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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sermon on Acts 9:1-20

Third Week of Easter

April 25, 2007

Text: Acts 9:1-20

Before Paul was called Paul, he was known as Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a highly learned scholar, a Pharisee, an expert in the Law. He was also one of the earliest and more feverish opponents of Christianity. We know from the book of Acts and from Paul’s own writings that he had once been a persecutor of the church. He was personally responsible for arresting, harassing, and even murdering those who believed and followed Jesus Christ. It is Paul who writes about himself in one of his letters calling himself “the Chief of Sinners.”

I think it’s safe to say that Paul, while he was still known as Saul, was not a righteous man. He had a form of righteousness, to be sure. He was an avid follower of the Law of Moses. He knew which foods were kosher, which holy days to observe. He was strictly devoted to the outward forms of his religion while failing to comprehend the meaning behind it all.

But the type of righteousness I’m talking about here is not the type of righteousness which places us in good standing with God. A man could follow all the ceremonial niceties perfectly but still be as lost as a tax collector if he did not have faith in God’s Messiah.

Saul had an outward righteousness, a civic righteousness, you might even say a ceremonial righteousness. And none of that is bad. It’s just not sufficient. It’s only bad if you trust in it for salvation.

It’s the same way with us today. While none of us is probably all that worked up over things like circumcision, kosher diet, and animal sacrifices. We do get excited about outward righteousness in other ways. We care if a person is a good, decent person, a law abiding neighbor, a considerate person. For instance, a husband who is faithful to his wife, who is a spiritual leader in the household and provides for his family is what we would probably call a good man.

We’ve all gone to funerals where we hear people say things like “john was such a good person.” That always makes me cringe a little because Jesus said there is no one good except one person and that is God himself. And St. Paul wrote in Romans chapter 3: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So on the one hand, no human being, other that Jesus Christ who is God-in-the-flesh, can truly be called good. But even having said all that, we do sometimes use the word simply to refer to the outward behavior of a person. Who would you rather have as a next door neighbor, a peaceful, law-abiding family man who is kind and considerate of other people’s feelings? Or would you rather have an obnoxious, selfish neighbor who couldn’t care less about you or anyone else? You’d rather have the first guy because he’s a good person and the second guy is not.

So Saul of Tarsus, later to be renamed Paul, was one of the good guys. At least on the surface of it. He obeyed the law. He kept the commandments as best he could. So there is a sort of outward righteousness, an outer goodness to him.

But on the inside, not so much. Do you remember what Jesus called the Pharisees? He called them whitewashed sepulchers. A sepulcher, of course, is a tomb. And a whitewashed sepulcher is just a thing filled with dead rotting stinking filth that happens to be nice and shiny and white on the outside.

Are you a whitewashed sepulcher? In the end, it doesn’t matter what people see when they look at you. They may all say at your funeral, “Oh, what a good person she was.” But God alone sees the inside. He knows what lies on the heart. He is not tricked by our brightly polished outward appearance of goodness. He sees the selfishness, lust, greed, and pride. The outer righteousness I’ve been talking about is good for this life, for this world. It makes for good neighbors. But it is totally worthless when it comes to salvation.

The only righteousness which counts before the judgment seat of God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus said that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Jesus is the only truly righteous man who has ever lived.

How then can any of us ever be saved? If being a good decent person is not good enough, and if you have to have perfect righteousness and if Jesus is the only man who was ever perfectly righteous, what will happen to us? It’s a fair question. Here is the answer. You will be saved because God credits the very righteousness of Jesus Christ to you. Jesus is righteous but you get the credit. And that’s because it went the other first on the cross: you are the sinner, but Jesus took the blame. It’s what might be called an alien righteousness because it comes from outside of you. To all who trust in Him, to all who have faith, God credits the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s what we mean when we emphasize that salvation is a gift from God. There is nothing you can ever do to earn His merit or favor. But you don’t have to. Christ has merited it for you.

On his road to Damascus, on the way to go capture and persecute more believers, the post-resurrection Lord appeared to him. This was shortly after Easter and after the Ascension. So the Jesus whom Saul encounters is the exalted Lord in all of his radiance and light. And you’ll notice that Saul is struck blind from the experience. Or was he?

Before he encountered Jesus, he could see, yet he was spiritually blind. He didn’t need anyone to help him walk around, but he was in the dark when it comes to the things of God. He was devoted to keeping the law and placed his faith in the power of the law to save him. But while the Law of God is powerful to do a lot of things, the one thing it cannot do is save a sinful man. The Law may help us achieve a certain sort of outward righteousness like I’ve noted, but this is simply not good enough. For God does not look only at the outside of a man, but at his inside, the most intimate thoughts and desires of his mind and heart. And on this basis, at the very least, we are all condemned and lost.

A fellow pastor likes to use this illustration. Think about what a very terrible thing it would be if they ever invent a mind-reading machine. What would it be like if scientists were to actually create a device that would enable other people to see and read your thoughts? I think masses of people would be jumping off of cliffs if that were to happen. Do you really want your spouse, your children, your parents, your boss, your pastor, your neighbor to know everything that goes on inside your head? Wouldn’t you be ashamed? I confess that I would be.

And yet, we know that God knows our every thought and it hardly concerns us in the least. We act as if we are more afraid of what other people will think of us than with what God will think of us.

Saul could see and yet he was blind to the most important realities of life. And get this; it wasn’t until God made him blind that he could really see things as they truly are. Only after Saul was struck blind by Jesus on the Damascus road did he come to understand that Jesus Christ is Lord. Only after Saul was struck blind did he begin to see that the Messiah had to die in order to pay for the sins of the world, like a sacrificial lamb. Only after Saul was struck blind did he understand that people are not reckoned just in God’s sight on account of their obedience to the law but on account of the obedience of Jesus Christ.

This is how it is with God. You have to go blind before you learn to truly see. But more than that, you have to die before you can truly live. And you die to sin daily through repentance, through humbling yourself and confessing your faults, through admitting your shortcomings, through acknowledging your failure to obey God’s commandments in thought, word and deed. And it is on the other side of this daily dying to sin through humble repentance that God will raise you up from the dead. He will resurrect you, not just spiritually but also in your body on the last day, just as He raised Jesus bodily on the first Easter.

You could say that Saul was struck blind by Jesus. Or you could say that he was given sight for the very first time.

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found.

Was blind, but now I see.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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1 comment:

Paul, in Bethel Park said...

Hello, Pastor

Thank you for the sermon. It is greatly appreciated. It felt like "Let's Talk About Jesus" all over again.

The end made me think of the verse I coined shortly before you left Pittsburgh...the one I sang for you and your family.

Twas Grace that layed my heart to rest,
And soul, my peace.
My God hung on a cross for me,
And dying brought me home.

Have a great day for the Lord.


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