John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Butseek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.
The tragic massacre in Roseburg, Oregon, US has raised a lot of questions. Some news articles are claiming that one of the motives of the shooter may have been hatred of religion in general, or Christians in particular. Were the victims of the shootings martyrs? What is a martyr?
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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.