The People Who Made Paul Possible

Bill McFarland

October 2, 2005


This morning we had the opportunity to reflect for a while on the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.  Just imagine for a moment all of the results of that great and good man’s labor in behalf of the kingdom of Christ.  Think of all the places he went on his three missionary journeys, all the things he endured in behalf of the gospel, all the people he taught and led to the Lord.  Then remember not only the planting of the gospel in these different towns, but the Christians who were then encouraged and strengthened through the efforts of the Apostle Paul.  Think of the ones of us who have been won to Christ through his teaching and who have been so much encouraged and lifted up by his letters.  There is no telling how much good has been done by this one great servant of Christ. 

Then think for a moment of what went into the story that I tried to remind us of this morning.  Of course, there is the providence of the Lord himself.  Paul teaches in Galatians 1:15 that he was set apart before he was born and the Lord worked to that goal through all kinds of circumstances.  Look at the Lord’s willingness to forgive a blasphemer and a persecutor like the apostle Paul, and the Lord’s wisdom in having a mission that this man was perfectly cut out for, and the Lord’s power in being able to work and to bring this man to repentance and to cause him to change – all of that went into that story.  The heart of Saul of Tarsus went into this.  He was the kind of man who, when he did see what was true, would commit himself fearlessly to that cause.  He immediately would go and do what the Lord sent him to do.  He would persevere in doing that despite disappointments and hardships and setbacks of all kinds.  What a great heart this good man had!

But there also are people who enter this story that we may fail to attach to it if we are not careful.  I believe the book of Acts sets the account in a context which says to us, “All of the ministry of the apostle Paul could not have happened without these other three people” that we are going to ask you to consider tonight.  All of the fruit born in his ministry would not have been born without the special work and ministry of these other three people who are not nearly as powerful preachers apparently, whose ministry is not nearly as wide-spread or as long-term as far as we know.  This is a lesson that needs to be learned by the church today because we may overlook how much good each individual member of the body of Christ can do.  We may let it pass us by that each one of us are in places to do things that other people can’t do, and we may forget that people who have talents that are used publicly could not possibly have become Christians without people like us, and they would not have the opportunity to serve without people like us.

The Crown of Faithfulness

Please notice that in the immediate context of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus there is the story first of a great man named Stephen.  Stephen is said to be a man who was full of faith.  He is a man who was full of grace and of the Holy Spirit, and a man who was full of power.  You and I remember that he was chosen as a special servant of the church in an important time in Acts 6.  We remember that he was a man who was especially skilled in putting forth the faith of Christ in the presence of his countrymen who were refusing to see the truth.  You remember that when he preached the gospel in Acts 7, those people who heard him gnashed their teeth at him in either disagreement or anger, and that finally they rushed upon him and began to stone him.  The Bible tells us that this great man “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’”  (Acts 7:55, 56)  I have always found it fascinating that Jesus is portrayed as being seated at the right hand of God in victory and in exalted glory, but here he stands.  I wonder if it was not out of concern for what was happening to his servant Stephen that it happened.

Notice the second thing Stephen said as they stopped their ears and rushed against him.  In verse 59 as they are stoning him, he called out loud enough for people to hear, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  This was very much like Jesus on the cross who said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  That is the second thing that he said. 

In the third place, notice verse 60, that falling to his knees as he is being stoned, he cried out again with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  Again, notice the gracious and forgiving spirit of this wonderful servant of the Lord.  Doesn’t that remind you of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”?  Here is Stephen being martyred for the faith of Christ saying, “I see Jesus standing at God’s right hand,” “Receive my spirit Lord,” and “Don’t hold this sin against them.” 

While I was working on the lesson for this morning I ran across a statement that someone made.  It made me pause and think.  It said, “The church owes the preaching of Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”  The point is that the later statements of the apostle Paul mentioning his presence there as Stephen was stoned, and his agreement with what was being done, and his being a blasphemer and a persecutor -- those kind of statements show that Paul never forgot the conduct of Stephen that day.  Stephen’s faith and his commitment to the Lord and his courage in telling the people the truth and then graciously wanting them to be forgiven while they are stoning him -- all of that had an impact on the heart of Paul that never went away.  Perhaps Paul would never have been the servant he was without what he saw in Stephen.  I am saying that to say that maybe I can’t preach like Paul, maybe I can’t go all the places Paul went, maybe I will never be famous or known like Paul, and maybe all of us can say all of those things, but we may be the people who are necessary at a local congregation to set the background of commitment to the Lord’s word and faithfulness in his service and graciousness to people that would allow someone to hear and allow some heart to be opened and allow someone to become the kind of servant that Paul was. 

It is interesting what the names of the three characters we are going to try to describe briefly tonight mean.  Stephen, as you may know, means “crown.”  It is not the ruler’s crown that sometimes is mentioned in the New Testament, the diadem that we sing about, but it is the victor’s crown, the crown or wreath that would be used to place on an athlete’s head after he had won a great victory, the kind of crown that would say this man is an overcomer, a winner.  Isn’t it interesting that in Revelation 2:10 where the Lord said, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life,” he used this word – Stephen’s name?  Paul saw the crown of Christianity in Stephen’s conduct there, and it had an impact on him.  I am convinced of that.  Remember that you and I, if we will be that dedicated and that gracious, can help somebody.

The Blessing of Graciousness

In the second place, the story of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion could never have happened without another good man known as Ananias.  This Ananias is not the greedy fellow who fell dead in Acts 5.  He is not the high priest who later on tried to destroy Paul in Acts 23.  This is a different Ananias.  He lived at Damascus.  Acts 22 tells us that this Ananias was a man who was devout according to the law, and he was well respected by his fellow Jews in that area.  We know from Acts 9 that Ananias was also a faithful Christian.  You remember the story about Paul’s going to Damascus breathing threatening and slaughter and having letters that he was going to use to drag men and women as prisoners back to Jerusalem to see to it that they answered for their heresy of confessing that Jesus is the Christ.  Remember all of that.  That news was known to the people in Damascus by the time we meet Ananias.  Paul has been there for three days, and word has spread.  But look at what happens.  The Bible says in Acts 9:10 that the Lord said, “Ananias.”  He said, “Here I am,” much like Samuel the prophet of the Old Testament when God called him, or much like Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up with the angel singing holy, holy, holy in Isaiah 6.  Ananias is the kind of man who, when the Lord called, was ready to answer. 

Then notice what the Lord said to him: “Rise and and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas and look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying.”  The Lord explains to Ananias that Saul has seen a vision and that he knows somebody named Ananias will come and lay hands on him and he might receive his sight.  Someone pointed out that Saul had seen a vision and now he needed a visit.  The question is who will make a visit like that.  Sometimes we ask for people to help us go make visits to folks who have visited us and who have said they are looking for a church home.  It is hard enough to get people to go make visits to friendly seekers like that.  What if you are given a visitor’s card and it had written in comments: “I hate Christians; I breathe threatening and slaughter against them.  Anyone of them that I have a chance I will take prisoner and drag him off to answer for it.”  How many volunteers would we get? 

Well, our friend Ananias is like the rest of us.  He is not too sure about someone like that.  Verse 13 says, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man and how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.”  This is the first time in the book of Acts that Christians are called saints.  That is what a Christian is.  He is holy to the Lord.  And Ananias has heard from many people.  It is not just an isolated story what this Saul has done to the saints, the evil he has done, the hurt he has inflicted.  You can see where he is headed with this, can’t you?  Verse 14 says even, “Here he has authority from a chief priest to bind all who call on your name.”  Ananias doesn’t ask not to go.  He doesn’t say, “I would appreciate it if you would get somebody else to go see him,” but that is what he means.  He is saying, “I’m not sure this visit is such a good idea.  Maybe we ought to rethink this program.”  The Lord says in verse 15, “Go.”  Do you think that is what Ananias wanted to hear?  “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.”  Now you have to not only make a visit to a man who has tried to destroy the church, but you have to let him know that he is going to be suffering a lot of things.  Does that make you any more interested in making that call?  “Go,” the Lord said. 

Now look at verse 17: “So, Ananias departed and entered the house.”  Isn’t that a great statement?  There is so much more in that one little statement than we have ever imagined.  Look at the courage and the faithfulness and the obedience it took for that statement to be a part of the New Testament.  That is how much Ananias loved the Lord, wanted to serve the Lord, and submitted to the Lord.  I don’t know what kind of a preacher Ananias was.  I don’t know what kind of a leader he was.  But none of what Paul did could have been possible if he had not been willing to go do what he could do – making that visit and doing what the Lord sent him to do.

Notice carefully the kind of a spirit with which Ananias did this.  He laid his hands on him – he touched the man.  He got involved; he risked himself.  And then he said, “Brother Saul.”  Now it is true Saul wasn’t a Christian yet, but Ananias could call him a brother as a fellow Israelite.  But think of the gracious spirit.  “I know what evil this man has done,” and then you go see him – “Brother Saul.”  Now guess what the name Ananias means.  It means “the Lord is gracious.”  His visiting and his evangelism reflected the fact that the Lord is gracious.  He is going to the man who has tried to destroy the faith and is going to offer him forgiveness and omission.  The Lord is gracious! 

Our evangelism needs to be done with that spirit of graciousness, and not merely the effort to try to prove ourselves right or to grow our congregation or to win an argument.  There has to be the kind of care and compassion that you see reflected in the heart of Ananias in this story.  That visit that needs to be made might need to be to somebody who is a fellow Christian who has not been faithful, who has been absent, and who has dropped out.  That visit might need to be made to somebody who is going through trouble or difficulty and needs a word of concern.  It might need to be made to a neighbor who is not a Christian and hasn’t had a chance to hear the simple gospel of Christ.  This kind of sharing the good news is not to say, “I’m excited about everything in our congregation.”  This is a visit in behalf of Christ.  That is the real motive for the kind of evangelism that Ananias practices here. 

The Strength of Encouragement

So you have the commitment and forgiveness of Stephen and the gracious evangelism of Ananias, and there is a third person in this story without whom what Paul did could never have happened.  His name is Joseph.  He is a Levite from Cyprus, and you probably don’t know him as Joseph.  But when hard things were happening among the disciples who were at Jerusalem and they didn’t have jobs or places to live, this good man loved the cause of Christ enough that he sold a field that he owned back home and brought the entire amount of money and laid it at the feet of the apostles so that fellow Christians could be helped.  The apostles were so impressed by that that they no longer called him Joseph.  You know what they called him, don’t you?  Barnabas.  What did that mean?  What does his name mean?  Son of encouragement!  That is an accurate reflection of his character.  Somebody has pointed out (and it is worth thinking about): I wonder what our names would be if they were based on the kind of influence we have on our fellow Christians.  It might be something to think about, or it might be something we don’t want to think about. 

The point is, though, after Saul of Tarsus was baptized into Christ and begins to preach the Christ he has been persecuting, he is a man without a church.  His fellow Jews who have been his partners before now are so filled with hatred toward him that they would like to kill him, and his fellow believers in Christ whom he has been trying to persecute are still nervous about it and not sure they want to have anything to do with him for fear that maybe he is just laying a trap.  Maybe this is just a ploy.  That is understandable, isn’t it?  But the thing is, what if his faith is real?  What if his conversion has really happened, and what if nobody is willing to fellowship him and help him and strengthen him?  What will become of him? 

In Acts 9, when he is run out of Damascus because of the danger, verse 26 says, “When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples.”  He attempted to glue himself to them .  He kept on trying to be a part of the fellowship of the disciples.  That is what it means.  He kept on trying to join in with the church, and they were all afraid of him because they did not believe that he was a disciple.  Look at the next verse.  “But Barnabas took him.”  Everybody else was afraid they would be taken.  Barnabas was courageous and loving enough to take him.  You can almost see Barnabas putting his hand around this man’s shoulder.  And the Bible says, “He brought him to the apostles.”  Look at the risks.  What if Barnabas has brought a man to the apostles, he has found out who the apostles are and where they are, and what if he is really not a disciple, and what if he arrests them now and drags them off and the apostles of Christ are done away with because Barnabas betrayed the secret?   And then it says that he declared to them that how on the road Paul (or Saul) had seen the Lord who spoke to him and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 

Look what Barnabas has done.  He put his hand around his shoulder, brought him and introduced him to the apostles and spoken up for him.  The son of encouragement has encouraged the apostle Paul.  Oh how much that kind of encouragement is necessary for the kind of workers like Paul was to ever be produced. 

Most everybody feels the need to be encouraged.  We all want people to encourage us.  We need to be reminded from time to time that we have been assigned a ministry of encouragement.  The wise man of the Old Testament said in Proverbs 12:25, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down but a good word makes him glad.”  All of us need encouragement.  One writer says, “There is no such thing as a self-made man.  Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us or spoken one word of encouragement to us has entered into the makeup of our character and of our thoughts as well as our success.”  In other words, anything worthwhile that any of us has ever done we owe to somebody who has encouraged us.  Elizabeth Harrison said, “Those who are lifting the world upward and onward are those who encourage more than criticize.”  That is true anywhere.  It ought to be true in the church. 

In Hebrews 10:25 it is talking about coming together or assembling together.  It says, “We are not to be neglecting our meeting together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”  Someone wants to know why I am saying that on a Sunday night.  The point is that a lot of us who would not think of missing church don’t hesitate at all to come to church without giving a thought to encouraging somebody else.  We don’t come to encourage somebody.  We come to be encouraged, and we depend on the talent or the effort of somebody else.  We want to walk in without speaking to anybody and walk out without speaking to anybody, and we forget there are some workers who can’t work without encouragement.  There are some Christians who can’t be faithful without encouragement.  There are some who will be lost to the struggle without encouragement.  In Hebrews 3:12-13 it makes the point that we are supposed to encourage one another so that we are not overcome by an unbelieving heart.  In I Thess. 5:11 the necessity of encouragement in a Christian life is obvious.  It says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up just as you are doing.” 

Brother Aubrey Johnson in his little book The Barnabas Factor has a little piece that he wrote entitled “The Encourager’s Prayer.”  It says, “Dear Father, thank you for a new day and the opportunities it will afford me to encourage someone in your name.  Thank you for helping me overcome my fears by giving me a spirit of power and love and of a sound mind.  Thank you for helping me overcome discouragement by reminding me of your unlimited power and abiding presence.  Thank you for helping me live courageously and relate effectively.  Teach me to use my mind to encourage others by focusing on solutions rather than complaining or assigning blame.  Teach me to use my eyes to encourage others by looking for good in every person and circumstance.  Teach me to use my ears to encourage others by being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.  Teach me to use my lips to encourage others by speaking words of hope and healing.  Teach me to use my hands to encourage others by doing small deeds of kindness, expecting nothing in return.  Today, Lord, I will help someone to build by nudging her one step closer to her dream.  Today, Lord, I will help someone to blossom by refusing to give up on him no matter how low he has fallen.  Today, Lord, I will help someone to believe by showing her she is valuable, lovable and capable.  Today, Lord, I will help someone to battle by urging him to face his fears instead of running away.  Today, Lord, I will glorify you through my ministry of encouragement.”  You have a ministry like that, too.  It needs to be fulfilled. 

All of the work of the great apostle Paul couldn’t have happened without Stephen, Ananias and Barnabas.  The church today cannot be what it ought to be without the crown of faithfulness, the blessing of graciousness, and the strength of sons of encouragement.  I hope that encourages us in some way to think of the difference we could make in someone’s life. 

Saul was someone who became Paul because he let the Lord have his way in his life.  Tonight if you are here and you are ready to let the Lord have his way with you and ready to submit to the gospel and you need the prayers of your brothers and sisters someway, if you need to come, we invite you to do it now while we stand and sing.