If the book of Acts proves anything, it proves that Jesus Christ is living and reigning and orchestrating everything for the flourishing of his Bride. This means Jesus is not dead and he is not absent and he is certainly not boring or predictable. Jesus can turn anything around. Here’s what John Piper said in a 1991 sermon on the conversion of Paul.
Now what I want to happen in this message is that your heart would be encouraged from the truth in this text that Jesus is alive and that he turns things around. That is the phrase I want you to take away. Jesus turns things around. Or another way to put it would be: I want you to go away with a kind of open-ended expectancy about your heart, your mind, your personality, your family, your work, your world, your city, your school, that Jesus turns things around, that believing in the Jesus of the book of Acts means believing that he breaks in and turns things around.
I think one of the most debilitating, one of the most devastating feelings in the human heart is fatalism. And what I mean by that big word “fatalism” is that it will never change. I will never change. She won’t ever change. My kids won’t ever change. My job won’t ever change. This city won’t ever change. School won’t ever change. The world won’t ever change. Abortion won’t ever change. You name it, we are stuck with it. The powers are too deeply entrenched. We are just going to have to gut it out. It ain’t going to change. That is fatalism.
And I think that is an attitude that Jesus doesn’t like at all, because it is kind of practical atheism. It doesn’t reckon with the God of the book of Acts who comes in and changes things. I think the message of the book of Acts is that that is not true. Fatalism is not true. I think that is the message of the book of Acts.
Jesus is not dead. He is not silent. He is not disinterested. He is not weak. He is alive. He is powerful. He butts in and he changes life. He works new things. He does not like being put in the category of a boring, predictable person. He is not boring and he is not predictable. He is full of surprises. Jesus changes things. He turns things around. Churches, nations, families, personalities, peoples, enslavements, he changes, he turns people and nations and systems and problems around. He reverses things.
Let’s look at it in the text. The persecution that we are about to see the end of here began back in Acts 8:1. It says, “And there arose on that day” — that is the day when Stephen was killed — “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” But in verse 3, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
And I can imagine, had I lived in that church in that day, that tiny little beleaguered group compared to the huge Roman Empire, and given the average human personality of not being a hoper and an optimist, I would have said: Well, this is just the way it is going to be. The Romans are against us, like Pilate. The Jews are against us; namely, the Sanhedrin. The priests are against us. They empowered Saul to have these letters to go and drag people into jail. There is just no hope. It is too negative, too dangerous. There is nothing but persecution all around. It has been this way for quite a while. It is probably going to be this way until the Lord comes back. And so there is really no sense of hoping that things might turn around.
That is the way we tend to be. There are a few wonderfully, chronically faith-filled hopers around, but not many. Most people are given to seeing the darkest side and the most pessimistic view on things and just conclude it is not going to change. And the book of Acts is written to show you that that is not true. That is not true. Jesus is alive. He is almighty. He is infinitely wise, infinitely creative, infinitely resourceful, and he intrudes into this world and he turns things around. That is the message, I believe, of the book of Acts. He is not and he dislikes being thought of as boringly predictable. He is not. He is full of surprises.
And so suddenly here in the book of Acts, out of the blue, Jesus decides to take the chief persecutor of the church and make him the chief advocate of Christianity. Now isn’t that like Jesus? Who shall I pick on here to reverse the state of affairs called persecution? Aha! I will take Saul, the one who is breathing out murders and threats, and I will stop him dead in his tracks and I won’t just kill him. That would be easy. That would relieve the church. Kill him. Get him off the scene. I could do that. But I won’t do that.
I will do something better and worse — as far as Paul is concerned, or Saul. I will make him into a chief exponent so that the hunter becomes the hunted and the persecutor becomes the persecuted and the killer becomes eventually the killed, and I will reverse everything in human history on this afternoon on the Damascus road.
Nobody can conceive of Christianity as we know it apart from what Paul wrote in the New Testament. What Jesus was about to do in one split second on an afternoon on the way to Damascus, nobody dreamed of in the early church. All the pessimists were about to eat their words who said: It will never be the same. We could never know peace again. We are all going to be beat down forever. And God reached in and reversed things.
And here is the way Luke in this story drives it home. He describes Paul’s conversion. Then he describes Paul’s preaching. Then he describes, today, Paul’s being persecuted to show the reversal is complete. The persecutor becomes the persecuted. Look at Acts 9:23. Luke says that the Jews in Damascus plotted to kill him. And then he has to escape in verse 25 through the wall in a basket. That was so scary and so humiliating for Paul that he writes about it over in 2 Corinthians 11:32–33 as one of the low points of his life.
Then in Acts 9:29 Luke tells us that the Hellenists, once Paul gets down to Jerusalem, are also seeking to kill him. So the hunter is now the hunted. And to escape, this time he has to be sent out of the country on a boat to Tarsus. And the upshot of this dramatic reversal of one man’s life is a dramatic reversal of the whole scene in the church life. Acts 9:31 says, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.”
Nobody would have dreamed of it. It wasn’t going to happen. We were on a downward spiral to trouble and persecution and scattering and violence. Get yourself ready. Pull in your belt. Brace yourself. Trouble forever. And suddenly it is different. He changes it. Jesus decides: I am not going to let it be that way anymore. I am going to bring peace for a while upon the church. And he takes Paul, turns him around, and changes everybody’s attitude towards the church. No more persecution. Strange.
Just keep your antennae up, brothers and sisters. Jesus is doing things in this world in Senate Court hearings and in all kinds of movements. He is doing things you never dreamed he might be doing in your life and in this world. And today he is just as alive as he was then.
It is almost trite to talk about the USSR and the stunning speed with which changes have come about in the Soviet Union, which used to be “Union.” But now there are independent states. There is a claim to democracy. There is an openness to Christianity. Who would have dreamed three years ago?
I just want to scream. I did scream one time in 1988 in Denver. Some of you have listened to that tape on prayer where I wanted to pull my hair out. I still do when I hear this sort of thing where presumed missions specialists with their bent towards sociological fatalism say: By the year 2000 this number of percentage of countries will be limited access or creative access or hard to reach and there will be x number of the people groups outside the realm of the possibility of entering by any kind of normal missionary activity.
Here is what I scream and say: How do you know that? Come on! Tell me where you get the pride to presume to predict that 80% of the unreached nations are going to be behind limited access walls by the year 2000. Jesus reigns! He changes things! He turns things around. Read your Bible. He is alive. Or are you a practical atheist? That is what I say when I get in the presence of those people.