Paul iconHere’s the text of the first of two sermons preached at my home church, Belmont Chapel in Exeter. If you’d like to view the PPT that accompanied my talk then you can view it by clicking the link.

SLIDE 1 This morning we’re starting a short summer teaching series looking together at the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. Over the next four Sunday mornings we’ll be glancing at a few snapshots of Paul’s life, brief glimpses that I trust will help us to get better acquainted with this key NT figure. However, our intention is not to focus solely on Paul’s experiences in isolation but rather we’ll be looking to learn how best we can apply some of the lessons Paul learnt in his Christian life in our own Christian lives today – whether individually or corporately as a faith community here at Belmont Chapel. As we journey together with Paul over these few weeks it is my prayer that all of us may take increasingly positive steps towards Christ-likeness as we ask God to help us apply the lessons we learn from His word.

SLIDE 2 For those of you who like the opportunity to read around some or all of the teaching series here at Belmont I’d recommend Michael Bird’s recent book on Paul entitled, A Bird’s eye view of Paul – the man, his mission and his message.

Our subject for today is entitled, Paul – called by God. And to help us consider that theme we’re going to centre our thoughts on one of the vivid and insightful accounts that Paul himself narrates describing the manner of his conversion by way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. However just before we read the passage for today its both worthwhile and important to take a few moments to place what we’re about to read into its correct setting – to set the passage within the context of the events pertinent to the time and situation of writing.

Paul is writing to his friends in Galatia, to groups of Christians who when taken together formed a collective of small Christian church communities scattered throughout what is now modern day central Turkey. Paul’s reason for writing is to defend the validity of the good news of the gospel since the churches in Galatia were coming under pressure from individuals who were teaching that faith in Jesus Christ was insufficient of itself and that it was necessary to add to the gospel that Paul had preached to them.

It’s worth noticing that as Paul starts to write you get a sense very quickly that he is in a hurry to get to the real substance of what he has to say. Paul writes with a pace and an urgency that dispenses with his usual polite introductory greetings but rather gets straight to the point as he reminds his readers of the authority He has been given by God to proclaim the good news of the gospel and, more importantly, as he reminds them of the sufficiency of the vicarious death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ to bring the means of personal salvation to a defeated and sinful humanity.

SLIDE 3 If you have a Bible with you and you’ll like to follow the reading we’re going to read from Paul’s NT letter to the Galatians, starting at Ch.1 vs. 11 – if you’ve got a Church Bible with you then you’ll find the reading on Page 1103 or, if you’d prefer, please follow the words on the screen behind me, or just listen.

SLIDE 4, 5 & 6

We’re going to stick closely to the text this morning and since we don’t have too many verses to consider we’ll unpack them in a straightforward and I trust, a helpful way. The substance of these verses when taken together form a brief, but powerful, description of not only the nature and extent of the good news of the gospel but also they describe the change that is brought about in an individuals life through belief and trust in Jesus Christ both at conversion and forward from that into discipleship. And we’ll consider those things under five simple headings.

Firstly then … SLIDE 7

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Planned by a loving God (vs.11 & 12)

It’s evident right from the very first stroke of the pen that Paul wants to leave his readers in no doubt about who commissioned him to do the work he is engaged in on their behalf. His employed status Paul says is as one, ‘… sent not with a human commission, nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …’ (Galatians Ch.1 vs.1).

But it’s not just the mission that is God inspired but more importantly says Paul in vs.11 it is the message too. The good news of the gospel that Paul preached when he was with them wasn’t something formulated through his own ingenuity neither was it obtained from any human source but uniquely it was God’s message to them as individuals, and by extension a message to the whole of humanity – a message of hope and salvation personally addressed to rebellious and sinful people – people such as you and I.

It’s clear that the Galatian church had been coming under attack from those who doubted the validity of the message Paul preached and doubted that it was inspired by God so Paul chooses to counter those attacks by reminding his readers of the seismic shift that had occurred in his own life through the direct intervention of God – Paul’s testimony is a remarkable story and it reveals God’s power to bring about change and renewal.

Paul came to recognise through God’s spectacular intervention in his life – the story we read about in Acts Ch.9 – that it is only God who can change sinful humanity. But it’s not that Paul was lacking in information about God, his knowledge of the law and the Halakha, that ever growing list of legalistic laws for living that was fast obscuring the real essence of God’s law, was probably second to none. And not only that but he had seen evidence of the power of God to change lives as he heard the testimony of those who professed faith in Jesus Christ, those who he had a hand in so cruelly brutalising such as Stephen, and yet he failed to see the significance of what God was doing all around him because he hadn’t yet encountered the personal reality of the God who’s laws he so fanatically followed.

I’m sure for many of us here this morning we’re able to share Paul’s enthusiasm for the good news of the gospel since we know by our own experience what a difference faith and trust in God brings. But that may not be true for everyone here and so I, like Paul, would want to stress again the fact of the divine authorship of the gospel message since it is the only way through which God is truly found.

Secondly I’d like you to notice this … SLIDE 8

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Resisted by a blinded humanity (vs.13 & 14)

The thrust of Paul’s evidence to support his belief that God can bring change to individual lives bubbles up from his own experience. There are many passages that attest to the character and actions of Saul, the man Paul was before encountering Christ. And many of those verses make for uncomfortable reading. SLIDE 9 In Acts Ch.26, when in conversation with King Agrippa, Paul says this of his past life, ‘… 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 …’ (Acts Ch.26 vs.9-11).

And surely we would, from a human perspective, consider Saul of Tarsus to be a very unlikely candidate to ever come to faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We would also, I’m sure, wish to distance ourselves from the kind of violent man that Saul was and would wish to see ourselves as intrinsically better people. And yet the Bible tells us that God sees us all condemned and under the same judgement because we have, like Saul, an inherited sinful nature, a nature that reveals its true colours in so much of what we do and say and think.

SLIDE 10 But, as we know from reading the story, God doesn’t give up on Saul of Tarsus and thankfully he doesn’t give up on any of us either.  In fact God had been working in Saul’s life prior to that dramatic event on the road to Damascus. Again, in verses from Paul’s conversation with King Agrippa, we find him recalling the actual words spoken to him by Jesus. Paul repeats Jesus’ words, ‘… Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me … is it hard for you to kick against the goads ? …’ (Acts Ch.26 vs.14)

Apparently to kick against the goads was a common expression of the time. It was a rural expression arising from the practice of farmers goading their oxen in the fields. Goads were typically made from slender pieces of wood, blunt on one end and pointed on the other. Farmers would use the pointed end to urge a stubborn rebellious ox into motion. Of course, sometimes the ox would kick back in resistance, but such an action would only result in pain as the point stabbed deep into the flesh.

In the story of Saul we’re tempted to see the event on the Damascus road as a sudden dramatic encounter with Christ, but in the light of Jesus’ words to him regarding his repeated resistance, surely it’s true that God had been at work in Paul’s life for possibly many years previous.

How do you and I react when God calls ? For many of us here this morning we can look back to a moment when we placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and experienced like Paul an encounter with God, albeit I’m sure not such a dramatic one. And yet maybe for others here this morning God is still prompting and prodding regarding the need to take seriously the claims of the good news of the gospel. It’s also true that despite salvation we still resist God and we still refuse His prompting; we choose self-rule over God’s Kingship and we kick back against His leading in our lives. I know it’s true for me and I’m aware of the need to regularly ask for God’s forgiveness – sometimes we just need to stop fighting and allow God to break through.

Thirdly I’d like you to notice from the passage … SLIDE 11

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Revealed by a willing Saviour (vs.15 & 16)

The reason why God persisted in his pursuit of Saul and why He persists with you and I reveals the measure of God’s grace and love. Saul of Tarsus like each and every one of us deserved God’s judgement and punishment, but God doesn’t hate us despite our sinfulness, He loves us – or why else would God send His one and only Son into the world to reveal God’s plan of salvation and carry it through to its vital and amazing conclusion.

In writing to his friends in Philippi Paul talks of all the things that he boasted about when he was an unconverted man. He had religion and self-righteousness, as well as a growing reputation and recognition amongst his peers but all of those things had combined to blind him to the very thing he needed, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It was that very need that Paul recognised on the road to Damascus. The religion of the Jews had been an experience of ritual and practice but faith and belief in Jesus Christ brought an inward experience and a reality to life. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings change from the inside out as the Spirit starts the work of regeneration within a repentant life. How then, says Paul, could this good news be anything other than the work of God, since only God can bring about such a miracle.

Jesus Christ reveals God’s rescues plan, He is God at work in the world. He came and died in order to remove the curse of sin and death and to remove the scales of blindness that serve only to keep a sinful humanity in darkness and isolation.

It seems like I’ve already asked this question a couple of times this morning but the question of where we stand in relation to God’s offer of salvation is the most important question in the world so it’s worth repeating. Do you and I know Jesus Christ as our own personal Saviour ? SLIDE 12 Have we come to that point in our lives where we are able to say with Paul that, ‘… whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord …’ (Philippians Ch.3 vs.7-8a)

If that is where we are then the last two points bear relevance to our day to day walk with God, fourthly then … SLIDE 13

  • The good news of the gospel message
  • Matures through a deepening relationship (vs.17-20)

Paul goes on in the next verses to tell of his experiences after the story that we read about in Acts Ch.9 and its here that we come upon something of a surprise. What we discover here is that Paul’s dramatic encounter with Christ on the road out from Jerusalem is an important stepping stone in God’s plans for Paul’s life and it’s certainly not an end point in itself.

Think for a moment about those things that Paul says he didn’t do in these verses. He didn’t rush around looking to consult with others in Damascus seeking to shape his theology by consensus, and neither did he hurry back to Jerusalem to seek an audience with the remaining apostles; those who had been with Jesus during his time of ministry. But rather he deliberately chooses to spend time alone with God in a self-imposed period of exile in Arabia – a time of solitude, of thought, of study and of close relationship with God. As is always the case when scripture leaves a gap and remains silent on a subject commentators love to try and fill in the hole that’s left – many theories abound about what happened to Paul during the three years he spends in obscurity, but we don’t have any answers, other than to say that Paul surely spent a long time with God.

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline, a book which I’m sure many of you here have read says this about the need to go deeper with God and to build upon the reality of salvation by being willing to engage in the work of maturing as a disciple. SLIDE 14 He says, ‘… superficiality is the curse of our age … the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem … the desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people …’ (Page 1)

How much time to I regularly spend in prayer and study ? How much priority do I give to being still and asking God to reveal Himself to me ? Have I ever carved out a significant amount of time out of my busy schedule in order to give it over solely to God ? Is my life speeding up or slowing down ? Am I too busy to pray ?

In closing I’d like us to consider one last and very short thought from the final few verses we read together and it relates back again to the words we read in Philippians. Here’s my last point for this morning … SLIDE 15

  • The good news of the gospel message …
  • Confirmed by a contagious lifestyle (vs.23-24)

I’m struck by these verses because they reflect so clearly the words we read earlier that Paul penned to his friends in Philippi, ‘… whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord …’ and the net result of that change of emphasis in Paul’s life was blindingly evident to those he came in contact with. Paul’s changed life spoke only of God and Paul reflected the praise of those who he met with back to its source. Paul wasn’t recognised in Syria and Cilicia – he says that in vs.22. His face was unknown but his faith was unmistakable. Here was a man so changed by the work of God that nothing could mask that change from those he came into contact with.

I wonder how true that is of me, or how true it is for you ? How much of God’s work of salvation is evident in the way I live my life day by day, in the choices I make, in the way I interact with my family, in the way I handle my relationships and friendships ? If it’s true that I’m the only Jesus people see then what kind of impression do they get of the God I profess to love and serve ?

SLIDE 16 May God help us to today and through this coming week to take hold of the truths we’ve reminded ourselves of this morning and seek with God’s help to apply them in every situation of our lives.

Let’s pray