The Gospel and Suffering – Acts 9:20-31

The beheading of the Apostle Paul

This is a sermon on Acts 9:20-31.  Download sermon audio and outline.

Most people believe that God is all about eliminating suffering, but Jesus suffered for preaching the gospel and he promised his followers will too, so we should learn to graciously accept the suffering that God allows in our lives as we strive to follow Jesus, who will ultimately turn our suffering to joy.

IntroductionAntony Flew was perhaps the foremost atheist in the 20th century.  He wrote many books defending his skepticism of the existence of God.  Most atheists considered him an eminently rational and reasonable person, treating opposing viewpoints with respect.  His keen mind and polite attitude won him much admiration and many friends in the atheist community.  In his later years Flew agreed to debate Christian apologist Gary Habermas on the existence of God.  After their public debate Habermas and Flew became friends as they continued to dialog on philosophical, theological, and personal issues.  Years later, according to Flew, his interaction with Habermas and the arguments of other Christian apologist (especially those in the Intelligent Design movement) convinced him to abandon his long-held position of atheist and adopt theism–specifically deism.  But the interesting thing about Flew converting from zealous atheism to theism is all the persecution he experienced from his former friends in the atheist and agnostic community.  They couldn’t take the conversion of their hero lying down, attempting to discredit Flew using ad hominem arguments rather that confronting the arguments for theism–all because Flew began talking about the existence of God.  As much as talking about God invites the rancor of many, talking about Jesus and the gospel invites even more suffering.  So the question arises, why not just keep our beliefs to ourselves?  If God is good and desires to eliminate suffering, and talking about Jesus causes suffering, then why not just keep mum about the gospel?

Theme for this passage (which records the calling of the Apostle Paul) is Acts 9:15-16.

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Paul was chosen by Jesus to be the apostle to the Gentiles and to suffer for Christ’s name.

I.    From the world’s perspective, the gospel ultimately causes suffering

Recap Saul’s conversion experience, noting how the world explains “religious conversion” as subjective, psychological, and with no ultimate truth value.

Lewis Rambo, a professor of Psychology and Religion, wrote a book called Understanding Religious Conversion.  He argues that all religious conversions follow a predictable pattern based on a mix of psychological, sociological, cultural, and religious factors.  The pattern: crisis, quest, encounter between advocate and convert, interaction, commitment, and consequences.  Very straightforward, natural, and ordinary, and not at all requiring action by a god or any other supernatural event.  In essence he’s describing how people “get religion” or “switch religions”.

A.    Because it is an exclusive and intolerant message (vv. 20, 22, 29)

Saul, knowing that his mission has fundamentally changed, purposely abused his invitation to teach in the Jewish synagogue by preaching that Jesus is the only way to God.  He knew very well that Jews don’t believe in Jesus, yet he zealously charged ahead with an exclusive and intolerant message in a completely inappropriate venue.  He didn’t come to teach, but to argue that he was right and they were wrong.

If someone did this in an American Jewish synagogue today, wouldn’t that be considered offensive, insensitive, bigoted, and intolerant?  Or if a church invited a licensed minister from their presbytery to preach, wouldn’t they be offended if the sermon was about the final revelation of God in Islam and how Mohammed is the final prophet of God?  Of course.  There is an astute observation here about the suffering caused by absolute and exclusive religious claims.

B.    Leading to persecution of unbelievers; persecution complex in believers (vv. 23-25, 29-30)

What did Saul expect would happen?  Of course the Jews would object to him preaching that Jesus is the only way to be forgiven and to become a child of God!  He wouldn’t relent in his persecution of their ancient traditions and beliefs until they retaliated by plotting to kill him.  Such a response often creates a persecution complex in the original persecutor who is blind to his own intolerance.

I remember a comic strip where two brothers were fighting.  Their mother comes into the room and asks who started it.  One of them declares with all the sincerity he can muster, “He hit me back first!”  Isn’t this too common in religious circles, that the one who started the fight believes he is the victim?

Religious people “feel persecuted or oppressed whenever they find someone that doesn’t share their particular worldview. On closer examination of such claims it’s more commonly the case that claims of persecution are better explained as annoyance at the removal of privilege or the curtailment of their ability to force their views on to others” (quote from “Persecution Complex,” Rational Wiki).

C.    Leading to mistrust and alienation (vv. 21-26)

Everyone (Christian and Jew) who heard Saul preach in the Damascus synagogue was astonished.  They couldn’t figure out why the gospel was coming from Saul’s mouth.  Didn’t he hate Christians and want to kill them?  The gospel message deeply divided those who heard it—believers and unbelievers lost trust for each other and thus alienated each other by becoming enemies.  Saul’s sudden and dramatic conversion also alienated him from many believers and all the unbelievers because they didn’t trust him—perhaps he would change his mind again and thereby betray them?  Both crafty (e.g., his undercover escape from Damascus) and unstable, Saul is best left alone.

Doesn’t this interpretation fit the world’s perspective of the recent events involving Harold Camping and his followers?  The point is that there is a lot of truth in the world’s perspective on why religion causes suffering.  But is the world right about the reason why the gospel causes suffering?  If the gospel is good news that is objectively true, an announcement of events that truly happened in history, then that changes everything, doesn’t it?

II.    From God’s perspective, the gospel ultimately alleviates suffering

Note that the world correctly perceives that the gospel causes suffering, but the world’s explanation for this is wrong.  Why is that the case?  If the gospel is not true, then the world is correct.  But if the gospel is true, then it is the only cure for suffering.  Saul grasped this truth, and recognizing the depth of love shown to him in Christ he responded to his unique calling with unparalleled zeal, effort, and gratitude to God.

A.    Because it announces forgiveness of sins (vv. 20, 22, 28-29)

Saul had friends in Damascus and Jerusalem because Christians forgave him.  They agreed with his message!  The gospel message Saul preached was that Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ, and therefore the chosen one through whom forgiveness of sins comes (Acts 13:38-39; 26:15-18; Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14).

B.    Leading to reconciliation with God (v. 31)

The Holy Spirit’s work in the church is received as encouragement.  When the gospel is believed, our suffering is framed in the bigger picture of being reconciled to God.  God is not angry with his people!  We are at peace with God, which gives us spiritual strength to endure our suffering by drawing on his love and grace.  Saul, the chief of sinners, understood the value of being forgiven and loved by God.  He believed the gospel reconciled even notorious sinners to God.

Why did Paul believe his saying in 1 Timothy 1:15 (“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”) was so trustworthy and valuable for the Christian life?  Because it gave his suffering meaning, and drove him to worship God for the mercy he found in Christ (1 Tim 1:12-17).  If you grasp the truth of this trustworthy saying, and believe it true of you, seeing that you also are the chief of sinners, then your suffering will begin to make sense in the context of God’s love for you, and your pain will be swallowed up in love for God and God’s love for you.  That’s what Paul means when he says that death is swallowed up in victory!  But here’s the deal: you will know the perfect peace of this precious truth to the degree you agree with Paul’s saying.   It’s counter-intuitive—the less righteous you count yourself, the more you’ll be happy in God—but it’s absolutely true!

God made his former enemies into friends!  This restored relationship gave him personal peace in the midst of his personal suffering (Rom 5:1-11):

1 Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. 2 Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. 3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. 6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Rom 5:1-11, New Living Translation)

C.    Leading to love of God and neighbor (vv. 20, 25, 27-28, 30-31)

Being forgiven of his sins and reconciled to God, Saul wasted no time fulfilling his calling to preach the gospel.  In this way he loved God through obedience motivated by gratitude, and loved his neighbor by declaring to them Jesus as Lord and Savior of sinners.  Although the Christians initially feared him, they rejoiced that God had changed Saul and so became his friends and followers.  Barnabas especially modeled love of God and neighbor by vouching for Saul as a genuine brother in the Lord before the Jerusalem church.

When new believers (especially those who have controversial pasts) come into the church, many Christians watch them from a distance and don’t reach out to them.  Ananias and Barnabas set the example of how we are to invite and welcome converts who many “good” Christians avoid out of fear—fear of having their reputation tarnished, fear of having to enter a messy friendship, fear of being abused and harmed by a false brother.  While Christians must be wise in judging whether a new convert is genuinely a new creature in Christ, we must also be willing to put aside our fears by accepting and befriending new disciples who may be very rough around the edges.

Out of love for God and their brother Saul, the Christians protected their gifted friend and safeguarded his special divine calling to the Gentiles by removing him from imminent danger.

III.    The cross reveals how the gospel both causes and alleviates suffering

A.    God in Christ forgave, therefore we are empowered to forgive others

God called Saul, the worst of sinners (1 Tim 1:15-16), out of darkness by forgiving him, changing him, and commissioning him.  But it was risky and surely caused emotional suffering for Christians to forgive Saul and welcome him into the Church.  He may have murdered some of their loved ones!  Christians found the grace to forgive their former persecutor because Christ had first forgiven their sins (Col 3:13).

How does forgiveness cause suffering?  If you’ve ever been sinned against in an incredibly hurtful way, and later that person repented and asked your forgiveness, then you understand the link between forgiveness and suffering.  You know that forgiveness is a payment (a punishment) for sin—not a payment by exacting revenge, but a payment of the debt by covering it with grace.  But it’s painful and costly to truly forgive someone who has really wronged you.  It causes suffering (for you) but also alleviates suffering (for the person you forgive, and eventually for you because your heart is softened rather than hardened, and you gain a deeper appreciation for God’s mercy on you).

B.    God in Christ suffered, therefore his suffering gives ours meaning

God the Father suffered by punishing at the cross his beloved Son who was sinless and did not deserve it, so that our sins might be forgiven (1 Cor 5:7b; Col 1:20; 2:13-14).  God the Spirit suffered by withdrawing his presence from the Son, and by grieving over the Son becoming sin for us on the cross.  God the Son suffered by dying for sinners who hated him (Rom 5:8), and by experiencing cosmic wrath and alienation from his Father on the cross (Mt 27:46; cf. Ps 22).  Jesus as the incarnate Son of God suffered in every way for sinners so we could become his friends (Jn 15:13; 1 Pet 3:18).  Since his suffering alleviates our suffering (Isa 53; 1 Pet 2:24-25), we may imitate him in sacrificial love for others (Rom 9:1-3; 1 Pet 2:20-23; 1 Jn 3:11-18) because he understands our suffering and is able to help us (Heb 2:17-18).  Saul yearned to share Christ’s sufferings, not because he enjoyed pain, but because he knew that suffering alongside Jesus meant he was loved by God (Phil 3:8-11).

C.    God in Christ rose, therefore we know that our suffering will not last forever

God suffered and died at the cross, but Jesus did not stay dead.  He rose from the dead three days later to new resurrection life (Mt 28:5-6).  His resurrection proves he decisively defeated death and accomplished the forgiveness of sins (Lk 24:46-47; Heb 9:22; Rev 1:5).  His resurrection reminds us that all who are united by faith to Jesus will likewise rise to resurrection life on the last day, when at last our spirit-empowered hearts will dwell in eternal bodies (Rom 8:10-11).  Christ’s resurrection guarantees to all God’s children that our suffering will not last forever (1 Cor 15:54-58).

Conclusion – From the world’s perspective, the gospel ultimately causes suffering and is therefore not worth the trouble of believing (much less sharing).  The world is right about one thing: the gospel does lead to certain kinds of suffering.  But the gospel is not just another expression of human religious experience.  The gospel is true!  Most people believe that God is all about eliminating suffering, but Jesus suffered for preaching the gospel and he promised his followers will too, so we should learn to graciously accept the suffering that God allows in our lives as we strive to follow Jesus, who will ultimately turn our suffering to joy.

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