Paul Hated Christianity
One of the most exciting parts of the Bible is the Book of Acts. It was written by a physician named Luke, who traveled with the apostle Paul on his early missionary journeys and kept a record of the things that happened and the things Paul preached. Paul had lived in Israel and probably had seen Jesus and known about his ministry.
We know he was there as a witness when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death not long after the death of Jesus. Luke tells us that Paul was consenting to Stephen's death. In fact, Paul hated Christianity because he thought it was against the laws of Moses, and that no good Jew, as he was, could be a Christian, even though Jesus himself was Jewish and all his twelve apostles were Jewish, and almost the entire early Christian church for several years after Jesus' death and resurrection were Jewish converts.
But suddenly Paul's life was turned upside down by meeting the risen Jesus Christ. Three times Luke tells us this story in the book of Acts about how Paul was going from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria when a bright light struck him down and blinded him and a voice came to him: "Why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). And Paul answered, "Who are You, Lord?" And the voice said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." For three days Paul was blind and didn't eat or drink as he wrestled with the magnitude of what was happening.
Why Paul Hated Christianity
Here was a man who had spent his whole life till that moment defending a way of salvation - a way of acceptance with God - that basically said, "If you want to be right with God and have eternal life and everlasting joy with him, then take the law of God, put it on like an ox wears a yoke, and pull your own weight and show God that you are good enough to go to heaven." Now Paul had heard the message of Jesus. He probably had heard it straight from Jesus' mouth while Jesus was teaching in and around Jerusalem. But we know he heard it from Jesus' early followers like Stephen - and the message he heard was not the way of salvation Paul himself preached as a member of the Pharisees.
The way of getting right with God offered by Jesus and his followers was so different that Paul felt his entire life threatened by it. That's why he hated the Christian cause and was persecuting it with all his might (Acts 9:1). This is why he was going to Damascus - to take Christians captive and bring them to Jerusalem for punishment. If the message of Jesus was true, then Paul had devoted his life to a horrendous mistake.
But here he was, blind in Damascus, having heard the voice of the very one he was opposing, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. His whole life was at stake. If this were true, everything he had believed up till then would have to be adjusted, and some of it radically changed. A man named Ananias came to the house where he was staying, because Jesus had told him to go, and Paul regained his sight and became a believer in Jesus Christ. And from then on he was one of the most powerful preachers and teachers for the Christian faith that ever was.
What's Wrong with the Pharisees' Message of Salvation?
Now the question I want to raise this morning is this: what was so different about the Christian message of salvation that threatened Paul and made him want to stamp it out? What's wrong with saying that the law of God is like a yoke, and that you put it on, and exert yourself morally to show that you are worthy to be in God's presence and have eternal life and everlasting joy? Isn't that what our consciences tell us: God is great and holy and righteous? And we are sinful and make many mistakes and can't even do well enough to satisfy our consciences, let alone God? So we must work harder, and pull our own weight and offer God better service? What's wrong with that?
That's what I want to ask this morning, so that we can get the meaning of Christianity very clear in our minds, and see how different it is.
In the 17th chapter of the book of Acts, Luke records a sermon that Paul gave in Athens long after he had become a Christian teacher and apostle. Here he tells us what is so different about the Christian understanding of God and the Christian way of how to get right with God and have eternal life. Let me read you Luke's entire summary of Paul's sermon and then focus on just one or two verses.
16 Now while Paul was waiting . . . at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities," - because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 "For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean." 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 "For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
30 "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, "We shall hear you again concerning this." 33 So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
God is not Served by Human Hands - Bad News to the Self-Sufficient
In that message, two verses stand out as the essence of why Paul had hated this message and felt so threatened by it. Verses 24-25: "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things." Now this is the worst news and the best news in the world. "God is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things."
If you feel strong and self-sufficient and morally in sync with God and able to serve God and make independent contributions to God and his work, then this is bad news when Paul says, "God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything." In other words, if this message is true about God, then self-sufficient people who think they can negotiate with God are deluding themselves.
This is what threatened Paul in those early days and made him hate Christianity. He was a very successful Pharisee. He had accomplished things in religion and morality beyond all his peers (Galatians 1:14: Philippians 3:4-6). His whole identity hung on serving God with resolve and strength and rigor and accuracy and beyond all his contemporaries. This was his identity. This was his boast and significance. And here comes a message about God that says, "God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything." Well, Paul did not hear this as good news. It was shattering. His whole life seemed in vain. What have I worked for? Why all this study of God's law and all this moral striving if God cannot be served? It would be like spending your life doing aerobic leg exercises only to discover that the final contest of life is hang-gliding, not running.
So the radical self-sufficiency of God did not come to Paul as good news - not at first. It was shattering. All his religious accomplishments lay in ashes.
God is not Served by Human Hands - Good News to the Weak
But on the other hand, this is the best news in all the world - that God is not served by human hands has though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things." If you are weak and helpless and sinful and know that any good you do, you need God's help to do, then this comes as the best news in the world. That God is the kind of God who cannot be served, but loves to serve. His message to the world - the Christian gospel - is not a "help-wanted" sign, but a "help available" sign. He is not served as though he needed anything, but he gives to all people life and breath and everything. To those who feel morally self-sufficient this is bad news. It threatens to take away our basis for boasting. But to those who feel morally desperate and hopeless before a holy and infinitely righteous God, this is good news. Maybe a God who doesn't need me would be willing to be for me what I need.
But I wonder: Have we made too much of a couple of verses in the Bible? Is this really the heart of the Christian gospel - that God cannot be served as though he needed anything, but loves to serve those who know they need mercy?
Confirmation from Jesus' own Words
Let me just look at one other verse of Scripture with you to confirm that we are at the very core of the Christian gospel. The verse I am thinking about comes straight from Jesus himself and is found in the Gospel according to Mark (10:45). It goes like this: "Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
Here we have Jesus telling us why he came into the world. This is the central Christian claim: Christ, the Son of God became a Son of Man and lived among us. Why? Did he come to recruit workers and servants for God? Did he come like a employer's company scout goes to a job fair at a college to find bright, young, able workers to help him keep his company afloat and prosperous?
No. That is not why he came. The words of Jesus are crystal clear: "The Son of Man did not come to be served . . ." He did not come in need of us. God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything - neither is his Son, the Son of Man. It's the same point. God is not served and Jesus is not served, as though they needed anything. Jesus came not because he needed us, but because we needed him.
Specifically, how do we need him? There are hundreds of ways that we need him. But he tells us the main way in the rest of the verse: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." What we needed most of all was someone who would die in our place. Because the Bible says, "the wages of sin is death." When we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have neglected and offended God very deeply. He has not been first in our lives. He has not even been second or third or fourth. And we know that this is a great offense to him. And we are in grave danger because of his righteous judgment.
So we are in no position to serve him, or impress him in any way with our abilities or our moral prowess. We are rebels at the root, and God is not our loved and honored and trusted and treasured king. We are captive to sin and destined for righteous judgment. That is why our greatest need is not for health, or wealth, or marriage repair, or job, or obedient kids. Our greatest need is someone to die in our place and ransom us from the penalty and power of sin, so that we escape God's judgment and enter eternal life.
So Jesus says, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many." Jesus is the very One we need above all other needs. God sent his only Son to pay what we could never pay: an infinite ransom price because of an infinite debt to God because of our sin. Only the Son of God could pay it. Only he is infinite.
So the incredibly good news this morning is that God is so great and so self-sufficient that he cannot be served as though he needed anything, and his Son Jesus Christ is so great and so valuable that his death in our place is a sufficient ransom to pay all our debt to God. The question is, will we believe this, and will we receive God's service of us as the most precious gift in the world? Believing. Receiving. Not serving. That's the posture of a person who is right with God. God sets us right through the death of his Son in our place and we receive this right standing, this peace and acceptance and hope not by working for God, but by trusting in his work for us.
What Does it Mean to be a Christian?
What then is the Christian life? What does it mean to be a Christian? How do you live as a Christian? Well, it doesn't mean to be a Baptist. It doesn't mean to be a Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist or Presbyterian. Those labels do not make anybody a Christian. Being a Christian means getting up in the morning and saying in your heart: Jesus, you are my Savior, my King, my Friend, my Treasure, my Hope, my Joy, my Guide, my Protection, my Wisdom, my Advocate, my Strength. I need you, I love you, I trust you to be all that for me today. I know you have given me muscles and a mind and a will. I know you intend for me to use them all in doing things that are just and loving and God-honoring. But you have shown me that without you my will is rebellious, my mind is darkened and my muscles obey the rebel will and the darkened mind.
And so, Lord Jesus, I need you every day. Work for me today - not because I deserve it, but because you paid my ransom. Serve me today - to subdue my will, so that I love what you love and find joy in doing your will; to bring light to my mind, so that I think the truth and see you for who you are, infinitely valuable and beautiful. And so may my body magnify you whether in life or death. That's what it means to be a Christian.
The good news this morning is not that God offers to keep us from death or suffering. He doesn't. The good news is that God works for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4), even in suffering and death. He forgives all our sins, he removes all our guilt, he takes away all our condemnation through the death of Jesus. And in the place of sin and guilt and condemnation God works for us - he makes himself our Servant not only at the cross but every day of our lives. He pursues us with goodness and mercy. He works all things together for our good - even the hardest things. He never leaves us for forsakes us so that "we confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:6). And in the end he will carry us safely through death and bring us home to heaven and everlasting life and joy. And there too he will serve us. He will never surrender the all-glorious position of infinite self-sufficiency as the overflowing fountain of life and joy.
His closing word to you this morning is this (Matthew 11:28-30):
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The yoke of faith and obedience are easy and light because even when he puts it on us he carries it. "Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand" (Isaiah 41:10).
Now may the God of peace, who gave his Son as a ransom for many by his blood, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working for us and in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.