He took out the photographs again, memorizing their features.
His assignment was to locate and neutralise another cell of émigrés, and entice, blackmail or drug them to the London embassy for interrogation. From their they would be brought home to be.... Diplomatic baggage... diplomatic garbage more like... he smiled. Suddenly the smile froze on his face as his heart stopped, and he gasped for air. The plane was dropping like a stone.
A sudden violent electrical storm had engulfed the plane causing total electical failure, and the engines had stalled. Vladimir began to sweat, his past flashed by, his childhood memories of the orthodox church, his parents simple faith, his rejection of religion at school, his admiration for Lenin, his membership of the Party, his acceptance by the GRU, the searches, the interrogations, the trials, the psychiatric clinics, the camps... unconsciously Vladimir heard himself praying, prayers he had memorised as a child and forgotten until now. When he came round, the plane had made an emergency landing at Heathrow airport, and he was being driven to the embassy.
Unable to settle, he telephoned one of the dissidents he had come to interrogate. Ivan, the pastor of a small Ukrainian Pentecostal church in East London could not believe his ears. Against his better judgement he agreed to a meeting with Vladimir in a near by park that evening.
They walked and talked till morning. That Sunday morning there was a rather unexpected speaker giving his testimony at their church. Within a week, Vladimir was back in the Kremlin, but not at his old office desk. He was at the other end of Red Square, kneeling in the confessional at the Cathedral of St. Basil, asking a dumbfounded priest about the possibility of a job....
Could it ever happen? Do you believe it could happen today?
Do we need to pray for faith that it could happen ?
No - we need to pray in repentance for our unbelief.
The Lord did it to Saul, and he has been doing it ever since.
See Proverbs 21:1 "The heart of the King is in the hands...."
Lets look at the story together in Acts 9. Paul tells his testimony in three parts. They are the three parts we need to cover when giving our own testimony of how we came to meet Jesus. We each come to the Lord in a unique way, but its important in sharing those facts we explain how others can know him too.
1. BEFORE What Paul was like before He met Jesus 9:1-2
2. DURING How Paul came to know Him 9:3-9
3. AFTER Some of the consequences 9:10-22
1. BEFORE : HOW GOD TOLERATES SAUL SO PATIENTLY 9:1-2
What a nasty little man Saul was. I'm amazed the Lord didn't wipe him out the way you swot a fly that is annoying you.
1.1 SAUL'S PEDIGREE 9:1
Saul was from a wealthy influential family of Tarsus. His father was a Pharisee, and Saul was trained as one also. Saul had been taught by Gamaliel one of the most famous Hebrew scholars. Saul could therefore speak Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. He would have memorised most of the Old Testament.
He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite ruling authority of Judaism. He therefore had good connections, access to the high priest.
Saul was also a Roman citizen, which meant he was part of the upper class. Raised in Tarsus meant he had access to what was one of the three most important universities competing with Athens and Alexandria.
Saul had the best possible education, a combination of Greek culture, Hebrew religion and Roman law. Quite a pedigree.
1.2 SAUL'S PREJUDICE 9:1
"still breathing murderous threats against the disciples"
I believe without a doubt that this is God's word. One reason is because of the complete honesty of its human authors not to hide anything under the carpet.
By the time this was written Paul was a celebrity, the hero of the church.
But Luke does not disguise or play down Paul's past.
In Galatians 1:14 Paul admits that before he met Jesus he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. In that zeal, he had developed an all consuming fanatical hatred for the sect known as Christians.
In Acts 26:10 he admits that "on the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death I cast my vote against them." Quite a combination, a man of power and influence and a man with an all consuming passion to destroy the followers of Jesus.
Saul's Pedigree, Saul's Prejudice.
1.3 SAUL'S PLANS 9:2
Not content to persecute the disciples in Jerusalem, he was prepared to travel 140 miles to Damascus in search of these heretics. 140 miles was a long way in those days, especially on foot. Its interesting to see how this highly intelligent spiritual leader allowed his prejudice and his hatred of Christians to blind him to the wisdom of his old professor Gamaliel. Listen to what Gamaliel himself said about how to respond to Christians....
Saul's Pedigree : he was an exceptional man of learning.
Saul's Prejudice : he was a fanatic, zealous for his religion, consumed by hatred of his opponents.
Saul's Plan : the systematic extermination of Christians.
Saul makes the Ayatolla Homani look like a saint by comparison.
Saul was not the kind of man you would want to meet outside church one night.... From those few verses we learn a lot about what kind of person Saul was like before he met Jesus. The whole story also tells us a lot about God.
God's patience, God's perseverance, God's sovereignty.
God had a plan for Saul, but the early Christians didn't know it.
They couldn't understand why the Lord allowed them to suffer at Saul's hands, but we know with hindsight the Lord was indeed at work.
Gamaliel's words in Acts 5:39 were quite prophetic when he said,
"If this is from God you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God." If verses 1-2 tell us how God tolerates Saul so patiently.
2. DURING : HOW GOD TAKES SIN SO PERSONALLY 9:3-9
Notice the Lord says to Saul, "Why are you persecuting ME ?"
Not persecuting the church but "me". God took Saul's sin personally.
We believe in a sovereign Lord, but also one who suffers.
The Suffering God came to Saul. The power of the Risen Lord Jesus revealed in the blinding light brought Saul to his knees. See 9:3.
The presence of the Risen Lord Jesus through the voice that spoke brought Saul to his senses. See 9:4
Rather drastic medicine you might think, but Saul was a dangerous man, a ruthless man. God uses the minimum force necessary to bring a person to the point of repentance and forgiveness. Saul had a pedigree but he found that no one is immune from God's call. Saul was full of prejudice but he found that nothing can impede the Holy Spirit's convicting work. Saul had evil plans but he found out that no one interferes with God's church with impunity.
25 years ago I came face to face with the realisation that God was Sovereign, and that I had been running away from him.
I realised I could run away no longer. I realised that it was for me that Jesus died on the cross. God tolerates the Saul in all of us so patiently.
God takes the sin in us so personally. That's why Christ came.
3. AFTER : HOW GOD TRANSFORMS HIS SAINTS PROVIDENTIALLY 9:10-22
Read 9:15. Few individuals could fulfil such a mission, but in God's timing Saul became that person. Galatians 1:13-16a (Read)
Notice the abrupt division in Paul's testimony... my previous way of life... but when God who set me apart from birth...."
God was at work in choosing Paul even from his birth.
All through his childhood and his training as a Pharisee the Lord was preparing him for a far greater mission. No doubt part of his training was learning what the heretical Christians believed. I wonder when the Lord began to sow the seeds of doubt in Saul's mind. When the light and voice confronted him on the Damascus Road, he knew who it was speaking to him. "Who are you, Lord?" The God he claimed to worship yet the God he did not know personally.
Saul was a chosen man. Saul was a changed man all because of that meeting with Jesus. I'm glad that I haven't been given the kind of assignment Ananias got! Is there anyone in our church you find it hard to get on with?
How does Ananias greet Paul when they meet? He calls him "brother".
The next time you feel like giving up with a particular person you don't like, remember how hard it would have been for the church at Damascus accept Paul. Only the Lord could transform a Saul into a Paul.
Saul had been an intolerant, bitter, persecuting, religious bigot....
After his conversion Paul is pictured as a patient, kind, self sacrificing believer. Quite a transformation. Read 9:20-22
Now if you had been one of the apostles, say James or Peter,
what would you have done with Paul? Made him principal of a theological college?
Bishop of Athens? That's probably what we would do, but what did the Lord do? He took all Paul's training in the scriptures and the law, his gifts of languages and culture, his key contacts from all over the world and what? Read 9:23-26. What a start to his new ministry... In fact for most of his Christian ministry the Lord let Paul rot in prison, or stay on the run for most of his Christian life! God transforms his saints providentially,
But he does so, so often in ways we would not expect.
What is the explanation for the great influence of Paul?
True he did found more churches than the other apostles.
Yes, he did probably travel more kilometres for the gospel than any other apostle. Yes he did write more letters in the NT than the other apostles.
But this was not because of his pedigree, but his dependence on the Lord. Listen to how he describes it himself.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29; 2:3; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; 12:7-11.
Paul's great strength, his driving energy, his insatiable desire to share the truth about Jesus Christ arose out of his own intense unworthiness, his own weakness, and God's strength in him. Do you remember what the Lord said to Paul? "My Grace is sufficient for you for my power is perfected in your weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9)
We have here then Paul's testimony.
Before : How the Lord tolerates Saul so patiently 9:1-2
During : How God takes sin so personally 9:3-9
After : How God tranforms his saints providentially 9:10-22
How did Paul's life end? In retirement on Crete? with a church pension?
With book offers from publishers for his autobiography? his own TV station?
With churches named after him? We don't know.
God did not think it that important to ensure it was recorded.
Tradition has it that Paul appealed to Nero and after two trials was executed in AD 68 on the Ostian Way outside Rome.
Executed for the crime of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Paul is a model. A model of the way,
God tolerates His Saul's like you and I so patiently.
God takes our sin so personally, that's why Jesus died.
God transforms us so providentially. God is powerful enough to turn His enemies like Saul from blind religious fanaticism, into His friends. If He could do it for Saul, has done it for us, think what He can do through us.