In this week’s reading we also find the beginning of something else Jesus spoke of: Paul’s sufferings for Jesus’ sake. He has his first taste of this from the Jews of Damascus. It is a dramatic story. When Paul had returned from his time in Arabia, “the Jews conspired to kill him” (v. 23). He needed to leave the city, but his enemies were keeping a twenty-four-hour watch on the gates and a normal exit was impossible. Fortunately, the disciples in Damascus were resourceful. They knew of a place—perhaps it was a window in the home of one of them—where there was an opening in the wall. They put Saul in a basket and lowered him down. In this way he escaped by night and so foiled this first plot against his life.
It was the beginning of many escapes for Paul, and sometimes he didn’t quite escape. Sometimes they caught him, imprisoned him, beat him. He did indeed have to suffer many things for Jesus’ sake (v. 16).
This chapter also gives us a glimpse into another kind of suffering. It was not the outright persecution Paul frequently suffered from overt enemies of Christ, from those who would have killed him if they could, but suffering that came from the suspicions of the early Christians.
I imagine that this hurt Paul more than anything. He came to Jerusalem, where he had started out some years before and, as it says in verse 26, “tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.”
We can hardly blame them, though perhaps we should. God is the God of the unexpected. He saves the most unlikely people. If he did not, why would we be Christians? Still, we find it hard to think like this, especially when some great enemy is involved. Saul had been an enemy. So the Christians found themselves saying, “Well, it is true that God saved us, and no doubt we were all difficult cases, but how could He possibly save a person like Saul? Saul is an outright enemy. God might kill somebody like Saul, strike him down (it would serve him right), but not save him. It must be a trick.” They did not believe that Paul really was a disciple.
One of the most delightful things about the Christian life is getting to know the kind of people God saves, because it is generally not the thing you would expect. It is very hard to figure out what God is going to do, but God does not have to do what we expect and usually doesn’t. God has a way of saving people we wouldn’t even think of.
Here are some examples.
When I was in seminary, one of the people who was talked about a lot was the late Episcopal Bishop James Pike. He had made a name for himself by his denials of basic Christian doctrines. He denied the virgin birth and the resurrection. He was even brought up on what almost amounted to a heresy trial, and to be charged with heresy in the Episcopal Church in those days required some doing. Pike had a terribly messed-up theology. He had a messed-up life also. He got into the occult. One of his sons committed suicide, so he tried to contact him through a Philadelphia medium named Arthur Ford. This event was widely publicized. Then he went to Israel to research a book on the historical Jesus which, he said, was going to be the most shocking thing that he had done yet. While he was there investigating the countryside for the background for this book, he got lost in the desert and died.
A person might look at that—as I did in those days—and say, “Can anything good come out of such a life? It is hard to see anything good in it. Pike seemed to have left only rubble behind him. But Pike had another son whose name was Christopher. In 1967, when Christopher was about sixteen years old, he got into drugs and drifted out to California. He was at the University of California at Berkeley, where many wild things were going on in those days. He seemed to be on the same path his brother had been on. But while he was there, he heard a converted hippie testifying about Jesus Christ on the steps of Sproul Hall. He found himself wondering whether Christianity could perhaps actually be true. He went into seclusion—it was now 1971 or 1972—and began to read the New Testament. He had never actually read it before. Now, as he began to read it, he found the very truths that his father had rejected and denied. He found the real Jesus. He was converted and became active in Christian work. Unusual? Yes, but not for God.1
In more recent times we had the example of Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the well-known atheist who got prayer and Bible reading out of the public schools through a court case. Not long ago her son, who was raised on her particularly angry form of atheism, found Jesus Christ as his Savior and wrote a book about it, confessing the errors of his early days.
I think of Chuck Colson, a shrewd but ruthless politician. He was part of Richard Nixon’s White House staff and was so committed to Nixon that he said he would walk over the body of his grandmother if it would mean getting his boss reelected. Colson spent time in prison as a consequence of his part in Watergate. Yet God reached and transformed him, and he is now working in the prisons of the world to help those who, like himself, have been prisoners. His testimony is that when he was successful, his success accomplished nothing. It was in his great humiliation, when he was actually sent to jail for his Watergate offenses, that God used him.2
That was what God was doing with Saul, the great persecutor. But the Christians in Jerusalem didn’t understand it and were afraid of him.
1Christopher Pike’s story is told by Edward E. Plowman in The Underground Church (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook, 1971), 13-16.
2Charles W. Colson tells his story in two early books: Born Again (Lincoln, VA: Chosen Books, 1976) and Life Sentence (Lincoln, VA: Chosen Books, 1979).