesus.”
You think that the reason that they aren’t Christian is your fault – and that’s just not true. There is no magic words or perfect system that will change someone’s heart. It is God who gives the growth, not you.
In the same way, there is no magic formula, no perfect system, no mystical biblical secret to growing a church or church minstry. It’s not about how comfortable the chairs are, whether the music is great, the sound system rocks and the visuals are stimulating. A church with a gym or classrooms or coffee shop or bookstore may get some folks through the door, but it won’t guarantee that anyone becomes a follower of Jesus.
All the things we try at this church, from the welcome bags to the website to the bbq’s and coffee time and small groups are fine, but they aren’t a guarantee our church will grow or that the people within it will become more mature believers.
I can preach all day long, the deacons can build you the nicest building in the world, the coffee can be the tastiest ever, and the band could win awards – and it won’t mean anything unless God gives the growth.
Ask any farmer how much power they have over their land. They can choose the best seed, but they can’t make it rain. They can buy fancy irrigation systems, but they can’t make the weather warm. They can build greenhouses, buy a water system, and control the climate, but they can’t make a bad seed grow a good plant.
And even if they get everything right – seed, water, soil, temperature, sunlight, protection from bugs and blight – they still can’t make the plant grow. All they can do is create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow. God still brings the growth.
God’s Fellow Workers
So, that being said, we are still “God’s fellow workers”. Just because God does the work of saving and growing people, doesn’t mean we are abdicated from our responsibilities as a worker. Every single believer here today has been given the great commission to “go… and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18), to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), to be God’s “witnesses… to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
We have been told to scatter our seed far and wide. For some that means telling people with your words because you are evangelists. For others, this means living such a life that others see it in you and want to know what you have. Listen to the words of Peter to wives with unbelieving husbands, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Peter 3:1-2) “Won without a word…”
Sometimes sowing seed means talking, other times it means influencing people by your conduct. As a church we need to do a better job of sowing seeds in both these ways – not through fancy outreach programs or rearranging the furniture, but through personal evangelism, sharing our individual stories, and being more careful with our conduct.
God doesn’t just call us to sow seeds, but also to water them. In other words, we need to be diligent to do all we can to – as I said before – create the environment or the conditions in which a plant should grow.
This means you are careful to make sure you, your spouse and your children, have time to read the bible, pray, and serve within their giftings. It means encouraging them to connect with God the ways in which they meet God best – not just ways that work for you.
This this means you create a home environment that has the conditions to help everyone who lives there to grow in faith, love and obedience to God. This doesn’t just mean hanging cute posters on the walls and saying grace before meals, but, that every part of your home is turned over to God. Your TV, internet, movies, games, conversations, your daily schedule and weekly calendar, everything.
Look how Deuteronomy 6:4-9 tells the people of God to remind their families about following God:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Every part of their lives was to be saturated with the presence of God.
This also means allowing your spiritual authorities to guide you (parents if you are a kid or your church elders if you are an adult), submitting to their authority as it reflects scripture. When they set a boundary, work to live within it. When they challenge you, do your best to face it.
Let me conclude with this: We can’t make anyone grow, but we can work as God’s servants to spread seed and create the conditions by which someone can grow. God allows us to work with Him on that.So evaluate your heart.
- Are you fulfilling the mission God has given you in your daily life to spread seed and water those God has given you? If not, then ask forgiveness and ask God what ways he wants you to spread seed – with words and without words.
- Also, are you feeling unnecessary guilt because the person you are talking to about the faith isn’t saved? Let God be the one who gives the growth. Release control to God and accept that all you can do is love that person like God does.
- Also, evaluate your home. Is it an environment that builds up the faith of those who live there or a field full of spiritual landmines just waiting to be stepped on?
- Do you have hidden things you hope no one finds?
- Are your conversations godly?
- Are you working hard to build proper priorities into your home?
- Do you have a high standard of godliness?
- Or, is your home a bastion of false religion?
- Do you embrace the joy of the Lord, and all the freedoms He has given you, or are you teaching those in your home how to follow rules, but not build relationships?
Spectacle over Substance
Our North American society, including the Christian church, tends to overvalue style, spectacle, and cleverness in not only our educators but also our teachers, preachers and authority figures. What a person may lack in knowledge, character, understanding, wisdom and kindness, they can more than make up for in how they look, their showmanship, and their ability to turn a phrase. A person’s abilities, intelligence, and giftedness don’t seem to matter nearly as much as their appearance, willingness to adapt, and overall marketability.
It’s a strange thing that hundreds of experts who have devoted their life to studying a certain subject, can agree on something and no one will listen – but if a famous actor or athlete talks about it, then suddenly their opinion is not only registered as valid, but important and worthy of being repeated in news outlets all over the world.
It happens all the time when news programs bring actors, comedians, and athletes on to talk about everything from nutrition to politics to religion. When Justin Bieber does an interview about his music, for some reason they also ask him his opinion on geopolitics and social issues. Gwyneth Paltrow once introduced the President of the United States by commenting on how handsome he is and wishing that he could have the unilateral power to do whatever he wants. And social media makes it even worse. Lindsay Lohan tweets her solution to the Middle East crisis, and it’s retweeted by hundreds. Chris Brown told 16 million people that he thinks the “Ebola epidemic is a form of population control” and it’s retweeted by tens of thousands.
And the line gets even fuzzier as many so-called scientists and experts get corrupted as they try to become celebrities. Maybe they feel like they aren’t listened to, so they alter their message or pursue popular and obscure topics that will get them the attention they so crave. Think of Dr. Oz who used to be a real doctor, but is now a television personality that hocks products and spouts wrong information. Or the countless experts and teachers who were corrupted into lying by the promise of big-business money and political power. Or the psychologists and counsellors who have allowed truly mentally ill people to think they are healthy because they have bent to political pressure, want to be on the “right side of history”, or want their name to be first on a unique paper.
Yes, I understand that one of the joys of the internet is that everyone can register their opinion on anything at any time. We can post pictures of our breakfast with as much ease and impunity as we can tell everyone our solution to climate change and what we think about Justin Trudeau’s political strategies. I’m not saying that’s terrible. It’s great to have a forum where the whole world can talk to one another.
The problem is that our celebrity-obsessed culture is making these the voices that shape our worldview. These people, who are dripping with charisma, style, and pseudo-intelligence, have a greater voice than any of the wise, knowledgeable, humble and thoughtful people who actually should be listened to.
More and more people, especially people younger than me, live in a world of tweets, sound bites, cartoons and memes that seem to have the magical ability to boil an incredibly complex issue like climate change, zoology, parenting, religion, terrorism, relationships, sex, politics or a thousand other things into one picture and an easy to digest sentence. And if it seems right to us, we’ll grab onto it, believe it and repeat it to others. These voices are steering what a generation of people believe about incredibly important and complex issues, and it is dangerous spiritually, emotionally, relationally, politically, and every other way, to gain your information from sources that value celebrity and style over truth and substance.
Not that this is anything new. Choosing the wrong voice to listen to because they sound convincing and telling us what we want to hear has been an issue for humans since the Garden of Eden! And if you remember back to when we talked about the context of 1st Corinthians, you’ll remember that this was an issue for Paul’s ministry too.
He was a man that was not only educated as a great Jewish scholar but was also trained in the Greek educational system too. He was a talented guy who was not only a skilled tradesman, but had memorized the whole Bible, had studied it for years, and was also well versed Greek philosophy. When he came into Greece as a missionary, he had an amazing amount of information, and the skill to share it, with those who were looking for new knowledge and divine wisdom.
And yet, over and over he was mocked and dismissed as a fool. Why? Because instead of playing to what the crowds wanted to hear with long, clever speeches full of fancy quotes and floury language, Paul stuck to the simple truths of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. He had the ability, but he staunchly refused to stylize his teaching. He refused to dilute the message by becoming a spectacle. He refused to cloud the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ with a bunch of clever showmanship.
Why? Wouldn’t that have helped? Wouldn’t he have gotten more listeners if he would have been a bit more marketable? Maybe, but he didn’t want anyone walking away from his preaching and remember him. He only wanted his listeners to remember what he had said about Jesus. He knew that the Greek people struggled with the same thing we do today: celebrity worship. When they went home they would be talking just as much about how interesting, exciting, and passionate their favourite speaker was as they would about the substance of what they learned – maybe more. “I have no idea what he said, but wow, was he an entertaining speaker!” was not a review that Paul wanted to get.
Too many Bible teachers get this confused, and too many Christians do this with their favourite preachers today. They find a person that looks good, sounds interesting, has lots of charisma, and says things that they agree with, and then decide to follow them. The truthfulness of the message comes second to the personality behind the microphone.
Listen to what Paul says to the Corinthian church. Open to 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see, they had forgotten the message they had heard and believed, and had slipped into celebrity worship. It wasn’t Paul’s or Apollos’ or Cephas’ (which is Peter’s) fault that this happened. It was the natural state of the Corinthians to elevate the teacher over the message. “Paul was the one who planted our church and spent time with us, so he’s my favourite we should all follow him.”, some would say. “Well, Peter is the leader of all the Apostles, plus he’s the one who gave the first sermon in Jerusalem at Pentecost, so we should listen to him.”, others would argue. “Well, Apollos is one of the greatest preachers of all time! His eloquence and speaking ability is unmatched by anyone! Everyone loves him and the crowds come running whenever he’s in town. We should all follow him!”, others would say.
Meanwhile, Paul, Peter, and Apollos are each getting more and more frustrated with this church because none of them want this kind of attention! They are trying to put the spotlight on Jesus, and the crowd keeps trying to put the spotlight on them.
Sounds like what happens in the church today, doesn’t it? I’m a John MacArthur guy! I like Rick Warren! I’m all about John Piper! TD Jakes! Franklin Graham! John Hagee! Francis Chan! Joyce Meyer!
But in the church it gets even crazier because we don’t just idolize people that are alive, but those who have died a long time ago – and then we stick their names on our churches! Of course, you have churches dedicated to St. Peter, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Paul… but also Calvinist churches named after John Calvin, Lutheran churches named after Martin Luther, Arminian churches named after Jacobus Arminius… and the list goes on. We seem to love finding a favourite Christian, glomming onto them, and then arguing with other believers on their behalf. Paul is better than Peter! Luther is better than Calvin!
All this celebrity worship divided the Corinthian church into sects that not only argued with one another but ended up working against each other. It got to the point that they wouldn’t even eat together anymore. We’re not even talking about differences in theology, we’re merely talking about preferring one teacher over another! And it divides churches today too.
Look at verse 14 and see what Paul says next. He says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is actually thankful that he spent so much time preaching and teaching that there were not many people in the church who can claim to be in his “official fan club” because they were baptized by him. That kind of thinking is a sign of a sick soul and a sick church, and he wanted no part of it. Why? Because when the focus is on the teacher, or the religious act, the focus is no longer on the worship of God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and obedience to His Word. Instead, people start talking about the person who is leading the worship, preaching the sermon, and teaching the Bible. And that, in short, is idol worship.
Now, there are lots of places we could go from here. I could go on a rant against the health and wealth preachers who put on a great show, attract thousands of followers, but are actually preaching a false gospel. I could talk about how some Christian pastors have been corrupted by their pursuit of fame and deny the fundamental tenets of the faith so they gain a bigger audience. I could get into how many churches have split because of their dedication to secondary and tertiary issues, forgetting about their unity in Christ. I could explain a bunch of ways that famous theologians have differed with one another and how the church dealt with those issues. I could even take a tour of how the Roman Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel and fallen into the trap of elevating human teaching to the level of scripture.
And I would enjoy talking about all of those topics. But, here’s where I think God wants me to go today, because I think all of us need to hear it – me included:
Emptying the Cross of its Power
There’s an important phrase that Paul uses at the end of this section that explains the problem with creating a cult of personality, worshipping celebrities, or simply getting our eyes off of God and onto the one who is delivering the message – and it’s found in verse 17.
Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Paul is clearly not against baptism. He knows how important baptism is, that it was commanded by the Lord Jesus, and actually takes time in many of his letters, including First Corinthians, to explain how it connects us to the gospel of Jesus and to one another.
And Paul is not against “eloquent wisdom”. Proverbs 3:13 says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.” Whole books of the Bible are dedicated to wisdom! Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are often called “wisdom literature”. So there’s no way Paul is against speaking and pursuing wisdom.
So what is Paul saying here? He is saying that this church had gotten their priorities out of whack and were placing too much emphasis on the means and modes of their religion, and all the good things that come as a result, and had forgotten the core of what their faith was supposed to be all about.
They argued about baptism but forgot about what it meant, the story it told, the obedience it showed, and the community it made them a part of. They would argue about which preacher was best, but not discuss the truth they were sharing. They would perform and celebrate the rituals and rights of the church, like taking the Lord’s Supper, but had forgotten their meaning. They would come to church seeking more knowledge, but weren’t using that knowledge to better their relationship with Jesus. They would have grand discussions about theological things, but their hearts were growing cold towards God. And in all of their religious passion for wisdom, they had forgotten the message of the gospel, the power of the cross, and their desperate need for the presence of God in their lives.
In their very short Christian lives, they had gone from overwhelmed by how God had called them to be followers of Jesus who were freed from the consequence of their sins to religious people who came to church, but didn’t think much about Jesus. They were happy as long as the speaker was interesting enough, the spectacle was exciting enough, and they could go about their week knowing they were better than all those around them because they were Christians.
Everything about Paul’s ministry and preaching spoke against that. Wisdom and learning were incredibly important to both the Jews and the Greeks, so it was easy for them to slide into thinking that it was most interesting preachers that were best to listen to. And yet Paul didn’t play that game.
Remember how exhausted he was when he first came to town? He didn’t have anything left other than the core of the gospel and whatever power the Holy Spirit would give him. He was utterly dependent on God for whatever he was going to say, and whatever God wanted to do. Even if he had wanted to use them, he had no strength left to come up with clever illustrations and fancy, philosophical arguments.
Turn the page and look at the beginning of chapter 2 where he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
You see, that’s the difference. When the message of the gospel “rests on the wisdom of men”, or is framed so it sounds like “plausible words”, or is filled with “lofty speech”, it is drained of its power.
For me, as a preacher, the more I want you to see me, the less you will see Jesus. The more interested I am in you hearing my words, the less you will hear His Word. I could stand up here, talk about the Bible for an hour, and it could be utterly useless to you spiritually.
For you, as you share your faith with your family and friends, the more they hear of your wisdom, your plausibility, and your arguments, as you fancy up your presentation, trim off the parts you think they’ll be offended by, embellish the parts that sound more interesting, and cram in worldly wisdom because they don’t want to hear what the Bible has to say – the less they will hear from Jesus. Your human, “eloquent wisdom”, will show that you believe that the message of the cross of Christ is empty of its power.
Does that mean we don’t have to study the Bible, or theology, or history, or learn how to make reasoned arguments for why we have the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15)? Of course not! We learn those things so we can know more about God. It increases our faith and builds our relationship with Jesus. It helps us gain confidence during times of doubt that there are good answers to our hardest questions and helps us know what we’re talking about when people ask us those hard questions.
What this means is that when we preach, or teach Sunday school, or lead the service, or organize a small group, or share our faith with a friend, we need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, our knowledge or wisdom cannot change anyone’s heart or mind!
When a preacher, teacher, missionary, or evangelist (and all Christians are at least one of those in some capacity) either pursues fame and celebrity or tries to use their charm, intelligence or winsomeness to convey the gospel, they not only risk the temptation to change the message, but also risk losing the power of God that is meant to do the work in changing the listener’s heart.
You may, in fact, do more harm than good as you seek to try to convert someone to your own personal understanding of God than if you are seeking to introduce them to God Himself. You could do more harm by trying to use imperfect human explanations of mysterious things, and causing them to be more confused than they were when you first started speaking. You could also do more harm than good because if they did believe you, and change their mind, they may be converted to your own personal religion, a version of the faith that you’ve come up with yourself, or to whatever version they think they heard. You will have gained a follower of yourself, but you have not made them a follower of God (Matthew 23:15).
When we are sharing our faith, we aren’t trying to argue or convince anyone into a new or better relationship with God. All we are meant to do is to present what God has said in the Bible, the simple meaning of the Gospel, and what it has meant to us. We allow the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, the Word of God to be the tool we use, and the testimony that God has been writing in our lives to be our evidence. There is no need for lofty speech or human wisdom. We must come “weak”, and in the power of the Spirit.
So here’s a couple of applications for us today, based on what we’ve been talking about:
First, and most importantly, before you teach or share anything with anyone about God, the Bible, the Gospel, or your testimony, you must pray for God to be the one who speaks through you. Pray that whatever words you say will be truthful, helpful and honouring to God. Ask God to remove your pride and your fear. You don’t want to walk in there full of pride, thinking that you are going to argue this person into becoming a Christian – and you don’t want to walk in their full of fear as though you are all alone in trying to save this person’s soul. This is God’s work, and so you need to be absolutely dependent on Him to go before you and be with you as you share God’s story.
Second, when listening to a preacher or teacher, or reading a Christian book, or blog, or podcast, or some form of social media, ask yourself if you are interested in finding the truth, or are you more interested in witnessing the spectacle? Do you follow them because you know they love God and are presenting His Word unchanged, or because they are media savvy, have interesting illustrations, speak passionately, and agree with what you think. Be careful who you listen to, what voices you allow to inform you, and be aware of your motives when you choose those voices. Scripture tells us to test the spirits, test the prophets, and make sure that they agree with reality and the truth of scripture. I think that includes us testing ourselves for why we are listening to those people in the first place.
Third, when you are given the opportunity to teach or share the gospel with someone, don’t fall for the temptation to try to think that the message needs to be changed so it will be more interesting, popular, or well received. The words of scripture and the message of the cross have inherent power on their own.
I’m not saying you don’t use illustrations to help people understand – Jesus did that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t figure out ways to engage auditory or tactile or visual learners – Jesus did that too. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak with passion or use measured words – Jesus did that too.
What I am saying is that as you present the gospel to people, or teach the Bible, there are going to be parts that you are going to want to downplay because they are controversial, or difficult to explain, or just plain offensive – like that people are sinners from birth, or that God has standards for how people live their lives, or that Jesus defies labels (he’s not a liberal, or conservative, or democrat, or communist, or feminist, or chauvinist, or modernist, or socialist…), or that God presents Himself as male, or the violence Jesus endured, or that there really is a Hell for all who do not believe in Jesus as their only Saviour, or that someone has to be willing to publically declare their faith. There are lots of things we are going to be tempted to downplay or skip over when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, but we shouldn’t.
Every time we do, that’s us trying to use human wisdom instead of God’s to try to get people to come to Him. It’s impossible. Human wisdom cannot lead us to God. An edited gospel, or an edited Bible, cannot save anyone. Trying to be clever, safe, and inoffensive, but still present the whole gospel, is impossible. It’s designed to offend. It’s designed to require knowledge we can’t give. It’s designed to require the Holy Spirit to change the heart – and not us.
Don’t fall into the trap of changing the message or skipping parts in your personal study, when you talk to your kids, when you teach in church, or when you share your faith. Give the whole story in a simple way, and trust that the “wisdom or Christ” and the “power of the cross” will lead the person to have their faith “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18-2:5)
The 24th episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
The Prosperity Gospel & Christian Suffering
We take some time this week to explain the danger and insidiousness of the Prosperity Gospel and the “Lite” version that’s creeping into our North American churches. How do we combat it? What is the place of suffering in the Christian life?
As Always, We Want Your Feedback
Please give it a listen and then give let us know what you think in comments section below, by e-mailing me, commenting on our Facebook page, or on Twitter! It would be great if you’d rate us on iTunes too! We’d also really appreciate if you’d pass them around to your friends. Sharing is caring!
Saul: Enemy of the Church
Paul has an amazing testimony, and it’s broken up into two very different parts. The part he is most famous for is where He is Paul, the great missionary and theologian of the Christian church. But he wasn’t always the Apostle Paul – for the beginning of his life he was Saul, persecutor of the church.
Saul was an incredibly intelligent scholar and up-and-coming leader in the Jewish community. No one matched his passion for studying and obeying God’s Law. He was trained by the best minds, trusted with important assignments, and relished in his position of power and influence – all of which he directed at this new group that was being formed in the name of the blasphemer and crucified criminal, Jesus of Nazareth.
He hated these people, and loved hurting them – he wanted to destroy them. He stood by, watching them stone the deacon Stephen, and then got more involved as he formed squads of people to go door to door, dragging off men and women who claimed the name of Jesus, throwing them into prison. He would publically beat them in their own homes and synagogues, screaming at them to renounce the name of Jesus or be arrested and tried. And when it came time for their trial, he would stand up with the rest of the chief priests and vote to have them killed. Such was his hatred for them that when the followers of Jesus fled Jerusalem in fear of him, he gathered up his temple soldiers and pursued them into the cities beyond, so he could beat them, arrest them, and drag them back to Jerusalem for trial. (Acts 8:3; 22:4-5; 26:10-11)
I watched the movie American Sniper last night and there are a lot of scenes of where the Marines are deployed to go door-to-door trying to find soldiers, insurgence, terrorists, and information about where the leaders of Al Qaeda were. It’s an incredibly violent movie, and I was struck especially by the sudden brutality of those encounters. The people in that area of the city were warned to leave, but many stayed behind – most to fight, but some because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) leave.
Tanks roll down the road while soldiers go house-to-house, kicking in the door, guns drawn, throwing anyone inside to the floor, screaming at them for information. The emotional trauma this causes to everyone involved is incredible. The overwhelming feeling I get from what I’ve read from the soldiers accounts, documentaries, and movies like this one, is that the soldiers don’t want to be there – they don’t want to be doing that – but they know they must.
Saul wasn’t like that. He loved it. He lived for it. He turned his amazing mind to trying to track down Jews who claimed to be believers in Jesus as the Messiah. He made it his life’s work to crush, humiliate, and defeat them. He wanted them all dead.
This still happens today, by the way, more often than we think. On June 15, 2014, in Kenya, a group of 50 Muslim militants walked into hotels and other public buildings with their guns drawn, chanted “Allahu Akbar!” and then killed anyone who couldn’t recite verses from the Koran. Then they went door to door asking people what their religion was, and if they said “Christian” they shot them dead and moved on to the next. The same thing happened in Libya.
Just 3 weeks ago in Egypt, 15 masked gunmen went door to door at a residential complex at 2:30 in the morning with a list of Christians who were in the building. They would check IDs, grab the Christians, drag them away, kill some and hold others hostage.
In March, 48 Christians living in Benghazi were tortured by having acid burn off the tattoos of crosses that some Christians have taken to putting on their wrists.
A few days before Christmas , a group of Muslim gunmen walked into the home of a Christian doctor, killed him and his wife and dragged off their 13 year old daughter – dumping her body in the desert two days later. It was learned later that they were targeted because the 13 year old girl refused to wear an Islamic veil. (Click here for the stories.)
When you picture the Apostle Paul in your mind, read about his journeys in the book of Acts and his letters to the church, you must remember that He wasn’t always Paul – at one time He was Saul, enemy of Jesus, persecutor, torturer and murderer of Christians. He was the one smashing in doors, dragging away fathers, killing families, torturing anyone who claimed to follow Jesus Christ.
It was on one of his trips to hunt down escaping believers that Saul was stopped by Jesus. We read about it in Acts 9:1-9:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
Saul was struck blind and dumb. For three days he just sat there – not eating, not drinking, not seeing anything – trapped in the dark with his thoughts. That must have been agony. Can you imagine what this revelation did to him? It changed everything he thought he knew. It broke him to the very core of his being. Can you imagine, as he looked back on all he had done, what he must have felt?
He thought his passion was for God, for God’s Word, for God’s people, for God’s Temple. He thought he was right. He was the smartest person in every room he walked into. He was the most educated. He was the most passionate for the Torah. He was the most popular among the leaders in Jerusalem. He was confident to the point to arrogance that everything he knew about God was exactly right, everything he said lined up with God’s Word, and everything he did, he did, for God. And then Saul met Jesus, the Son of God.
Saul must have known the teachings of Jesus. He was a very smart man, well educated, and wanted to know his enemy. He must have studied the claims of Jesus, His sermons, His teachings, His prophecies, His disciples, His followers. He had had enough encounters with them to know what Jesus had said. Jesus said he was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Chosen One, with the authority to cleanse the temple, to raise the dead, to change the rules of the Sabbath, to fulfill the Law and interpret it perfectly. Jesus said He had the ability to die and rise on the third day – and all of his followers believed him. That was their fundamental belief. If Jesus was still in the ground, then it was all a lie – but if Jesus had risen from the dead, then that changes everything.
And Saul met Jesus. That meant it was all true, and Saul was all-wrong.
Those words must have ran through Saul’s mind a thousand times:
“‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”
“Saul. I am Jesus. Why do you hate me? I’m the one you’ve been hunting. I’m the one you’ve judged as evil. I’m the one you’ve been trying to kill. And here I am. Alive, and with God. Why are you persecuting me, Saul?”
Keep reading in verse 10:
“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying…’”
At some point Paul’s agonizing thoughts turned to prayer. We don’t know what he was praying, but we know that he was in the dark and was talking to God. He was struggling with the life after death of the Jesus. He was confessing his sin. It didn’t make sense, and yet, there it was.
In his studies Saul had memorized the entire Old Testament, and now verse after verse – which he thought he knew the meaning of – crashed through his mind, finding different interpretations, new meanings, and their true fulfillment in Jesus. The Holy Spirit began to teach Saul, bringing up prophecy after prophecy, and revealing to Him their proper meaning. How did he not see this before? How could He have been so wrong?
It was all true. Jesus was exactly who He claimed He was. His followers were right all along — and His mind filled with the pictures of what he had done. He remembered holding the cloaks with a big grin he had on his face as he watched Stephen, the wise and soft-hearted, deacon of the church, stoned to death. He remembered the terrified faces of the followers of Jesus – they were terrified of him. And he had loved that look in their eyes. He loved making them, forcing them, with his own fists, to renounce their faith in Jesus.
Can you imagine the humility it would take to admit he was wrong? It would be like Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS), standing up in front of the UN and saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong. I was wrong about my theology. I was wrong about Jesus. I was wrong to hunt you. I was wrong to hate you. I’m sorry. I’m going to disband my terrorist network and dedicate my life to following Jesus. Please forgive me. I’m going to go be a Christian missionary from now on.”
How do you think that would go down? Would you believe him? Would you forgive him?
Let’s keep reading at verse 11:
“And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul…” (vs 11-17)
That’s an amazing title that Ananias calls Saul: “Brother”. Moments before he was saying: “Uh, are you sure, Jesus? Saul’s crazy. He’s got the authority to beat me, arrest me, drag me to Jerusalem and have me executed.”
And Jesus says: “Go, I’ve changed his heart. I’ve chosen Him. I love Him. I died for Him too, and I’ve given him a very special mission. This Jew of Jews who hated me, hated my followers, and hated everything non-Jewish, will be my missionary to the Gentiles. This man who caused so much suffering for my followers will have such a change of heart that he will be willing to suffer great things so more people will follow me. I’m changing the church’s greatest enemy into its greatest teacher and friend. Such is the power of my love.”
A Changed Man
Let’s keep reading.
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.” (vs 17-19)
The falling of scales from Saul’s eyes was a reflection of the healing of the blindness and hardness of Saul’s heart. Saul was changed completely, and we see it immediately in his life. Look at how Saul has changed from this point on.
He submits to baptism in the name of Jesus, takes food and was strengthened – both physically and spiritually. He submits himself to the teaching of a bunch of disciples in Damascus. That would have been a humbling experience him, and a very confusing experience for the church.
The next Saturday Saul is standing in front of the synagogue, teaching about Jesus. They came to hear one of the greatest minds and most passionate Pharisees in Israel rail against Jesus – but here is explaining how a few days ago he had met Jesus on the road, had been completely changed, and now believed that the entirety of the scriptures points to Jesus as the Messiah. It says that the Jews in Damascus were “confounded” but Saul was “increasing in strength.”
Their confusion soon turns to anger and they try (in an ironic twist of roles) to murder Saul, just as he had made the followers of Jesus flee Jerusalem, Saul escapes to Jerusalem, but the Apostles are a little shy about letting Saul find them. When they went out in public, they were arrested and beaten, so they hid, living under constant threat – from Saul. Only one man listens to Saul, a man named Barnabas, who brings him to the disciples and tells them his story.
The Apostles relent and begin to teach him. Consider that: One of the greatest minds, more learned in the scriptures than almost anyone in the world, sitting under the teaching of a bunch of unschooled fisherman, a Greek guy, and a former tax collector. There would be nothing more humbling for a Jewish Pharisee and Scholar. But he wasn’t that man anymore.
And they affirm Saul’s conversion. They listen to him. They learn from him. Saul preaches in public, argues with experts, and defends the name of Jesus. And then, in another act of humility, Saul is sent by the Apostles to go to his hometown of Tarsus – and there he stays for 10 years until Barnabas comes and gets him again. Tarsus’ favourite son, who left town as a brilliant young rabbi and whose name was known throughout Jerusalem and all the cities in the area – came home a follower of the despised teacher, Jesus of Nazareth and a traitor to his people. What would his father, mother, and sister think of him now?
The Power of the Gospel
Everything about Saul’s conversion was genuine and amazing and it points to the power of Jesus Christ.
Saul became Paul, a man powerfully used by God to change the world in His name. Near the end of his life, Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy,
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Tim 1:12-17)
That’s the power of the Gospel and something that touches my heart very deeply. Jesus dies for His enemies so He can make His enemies into his friends. For me too, and for all who understand the story of the Gospel of Jesus, we know that we were ignorant, but received mercy. We were blasphemers, but received overflowing grace. We were opponents and yet given faith and love from Christ Jesus.
“Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
He didn’t have to. He wanted to. He loved us so much that He was willing to save us. We talk about a lot of complicated things in church, but this is the foundation of everything we believe and do:
“Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
And that’s what we all are. We’re all sinners. None of us are better than anyone else. The closer we get to Jesus, the more we realize the depth of our sin, and the amazing grace and love of God to come and save us.
Paul’s life is an example. He says so himself. No one is outside the realm of God’s grace. Jesus Christ showed Saul patience and mercy, to prove that everyone who believes can have eternal life. There’s no one outside the purview of God’s grace. There was no one farther away from Salvation through Jesus than Saul – but Jesus changed His heart and saved His soul.
Yes, it took a miracle – but it always does. We all need to be turned from darkness to light. We all need to be struck with the reality of our sin. We will all be faced with the question that comes from Saul’s lips: “Who are you, Lord?” And we will all need to make an answer. Saul relented. He gave it all up for Jesus. Later he says,
“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ… I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8)
He gave up his pride, his position, his future, his plans, everything… because Jesus was better. And following Jesus became the driving force of his entire life. No matter what anyone would say or do, nothing would steer him away from Jesus – because Jesus saved him.
I find great hope in the story of Saul becoming Paul, because it shows that there is no limit to Jesus’ love. Jesus saves people. Jesus changes people. Jesus sticks with them. Jesus has abundant patience, grace and mercy… for Saul, for me, and for you.