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This time of year brings about lots of changes. The trees get new leaves, the flowers bloom, and the grass comes back to life. Our students took a break from school and eagerly await summer vacation. Is this what Easter has become in our culture? Is it just another day, another time of year that bridges the gap to something better? If Easter represents the risen Christ, what significance does that hold for us today?
We are in an age where simple profession of faith has replaced transformation. Churches seek the right mix of charismatic leaders to draw the crowds. Find the right mix of musicians, creative teams, and speakers and it doesn’t even have to be a Christian church. Elaborate, high energy worship services filled with emotion seem to draw the bigger crowds and people look around and conclude, “God must be doing something here.” In order to more effectively understand Easter, we need to go back in time. Does the resurrected Christ represent the same thing today as it did back in the first century? For many people in our culture, Easter is part of the semi-annual pilgrimage to church. For others, it represents the culmination of the truth that was foretold from the beginning of time. The church was growing dramatically in the first century and continues to grow at a rapid rate in countries where it is most dangerous to be a follower. I want to look at a first century man that was considered extraordinarily religious, yet was not a Christian.
This is a tale of two people. Stephen was an example of Christ like behavior and our story picks up as his life is ending. I hope you’ll take the time to look up the Scripture references. Look at Acts 7:51-57. Stephen was brought before the religious leaders of the day. They were the Sanhedrin, the elders, and the scribes and he was brought before them because of his testimony of Christ. He told them the truth about the history of Israel telling the leaders about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. They had received the law yet did not keep it. This was total hypocrisy and when Stephen pointed this fact out, they became outraged. So outraged that they took him outside the city and began stoning him where we focus on a man whose story is just beginning.
Look at Acts 7:58-60. Who is this cruel, wicked, evil, heartless man that was so opposed to Stephen that he just stood there? His name was Saul. Stephen and Saul were polar opposites. Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit and Saul is without the Spirit. But Saul is more than an innocent bystander. Keep reading Acts 8:1-3. There was no coercion for Saul, he heartily agreed with what was happening. Heartily means loudly vigorous and cheerful. Think cheering like at a sporting event. The persecution of the church in Jerusalem began that day at the hands of Saul forcing Christians to scatter and Saul begins, “ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.” Ravaging means to cause extensive damage, to devastate. Saul wasn’t content to do this in public settings; no he went in people’s homes and dragged them out and it didn’t matter if they were men or women, he was an equal opportunity hater. To say that he was evil incarnate might be an understatement. But something happened in his life that would change the course of his life and change the course for humanity. Read some more from Acts 9:1-22.
Saul is an example of a total life make over. I want to compare his life prior to Christ with his life following his decision to follow Christ. The key for Saul was written in v. 18, “And he got up and was baptized.” We have to understand the biblical meaning of this word. It wasn’t just that he got put under the water. Biblical baptism comes after a change of mind and heart. It is the outward demonstration of what happened in Saul’s heart. It was a miracle. When you look at Saul’s life, there was a complete and total transformation that could only be attributed to the power of the Spirit of God. Look what happened immediately following Saul’s baptism. Read Acts 9:19b-22. Saul went from destroying Christians to preaching the risen Christ. What he was saying so upset the religious crowd – the Jews – that they developed a plot to kill him. The tables are now turned on Saul. The hunter now becomes the hunted.
In order to protect him, look what happens in Acts 9:26-30. We don’t hear anything about Saul until Acts 11 when Barnabas was sent to get him in Tarsus. Are you thinking, that’s just two chapters over? Even though it’s just two chapters, those two chapters represent about 14 years. Another year passes before the Bible calls this man Paul in Acts13:9. We don’t know all that went on in those silent years of Paul’s life, but I’m sure he knew firsthand the meaning behind 1 Cor. 2:14 as he wrote, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” We often think that Saul got saved, God changed his name to Paul and he packed his bags and began his first missionary journey. That just isn’t so. There was a period of years where he must have studied the Scriptures with fresh insight and renewed vigor. We know he taught some and shared the Gospel during that time. He was preparing for ministry during the time he was engaged in ministry. We do get insight that God had big plans for Paul from Acts 9:15, but for about 15 years, Paul did what he could where he could. Paul had a lot of baggage and I’m sure people had their doubts about his authenticity. This is evident in his later writings. Paul mentions his turnaround I his letters to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians, and to Timothy.
There was such a radical transformation in Paul’s life that after his first recorded sermon (which was off the cuff) in Acts 13, the people begged him to speak again the following Sabbath. Look at Acts 13:42-44. That kind of turnaround can only be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul went from being a persecutor of the church to one that was persecuted because of his faith. Why should we expect less of modern day people that are indwelt by the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead that we celebrate today? One last passage from Phil. 3:3-6. You see, Saul was very religious, but had no relationship with Christ. His attempts to get to God were fruitless because Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (Jo. 14:6) That’s the key to get to God. Saul resisted Jesus for the same reason we resist Jesus. We think we can make it on our own. We think we make the rules, we think we’re doing good and right in our own eyes. Easter is about the resurrection. 1 Cor. 15:17 says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” Easter is about acknowledging what Christ did on our behalf and trusting that His words are true.
The teaching of Jesus was countercultural and it still is. We talk about self sufficiency and Christ speaks of total dependence. Living authentically for Christ is the best way to show others He is alive. Saul was a religious zealot, Paul considered himself the chiefest of sinners. That can only be accomplished through the work of a holy and perfect God. We don’t see a period where he did nothing for Jesus, we don’t see a period where he was too busy to serve, too busy to study, pray, or be with fellow believers. We don’t see where he ever quit or gave up when things got hard or didn’t go as expected. For all the incredible things Paul did through the power of God, his main purpose in life, his main goal is found in Phil. 3:7-11. It should be our goal too.