An Everyday Stretch of Road
It was a normal dirt road. Dusty. Big rocks. Potholes. A trade route. Just an everyday stretch of well-traveled road.
Years ago, a man of some account walked it. By all accounts, including his own, he was a good Jew. Obeyed the law. Zealous. A Benjamite, circumcised the 8th day, and a regular in the synagogue. His parents placed him under the instruction of one of the greatest teachers in the history of Israel -- Gamaliel, where he excelled and by the age of 12, he'd memorized the Torah. All five books. By heart. He then spent 7 years studying the prophets. But don't take my word for it. Of himself, he says: "I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today." (Acts 22) To the Philippians he says: "circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." He would describe his education this way:, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13-14) He also happened to be a Roman citizen which would radically change the course of his life in the years ahead...
He was a pharisee of pharisees and it is safe to say he knew the Law of Moses as well as anyone of his day. This meant, he knew the prophecies about the Messiah. Verbatim. That He'd sit on David's throne. Isaiah 7. Isaiah 9. Psalm 132. Daniel 7. He probably rattled these off in the same way we do box scores. He was not overly attractive, and not an especially good speaker, but he was a serious law-follower and he found value in his fanatical obedience. I don't know how it was obtained -- either purchased or natural born -- but regardless, it didn't matter -- he was a Roman citizen with all the rights and privileges thereof. All of this pedigree had produced a bit of an air about him, and there on that road, his reputation had proceeded him and he liked that. We're not exactly sure how old he was but I tend to think he was either a contemporary of Jesus or slightly younger. In my book, he was younger, though I can't prove it.
Physically, he was probably short, and he spoke at least Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. By trade, he was a tent-maker. Some have suggested that meant he made clothing. I don't think so. I think he made tents -- or some sort of covering to escape the desert heat. At any rate, he worked with his hands and was used to working with canvas and heavy needles. Stitching. He knew how to take measurements which meant he must have known, understood and could work in mathematics which suggests a logical mind. We see this to masterful completion in his letter to the Romans.
I don't know if he ever heard John the Baptist speak, but when John says, "You brood of Vipers," it would have been aimed at those like him. He'd have been a viper.
I don't know if he ever heard Jesus speak. Don't know if he was one of the pharisees to which Jesus so often spoke. I kind of doubt he was he in the crowd singing, "Hosanna in the highest!" on Palm Sunday. If he was around, I think it more likely that he was standing on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets. Disdain painted on his face. When Caiphas, the High Priest, said, "It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish." He would have agreed.
I also wonder if he had been at the trial of Jesus. If so, I see him screaming, "Release Barabas! Crucify Him!" Later, I think he would have been right there at the foot of the Cross mocking Jesus, laughing. "He saved others. He cannot save himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe." Saul shared this sentiment.
We don't know if these events occurred and won't until we stand face to face. Until then, it's total speculation on my part.
We do know for certain that he heard Stephen's valiant defense of the faith and then attended the stoning because those with stones in their hands dropped their cloaks at his feet. A willing participant.
Following Jesus' ascension, we see Saul's meteoric rise. Acts 8 says, "He made a havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison." To death. Then in Acts 9, "Breathing threats and murder against the disciples, Saul went to the high priest and asked for letters from him to the synagogue in Damascus so that if he found any who were of The Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." To the Galatians, he would later describe his former life this way: "For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." He tells the Roman commander in Acts 22: "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished." Think about it, Saul sought out people who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, hunted them down, dragged them out of their house by their hair and let them rot in prison. Or executed them on the spot.
Then comes the Damascus road.
The Butcher of Tarsus, letters tucked into his breast pocket, was hell-bent on persecuting the church. Eradicating followers of The Way. He was licking his chops.
But then he crested a small rise and God turned on the light. And I don't think it was simply a set of high beams coming up over the hill. I think it was like walking into the sun. "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"
Saul, groveling on his knees, hands shading his eyes, says, "Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Then Jesus says the most incredible thing. It's almost as if he pauses and ambles up alongside, leaning over, whispering in his ear. A knowing tone in his voice. A whisper only Saul can hear. "It is hard for you to kick against the goads."
A goad was a sharp stick held by farmers leading a team of oxen down a row as they plow. To steer the beast, the farmer pushes the stick into the rump of the ox and holds it there. They don't poke them. They hold it. It's a sustained pain, not a flash. The stubborn ox either turns, obeying the pain in its rump, or they kick against it -- whereby the farmer only pushes hard and deeper. Point being, no amount of kicking will escape the goad.
Think about it, Jesus is talking about an on-going process. Goading that has been occurring. Somehow or another He has been sticking Saul and Saul knows it.
Think back a minute to the Stephen's stoning. Scripture says this: "But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" (Acts 7:55-56)
Two words ought to grab your attention. "Standing" and "standing." Why was Jesus standing when we know He is seated at the right hand of God. Why would Jesus stand? I think He'd stood up to welcome Stephen home. To honor him. Hug his neck. Introduce him to His Father. Let me point you to one more word: "Look!" Stephen is pointing out what he sees. He assumes others can see it as well. Did Saul see this, too? Was that window into heaven, the standing King of Kings -- eyes of fire, white hair, feet of burnished bronze, sword girded on His thigh, the Brightness of the Father's Glory, who upholds all things by the Word of His Power -- part of the goading? Don't know. But I wonder sometimes.
Saul stumbled off the road, and was three days without sight. No food. No water. His life, as he knew it, was over. I'd like to know what he was thinking about during that time.
Then Ananias knocked on the door. Talk about a guy who wanted to be anyplace but. I imagine that word of Saul's blindness had spread like wildfire and brought shouts of jubilation from the disciples and other followers of The Way. I can see them raising their wine glasses. "Got what he deserved!" Ananias would have been in that glass-raising camp so I bet he was a bit surprised when God tapped him on the shoulder, "Arise, and go to a street called Straight. Put your hands on Saul so that he might receive his sight."
Can you see Ananias scratching his head? "Ummm...Lord, did you say Saul?"
More head scratching. "We talking about the same guy? I mean, the prisons and cemeteries are full of people he put there. Many don't have their heads. I'd like to keep mine where it is. Wouldn't it be better to just let him..."
The Lord interrupts him, "Go. For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear my name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel."
Hear that? "Chosen vessel." How about this one? "Bear my name." I love that. I see Paul wrapping himself in a banner with Jesus' name on it like Rocky did after he knocked out the Russian.
But The Lord doesn't stop here. He says something else that should cause you and me pause. "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake." Suffer? Why suffer? Put a bookmark here. We will come back to this.
So, Ananias rose. Walked in obedience. Laid hands on the blind butcher. And, "Immediately, there fell from his eyes something like scales."
Ever wondered how long they'd been there? I think they'd been there a while. All the way back. When Saul sat in the synagogue. Read the Law of Moses. Listened to Jesus -- if he listened to Jesus Stared at the Cross. Scorned Stephen. As he dragged children from their homes. Saul had been blind his whole life. He just figured that out on that dusty stretch of road.
It's what happened after the scales fell of that interests me.
From that moment he spent a few years in Arabia. Then he returned to Jerusalem where he presented himself to James, the others and then a decade or more passes. His first letters -- that we know of -- were written to the Thessalonians in 50 or 51 ad. Some 16 years after Jesus ascension. All total, he wrote at least 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Officially, the church ascribes Hebrews to him but I don't think he wrote it. To me, it doesn't sound like him but I'm giving you my opinion as a writer and not a Bible scholar.
Allow me an aside -- Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else as ironic that, on the one hand, Saul requested letters of condemnation with which he imprisoned and executed, and on the other, while imprisoned and awaiting execution, he wrote letters of proclamation and freedom. "It is for Freedom that Christ set us free." The Hand of God leaves me shaking my head but gives me great hope. In His economy, nothing is wasted. Not even the worst and most blind among us.
What happened to Paul after the Damascus road? Remember that bookmark on suffering? Paul says this: "We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed- always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you." (2 Corinthians 4:7-12) Later he adds, "I speak as a fool-I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness." Paul knew a thing or two about suffering.
Many of us want the Damascus road experience. How many want what follows?
And see that part about "always delivered to death for Jesus' sake?" The sufferings of Paul were pre-ordained by God Most High. That blows a pretty big hole in the current day prosperity gospel as we've cached it in this country. As do the words of Jesus. "In this life, you will know tribulation." That word 'tribulation' paints a picture of a giant hand crushing what was once free and unfettered, like olives or grapes. Or Paul. Or Jesus. Or, you and me. While Paul walked in faith, worked miracles and saw the dead raised to life, his external circumstances did not necessarily improve once the scales fell off. The Gospel did not become a magic wand for comfort and self-gratification. Yes, the Lord wants to bless and His word promises us blessing, but His word also promises hardship. As much as it does blessing. We who love Him are stuck in that uncertain place in the middle where we have to trust Him. But, that's another essay. Back to this one.
One of the thing that changed the most for Saul, was his picture of himself. While giving proof of Jesus resurrection, Paul lists Jesus reappearance to Peter, the twelve, over 500 brethren, James, all the apostles, then he mentions himself: "Last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time." (1 Cor 15:8) That phrase, "one born out of due time" is a graphic term in which Paul describes himself at the time of the call of the other apostles as an undeveloped aborted fetus incapable of sustaining life.
When he writes Timothy, he's become rather self-aware. "Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." (1 Timothy 1:13-15)
Gone is the arrogant butcher.
And see that phrase, "Chief among sinners?" Think back -- he's remembering dragging people out, executing them, purging the church. He can still hear their cries for mercy. Feel the stickiness of their dried blood on his hands. Paul's heart is broken with the rearview memory of his own life. It's one of the many things he suffered.
Lastly, we know that Paul died in a Roman prison. Probably by beheading -- because they were tired of his mouth. But while they silenced his tongue, they couldn't quiet his pen. Which is still speaking today. Loud and clear.
I can not pretend to encapsulate the entire life of Paul in this, but I'm comfortable saying this -- the turning point for Saul was that stretch of road toward Damascus. And it is the turning point for you and me. God met Paul, blinded him and broke him, and only then was he any good to the kingdom. And in terms of kingdom work, I think it's safe to say that Paul carried his weight. He got The Word out. And it got out to you and me. Paul became that writer that David talks about in Psalm 45, which as a good Jew, he'd have known David's words by heart: "My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King; My tongue is the pen of a ready writer...I will make your name remembered in all generations."
The story of Saul's life and Paul's later ministry and death, begs a few questions: As a follower of Jesus, a member of the Church of The Way, would Saul have enough evidence to drag me out of my house? Or would he pass by only to drag my neighbor out by their pajamas? Teddy Bear in tow. Leaving me standing in my front yard holding the remote control. I flag him down, "What about me?"
He waves me off. A dismissive shake of his head. "No. You're good."
No, I'm not good.
Second, what are my scales? What am I blind to? This is like asking a fish to describe water. He can't conceive of either its presence or its absence because it's always been there, but I'd be willing to bet that if I asked The Lord to pop off my scales, and then gave him access to my eyes -- and heart -- he would, and my perspective of that clear liquidy stuff I been swimming in would change.
And I'd be willing to bet I'm not alone in this.
Don't think Saul is alone in his blindness. He's an archetype. Jesus says this: "For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them." (Matthew 13:15)
Elsewhere he says, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them." (John 12:40)
He's talking about us. Absent Jesus, we're blind as bats.
Thirdly, let's look at his words. In my book, Peter was a much better speaker than Paul (And yes I'm aware that Paul was called Hermes--the messenger of the God--while with Barnabas) but much of what he spoke, he later wrote down and, as a writer I'm thankful because Paul was one heckuva writer. At great expense -- even his life -- Paul spoke The Truth, he held fast, stood firm, threw off everything that hindered, finished the race. And here's the really cool thing, while he's dead and gone, and somewhere his bones lie dusty, his words are still speaking. Today, right this second, someone is reading his words. Then and now people were, are and will be cut people free from the stuff that enslaves them. Those precious, magnificent, priceless, life-giving words continue to lead people to the bleeding feet of Jesus hanging eye-level on a cross, the dirty linen of an empty tomb, a risen Savior. They made known a name that was not his. And made it known for all time. Words do that. They matter. They cut people free.
Jesus said, "By your words you will be judged and by your words you will be condemned." So, just getting gut-level honest, what's the effect of your words? At the end of your life, who's name will be remembered?
One more thought -- there are people in our lives who we see as just downright evil. Beyond Redemption. Blind as bats. We don't want anything to do with them and hope they burn in hell. And you probably have good cause to think that. Some of them have hurt you and me deeply. Without cause. They're just jerks and deep down, we don't care if they rot. But, if the whole counsel of God is true -- and it is -- then no one is beyond redemption. "His arm is not so short that it can not save." So, what if that miserable, scum-sucking sinner that you're thinking of right this moment is God's chosen vessel and He's calling you to be Ananias? I mean, really? Think about it. What if Ananias had told the Lord, "I'll pass. That joker can melt into the prison floor for all I care." If you are a Believer, an argument can be made that you have Ananias to thank.
I'm not saying this is easy. But it is worth thinking about. Might also take some forgiveness on our parts. Or, alot. Which is the single toughest thing you and I will ever do. If you want to read my thoughts on forgiveness, read "My Big Steaming Pile." But be forewarned, that's not easy either. And just because I wrote it doesn't mean I'm good at it. I, like you, am a fallen, redeemed, sanctified, messy work in progress. And my roadmap for much of the cleanup has been Paul's words.
The roadmap exists because Ananias did what he was told to do. Right when he was told to do it. Without question. Without knowing the outcome. Without prejudice. Maybe Ananias is the lost hero of this story. Sort of like the guy that told Billy Graham about a savior named, Jesus. Is the Lord goading you? Is He using this to do it? Are you kicking? How's that working out for you?
Remember, Saul was cruising down the Damascus Road. Skipping along. A man with a plan. Had it all figured it out. Sounds like a lot of other people I know. Starting with me. Many of us are waiting for a Damascus Road experience. Blinding light. A voice out of the darkness. But, what if we've already had it? What if it's sitting between two dusty covers somewhere in your house. What about your scales? Are you blind? Are you kicking against something that pains you? Won't go away? Now jump across to the other side -- the scales are popped off. Are you ready for what follows? Have you underlined, circled and highlighted that word 'suffer' in your Bible? Do you count it all joy when you do? Are you, like Paul, willing to "bear on your body the marks of Jesus?" What's your view of yourself? Chief among sinners? Born out of due time? Is your heart broken with the rearview picture of yourself? How about your words? Do they matter to you the way they matter to The Lord? If Ananias walked in right this second and laid hands on you, would you recoil or relax? Are you willing to receive the Holy Spirit? A permanent course correction? Lastly, are you Ananias? Scratching your head. Deliberating.
Don't doubt it -- you have a role in this story.
Saul knew where he was going. Had it all planned out. Letters in his pocket. First stop was an everyday stretch of road. Dusty. Well-traveled. Rocky. Potholes. A trade route.
Just like the one you're on right this second.
The road to Damascus was the turning point in Paul's life and, here and now, it is the turning point in yours. And mine. You crest the hill. A breeze washes across you. The dust settles. The spotlight hits your face. It is blinding. You hit your knees. You are Face to Face with the Son. His voice is piercing. It splits you in half. You are my chosen vessel. Will you bear My name?