Allen Jackson - Saul Of Tarsus - Part 1
The topic is "Standing in the Gap". It's a pretty familiar phrase. If you've been around church much, I suspect you've heard it. It's a familiar line from the prophet Ezekiel, and it's been used a great deal in discussions through the church for at least through my lifetime. It's Ezekiel 22, in verse 30: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I wouldn't have to destroy it, but I found none". It's very sobering statement. God said, "I was looking for somebody to stand in the gap on behalf of my people". This is for the covenant people of God, the children of Israel. This isn't for a pagan nation or some ungodly group of people, but he said, "I couldn't find anyone".
So now, because of the hardness of their hearts and their wickedness, destruction will come to them. And we like to talk, and I understand we talk a lot about the grace and the mercy and the love of God. That's appropriate, but it's equally true that God is the God of truth and justice and judgment, and to talk about his love and grace and mercy without talking about his truth and his judgment is to misrepresent him. And to have a relationship with God, we need to be aware of the fullness of his character. And the prophet Ezekiel is reminding us that our lives make a difference in how God interacts with people, that God's people are at the center of his purposes in the earth. The reason this whole study came about is, in the last few weeks and months, I've had a change of heart in what it means to "stand in the gap".
I guess, for a long time, I took a rather casual approach to that. Then, I thought, you know, if your neighbor was going through a difficult time, maybe you'd mow the yard for 'em. Or if a friend of yours or somebody you knew was having a difficult season physically, maybe you'd fix a casserole, and we would stand in the gap. And I believe, I still think that's a legitimate idea that, as Christ-followers, we should help one another who are in need, and mowin' the grass and fixin' the casserole is a good thing. But I don't really think it lines up biblically with this image of standing in the gap. In fact, I would probably submit to you that helping one another in times of need is just the stuff of being a Christ-follower, but if you're not doing that, you're really avoiding the essence of what it means to serve one another. We're not called to sit in church and stare forward. We're called to serve one another. Isn't that kind of the gist of it? But God's been expanding this idea.
So the purpose of this study, and I'm not asking you for any commitments this weekend. The purpose of this study was to take three weeks and see if we could begin to identify some components and characteristics of these individuals who were difference-makers, who stood in the gaps in their seasons of life, so that we can make a decision as to whether or not we wanted to be those kind of people because it won't happen automatically. It'll reflect the choice. It'll be intentional. Acts 26, in verse 26, we get to listen as the apostle Paul tells a bit of his story. He said, "The king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice, for this has not been done in a corner". He's on trial for his life. He's in Caesarea, and he appears before a visiting king who wants to hear his case. It's King Agrippa.
Verse 27, "'King Agrippa, do you believe in the Prophets? I know that you do.' And Agrippa replied to Paul, 'In a short time you'll persuade me to become a Christian.' And Paul said, 'I wish to God, that whether in a short time or a long time, not only you, but all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains.'" It's a fascinating exchange. Paul's on trial for his life. I mean, literally, his future is in the balance, and when he has an opportunity to plead his case, he doesn't argue the points that would've set him free. Instead, he gives his testimony. He tells his Jesus story to this pagan king in hopes of influencing him to become a Christ-follower. You'd have to say Paul was a little one-track, and the response is what intrigues me. Agrippa's response is, you know, "You have almost persuaded me. You have almost persuaded me to be a Christ-follower". In fact, he said, "I'd like to hear some more of this".
And there's another king present, and his response to Paul is "You have lost your mind. You have studied so much, you have lost your mind". But Agrippa said, "You have almost persuaded me". Now, throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testament, we encounter these men and women who stand in the gap in their generation. They're difference-makers. Now, it's equally true, when we read the story, that in every generation or in some generations, there are no such people, and God deals differently with those generations. So the question on the table is what will be said of our generation? Will there be individuals who will say to the Lord, "I'll take that place"? We can't make that decision until we know what the characteristics are, so we're taking a few weeks to gather some insight into those ideas, characteristics, responses associated with the men and women who were able to be difference-makers in their generation.
Now, the "why" for this specific lesson? I don't ever like to go to a meeting unless you can tell me why. I don't wanna listen to a presentation unless you can tell me why, and I try to never prepare one unless I can tell you why. So the "why" for this one is to place before you an idea, preferably, hopefully, to awaken people to a new role in their faith, beyond just securing a spot in heaven. What I'm inviting you to do is to imagine living on purpose. For far too long, American evangelicalism has had a primary focus on a personal salvation. I believe in that. I believe in the necessity of the new birth, conversion, salvation, whichever label you prefer, but the purpose of the new birth is then we might lead a life that honors God.
Suppose the apostle Paul, after his experience on the Damascus road with Jesus, had dusted himself off and then gone back to the synagogue and spent the rest of his life studying Torah. He would've missed the point of that engagement on the Damascus road. Agreed? Or supposed King David, after Samuel the prophet came to his house and anointed him to be king of Israel, he'd gone back out to tending the sheep, and it never made any initiative to fulfill the invitation that had been put before him. He would've missed the point of Samuel's visit and the anointing to be king. True? Well, the purpose of the cross, so that you and I can be delivered from the power of darkness and brought into the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ, isn't just to get our ticket punched for a seat in heaven. It's that we might lead our lives in such a way that we make a difference in every generation.
So we've been doin' some case studies, and this weekend, we're gonna look at Saul of Tarsus. He's Jewish. He's a Pharisee. He's a zealot. In Acts 26, Paul is telling a bit of his story. It's the same presentation before Agrippa, so he's really giving his testimony. We can listen in while he tells his Jesus story. He said, "We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, why do you persecute me? It's hard for you to kick against the goads.' Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' 'I'm Jesus, whom you're persecuting. Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I'm sending you to them to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'"
It's a fascinating interaction. Paul is on his way to the city of Damascus. He's traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to search out anybody that has the audacity to say that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. He's gonna bring 'em back to Jerusalem, bound in chains, for trial and imprisonment. He's already been so effective in Jerusalem with both men and women that they've commissioned him to start now going to the nearby centers of influence, and he's headed to Damascus. And on the road, somewhere along the way, Jesus steps into time. Now, that's significant because, a casual read, you could miss it. Acts chapter 1, Jesus ascended back to heaven. He stepped out of time, and we have not seen him engaged in time until we get to Acts chapter 9, when he has this Damascus road experience with Paul, or Saul of Tarsus. Jesus himself returns to recruit Saul. We just read it. He knocked him from his horse into the dust, and then he said, "Stand up. What do you think you're doing"?
It's not like a fuzzy high five or a hug. "Just what do you think you're up to, young man? It's a hard path you've chosen". "Who are you, Lord"? "I'm Jesus of Nazareth". Jesus is recruiting a Pharisee that we know, from the larger story in Acts 9, that he's recruited him to be an apostle to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish world. It's a little odd to the casual read because Paul is the Pharisee of the Pharisees. He's the most Jewish of the Jews. Since his childhood, he studied Torah. He's been steeped in the laws and the regulations of the law, and Jesus is recruiting him. It's very intentional.
In all the cities where Paul is ultimately gonna end up ministering, he'll begin in the synagogues. He'll begin arguing from the Law and the Prophets that Jesus is the Messiah, and in synagogue after synagogue, there'll be a group of people that will accept that message, and then there'll be a group that will reject it, and Paul will step out of the synagogue and begin to tell the same story to the non-Jewish community, and there'll be another group who will accept it. And he'll choose the major population centers around the Roman world. He's uniquely qualified because he's not only Jewish, he's a Roman citizen, and his Roman citizenship is gonna stand him in very good stead when he gets into some rather difficult places. Recruited by Jesus, Jesus said, "I'm gonna show you all the things you're gonna have to suffer. I will rescue you time and again".
Now, I know it's in your Bible, and we read that like it's normal, but I'm tellin' you, that's weird. Imagine somebody called you tomorrow to recruit you to a new job. I think we would expect him to tell you about the increase in salary, how the benefits would be better, how you'd have more vacation time, all the perks that would come to you by affiliating yourself with this new position. After all, if you're gonna reorient your life and redirect your time and bet your future on a different set of circumstances, you would want there to be a good reason, a positive reason to do that, right? That sound normal? Suppose the recruiter calls you tomorrow and said, "You're gonna get paid less. Frequently, you're gonna have the love of Jesus beaten out of you. Oh, I'll come help you from time to time". How many of you think that would be just an exciting recruitment? Well, that's just exactly what we read. And Paul says, "Yes". He says, "Yes". He reorients his life, makes about 160-degree change.
In Philippi, these names are familiar. They represent, many of the books of your New Testament. Philippi is the Philippian church. It's the city. Corinth and the Corinthians. Galatia, Galatians. You get the idea. But in Philippi, that whole initiative begins with a supernatural intervention. Paul has a vision, a dream at night of someone beckoning him to come to Philippi. They've already got travel plans made. They're going in another direction. And he has a dream, a supernatural intervention of God that says, "You need to come to Philippi". So he gets up the next morning. They canceled their flights. They canceled their hotel reservations. They put it out on all the social media platforms, "We're not coming. We're going another direction". And so they have to repost everything: "We're headed to Philippi. We'll see you in a couple of days". And they roll into town, and it ends up in a riot.
Acts 16, "The crowd join in the attack on Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten," both stripped and beaten, not insignificant if you're the one receiving it. "After they'd been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them". Some of you know the end of the story. The jail is shaken. Their chains fall away. The jailer comes in to kill himself because he'll certainly be executed in the morning if his prisoners escaped. They call out to him. The jailer accepts the Lord. He and his whole family, they're baptized. Revival comes. A church is birthed in Philippi. And you're reading and go, "Oh, that's so nice, and that's so sweet".
But, folks, that's odd to me. I mean, Paul had a supernatural event that directed him to Philippi. Suppose I said to you, "God called us to reach the state of Tennessee, not just to sit in Murfreesboro and have church, but God called us to impact the state, and we're gonna start in La Vergne. I had a vision, dream in the night", hypothetically, "We're goin' to La Vergne. We've rented a hall. I need you to come go with me. We're gonna make a Jesus statement in La Vergne. Let's go". I'll bet some of you'd be willing to go with me. And suppose, when the meeting was over, we stepped outside. The citizens, the good citizens of La Vergne were waiting for us, and they beat the love of Jesus out of us. How many of you think, if we gathered here next weekend and I said, "I've got another destination," there'd be fewer people wantin' to ride the bus? What do you think?.
"If it's all the same with you, Pastor, that's not our vision of reaching the state of Tennessee. Could we go to the places where we could have a parade or a picnic? Could you dial back the message a little bit? You seem to be a little antagonistic. Maybe we need to wait for another time". All of those would be the responses I'm more familiar with. Remember, the topic is "Standing in the Gap". Is it possible that we've been coached to attend church, but we've never been awakened to making a difference? I don't know yet. I'm not ready to render the decision. Look at Lystra. Acts 14, "Some of the Jews came from Antioch and Iconium," the cities where Paul and his team had been earlier, "and they won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead".
You need the image. They stoned him. It means, inside the city, they picked up rocks and threw 'em at him until he was unconscious. They thought he was dead. So they drug his seemingly lifeless body out of the city. You couldn't leave a dead body, Jewish law, inside the city. You gotta take the corpse outside the city walls. So they drug him outside the city and walked off and left him, thinking they had done a good deed for the Lord. They killed the rascal. "But after the disciples had gathered around him", you can almost see it, the handful of 'em standin' around Paul. "He looks dead". "I'm not sure". "Where's Luke when you need him"? It says, "He got up", now, here's the part that's weird. "He went back into the city".
Now, to his credit, he left the next morning, but what God is doing is clearly not really in alignment with the way we imagine progress would be measured. In Corinth, 1 Corinthians chapter 4, I want you to listen specifically in this little passage for Paul's motivation, his attitude towards these people. "To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty. We're in rags, and we're brutally treated. We're homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we're cursed, we bless. When we're persecuted, we endure it. When we're slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have been the scum of the earth, the refuse to the world. I'm not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have 10,000 guardians in Christ, you don't have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel".
Again, I'm not sure this lines up with our imaginations of serving the Lord, hosting a Bible study, mowing the grass, and sharing a casserole. Paul said, you know, "We were hungry and thirsty, and we were very humbly dressed. We did without a lot of things, and we served you". He said, "I don't say that to your shame or your embarrassment". He said, "I don't want there to be anything awkward around that". He said, "We're your spiritual father". That's the normal role of a father, isn't it? A father will make sacrifices for a child. He will make do with less so the children have an opportunity. He'll think of the children first, then himself second. Isn't that kind of a typical parental role? And Paul said, "We took that place in your life". He said, "I give it to you not to shame you. It's a warning for you". He's trying to help them understand the nature of their relationship together and what it means for them to go forward as Christ-followers.
Standing in the gap, you see what happened in Corinth, would've been very different if Paul hadn't come to town. What happened in Philippi would've been very different if Paul and his team hadn't arrived. Look in Galatia, Galatians 4, in verse 19. Again, listen to the motivation: "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I'm perplexed about you". The letter to the Galatians is a corrective letter. There's a problem with the Galatian crew. They're abandoning their faith. Paul said, "What's happened to you? You were runnin' such a good race, but you've lost your way. You've broken your stride. You've lost all your momentum. You're wandering now".
Now, his language is interesting: "Children, I'm again in the pains of childbirth for you". Aren't you glad that's a one-time event, folks? Never done it, but I've watched a lot of things be born. Imagine if every time your kids misbehave, Mom, you had to go through childbirth again. That's what he's sayin' to the Galatians. He says, "What're you doing? I've been through labor for you once. Are you gonna put me through that pain again"? Again, he's been a difference in that community. He's made a difference in the lives of those people. Philemon is a little different. Philemon is the story of an escaped slave whom Paul meets while he's imprisoned. The man's name is Onesimus, and he serves Paul. He's a help to Paul and a strength to Paul, and he, too, becomes a believer in Jesus.
So Paul agrees to write a letter to his former slave owner that he might find life again, and it just so happens that Paul knows the man, that he has been influential in his own spiritual journey, so Philemon is the letter written to that same man. Said, "Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love". You gotta love Paul. He's got a little edge to him. He will bite. So he's sayin' to this man, "You know, this is something you should do just because of the generosity of your heart. The truth is, I could order you to do it. You owe me, but I'm not gonna order you. I'm just gonna point out that I could". "I then, as Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became a son while I was in chains".
Paul's makin' a difference in another life, making himself vulnerable. See, again, the question is "How do we understand our faith"? Is it about, you know, adopting a set of vocabulary words or a beverage list or a dress code so that we can secure a seat in some eternal place that we might think would be advantageous? Or do we imagine our lives have a meaning and a purpose within the context of the kingdom of God? Or do you think you hire people like me to do that so that you don't have to sully your hands with it? You can take your time and your resources and your energy and do whatever you would like because that's not really your assignment. I think that's an unfortunate idea.
Now, I've got a few minutes left. I wanna add one more layer to this from Saul's life and from the message he gives us. You see, in the New Testament, in the book of Acts and following, there's really two initiatives that are advocating for Jesus, not competing with one another, very much supporting one another, but there are two different initiatives: The first is centered around Jerusalem. Starts in the book of Acts, in the 1st chapter, with Jesus giving some instructions to his closest friends, and then it really breaks into the open in Acts chapter 2, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out, and Peter addresses the crowd, and thousands of people acknowledge Jesus as Messiah and are baptized publicly.
In the next chapter, there's a man that is healed, and the whole city is stirred, and the religious leaders that thought they had eliminated the threat, with the elimination of Jesus, are back at the table, plotting and scheming. But, again, it grows beyond them to the cities and villages around Jerusalem. The Jesus story is gaining a lot of momentum, and Peter and James and the crew that you know so well are really at the center of that. Christianity began very clearly as an overwhelmingly Jewish initiative. It started as one of those sects within Judaism, and in those early years, it was the majority. It was a Jewish initiative. Oh, there were a few non-Jews who are included in the periphery, but they were very peripheral.
Oftentimes, for me, the most difficult part of following the Lord is making peace with God's timing. He just doesn't always pay attention to my agenda or my request or when I want something done. I bet you know what that feels like. Well, I wanna ask you if you've got the courage to forgive God for messing up the timing. He didn't answer in the time and the place and in the way that perhaps you would've preferred him to, and we're left with the mess of that. Well, if we can make peace with God, it puts us in a place to receive what he has for us next. It's a better outcome. You willing to do that? Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, I thank you that you love us, that you have a plan for our good and not for our harm. Forgive us for being impatient, frustrated, angry, for stamping our feet. Lord, we want your best in our lives in your time, in Jesus's name, amen.