Monday, March 25, 2013

Acts 9: Threats and Murder...and Glory

Threats and Murder...and Glory

Acts 9:1

What has gone before...

Directed by an angel, Philip meets a man in the desert, an Ethiopian official who had visited Jerusalem to worship God and was then returning to his home. The minister of state was described as a "eunuch", which likely was used figuratively, rather than literally. "Eunuch", whether literally or figurative, reminded us of circumstances in which God has placed each of us that have brought personal loss or injury, yet God gives us comfort in the midst of loss.

A passage from the Book of Isaiah overwhelmed the Ethiopian's heart and he embraced the truth of Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. Immediately after baptizing the man, Philip is "teleported" miles distant, finding himself on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Filled with joy at God's miraculous timing and power, Philip travels north up the coast, settling down in Caesarea, marrying and raising a family.

Moving on...

Luke's historical account of the early Christian church now returns to the life of the radically fundamental Jew who served as Chief Enforcer of religious rules in Jerusalem: Rabbi Saul of Tarsus.

"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." Acts 9:1-2 (ESV)

Saul was a young man (Acts 7:58) yet he already was an influential leader of the Jews in Jerusalem. At the arrest of Stephen, a follower of Christ, Saul had overseen the martyr's execution, watching as the elders and scribes and false witnesses crushed Stephen's head and body with stones.

Saul approved of Stephen's execution (Acts 8:1) and became a violent, rabid punisher of all who worshipped Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the Savior of souls.

Now, Saul sought to extend his religious power over the Dissenters in Damascus, about 130 miles distant. Why Damascus?

Damascus, "the most ancient city perhaps in the world, and lying in the center of a verdant and inexhaustible paradise. It abounded with Jews, and with Gentile proselytes to the Jewish faith" (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary). Damascus was at the crossroads of all major trade routes, connecting Asia, Arabia and Africa. Damascus was the "center of all the world". Were the Jews in Damascus to be persuaded to follow the "cult of Christianity", Judaism would lose most, if not all, of its influence.

Saul saw Damascus as a crucial religious battle between Truth and Error.

BREATHING: empneo "emp-NEH-o" (to inhale, to be animated by, to be bent upon); from en (a fixed position; by implication instrumentality) and pneo (to breath hard)

THREATS AND MURDER: apeile "ap-i-LAY" (a menace) and phonos "FON-os" (murder); from apeileo (to menace, to forbid) and pheno (to slay)

Saul was enraged.

His mind and heart were engorged with lust for violent, crushing punishment of all who rejected fundamental, traditional Judaism. He imagined joyfully exacting righteous justice upon the dirty, worthless liars who still considered Jesus to be alive, much less Savior.

"Empneo" occurs only this one time in The Bible. It's root, "pneo", occurs eight times, every instance describing a wind storm. Most of the references describe danger and loss, although "pneo" can also refer to the power of God's Holy Spirit (John 3:8).

"Apeile" (menace) occurs four times, every instance describing threats of punishment.

"Phonos" (murder) occurs ten times, with the most vividly example found in the Book of Hebrews, translated as "killed":

"They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword." Hebrews 11:37 (ESV)

Jesus said that "murder" comes from a person's heart, along with evil thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander (Matthew 15:19). Such sinful behavior is a gross perversion of God's original creation, but the behavior is not without a Source or Reason. The Source of sin in the heart. Sinful behavior begins first deep within a person's core, perhaps as a vague emotion or a germ of desire.

Or a lie believed to be true.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Shedding the light of truth on dark depravity can bring liberating freedom. Can you share with others some of what you've experienced? Have you, or someone you know, felt overwhelmed by rage, or guilt, or sorrow? What brought you out of such darkness? What things were you believing about yourself, of God, that now you recognize as lies of the Enemy? What practices or habits do you now depend upon to help safeguard yourself against such "threats and murder"?

Saul obtained a religious warrant of arrest for anyone "belonging to the Way".

WAY: hodos "hod-OS" (a road, by implication a progress, such as a route, act or distance; figurative a mode or means)

Jesus used "way" to describe the kingdom of heaven:

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

John the Baptist's ministry was described as the "way of righteousness" and the "way of peace":

"John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him." Matthew 21:32 (ESV)

"You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:76-79 (ESV)

A striking example of the literal word "road" combined with "way", as in the road to joy and peace with Christ, can be found in the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus.

It was the the third day since the crucifixion. The two disciples had been with rest of the believers earlier that day when three women had rushed back from the tomb with an incredible story: the tomb was open, empty, and two men (dressed in dazzling apparel) had told them that Jesus was risen from the dead, just as He had foretold while teaching in Galilee.

"That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him." Luke 24:13-16 (ESV)

The disciples had chosen a road that led nowhere special. Emmaus was only a town, filled with people no different than the town they'd just left. They had no expectation of finding anything like the joy and peace they'd experienced with Jesus. Jesus was gone! Now, all roads were the same. All roads led to nothing more than people with problems, nothing different than what they'd left behind.

Then Jesus drew near.

Jesus engaged the two in conversation, steering them toward talking about what they'd lost. He spoke as if He know nothing of this man called "Jesus", nothing of the crucifixion, nothing of their despair. They responded honestly, describing their initial belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet, the One Who would redeem Israel. But now, they said, Jesus was dead, crucified by their own religious priests and rulers. The two men were obviously without hope, feeling leaderless and betrayed, but also confused:

"Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." Luke 24:22-24 (ESV)

Then Jesus laid it all out for them, beginning with the writings of Moses and the Old Testament prophets. He showed them every biblical reference that had foretold the life, the death, and the resurrection of this man called "Jesus".

Their hearts were set on fire.

The two men understood what Jesus was saying. Every ember of joy and peace and purpose that had been slowly dying during the days following the crucifixion was suddenly sparked back into flame, into a fire that consumed their fear and confusion and despair.

The men still had not recognized the stranger who was walking with them, but they grasped onto His presence as if it were a lifeline in a storm. By then the three of them had reached Emmaus, and Jesus made as if He were going to keep going further:

"But they urged him strongly, saying, - Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent. - So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them." Luke 24:29-30 (ESV)

The road to Emmaus, for Jesus, was not His "way", yet He chose to join the two men where they were. Despite their faithlessness and despair, He made them look honestly at their disappointment and confusion, but He didn't leave them in that condition. He transformed a dusty road leading to a backwater town into an opportunity to bring these two men back to the "way", the way to joy, peace and purpose.

The Way of Jesus.

"And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, - Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" Luke 24:31-32 (ESV)

Saul the Enforcer was not looking for people walking on a road to Emmaus. He didn't care about people who were wandering, without hope, without purpose. He ignored soldiers, business owners, farmers, slaves and servants who might be traveling some road to anywhere. Saul's only desire was for destruction of Jews who scorn their traditional religion by joining the Way of Christ.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can you describe your earlier years of life as a "road"? Where did you think you were going, and why were you going there? In what way did a "stranger" come alongside and join with you on that road, only to later find that Jesus had brought you onto His road? Is the "right road of life" defined by its destination, or its characteristics? How do you answer people who regard all religions as different roads leading inevitably to one destination?

"Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed 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. [ESV OMISSION] 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." Acts 9:3-8 (ESV)

Note: The King James Version (KJV) includes additional text that the ESV omits:

[KJV: It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him]

The omission is based upon study of the original manuscripts of the Book of Acts. The translators of the KJV found sufficient support for the authenticity of the disputed text, and the translators of the ESV did not.

The omission of text does not substantially change the content or purpose of the passage. In fact, the disputed text is included by the ESV in the Book of Acts. Saul's conversion is described in three separate accounts in the Book of Acts. Combining the accounts gives us a more complete understanding of the event:

"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 [to be punished]. Now as he went on his way, [at about noon] he approached Damascus, and suddenly a [great] light from heaven flashed [shone, brighter than the sun] around him. And falling to the ground [as did those with him] he heard a voice saying to him [in the Hebrew language (Aramaic)], - Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? [It is hard for you to kick against the goads.]” [Now those who were with him saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to him.] And he said, - Who are you, Lord? - And he said, - I am Jesus [of Nazareth], whom you are persecuting. [And Saul said, - What shall I do, Lord?] [Jesus answered] but rise [and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me] and enter the city [Damascus], and you will be told what you are to do [all that is appointed for you]. - 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 [because of the brightness of that light]. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus." Acts 9:1-8; 22:5-11; 26:13-18 (ESV)

This sudden, miraculous conversion from murderous hatred and violence, to humble adoration and trust in Jesus, formed the foundation of Saul's life from that point forward. At every opportunity Saul retold his story, framing it slightly different each time to fit different circumstances and audiences. But the essential core of his testimony remained consistent: Jesus Christ appeared to Saul in overwhelmingly bright glory and transformed his heart, mind and body. In many ways Saul's transformation was painful and humiliating, involving the loss of many things which previously Saul had treasured.

For a time, Saul was blinded, unable to see anything good or evil, completely dependent upon the compassionate help of others. His physical healing, however, brought emotional, intellectual and spiritual cleansing and freedom. Saul became a servant and witness, and he found Jesus to be his greatest Source of joy.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Saul's dramatic, miraculous conversion sets him apart from all the other apostles called by Jesus. With what parts of his story are you able to closely identify? Have you ever wished that Jesus would appear to you as powerfully as He did to Saul? What difference does it make to you that Saul, out of all the other apostles chosen by Jesus, experienced such a radical, astounding conversion? How does your conversion experience differ from that of Saul's, and how does that experience seem to fit with who you are now?

Dusty Road by Rich Slim, Creative Commons License