Friday, September 17, 2010

Taking A Pounding

Conversion of Paul
Acts 9:1-19

The Nail

A nail is only useful after it has been pounded on. Before that it is only an item-in-waiting, hidden away in some drawer or a tool box in a garage.

Sometimes we feel like a nail that is being pounded on. Events of life can often beat on us, battering our bodies and emotions. It may be an illness, financial woes, or mistreatment by other people. Why? Why do painful things happen to us?

1) Sometimes it is just life. There is no apparent reason except that "life happens."

2) It may be that we deserve some of the pounding. Some of our own behavior may be coming back to haunt us. Rudeness invites rudeness; lack of saving invites a gaunt retirement; laziness invites hunger.

3) It may be that we are the innocent victim of someone else’s evil. The evil are always looking for opportunities to take and harm. There have always been such people. "Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand." Micah 2:1

4) And it may be that God is pounding us to break our hard and stubborn hearts.

Paul’s Pharisaic Mission Work

When Paul set out on his mission trip he did so with a clear conscience and the full expectation that he was God’s righteous ambassador. But his heart and mouth was full of "murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples" (Acts 9:1). He was going to purge the synagogue of Damascus. If he found any in the synagogue who were Christians, he was going to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. There they would stand trial before the Sanhedrin.

This was not Paul’s first "mission work." When the preacher Stephen was killed with stones by angry Jews who rejected Jesus, Paul was there offering his full assistance. He watched over the clothing of the witnesses to Stephen’s death. These witnesses probably removed their outer robes to be better able to cast the stones. Paul approved of this murder (Acts 8:1).

The next we read of Paul is in chapter 9 when he begins his journey to Damascus to persecute Christians. But, there is a long gap between 8:1 and 9:1. In this gap Paul was on many other missions to harass Christians. That story is told in Acts 26:9-11:

I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.

The fuller picture of Paul in Acts is that he was exactly what he describes in Philippians 3: proud, over-confident, self-righteous, and yet, amazingly, very religious.

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (Phil. 3:4a-6)

Religion vs. Relationship

One of the scariest things about religion is that it often serves to make us
feel righteous, even when we shouldn’t and
feel justified, even when aren’t.

As a Pharisee in good standing Paul saw it as his duty to uphold the tradition of the elders of Israel. This didn’t mean he preached and supported the Old Testament; it meant he stood for the very traditions Jesus condemned in Matthew 15:8-9. A host of traditions grew up in Israel. These traditions included issues of cleanliness, righteousness, who was in and who was outside of Israel, and fellowship.

In time, these traditions became even more important than scripture in dictating terms of faithfulness to Israel and standing with God. If a story from the Bible didn’t fit with their new traditions, Israel neglected them. So, Israel forgot some of the beautiful stories of God’s grace and compassion, like his care for the Gentile widow from Sidon (1 Kings 17:8-16) and the Gentile warrior, Naaman of Syria (2 Kings 5:1-14). God’s love extended to all people everywhere.

But the job of the Pharisee became to narrow the scope of God’s grace and mercy to just a few people. First, it was narrowed down to those of Israel. Then, it was narrowed down even finer, where only a chosen few within Israel were right. The Pharisees were able to dismiss many within Israel as a "mob that knows nothing of the law - there is a curse on them!" (John 7:49). How is that for a loving disposition by spiritual shepherds over Israel?

What the Pharisees missed was the relationship God desires to have with people. They were making a connection with God contingent on following the letter of the law perfectly, something no one could do. They reduced truth to formulas, rulings and creeds. They failed to see that at the heart of truth is a man: Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Yes, God calls for our obedience, and Jesus says that we will be his friend if will do what he says (John 14:23; 15:14). And what does Jesus call us to do? "A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34).

God wants a relationship with us. He sent Jesus to be the basis and means of that relationship. This relationship would provide for eternal life, abundant life now and everlasting life later.

And Paul, along with many of the other Pharisees, missed that. He saw the Christians not properly following the Pharisaic laws, and he saw them following after this strange Galilean, Jesus, and he wanted to stop them, even punish them. He was full of zeal for the traditions of his fathers and thought he was in the right. Even when he helped kill the Christians.

How do you get the attention of someone like that?

The Hammer

A nail is only useful when it has been pounded and beaten. Prior to that, a nail serves no real purpose. But, pound that nail into a wall and you can hang a hat or picture on it. Pound enough nails into some lumber and you have a house. It is only through beating and pounding that a nail becomes truly useful.

I wonder if that isn’t why we sometimes get beaten and pounded in this life? God is trying to make us into something useful. Even if the observable reasons seem to be that it is just the misfortunes of life, or we deserve it, or we are victims, maybe the real reason is that God is shaping us.
Could that be what happened to Paul?

On the way to his Pharisaic "mission," a bright light flashed from heaven and blinded Paul. The voice that spoke to him said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:5).

For three days Paul was blind. For three days he didn’t eat or drink. He had to be led around. Paul, the fiery, independent reformer bent on eradicating all signs of Christianity from Judaism, was reduced to a helpless, dependent child. The Bible gives us no indication of what he must have been thinking during those dark three days. Fear? Panic? Self-doubt? "Woe is me!"? We have no idea. But we know that he was helpless. Right now his self-righteous posture was failing him miserably.

Then the preacher came. Ananias laid hands on him. Paul’s eyes were healed and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately he got up and was baptized.

Why baptized? We know from other verses in the Bible that it has to do with sins being remitted (Acts 2:38) and being added to the body (1 Cor. 12:13). These certainly applied to Paul as well (Acts 22:16). And I think the immediate motivation for Paul is that he finally realized his legalistic righteousness availed him nothing. Everything of the flesh that he prided himself in - circumcision, pedigree, legalism and zeal - all failed him. Later, he considered all of these things as rubbish (dung, KJV; Phil. 3:8).

Baptism is a humbling experience. It means we accept that our own efforts to be righteous are not only insufficient, they are wrong. Legalistic righteousness, or self-righteousness, condemns. It keeps us from a saving relationship with Christ. Baptism means that we are no longer lord; Christ is now Lord (Romans 10:9).

In three days of humbling darkness Paul learned righteousness-by-law didn’t work, and he learned he wasn’t lord over his own circumstances anymore. He needed Jesus Christ. And when he received his sight he was baptized. Receiving his sight meant more than just seeing with his eyes; it seems to mean he could also see with his heart.

Paul was pounded on like a nail. And it hurt. But as a result of that pounding Paul became a Christian, and he became one of the greatest evangelists of the first century. The pounding he took made him into a useful instrument for the kingdom.

Useful Today?

Does that same principle of taking a beating work today? Can the things we suffer make us into useful instruments for God and other people?

I think of a young wife who lost her husband in the current war. He died of complications from his wounds four years after they occurred. During those four years she had the constant companionship of other wives whose husbands were severely wounded and handicapped. Now, she feels a separation from them. Also, her situation isn’t exactly like other wives whose husbands died over there and were brought back as heroes. She feels so alone she wrote an article about her experience. This woman has taken a terrible pounding that is so unfortunate and unfair. But she is finding something useful now. As a result of her writing she has found other widows in a similar situation, and she is building a whole new support system.

I have a friend who took a pounding from drugs. His health suffered. His finances suffered. He was arrested and taken to jail. He went in for rehab. Later he went on to college to get a counseling degree, and today he counsels other addicts.

You may be taking a beating today and think it is terribly unfair. And it may be. But it may also be a summons for you to see what God is trying to do in your life. For Paul it was to be baptized and become an evangelist. For a young widow it was to become a writer. For an addict it was to become a counselor. Instead of worrying and getting angry at the injustices in your life, ask instead, "God, where are you leading me?" And keep your heart open.

Warren Baldwin


  1. This is good to remember. I have a friend who is so blinded by hyoerfocusing on the problem she can't see the opportunities God is opening up to her. I have been guilty of the same.

  2. The challenge for me is discovering for which reason I'm being pounded.