This past week I have been studying our Scripture for this morning found in Galatians 1:11-24. You can sum up Paul’s intent with one simple sentence: Paul was defending the fact that he had received his message of salvation by grace through faith from God and not from any man.
As I was reading and praying about what the Lord wanted me to share with you this morning the thought came to me that Paul was constantly under attack, he was constantly defending the Gospel. Shortly after his conversion he was feared by Christians who knew about his reputation. He was hated by those who opposed his message of salvation by grace through faith until the day he was executed. Paul was chosen and called by God, but he was reviled and scorned by many in society.
In Acts 8, Saul, the man we know as Paul, was persecuting the followers of Jesus, he was “breathing out murderous threats,” and seeking to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ. Suddenly, as we close Acts 8 and come to Acts 9, Jesus confronts Saul and the maniacal madman becomes a missionary. The most ardent persecutor of Christians suddenly experiences a radical transformation. You would think that the followers of Jesus would jump for joy, put Saul’s picture on the cover of Christianity Today, and secure him as a platform speaker for the next Promise Keeper’s conference in Jerusalem…not the case. Read along with me from Acts 9:26-27 and let’s learn what happened.
26When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:26-27 NIV)
I can hear the murmuring even now. As time passed and Paul’s life began to show fruit there were skeptics who became believers, but even with the passage of time there were still those who doubted his conversion. There were many who thought what he was teaching was way off track and there were some who wanted to kill him.
Paul’s enemies used all of this ammunition against him when he left Galatia and traveled to other regions to preach the Gospel. When we come to verses 11-24 we find Paul defending his ministry and message. Read along with me.
11I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. 18Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19I saw none of the other apostles-only James, the Lord’s brother. 20I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24And they praised God because of me. (Galatians 1:11-24 NIV)
This section of Scripture is so packed with sermons and important truths for you and me that we are going to take two weeks to work our way through it. I want us to spend our first session together taking a look at Paul’s conversion and how meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus radically changed his life forever. It is important for us to understand that what happened in Paul’s life was not a psychotic break, it didn’t come about because of a New Year’s resolution, nor was Paul feeling guilty about what he was doing as a passionate defender of Judaism. He was zealous for the faith of his fathers, but he was misguided, deceived, and flat out wrong.
It is important for us to hear Paul’s story because there are many of us here today who need to meet Jesus on 91st street this morning. We may be zealous about what we are doing, what we believe, and how we live out those beliefs, but we need to know that there is only one way to salvation and it is not on the path of philanthropy or pleasing deeds. The road of “doing-the-best-we-can” isn’t even on the map. “Accomplishment Avenue” doesn’t lead to Heaven. You can live on “Compassion Circle” all the days of your life and never arrive at the Pearly Gates. You may reside on “Sophistication Street” and be quite charming and enlightened to your friends, but live all of your days in the dark. You can be a big shot and live on “Dominant Drive” with all of your powerful friends, but none are powerful enough to turn the key to the Kingdom. There is only one way to salvation and it is by accepting what God has already done for you and me through the life, death, and glorious resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.
There are others here this morning that have a notorious or tarnished past. In your mind you have gone too far. You have fallen too many times. You’ve worn out your welcome with most everybody you know and you can only imagine that God is ashamed of you as well. Some of us may have known about Jesus in the past, but those thoughts have been clouded by experiences in life that have shown us that we will always be what we are…a hot head, a drunk, a cheat, a crack head, a liar, a con artist, a bigot, a felon, a failure…you fill in the blank.
You’re sitting here this morning knowing that everything you’ve tried hasn’t worked and that God is knocking on the door to your heart, but you can barely hear the knock because of the thoughts that are rambling through your head. “You know what they are going to say about you? You will get laughed out of town if you show up for work and announce that you’ve given your life to Jesus. What will your party friends have to say about this? Even Jesus couldn’t help you and the mess you’ve made of your life…forget about it!”
I’ve got news for you. It doesn’t matter what people think of you or me — we need Jesus and we need Him now. I remember when I accepted Jesus into my heart and how my buddies responded just like I thought they would. They said, “Yeah right. You’ll be back with us next weekend. What are you some kind of holy roller? Hey preacherman!”
It is interesting how we look at the conversions of some people differently than others. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about to see how you respond. Let me preface this little experiment by saying I have no idea whether these folks are Christians or not. Are you ready for our experiment? Here we go. If I were to tell you that Dr. Phil had accepted Christ then you would think that was wonderful news. If I were to tell you that Russell Crowe had become a Christian then you would be excited. If I announced that Venus Williams had given her life to the Lord then you would be thrilled. I think that most of us would experience the same emotions to the news of these folks coming to know Christ – we would be elated!
On the other hand, there are some names that I could mention that would not stir the same emotions in most of us. We would think of their horrible acts and reputation and say, “Yeah right! Sounds like ‘fire insurance’ to me. There is no way.” It is like some folks who have sinned greatly must prove themselves to really be Christians before we will accept them. Even though we would never say it, we wonder in our hearts if someone like “that” could really come to know the Lord.
Let me tell you a story so that we can test my theory. On June 1, 1953 a boy named David was born in New York. David had a troubled childhood. From his earliest memories he was tormented by suicidal thoughts. Fast-forward 22 years you can see a trail of anger, violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts that was about to erupt. David writes,
In 1975, however, I met some guys at a party who were, I later found out, heavily involved in the occult. I had always been fascinated with witchcraft, Satanism and occult things since I was a child. When I was growing up I watched countless horror and Satan-type movies, one of which was Rosemary’s Baby. The movie in particular totally captivated my mind. Now I was age 22 and this evil force was still reaching out to me. Everywhere I went there seemed to be a sign or a symbol pointing me to Satan. I felt as if something were trying to take control of my life. I began to read the Satanic Bible by the late Anton LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966. I began, innocently, to practice various occult rituals and incantations. Eventually I crossed that invisible line of no return. After years of mental torment, behavioral problems, deep inner struggles and my own rebellious ways, I became the criminal that, at the time, it seemed as if it was my destiny to become. Looking back it was all a horrible nightmare and I would do anything if I could undo everything that happened.
David crossed the line – he began to kill. Donna Lauria was the first young woman to lose her life. David used a .44 caliber hand gun to take the lives of six young women. He wrote letters to the media and police department explaining how “Sam,” a demon who spoke through a dog, was instructing him to kill. Finally, in 1977, David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” was arrested and sentenced to 365 years in prison.
When David Berkowitz entered Attica Prison to serve his sentence, Robert Alexander, was a prison guard. Twenty year later, Judge Alexander has written about his experience with David Berkowitz. Let me read his account for you.
I spent many, many hours talking to David. I saw his struggle with the occult forces that plagued him. Have you ever looked into the face of evil? Not many people have ever scared me physically or spiritually, but David scared me spiritually. I wasn’t a Christian and had little knowledge of the occult and Satanism but I could see the effect it had on David. When he first came to Attica he struggled but was able to control the demons within him. He would show me the letters that Satan worshippers would send him. Most of the letters had the blood of people – including babies sacrificed on satanic altars. I was there when an inmate cut David’s throat. In fact, I comforted him at our prison hospital as the nurse stitched his throat. Over a period of two years I saw David slip into satanic despair and torment. He would howl and was engulfed in porno literature. He digressed out of control. David was so demonic, we started to call him – David “Bezerkowitz.”
David was transferred to another prison and there the Lord had another inmate waiting on David. The inmate gave him a Gideon’s New Testament, but David mocked the man for some time. Finally, at the end of his rope, David began to read the Psalms. One night in his cell, he was reading Psalm 34 when he came to verse 6 and it melted his heart. David read, “this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his troubles.” David remembers that night so well. He writes,
It was at that moment, in 1987, that I began to pour out my heart to God. Everything seemed to hit me at once. The guilt from what I did… the disgust at what I had become… late that night in my cold cell, I got down on my knees and I began to cry to Jesus Christ. I told Him that I was sick and tired of doing evil. I asked Jesus to forgive me for all my sins. I spent a good while on my knees praying to Him. When I got up it felt as if a very heavy but invisible chain that had been around me for so many years was broken. A peace flooded over me. I did not understand what was happening. But in my heart I just knew that my life, somehow, was going to be different.
Sixteen years later, the skeptics have been proven wrong. David Berkowitz leads Bible studies inside the walls of his prison. He is up for parole next year, but he wrote the governor and told him that he did not deserve parole. David said that he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison because of the heinous acts he committed. He also stated that he believes the Lord has placed him where he is so that he can reach out to other prisoners.
When people heard that the “Son of Sam” had been transformed by Jesus Christ into the “Son of Hope” they didn’t believe it. You may still be wondering if the Lord can touch a life like David Berkowitz, Saddam Hussein, or John Lee Malvo and transform them from monsters into men of God. I don’t know how you respond to stories like this, but I can tell you that the Apostle Paul would stand and cheer!
Just as David Berkowitz was a destroyer of human life the Apostle Paul was a destroyer of the very Church of God. Paul writes in Galatians 1:13,
13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. (Galatians 1:13 NIV)
Paul could give testimony about the first Christian who was killed for his faith because he was present, giving approval, as Stephen was stoned to death. Paul searched high and low looking for Christians to persecute and arrest for their faith. His mission, his aim, his passion was to destroy the followers of Jesus! Once Paul met Jesus he knew that it was God’s grace alone that had saved him. He had done everything he could to shut down the advance of the Gospel, but God saved him in spite of himself and what he had done.
It is because of this that Paul knew the message of salvation by grace, the grace of God, so well. It was this very message that turned people’s stomachs and caused their hearts to race with anger. In Paul’s day, as well as our day, our pride refuses to allow us to believe that it’s not us. Even though we don’t verbalize it we believe that God approves of us because we are good, because we go to church, because we know the Ten Commandments, or help little children and little old ladies. Paul’s message of salvation by grace through faith was an affront to those who believed they were good people and it’s still an affront to “good” people today. John MacArthur writes in his commentary on Galatians.
Had Paul proclaimed a gospel that was according to man, it would have been permeated by works-righteousness, as is every humanly devised system of religion. Man’s sinful pride is offended by the idea that only God’s mercy and grace can save him from sin, and he therefore insists on having a part in his own salvation. The very fact that Paul preached a message of salvation in which works play absolutely no part was itself evidence that his message was from God and not … man. (John MacArthur, Galatians, p.23)
You and I have been showered with grace and mercy, but it is not because of what we have done – it is because God has chosen to demonstrate His love to unworthy people like me. Throughout God’s Word we see how God has called the least desirable, the most broken, and the most unworthy so that He might change their lives and use them for His glory. We can see this truth taught way back in Moses’ day. Look with me at Deuteronomy 7:7-8 as Moses addresses the former slaves who are now the chosen people of God.
6For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NIV)
Why has God chosen to shower His love upon us even though we have turned away from Him time after time? That is a great question! Moses would say, “But it was because the Lord loved you…” When this truth is understood and it sinks deep into our hearts then the only response is to cry out in gratitude because of His infinite grace and mercy.
The world may judge you or me because of our past. The world may snicker at our passion for a God we cannot see, but whom we know better than we know ourselves. The world may never let you live down what you have done, but Christ has come to set you free so that you and I may live our lives for His glory and His glory alone.
It is amazing what God can do with a yielded life. It is remarkable what happens when we come to understand the grace of God. John Newton lived long ago, but each of you knows him because of a legacy of faith that he has left behind. I have to tell you that there were many skeptics when the Lord called John and he accepted Jesus as Lord of his life. John didn’t pay them any attention. He knew that a steady life of gratitude and service would be the irrefutable evidence for the validation of his transformation. Let me tell you his story.
John Newton was born on July 24, 1725 in London, England. His godly mother died when John was only six. While he was a young teenager his father got him involved on a ship.
At 17, in 1742 Newton was drafted into the British Royal Navy. For the 17-year-old Navy life was too much. Unable to hold up under the strain of its discipline and the stresses of its daily routine, he deserted ship. He was found and flogged. He was embarrassed and depressed and chose to leave the Navy for other work.
John Newton had left his mother’s teachings about God far behind him. He became an unapologetic atheist and could cuss…well, like a sailor. For the next six years John strayed further and further into destruction and eventually became a slave trader. John’s life became more and more vile as he traded human lives like cattle.
At 23, on May 10 in 1748, by the grace and mercy of God John Newton surrendered to Jesus Christ and became a new man. John came to know and admire the great preacher, George Whitefield. This inspired him to search the Scriptures even more. John Newton began to sense that God was calling him to preach the Gospel.
John Newton, the slave trader became a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the age of 45, the preacher wrote a song that stirs hearts to this day. Maybe you know these lyrics: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” John Newton went on to write some 280 more Christian hymns before he died.
At 57, he moved to the heart of London banking district and ministered at the St. Mary Woolooth Church. While he was preaching in London a young man named William Wilberforce began attending church and listening to the Word of God. God used John Newton to impact the life of Williams Wilberforce. Slavery was a huge business in England, but Wilberforce, once an advocate, took up the mantle of leadership and worked until slavery was banned throughout the country.
At 82, John Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” If there are but two lessons that you and I could learn in life then these are the two I pray that we learn again and again. “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior!”
The Apostle Paul came to the end of his life and the Lord had taught him similar lessons. Paul wrote to Timothy and said,
15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17 NIV)
I don’t know where you came from before you arrived here this morning. I have no idea what kind of skeletons you have in your closet, but I know who can clean it out and give you a fresh start today. You see my friend, it doesn’t matter where we have been – it only matters where He is leading us. Won’t you let Him lead you to the foot of the cross this morning and accept Jesus into your heart?