BIOGRAPHY V. TESTIMONY
All right, if you’ve got a Bible, go to Acts 9, starting in verse 19.
We continue our study of the book of Acts. If you’re new to Christianity, the center of the whole Bible is really a person, and his name is Jesus Christ. And orbiting around that person, Jesus Christ, are principles on how to live your life—do this, don’t do that—a lot of wisdom and good advice, as well as people.
The Bible includes the stories of some of the most amazing, fascinating, life-changing, earth-shattering, eternity-altering people in the history of the world, and today we’re going to get to know one of them. His name is Saul.
You may know him a little more familiarly as Paul. And what you’re going to read and study with me is his testimony, but let me explain how this is different.
In our day, there’s a real fascination, a love for, biography. So whether it’s a testimonial on a talk radio or television show, or it’s a runaway movie, or it’s a best-selling book, we love biographies. We love to hear about someone who overcame adversity, someone who stood in the face of opposition, someone who was able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to do better, to try harder, to get some great victory, and to emerge triumphant over their circumstances.
Our culture is littered with these stories, and the difference between a biography and a testimony is this: God. Because a biography is about what they did and a testimony is about what God did. A biography is about how they’re a winner, and a testimony is about how God’s a winner. A biography ultimately is about my glory, “Look what I did,” and a testimony is about God’s glory, “Look what he did.”
So, as Christians, we learn from the Bible that we’re not to seek to have a biography a story in which we are the hero, we are the victor, we are the triumphant, we are the glorious but have a testimony where God is the hero, God is the victor, God is triumphant, and God is glorious for us because he loves us, because he’s gracious, and merciful, and compassionate, and good, and he’s the hero and we’re not, and he gets the glory and we don’t.
All of chapter nine of the book of Acts is the testimony of Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle. So what I want to do today as we study this together, I want you to think about your own life and ask yourself, “Am I living for a biography or a testimony? Am I living so that others would be impressed with who I am and what I’ve done, or living in such a way that others would be impressed by who Jesus is and what he’s done for me?”
I’m going to ask you five questions, and those will be the basis for your Community Group discussions this week. I want you to think about your life and how it can be a testimony, because ultimately a testimony, it encourages Christians.
How many of you, as Christians, someone tells you their story of God’s grace in their life and it absolutely encourages you? Like, “That’s amazing. I have so much joy and hope to hear of God’s love for you.”
It also not only encourages believers, it evangelizes unbelievers. Some of you, you may not understand the power of your testimony. Revelation says in the face of adversity, God’s people overcame them “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Your testimony is powerful because it testifies not just that God is alive, and loving, and good, and powerful, and true, but he has manifest that in your life. As you share that with others, you become a living epistle. You become a story of God’s grace that not only encourages believers, but it evangelizes unbelievers and it makes the story of Jesus all that more intriguing for them.
1. WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A NON-CHRISTIAN?
So today, we’re going to look at the testimony of Saul, and I want to start with this question for you: What were you like as a non-Christian?
For those of you who are non-Christians, welcome, we love you, we’re glad to have you. We all started where you are, as a non-Christian. For those of you who are Christians, what were you like as a non-Christian? For me, looking back, God saved me in college. I was very self-righteous, thought I was better than everyone, very proud, very independent. Some of you would say, “And what has changed?” You know, it’s still in process, right? I’m a hard colt to get a saddle on and Jesus is still working on me.
But for sure, if you would have came along and said, “So who’s at the center of your life?” I would say, “Well, I am. I’m my highest authority and everything is about me.”
What were you like as a non-Christian? As we’re looking at the story of Saul, Paul, the first half of Acts 19 tells us that he was very religious, very religious, exceedingly devout, that he was relentless, that he—if he believed he was on a mission from God, he could not be stopped. Now, he was sincere, but he was sincerely wrong. He was relentless, but in the wrong direction, for the wrong cause, on the wrong mission. He was religious, he was relentless, and he was ravaging. The Bible actually uses that word, that Saul was ravaging the church. What we learn about him is that he hated Christ and he hated Christians.
If you asked the Christians in that day, “Who is the greatest enemy to Christianity?” They would have said Saul of Tarsus. He was the equivalent in our day of a guy who’s sort of leading a terrorist group that is out to assault, and incarcerate, and execute Christians. He was that kind of man. As a result, he put to death the early church deacon, Stephen. He oversaw his murder. He murdered a Christian. The Christians fled, the churches emptied, people scattered, and he got permission like a bounty hunter to pursue them upwards of 150 miles on foot with the right to legally arrest them— grandmas, grandpas, kids, women, men, everybody— and bring them back for trial, possibly incarceration, or even execution, bound in chains. That’s Saul of Tarsus. That is who he is and what he is like as a non-Christian.
How about you? What were you like as a non-Christian?
2. HOW DID YOU VIEW OF JESUS CHANGE?
The second part of a testimony is this. How did your view of Jesus change?
If you would have asked me before I became a Christian, “What do you think about Jesus?”
“Nice guy, good platitudes, decent example.”
“Is he God?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Is he your Lord in charge of your life?”
“Not at all.”
“Do you live for him or listen to him?”
“No, I don’t.”
How about you? For those of you who are non-Christians, what’s your view of Jesus? What’s your view of Jesus? For those of you who are Christians, how has your view of Jesus changed since becoming a Christian?
Well, as I told you, Saul thought that Jesus was a blasphemer, a godless man who was saying he was the God-man. He thought that Jesus was perhaps the most ungodly person who had ever lived, and he hated Christ, and he hated Christians who worshiped Jesus as God. And then his view of Jesus changed.
We saw earlier in chapter nine, Jesus comes down from heaven, and Saul literally has an encounter with Jesus, and his view of Jesus changes. Then we read this, Acts nine, beginning in verse 19, the second half: “For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ “And all who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name?’“
Wasn’t he killing preachers, now he’s preaching? Didn’t he hate Jesus, now he loves Jesus? What happened to this guy?
How many of you are newer Christians and your friends are asking you that question? You’re like, “I love Jesus.” They’re like, “Who are you?”
“‘And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound’“— right, arrested, chained, shackled— “‘before the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength,”— so the Holy Spirit is working in and through him— “and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
Here’s Saul’s view of Jesus. We just learned it through two titles: Son of God and Christ.
The important thing with titles is sometimes the titles in the Bible are different than the titles that we use, so we can sort of miss the significance of the titles. But the titles are very important because poured into them is a lot of meaning—a lot of meaning. So today, let’s say you’re in a Muslim country that’s ruled by a royal family and someone says they’re a prince. All right, if you live in that culture and context, prince is loaded with meaning. In our country, prince, not so much. You’re like, “Isn’t he the little guy that lives in Minnesota, wears a raspberry beret, goes out in the purple rain? Is it that?” You know, we don’t—prince doesn’t mean as much, right?
So, we need to look. Culturally, what did the titles mean? How would they have heard it? So that we can understand it and get the most meaning from it.
These two titles are very significant. He is the Son of God and he is the Christ. That’s what Paul is proclaiming. That is what he is declaring because his view of Jesus has been changing. When it says that Jesus is the Son of God, this is a direct claim to be God, to be divinity. See, in our day, we kind of define ourselves by who our father is. So it is in the Bible. There are a lot of genealogies. So and so, this was their father, and then their father had this father, and a lot of it is traced through the family line through the man.
In addition, in our day, even some of our last names reflect this. You meet somebody, Jackson, it means at some point there was a guy named Jack and he had a son. Who’s that guy? Well, that’s Jack’s son, right? Mattheson, who’s that? Well, that’s Matthew’s son. We define ourselves by who our father is, and we all have sinful, fallen, flawed, earthly fathers. Jesus comes along.
“Who’s your father?”
He says, “My Father is God.”
No one had ever said that. He had an adoptive earthly father named Joseph, but he’s saying that ultimately his father is God the Father, and that he is not just a son of Joseph, he is the Son of God.
We use the analogy, the expression in our day, “Like father, like son.” That’s why Jesus says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one.” He’s saying that God is his Father and they’re equal. He’s putting himself on the same plane as God the Father. They have the same attributes, the same authority, they share in the same glory. If I commission one of my sons on my behalf, they show up with my authority. Jesus is saying, “I come with the Father’s authority. I come on his behalf.” Well, those who heard this heard this clearly as a claim to be God.
I need you to understand this, particularly for those of you who are not yet Christians. And this may be the day that your life goes from a biography to a testimony, and that’s what I’m praying for you.
They heard this and said, “He’s saying he’s God.” You need to know this. Jesus was opposed, Jesus was arrested, Jesus was crucified, Jesus was murdered because he said he was God.
Saul comes along, and he hates Christ because he said he was God, and he hates Christians because they worship him as God, and then he meets Jesus Christ, he becomes a Christian, and he proclaims that Jesus is the son of God.
Secondly, he says that Jesus is the Christ. This means the Anointed One. Also called the Messiah. This means that God the Holy Spirit resides on and works through this person in a supernatural, miraculous, inexplicable way, and that there are people who are anointed— in the Old Testament, there are prophets, and priests, and kings, and the Holy Spirit indwells, and empowers, and transforms, and uses them for God’s supernatural work on the earth— but the prophecies were given and the anticipation was awaiting the coming of one who would be the Anointed One, unlike everyone else, in a category unto themselves, the person who would come with God’s power and God’s authority on God’s mission for God’s glory, the Anointed One. Nobody like them, nobody alongside of them, nobody in the same category as them. And Saul is saying that Jesus Christ is the Anointed One. He has authority as God and power as God that is unprecedented, unparalleled, and unequaled. Do you see this radical change?
How many of you, this has been, to some degree, your experience. You thought Jesus was a good man, now you know he’s the God-man. You thought Jesus was a good example, and now all of the sudden you realize he’s Lord, God, Savior, King, and Christ. That you’re understanding of Jesus has completely expanded, and changed, and transformed. This is one of the ways we know who the Christians are and the non-Christians are. And if you love somebody, and you’re talking to them, and you’re not sure if they’re a Christian or a non-Christian, just start asking them this simple question: “What do you think about Jesus?”
If they don’t say things like, “He’s the Son of God, he’s the Christ, he’s God,” they’re not yet at the point where they are a Christian. They may be somewhere in the process, but they don’t understand Jesus, and their view of Jesus hasn’t changed.
One of the most interesting questions to ask somebody if you want to see whether or not they’re a Christian is, “How has your view of Jesus changed?” If they say, “It hasn’t,” well, “Then you haven’t met him, so let’s talk about him.”
“Well, I used to think this, and now I think that.”
“Oh okay, well then maybe you did meet him.”
Saul assuredly met him.
Now, here’s the important thing. What Saul is saying is not important unless it’s true. And if it is true, it’s radical. What Saul is doing is he is echoing what Jesus had already been saying. And if you’re here and you’re not a Christian, let me say this. You may have heard that Jesus never said he was God, and that over time his disciples wrote some books, and made some stuff up, and maybe even they were well-intended, but they made mistakes and they said he was the Son of God, and they said he was the Christ, and they said he was the Lord, but that’s not really what he believed and that’s not what he said. I’ll prove to you that this is exactly what Jesus said. He said that he was the Son of God and the Christ.
So when Saul is speaking, it is Jesus whom he is echoing, right? So, Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ. We see this in Matthew 26:63-65. Here’s Jesus.
“And the high priest said to him,”— Friends, the context is this. It’s like a trial. Jesus his been deposed, right? He’s on trial. Somebody’s keeping a record, right? Those who are going to render the verdict are present. And the charge is this, “You say you’re God. Now, we want to give you an opportunity to recant, to say, ‘Oh, I was misinterpreted, misunderstood.’ We want you to clarify that. We want you to, if you did say it, apologize for that and agree never to say it again.
The issue is he says he’s God. We need to hear from him what he truly believes. —”And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you,’“ I command you— “by the living God,” Okay, this is kind of funny, right? This is like, “Put your hand on the Bible. Do you swear to tell the truth?”
“Oh yeah, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me, me.”
I mean, it’s weird how they’re telling God to tell the truth because God is watching. And God’s like, “Oh yes, I am.” I mean, it’s just sort Of—anyway, I find that funny. —“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are’“— what are the two issues? —“The Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes or no, are you the Christ and the Son of God?”
“Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so.’“—
Yeah, you got that right. Nailed it, bulls eye, good job—
“Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy.’“
What’s blasphemy? When someone says they’re God and they’re not God. If I told you right now, “I’m God,” that would be blasphemy. I didn’t say it. Don’t tweet it. That’s not what I’m saying, okay? I’m not God. I’m very sure I’m not God. I don’t wake up every morning, look in the mirror, “Hello, Lord.” I’m sure. The closer I get to Jesus, the more I realize I’m not like Jesus, okay?
To say you’re God—people who say, “Jesus was a good man, he just made a mistake saying he was God,” good men don’t make mistakes like that. Cult leaders do. Sociopaths do. People who are insane do. Good people don’t say, “I’m God, worship me, and when you die, trust in me.” You don’t say that if you’re a good person and it’s a false statement. Friends, Christianity comes down to what Jesus said about himself, and it’s true or it’s false. And if it’s true, he’s God. If it’s not true, he’s a blasphemer, a man claiming to be God who’s not God. And just so you know, there is no other major world religion in the history of the world that has its founder making this claim, “I’m God.” In fact, we tend to consider those most holy who are clear that they’re unholy, right? We want to follow someone who knows that they’re not perfect, and Jesus says he’s perfect. So that’s either true or false, and this is a magnificent, extraordinary, unprecedented, unparalleled claim. And they rightly understand, if he says he’s God and he’s not God, he’s guilty of what? Blasphemy. And the consequence is death.
Friend, if you’re not a Christian, you need to know that’s why they crucified him. Not because he fed people, not because he petted lambs, not because he hung out with children, they killed him because he said he was God, and that’s either true or false.
“‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need?’”
They’re saying, “Case closed. We had people ready to testify. We don’t even need their testimony. We can make this trial very short. He just told us he’s God, case closed.”
“You have now heard his blasphemy.”
Non-Christian, who do you think that Jesus is? If you are a Christian or you become a Christian, who you think Jesus is has to change. Has to change. It has to change.
Has your understanding of Jesus changed? Would you now say, “He is the Son of God and he is the Christ,” or would you say, “He is a blasphemer”? Truly, those are the only two categories that we have.
Saul’s view of Jesus has radically changed because he would have said previously, “Blasphemer,” and now he says, “Lord.”
3. WHAT DOES TIME ALONE WITH JESUS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
Question number three for discussion in your community group this week. You can use these five questions. What does time alone with Jesus look like for you?
Saul has been converted. He’s starting to proclaim his testimony, talking about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in his life. In a moment, when we get back into Acts, you’ll see it’ll say, after “many days.” There’s a time gap right here in Acts, and most Bible commentators believe that that gap is explained by Paul writing this in Galatians 1:15-18: “But when he who had set me apart before I was born,”— God chose to save him— “and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me,”— that’s Jesus— “in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,”— those are non-Jewish folk like you and me— “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me,”— that’s where the leaders were— “but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years”— and there’s the timeline, three years— “I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas”— that is Peter— “and remained with him fifteen days.”
Here’s what he’s saying: “My testimony is I met Jesus. My life, my heart, my mind changed. I started talking about him and then God called me into three years of solitude.”
He says he’s out in the desert. The area he is in is sort of the same area where we hear about Sinai during the Exodus, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, where Elijah preached. It’s desert, barren, wasteland, middle of nowhere. And he’s there for how long? Three years. Doing what? Preparing for the ministry that God would have for him.
We see that God’s servants often are called by God to seasons of solitude, withdrawing. We see this with Moses. We see this with the prophets. They lived in exile, oftentimes apart from God’s people in community out in the wilderness. We see this with John the Baptizer, the voice of the one crying from the wilderness. We see this with the Lord Jesus where he gets 40 days in solitude before his public ministry commences. And here we see it with Saul, Paul, three years essentially in isolation.
And let me say this to you: Solitude is not just running from something, it’s running to someone. Oftentimes, when life gets hard, things get dark, we are scared, you know, we just—we run to get away from it or them. Solitude is where we not only run from someone or something, we run to Jesus to get time with him. This is the difference. If you’re always just running from something but you’re not running to Jesus, that’s not very helpful. But if you’re running from something and you’re running to Jesus, that can be very helpful.
Here, his solitude is not to escape all the conflict, and all the controversy, and all the trouble, and you know, he murdered somebody, oversaw their murder, and there’s a big blow up, and he’s just trying to lay low. No, that’s not it. He’s running to get time with Jesus. What does time alone with Jesus look like for you?
We can assume, I think reasonably so, and I’m one who’s reticent to infer anything from the Scriptures, but reading his testimony in Galatians 1, reading his testimony in Philippians, reading the account in Acts 9, he knew a lot of Bible, at least Old Testament, but he didn’t know Jesus. So, he’s probably studying the Bible saying, “Okay, I knew the Bible, but I don’t know Jesus so I don’t really understand the Bible. I need to figure out how this all connects to Jesus.”
This is time for prayer, talking to the Lord, listening to the Lord. This is time for study and reflection. This is time for journaling, processing, considering. This is time for repenting, and singing, and worshiping, and spending time with God.
Jesus is alive and he’s very glad to meet with you through the person, the presence, and the power of the Holy Spirit. All right, he’ll never leave you, he’ll never forsake you. He’ll be with you always to the end of the age. That’s what he promised.
Here’s what happens. We have three gods in our world who do not allow us to enjoy the presence of God, and they are hurry, worry, and busy. And that false trinity of hurry, worry, and busy, it absolutely overtakes us.
When’s the last time you got some time alone with God? And I know you’re busy, and I’m busy, and we’re busy, but man, if we don’t start with time with the Lord, we’ll do the wrong thing in the wrong way with the wrong motive, and all of our efforts will be in vain, and that’s certainly my experience. Anytime I thought, “Well, I’m going to go to work and then ask God to bless it,” God’s like, “Wrong order. Meet with me. I’ll tell you what to do, and how to do it, and prepare you for it, and get your heart ready, and then it’ll be to my glory.”
If you don’t have time for the Lord, something is wrong. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.
Lord, what do you want to convict me of? How do you want to change me? What do you want me to think through? What do I need to study? Where do I need to grow? How do I need you to comfort me? What is next for me? Who do you want me to love?
I’ll tell you, in our age, technology unquestionably contributes to this great problem, amen? Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, beeping, buzzing, ringing— It never ends.
You know, I mean, it should say on our phone, you know, “This is your lord. It controls your life and your destiny. It overrules anyone and anything, and intrudes at any time.”
And I’m not saying that technology is bad, I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it is. Technology, like everything, is an opportunity to either help us to know the Lord or hinder our knowing of the Lord.
It’s so amazing because sometimes we’ll even run, through our technology, to people, when we should run to the Lord first. You have a problem, it’s not like, “Okay, I’ve got to talk to the Lord about this.” It’s like, “I need to call or text someone.” Instead of praying it through and processing it through, it’s like, “I’m just going to post it in social media and let everybody get involved.” Then the Holy Spirit shows up an hour later and you’re like, “I was wrong.” I mean, we don’t start with the Lord. We use technology to run to people first when we should run to Jesus first. Then we allow people and things to just crash into our life, even when we’re trying to get time alone with Jesus.
I’m not saying technology is bad. I have a phone. Last year I dropped it in the lake and it honestly felt like I got saved again. My wife looked at me and she’s like, “What happened?” I was like, “I dropped my phone in the lake.” She was like, “Oh no!” I was like, “Oh yeah!” She’s like, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “I’m going to wait a few weeks to get another phone.”
I mean, it literally—it was like, if the rapture happened today, I would drop my phone on the way up. I don’t—whatever, you know? I don’t need this anymore.
But what can happen is sometimes we get so consumed. We’re playing games, we’re texting, we’re updating, we’re reading, we’re surfing, we’re wandering, and all of the sudden you’re like, “What happened? I didn’t get time with Jesus, why? All my time was spent doing something that is maybe not evil, but is definitely not as helpful.”
Sometimes, at least for me, you need to just turn the phone off, right? And sometimes get away.
It’s interesting here that oftentimes when God wants his people to enjoy solitude, they get away. The Bible says that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to get alone with the Father. How many of you, you can’t really get time with the Lord at home? You’re like, “I’ve got to paint that wall. That’s a lot of laundry. My cat threw up. Those dishes are dirty.” Right? And you have a hard time getting time with the Lord at home, so sometimes it’s literally going away from your routine and turning off your technology so that you can run to Jesus and get some time with him. Friend, I would submit to you that these are crucial times, these are significant times, these are divine appointment times for reading, for praying, for journaling, for repenting, for mourning, for singing, whatever it may be, and God is very glad to meet with you. What Saul says is— he says, “You know, I got 3 years with Jesus before I started doing ministry.”
I honestly wish I would have gotten more years with Jesus before I started this ministry for Jesus to straighten out some things in my character and my attitude, and to make sure I was working on a testimony and not a biography.
What I love about Paul’s example as well is his humility and his submission to authority. What he says in this text is, “I spent three years with Jesus, and then I went to meet with the leaders to tell them my testimony and for them to confirm God’s calling on my life to preach the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.”
What he didn’t say was, “Jesus came down and saved me, set me aside for three years, I graduated with honors, and now I serve the Lord.” He says, “And I submit myself to the leaders.”
It’s very important after you get time with the Lord to confirm what it is you believe he has said through godly leadership because you know what? We can get it wrong. We can get it wrong. And so he comes with the full confidence of Jesus’ calling and the confirmation by godly leadership.
What does time alone with Jesus look like for you?
4. HOW HAVE YOU SUFFERED FOR CHRIST?
Number four, part of his testimony, how have you suffered for Christ? Part of being a Christian is suffering. Sometimes it’s because of our sin. I’ve sinned, and when I do, sometimes I reap what I sow. Sometimes others sin against you. And sometimes you suffer just because you love Jesus, and some people don’t love Jesus, and because you love Jesus, they don’t love you either. He’s going to suffer, and it’s interesting because he was a guy who made it his business to cause Christians to suffer, and then he becomes a Christian and he suffers for being a Christian. Acts 9:23-26, “When many days had passed,”— Do you see that? That’s why I think the three years in Galatians 1 explains this gap. “The Jews”— the religious leaders— “plotted to”—what? “Kill him.”
What did he do previously? Plotted to kill people. Then he meets Jesus. Now the guys that he trained are plotting to kill him.
“But their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all”—what? —”afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.”
He is going to suffer from Christians and non-Christians alike. You are going to suffer from Christians and non-Christians alike because we’re all sinners.
Now, the non-Christians, they have a plot to kill him. And it’s a fortified city with a wall, and there was a gate so you could guard who came in and out of the city. This is like a security checkpoint. It’s still like this in places in the Middle East. When I went from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, there’s this huge wall that encircles, and you’ve got to pass through a security checkpoint, and there are armed guards, and they make sure that the wrong people don’t get in. It’s like that.
It’s kind of like you’re going to the airport and they’ve got a most wanted list, and you’re on the no fly list, and you’re in line, and all of the sudden, you know, the red light goes off and you’re not getting on a plane. You’ve been flagged. It’s like that. He’s out on the no fly list. He’s out on the most wanted list, and so they have guards at the gate 24 hours a day. “If you see Saul, arrest him so that we might kill him.” This means that they’re doing an investigation in the city as well. There’s a manhunt. They’re going to find him eventually because it’s a fortified city. You can’t leave, you can only hide for so long. So, what do his disciples do? Middle of the night, they find a hole in the wall, kind of like baby Moses, they put him in a basket, they put a rope on it, and they drop him down as an escape plan. Paul talks about this in his letter to the Corinthians. He says that it was actually kind of embarrassing.
This isn’t a really glorious moment for a man, amen? You’d want to tell your grandkids, “Yeah, and they wanted to kill me, and so I just—I got a few weapons and I fought my way through the gate. That’s what I did.”
No, it’s like, “No, actually, I climbed in a laundry basket, and in the middle of the night I very quietly got lowered down with a rope and ran for my life. That’s what I did, kids. That’s what grandpa did.”
This is not his Jack Bauer moment, right? This is not it. And Saul’s like, “You know, that was kind of humbling.” Yeah, yeah. There are moments in life where even obeying the Lord is sort of humiliating. He has one of those.
Now, these are the guys that he used to run with and they won’t run with him anymore. These are the guys he used to plot to kill Christians with and now they’re plotting to kill him.
How many of you, when you became a Christian, you’re like, “Man, my old friends really flipped fast,” or, “My family, that went upside-down immediately. All of the sudden, I’m out. Not only out, I’m opposed.” So what’s he going to do? He’s going to run to his brothers and sisters in Christ. “I’ve been rejected by these people. Maybe I’ll be accepted by these people.”
They reject him too. How many of you have been rejected by brothers and sisters in Christ? I needed you and you weren’t there for me. I ran to you and you rejected me. I depended on you and you failed me. You’re in good company with Jesus. He had friends that he invested in for three years. As he’s preparing to go to the cross, he pulls them into the Garden of Gethsemane and says, “I need you to pray for me,” and they fall asleep. And he wakes them up, “Hey, I need you to pray for me,” and they fall asleep. And Thomas doubts him, and Judas betrays him, and Peter disowns him, and these were supposed to be his closest friends. You and I, we need to be Careful, though, that we don’t sit in too much judgment over the believers, right?
Imagine somebody shows up at your community group. “Hey!” [knocking] “Yeah, I heard there’s community group.”
“Yeah, yeah, well tell us about yourself.”
“I’m a terrorist who murders Christians.”
“Oh yeah, well community group used to happen. It’s on hiatus indefinitely.”
“Well, can I come in and join the group?”
“No, no, there’s no group.”
“I heard you guys like to close your eyes for prayer.”
“No, no, no, we keep them open. We don’t close our eyes for prayer.”
Right? Right? Would you—true or false—you’d be fearful?
See, in our day it’d be like somebody with a very frightful past—rapist, murderer, thief, terrorist. You’re like, “I’m not going to just say, ‘Well, praise the Lord, brother.’“ You’re like, “I’ve got to make sure you’ve actually changed and met Jesus. Because if you haven’t changed and met Jesus, you’re very dangerous.”
This is where sometimes Christians can be a little naive and leave themselves open to danger and/or their children.
So, they’re a little fearful. It says they were afraid. They were afraid. So he’s rejected. He’s a man without a country. He’s a man without a home. He’s a man without a clan.
You’re going to feel like that sometimes. And as you’re suffering— this is really relational suffering. He’s already been alone for three years, and he’s running to the Christians, and he’s still alone.
Suffering is an opportunity, though, for us to, number one, to really learn more about Jesus. Jesus, you’ve suffered, you’ve been rejected, you’ve been despised, you’ve been hated. People you really love really let you down, including me.
Number two, it allows us to become more like Jesus. Hebrews has a haunting verse that I’ve been meditating on for more than 20 years and I still won’t pretend to tell you exactly what it means. It says that Jesus was perfected through his suffering. Jesus will perfect you through your suffering. Jesus is perfecting me through my suffering. And if someone comes along and says, “Do you want to be perfected?” Yes. “Do you want to suffer?” No. Same question.
Thirdly, suffering provides an opportunity for a witness, to be a testimony.
“How are you doing?”
“It’s hard, but I’m listening to the Lord, I’m talking to the Lord, I want to become like Jesus, and I want to learn what he has for me, even through this hard season.”
As Saul is suffering, he is suffering in a way that is a testimony. He doesn’t say, “Well, I’m done with Christianity, and I’m done with the church, and I’m done with Jesus, and I’m very hurt, and everybody’s rejected me, and I’m feeling very lonely, and you don’t know what it’s like to be me.” He’s like, “Nope, I’m going to run to Jesus and I’m going to wait for his people to put their arms around me.” How have you suffered for Christ?
WHAT ROLE DOES CHURCH COMMUNITY PLAY IN YOUR LIFE?
Number five, lastly, what role does church community play in your life? There is no such thing as a personal relationship with Jesus. It also includes the rest of God’s family, the church. To become a Christian is to be reconciled to God as Father, and reconciled to other Christians as brothers and sisters. That’s what the Bible says. Here, we’re going to see Paul’s interaction with the community of the church. Acts 9:27-31, “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord,”— that’s Jesus— “who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
Here’s what it says, that the church was reticent and hesitant to embrace Saul of Tarsus. So it took a mediator, a reconciler. It took a man of peace named Barnabas. Barney, okay, literally means, “Son of encouragement.” Jesus is the Son of God, but Barnabas is the son of encouragement. This means that he has the gift of encouragement. We learned two things early on in Acts. In Acts 5, we learned that Barnabas was a generous man. Here we learn that he’s a gracious man. And these two things go together, he’s a giver. He gives his money and he gives his love. In Acts 5, we see that he’s a very generous man, he sells land, he gives a very large gift to the church. He’s a very generous man. And here, we see his generosity doesn’t just include his wealth, but his love. His love. These go together.
As you and I learn how to give, it transforms us. As we learn to give wealth, we learn to give all. Here, what Barnabas is doing is he is taking a tremendous risk because love is a risk. It just is. If you won’t take a risk, then you can’t love anybody. And if you’re wanting to love somebody, you have to take a risk that they could betray you, they could harm you, they could hurt you, they could fail you, they could attack you. That’s the risk that Barnabas is taking with Saul. That’s why nobody else wanted to take the risk. He murders Christians. He’s like a bounty hunter who has the right legally to hurt Christians. “We’re not taking the risk.”
Barnabas, he’s the encourager, and he has faith, and he has hope. “You know what? God could change him. Maybe he has. Let me go talk to him,” and Barnabas takes the risk.
For those of you who have the gift of encouragement, you have faith, and you have hope, and you are a gift. Part of your ministry is loving first so that others can be welcomed into the family God and that strained relationships can be reconciled. Praise God for those of you who are the sons and daughters of encouragement. He’s that guy.
And just so you know, everybody loves the person with the spiritual gift of encouragement. Who doesn’t? You know who has the gift of encouragement, because when the worst thing happens, they’re the first person you call. Something happened, they’re like, “You know what? It’s going to be okay. God loves you, I love you, and you’re not alone. We’re here for you. Let’s look on the bright side.” You’re like, “You’re pouring hope and faith into me. I don’t have it, and God gave it to you to pour into me. You are an encouragement, you are a blessing, you are a hope, you are a help.”
If you know somebody like that, would you do me the favor of just encouraging the encouragers this week, thanking them? Sometimes they get discredited, “Oh, you’re just naive. You’re just an optimist.”
“No, I’m a Christian and I believe that God can do things, and so I take a risk, and I love people, and I see what he does.” That’s Barnabas.
My natural proclivity is not Barnabas. My natural proclivity is like the other apostles, like, “Yeah right, great. Paul’s over there? Good luck with that.” Barnabas is like, “Hey, welcome! Did you fill out a visitor card? Do you want to have coffee?” He’s that guy.
But can you see where this risk is real? Saul shows up like, “I want to meet with all the leaders.”
“You killed the last one you met with. How about we meet one at a time?” You know?
“No, I want to meet them in a group.”
“What’s under the coat? Open it.”
You’re like boop, boop, boop, guy with a wand comes out.
He takes him in to the apostles. He says, “You know what? I’ve talked to him. I think he’s met Jesus. I think he’s a changed man. I think his heart is broken. I think God has a calling on his life and we’re here to confirm that,” and history is changed.
What we learn a lot about is Paul the Apostle, but man, a lot of it was made possible by Barnabas the encourager. Those of you with the gift of encouragement can be significantly used to reconcile relationships so that the gospel can be unleashed by people who otherwise may not find a place in the church. That’s the story of Barnabas.
Well, what happens to the church Is—it says this in verse 31: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
What the church has had previously in Acts is it had some time of peace around Pentecost. Thousands are saved, it’s amazing, and then all of the sudden, the U.S.S. Jesus hits some real storms. And God’s people are on their way to the kingdom, but man, all of the sudden the swells come up, and there’s opposition, and arrests, and there’s the murder of a deacon, and the church scatters, and people are fleeing, and there’s great turmoil, and the church is really in the middle of quite a storm.
That’s where we’re at. We’ve had seasons where it was calm, then all of the sudden the waves hit. Certain people are falling off the deck, and others are throwing up over the side, and nobody’s laying in the lounge chair anymore drinking a fruity drink with an umbrella in it because it’s not that time.
The church goes through these seasons. And our church goes through these seasons where it’s peace and smooth sailing, and then it’s storm and high seas. They had been in a season of great storm.
I tell you this because sometimes even the cultural narratives that we’re so familiar with, they reorient our understanding of Christianity in a way that is not helpful. So, the average Disney story is something like this. Having two daughters, I’ve seen my share of princess movies. Not because that’s my thing, but because that’s their thing and I love them. Okay, so, I’m going to clarify all my Disney insights. But I’ve watched a lot of princess movies, and usually here’s how it works. There’s a princess in distress, and here comes a glorious prince to rescue and save her. They ride off into the sunset and they live happily ever after. And we think Christianity’s like that. The church is a bride. She’s a princess and Jesus is the Prince of Peace. It’s in the book, all right? And in the end, he’s got a kingdom that’s safe for her where he’ll treasure her, and love her, and they’ll live together forever.
But we’re not there yet. In the end, that’s how it all works out, but we’re not there yet. In the middle, they’re riding through a dark forest, and there are arrows flying at them. And it’s not just, “And they rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after,” it’s that they had a long journey to get to the kingdom.
I love the honesty of the Bible and the love for the church, and here it really talks about the church. Up until this point, primarily in Acts 9, it’s been talking about one guy, Saul. “So God loves you, and God knows you, and God cares for you, and me too.” But then it pulls back and it says, “Okay, how is this affecting the church?” We always need to be asking, how is this affecting the church? Right now for us is not calm, it’s storm. The first thing people ask is, “When’s it going to end?” I don’t know.
What we can learn is what the Holy Spirit did in and through them. It says, number one, that the church was built up. People got stronger, godlier. All right, they started to get their proverbial sea legs. “Okay, okay, okay, this is a little difficult but I’m going to figure this out by the grace of God.” My prayer for me, and our leaders, and you is that we be built up, we be more godly. If we’re going to fail, let’s not fail in humility. If we’re going to fail, let’s not fail in seeking godliness. The church is being built up. We all need to be built up, including the new believers, but me too.
My question is, for myself, “God, okay, as I get time with the Lord Jesus, how do I need to grow in godliness? How do I need to grow in humility? How can I be built up so that out of deep love and affection for your church and your people, I can help the leaders to be built up and together we can help the people to be built up?” I’d appreciate it if you prayed with me for that.
It also says that the fear of the Lord increased. When you’re in a storm, there’s so much to be afraid of. This can be a personal storm, a congregational storm, a cultural storm, a vocational storm. I don’t know, but any storm you’re in, it’s so easy to become fearful. And what happens is that when we become fearful, we become false prophets. What the fear does, it sees the future but with no hope or grace. And it sees it in cataclysmic, worst case scenario, doom and gloom.
What happens then is that fear causes us to live without any faith, without any hope, and as a result, without much love. Subsequently then, we live in anxiety, and terror, and fear of the worst-case scenario. Whether or not it ever comes to pass, it robs us of joy and life along the way. And in this world, there is so much to be fearful of. That’s why the number one command of the Bible, the thing that the Bible commands more than anything else— if you were God talking to your people and saying, “What would I tell them more than anything?” He says this about 150 times, “Fear not.” Because everybody gets afraid, and people always get afraid, and there’s so much to be afraid of. But that sounds kind of mean, right?
It’s like if one of my kids in the middle of the night is screaming because they’re having a nightmare, and I run upstairs, and I’m like, “Fear not!” and then I go back to bed. Okay, that didn’t help.
I’ve looked at every occasion in the Bible where God says, “Fear not,” or something akin to that, and then he says something afterward. “For I am with you.” Oh, this is what I would tell my child that was having a nightmare, fearful, filled with terror. I would come up and say, “Fear not, Dad is with you. I’m right here.” That’s where I rub their back, I kiss them on the head, I pray over them, I snuggle up next to them. “I’m here. I’m here.”
That’s the Father God of the Bible. When he says, “Fear not,” he then says, “For I’m with you.”
And it says that they increased in the fear of the Lord, and what the fear of the Lord does—you’re going to live with fear. Okay, here’s an insight to the human condition. You’re going to live with fear, and the fear of the Lord displaces all other fears. That’s why Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” If fear is at the center of your life, you’re going to do a lot of foolish things, but if the fear of the Lord is in the center of your life, you’ll respond to your circumstances with wisdom. So, the fear of the Lord displaces the other fears, and the fear of the Lord starts with this. “What does God say? What does God want? What does godliness look like? What would honor the Lord? What would give glory to the Lord? What’s the right thing to do?” Not, “What will give me the outcome I desire?” Fear causes us to make decisions to get an outcome that we desire. Fear of the Lord changes the outcome we desire. The desire then becomes, “What glorifies God?” not “What gives me the outcome I want?” Do you see where that changed?
Some of you say, “Is that easy?” No. “Mark, are you any good at it?” No, but I read the book and that’s what it says. And every time I practice that, it’s good, and every time I fail to practice that, it’s bad.
The fear of the Lord increased. Who or what are you afraid of? God is alone to be feared, revered, respected, honored. At the center of your motivation is his glory, not a particular outcome. That’s what faith is.
It also says that they experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The church would have had a season of mourning and grieving. People are leaving, and fleeing, and scattering, and suffering, and dying, and there’s mourning, lamenting, grieving.
God has been showing me this in a profoundly deep way in recent months. The Bible talks a lot about grieving, and lamenting, and mourning, and the highest category of the Psalms are psalms of lament. This is where you see reality but you don’t allow it to drive you to anger or depression. You work it out with the Lord, and it allows you to see everyone, including yourself, including myself, through the eyes of the Lord, accurately, and soberly, and honestly. It’s a great gift. To emotionally work it out in a healthy way with the Lord so that he can comfort you. Because sometimes comfort is not in circumstances, sometimes comfort is not in people. Like Saul, we run to people and they’re not there for us. We look into the future and it doesn’t look good for us. We look around us and it’s peril that surrounds us. You’re like, “Where do I go for comfort?” So we have comfort food. We create whole categories to replace the Holy Spirit: comfort food, alcohol, drugs, sexual sin, gambling, shopping, spending, freaking out, whatever your thing is. What you’re looking for is relief. What you’re really looking for is comfort.
And so Jesus promised—he said, “I will send you the Comforter.” That’s the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is how God is present with us, never leaves us nor forsakes us. He is the arms of the Father wrapped around the children of God as they lay fearful and frightful in their bed because their mind is filled with a nightmare that they think is real, whether or not it in fact is, and he comes to comfort. The Holy Spirit is a tremendous— he is a tremendous comforter. I’m experiencing him in a way I never have. I want you to experience him in a way you never have. Because things may not get better, but by God’s grace, you can get better.
Then it says that the church multiplied. More people met Jesus. All right, once we grow in the fear of the Lord, we grieve and are comforted. Then all of the sudden we’re able to stop looking just at ourselves and realize there’s still people that don’t know Jesus, that God ultimately wants us to be on mission so that people meet Jesus. The church multiplies, people are learning about Jesus.
If you’re here today, Jesus is seeking you. You’re here for a divine appointment with him. Just like he met with Saul, he’s here to meet with you today and to flip your life from a biography about you to a testimony about him.
And it says that essentially, if I had to summarize it, that the people of God grew in godliness. My prayer is that I would grow in godliness, that you would grow in godliness, that we would grow in godliness.
The church grew in godliness. It reflected more the person and work of Jesus. And that’s a testimony, amen? That’s a testimony.
What we’re going to do now is we’re going to respond. We’re going to respond with our tithes and offerings. That’s part of our testimony. You need to know that giving is part of your testimony. It’s like, “All that I am and all that I have, it belongs to Jesus. See, it belongs to Jesus.” It’s a testimony.
We’re also going to partake of Communion. We do this every week as part of our testimony to say, “You know what? Jesus is the Son of God and he is the Christ.” Right? “And he is my Savior.” And as we partake of the bread, we remember his broken body. We testify to it. As we partake of the drink, we remember his shed blood. We testify to it. And as we partake of it, we testify that we’re sinners and that our life is not a biography. And we’re not the hero, we’re the villain. And that Jesus is the hero and that our life is to be a testimony, amen?
Then we sing. You know why we sing? We sing as part of our testimony. Jesus is alive. Jesus is glorious. Jesus is worthy. Jesus is good. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the Christ. So we sing and we celebrate who Jesus is and what he’s done. We do that individually as part of our individual testimony, and we do that congregationally as part of our collective testimony. All of our voices going together, all of our testimonies colliding together to give glory to Jesus because he is the Son of God and he is the Christ. It’s a great, sweet, wonderful time.
Then we’re going to commission you to go forth and tell your testimony. I—honestly, I woke up today with a sense of great enthusiasm and excitement because I believe that there are people that Jesus has you to talk to. There’s somebody that he wants you to go be a Barnabas too. There are people that need to hear of Jesus’ work in your life as we’re hearing of Jesus’ work in Saul’s life. God is going to use that to encourage those who are believers, even in community group this week, and to evangelize unbelievers.
I want you to understand the power of the testimony that God has given you and how much richer and better it is than just having a biography, amen?
Father, thank you so much that I get to teach the Bible , and not only that, that I get to learn the Bible first for myself. And I thank you, Lord God, that your timeless word is always timely, and that even, Lord God, when we lay out the preaching schedule years in advance as we have with Acts, every week, I get to open it up and just shake my head and chuckle because it’s perfect. It absolutely fits where I’m at, and where we’re at, and what you’re doing to change me, and what you’re doing to change us. Help us to grow in the fear of the Lord. Help us to experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Help us to stay low and grow in godliness. And Lord, during this season we find ourselves in, please allow us to be Barnabas to one another, to put an arm around, to take a risk, to love well, to believe the best. Jesus, let our lives be a testimony. Rescue me, rescue us from the pursuit of a biography. “What we did—” no, it’s about what Jesus did. “How great we are—” no, it’s about how great Jesus is. “How we made a difference—” no, how Jesus makes a difference. Jesus, we want to have a testimony, so Holy Spirit, help us to have a testimony and to share our testimony for the encouragement of the believers and the evangelism of the unbelievers so that Jesus would get glory. In his name we pray, amen.