This week's Bible Study - May 22, 2016
Redeemed from an Unbelieving Past
Quotes of the Week:
People only bring up your past when they are intimidated by your present.
In the Christian faith, a testimony is a personal story about how a person came to faith in Jesus Christ. Every testimony is different, although some of them may sound very much the same. Some people have what seem to be amazing testimonies, as if they were going full speed down a highway and turned on a dime to go the other way. I have seen a few people, as adults, that became Christians and the impact on their lives was amazing. However, some of their experiences seem very short lived, as if it was a match that lit quickly and died out. Something happened, but it didn't really seem to be legitimate. Perhaps there was an emotional surge and when that surge died down, they assumed that the 'thrill' is gone - it was as if they tasted the faith, but it didn't really have a life impact. There are other people who grew up around other believers and they more or less seemed to become one by default, because that was what everyone else did. They took the classes just like everyone else did at their church and they 'graduated' as a 'believer'. Some of these people seem to drift away over time and it isn't that important for them later. Perhaps it became an intellectual experience, but didn't really grab their hearts.
I was fortunate to be raised in a family where church and Christianity was an important part of family life, and I grew up learning about the Bible and hearing many stories about Jesus Christ. From my own experience, I imagine that I was a church attender in the womb and nearly every Sunday after that while I lived at home. I saw my parents and grandparents being very involved in different ministries in the church and it was obvious that their faith was authentic. They all had issues, as we all do, but there was something about them that rang true over the long haul. As a child, I was in the Kentucky Bible Drill (a three year winner, mind you!), where I learned the books of the Bible, memorized several verses and key passages. That experience helped me learn more in a short period of time because I was focused on learning (and I believe our brains are like sponges with knowledge at the age). I certainly didn't understand everything about the Christian faith, but I knew where many passages were located in Scripture and had a general idea about many facets of our faith. Although my life (since being the perfect child (HA)) has been far from perfect, I have believed in Jesus Christ from very early on. Through all of my ups and downs, my successes and failures, in good health and where I am now, my relationship with Christ has been the one common mainstay that has never changed. I know of God's grace, His mercy, His love and His discipline. I am very thankful for what I learned growing up, and how it has helped me throughout my life. But, I am more thankful that the Holy Spirit dwells within me.
I don't have the testimony of one who was involved in all sorts of illegal or immoral behavior and lived a wayward life, thumbing my nose at God. Don't get me wrong, I've had waywardness in several different areas over the course of my life, but these times came largely after I became a believer, at age 8, and before age 8, it is somewhat difficult to get into too much trouble (at least at my house, it was!). Since that time, I have had numerous issues that I wish I could say that had never happened, but they have helped to mold me into the person that I am today. When I have talked about realizing your weaknesses and the importance of being vigilant in life to avoid situations, I speak from experience. When I speak of God's grace, I speak from experience. Some seem to think that becoming a believer means that you never have to deal with the attraction of the world. I suppose it is only non believers that think that, because I know that each of us, believer or not, are prone to failure. It's a bad perception that we give the world if we give them the indication that becoming a follower of Jesus means that your life has no more sin. What a terrible thought to give anyone to make them think that becoming a follower of Jesus leads to perfection in this life.
In this lesson, we will look at the testimony of Paul. But, each and every testimony can be very encouraging.
I am going to do something a little different and ask for some help from you. If you would like to share your
testimony, please Click here to send me your testimony and I will be happy to make a page of testimonies on our site. As long as I am able, I will take them and post them on a page on our site. I am often encouraged by the testimonies of others and you never know if God may use your testimony to reach somebody, someday. Let me know if you have questions, and I'll be happy to give you more information.
In Acts 25, the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before Festus, the Roman governor of Judea. They asked to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, as in Acts 25:3, it says "for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way." Festus did not care much for the Jewish leaders, and here Festus sought to take control of the situation by saying that he was going to Caesarea in a few days, so he would deal with the issue there, if indeed Paul had done anything wrong. When Festus arrived, many serious charges were brought against Paul, but they couldn't prove any of them, and Paul said that he had done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar. Paul appealed to be heard before Caesar. A few days later, King Agrippa arrived at Caesarea to pay his respects to Festus. (Agrippa was the Emperor, i.e. Caesar of that time). Festus discussed Paul's case with the king, and King Agrippa said the he would like to hear Paul's words personally.
In chapter 26, Paul was before King Agrippa, making his defense against the accusations of the Jews. King Agrippa was the great grandson of Herod the Great, the one who attempted to kill the baby Jesus when he was born. Agrippa was considered to be an authority on the Jewish customs and controversies, as well as closely connected with Rome. Paul wanted Agrippa to listen to him patiently while he talked, knowing that his words would resonate with the King.
Paul indicated that he had been well known within the Jewish community, since he was a child. He was what you might call, a Jew's Jew. He had been a Pharisee and part of the strictest party within the Jewish religion. Paul made it clear that he was standing on trial for hope of the promise that God had given the Jewish fathers. He was being accused by the Jews, of which he was one, of propagating the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which seemed to the Jewish people to be impossible. I would imagine that many people today have the same thought, thinking that one must be a fool to believe in such nonsense as a man rising from the dead.
Paul was formerly fully on the side of his detractors, and had been convinced that he should do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. In opposing Jesus, Paul thought that he was doing what God would have wanted him to do - protect the faith. Paul was not just against the Christians in his thoughts, but he was on the frontline in squashing this false faith. On the authority of the chief priests he had put many people in prison, and had cast his vote on multiple occasions to put these Christians to death. He sought out believers and tried to get them to blaspheme his God, so that he could persecute them. In fact, he was so focused on persecuting them, he would even go to other cities and seek the believers out. He was what you might call a hunter of Christians.
I am sure that many of the people against him at this time were once his allies, and who previously saw Paul as a hero of faith and now were his enemies. The difference is hard to fathom. This isn't like one of the star players on your team now playing with the rival team. This would be more like somebody who had been with you, side by side, and zealous in persecuting believers, but now has changed teams. It would be similar to a high ranking Nazi official in World War II, changing sides and openly speaking against the Hitler regime. You can imagine that his former friends, the Nazis, would not be happy with him, at all.
Paul continued to say that on one of his many journeys, he was headed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. We may have read this before and assumed that he was going to another city in Israel, but Damascus was a Gentile town in Samaria. Paul was so zealous in his persecution that he wasn't confined to his own land, but sought out believers anywhere where there had been a Jewish synagogue.
Around noon, he saw a light from heaven brighter than the sun. I am sure we can imagine what that might be like at nighttime, when it is dark and a bright light appears, but on a bright sunny day, would you ever notice if something was brighter than the sun? If Paul had been indoors when this occurred, you could come up with some explanation, perhaps. But this light outshone the sun. Paul saw this light, as did all of his companions. They fell to the ground, because that was the only place to fall. They didn't know what was going on, but something was happening. When God had spoken to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, He often spoke in darkness, or in a cloud. There was a pillar of fire which led the people in the wilderness at night, but now it was an overwhelming light in the middle of the day. Could this be indicative of the life and light that is now given to those who believe?
Then, Paul heard a voice saying to him in Aramaic, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads." (Saul was the name previously given to Paul, who we will call Paul throughout this lesson) The voice spoke in Paul's native tongue, and by doing so, it was apparent that there was a tie back to the Jewish faith. How do you think Paul may have felt to not only see this blinding light, but then to hear his name, in a place where people knew of him, but didn't know him. As the voice continued, it became apparent that in persecuting these heathens, as Paul must have thought they were, he was actually persecuting the King of Glory. Do we consider this today when we treat other believers harshly? What are we thinking when we lie about others or attempt to destroy other believers? Do we not realize that we are in effect, persecuting our Lord at the same time? Certainly, none of us are the Lord, but when we persecute others, we are walking a very tenuous walk.
Did Paul start to realize what he was doing? The next phrase sounds out of place, as the voice said it is hard to Paul to kick against the goads - or it is difficult for you to put up a struggle. Although it isn't said by the voice, or in the text, I would imagine that Paul's first response was to become indignant, as he was, after all, doing the Lord's will (or so he thought). This is similar to our first knee jerk type of reaction when we have been called out, on even much lesser things.
Then, Paul asked, "Who are you, Lord". I don't think he believed this was The Lord, but he did recognize that this was some voice from heaven. When the voice answered, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting", how do you think Paul felt? He well knew the name of Jesus, the rogue anti Jewish leader who was at the center of all of the problems. This Jesus, who had died and surely whose dead body was decaying in some grave. At least what the Jews had indicated. They had come up with their story, and they were going to stick to it. Now, Paul had heard the voice of this Jesus speaking to him from the heavens and it became obvious that something big was happening, and something was sure to change.
Jesus continued to speak to Paul and told him to get up on his feet. He continued to say that He had appeared to Paul to appoint him as a servant and as a witness of what he had seen and would see of Jesus. Isn't that astounding? Paul had been persecuting Christians, and in effect, Jesus, for a long time and now Jesus could have just as easily struck Paul dead with a laser from heaven. Yet, He chose to use him. Would any of us picked Paul? Would any of the folks in Damascus, whom Paul was on the way to persecute have chosen for him to be saved and to become an outspoken leader for Christ? Jesus had work for him to do. He was to tell others what he had seen and be a witness. He saw what he saw and that he could be sure of. Have you been called to tell others what you have seen, and how Christ has been at work in your life?
Jesus continued to say that He would rescue Paul from his own people, whom you had to figure were going to consider Paul a traitor of large proportions. And, Paul would be rescued from the Gentiles, the ones whom Paul had been persecuting (and were very unlikely to welcome him into their fellowship). If everything ended at this point, you would have to think that Paul would have been in no man's land. Who would have wanted to be around him? Jesus said that Paul would be protected and under His care. We often think of missionaries in far-away places that are in harm's way. We know that God can deliver them according to His will, but we also know that doesn't mean that they will always be safe. Just in the past couple of weeks, we have learned of a missionary in Jamaica that was brutally killed. We cannot understand why some are protected and at times, others meet such a fate. But, Jesus informed Paul that, in this case, at this time, Paul would be rescued, in order to do the task that was set before him.
Paul was not simply chosen to be rescued from these group of people, but Jesus was sending Paul to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God. Paul was to do this so that they would receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those had been set apart by faith in Christ. Paul's witness was not the end all, but it would become a vehicle by which the message of God's grace could be delivered. The world, as of that time, and as our present day, lives largely in ignorance of the grace of God. We all know people, who seemingly have no desire for God in their own lives and seem to be living 'good lives'. They are good people, doing good things, and do not see themselves as creatures of sin, harboring some great immoral lifestyle. Yet, apart from Christ, they are in darkness. Neither you nor I can convince them of this truth, but through our words and lives, God is often able to reach them with a story of His grace and mercy.
As Paul continued speaking before King Agrippa, he said that he had not been disobedient to that vision he had from heaven. This was a choice that he had to make. Was he going to have this vision and hear the voice of Jesus, and then go right back to what he was doing, persecuting believers? Or, was he going to take heed to what he had been told, and then turn to do what God would really have him do?
In fact, Paul continued with similar vigor that he had before, yet it was directed in a totally different manner. He had preached the good news of Christ to those in Damascus (where he had been converted). He had preached in Jerusalem (where he had been educated). He preached in all Judea and then to the Gentiles, as directed by God.
He had preached that they should all repent and turn to God and begin demonstrating their repentance by their deeds. Paul's preaching was not going into deep theological constructs, but it was utterly practical, so that many would come to know Jesus. Paul didn't preach high platitudes and he didn't try to amuse them with eloquence of speech. They needed to acknowledge their sin, show sorrow for what they had done and turn to God. Paul was true to what he had been told to do, and he was truthful to that calling, even to his own defense before the king.
Paul's testimony was unlike any others at his time or today. However, we all have testimonies of how we came to Christ. It may be through the example of others that led us to faith, or through our own search into truth. The truth is that we come to faith because of God's calling and He can accomplish that through many ways. Your testimony is the one thing that you are the expert of, and nobody can tell you that you are wrong. Know what your testimony is and be willing to share it, when the need arises. Paul clearly told how he had been lost, and that he had been found. How were you lost, and how were you found, and what does the mean as you live day by day?
Another thing that just jumps out of this lesson to me is times in our own lives when we have been led to believe one thing (about something or somebody). Often, people are led to believe things because of what someone has said, and there is no desire to hear any other side to a story. This is often true in politics, when a mind is made up and no matter what one hears, they will not change. Unfortunately, it is true in too many of our relationships. Although it doesn't rival Paul's conversion, have you ever been so blinded to believe one thing and tried to fit everything you heard into that thing, and then you found out that what you believed was wrong? In this case, you often will have to ignore or dismiss other information that disproves what you have been told to believe. Have you ever thought something about a person who you had grown to despise and then found out that the reasons you have for despising them are based upon lies (or half truths) that you have been told? How would you respond? Are you mature enough to admit when you have been wrong and make the changes that you need to make? Many relationships in life are broken and damaged to the point of the brink of beyond repair because people refuse to look at both sides of a story, or to find truth. You aren't likely going to get the light in the middle of the day and a voice calling out your name (as Paul did) to convince you, but if you truly want to seek God, you should do some investigation into why you believe what you believe.