Unexpected Peace & Growth
Sermon Text: Acts 9:19-31
Sermon Theme: Tests of faith can result in unexpected peace and growth.
A good work was begun in Saul, when he was brought to Christ’s feet with those words, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And never did Christ leave any who were brought to that. Behold, the proud Pharisee, the unmerciful oppressor, the daring blasphemer, prayeth! And thus it is even now, and with the proud infidel, or the abandoned sinner. What happy tidings are these to all who understand the nature and power of prayer, of such prayer as the humbled sinner presents for the blessings of free salvation! Now he began to pray after another manner than he had done; before, he said his prayers, now, he prayed them. Regenerating grace sets people on praying; you may as well find a living man without breath, as a living Christian without prayer. Yet even eminent disciples, like Ananias, sometimes stagger at the commands of the Lord. But it is the Lord’s glory to surpass our scanty expectations, and show that those are vessels of his mercy whom we are apt to consider as objects of his vengeance. The teaching of the Holy Spirit takes away the scales of ignorance and pride from the understanding; then the sinner becomes a new creature, and endeavors to recommend the anointed Savior, the Son of God, to his former companions.
When we enter into the way of God, we must look for trials; but the Lord knows how to deliver the godly, and will, with the temptation, also make a way to escape. Though Saul’s conversion was and is a proof of the truth of Christianity, yet it could not, of itself, convert one soul at enmity with the truth; for nothing can produce true faith, but that power which new-creates the heart. Believers are apt to be too suspicious of those against whom they have prejudices. The world is full of deceit, and it is necessary to be cautious, but we must exercise charity, 1 Corinthians 13:5. The Lord will clear up the characters of true believers; and he will bring them to his people, and often gives them opportunities of bearing testimony to his truth, before those who once witnessed their hatred to it. Christ now appeared to Saul, and ordered him to go quickly out of Jerusalem, for he must be sent to the Gentiles: see Acts 22:21. Christ’s witnesses cannot be slain till they have finished their testimony. The persecutions were stayed. The professors of the gospel walked uprightly, and enjoyed much comfort from the Holy Ghost, in the hope and peace of the gospel, and others were won over to them. They lived upon the comfort of the Holy Ghost, not only in the days of trouble and affliction, but in days of rest and prosperity. Those are most likely to walk cheerfully, who walk circumspectly.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- The thought of a Messiah on the cross turned the stomachs of Jews. Does not the same problem plague unbelievers today? Many are happy to talk about God, even a personal God who, they anticipate, will welcome them into his heaven someday. The introduction of Jesus as the virgin-born Son of Mary complicates their thinking just a bit. By the time the gospel portrays him dying on the cross for the sins of the world, many now, as then, turn away from a suffering Savior. And, how could we believe in a judgmental God who would send unbelieving people to Hell? But, knowledge of spiritual things is based upon the identity of Jesus Christ as God. Why? Because if Jesus is the Son of God, then Jesus is God. God does not err; if Jesus is God, Jesus does not err. Everything Jesus tells us can be trusted. If he tells us God is a certain kind of God, we can believe it because he is God himself and speaks truthfully. If he tells us, as he does, that the Bible can be trusted, that it comes from God, that heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of God being divine in nature will never pass away, then we can trust the Bible. In a sense, nearly everything we know of spiritual things is based on the confession: “Jesus is the Son of God.” Our salvation is also based upon it, because the value of Jesus’ death is linked to his being God. If Jesus were a mere man, even if he were a sinless man, his death could only have availed for himself. It could not have been of infinite worth. Besides, if he were nothing but a man, he would be sinful, as other human beings are, and his death would be no different from the death of any other human being. But Jesus is not merely man. He is a man; he had to be a man to die. He had to take on human flesh. At the same time, being God as well as man, he died to accomplish what only God alone could accomplish.
- Christianity begins with the question, “Who are you, Lord?” That is because the deity of Jesus Christ is the foundation for everything that follows. Without that foundation we rush around doing things that appeal to us, things that seem good, but are not necessarily the Lord’s plan for us. But having established that base, we also need to ask the second question: “What shall I do?” This is because God has appointed certain good works to be done by every Christian (Ephesians 2:10).
- Is not God the God of the unexpected? He saves the most unlikely people. If he did not, why would we be Christians? Still, we find it hard to think like this, especially when some great enemy is involved. Saul had been an enemy. So the Christians found themselves saying: Well, it is true that God saved us—and no doubt we were all difficult cases—but how could he possibly save a person like Saul? Saul is an outright enemy. God might kill somebody like Saul, strike him down (it would serve him right), but not save him. It must be a trick. One of the most delightful things about the Christian life is getting to know the kind of people God saves, because they are generally not the kind you would expect. It is impossible to figure out what God is going to do, because God does not have to do what we expect and usually doesn’t. John Stott notes the strange irony of this situation. “The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 begins with him leaving Jerusalem with an official mandate from the high priest to arrest fugitive Christians, and ends with him leaving Jerusalem as a fugitive Christian himself.” The bottom line is that God’s ways are not our ways. His timing is not ours. We need to learn to wait on him patiently. We pray for people. Nothing seems to be happening. But that does not mean that nothing is happening; it only means that we cannot see it. God is working. In fact, one of the joys of getting older in the Christian life is that you begin to see some of the things God is doing. Problems we prayed about earlier are being resolved. People whom we might have given up on early in life we now see changed. So do not give up. Keep your eyes on the Lord.
- Are you seeing how God controls history to allow His church to have peace and grow? In the very synagogues to which Saul had come with warrants for the arrest of Christians, he now began to proclaim Jesus. The content of that preaching was that Jesus is the Son of God, a title for our Lord that speaks of His deity (cf. John 10:31-36). Because of the intolerant attitude that Saul himself had done so much to initiate (cf. Acts 8:1), the Jews turned on him immediately and began attempting to put him to death. The church soon discovered that it was almost as bad having Saul with them as against them. He quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest. Besides Saul’s departure, there were other political changes, not mentioned by Luke, that contributed to the church’s temporary respite and lead to a time of peace. The Sanhedrin was now faced with more pressing matters. First, there had been a change of high priest. In A.D. 37 Caiaphas had been deposed, and in his place Vitellius had installed first Jonathan, then his brother Theophilus. Second, there had been a change of emperor in the same year, with Caligula succeeding Tiberius. The new emperor was far less sympathetic to the Jews than Tiberius had been, and this soon become evident. In the summer of A.D. 38 Herod Agrippa I, on his way to the kingdom granted him by Caligula, made a parade in Alexandria that incited riots between the Jews and the Greeks of that city. This interracial strife spread to other cities. The Greeks of Jamnia raised an altar to the emperor, only to have the Jews tear it down. Caligula intervened by ordering that his image be set up in the temple (A.D. 39; see Josephus, Antiquities). This profanation was only averted by Herod Agrippa’s pleas, but the threat hung over the heads of the Jews as long as Caligula ruled. He was assassinated in A.D. 41. With all this history going on, the Jews’ freedom of action was restricted. Thus, they were less able to carry out drastic measures against the church.
- As a believer, are you prepared to face opposition and rejection? Often new believers naively think that since God loves them, He will protect them from all trials and hardship. But even a casual reading of the Bible shows that this is simply not so. Be prepared to face opposition and rejection from outside the church. The point being is, be prepared that not all will welcome your message about Christ, even though it means everything to you. The gospel is an offense because it confronts sinners with their sin, and it robs them of any glory in their own salvation. Our job is to be faithful in presenting the message, and leave the results to God. Don’t be surprised by open hostility. But, also be prepared to face opposition and rejection from inside the church at times. New believers are often naïve about other Christians. They think, “Isn’t it great to be in the family of God, where we all love one another!” But then they encounter jealousy or strife over minor issues. They see gossip and rivalry. If they are not prepared for it, they can become disillusioned with the church and drop out in bitterness. Outside of the flock, they are easy prey for the devil.
- Is your tree bearing leaves, flowers, or fruit? For faith without works is dead. Useless are the creeds that do not influence our conduct; the preaching that leads to no practice. Prayer meetings, sermons, are good; but they are not, as some make them, banquets where you are to enjoy yourselves. Would you see their proper use? For fellowship and religious services are to strengthen us for work — otherwise our religion is no less selfish than the lives of ones devoted to sensual pleasures. Our object should be to get strength to do God’s work in this world, and to follow Him who, as our pattern as well as propitiation, went about continually doing good. Christ is the propitiation of none of whom he is not also the pattern; and on the last day you will never be asked what was your denomination or creed. No! It is fruit, not leaves nor even flowers, that is the test of the tree.
- The whole Church is one building, planned by one Architect, carried on by one Builder, designed for one end, to be the habitation of God. This thought is full of comfort. It shows us that however small the place of each person, yet each one has his place, and if it is not filled, there is a blank, be it ever so small. Does it not say to each, “See that your place be not a blank?” For is it not honor enough to occupy that small position? The Church of each land, age, town, is a building. It may be but a fragment of the universal Church; but you all know how any building would look if one fragment fell; and therefore you will not count it a small thing if some such position belongs to our community. This congregation of ours is a building. Is it then being built up? Is it rising, in solidity, unity, beauty? Is it giving signs, more and more, of its destination as a habitation of God? Look at how each human soul is a building. What a question is it, for each one: How is that building which is I myself, getting on? Are the foundations deeply and soundly laid in the faith of Christ? Is the superstructure rising day by day gradually, regularly, quietly, yet consciously, perceptibly, visibly? Am I growing in grace? More and more prevailing over sinful passions? Better able to do the work which He has given me? Times of tranquility ought to be times of edifying but alas, too often they are times of suspended energy.
- Are you taking time to deepen and strengthen your roots with the Lord? Surely the Lord will reveal Himself to you just as He reveled Himself to Saul through the Scriptures — giving you insight into things that you formerly thought that you knew, but did not really know at all. Ignorance in doctrine and theology will tend to yield tragic results if you do not reverse the tide. Sound biblical doctrine is the only solid foundation for healthy Christian experience. Yes, there is always the danger that knowledge will puff up a person with pride (1 Corthinians 8:1). But the antidote is not to be theologically ignorant. Deepen your knowledge of Scripture by reading and studying it until you know it well.
- What is meant by walking in the fear of the Lord? A biblical fear of God includes understanding how much God hates sin and fearing His judgment on sin — even in the life of a believer. God describes His discipline for the believer in Hebrews 12:5-11. While it is done in love (Hebrews 12:6), it is still a fearful thing. We should fear His discipline, and therefore seek to live our lives in such a way that pleases Him. Believers are not to be scared of God — we have no reason to be scared of Him. We have His promise that nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38-39). We have His promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Fearing God means having such a reverence for Him that it has a great impact on the way we live our lives — a humble and unreserved submission to His authority which influence our will, rendering it pliable and submissive, and conforming it to the will of God. The fear of God is respecting Him, obeying Him, submitting to His discipline, and worshiping Him in awe. Let us have a holy jealousy of ourselves such that, a watchful care is taken to avoid everything which may grieve, displease, or provoke Him to forsake us.
- What is meant by walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit? Believers having peace of conscience and peace with God, arising from a persuasion wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit that we are pardoned and accepted in the Beloved. With a strong and well-grounded hope, arising at times to a full assurance, that we are adopted into God’s family, and that consequently we have a title to all the privileges of His children and have a foretaste of the joys of heaven.
PRUDENCE FOR THE SAKE OF THE PREACHING (By Chrysostom): Let us imitate this man. Let us take our souls in our hands, ready to confront all dangers. His flight was not an act of cowardice; he was saving himself for the preaching. Had he been a coward, he would not have gone to Jerusalem. He would not have immediately resumed teaching. He would have compromised his vehemence. He would have learned a lesson from Stephen’s suffering. No, on the contrary, he was being prudent. He considered it no great thing to die for the gospel, unless one could do this to great advantage. He was even willing not to see Christ, whom [more than anything] he was most eager to see, while the work of his stewardship among people was not yet complete. Such must be the soul of a Christian. From the beginning and at the very outset, the character of Paul declared itself. No, even before this, even in what he did “not according to knowledge,” it was not by human reasoning that he was moved to act as he did. For if after such a long time he was unwilling to weigh anchor, much more unwilling was he at the start of his trading voyage, when he had just left the harbor. Many things Christ leaves to be done by human wisdom, so that we may learn that his disciples were human beings and that it was not all [a direct act of divine intervention] at every turn, since otherwise they would have been merely motionless logs. But in fact they often managed matters themselves. It is not less than martyrdom to decline no suffering for the sake of the salvation of the many. Nothing so delights God. [From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]
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