Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1406
August 4, 2019 Acts 9.19b-31
Dr. Ed Pettus
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“The Power of the Gospel”
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21And 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? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
23When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
26And 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. 27But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Jesus, the Son of God
Shortly after Saul’s conversion to the faith, he spent time in Damascus with some disciples there. This is the Saul who persecuted disciples in Jerusalem and was coming to Damascus for that same purpose, to arrest and bring disciples of Jesus Christ back to Jerusalem to stand trial. As we know from last Sunday and the first part of this ninth chapter in Acts, Saul met Jesus along the road to Damascus and came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and the Messiah the for whom the Jews had been awaiting. After three days blinded and without food, Saul’s sight was returned and he was strengthened with food.
Immediately, Luke says, Saul began to preach that Jesus was the Son of God. This Jewish leader came to see what many other Jews did not and have yet to see. Jesus is the One who fulfills all the Jewish Scripture. This Jew, who had spent great energy and time persecuting people who proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God, was now the one soon persecuted. Saul was an extremely educated Jewish leader. He had studied the Old Testament under one of the most revered teachers of his time. He was qualified in every way possible as a Jew of Jews, Hebrew of Hebrews, and staunch defender of the Jewish religion and traditions. (see Phil 3.4-6; Acts 22.1-5)
Saul begins preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s all we have, a topic, nothing of what he might have preached. But we might learn more if we look else where in his letters. Perhaps he proclaimed that as the Son of God Jesus fully embodied and embodies God Himself, as in Col 2.9, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
Or maybe this is where he began to tell of his understanding of Jesus found in Phil 2.5-11,
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It certainly shook up the synagogues just as Jesus had done when He spoke in the synagogues. And people began to question if this was the same guy who came here to arrest Jesus’ followers just as he had done in Jerusalem. What a dramatic turn around!
Saul the great persecutor was now Saul the great preacher of Jesus Christ. He began to preach the gospel message.
This is the gospel – Jesus the Son of God.
Jesus, the Christ
The next phrase that Luke, the author of Acts, uses is that Saul proved throughout the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus is the Messiah. It is not just that Jesus is the Son of God, but He is the long awaited, prophetic fulfillment of the Torah. If anyone could see this clearly it is Saul who was extremely educated in the Jewish texts. I imagine Saul going through the passages like Isaiah 53 and showing how they pointed to Jesus.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (53.3-6).
I think one of the best passages reflecting Saul’s Jewishness and belief in Jesus as both Son and Messiah is in Galatians 2.15-21,
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Here we know Saul and Paul and he uses the name and title Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus to perhaps emphasize the Christ, Messiah, term, but he also speaks of Jesus as the Son of God in verse 20.
This is the gospel Paul proclaimed – Jesus the Christ
The Gospel Proclaimed
Saul led the way in proving that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus was the One they looked for and longed for. Look at the ways Acts describes Saul’s activity of proclamation,
Verse 20 – proclaimed; verse 22 – proved; verse 27 & 28 – preached boldly; verse 29 – he spoke and disputed. He was zealous in preaching and I have no doubt it is partly because he had been just as zealous in persecuting Christians before his conversion. The one who is forgiven much, loves much (Lk 7.47). Saul had so much to be thankful for and had been shown such great mercy that he could not help but proclaim with equal enthusiasm the gospel of Jesus Christ.
All these verbs suggest that there are many ways we can go about proclaiming the gospel. Here it is in proving, preaching, disputing, but for us it might be in conversation, kind actions, way of life, or standing firm in truth. There are all kinds of ways to make a proclamation, but one thing is sure, Jesus is the One we are called to proclaim.
This is the gospel – Jesus proclaimed.
The Gospel Rejected
Here is the problem: Saul got in the same kind of trouble as the ones he once persecuted. When we get to Acts 9.23 the Jews are out to kill him. Verses 23 and 29 demonstrate how severely the rejection of Saul’s teaching had reached. Death was the only way to stop this man. Kill the messenger to kill the message. In verse 29 Luke mentions the Hellenists. These were Greek speaking Jews. They adopted Greek culture and customs, and were sometimes looked down on from Jews who clung to Hebrews language and culture. So, basically all the Jews, Hebrew and Greek, were angry with Saul and all of them were out to kill Saul!
This is what is attempted in places like China or North Korea or other parts of the world – kill those who would proclaim Jesus Christ. This is what is attempted, not by death of the persons, but by destroying the message in our own nation. When those who live by the gospel are taken to court because they will not compromise their beliefs, it is an attempt to silence or kill the gospel.
The proclamation of the gospel is always a threat to power, to the powers of this world, to governments and oppressors and systems and lies and all that seeks to control and manipulate. The truth is always a threat to false leaders and hidden agendas and power hungry political forces. The gospel is a threat to our sinful nature and thus people who still desire to live by that nature will reject our message.
This is the gospel – some will reject it.
The Gospel Received
This section ends at verse 31, 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.
The gospel is rejected by some, but received by many. In this verse I think it shows that the gospel was received both by the church and non-churched. That is to say that the gospel brought peace to the church, fear or awe among them, and comfort to them, and they grew in number. If they grew in number then obviously people who did not believe were coming to believe and the church was growing. There was probably also a sense of peace (absent opposition) in that either the climate of governing secular and religious bodies changed, or Saul was sent away, or a combination of both. The book of Acts ends this same way, without hindrance. The last two verses in Acts 28,
30 He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Acts 9.31 is about the same time historians note that Caligula came to power and became a greater threat to the Jews than to Christians. Perhaps the church grew “under the radar” of both the Jews and the government. Perhaps no Jewish leaders wished to take over Saul’s role of persecuting Christians for fear that they might have a similar experience of conversion. We don’t know for sure why this verse is placed at this point in the narrative. But to take it as it is, there was a time for the church to work in peace, to growth and become built up, to walk in the fear of the Lord, in awe and reverence and obedience, to know the comfort of the holy Spirit – the promised comforter-, and to grow in numbers, to multiply.
We know that the church would suffer more persecution later. Saul and the apostles would all face opposition. And the church would continue to thrive, despite such opposition. Still today, in many places in the world, the church faces similar persecution and opposition. The severity of the persecution varies, but what we see in the world is an anti-Christian movement that was foretold by Jesus Himself and will continue until He returns. Our call is to proclaim the gospel that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus is the Messiah.
This is the gospel – many will receive it. And that is good news!