Taking Care of Business
August 13, 2000 Acts 9:1-31
Scripture: 1Tim. 1:12-17
Difficult people – have you ever met any?
They are in all walks of life – every area of life.
We find them where we work, where we shop, where we drive, where we live, and even where we go to church and in our own families.
I haven't always handled difficult people right in my own life. It is hard when we get caught up in the tension of circumstances. WalMart at Centerville.
Difficult people are difficult to deal with.
Something just doesn't connect.
We could chalk it up to misunderstanding or ignorance.
And there is enough of that going around.
But the really difficult cases are due to the outright sins of human pride, greed, stubbornness, and just plain vindictiveness.
Love, grace, forgiveness, and compassion have somehow eluded them.
These types of people are often unavoidable.
So how do you deal with them?
"They need the gospel, you say?"
That would be the answer, wouldn't it?
We even find people in churches many times who need the gospel.
My perception about issue of concern by Cedarly hostess who seemed to be down.
"Wounded people often wound others."
The hardest cases are those who think they have it – but don't.
If they really had the gospel or understood it, they wouldn't be so difficult.
Stephen came up against one of these difficult people, remember?
Saul was there watching the clothes and giving his approval to those who stoned Stephen to death because he gave them the gospel and called them to account for the death of Jesus.
Saul came out of the Jewish church called a synagogue.
And he sure thought he was right.
But as we read this morning, he was a self-admitted blasphemer, persecutor, and a violent man – the worst of sinners, right there in God's assembly, the synagogue.
He was proud and arrogant.
Listen to the rest of his testimony:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
(Philippians 3:4-6 NIVUS)
It seems that Saul had everything going for him but the truth of the gospel, which of course left him with nothing since he didn't have it.
Saul was a difficult case, the kind of person that makes you cringe if you cross their self-righteous path.
Now, do you recall Stephen's response to the whole thing?
It would be the only response he would ever have a chance to make.
He made the right choice.
He was walking in the footsteps of Jesus, remember?
He said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
After that he died.
But this was a prayer that God would answer even in death.
Could we pray that kind of prayer for the difficult people in our lives, even if we wouldn't have any earthly life left after we prayed it?
How have you handled the difficult cases in your life?
Do we truly want God to hold nothing against them?
Can we have that love, grace, forgiveness, and compassion for them that we wish they had for us?
If we can take our cues from Stephen's footsteps in Jesus, we can also take our cues from how God answers this prayer that Stephen prayed.
Our passage this morning will show Saul the beneficiary of it.
And not only Saul himself, but how God would use this difficult man to carry out the most difficult task of taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
Remember our last message in Acts about the ministry of Philip?
We talked about several barriers to the gospel that God would uniquely overcome in the expansion of the church outside of Jerusalem.
Those barriers were spiritual (Simon the Magician), cultural (the hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans), and physical (the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza).
Well now, in today's passage in Acts 9:1-31, we see how God answers Stephen's prayer and overcomes a profound personal barrier in the life of Saul.
What would God do for Saul in order not to "hold this sin against him"?
Big Question: How is God able to deal with difficult people, if we ask him?
I. Cycle One – On the Damascus Road
A. Narrative (vv. 1-9)
While the church was expanding due to the persecution that broke out after Stephen's death, Saul was trying to shut it down.
He must have been doing an effective job since in v. 31, after God does business with Saul, the church enjoyed a time of peace.
Saul probably never skipped a beat in persecuting the church after the death of Stephen – he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples.
He even went so far as to go to the Jewish high court to get letters (court orders, search warrants, arrest warrants) authorizing his own personal holocaust to cleanse the land of Christians, called "The Way".
In other words he went way out of his way – his goal was Way out.
On his latest road trip planned for Damascus, it didn't matter who he found in this subversive sect who might be in the synagogues.
Men or women, he would haul them to the prison camp in Jerusalem and see that they were condemned to death.
This was no "compassionately conservative" Republican here but one of the old "mean-spirited" variety.
The only good Christian is a dead Christian, he always said.
So as Saul goes with the vindication of the high priest, God comes with the vindication of heaven in answer to Stephen's prayer.
God is going to work it out so there is nothing to hold against Saul because Saul is going to repent and be forgiven.
God is going to shed some light on the subject for this arrogant Pharisee.
In fact, God is going to bring so much light that Saul is blinded for three days.
Now this is an appropriate situation that God puts Saul in.
More than once Jesus called the Pharisees "blind guides" who thought they could see.
Saul thinks himself quite the Hebrew of Hebrews until he meets the God of the Hebrews.
Like Job said, "I had heard of you, but now I have seen you."
This wouldn't be the first time that God gets somebody's attention like this with a measure of trouble.
So God arrests this man, who has an arrested sense of righteousness, in order to loosen him up a bit.
In fact, he shakes him up a bit.
After he puts him on the ground, God says, "What gives with all this persecution, Saul? You don't know who you're messing with, boy."
Now Saul isn't as stupid as he might look.
He's a smart boy and he catches on quick.
He says, "Who are you, Lord?"
Now that's a quick save in my book.
When you know you're in over your head you need to start swimming.
Saul knows he has met his Maker.
He is ready to listen and obey.
So Jesus, who is the God who has appeared to him, gives him some instructions.
Jesus says, "From now on I'll call the shots. You just to what you're told."
And so Saul agrees, but Jesus still has the executioner's shroud of blindness over his eyes.
Saul is on a short rope – all Jesus has to do is jerk.
It will take a little time for Saul to get used to his new Master.
Whether out of repentance or discipline, Saul eats or drinks nothing for the three days he is blind.
It kind of makes you think that Jesus just made a believer out of him.
This is time when Saul is well advised to learn how to be totally dependent upon the Lord.
There were other men traveling with Saul, but they didn't see anything, although they did hear something as Jesus appeared to him and spoke.
Essentially, this was just a little one-on-one talk between the Coach and his new player as he lays out the new game plan.
These other men lead Saul by the hand into Damascus, but we never hear from them again.
Saul is the one Jesus is after, he is the ring-leader of this gang of thugs.
If the rest of them were smart, they scattered.
God is able to deal with difficult people by getting up close and personal with them on their level.
God speaks our language when we need to hear it. (Shawshank Redemption)
What language does God need to speak to you?
How loud does he need to get?
What does it takes to overcome your pride?
(This story about Saul could be called a tribute to the death of pride.)
What does God have to do to humble us?
Have you ever had your eyes opened by God to the truth that you were dead wrong about something?
Have you ever wondered just how blind you may still be?
Have you ever come to the place of asking, "Just who are you, Lord?"
No matter who we are or how difficult, God is able to deal with us, perhaps even in response to someone's prayer not to hold it against us.
Are we able to pray this prayer for others?
Are we able to receive the answer to their prayers for us?
God is able to do for us all just what we need if we just ask.
Be assured that he is thorough.
Just think through in life how many times you have seen God take the hard-nut cases first. (Janice's testimony from yesterday.)
Are we, like Saul, so bent on how we think things must look that God must say, "Now, look here!" so that when we look into his gaze we are blinded to all else?
II. Cycle Two – In Damascus
A. Narrative (vv. 10-22)
Now while Saul is on hold in Damascus at a house on Straight Street, God is at work on a coup de grace.
Interesting, isn't it, how perfectly applicable all things are in Scripture, now that Saul is on Straight Street?
He has met the Lord and has been scared straight – so much so that he is spending his time praying.
Now remember how God used the Hebrew Jewish apostles Peter and John to bring the H.S. to the Samaritans instead of the Greek Jew, Philip, who had brought them the gospel, to help overcome the cultural bias of both in order to bring unity in the church?
Now he will use Ananias, a Christian believer, to restore Saul's sight.
And just like God used Philip to prepare the Samaritans, God uses a vision to prepare Saul.
God brings them both together with personal instruction.
God intends to bring peace between this stalwart believer and this most pre-eminent persecutor of Christians.
He has lessons in store for both of them.
Ananias will have to overcome his bias against this formerly stiff-necked Jew and restore his sight and give him the Holy Spirit.
Saul will receive his sight from the hands of the ones he has been so purposefully persecuting – they will meet his most desperate need.
And it is interesting, isn't it, that the bigger they are the harder they fall, and the harder they fall the more thoroughly they are broken, and the chosen instruments of God are often those he has broken the worst so that he can mend them the best?
God rebuts Ananias' argument with, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
The concept of suffering is important and interesting here.
Heb. 2:10 tells us that even the author of our salvation was perfected through suffering.
God is telling Ananias that justice will be divinely accomplished.
Saul will be suffering while carrying out God's mandate to him, but all the while increasingly glad and compelled to do it.
Listen to the rest of Saul's testimony in Philippians 3:7-11:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ— the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
(Philippians 3:7-11 NIVUS)
I think God has made a believer out of Saul, don't you?
So Ananias goes and restores Saul's sight, and something like scales fall from his eyes (this is surely an act of God).
Now he can see clearly with spiritual sight and he is baptized, and he regains his strength.
The purpose of Saul's life is now for God.
He has, in a sense, died, been resurrected to a new life, and he begins to preach in public, in the synagogues, in the same city where he came to persecute the Christians he found in them.
His conversion is miraculous and effective as he proclaims the truth and the power of the One who has arrested him and thrown him into the prison of his own conscience only to release him to a freedom he could never before even conceive.
Saul could truly say, "Once I was blind but now I can see."
And the power of God in his life and the power of his testimony stir the wonder of the glory of God among all who hear him.
Surely the Christians understood, but the Jews were baffled that this pernicious persecutor was now going around trying to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the very same thing he was previously trying to obliterate.
God is able to deal with difficult people by using us believers as his servants to them.
Are we willing to accept God's work in others' hearts or are we so lily white that we, by our attitudes, turn others away who burn with the need to bare their sins before the altar of God?
They are those who want to be cleansed, but don't dare come clean in God's house because they fear the reaction of those of us who have supposedly already been cleansed?
Church sexual sin discussion on Wed. eve at Cedarly.
(The only way to cure it is to bring it before the church. How badly does one want to cure it?)
God chooses us to participate with him in his testimony of truth to others.
God is powerful and effective, but we are flesh and blood and we also need the affirmation and acceptance of others like we are.
God has made us a race of mankind and desires that we come together in community.
When we allow God to use us in the lives of difficult people, then we allow them to see God through us.
When difficult people see God through us, they are open to allowing God to reveal himself through them too.
III. Cycle Three – In Jerusalem
A. Narrative (vv. 23-31)
The work of God in us is never a one-time shot at brokenness and cleansing.
Gal. 1:17-18 tells us that Saul spent 3 years in Damascus, and then Arabia, and then back to Damascus before he went on to Jerusalem.
It seems that God often allows the desert experience to come to those whom he chooses.
But the Jews had had their fill of this turncoat to their treacherous cause against the Lord who bought them upon the cross of their own erection, and sought to do for him as he at one time sought to do for those of whom he now was.
They wanted to kill him for being a Christian as he at one time wanted to kill those who professed Christ.
It had come full circle – "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
He was in constant danger from this Jewish mafia who constantly watched the city gates lest he escape.
As Saul became aware of their plan he was constantly reminded of the horror of his own past – that he used to be just like them.
Oh, what personal and spiritual resolve this gives us to never backslide into the same pit from which Jesus dug us out!
And so the plan of the believers was to dangle Saul out through the city wall in the basket of God's hand in deliverance.
That's enough to make any of us a "basket case" for God.
It is that kind of deliverance that makes us willing to go to any length for God since we are absolutely affirmed in him.
And again, God uses other believers to help accomplish it.
And when Saul reaches Jerusalem, he faces the same thing he had to overcome in Damascus when he tried to join the other disciples.
They didn't want to believe him, being afraid of him, not believing he had really changed, that he had himself become a true disciple.
And so Saul had to prove himself all over again.
God continually reinforces the change in character of this previously difficult person.
But again, God brings another believer like Ananias into Saul's life to help him – a true encourager named Barnabas who brings him to the apostles and affirms his testimony.
And so now Saul is accepted by the Christians in Jerusalem and wastes no time in beginning to preach there as he had done in Damascus, only to face once again the death threats of the Jews.
This time it was from the Greek Jews, and again he has come full circle, since Stephen was a Greek Jew.
So the brothers help him escape once more and send him home where he came from in the first place - Tarsus.
Perhaps he would be safe there for a while.
But the plan of God is that he begin to relate to the Gentiles in Asia Minor to which he would fulfill the rest of the commission God gave him – "to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings".
And God then allows a time of peace for the strengthening of the church.
God is able to deal with difficult people by reminding them of their past so they will never return to it.
We are about to celebrate communion this morning.
The whole purpose of communion is that we dare not forget what Christ has done for us.
We dare not forget where we came from.
We dare not forget how difficult we were – or maybe still are as we allow his cleansing power to keep washing us fresh and new.
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.
But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;
for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."
Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers,
but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord stands forever." And this is the word that was preached to you.
(1 Peter 1:13-25 NIVUS)
Will we trust God to deal with the difficult people in our lives?
Will we trust God to deal with us?
God is able to deal with difficult people by getting up close and personal with them on their level, by using us believers as his servants to them, and by reminding them of their past so they will never return to it.
There's no business like show business when God is showing difficult people that he means business.