But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
As a lifelong citizen of the United States of America, I have always had the right to worship The Lord as I please. I’m allowed to attend church services whenever the doors are open and enjoy fellowship with other Christians. No one has ever tried to stop me from praying, singing a hymn, or sharing the gospel. People have always seemed to respect my beliefs as long as I’ve respected theirs.
However, in the last decade, I’ve observed a distinct decline in the acceptance of Christians even in the United States. I’ve seen Christians mocked, attacked, and treated poorly in public settings and on social media. Of course, as Christians, we need to be willing to take a stand for our rights before we’re permanently quieted… But, the persecution we experience in the United States is nothing compared to what many other countries around the world are facing.
According to an article by Open Doors, 4,761 Christians have been killed in the last year and another 4,488 detained or imprisoned without trial, simply due to their belief in Christ. For the last twenty years, North Korea has been ranked the most dangerous place for Christians to be, where believers are subjected to torture, starvation, and death by gas chamber. In Afghanistan, rejecting Islam has been punishable by death under Sharia Law. In Somalia, two Christian converts were beheaded in 2011, and a third was also killed in early 2012 in an attempt to eradicate Christianity from the country. (https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/)
All around the world, Christians have faced persecution. Sadly, I fear with the way religious freedom is on the decline in the United States of America, unless something changes, one nation under God will quickly become one nation out-from-under God. That’s something that we, as children in Christ, should band together to turn around. We shouldn’t feel defeated, nor should we feel as if there is nothing to be done. With man, this might be impossible…but with God, all things are possible. He has done it before and He can do it again.
Saul of Tarsus
After Jesus ascended to heaven, a time of great persecution fell upon his followers. Saul of Tarsus was a devout Jew who believed He was doing right by God in hunting down and attacking those who preached in the name of Jesus. In Saul’s defense, He was trying to defend God. He didn’t believe Jesus was God’s son and it outraged him that Jesus would claim to be, or that His followers would continue spreading the news about Jesus after His death.
Saul first makes his appearance in the book of Acts when He gave the order to have Stephen executed for preaching the gospel. He came against the church in Jerusalem and scattered the body of believers all through Judea and Samaria. Saul and his soldiers burst into the homes of Christians and dragged off men and women, imprisoning them.
Acts 9:1 says, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
In other words, he propositioned the high priest and requested special permission to search out believers of Christ, arrest them, and bring them to Jerusalem for judgement. I can’t think of many things more terrifying than someone breathing murder against me just for loving Jesus, but that’s what Saul was doing.
Yet, Jesus wasn’t terrified. Jesus knew how to get Saul’s attention.
Saul’s “Come to Jesus Meeting”
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:3-9)
Jesus could have been outraged that Saul was having His followers arrested, judged, tortured, and killed. He could have considered Saul an enemy, lost to the devil. But Jesus loves everyone, even Saul, even someone who murdered those who loved Him.
Jesus isn’t like us. There is no line in the sand that a person can cross to become unredeemable.
Jesus is big enough to forgive anything and everything we could possibly do. He doesn’t give up on us. He doesn’t throw in the towel when we’ve done something bad. Jesus pursues us just like he pursued Saul.
Think about it… Saul was walking along, minding his own business, thinking about all the Christians he would arrest in Damascus when BAM! Blinding light shone down from above and an audible voice called out to him by name. That level of pursuit is astonishing, but Jesus loved Saul enough (despite how Saul felt about him) that He was willing to chase Saul down and take action to gain his attention.
Is Jesus chasing you down? You may not be hearing Jesus’s audible voice, but if you’ve felt a pull on your heartstrings, a silent but steadfast presence, or a yearning to learn more, that’s the still, small voice of God. That’s His pursuit of you.
Anyway, let’s return to our Saul story. So, now Saul has been blinded by a bright light and Jesus instructed him to go to Damascus for further instruction. He had been unable to see for three days when Jesus made his next move in the quest for Saul’s love.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying. And he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:10-16)
See, sometimes what God says to us isn’t easy to hear. Sometimes it’s really hard or scary. Sometimes, a call from Jesus leaves us vulnerable and full of doubt. Ananias questioned The Lord’s instruction because he had heard about Saul’s attack on Christians, and he didn’t want to be next! I’m sure he was terrified. What if this was all a ploy by Saul to lure Christians out of hiding? Or, what if Saul was truly blind but not actually changed, and he had Ananias arrested after healing him? Did Saul even deserve help? Jesus believed so. He called Saul a chosen instrument and confidently instructed Ananias to help him.
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:17-22)
So, despite the fact that Saul was a murderer—not just a murderer, but a murderer specifically of Christians, which seems like a pretty bad offense—Jesus was ready and able to forgive him. So ready, actually, that he sought Saul out, spoke to him, blinded him, sent a healer to him, healed him, forgave him, and called him into service to preach and teach the gospel far and wide. He gave Saul a mission and a purpose. That’s the powerful love and ability of Jesus.
Total Identity Change
In a short time, Saul’s life changed completely. As a matter of fact, Saul became known as Paul, which was simply the Greek version of his name, and made it his passion to share the gospel of Christ. As devotedly as he had once attacked Jesus, he now loved him.
Did Paul experience guilt for Stephen and the other Christians he had arrested, tortured, and killed? Probably. But, I’m quite sure he rested confidently that Jesus loved him and had forgiven him. Paul went on to build churches, write many of the New Testament books, suffer imprisonment for Jesus, bring countless hearts to The Lord, and is ultimately believed to have been killed for his faith.
The murderer became a martyr for the same cause he once stood against and now stood for—the love of Jesus.
God’s plan for all of us doesn’t involve our imprisonment or death but unfortunately for many in North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and in other less-free countries around the world, torture and persecution are still very real threats to Christians. The question is… What are we, as the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth, going to do to help our brothers and sisters there? What are we going to do to ensure our continued religious freedom here?
I’m not sure where you’re from or where you live currently. I’m not sure what your situation is, but like Ananias…if you feel God calling you to step out in faith and be brave for the gospel, I urge you to do it. If you’re like Saul, and Jesus has chosen you as an instrument to carry the gospel (as I believe we all have been in one way or another), I implore you to get involved.
Whether it be financially, physically, through prayer, through your local church or missionaries, or however you feel called by God, please be empowered to stand up for Jesus lest you find yourself no longer free to do so. We, as Christians, have to be emboldened for God. We have to be ready to stand up for the freedom (and the desire) that we possess to follow Jesus.
Let me give you a warning, however. When you’re about to do something great for God, persecution against you by the devil (commonly in the form of strong temptation to sin, being thrust into unfair situations, or someone intentionally coming against you) will probably increase. The devil is always creeping around and any foothold he can use to persecute us, he’ll find. Don’t let it stop you! Even if you stumble, ask for forgiveness and fight harder, but don’t stop your mission. That’s what Satan wants.
Questions to Ask Yourself…
Have there been any scales over your eyes? Like Saul, sometimes we have something like scales on our eyes that have kept us from seeing the truth around us. Whether it’s that Jesus is the Son of God, or if it’s the persecution of Christians around the world, or if it’s simply that Jesus loves us and wants a relationship with us, there can be scales that have kept us from seeing the reality. Pray for those to be removed so you can answer the call Jesus has placed on your life.
How can you get involved with sharing the gospel?
In case you didn’t know before today, your life is not an accident. God created you. Jesus called you. You are a chosen instrument of Christ.