Conversion and Philippians #1
A few weeks following Jesus’ resurrection, which happened on the first Easter morning, the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, began preaching about Jesus, challenging people to accept Him as the Savior.
By that time, Jesus had returned to Heaven, but all the disciples had successful ministries. We are told specifically about the results of two early sermons preached by the apostle Peter.
After the first of Peter’s sermons, about 300o people accepted Jesus the new believers were right away baptized. They also devoted themselves to learning about Jesus, to Communion and fellowship, and to praying.
After Peter’s second sermon, that one with fellow disciple John, about 5000 men, plus presumably women and children, became believers in Jesus.
There were wonderful successes in what was the early Christian church. The successes could lead to the assumption everything should have been easy and peaceful for the disciples and other early leaders of the church. However, things were not easy as they, just like Jesus before them, frequently faced opposition from those who did not believe in Jesus being the Savior from sin.
For instance, Peter and John were arrested following the second sermon just mentioned. The trial ended with the direction from the Jewish leaders that the disciples were to never speak of Jesus again. That was met with the statement from the two disciples that they had to speak of Jesus - what they had seen Him do and heard Him teach. They had no choice, they said. They had to do that to satisfy their calling. After they were released, they did indeed keep speaking and teaching about Jesus.
Later another early leader faced opposition. His name was Stephen. His first responsibility in the church was helping to organize the feeding of widows. However, it was not long before his ministry changed to include preaching. Very direct preaching, which, when it led to him openly and boldly criticizing Jewish people for their failure to accept Jesus, resulted in such anger he was stoned to death.
The leaders of the early church - indeed all early Christians - suffered because of their faith in Jesus. In the last part of chapter 7 of the New Testament Book of Acts and verse 1 of chapter 8, we are introduced to one of the main causes of that suffering. We are introduced to a man named Saul.
In this message, we will think about something that happened to Saul that changed him. Changed him from being an enemy of Christians into a minister for Jesus. We will also begin a look at one of the New Testament books he wrote. The Book of Philippians, that one chosen because it so often addresses the topic of joy. Joy is always needed, but maybe especially so now.
Here is our introduction to Saul. As people were throwing stones at Stephen, it was Saul who watched the garments those people had laid on the ground. That is in Acts 7. In Acts 8, the first verse tells us that when Stephen died, Saul gave his consent. Those two acts indicate Saul both displayed and spoke his approval of what had just happened against a follower of Jesus.
What an interesting attitude Saul had. However, that was just the beginning. After Stephen’s death, Saul went on a rampage against other Christians in Jerusalem.
It was not just leadership Saul provided in the rampage. He himself was involved as he ravaged the church, entering houses in search of followers of Jesus. Any he found he helped drag out of the houses and throw into prison, where they would stay unless they renounced their faith. Those who refused to turn against Jesus were either held in prison or executed.
Saul was a very energetic enemy of Christians. A very devoted enemy. So devoted he wanted to extend his reach beyond Jerusalem. So it was - we move to chapter 9 of Acts - that he asked for and received permission to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria, 140 miles to the north.
With permission to extend his rampage, Saul set off for Damascus. He was anxious to reach Damascus, which, he hoped, would bring more opportunities to do what he could to rid the world of followers of Jesus.
Excitement was Saul’s mood as he drew near to Damascus. But suddenly, something happened. A great light flashed around him. The light came from Heaven. It was brighter than any other light Saul had ever seen. In fact, it was so bright, it stunned him to the extent he fell off the horse he was riding.
When Saul hit the ground, he heard a voice. It, too, came from Heaven. The voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”
“Who are You, Lord?” The word “Lord” indicates Saul knew whose voice it was. But how was Jesus talking to him? Jesus had died and been buried. And yes, it had been reported the Lord had risen from the dead. It was further reported the Lord had ascended into Heaven. That is what the followers of Jesus, including Stephen, had been preaching.
Saul was shocked because of the sudden light and the voice, both from Heaven. He needed an explanation, which he received when the voice from Heaven said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul was confused, but he then received some instructions from Jesus. Saul was told to rise and continue his journey into Damascus. Upon arriving, he was to wait to be told what he was to do.
The instructions did not make sense. Saul’s purpose was to find, arrest, and deport Christians to Jerusalem. He already knew what to do.
But maybe not. Jesus seemed to indicate there was another purpose for him. A purpose he would have to wait to learn.
Then, just as suddenly as the light had appeared, it was gone. So, too, was the voice gone. Whereupon Saul rose from the ground .
He then opened his eyes. They had been closed against the sudden bright light and the confusion of hearing Jesus talk to him. Saul opened his eyes. What a further shock it was for him to discover he was blind. Completely blind, meaning he could not continue into Damascus on his own. Those traveling with Saul, who had accompanied him to serve him, led him by the hand, taking him into Damascus.
For three days Saul continued in his blindness. During that time he neither ate nor drank. I guess he had lost his appetite over his disappointment that his purpose and his physical health were apparently gone. Saul must have wondered if he would ever be whole again.
On the third day, the Lord spoke to someone else. A man in Damascus. A Christian named Ananias. The Lord gave Ananias an assignment. It was to go to Straight Street in the city, on that street to go to the house owned by Judas, at that house to ask about a man named Saul, and when meeting Saul, to lay hands on him so he would regain his sight.
Ananias’ reaction was, “What? You expect me to do what? Saul? I know about Saul! I know how much evil he has done against Your followers, Lord! I am one of those followers! Lord, if I go to him I will be arrested and hauled off to Jerusalem and be imprisoned or killed! Saul? Are You kidding me? No way! No how!”
If Ananias thought that was the end of it, he was wrong. The Lord persisted, telling him Saul was going to change. The change would be into a chosen instrument for the Lord’s service. The service of taking the Lord’s name before Gentiles. Not Jews, which would also happen, but Gentiles, which was a promise of God’s Kingdom expanding. And before not only common Gentiles, but kings as well.
Reluctantly and with fear and trembling, Ananias obeyed the Lord. He went to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, where he asked about Saul. When they were introduced, he did lay hands on Saul. Not angry hands, but healing hands. He then said an interesting word. He said, Brother Saul.” “Brother.” What a risk that was.
Ananias continued by saying the Lord, who had appeared to Saul, had also appeared to him, instructing him to lay hands on Saul so Saul could recover his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Ananias obeyed. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes. When that happened, he regained his sight. Saul’s physical health was restored.
With his health restored, Saul could of course return to his purpose of searching for and persecuting Christians. In fact, he had a Christian right in front of him. His first conquest could be that easy.
Instead, Saul stood up, and asked to be baptized. baptized as a Christian. Ananias did that. Saul then asked for and was given food, which strengthened him. With that strength, Saul was ready to begin, not a search in Damascus or anywhere else to get rid of Christians, but a ministry for Jesus, proclaiming and proving Jesus was and is the Son of God, worthy of being known, worshiped, and obeyed.
Wow! Talk about a complete and total change! That describes Saul perfectly as he did a complete u-turn from being an enemy of Christians to being a minister for Jesus. A ministry that spanned several years and included not only preaching, but writing as well. Writing in the form of letters that are books in the New Testament. The count is 13, written over 17 years. Some of which were written while Saul was in prison.
Let me add this. Toward the beginning of his ministry, Saul’s name, which was based on his Jewish background, changed to Paul, the Roman form of his name. Remember what the Lord had told Ananias. That Saul was going to preach to Gentiles about Jesus. That is represented in the change from Saul to Paul.
Paul wrote 13 New Testament books. There is one we are going to think about many of the next few Sundays. It is the Book of Philippians. As mentioned, that one chosen because one of the main themes is joy, which we certainly need at this time.
The concept of joy is interesting coming from Paul because Philippians was one of the letters - the books - he wrote while in prison. In prison because of his faith in Jesus.
Isn’t that interesting? Remember Paul, before his conversion, had persecuted Christians. After his conversion, he himself was persecuted because of his faith in Jesus.
Despite the joy Paul had spiritually, his physical, worldly life was not easy. That included times in prison. Yet he had joy, and he encouraged other Christians to have joy as well. Again, that is a prominent theme in the Book of Philippians.
Let’s start into the Book of Philippians, today covering the first third of chapter 1.
Verses 1 and 2. Paul identifies himself as the author. Again, this is actually a letter. A letter written to Christians in Philippi. Paul identifies himself as the author. He also lets us know Timothy, a fellow minister, is with him.
Look how Paul describes himself and Timothy. “Servants [or slaves] of Christ Jesus.”
Slaves” is the more accurate meaning. Remember Peter and John, when they met with the Jewish leaders shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, told the leaders they had to preach about Jesus? That is what Paul writes to start Philippians. He and Timothy were slaves of Jesus. They had to fulfill what the Lord - what Christ Jesus - had called them to do.
It was, however, not a negative forcing. Preaching and teaching Jesus is what Paul and Timothy wanted to do. They were happy and satisfied putting their lives and souls in His hands while serving Him.
Paul and Timothy, servants or slaves of Christ Jesus, “to all the saints in Christ Jesus [all the Christians] in Philippi.”
Philippi was a city in what is today Greece. It was a major city of the Roman Empire. The city at the center of Acts 16, where we learn Paul had visited that city. While there, Paul had led a rich woman named Lydia to believe in Jesus. He baptized her and her family, who also came to believe in Jesus. He then healed a slave girl from demon-possession. When that resulted in imprisonment and suddenly the Lord allowed him to escape, Paul led the jailer to believe in Jesus. He later baptized the jailer and his family.
Philippi was an important stop on Paul’s missionary journeys. A Christian church had been started in that city. It was to the Christians in that church - in that city - to whom Paul wrote. Common Christians, along with “bishops” or pastors and “deacons” or helpers.
For the Christians in Philippi, Paul prayed for two things. Grace and peace.
Grace in this context refers to a mix of joy and pleasure. The joy of being a believer in Jesus. The pleasure that being in His will brings.
Peace refers not to the absence of trouble or war, but to a feeling of total well-being. Confident that no matter what happens - for Paul, including being in prison - things will work out fine, at least spiritually, because life is based on Jesus.
In verses 3 through 9, Paul makes clear his love for the Christians in Philippi. The love is expressed many ways.
He writes, “I thank God when I remember you.”
“I pray for you,” Paul writes.
“I am thankful for your partnership. And I am sure that the Lord, who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” What hope that is for the future.
“I hold you in my heart because we are common partakers of grace,” even in difficult times. “I yearn for you.” Yes, “I do pray for you.”
A specific prayer is mentioned. The prayer that the love those Christians have for one another “will abound,” now and in the future.
* * * * *
We are going to end there for today’s consideration of the Book of Philippians. It is there we will begin in next week’s message.
For now, suffice it to say Paul really was a changed man.
Changed from being a violent enemy of Christians, he himself grabbing followers of Jesus and making sure they were sent to prison. He himself doing all he could to stamp out the early followers of Jesus.
Changed to someone who loved fellow believers. Someone who wanted grace and peace for fellow believers and who prayed for fellow believers. What a miraculous change Paul experienced.
May we rejoice over that change. May it cause us to be confident others can be changed. May it lead us to pray for those not yet Christians so they will be changed. What a wonderful way to show our love. Love for Christ Jesus and all His followers, including the new ones who join us.
The closing song for today is related to the closeness Paul had for the Christians in Philippi. The closeness all Christians are to feel for one another. It is Blest Be the Tie That Binds. Two verses to sing, one more spoken as part of our benediction.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
We share each other’s woes,
Each other’s burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
Lord, the final verse of the hymn proclaims the joy that is coming for all of us who accept You as the Savior. The joy that has already begun.
From sorrow, toil, pain, and sin we shall be free.
That has already begun here on earth,
But in Heaven, perfect love and joy
Shall reign through all eternity.
Thank You, Lord, for the joy of Christian fellowship. Help us to display that joy. Amen.