On the Road Again (A Brush with Greatness)

We began a new series at Gateway Church in Austin called A Brush with Greatness. 

What would it be like to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus?

This sort of brush with greatness led to genuine transformation. Saul allowed fear of a changing world to lead him to persecute and event kill followers of Jesus – until he encountered God on the road to Damascus.

For each of us, although possibly challenging, having Jesus step into our ordinary lives could be the best experience we’ve ever had.

Message Next Steps:

These discussion questions are designed for your life group or family dinner to help you apply the message to your life.

Message Audio from Gateway in South Austin:

Message Notes:

Paul who is the author of most of the letters in the New Testament described his religious devotion in the following ways:

In front of an angry crowd at the Temple in Jerusalem, Paul said:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. –  Acts 22:3

In a letter to the church in Galatia he wrote:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism… I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. – Galatians 1:13-14

To the church in Philippi, Paul wrote:

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:5 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 righteousness based on the law, faultless. – Philippians 3:4-5

An Overview

Last week we looked at how an irreligious person had a brush with greatness. Today we are looking at a very religious person named Saul (also known as Paul).

In this season where we are seeking to Love Everyone: Life by Life we have realized we cannot care, listen, engage, serve, or share with others without God’s help. In our broken, divided, and angry world, we need to connect more deeply with the God of Love. So the goal of this series is to spend time with God, learning who he is, how he ticks, what he values. This is meant to be a 3-week brush with greatness that rubs off on you — leaving you changed, transformed — pulled further into his purposes. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey — just starting or if you’ve logged quite a few laps — Jesus meets each of us right where we are.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of Saul (also known as Paul) to show us how we can naturally share our story with those around us.

A little background: Saul was an incredibly religious person.

When you hear about an incredibly religious person, what comes to your mind?

Now depending on where you grew up and when you grew up, the idea of being incredibly religious would be viewed differently. Some would see it as a good thing. Many religious people are good citizens and good people.

Even still, some would consider this a bad thing. Unfortunately, for extremists it is their religious zeal which leads them to oppose those with whom they disagree and even become violent.

We have seen that all too often in our world and even in recent days. Tragic events like the one at the grocery store in Kentucky two African Americans were targeted and killed or in Pittsburgh where Jewish people were targeted and 11 died reminds us that for some angry people violence becomes the evil response to the fear that they feel.

This is against God’s heart and the very opposite of the message of Jesus. People who perpetrate violence, hatred, or evil against those who are different from them are not following the ways of God. They are not bearing the fruit of the Spirit of God. They are not representing Jesus, the Son of God.

Saul’s Anger

Now 2000 years ago, Saul was afraid and angry because of all the changes happening in his world. He was trained up by a particular sect of Judaism called the Pharisees. Some of the Pharisees were so afraid of losing power to Jesus that they worked with the Roman rulers to kill Jesus. These Roman rulers were also desperate to hold onto power.

You see, Jesus called himself the Son of Man which is the fulfillment of Daniel 7 and the Hebrew Scriptures pointing towards the Messiah. Some had expected the Messiah to overthrow the oppression of the Romans. Jesus did more than that – he came to create a new Kingdom which transcends all governments and world powers. Jesus came to bring life and freedom from religious and political oppression.

When you hear about the persecution of the Church in North Korea for example, it is because followers of Jesus are devoted to God more than their government and this threatens totalitarianism and tyrants.

As an important aside, we say this all the time, but it is worth mentioning in light of our current political climate and the election we had this week. If you are a follower of Jesus, it is absolutely our calling to engage in the political process, to vote, to stand up for the oppressed, and even serve in civil service. Even still, our allegiance first and foremost is to God rather than a political party or even to our nation. As followers of Jesus, we need to show the way in loving people with whom we disagree, with whom we differ, or with whom we do not understand.

So back to Saul, his mentors along with the Roman rulers were responsible for killing Jesus. Yet as the Pharisees and Romans worked together to kill Jesus, the disruption did not end. What they did not realize is that dying on the cross was God’s plan all along. Jesus willingly went to the cross to accomplish God’s purpose of becoming the atoning sacrifice – dying on the cross and taking on Himself all of humanity’s violence, hatred, and evil so that God might offer forgiveness to all – including the religious leaders and the Roman politicians who orchestrated his death. You see, after Jesus rose from the dead, the followers of Jesus continued his message of life and freedom for all – including the enslaved and the people in power, for women and men, for the disabled and for children, for the sick, the sinners, and the outcast.

Followers of Jesus cared for the oppressed because Jesus came offering life and freedom to the oppressed.

Since Saul had seen his mentors (his Saturday school teachers) use violence to stop Jesus, he used violence to stop those who followed Jesus.

For Saul, he was so zealous for his faith that he began to persecute and even kill followers of Jesus.

Let’s look at those original passages that we heard earlier but include all of the passage – not just the parts we assume were good.

Acts 22:3b-5
“… I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.

Galatians 1:13-14
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

Phillipians 3:5b-6
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more… in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Religious zeal often leads to violence – especially when you believe you are right and others are wrong and you believe they are a threat to you and your beliefs.

Have you ever heard the phrase: “Believe in something as long as you are sincere”? The problem with this is that you can be sincere and violent, sincere and belligerent, sincere and against God and His ways.

Saul was sincere and these followers of Jesus were a threat to everything he believed. Saul’s predecessors killed Jesus because he was breaking through the man made and religious barriers meant to keep the people who had power in power.

Jesus Was Changing Things

You see, before Jesus, women were treated like property.

Before Jesus, half of the known world was enslaved.

Before Jesus, children were treated like nuisances.

Before Jesus, the disabled were ignored.

Before Jesus, the ones the religious considered immoral were considered unworthy.

Before Jesus, the Samaritans and the Gentiles (anyone from a different ethnic background) were considered unclean and outsiders.

Jesus had been healing and teaching and welcoming people not allowed in the synagogues.
Now these followers of Jesus said they saw Jesus alive even though Saul’s predecessors had had him killed.
These followers of Jesus were invading the Temple as they met there day after day!

These followers of Jesus included women, slaves, and Gentiles as equals in their community!

You can just imagine the frustration building in Saul.

The annoyance turns to frustration which turns to anger which turns to violence.

Underneath it all was fear.

Today, no one calls himself a Pharisee yet the ideology of the Pharisees lives on in our world and can be seen in every type of religious system.

Disappointment with God

Maybe you think you gave God all you had, but you have become angry. You have begun to operate out of fear rather than faith. Too many people who claim to have faith are operating out of fear.

Or maybe you felt like you gave God all you had, but angry and hypocritical and judgmental Christians have kept you from connecting with a local church community or even pursuing your faith.

In recent days you have been confused or even put off by an angry version of Christianity. Maybe you’ve seen your Sunday school teachers from your childhood venting rage online. This has kept you from fully pursuing faith or community.

Or perhaps this is your story: Maybe as a kid you were very devoted to God. You had perfect attendance on Sundays, yet you still felt empty. So you wandered away from your faith in college or as a young adult.

Why is that?

Maybe for you, your childhood faith slipped away because of the distractions of the world or because God refused to answer your prayer. A loved one died. A relationship ended. A dream fell apart.

Maybe you felt like you gave God all you had, yet things were not going your way.

Perhaps Saul felt like he had given God his all, and yet God was not hearing his prayers. God was not stopping this movement of Jesus followers. Saul’s anger seems to be boiling over everywhere he goes, and then Saul’s story takes a dramatic turn. Saul has a miraculous encounter with Jesus that changes everything.

An Encounter with Jesus

The story picks up in Acts 9

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way (what followers of Jesus were called at first), whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 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. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. – Acts 9:1-8

Several things from this passage stand out:

  • First and foremost, Jesus appeared to Saul in a vision! Jesus, the one who had died on the cross and rose from the dead appeared to Saul as a blinding light. Saul saw Jesus and heard Jesus’ voice!
  • None of the others knew what was happening. This was a personal encounter between Saul and Jesus.
  • In that encounter Jesus had to introduce himself. Saul did not realize who it was at first.
  • Jesus tells Saul that in opposing the people of God, He was actually opposing God Himself.

We read stories like that and we may be skeptical. “That’s never happened to me!”
Or “That could never happen!”

Or “I would believe if that happened to me!”

Let me just say something if you find yourself feeling that way or feeling skeptical:

Remember: although that may not have happened to you,
that does not mean it cannot happen.

Here’s something else to consider: maybe it has happened to you but you dismissed it.

Andrew Klavan, a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter published his memoir called The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. In it he writes:

“God is not susceptible to proofs and disproofs.

If you believe, the evidence is all around you.

If you don’t believe, no evidence can be enough.”

When something strange has happened to you, do you dismiss it or do you even consider it may be God trying to get your attention?

Now God does not just use visions or dreams (although He does so more than you think). God may allow painful things to happen in our lives in hopes that we might turn to Him. God also sends messengers to us in order for us to find Him.

I Heard About You, Now I Know You

There is this obscure passage in the midst of the book of Job I want to share with you. You see, Job suffered a great deal. Job had lost his family and his property and even his health. Job’s friends kept telling him that God was punishing him, yet Job kept saying he did not deserve this kind of punishment. Job’s friends believed that if you were good with God then good things would happen in life.

By the way, we may believe this lie too! When we believe that only good things happen when we are good with God then our faith suffers when bad things happen. We need to have a faith bigger than our circumstances!

The message of Job is that God was with Job in the midst of his suffering even though Job did not deserve God’s love and kindness. Job needed forgiveness just as we all do.

Job summarizes his experience by saying to God:

“I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.

I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”

-Job 42:5-6 (NLT)

In our context I think we can restate what Job was saying as “I believed in God with my head, but now I have experienced you with my heart!”

You see that was my experience. If you grew up with Christianity all around you, you may know the facts about Christmas and Easter. You may even be able to win a Bible trivia contest, but have you seen God! Have you had a brush with His greatness?!

Here’s the beautiful thing: you can!

This passage in Job reminds us that repentance is the path to forgiveness.

Repentance means to turn 180 degrees from the direction you were heading. It means to confess you need God rather than trying to go your own way.

God Pursues Each of Us

So back to this unique passage in Job. It comes in chapter 33. A new friend of Job arrives named Elihu. He is younger than the others, and he has a different message from the other friends. He doesn’t tell Job that the tragedy in his life is a punishment. He tells Job that God can use the tragedy in his life to help him encounter God.

In fact, he says something really remarkable! Elihu says:

For God is greater than any human being.

So why are you bringing a charge against him?

Why say he does not respond to people’s complaints?For God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it.

He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they lie in their beds. He whispers in their ears in a dream, in a vision of the night…

Or, God might get their attention through pain…

Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright…

“God does all these things to a person –  twice, even three times – to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them. – Job 33:12b-30

Did you catch that? God is pursuing every person who has ever lived and who lives now and who will ever live! Every person has the opportunity to turn to God. God speaks through a dream or a nightmare or through the pain we experience in this fallen world or through a messenger (this could be an angel or this could be a friend).

God gives us multiple chances to let go of our pride and ask for forgiveness.

In our pride we think we do not need God.
In our pride we think we deserve God’s goodness because of what we have done.
In our pride we think we are right and all others are wrong.

When we turn to God and ask for forgiveness, ask for help, acknowledge we need what He did for us on the cross to count for us, we find light and life!

Have you noticed God pursuing you? It is no accident you are hearing this message! This is God speaking to you! Do you hear Him?!

God does miraculous things to get our attention, but if we are not careful we dismiss the miraculous!

Sometimes the miraculous can be dismissed because it seems to mundane.

This passage from Job reminds me of what Saul said in Athens to an unbelieving audience. In Acts 17 Saul says that God puts us in the exact spot on earth and in the exact time in history where we might be able to best seek Him and find Him. Isn’t that remarkable?!

So Saul has a decision to make. What is he to make of this experience? Dismiss it as thunder (as some in his group of traveling companions did) or really consider the message he heard from Jesus?

Spiritual Blindness

Now remember, Saul was physically blinded by the light of his “brush with greatness” with Jesus. Perhaps Saul began to see this experience as a way that God was teaching him something deeper about himself. Perhaps Saul began to realize that he was blind long before he lost his physical sight. Think about it, for 3 days he got to mull that over — Jesus, the one he was trying to tear down shows up in an undeniable way and leaves him in the dark to think about his actions. He must have been having thoughts like:

  • “What did I miss?
  • How did I not see?
  • What have I been intentionally ignoring about Jesus?”

Let’s pick up the story again with Saul because I think the next part of his story is remarkable. As John Burke pointed out a couple of weeks ago. Jesus did not lead Saul to faith. Jesus got his attention and then a man named Ananias led Saul to faith.

Continuing in Acts 9

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 holy people 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 proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized…. – Acts 9:10-18

Consider the courage Ananias needed to go to Saul whose reputation for violence had preceded him!

Some of us who already have a relationship with God need to step out in faith more to bring light and life to those around us. We need to be ready to act on the promptings in our heart.

If you have a thought that requires courage and selflessness and is consistent with God’s Word, that is God speaking! Act on those promptings! You may be the messenger God is sending to someone like Job or someone like Saul.

Ananias prays for Saul and there is a miraculous healing of his blindness. Even more miraculous than the end of his physical blindness is Saul is no longer spiritually blind! He now has a relationship with God through Jesus! For all who enter this relationship, we receive the Spirit of God. The same power that rose Jesus from the dead lives in us!

Are you spiritually blind and unable to see what God is doing all around you?
Are you spiritually unable to hear what God is doing all around you?

This could be true if you do not yet know God.

This could be true even if you have walked with God for years.

God speaks all the time! The problem is we are not listening!

Jesus got Saul’s attention. In some ways Saul experienced all three of the ways God pursues in one moment – a vision, the experience of pain, and a messenger!

Spiritual Healing in Community

So then Jesus sent Saul to Ananias not just for this one prayer of physical healing but so that Saul would have other Christ-followers in his life. Saul experienced healing in his relationships. As you can imagine, people of faith were skeptical of Saul when he first showed up. Saul had a terrible reputation and I imagine he was a tough person to love, and yet the early church accepted him and loved him and helped him grow in his faith to the point that he became a leader in the early church.

You see, God speaks to us when we seek Him on our own. God also speaks to us when we are connected in community.

If you want to hear and see God, stop striving. Stop relying on your own righteous acts. Stop looking at your phone all day. Stop paying attention to the news 24/7. Stop giving into the distractions, temptations, and ways of this world.

Instead, seek God. Seek Him and You will Find Him!

  • Say “yes” to following Jesus. Surrender all to Jesus!
  • Spend time in the Scriptures and in prayer.
  • Come on Sundays with an open heart and open mind.
  • Sacrifice your selfish pursuits for pleasure and lose your life in serving others!
  • Get connected by serving others with others.
  • Spend time intentionally growing spiritually in a life group.
  • Seek to love, serve, and reach the Sauls in your life. Share your story when God opens the door of opportunity!

Let God show you who He sees you to be – someone worthy of His love! You are someone with whom He wants to have a personal relationship – not based on your hard work – but just based on who you are. You can come to God as you are, and He will help you become who He created you to be.

I read this recently:

“Eternal life is not something to be achieved but to be received by faith in Christ.”

Which of the following best describes you?

1. Perhaps you consider yourself religious and a Christian.
Maybe you think of yourself as someone who has been a Christian your entire life. If so, have you had an encounter with God? Remember God does not have grandchildren! He invites each of us to become His child. We cannot live vicariously on the faith of others. The faith of others may be how God has gotten you to this place so that you can hear His love for you – His invitation to surrender all to Him and let Him be your Father.

Being in a garage does not make you a car just like being in a church does not mean you truly follow Jesus.

2. Perhaps you have wandered away in your faith.
It is time to get on the road again! It was on the road to Damascus where Saul encountered Jesus. Often God meets us as we are moving forward.

3. Perhaps you think you are close to God, but your life does not seem to match what you say you believe.
Like we looked at last week, you think you know better than God in certain areas of your life. If that is you, let it go. Surrender what you are hanging onto that is actually dark and destructive. Step fully into the light! You cannot experience the fullness of God’s light when you stay in the shadows of pride, lust, or selfishness.

4. Perhaps you have a close walk with Jesus.
Keep pursuing Him, letting Him transform you, and letting Him use you to advance His Kingdom!

Remember: it is out of gratitude to God that we begin to let Him transform us. We do good because He loves us not to get Him to love us! You are someone with whom He wants to turn the world upside down! You are someone through whom God wants to brings justice to the oppressed!

Saul’s Healed Heart

If you know the rest of the story. Saul (also known by his Greek name Paul) became one of the most important leaders in the early church. He helped start churches all over the Roman Empire and his letters to those churches and church leaders make up most of our New Testament. He became a target for the very same group of angry and violent Pharisees throughout his life as a follower of Jesus. In fact most of his letters were written while he was in prison for sharing about his faith. He was persecuted by those with whom he was persecuting followers of Christ! Eventually church tradition tells us he was beheaded for his faith by Nero, one of the Roman rulers.

Jesus healed Saul’s heart. Jesus melted away his fear.

Saul, the man we know as Paul met Jesus. He brought life and freedom to the known world.

He went from afraid and angry and violent to persecuted yet unafraid. With an eternal perspective on his suffering He wrote:

“the Lord will deliver me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly Kingdom.” – 2 Timothy 4:18

He went from proud of his religious devotion to fully surrendered to Jesus writing:

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, 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 on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:8-11

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