I always find it challenging to ask myself ‘how am I going to invest my life?’ There are any number of answers to that question but like with all things some are infinitely better than others! The New Testament is full of all sorts of inspiring people who give themselves for the sake of the gospel and the people around them. The focal point for many of them is the Apostle Paul who was continually drawing people around him, and recruiting them to invest their lives with him in building the Kingdom of God. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ this generation of people were used by the Holy Spirt to change the world.
“It is a given that Paul was immensely gifted, highly motivated and incredibly hard working. It’s not so widely recognised…that Paul was an astute judge of people, and a highly effective leader…almost 100 people are named in one way or another as his fellow workers or associates…Had Paul merely operated alone, he would not have unleashed the explosive movement that began with him. The exploits of his trusted mission friends was a critical part of the story, something that is not sufficiently appreciated. By no means of least importance is that Paul’s fellow workers continued his work into the future, after his death in AD65.”Paul & his friends in Leadership, Paul Barnett, pg. 138-139
In this blog series I am going to look at some of these inspiring lives: people who Paul sought to invest in deeply. Why? So that they would be able to reproduce what he had done with them in the lives of others. Paul’s involvement with people 24:7 and there was no aspect of life non-applicable to a movement of God focused on the whole of life. We however tend to be very individualistic and compartmentalised with our spheres of influence, busy work schedules and financial portfolios. For these friends Paul, following Jesus involved every aspect of their lives. Yet the potential of these lives sold out on following Jesus was huge.
1. The People God Uses: From Saul to Paul (Acts 9:1-9):
Some may find the beginnings of the Apostle Paul somewhat surprising. Initially Paul was named Saul and he was a self confident Pharisee, convinced in his mission to oppose the name of Jesus (Acts 26:9-11) and destroy the church (Gal 1:13). He had been “thoroughly trained” in Jerusalem by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3-5) and was a Jew, born in Tarsus (modern day Turkey) around 4BC. He was also a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38) and was skilled as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3). The first reference to Saul is of him approving of the killing of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3) and the persecution of Christians (Acts 9:1-2). He was a formidable character and quite simply ideally suited to stamping out Christianity.
1 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, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.Acts 9:1-2
But this same man had an experience on the road to Damascus that changed his life. He saw a light from Heaven and a voice asked him “why do you persecute me” (v4). It was the voice of Jesus who he had been persecuting. God was “pleased to reveal his son to him” (Gal 1:15-16).
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 travelling 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 9:3-9
Later in the book of Acts he recounts being asked “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14). It was a rural image arising from the practice of farmers goading their oxen in the fields. Goads were typically made from slender pieces of timber, blunt on one end and pointed on the other. Farmers used the pointed end to urge a stubborn ox into motion. Occasionally, the beast would kick at the goad and the more it kicked; the greater pain. The implication seems that God had been goading Saul for some time – but now he could resist no longer! The people around Saul were left speechless from what they heard, but they themselves did not see Jesus. Saul was left blinded and had to be led by hand into Damascus where he did not eat or drink anything for three days.
When Saul came to Damascus, the Lord said He was calling Saul to be His chosen instrument, to take the gospel both to the Gentiles, and to the people God of God. He was also calling him to suffer (v16) and to be a servant and witness of what he had heard about Christ (26:16-18).
15 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. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’Acts 9:15-16
In time, Saul became Paul, but it has to be said that he was probably the least likely person that God could choose to use in His service. Throughout the Bible God seems to love to work through weakness, inadequacy and perform the most radical turnarounds in people’s lives. If God can use Saul/Paul, then he can use absolutely any of us! In time his mission would be worked out with the help of likeminded people and he would go on to write a significant proportion of the New Testament. Arguably he would have a greater influence on the early church than anyone else except Jesus!
2. The People God Uses: Learning from Ananias (Acts 9:10-14, 17-19)
Our second character is Ananias (not to be confused wit the husband of Sapphira in Acts 5 or the High Priest in Acts 22-24). He was the man God chose to send to help Saul. He is described as a disciple (v10a) and a “devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there” (Acts 22:12). God took the initiative in appearing to him but he clearly knew Jesus’ voice and responded “yes Lord” (v10). God sent him to a particular house on a particular street and ask for Saul from Tarsus. He was told that Saul had seen a vision about him coming to restore his sight (v12). I wonder whether we would have the space in our lives to hear and respond to Jesus if he called on us?
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. 11 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. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’ 13 ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’Acts 9:10-14
While we don’t know much about Ananias, I love that his response demonstrates his weakness and humanity (v13-14). He thought that he knew all about Saul. Yet God also knew all about Saul and He did not need to be reminded! Surely God had got this wrong – surely not this man! Just imagine the fear in his heart at the thought of going to this man who had letters empowering him to arrest, detail or even kill people like him. Do you ever find yourself in a place of disbelief because of the power of God at work in other people?
17 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.’ 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.Acts 9:17-19
As we saw previously God reaffirms that yes, he has got the right guy! God tells him to go, and Ananias obeys. Our perspective is so limited, but God knows what He is doing, and our small acts of obedience can play a huge part. Obedience is rarely comfortable or easy, but he did obey wholeheartedly. Notice in v17 that when he went to Saul and placed hands on him addressed him as: “Brother Saul”. He greeted him as a brother and explained that he had been sent so that Saul might be filled with the Holy Spirit. That is what happened and once Saul could see again.
Beyond these events Ananias is not mentioned again in the NT but the impact of his life was massive through Saul/Paul. Through his simple obedience the gospel advanced. Amidst our weakness and unbelief are we willing to listen for the voice of God and respond with obedience to His call?
3. The People God Uses: Us
If we were looking for a candidate to take the gospel to the Gentiles, I am fairly sure that few of us would have shortlisted Saul/Paul. Clearly Ananias initially felt the same and the early disciples found his sudden transformation incredibly hard to believe as well. Yet in time they all came to see that this man, with all of his weaknesses would be the one to take the gospel to the nations. We know from the book of Acts that Paul did just that. He took the gospel to at least six countries including Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Greece and Syria. He also significantly influenced at least 10 people deeply and touched another 70-100 people too. Many of these people travelled with Paul, and as ever he turned these trips into training opportunities. In Antioch Paul worked with Barnabas & John Mark, Silas, in Cyprus Paul encountered Sergius Paulus & the Roman Pro Consul, in Lystra Paul met Timothy, in Troas Paul encountered Luke, in Philippi Paul met Lydia, in Athens Paul debated with the Stoic & Epicurean Philosophers, in Corinth Paul laboured with Priscila & Aquila and in captivity Paul ministered to Governor Felix, Porcius Festus & King Agrippa. That mouthful of a list doesn’t even include Apollos, Titus, Erastus, Epaphras, Epaphroditus, Gaius and so on!
The underlying pre-requisite of our involvement with people is that we are faithful, available and teachable. It will look different because we are different people. There is huge potential because this is not about us but about the grace of God at work in us. The people Paul worked with were not all mini-Paul’s: some were scholars who helped write the New Testament, some were evangelists / church planters, some came from wealthy/skilled backgrounds (trades-people, benefactors & slave owners) while others opened up their homes for ministry. They were different kinds of people working out the same vision to reach people in different ways, through different contexts and using their unique gifts. God can use us too if we are prepared to make ourselves available to Him. Perhaps you will have an opportunity this week to follow God’s leading by meeting up with a friend and saying something to them that will point them to Jesus. Perhaps you will have a chance to help build up a friend who is struggling – perhaps your involvement will be a huge turning point for them in the struggle. We just don’t know the potential of any of our interactions with others – God can use them in His purposes!
See other posts in this series
- Paul & Ananias: The People God Uses
- Paul & Barnabas: The Power of Encouragement
- Paul & Timothy: Setting an Example
- Paul & Titus: Developing Leadership
- Paul & Silas: Sharing our Lives
- Paul & Lydia: Using our Resources
- Paul & Epaphras: Carrying the Gospel
- Paul, Priscilla, Aquila & Apollos: Generations
- Paul & Luke: Firm Friendship