I want to share a bit of my reflections from the book of Acts, and specifically Apostle Paul. Paul was arguably the best Christian who ever lived. So confident was he in his relationship with God and his way of life that he could say in 1 Cor 11:1 – 1Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
And when he couldn’t be physically present, he would send someone who was very similar to himself. In 1 Cor 4:14 – 14I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Loving and following God can be hard because God is invisible. That is why God sent His own Son into the world. God took human form so that by seeing Jesus, we can see God and thereby know how we should live. And this same pattern continues. This is why Paul says, if you are confused at what it means to live out the Christian faith, look at my life. And if I can’t be there, here is my clone, Timothy. He will remind you of my life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Christian life is not just going to services on Sundays and learning facts about God like we would learn about mathematical formulas at school. Because Christian life is mainly about a relationship, it is not purely an intellectual endeavor. The gospel is not something that is merely taught, it needs to be caught. The truth of the gospel needs to be embodied in people and when we observe a person living for God, we can look at that person and say, aha, that’s how I should live out my faith.
Thus, Paul could say, imitate me as I imitate Christ. So it would be very helpful to us today if we studied the life of Apostle Paul, arguably the greatest Christian who ever lived. He was God’s chosen instrument to spread the gospel message beyond the Jewish people to the rest of the Gentile world. Paul planted dozens of churches throughout Asia and Europe in the first century. On top of that, he penned most of the books of the New Testament so his impact reaches even us a couple of thousand years later as we read the bible.
In the first part of Acts, Paul was not the Paul we know and love. He was Saul and he was a zealous Jew who persecuted Christians and had them thrown into prison and killed. So he was a murderer.
Then, with a flash of light, in Acts 9, Jesus confronts Saul on his way to Damascus. And you know the story, Saul is converted and he is given a new name, Paul. He is given a new purpose in life, instead of a persecutor, he becomes a permeator of the Christian faith.
And there is an interesting detail that is included in Paul’s calling. Through a fellow brother in the faith, Ananias, God reveals the plan for Paul’s life in Acts 9:15 – 15But 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. (And then he adds) 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
That’s an odd thing to say. I understand the first part. It sounds cool – to be God’s chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. But I don’t know about the last part, I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.
Why suffering? Paul sure did suffer. Paul shares his testimony in 2 Cor 11:23 – I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
And we read about this suffering in detail in the last 8 chapters of Acts. Because Paul caused such a disturbance through his preaching, Paul is on trial before various Roman officials and they are trying to decide what to do with him. He’s like a hot potato and he is passed from one official to the next, no one wants to deal with him. And though he is on trial and in chains, he is the freest person.
Before King Agrippa, Paul could say in Acts 26:29 – 29Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
It’s an ironic scene – the man who is chained up is telling the powerful kings and leaders around him that he prays that they may become what he is, a believer, one who knows God, except for these chains. Paul is the freest person in that entire court proceeding. He is so free in fact that instead of running away from suffering and chains, he is not afraid to move toward it.
Earlier in Acts, Paul was warned by the Holy Spirit that he would suffer if he were to go to Jerusalem and this was confirmed by a prophet named Agabus who prophesied that Paul would be literally bound up in Jerusalem. And all the Christians around him begged him not to go.
Acts 21:12 – 12When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
How could Paul live this way, to the point of not being afraid to suffer and even die for the sake of Christ and preaching the gospel to others?
It’s because Jesus who died on the cross and who suffered for him met him and forgave him of all his sins. Jesus broke the real chains, the ones that bind up our souls with guilt and anger and restlessness. Everyone who doesn’t know Christ is bound to something or someone. Whether it is pride or insecurity or romance or power or money, everyone in the world is chained by something or someone.
But by the grace of God, we have been set free. This means we can be in chains, we can lose all our money, everyone can leave us, but if we have Christ, we have everything. Because we are free in our souls. And because we are freed by the blood of Jesus, we have the roominess in our hearts to love those around us, even suffering for them.
Do you know the freedom that we have in Christ? Has he broken the chains in your life? If so, we are free to ask our neighbor, how are you doing? And in that exchange, we can share the love of Christ with the person next to us.
Is the gospel message something that is just in your heads, an intellectual truth or is it something that you know and cherish from the depths of your souls? Have you experience Jesus personally and the grace that can transform even a murderer into a saint?
Paul shares one of his life verses in Acts 20:24 – 24However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
Let us finish the race and commit to completing the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.