People have a right to look at our lives. We can’t go around saying “listen to what we say, but don’t look at how we live.” It doesn’t work that way. Part of our witness is the witness of a changed life. A real Christ will make real difference in real lives.
We live in a media saturated culture don’t we? Not only saturated with media, but saturated with advertising. Everywhere we look people are trying to sell us something. Every website in the world that’s free seems to have some kind of advertisement on it; banner ads, spam, TV commercials. It’s amazing how many thousands of times we hear somebody trying to sell us something. And one of the main ways that people try to convince us, one of the most effective ways is a personal testimony. You know what I am talking about where somebody uses the product and there they are the real person on TV and they are saying, “Yes Bob, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I took it and three weeks later I was a different person.” It’s particularly true for diet ads isn’t it? You know you’ve got the before and after picture; there’s the guy or woman in the picture, 65 lbs different and you have got to admit that 65 lbs in this case makes a real difference. You look at that before and you look at that after and you go “Wow, what a powerful product” but then you notice in tiny letters underneath that famous phrase that we always have to remember, results not typical. Sure, two people took the product and had that result and they have taken pictures of both of them.
And so we struggle with that you know as a Christian community, do we hold up one or two saints and say, “Look at the change that Jesus can make in your life, but results not typical.” If we are presenting a message like that, we are talking about sharing our faith; if we are presenting a message like that how are we different than a diet company? Or Bowflex or any of the others? Character is important. A changed life is part of what we present to the world as Christians. We are in a world where people are jaded. People are fed up with empty claims and so we as the church have to present a different kind of life; an effective different kind of life so that people aren’t thinking in the backs of their minds, sure. It doesn’t really work. Well, we see a major change happening in someone’s life in today’s text. So I would like us to go to Acts 9, and we are going to being at the end of Verse 19 in Acts 9 and read to Verse 31. Acts, Chapter 9 and we are talking about Paul the Apostle.
The Message (MSG)
Plots Against Saul
19-21 Saul spent a few days getting acquainted with the Damascus disciples, but then went right to work, wasting no time, preaching in the meeting places that this Jesus was the Son of God. They were caught off guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, “Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers? And didn’t he come here to do the same thing—arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the high priests?”
22 But their suspicions didn’t slow Saul down for even a minute. His momentum was up now and he plowed straight into the opposition, disarming the Damascus Jews and trying to show them that this Jesus was the Messiah.
23-25 After this had gone on quite a long time, some Jews conspired to kill him, but Saul got wind of it. They were watching the city gates around the clock so they could kill him. Then one night the disciples engineered his escape by lowering him over the wall in a basket.
26-27 Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name.
28-30 After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name. But then he ran afoul of a group called Hellenists—he had been engaged in a running argument with them—who plotted his murder. When his friends learned of the plot, they got him out of town, took him to Caesarea, and then shipped him off to Tarsus.
31 Things calmed down after that and the church had smooth sailing for a while. All over the country—Judea, Samaria, Galilee—the church grew. They were permeated with a deep sense of reverence for God. The Holy Spirit was with them, strengthening them. They prospered wonderfully.
Let’s pray. God we believe that this is your word to us and so each one of us is in a different place of life right now. Help us to hear whatever we need to hear, to respond to the grace and truth we find in Jesus Christ, for we ask this in his name. Amen.
We are going to take a look at a number of things that happened in this passage; to understand this whole process of how change affects our witness to the world. Take a look first at Verse 20. It says, the first two words in the NIV are “at once”. “At once he began to preach in the synagogue that Jesus is the Son of God.” The first thing we see happen in Paul’s life after he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, after he has this encounter with Jesus, there is a massive change in Paul’s life. So, that’s the first thing we see; immediate major changes in life. Now, in Paul’s case it’s not a moral change. Paul was already a moral man. Paul was a leader in the community. He understood what morality was. He understood what it meant to be upright in his relationships with other people. He had the Ten Commandments fully memorized and understood, and he was trying to practice them. So the immediate change isn’t that Paul turned from someone we would expect to be panhandling in the gutter to a leading member of the community. It wasn’t that sort of change. It was a change where he was fighting against Christianity at one point and then astonishingly in just a very short period of time he comes out with power proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ. A deep change has happened in his life and that deep sort of change is what we should expect to happen as people encounter Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ changes lives.
Now we talk about witnessing being one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. That is absolutely true. But in the long run that Christian beggar, spiritual beggar, should change, should strengthen in their faith, because we don’t just proclaim forgiveness in Jesus Christ, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and that he deserves our obedience, and so obedience, a change of life is part of what happens in our lives and sometimes it happens very quickly. Now I mention in Paul’s case that it was not moral, it wasn’t obvious on that level, but for many of us it is moral. That’s the change that people first notice. I can think about when people see pastors, they think that they have always been Christian. People see missionaries; oh you assume that from the cradle they followed Christ. In fact, whenever somebody sees a mature Christian they think the same thing, but the fact is for many of us we became Christians later in life and I am one of those people; so I wasn’t always a Christian. So there is a day that I can point to that I turned my life over to Jesus Christ and immediately following that a number of changes happened, just like in Paul’s life, at once. One of them was my language. I constantly used obscenity before I became a Christian. Not only did I have an extremely caustic sense of humor where I would always be making jokes at other people’s expense and immediately those two things turned around. I was able to curb, in fact totally eliminate that in my life and then in terms of the humor part, I started to make more of those jokes at my own expense. Another change was I had a number of illustrations from a men’s magazine on my wall and immediately I threw all of those in the dumpster. Talk about making an impression on my friends. You can look into your own life, if you have become a Christian as an adult or if you have seen people become Christians as adults, we can often see some major area of shifting in their lives. We should expect this. This is what we preach. This is what we share. We share forgiveness and new life and so one of the critical witnesses is this power of a changed life. So there is that immediate major change that normally happens in some area of the life for an adult who becomes a Christian.
Let’s go on and see what else happens. Take a look at Verse 21 now. “All those who heard were astonished and asked, isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on his name?” A little bit later it talks about how people react and things like that, but let me just focus again on that issue. All those who heard him were astonished. Others were afraid. So the second thing we see happening here is that the friends of Paul are baffled by the change. There is at once a change in Paul’s life and then the people that surrounded him, the people who were his allies, the people who understood Paul before, now find that they don’t understand him at all and so they start asking all kinds of questions, is this the same guy? Didn’t he actually come up here to take these people prisoners that he is now preaching with? This is another result of the change of life, the change that happens around people when they come to Christ.
Research has shown that the number one opportunity for connecting in a powerful way with our friends, statistically, now this isn’t true for every life, but overall statistically, the number one time to connect with friends about Jesus Christ is in the first two years after you become a Christian, because that’s the period of time when people have the before and after picture in their minds. That’s when you still have a live relationship with all of these friends that you used to party with. And so that’s a critical time and these baffled people have a wonderful opportunity of grappling with the power of Jesus Christ to turn somebody around. It’s a great opportunity and we need to be encouraging our younger Christians, not only younger in age, but I mean newer Christians to be aware of this incredible opportunity to have as people around them start to grapple with the changes that Jesus Christ has worked out in their lives. Now it’s important in a time like that that they see the right image. I can think of on the one hand the good side of what I presented in changes in my moral life and all, but I can also think of times that I went home and I acted in a very judgmental fashion against my family and went on a several month crusade to talk about how my family didn’t do me any spiritual good for the first part of my life. Now that’s the bad side of baffling your friends and family. What did I do to get this? But that early time is a critical time and it’s a wonderful time of outreach for the baffled friends.
But then something else happens in Verse 23. “After many days had gone by the Jews conspired to kill him.” The next thing that happens is that you don’t just have baffled friends, but you start to get reactions from the people that surround you and we have seen this perhaps happen in our own lives. In Paul’s life the very people who were on his side, who went with him place to place seeking out the Christian church, to persecute people, these very people then make the decision to kill him, because not all the reactions are going to be good reactions. Not everyone around us responds well to the gospel and so there are strong reactions that happen in life to people who decide to follow Jesus Christ, and it happens particularly acutely in those early years.
In my life, I lost a roommate. My roommate got sick of hearing me listen to religious radio at eight o’clock at night in our room. He didn’t like the changes. He didn’t like my new morality and didn’t like that fact that I occasionally mentioned those things to him and so he left. He left without ever telling me he was leaving. He just wasn’t there one day. But, that’s minor stuff. There are people right now, Christians in Japan, when they become Christians sometimes their in-laws and parents put incredible pressures on them to turn back. We knew a person whose mother-in-law and father-in-law told her husband to divorce her because she was a Christian. The (Name-deleted) who work with Islamic peoples know people who have died because they are Christian; they had been face to face with these people, in conferences, in conversations and they are now dead. There are families that feel a responsibility to kill Christian members because of their religious convictions. These things happen in the world today. There are strong reactions when people turn their lives over to Jesus Christ. This is a reality and this is also part of our witness.
The story does not end there though; there is a major reaction, but God does not leave us alone in this. Verses 24 and 25, “Saul learned of their plan. They were watching the gates.” In Verse 25, “But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” God provides a new community for believes and provides protection over believers. Now this does not always happen because people die, but very often God provides a miraculous sort of protection and very often the Christian community is part of that support and protection. And so in our culture where persecution is less apparent, much of the support we provide in the community is upholding people as they start to sort through all of the changes that are happening in their relationships, as people are baffled at first, and then rejected and pushed them away because they don’t feel comfortable with these Christian friends anymore. And so we as a community of Christians are a part of God’s answer to protect them emotionally, protect them physically, to be part of a new community that God builds around them and we need to be aware of this because if God prospers our outreach then this will be a continual part of our lives as a congregation. How do we as a community become part of God’s answer for the crisis that are happening in the life of somebody that’s changing? This community was ready. They looked out for Paul. This brand new guy; this guy they couldn’t trust just a short time before, they are ready to lay themselves on the line to get him safely out of the city. We need to be willing to lay ourselves on the line.
Then there is a description at the end of this passage. Verse 31, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” This dynamic thing that we see going on in Paul’s life, this new outreach that happens through Paul, with all the craziness of what happens in the community around them, of people being confused and then people reacting and hostility starting and in all of this mess there comes a place where the church is prospering and growing. Because the church prospers and grows not when we can control everything so that nothing is messy inside and nothing is messy outside, it’s when we are messy with the right things. When these changes are happening and things are turning over and dynamics are changing with the community; it’s in this context that the church prospers because it’s achieving the mission that God gave us.
So let’s just focus for a few minutes about what this means for us. This process of massive change happening in the life. Let’s first look at the issue of new Christians. What does this mean for new Christians? It means first of all that you should expect a change in your life. We are not talking about just an insurance policy in Christianity, where you can act the same way you did before, but now with no repercussions. We are talking about a new way of life. Following a new master; letting God change us in new ways. This is all part of what you should be expecting and seeking in your life and you should be desiring and hoping that your friends actually get to see some of these changes in your life, but let’s make sure that it’s the right change. The change they should see is that they should see now that a person that wasn’t concerned about God at all, now is concerned that God is central in life, that we are humble, that we have taken the place of being a learner. When they look at us they should be able to see love, not in huge and perfect measures, but they should be able to see an increasing measure love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Those are the things that make up a changed life and not judgementalness, a sense of superiority, a desire to always keep people distant because they might be messed up and dirty. It’s very natural at times, but that’s not the witness of a changed life.
What does it mean for the community? It means for us, Central Presbyterian Church, a Christian community, that we have to be a community that’s always ready for those new people. We can’t get satisfied with just having great fellowship with other mature Christians, because God might need us, our particular gifts, our particular place in life, our age, whatever God wants to use, God might need that in order to support a new Christian, in order to form that new community of protection around them as this new person goes through these massive changes in life and has all of these relationships around them in turmoil. We are often called to be that new community and we have to ask ourselves, in our small group, in our ministry group are we ready for those new people? Or have we decided that no we are sufficient as we were, let somebody else take care of them. We’ve got to be willing to get our hands messy sometimes, because you know if you are dealing with a newer Christian, you are going to be talking about things that you have already got settled in your life. There are times that it is going to feel like spiritual kindergarten, but that’s what we are called to and you know just a few moments in that sort of relationship and your own life blossoms because there is some kinds of growth that aren’t going to happen unless you are connecting with someone whose less mature.
The third area; older Christians. What’s the word here for older Christians? Whenever I look at those diet ads, one of the questions that I always ask myself is what do those people look like 3-5 years later? You know, we’ve got the picture at 11 months. They have been on the diet program and they have dropped the weight, what about 3 or 5 years later? Are they still different? Because if they are still not different it hasn’t really worked and you know, that’s true for Christianity. If people can’t look at our lives after we walked with Christ for a while, and see a change, a profound change in some way, and we are not talking about perfection, but if they can’t see a substantial and deep change, then that’s a problem. People have a right to look at our lives. We can’t go around as if we can say listen to what we say, but don’t look at how we live. It doesn’t work that way. Part of our witness is the witness of a changed life and so those of us who have been walking with Christ longer have to ask ourselves, what do people see when they get close to our families? What do people see when they get into our workplace? What do people see when we are on the golf course or playing tennis? A real Christ will make real difference in real lives.
And so we need to be seeking that change, repenting if it’s not there and rejoicing when it is and pressing on. We always press on. So what kind of church are we going to be at Central Presbyterian Church? We are talking about reaching out. We are talking about sharing Christ, well what kind of church are we going to be as we share Christ? Are we going to be the kind of church that points to a few things; oh take a look at so and so, now that person really walks with God. Oh, take a look at this person; they really walk with God, but underneath it all, results not typical. Or are we going to be a community that although we are not perfect we are filled with changed lives? We are a community that is able to take a closer look, because we have found that Christ really does work in us and change us. So let’s ask God now to make a real difference in our lives. We need to ask God to make a real difference in our lives, whether we are brand new at walking with Christ or whether we have been walking with Christ our whole lives, we’ve got to continue to ask God for that because it brings glory to Christ. What brings glory to him is changing sinful people in to his own image. So we pray for it because it brings glory to Christ and we pray for it because there is a needy world around it that will never believe what we say unless they see it revved up.
So let’s pray. God we thank you for all the changed lives that we have seen in our own lives, that have been part of us coming to Christ and growing in Christ. Lord, you know what our particular struggles are. We pray now that you give us clean hands and give us pure hearts. Help us not pursue the old way of life, but to pursue the new way of life in Jesus Christ, and may our character that changes in our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, may that be one part of the witness that we bring to this world, for we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.
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