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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Acts part 18: Saul in exile.

Building the right foundation part 18

Acts 9:23-26 “Saul in exile.”

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted 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 afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.

English Standard Version Anglicised
From a straightforward reading of this passage we might conclude that Saul immediately after his conversion was not only immediately began to preach the gospel of Jesus but that he went immediately to Jerusalem where he was met with great fear, suspicion and doubt by the church.
The problem is that the actual time-scale is much greater. There are at least 17 years between verse 23 and verse 26. We cannot deduce this from Luke's account but Paul later explains more fully in his letter to the Galatians.
Galatians 1:11-2:1
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.
Today we will simply observe from this account that God's purposes are not always immediate. Even the great Apostle Paul experienced many years in isolation before he was fully accepted by the church. God's timing is not always our timing, His delays are for a purpose.
Last time we considered Saul being accepted by the fellowship in Damascus. In doing this they were displaying their trust not only in Saul who was changed but also in God who changes even the worst of people.
It seems that very soon after his conversion Saul was contending for the faith in and around the synagogues of Damascus. This of course brought about amazement and confusion amongst his hearers. The result of which was that Saul became a powerful preacher. Many days having passed by and the Jews were conspiring to kill him. There is no surprise in this, the preached gospel will always be met with opposition. If we think for one moment that when we preach the gospel in our community that it will be met with acceptance then we are delusional. Saul's life was under threat as soon as he was preaching Jesus and so his friends helped him to escape his persecutors.
According to his own testimony Saul went to Arabia and later he returned to Damascus. After 3 years he then went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James the brother of Jesus. He was there for 15 days when he tried to join the church but Peter and James were afraid of him and did not believe his testimony. Therefore Saul left and went to Syria and Cilicia where the churches did not know him personally but they were aware of his reputation. These churches believed Saul's testimony and accepted him and praised God for the work of salvation in a converted young radicalised man. It was a further 14 years before verse 27 takes place.
There is so much for us in this passage and we have so little time this morning therefore we will concentrate on one vital point that comes from our readings:
God is patient:
We live in a credit card generation where time is all important. When Pam and I were recently in India and also previously in Romania we were often frustrated by the desperate lack of punctuality. Cornwall itself can be a frustrating place to be with its “ 'ish” timing. I am not used to “dreckly” and all of that! But procrastination, laziness or a lack of commitment are very different to what we have here in Saul's experience. This amazingly long period of apparent activity was for an important purpose.
Let us just consider for a moment Saul himself, he was a very clever and powerful young man who was rapidly heading for the top. He was formerly a theologian of great understanding but yet he did not know God.
He knew of God but he did not know Him.
He had had an amazing experience on the road to Damascus and now he needed to learn how all of his theology fitted in with the reality that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Saul was also a very proud young man that needed to be humbled in order that he could be the Apostle that God had called him to be. As well as this he really needed to get to know his Lord personally and intimately and relationship takes time. When you read his letters you will observe how this period of time shaped his theology, his thinking and his relationship with the Lord and with His church.
17 years is a long time but not a day of it was wasted; by the end of those years the great Apostle Paul emerged and then he was finally accepted by the whole church.
Let us go back for a moment to the great commission of Jesus where He instructed His disciples to make disciples of others. That is exactly what was happening to Saul during those years; the church in Damascus was a vital part in Saul becoming a true disciple of Jesus.
The Lord accomplished the work of salvation but the church made the disciple.
I love the fact that the church in Damascus saved Saul's life when they let him out of the city in a basket. An amazing work for a small and seemingly insignificant church. It was also the un-named churches in Asia and Cilicia that accepted him and praised God for him whilst at the same time the big church rejected him out of fear.
This passage is for us this morning in the Mustard Seed. We are only a very small and insignificant church here in East Cornwall but:
God has a purpose for us!
We are not useless! It is true to say that we have gone through major difficulties and that we are still struggling with issues but we do have a purpose. God has brought us to where we are today in order that we might be about the business of making disciples. We never know who it is that comes through our doors, do we accept them in the way that the churches in Damascus, Asia and Cilicia did with Saul? Or will we be like the church in Jerusalem with the great preachers who were afraid and unbelieving that Saul was now really God's man. They knew the rumour just as did the other churches that Saul had been converted but they did not believe it. I am glad that this is the case because it is one of the most encouraging passages of the New Testament for the small church.
We can do great things for God even though we are small!
Do we believe that? Those faithful small fellowships in Damascus, Asia and Syria were instrumental in Saul's development as a Christian preacher, teacher, pastor and apostle. What a great work that God had entrusted to a bunch of small insignificant churches!
What is it that we are called to do?
Will we be faithful in whatever it is that God has called us to do?
Time to God is unimportant, but our being prepared for service is vital!
Being prepared takes time, we are currently being prepared for service, let us move forward but only in God's timing!
What to some seems to be inactivity is in reality God working in our hearts and lives and Him making us to be the church that we will be.
This is primarily a message to the church but it equally works out in our individual lives therefore each point must also be true of each one of us.

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