Three little pigs, one wolf and a pretty famous fable. Now, just for a moment, imagine that the wolf – after weeks of enjoying his role as chief persecutor of pigs – heard voices, was blinded for a couple of days, and wanted to change sides. He wanted tea with the pigs instead of bacon.
How would you react? Would you, like me, instantly expect it to be a trap? Would you give him the benefit of the doubt?
The story of Saul has some amazing twists and turns that sound pretty similar to the above circumstance.
Now I’ve always known that Saul was a persecutor of the Jews, heard Jesus, and then converted. However, I never really considered how this would pragmatically occur. Funnily enough, Acts gives some really curious and sordid details of the mistrust and caution that invariably abound when an arch-enemy all of a sudden wants to stop being a black-hat and become a good-guy.
Consider Ananias’ response to Jesus when he was informed that he was to go up to Saul, big time persecution guy, and place hands on him to heal him in Jesus’ name. I think he rightly presents grounded concerns when he says
I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call in Your name.
Fair concerns, it is like me having a vision saying “Stu, go pat that snake over there. Not the asleep one, the one that is rearing up and hissing at you”. These seem like grounded reservations. Perhaps this is what makes Ananias’ faith all the more impressive. He voiced his concerns and, when presented with a strong response, chose to trust in his instruction.
I think Anaias’ faith comes from an astute understanding of the authorities at play. Saul has the authority of the chief priests. Ananias had the authority of Jesus. Despite the harm that a man can do, it is limited to the mortal realm. Jesus is bigger.
It wasn’t only Ananias, however, who had to demonstrate tremendous trust. Saul himself proclaimed Jesus so aggressively that he astounded former detractors and caused former allies to “conspire to kill him”. This is a powerful reminder of the high-stakes-poker that these guys were playing in the name of the gospel. Lives were seriously on the line! Indeed, the thing that saved Saul’s life from his former friends was the decision of others to take
him by night and lower him in a large basket through an opening in the wall.
Now I know I’ve labored on this point before, but how counter-cultural is Christ? One of his ”chosen instrument(s)” needs to sit in a basket, at night-time, as he is threaded through a hole in a wall – in order to survive the night! When you think that this guy is a significant player in the salvation of billions of people, he hardly manages to fit our cultural heroic expectations. Crazyness!
The shenanigans don’t end here! Again, in Jerusalem upset individuals attempt to take Saul’s life. Again, Saul survives thanks to the faithfulness of people whom, only days earlier, he was arresting and killing. Indeed, it was in Jerusalem that Saul nearly missed out on connecting with these precious brethren as:
When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of the Lord.
I don’t know about you, but I find it humbling to realise how precisely balanced God’s plan is. What I mean by this is what would’ve happened if Barnabas didn’t vouch for Saul? What would have happened if he had lost his voice with the flu, or just been too apathetic to act?
I don’t think the gospel would have been lost as a result of Barnabas’ hypothetical inaction. However I am impressed at the fine line that is has traversed. Further, I am continually reminded of God’s agency in these events. There is no way that Saul could have performed his 180 turn without God – no way. Equally, we are continually reminded that, through peace or persecution, we are always under God’s control. This is made especially clear during an unusual curio that is added in verse 31. Right during the middle of Saul’s personal persecution we learn:
So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace, being built up and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers.
Despite all the crazy happenings in the world, and outright risks of physical danger, the church continued to be built up “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the encouragement of the Holy Spirit”. With verses as clear as these how could you attribute a church’s success to anything else?
What crazy times, and what amazing inspiration, are both presented during the establishment of the early church in Acts!