I love it when you see something you’ve never noticed in a passage of scripture you’ve read many times before. I was reading in Acts 9 this morning and couldn’t help noticing how the church is on display. Acts 9 is not a passage about the church, per se. It’s not a theological treatise on the qualifications of elders/pastors, it’s not a call to missions, it’s not an explanation of church polity. But I think that’s what got my attention; rather than a list of things a church is or should be, we see these things in action. 6 things stood out from verses 1-17.
—The church is persecuted. The text begins with Saul, breathing out threats & murder against the disciples. We’re familiar with Saul’s ‘Damascus Road’ conversion but it’s important to remember that the reason he was on the road was that he was in search of believers to imprison and bring to Jerusalem and put on trial for their faith. In other words, the story begins with the church being persecuted. It’s important for us to remember that this is promised to us in scripture. In John 15:20 Jesus warns his disciples that if they persecute him, they’ll certainly persecute them as well. In a culture that soaks up prosperity theology this is a jolting reminder. But persecution is the norm, rather than the exception, for the church. John MacArthur has noted, “Religious liberty is not promised [in Scripture] to Christians. Freedom is not promised to Christians. Persecution is.” Are we willing to face persecution for the sake of Jesus?
—The church is for bad people. In vs. 3-6 we read the dramatic account of Saul’s encounter with Jesus, and Jesus’ promise that Saul will be shown what to do, a clear allusion to his new life as a church planting missionary. Don’t forget who this is though. This isn’t “preaching in the synagogues” Saul. This isn’t “I’m going to write half the New Testament” Saul. This is “where are the Christians so I can imprison and hopefully kill them” Saul. That’s the Saul Jesus calls. Not the good one, but the bad one. It’s so important for us to remember that church isn’t for good people. Jesus didn’t die for good people. He died for sinners. For the worst of the worst—for people just like you and I. It’s been rightly said that the church isn’t a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners. Christ died for the ungodly, Saul (then Paul) would later write; that’s who Jesus came for and so it’s who we must preach to and love and minister to.
—The church is Christ’s body. In verses 4& 5 Jesus makes a couple interesting statements. In verse 4 he asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Then in verse 5 he introduces himself with these words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Now the question is, when had Saul persecuted Jesus? Scripture doesn’t record that he ever interacted with Jesus prior to this meeting. So what did he mean? This is a clear reference to the union believers share with Jesus isn’t it? In I Corinthians 12:27 Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” The church—all those who have been saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus’ finished work—is the body of Christ. Practically speaking, that an offense against the church is an offense against Christ himself. When we read of persecution happening to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we ought to be reminded that this isn’t an offense against them only. This is an offense against Jesus. And bringing it closer to home, when we don’t honor and reverence the church the way we ought to, we are failing to honor and reverence Jesus as we ought to. To say the church is the body of Christ isn’t just a Christian phrase; it’s a deep theological truth.
—The church is governed by Christ. In verses 7-9 we read maybe the most curious section of the text. Luke records that the men who were with Saul heard the voice of Jesus speaking but didn’t see him. Ever wonder why? Why would Jesus not allow them to see him as well? Or how about this; why did Jesus call Saul to this ministry and not those with him? We know it wasn’t because of any qualification Saul had. Jesus never calls us based on our worth. What was it then? Simple answer; we don’t know. We don’t know why Jesus chose Saul. We don’t know why Jesus chooses any of us. But we know that he does. And that’s a powerful reminder that Jesus—not us, not a committee, not a denomination, and certainly not a pastor—governs his church. He has certainly designated shepherds and leaders; but Christ alone governs his church. It’s not ours, it’s his. His blood was shed to purchase it, not ours.
—The church hears from God. In vs. 10 we’re introduced to another character, man called Ananias. Jesus sends him to minister to Saul. He explains where Saul is and that Saul has seen a vision of a man called Ananias coming to lay hands on him. It’s clear, then, that Jesus had spoken to both of them isn’t it? What a joy to know that’s still the case. Jesus speaks to his church. By the Spirit and through the Word, God speaks to his people. He comforts us. He encourages us. He challenges us. He convicts us. He rebukes us. He affirms us.
—The church forgives. Ananias was rightly concerned about going to this man. He diplomatically reminded Jesus of Saul’s reputation. Jesus affirmed his call on Saul’s life and sent Ananias there. And in verse 17 we read this: “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.” Notice what he called him—Brother Saul. It couldn’t have been easy for Ananias to go to that house. Certainly there was the danger to himself. But even more, how difficult must it have been to go to the one who had caused so much hurt to fellow believers, some of whom Ananias might even have known, and extend the hand of fellowship to him? To put it into perspective, what if an ISIS member who was known for killing believers was converted and came into your church Sunday morning? Would we be willing to extend the hand of forgiveness to him? How difficult that would be! But wouldn’t it be Christ-like? Hasn’t Jesus kissed the hands that held the whip? Hasn’t he forgiven those who crucified him? The good news of the gospel is that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. If Jesus forgives, we must forgive. Ananias is the perfect example of what that looks like.
The question for us, then, is simple—do our church look like this? Are our churches doing these things? By God’s grace, we can. Let’s seek His grace to be who he’s called us to be, for his glory alone!