Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to Him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed His name, the Lord. And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshipped.
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory.
Today we will look at the opening statement “I believe in God, the Father Almighty”, of the Apostles’ Creed from two viewpoints.
Firstly we will examine the existence of God, and then we will discuss God as our “Father” – as the Bible describes Him.
The vast majority of people believe that God exists in one form or another.
Many people, even though they have little or no affiliation to the Christian Church, and openly admit that they have no relationship with God, want Church weddings and funerals.
Someone once said that human beings are “inherently religious.”
That means that we are all aware of something or someone who is more powerful than us and has some kind of control or direction over our lives and the universe in general.
Only the most fanatical of atheists can look up on a cloudless night and not be awestruck by the beauty of the universe we live in, and not wonder who or what made it.
So most people would agree that there is a power or being greater than us, but of course there are many different ideas of just what it is.
New Age followers will say that “we” are God, and that the source of life is to be found within each of us. We are all part of a ‘cosmic oneness’. The actress Shirley Maclaine is a high profile new ageist, and she has been quoted as saying “I don't need anyone to rectify my existence. The most profound relationship we will ever have is the one with ourselves.”
And one of her most quoted statements about life is this: “We are at any given moment living the totality of everything. The vibrational oscillation of nature is quickening. Just remember that you are God, and act accordingly.”
Now of course, this is about as far away from the Christian understanding of God as you can get, but if you were to ask Shirley Maclaine, and countless other people whether they believed in God, their answer would be a very emphatic “Yes, I do believe in God.”
There are many other religions and belief systems that have their own interpretations as to who or what God is, but if you had to ask any of these people if they believe in the existence of God, they would say yes, they do.
But of course, some are very different to the Biblical definition of God.
So to simply make the statement, “I believe in God”, does not really set Christians apart from the rest of the world.
In order to understand what it is we’re professing, we need to be clear on who we believe this God to be, and the best place to start is with God as Creator of the universe.
We will cover this in more detail next week, but for now it is important for us to know the difference between our understanding of God from the world’s understanding.
The principle of cause and effect tells us simply that the universe must have been caused by something or someone. The effect is what we see around us, and if we work backwards, it is logical that there must be a cause behind the effect.
In other words, it is logical that the universe as we know it had a beginning – a cause.
So either there is an infinite Creator or the universe is infinite, but there is a fundamental flaw in the second theory.
By applying the second law of thermodynamics, which deals with the principles of heat and energy, scientists have proved that the universe is cooling down.
This means that it is reasonable to assume that at some stage in the future the universe will end, and if it has an end, it is only reasonable then to assume that it had a beginning.
So the universe cannot be infinite, which leaves only one option: it had to have been brought into being by someone or something who is not of the universe, someone or something which is over and above the universe – an outside force, and the Christian belief is that this outside force is an infinite God.
Simply put, if a watch proves the existence of a watchmaker, then the universe must prove the existence of an intelligent universe creator.
It would be absurd to assume that a watch can create itself, and the same principle applies to the universe.
There are many other theories and explanations as to where we came from, but it is reasonable to accept that the universe was created by an infinite being. Of course, there is also the “big bang” theory, but this is something we’ll also deal with next week.
What we have looked at so far is the argument that God exists from the viewpoint of reason, and there are passages of Scripture which support this view.
Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
Paul wrote in Romans 1, “Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
What these and other verses imply is that if we apply simple logic, we will come to the reasonable conclusion that there is an intelligent and infinite creator of the universe.
The next step for Christians is the understanding of the existence of God by revelation.
In God’s conversation we read with Moses from Exodus 33, God tells Moses that “My Presence will go with you.”
What this means is that as finite beings of limited intelligence, we are unable to comprehend God for whom He really is. The only way we will ever gain an understanding of God, is if God reveals Himself to us. Exodus 34:5 says, “The Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed His name, the Lord.”
In the next few verses, God reveals to us some of the essence of His character. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” These character traits are not something we have discovered about God. Rather, they are what He has revealed to us about Himself.
God takes the initiative in revealing Himself. This is the essence of revelation, which of course, is best revealed in Jesus Christ – God in human form.
This simple illustration might help to understand the principle of revelation: You can’t put the ocean into a bucket, but you can get enough ocean into a bucket in order to understand some of the characteristics of the ocean.
A bucketful of ocean will never fully explain the ocean, but that is enough to get some kind of grasp on its nature and properties.
Finite mind cannot understand infinite God, but God reveals enough of Himself to us, even if the only thing we understand is that He is too big to understand!
This is something the Bible does for us – it is a means God uses to reveal something of His character to us.
Through Scripture we are able to grasp something of just who God is, and what He is like.
A mistake which most non-Christians make is that they are happy to accept by reason that God exists in one form or another, but they will not accept by revelation that God exists.
The danger of this is that we end up redefining and reshaping God to suit our own purposes.
When we put God in a box, we reduce Him and in a sense disempower Him to such an extent that we are no longer accountable to Him. We make our own rules, and truth becomes relative, rather than absolute.
Once Moses accepted that God is who He says He is, he then begins to put his trust and confidence in God. This is all about faith, which is a crucial element behind the saying, “I believe in God.” Moses reached a conclusion about just who this God is, and then he applied what he had learned in his own life. You’ll remember from last week that what we believe matters. In other words, we need to know what we believe, why we believe, and also how we believe.
The how is about application (remember the example of your belief that an aeroplane will get you to a certain destination, but that will only happen once you apply that faith by actually stepping onto the aircraft).
Moses now opens himself to God, and starts building the relationship.
In 33:13 he says (and this should be our prayer too), “Teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favour with you.”
God has revealed Himself, Moses has expressed his belief in God, and the next step is for Moses to ask God to help him build a relationship.
This is at the heart of those who profess belief in the God of the Bible.
Confucius said, “The essence of knowledge is having it to apply it.”
So this is the first step. ‘I believe in God, and His authority.’ Now as Christians we move into a different realm – intimacy with God – God the Father.
There are two theological terms which are sometimes used to describe God.
Firstly He is transcendent, which means He is over and above all things.
The second is that God is immanent – He is close and intimate and wants a personal relationship with each of us.
So when we begin by saying we believe in God we are basically talking about His transcendence, but if we say we believe in God the Father, we have moved to a whole new level. We are now talking about His immanence. We have an affinity with Him.
The prophet Malachi asks in chapter 2, “Have we not all one Father?”
This verse (and others like it) is often misinterpreted to mean that because God created us, we are all His children, and therefore we are all going to go to Heaven when we die. This is a heretical teaching called Universalism, and is clearly not what Jesus teaches us in the New Testament.
In fact, God answers Malachi’s question in the previous chapter: “If I am a father, where is the honour due me?”
Jesus often spoke of God as the Father. In fact, in the original Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke in 1st century Israel), He used the word ‘Abba’ when speaking of God as the Father.
The closest English translation of this word is ‘daddy’, which describes the intimate relationship which God wants with us as Father.
As we know from the Gospels, Jesus was not popular with the religious leaders of His day, and this is one of the reasons. To the Pharisees, it was scandalous and blasphemous to speak of God in such personal and intimate terms.
This is a struggle we still face in the Church today. Christianity is about a relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, but for many of us this relationship is crippled by tradition and religion. It’s been said many times before that Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship.
In John 10:30 Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.”
He repeatedly spoke about the intimate relationship He has with God the Father, and He used the term more than a hundred times in the Gospel of John alone.
But Jesus then takes this relationship even further by inviting us to share in it. In John 20:17 on the first Easter morning, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
As Christians we are invited into a living relationship with Almighty God of the deepest intimacy.
We call Matthew 6:9-13 “The Lord’s Prayer.”
This is actually a mistake. If you read the text carefully, you will see that the disciples were asking Jesus how they should pray, and Jesus then teaches them this prayer. So it is not “The Lord’s Prayer,” but is in fact “The Disciples’ Prayer,” and it begins with the invitation to call God “our Father.”
Pause for a moment and think about what this actually means…
The infinite creator of the universe invites us to share in the same intimate relationship with Him that He has with His own Son!
The apostle Paul picks up this concept in a language we are better able to understand when he calls us the adopted children of God. He speaks so clearly about this relationship and some of the character of God in his opening greetings in 2 Corinthians: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
Stuart Briscoe tells of a time he was talking to a child who was adopted. She knew she had been adopted, and her parents had taken great care to affirm her while she was growing up. They also had their own biological daughter, so Briscoe asked the adopted sister if she felt any different, and this was her amazing answer: “Yes I do feel different. My parents just had my sister, but they chose me.”
We need to understand that because of our sin, we are God’s enemies, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, God has chosen not only offer us forgiveness, but He has also chosen to adopt us by inviting us into an intimate, one on one relationship with Him.
God has chosen to reach out in love to us, and that gives us the right to call Him ‘Abba, Father.’ Calling the creator of the universe ‘Abba, Father’ is not blasphemy. We call Him these things because He has adopted us into His own family. God has taken the initiative and He the grand designer of this plan of amazing grace. Calling Him ‘Abba, Father’ is His idea – not ours.
In conclusion, there is an important point which needs to be made.
For many people, their relationship with their earthly fathers was anything but close and intimate, and was the cause of much pain and heartache.
This obviously creates a problem in building a relationship with God as a father, so much so that in an attempt to blot out this concept of God as a male father, some theologians and Churches have rewritten their liturgies, calling God our heavenly parent. Some translations of the Bible have been printed in which there is no reference made to God as the Father.
This though, is a very short-sighted attempt to fix something which isn’t broken.
We need to understand that God is not a human being – He is a spirit, and is in fact genderless.
Dr Carl Henry was the first editor-in-chief of the magazine ‘Christianity Today’, and he wrote this in one of his articles: “The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as ‘He’, the pronoun is primarily personal and generic, rather than masculine and specific. It emphasises God’s personality.”
In other words, when we speak of God as the Father, we are speaking of God not as a “He” as opposed to a “She”, but rather we speak of God as a “He” as opposed to an “It.”
God as Father describes His love, His care and His provision for us. ‘Father’ speaks of His personal nature – not His gender.
Psalm 91:1-2 says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
When we say “I believe in God the Father almighty,” as Christians we are saying far more than simply that we believe He exists. What we are really saying is that we understand we have been adopted into His family, that we have an affinity to Him, and that He, the great transcendent God, is known immanently by us.
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 6
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.
Today we begin our series of sermons based on the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a rather comprehensive series, in which we’ll look at the individual parts of the creed, and will span something like 15 Sundays. There will be occasions such as Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, or when I have weekends off that we’ll take a break, so this series will keep us busy for a good number of months.
Firstly, why the Apostles’ Creed?
Stuart Briscoe is a retired English Bible scholar who spent most of his life ministering in the USA, and he did a series of talks on the creed in the late 1980’s. Much of the material I’ll be using comes from his series.
It all came about as a result of a request from a person in his congregation at the time. He was asked to preach a sermon on the New Age movement, but after a while decided to teach this series on the Apostles’ Creed instead.
He gives this example as his reason – he started his working life in a bank, and one of his tasks was to spot counterfeit money. For months though, he only handled genuine notes. When he asked his supervisor when he and his fellow trainees would be given counterfeit notes to compare, he was told it wasn’t necessary. “You’ve spent so long handling the real thing, that as soon as you touch the counterfeit, you’ll spot it instinctively.”
The point is that if we concentrate on the counterfeit, rather than the genuine article, we can become confused. As we have become more secular in South Africa, there is no longer a foundation of Christianity to build society on.
So the chances of us becoming confused in our Christian belief is much higher today than it used to be.
This is why it is important to concentrate on the orthodox. It will become easier for us as Christians to spot the counterfeit, if we are well grounded in the truth, and this is the purpose of this series.
The Apostles’ Creed may be ancient, but the truth it proclaims is still valid in the 21st century.
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven.
He is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
This morning, in our first session, we will be looking at just the first 2 words of the creed: “I believe.”
A lady by the name of Sheila was quoted as saying, “I believe in God. I can’t remember the last time I went to Church, but my faith has carried me a long way.” This is what we might call “Sheila-ism” – just my own little voice.
According to the 2001 census, 79.8% of our 52 million South Africans claim to be Christians. Simple mathematics then tells us that there should be nearly 41 million people in South African churches every Sunday, which we know to be way off the true figure.
It’s really only when we start to delve a little deeper that we see there is a limited understanding of just who this God really is.
Many people claim to believe in God, but in actual fact are really only listening to a little voice inside themselves, much like Sheila, and this can lead to all sorts of problems. Truth becomes relative – in other words, it becomes what we want it to be, and the Church then loses its God-given authority.
The evangelist Chuck Colson once said, “When the not so still or small voice of the self becomes the highest authority, religious belief undergoes a change so dramatic that it no longer involves commitment to any authority beyond one’s self. The Church is no longer regarded as a repository of truth, nor as a source of moral authority, but merely as a place to go for spiritual strokes.”
This view sums up the attitude of many people as to whom or what God is, including many who claim to be Christian believers.
The Apostles’ Creed came about in the very early days of the Christian faith. The Bible as we know it today wasn’t freely available, and only a small percentage of people could read, so there was a call from early believers for some kind of fundamental statement which summarised Christian belief – hence we have the Apostles’ Creed. The word creed comes from the Latin credo, which means literally, “I believe.”
Psychologists tell us that throughout life we are subject to all kinds of experiences, and that there is an innate desire in each of us to understand and make sense of these experiences. The result is that we build a belief system in order to understand our experiences, and to deal with those experiences.
For example, if you lose a loved one in a tragic accident, there are basically two ways of reacting to that loss.
You can say that God is sovereign, and that He has everything in His control. He created your loved one, and there is a time to be born and a time to die. There are no accidents with God, and He has called your loved one home, or you ask how people can say there is an almighty God when something like this happens. If God was almighty, He would not have allowed the tragedy to happen. A loving God would have prevented this, so the logical conclusion is that a loving and almighty God cannot exist.
These are two completely different views, but what they do have in common, is that a belief system has been applied in order to respond to and understand an experience.
But we are also influenced by our culture. The homes we are brought up in have an effect on how we would respond to the example earlier.
If we are raised in a Christian family, the chances of reacting to such a tragedy as a Christian are far greater than if we’d been raise in a home with no Christian values.
An important point to remember is that each of us is a believer in something.
Faith is an important aspect of life, whether we are Christians or not. If you put your money in a bank, or sign a contract or get married, there is always an element of trust and faith involved.
So we are all believers in something.
The main question though is this: What is the belief in, how real is it and how consistently is it being applied?
Hebrews 11:6 says, “Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that there is a God and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.”
There are only two options: Either you believe that God is, or that God isn’t, but you’re a believer either way.
The fact is that it is not possible to categorically prove or disprove the existence of God – therefore it takes faith to either believe that He does or doesn’t exist.
And it is at this point where Christians and non-Christians part company. As Christians we believe that God created the universe as described in Genesis 1 and 2, and it is on this basis that the rest of our values are formed.
Belief is an important aspect which shapes our lives. If you believe, as the Bible teaches, that God in His love has offered you salvation through Jesus Christ, you will have a radically different value system to someone who believes we are the results of evolution, and that you get out of this life what you put into it.
The Bible also teaches us various ‘steps’ of faith. It is one thing to believe that God exists, but we need to apply that faith by relying on Him as well.
For example – you can believe that aeroplanes are capable of flying to London, but that belief will not get you to London. You need to get onto the aeroplane yourself. Your faith needs to be applied.
Believing that God exists is merely the beginning. When you apply that faith, it is then that you are actually saying that you believe that God exists, that He is reliable and faithful, and because of that you are able to submit to Him out of obedience to Him and out of love for Him, and also to draw from Him the resources needed to live your life as He intended for you.
If you do not apply your belief that God exists, you’ve hardly left the start line.
The next important step in faith or belief is the principle that your belief is given validity by the object of your belief.
Returning to our example of flying to London: You take the step of applying your faith by stepping onto the aircraft, and just after take-off a fellow passenger asks who you are going to visit in New York.
You reply, “I’m not going to New York – I’m going to London.”
“Well, this flight is not going to London. It’s going to New York.”
You can believe as intensely as possible, but your belief will not get you to London. In other words, you can have a genuine and intense belief in something, but if your belief is in error, it will not result in truth.
In colder climates in the Northern Hemisphere, lakes freeze over in winter, which enables even heavy vehicles to drive on the ice.
But if you step onto the ice before it is thick enough, or after the thaw sets in, the ice will not hold you.
You can believe it will support your weight, but if the ice is not thick enough, you will drown by faith, regardless of how strong your faith is.
There is nothing wrong with your faith – the problem is that the object of your faith (the ice) is unworthy.
On the other hand, just the tiniest bit of faith in very thick ice will support you as if you were standing on reinforced concrete.
So the object of your faith is more important than the volume of your faith. It is this principle which helps us to understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 17:20 when He said to His disciples “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.”
Skeptics of the Christian faith often accuse Christians of “ignoring the facts” and using simple blind faith, but this isn’t true. In our reading from Romans 4 today, we’re reminded that Abraham was told by God that he and Sarah would have a child, and after an initial struggle, he believed God. This despite the fact that they were both well beyond child bearing age. In verse 19 we’re told that Abraham “faced the fact” that they were too old, but yet still believed that God would deliver on His promise. As we see in verse 17, God “calls things that are not as though they were.”
We know from Genesis 18 that Abraham and Sarah did not completely believe God right from the beginning, and that their faith was tested before Isaac was born, but because Abraham’s faith endured, “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Someone once said that we often we mistake God, and interpret His delays as denials. But Abraham was opposite to this. The longer it took for God to deliver, the more the anticipation grew, and the stronger his faith became. Even Sarah, who quite literally thought the idea of a 100 year old woman having a baby was laughable, had her faith strengthened over time.
The Christians in Communist Korea suffered heavily for their faith, but they had a saying – “We are like nails. The harder you hit us, the deeper you drive us.” That is faith, responding to divine delays or disappointments.
Finally, Romans 4:20-21 is crucial. “He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.”
The promise depends on who is making the promise. God had the power to break the laws of nature and give Sarah a baby, for the simple reason that God wrote the laws of nature, and He has control over them.
If I gave you a cash cheque for ten million rand, all you’d have is a piece of paper with some writing on it.
But if Bill Gates gave you a cash cheque for ten million rand, your reaction to receiving his cheque as opposed to mine would be very different.
That is putting your faith in the person who makes the promise.
What you believe matters.
Mere belief that God exists is only the first step.
“When the not so still or small voice of the self becomes the highest authority, religious belief undergoes a change so dramatic that it no longer involves commitment to any authority beyond one’s self. The Church is no longer regarded as a repository of truth, nor as a source of moral authority, but merely as a place to go for spiritual strokes.”
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," He replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!"
"Yes, Lord," he answered.
The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight."
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name."
But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh - though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
In Acts 5 we meet a Pharisee named Gamaliel. As a Pharisee in the 1st century he would almost certainly have been on the receiving end of some of the criticism Jesus levelled at the ruling religious class of the day, but we do need to give him some credit as he shows some wisdom and insight when Peter and the other Apostles were dragged before the Sanhedrin – the ruling court of the temple. They were warned again to stop preaching the name of Jesus, when suddenly Gamaliel speaks: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:35-39)
Wise words indeed. Saul was Gamaliel’s most famous student and one thing which Paul could never be accused of is neutrality. Saul, or Paul as he was later known was the kind of person who could be relied upon to do something properly, or not at all.
As an old man he looked back on his life, to the days when he persecuted the Church. In Galatians 1:13 he says, “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” In Acts 26 he said to King Agrippa, “I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.”
In John 16 Jesus made this prediction: “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” This is exactly what Paul thought. He fervently believed that followers of Jesus were blasphemers, heretics, and deserters of the Jewish faith. It was his duty to stamp them out. Paul became the chief persecutor of the Church. Then one day he heard that there was a group of believers at Damascus, so he took with him warrants from the high priest to arrest any who called themselves disciples of Jesus. Damascus is more than 200km from Jerusalem, a huge distance to travel in those days, but that didn’t deter Paul from the single-mindedness of his mission to destroy the early Church.
We’ve all heard the story of Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity on the way to Damascus - the light, the voice, the blindness and the complete change in Paul, but when did it all start? What were the influences that brought Paul to his conversion? There is a moment of conversion, but there are many influences that work to bring about that change, and this was also true for Paul. What were the influences that brought about his conversion?
Firstly, there was the disillusioned heart. Paul earnestly and zealously performed all the religious rituals and traditions of his fathers. He said of himself, “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Paul was like the rich young man who went to Jesus and asked, “What must I do?” When Jesus told him to keep the law, he replied “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”
For all of Paul’s goodness, for all of his religion and ritual, he felt there was a lack in his life. He had faithfully performed all of the prescribed routines of fasting, praying, and Sabbath observing, yet he had no peace. Instead, he had an empty heart. Paul’s heart was troubled, he was disillusioned, but what could he do? He could work harder and he could redouble his efforts at righteousness.
Isn’t it strange that when works of righteousness bring us no peace we just try harder? We attend church more, we pray more, we pay more; but with all of this the peace of God escapes us. Whatever else Paul’s religion had done for him, it had not brought him peace.
The sheer fury of his attacks against the Christians indicated that something was wrong in the heart of the apostle Paul.
A second influence that led to Paul’s conversion was the lives of the Christians. The early church was poor and persecuted, yet it had power. The apostles preached and witnessed with conviction. Even in the face of death the early Christians had a calm confidence, a glad fearlessness, a rejoicing. Had the Christians found something that he had missed? What are we doing as Christians to represent Jesus to our unbelieving friends, especially during times of struggle? Do they see an inner joy and peace, despite all the turmoil? We never know when a Paul might be watching.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal is credited with first describing what is known as the God-shaped void within every human heart, an emptiness which Paul experienced and really only understood once God filled that void.
Pascal wrote “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God Himself.”
A strong influence in the heart of Paul was the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen was not a Jew – he was a Gentile, and his calling was to witness to the gospel in the Greek synagogue. On one particular Sabbath the Pharisees had an altercation with Stephen in the church and later in the halls of the council of the Sanhedrin. Paul and his rabbinic colleagues were outmatched. It must have been a humiliating experience for them. For all of their rabbinic degrees, their letters, and their education, the members of the Sanhedrin were impotent. When they saw that they were about to lose the argument, they cried, “Blasphemy.” It had worked a couple of years before at the trial of Jesus, and it worked again at the trial of Stephen. So Stephen was dragged outside the city and stoned.
Stoning is a particularly brutal form of execution. Everyone is expected to share in carrying out the sentence, as mob hysteria gradually takes over.
The first stones were cast by the witnesses against Stephen and then by the hands of everyone. It was clumsy and it was violent. Such a horrible execution would make an indelible impression later on in Paul’s life. But for now he just stood watching and even approved the execution of Stephen. Acts 7:58 says, “They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
Paul’s disillusionment with the old Pharisaic religion, the radiant lives of the Christians, and then Stephen’s death, all influenced his conversion that followed. Having purged Jerusalem of the heretics, Paul heard about another group of Christians in Damascus. So he arranged the letters of authority he would need, and off he went to Damascus. Quite possibly during this long journey he had time to reflect and think about what he was doing. Maybe he asked himself questions like “Could these Christians be right? Was Jesus really the long-awaited Messiah? Am I fighting against God?”
We don’t know what was going through his mind then, but what we do know is that God knew that this was the right moment to reveal Himself to this young man who had been such a violent enemy of Jesus.
There are two important facets in the conversion of Paul which stand out – the voice, and the vision.
The voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
The exact wording here is crucial. It is not “Why do you persecute my disciples?” It is not “Why do you persecute my church?” but “Why do you persecute me?” From the beginning of his conversion, Paul was going to learn that the risen Christ and His people are one - one body together. In a very real sense which we can really only understand from a spiritual perspective, the Church – Christians like you and I, are extensions of Jesus Himself. In Matthew 25:40 He said to His disciples, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
In John 17 Jesus prayed for His disciples and all subsequent generations of Christians, including us today: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
The message here and the message to Paul that day was clear: If we persecute the Church, we persecute Jesus Christ. If we serve the Church, we serve Jesus Christ.
The Church is not a building we come to on Sundays. The Church is a gathering of the body of Christ. In a moment we will be sharing in Holy Communion. Communion reminds us of many things, one of which is that by the power of the Spirit of God, we are one with each other, and one with Christ. Paul finally realised this truth on the road to Damascus.
And then there was the vision. Whatever else Paul saw that day on the Damascus Road, he saw the living Lord. He writes about it in 1 Corinthians 15: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also.”
For Paul, that day on the road to Damascus was the beginning of a new life. We call it conversion. It means a complete change. Paul was born again. He became the most outstanding example in the New Testament of how dramatically Jesus can turn around the life of a sinner. Paul wrote about this experience often. “I became a new creation in Christ Jesus. The things I once hated I now love, what I loved before, I now hate, and it is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”
So what does the conversion of Paul mean to us today? I believe the biggest lesson is that no matter how far away from God you are, you are never beyond hope. If Jesus can take the most feared and hated persecutor of the Church, and change his life so dramatically then He can certainly do it for you.
Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you’re not good enough for God, and that He has given up on you. He gave His life for you, and as Paul wrote in Romans 8, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul never allowed his past to haunt him. “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Your spiritual experience might lack the dramatics of Paul’s conversion, but if you have accepted salvation through Christ, then your conversion is as real as Paul’s. You might not have heard the voice or seen the same vision as Paul, but I can tell you this about the moment you turned to Christ, and we find it in Jesus’ words in Luke 15: “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
On the other hand, if you are here today and there is an emptiness in your life which you cannot quite explain or understand, then I hope and pray you have found the answer this morning. Paul found it. Millions of Christians throughout the ages have found it, and every Christian sitting in this Church right now has found it. There is an empty void in the heart of every human being. That void is God-shaped, and by its very definition, only God can fill it. After the service we will be available to pray with you. Don’t miss this opportunity to cause the angels to celebrate.