By Pastor Glenn Pease
America was at war with Spain in 1898. One of the most unusual incidents in the history of naval warfare took place. One night Captain Freemont of the American ship Porter detected some strange object coming toward the ship. As it came closer he saw that it was a torpedo. Ensign Irving Gillis instantly took off his coat and shoes and leaped into the water. He swam to the side of the torpedo, which was floating toward the ship and not being propelled rapidly. He circled the war nose with his arm and screwed the firing pin up tight so it could not go off. Then he pulled the disarmed weapon to the side of the ship. He and his prize were hauled aboard and the ship was saved from destruction.
This very unusual experience is a parallel of the very unique experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. He was, by his own admission, like an enemy torpedo sent to sink the ship of Christ's church. He was armed and deadly, but Jesus leaped into the events of history and disarmed this torpedo and hauled it aboard the ship. It became one of the great trophies of victory in the history of the church. The point is that Paul's conversion experience is extremely unusual. There is nothing like it anywhere in the Bible or Christian history. It is a once in a history experience and it becomes a marvelous basis for the study of Christian experience. There is more Scripture dealing with Paul's conversion than with any other in the Bible. The story is repeated three times in the book of Acts.
The word experience is from the Latin expertus, which means to try out, to prove, or to test. An expert is one who has had experience, for he has tried things and proven by testing what works. An experiment is the testing to see if a theory is real and can be proven. Each of these words have the same meaning. Paul here in Acts 22 is an expert witness on his own behalf as he defends himself before an angry mob that wants him dead. His defense is not an armchair, ivory tower, theology that he has reasoned out. His defense for being a Christian and a lover of Gentiles is his experience with the living Christ. Paul did not study and reason his way into the church. He was dragged in, and in his testimony he makes it clear that he is a Christian, not by any design of his own, but by the sovereign design of Christ who chose him.
Paul's cataclysmic conversion is probably the most famous conversion in all of history. It was not only a turning point in Paul's life, but in the life of the Christian church. From this point on Christians would be moving out into the Gentile world, and they would no longer be confined as a movement within Judaism. In this message we want to look at this event from the point of view of what it has to say about Christian experience. First-
I. EXPERIENCE IS PERSONAL.
This is Paul's personal testimony, and it fits nobody else in all of history. As far as the record goes, nobody else on this planet was every converted by getting knocked to the ground and blinded by the presence of Christ. What happened to Paul was a once in a history experience. It falls into the category of-
1. Moses at the burning bush. Nobody else has ever seen God in a burning bush.
2. Adam walking with God in the garden.
3. Daniel in the lion's den.
4. Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace.
5. Jonah in the belly of the whale.
The point is, there are all kinds of things that happen in this world that are unique and personal. They are not commonplace experiences that happen every day. God does not punch out people with a cookie cutter making them all alike, as if they were parts of a machine on an assembly line. People can have a lot in common, but every one of us is unique. God threw the mold away after making us, and not just the very unusual person. All of us have so much in common even with Paul. We have two eyes, two legs, and two arms, and we could go on and on with the list of the many things that we have in common. The ways we are like Paul could fill a book. Nevertheless, he was unique and different from us all, and from all the other Apostles. It is his radical difference that calls our attention to the fact that experience is so personal.
How we respond to our distinctiveness is the key to our self-image and our happiness as Christians. God obviously intended Paul to be unique and different from all the other Apostles. There was much about him that was nothing to be proud of. He was the only one who persecuted the church, and so he was the only one unworthy to even be called an Apostle. He said that he was the least of the Apostles, and in I Cor. 15:8 where he lists the resurrection appearances of Christ he says, "And last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born." Paul was not only the last and the least, he was the only Apostle who did not have a normal birth. He was born again, but not like the others who had natural birth. They walked with Christ and lived with Him. They came to love and understand Him, and by an act of their will surrender to Him. This was not the case with Paul. They Greek word here for abnormal birth means abortion, or premature birth.
Paul was not ready to be born into the kingdom of God. He was like Macduff in Shakespeare's Macbeth. "From his mother's womb untimely ripped." Paul did not grow and develop to become a Christian. He was thrust into it prematurely, and like a premie baby he was not fully formed. He was something of a monstrosity, and the Christians still feared him as a fierce enemy. He was like an unformed fetus, and still a product of the law. He needed a lot of care before he was formed and developed in Christ. The other Apostles had three years to be formed and shaped by Christ. Paul alone was the aborted Apostle who was speed forced into the kingdom.
Paul is not proud of his uniqueness in the sense that it was good for him to have been so blind and cruel as a persecutor. He says in verse 9, "For I am the least of the Apostles and do not even deserve to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." Paul did not consider his personal distinctiveness as good, or as a badge of honor. It was a disgrace that he was a persecutor of the church. But Paul goes on in verse 10 to say, "But by the grace of God I am what I am." Because of God's grace he worked harder than anyone who was born naturally. In other words, he did not let his negative experience and uniqueness hurt his self-image. He let it lead to a positive exaltation of the grace of God, and so to his own positive self-worth.
We are dealing with a paradox here that hinders Christians from developing a healthy self-image. The paradox is that Christians who have not been wild and anti-Christian like Paul feel that there conversion has not been radical, and so they feel they have missed out. On the other hand those who have been like Paul, and have been enemies of Christ, feel they are held back and are second class Christians because they have been such awful people before their conversion. The result is that Satan wins both ways, for Christians who have been too good or too bad both developed a poor self-image and settle for being mediocre Christians.
What we need to learn from Paul's personal experience is that how you are born again is not any more important as to your value as a Christian than is how you are born of the flesh is important to your value as a person. Do you ask anyone you admire if they were born premature or not? Do you ask if they were born in a hospital, at home, or in a cab? The personal experience of being born may vary a great deal, but none of these differences play a role in the value we place on a person. We do not say, "I would like you to meet so and so, but keep in mind he comes to us by way of caesarian. So also we do not make an issue of one's personal conversion. Did it happen on the road to Damascus, or while kneeling by a bedside after a great struggle? Was it after long thought and study, or was it instantly by conviction at a crusade? There are hundreds of different factors in people's personal experience of coming to Christ. All that really matters is that they confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God has raised Him from the dead. It is the Lordship of Christ that counts and your submission to Him, and not the means or methods by which you came to experience it.
Being conformed to the world is clearly condemned, but we often do not see the harm in trying to conform to others experience in the church. It is almost always a pain to feel the pressure to be something you are not. The customer complained that the shoes are two narrow and pointed. The salesman responded, "These are what they are wearing this season, the narrow and pointed style." The suffering customer said, "It may be, but I'm still wearing last seasons feet." Fads develop in the church as well as in the world. The result is that Christians are constantly being pressured to conform to someone's idea of being spiritually in style. C. S. Lewis in a talk to Cambridge undergraduates said, "The most compelling of all temptations is the temptation to the inner circle. Men will lie, betray their wives for admission to the circle....the charm of the inner circle lies in the fact that others may not enter, that only a select few are admitted." This compelling temptation is the force behind the fads that sweep masses of people into all sorts of things because of their craving to be in the inner circle. People crave for experience, and that is why they fall for every cult that comes along that offers some unique experience.
Back in the 1950's when South Pacific was at its peak on Broadway and Rogers and Hammerstein was being sung to sell out crowds, there were many visitors in New York who wanted tickets but couldn't get them. A couple of New York youth saw an opportunity. They began to pick up dropped ticket stubs and discarded programs. They sold them to out-of-towners who wanted to go back home with evidence they had been there. They were willing to pay to have evidence to convey that they had been in the inner circle where all their friends had never been. The next best thing to seeing the show was to experience the envy of those who thought you did. This trait of human nature often compels Christians to force themselves into some unique experience, or to fake it so they can be in the inner circle.
The reason it is important that we see the personal nature of experience is because there is a normal human tendency to try and imitate or duplicate that which we admire. On many levels this is good. Paul even said, "Be ye imitators of me as I am of Christ." But when we try and imply this to the unique and personal experience of life that are not open for all to imitate, we become frustrated and discouraged because we cannot be like our heroes and those we admire. Paul knew his conversion was very personal and unique, and nowhere do we read of Paul trying to impose his experience on others. He never expected his converts to go through what he did. He never asked if they had seen a vision and been blinded. He knew people were saved by their own personal trust in Christ, and not by trying to duplicate anyone else's experience.
One of the major problems with unique experiences is that people do not recognize that they are personal. They seek to use their personal experience as a standard by which they measure the experience of others. This was the major problem in Corinth. Some had been blest with the ministry of Paul, and others with the ministry of Apollos, and still others with a ministry of Peter or Christ. They began to form divisions in the church because each took his own experience and said that it was the measuring stick of spirituality. To add to the complexity of this mess they did the same thing with their gifts. Those with tongues and other charismatic gifts took their experience as the norm. They said this is what you need to experience to be first class Christians like us. They imposed their experience on others, and the result was that they became the most divided and unloving church in the New Testament. Experience can be such a blessing, but when it is not recognized as personal but made a general obligation it can become a curse, as it did in Corinth.
Some form of this nonsense of imposing the personal on others has plagued the church all through history. It is a rejection of all Paul says about love being kind, not proud, rude, or self-seeking. All of us can play this cruel game. We can take our strong points and unique interests and make others feel guilty because they do not have these same experiences in their own lives. I have not done it, but I believe I would if, I was confronted by a Christian, who began to impose his personal experience on me. If a Christian who has spoken in tongues urged me to seek this gift because it has done so much for him, I would respond that I asked the Spirit for the gift of love for learning, and I have seldom lived a week sense that I have not read from two to five books. I could ask if he likewise has this gift, and why not when the Bible makes it clear that this too is God's will for us that we grow in wisdom and in knowledge.
The point is, I do not do this because I know my experience is personal, and not all believers have the same motivations. I do not expect it of others, but if someone seeks to impose their personal experience on me I can make them see the folly of it by trying to impose my personal experience on them. Experience is that which makes you who you are. If you had the same experience as everyone else, then there would be no such thing as your individual uniqueness. We would all be clones and copies, and we would all be alike with no variety. God intends for us to be different, and that is why experiences are often so personal. Nobody is like Paul in his conversion, and that is why Paul is who he is. He is one of a kind. God has designed all of us to be one of a kind. Some unknown poet wrote,
I wonder if my fingerprints
Get lonely in the crowd.
There are no others like them,
And that should make them proud.
We can be proud of our distinctiveness because God loves variety, but not feel the negative pride that says we are better than others because our experiences are different. My fingerprints are not better than anybody else's. Paul's were different than Peter's, and they were also different in many other ways. Their value to the cause of Christ was not derived from their superiority to one another, but from their uniqueness. Paul was not better than the others, but was just different, and so he could do a job that the others were not equipped to do. A pair of scissors is not better than a hammer or a screwdriver, but it is more useful for specific tasks. Each is better than the other for certain jobs. Each is valued because of their uniqueness. God does not want us to be somebody else, but wants us just to be the best of who we are.
The point of all this is that experience is unique, but it is not our foundation. The foundation is the objective truth of Christ. This is what all Christians have in common however unique and different their experience is. We don't have to be like Paul anymore than we have to study under Gamaliel to be educated. What we have to do to get in on the only inner circle that really matters is to put our trust in the finished work of Christ. He is the one who saves you and not your experience. Paul was not saved by being knocked to the ground and blinded by his vision of Christ. He was saved by what Christ did for him on the cross, and by his submission to the Lordship of Christ. Everyone is saved in the same way and not by trying to imitate Paul's unique experience.