Right at the beginning of the books of Acts, the Lord Jesus instructed the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit would give them the power they needed to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And sure enough, after the Lord’s ascension to heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit upon them on the Day of Pentecost. And the apostles, who were once nervous and scared, began to preach with boldness and courage and with power.
At first they confined their ministry to Jerusalem. But, whenever the church in Jerusalem began to be persecuted, they soon began to move out of Jerusalem into the surrounding areas. And wherever they went the apostles and other preachers bore witness to the Lord Jesus and to all he had said and had done. And though many who heard refused to believe, others did believe and churches were established.
And so, Luke is showing us how the Risen Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, was building his church on the earth through the preaching of men like Peter and Paul and Barnabas and Philip and Apollos and Timothy. Wherever they went, they proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for sinners and his resurrection and ascension afterwards and how he’s coming back one day to judge the living and the dead. And little churches were being formed in Judea and Samaria and in Antioch and in Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch and Iconium and Lystra and Derbe and then into Europe and places like Philippi and Thessalonica and Athens and Corinth and Ephesus. Just as the Lord had promised, the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Lord Jesus was building his church through the preaching of his word and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter 21 we read how Paul ended up back in Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem, some Jews from the province of Asia stirred up the people against Paul by making false allegations against him. And Luke tells us that the whole city was aroused by what they said and the people wanted to kill Paul. But the Roman commander came and rescued Paul from the hands of the rioters. But the commander assumed that Paul must have done something wrong, so he had Paul arrested. And chapter 21 ended with Paul asking the commander if he could speak to the people in Jerusalem. And in chapter 22 we have Luke’s record of what Paul said. And that’s what we’re going to be thinking about this evening.
Verses 1 to 2
And in verses 1 and 2 we have the introduction to Paul’s speech to the people. Or, it’s Paul’s defence. He wanted to explain himself to the Jews in Jerusalem and to try to convince them that they really had no good reason to kill him because everything he did was done out of obedience to God.
And notice that — even though the people in Jerusalem were trying to kill him — he still addressed the people as ‘brothers and fathers’. It was a term of respect. He was showing them that he respected them. And when he addressed them in Aramaic — which was the language of the Hebrew people — the crowd became very quiet. You know, it must have seemed to them that this was one of their own people and not some foreigner because he spoke their language. And so they fell silent in order to hear what he had to say.
Verses 3 to 5
And first of all, in verses 3 to 5, he tells them about his former life in Judaism. He tells them that he’s Jewish, just like them. And though he was born in Tarsus in Cilicia, he was brought up in Jerusalem, just like them. And whereas his accusers had accused him of trying to destroy Judaism, he here explains to them that he was taught by one of the most respected Jewish teachers and he was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers. And then he adds that he was just as zealous for God as the members of the crowd in Jerusalem were. In fact, he was so full of zeal that he used to persecute the followers of the Way, which is how Christians were known in those days.
Do you see what he’s doing? He’s giving them his CV, if you like, to show them that he’s always been a good Jew. He’s not a stranger to Judaism and he’s not a trouble-maker. In fact, his Jewish credentials are probably a lot better than their own. They have no good reason to be suspicious of him. And look at verse 5 now. He tells that that he even obtained letters from the high priest in Jerusalem to give him the authority to arrest whatever Christians he could find. So, he’s letting the people know that he used to mix with some very important people in Judaism. He’s not some crank. He’s not a stranger to Judaism. He used to mix with people who were right at the heart of the Jewish religion. You have no good reason to hate me. In fact, you should listen to what I have to tell you.
Verses 6 to 11
And so, he goes on in verses 6 to 11 to tell them about what happened to him when he was on the way to Damascus to arrest the Christians who lived there. It was noon — when the sun was at its brightest. But an even brighter light began to shine around him. And so, he fell to the ground and heard a voice. And, as he was soon to discover, it was the voice of the Risen Lord Jesus.
And what did the Lord Jesus say to him? He said:
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Now, Saul was persecuting the church but the Lord complained that he was persecuting me — the Lord Jesus. And we can learn two things here.
First of all, we learn that the Lord is not unaware of what is happening to his church on earth. Even though the Lord is far away in heaven, he’s not so far away that he’s cut off from us. He’s not so far away that he’s in the dark about what is happening on the earth. No, he knows what is happening to his people. He sees it all.
Secondly, this speaks to us of the unity that exists between Christ and his people. We believe that we’re united to Christ through faith. He’s the head and we’re the body. And we’re so closely united to him that he regards an attack on the church as an attack on himself.
So, if ever we’re persecuted because of what we believe, if ever people hate us because of what we believe, we need to remember that the Lord knows all about it and he cares about what happens to us.
Think about it this way: Perhaps you see someone damage a car in the street. And while you might be shocked by what you see, and angry, you’d probably be a lot angrier if it was your own car that was being damaged. Well, when the church is persecuted, the Lord doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say to himself: ‘Nothing to do with me.’ No, we belong to him and so he cares about what is happening to his church here on earth.
So, the Lord complained to Paul about the way he had been persecuting the church. And he then told him to get up and go to Damascus in order to find out about the work the Lord has assigned to him to do. Well, we’re reminded here that the Lord is full of surprises. What I mean is this: Among all the people who knew Paul at that time, who would ever have guessed that this man, who hated the church, could become a member of the church? Who would have believed that this persecutor of the church would become a great preacher in the church? And so, how surprising! How surprising that the Lord was prepared to forgive Paul. And how surprising that the Lord was prepared to make Paul an apostle. It might surprise us, but this is what the Lord was willing to do for Paul.
We’ve been around the district in the last two months. Some people seemed interested in what we had to say. Others showed no interest whatsoever. Some wouldn’t even speak to us when they discovered we were Christians. But who knows? Who knows? The Lord might yet work in the lives of the people we met and change them as he changed Paul. And those who seemed the least interested might still be converted to faith in Christ. And they might even become preachers of the gospel. Nothing is too hard for the Lord and he’s able to do the most surprising things, things we would never imagine.
Verses 12 to 16
In verses 12 to 16, Paul describes his meeting with Ananias in Damascus. And look how he describes Ananias. Paul tells the people in Jerusalem that Ananias was a devout observer of the law. And he was highly respected by the Jews. Now do you see? Paul is again trying to persuade the Jews in Jerusalem that they have no good reason to be suspicious of him. He’s saying to them: ‘Sure, if a man like Ananias was prepared to welcome me without suspicion, then why can you?’ And look at verse 14. Ananias said to Paul that the God of their fathers had chosen Paul. In other words, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, the God of the Jews, had chosen Paul. So again, Paul is saying to them: ‘You’ve got no good reason to be suspicious of me. According to Ananias, God has chosen me.’ And what had God chosen Paul to do? Look at verse 14: God had chosen him to know God’s will. And to see the Righteous One. And to hear words from his mouth.
God’s will, as he’ll soon discover, is that God is prepared to forgive and accept Gentile believers on the same basis that he forgives and accepts Jewish believers. His will is to save all who will believe in the Saviour.
And the Righteous One is Jesus Christ. Up until that time, Paul thought Jesus was a blasphemer who deserved to die. But now that he’s seen the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, it’s clear to Paul that Jesus is not a blasphemer, because he’s ascended to heaven where God dwells and he had become the Saviour of the world.
And God had chosen Paul in order to hear words from the Lord’s voice. And as the one who knows God’s will and who has seen the Saviour, and has heard him, Paul was being sent by God to be a witness to all men of what he had seen and heard. Do you see that in verse 15? God had chosen Paul to make these things known to all.
And look at verse 16. Paul needed to be baptised because baptism is a sign of God’s willingness to pardon the sins of all who will believe. Even though Paul had done such terrible things — persecuting the church of Jesus Christ — nevertheless God was willing to pardon him. And there’s good news for us. No matter what we have done wrong, and no matter how we have sinned against the Lord since the last time we received the Lord’s Supper, nevertheless, we know that he does not treat us as our sins deserve and he’s willing to pardon our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. Just as water washes our bodies and makes them clean, so the blood of Christ washes away our sins and makes us clean.
Verses 17 to 22
In verses 17 to 21 Paul tells the crowd how, some time after he met the Risen Lord Jesus, he went up to Jerusalem. And in the temple, as he prayed, the Lord appeared to him again. And the Lord was warning him to leave Jerusalem and to go where? Look at verse 21. The Lord was sending him to the Gentiles. He wanted Paul to make known to the Gentiles the good news of the gospel so that they too could receive the forgiveness of sins and be accepted by God.
And it’s right at this point, when Paul is referring to God’s grace and mercy to the Gentiles, that the Jews in Jerusalem became furious with him. They seemed happy enough to listen to everything else he had said about seeing the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. But when Paul referred to God’s grace and mercy to the Gentiles, they became furious with him. They were unwilling to accept that God might want to show to the other nations the same generosity and grace he had shown to their own nation.
And this, I think, provides us with a warning. You see, there may be lots of things in the Bible which we’re happy to accept. When we hear a preacher mention them, we’re all ears and we nod along in agreement. When we read these things ourselves at home, we again nod to ourselves and think: ‘Yes, I believe all of this.’ But we need to watch ourselves closely because there might be something else in the Bible, which we find harder to accept. You know, there’a doctrine which we’re to believe, but there’s something in us that just says: ‘No, I will not accept that.’ Or there may be some duty we’re to perform, but there’s a voice inside us that says: ‘No, I will not do that.’ Do you ever find yourself saying: No! These people were listening to all that Paul was saying, but in the end, he said something they refused to accept.
What about as we come to the Lord’s Table this Sunday? Are you aware of something you really ought to do before you come? A sin you need to repent of? A disagreement with a fellow believer you need to resolve? Something you need to confess to the Lord? And perhaps, something inside you is saying: ‘No. I will not do that. I will not accept that.’ Well, we need to pray for God’s help to be willing and able to accept his will so that whenever we hear his word, the response of our hearts is always Yes: ‘Yes, I believe that. Yes, I will do that. Yes, Lord, whatever you have revealed in your word, I accept it all.’