Called to Mission

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 9:10-12

Paul’s conversion to Jesus Christ on the Damascus road was an event of pivotal importance – certainly for him. But the thing that makes it important for us, that changed the course of history, is what happened after his conversion.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I will make a bold statement. The single most important event – outside of the life of Christ – in Christian history was the conversion of the apostle Paul. Paul’s dramatic encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, while unique in many respects, also serves to illustrate how anyone becomes a Christian. That happens whenever someone responds to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. God reveals the truth about Jesus Christ -that he is the risen Savior and Lord. When you accept this truth and bow before Christ in worship and obedience, you are converted, born again, saved. But this isn’t the end of the story; it’s only the beginning. It is equally important to understand what comes next. What really makes Paul significant – the thing, that is, that turned Saul of Tarsus into Paul the apostle – is not what happened on the road when he was converted but what happened later in the city, when the Lord called Paul to the service of Christ and showed him the particular ministry he was to fulfill.

THE LAST APOSTLE

One of the first stories Luke tells in the book of Acts is how a man named Matthias was selected to fill the vacancy in the circle of the apostles left by the suicide of Judas the traitor. After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his eleven surviving disciples to go into all the world and make followers for him from every people and nation. The disciples thus became apostles, that is, “those who were sent.” The Greek-based word apostle, like the Latin-based word missionary, simply means “sent.” The original apostles had to be eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection who were personally and directly chosen by the Lord Jesus to bear witness to him. An apostle in this special sense had unique authority within the church. There were only twelve of these “official” apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. Now, there is no indication that the eleven surviving disciples of Jesus made a mistake or acted out of turn when they chose Matthias. But Matthias -nothing against him, of course – does drop promptly out of sight, never to be heard of again. I can’t help thinking that Christ had another candidate in mind for the position of the twelfth apostle. Saul of Tarsus was brought to a standstill in mid-career. He was given a personal revelation of the risen, glorified Lord, Jesus Christ. And then, as he said many years later, he was “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God . . . to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:1, 5, see also Acts 9:15-16, Galatians 1:1).

ANANIAS

This call was a commission to undertake perhaps the most significant work ever given to any human being. Paul would assume the lead in bringing the gospel to the whole world, breaking out of the ethnic enclave of Judaism and through the barriers of race that had hitherto contained the Christian church. Paul would plant and establish congregations of Christ’s followers across the Roman empire, eventually writing half of the books of the New Testament in the process. Paul’s call to mission was first carried to him in Damascus by a Christian named Ananias. Nothing more really is known about Ananias; he’s never mentioned again in Scripture. His whole purpose in life may have been just to help at one strategic time this one other person, for whom the Lord had special plans.

Acts 9 gives the details of Paul’s healing, restoration and commissioning. After being blinded on the road by the glory of a light that was brighter than the desert sun at noon (cf. Acts 26:13), Paul was led by his companions into the city. There he spent three days in darkness – fasting, praying, thinking. It must have been a very difficult time. Surely Paul’s prayers during those three days were dominated by deep sorrow and sickening guilt. He must have felt that his blindness was an appropriate judgment, for blind he had been! Blind to the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth. (Had Paul known or met Jesus during his earthly ministry, or listened to his teaching? It’s very likely that he had.) Paul was also blind to his own pride, cruelty and self-righteousness. What would happen now? Was he to remain in darkness for the rest of his life? And what were the next steps he should take now that he was a follower of Christ? Paul knew he could not go back to his old life, that from then on everything had to be different. But what was the way forward?

As he fasted and prayed, the Lord showed him. Ananias came to visit him – albeit reluctantly, and only when Christ commanded him directly in another vision. Ananias laid his hands upon Paul, and encouraged him. Miraculously, Paul was filled with God’s Spirit, his eyes were opened, and he could see again. Then he was baptized. Immediately, Paul began to preach in the synagogues of Damascus (v. 20), which must have been quite a shock to the Jewish community there. In fact, says Luke, the people who heard him were “astonished” (v. 21) to hear this young rabbi with such a reputation for fanatically persecuting Christians now boldly proclaiming that he had become one of them, and arguing for the truth of the Christian message. Finally, according to Luke, “after many days had gone by” (v. 23), Paul evaded a plot to kill him in Damascus by slipping over the wall at night and fleeing to Jerusalem (vv. 24-25). We know from elsewhere in the New Testament (Galatians 1:17-18) that those “many days” were actually three years, which Paul spent not in the city itself but in the desert region of Arabia near Damascus. Then, after just a brief visit to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18), where Barnabas befriended him and introduced him to the other apostles (Acts 9:26-27), Paul was forced to flee once more. This time he went back to his hometown of Tarsus (v. 30), where he remained for a number of years.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’VE BEEN CONVERTED

Paul’s activities in this period after his conversion provide us with a model of what should happen in every new Christian’s life. Observe four things in particular:

  1. Paul joined the church (vv. 18-19).
    “The New Testament knows nothing of solitary Christians,” remarked John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Yet many believers, thinking personal faith in Christ or making some kind of commitment to him is all that matters, have little use for the organized church. More and more people are church attenders at bes – if even that! – but not church members. People today seem to think it is possible to be a Christian with little or no commitment to and involvement in a local congregation. That’s not what Paul thought. His first act after he was converted was to join with the other followers of Christ in his community. He united himself with them, with the church. That wasn’t easy. Both in Damascus and Jerusalem the Christian community was understandably wary of Paul. But providentially there was someone in each case – Ananias in Damascus and Barnabas in Jerusalem – who befriended Paul, took an interest in him, introduced him to the others in the fellowship, and saw that he was accepted. What the church needs is both new converts who understand that coming to Christ also requires identifying with his people, and older Christians who are constantly on the watch for newcomers, and who go out of their way to welcome and befriend them.
  2. Paul spent time in learning and preparation.
    What was he doing during all those silent years in Arabia and the even longer period back in Tarsus? It’s been suggested that he was working to evangelize those areas. Judging by Paul’s zeal, that’s probably true. But Luke actually tells us nothing at all about this time in Paul’s life, and it must have lasted some ten or twelve years, judging from other chronological hints in the New Testament. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Paul spent these years mainly in study and prayer, preparing himself for the great work God intended for his life. Though he met with the other apostles and received some information from them about Jesus, in later life Paul was always careful to insist that the gospel he proclaimed was in no way derivative. It was given to him directly by the Lord (compare 1 Cor. 15:3f. with Gal. 1:12). God spoke to Paul and taught him during this extensive and intensive period of reflection, meditation, Bible study and prayer. Paul was eager to proclaim the gospel of Jesus who had so arrestingly captured him. But before he could do that effectively, he first needed to grow in understanding and wisdom, to be thoroughly grounded in the truth.
  3. Paul witnessed to the Lord Jesus.
    His earliest days as a Christian were a balance between boldness and reticence. While he was not yet ready to be a mighty apostle, neither could Paul fail to speak of Christ. Paul’s early testimony was focused exclusively upon Jesus’ unique nature as God and his identity and mission as the Messiah (vv. 20,22,27,28). The best Christian testimony is not about ourselves but about the Lord Jesus; the witness we want to bear is to the truth that “Jesus is the Son of God . . . the Christ” (vv. 20,22). It’s a great thing when a new Christian is so full of Christ they can’t stop speaking about him. That’s something that never left Paul.
  4. Paul experienced suffering.
    The last thing that characterized Paul’s new life as a Christian was suffering. Perhaps it was because of his notoriety as such a high profile convert, but everywhere he went Paul was a marked man. Sometimes new Christians are caught by surprise when trouble overtakes them. They may have come to faith initially through an exciting conversion, or they had great joy early on in their Christian life. But then the excitement fades, the “highs” level off, and pretty soon opposition comes. “How can this be?” the new Christian asks, “I have been born again. I have the power of the Spirit. Jesus is living in me. How can I be having problems?” The truth is that the Christian life is a struggle all the way. We face threats and setbacks of every kind at every moment. Remember what Jesus said: “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

APPOINTED TO PREACH THE GOSPEL

A man whose experiences were as dramatic as Paul’s was the 18th century pastor John Newton. Best remembered today for writing the hymn Amazing Grace, Newton had a remarkable life. As a youth he went to sea. He soon deserted from the Royal Navy. He later was involved in the slave trade for a time, before Christ captured him in a wonderful conversion. Toward the end of his life, Newton wrote this epitaph for himself:

John Newton, once an infidel . . . a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.

Those are words that Paul would have echoed. He too was filled with wonder and gratitude, not just that the Lord had saved him, but that he had appointed him to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.

Now, I’m not an apostle, at least not like Paul. Neither are you. But we have been called to mission. We do have an “apostolic” ministry. We have been appointed to preach the gospel. We have been sent by the Lord back into the world to invite it to accept him, and by our love and service to point toward his kingdom. This is God’s great purpose for your life. Not just to make money, or raise a family, or enjoy yourself, but to go in the name of Christ, and by your actions and words lead others to him, the only Savior.