I have been reading the Book of Acts and read, again, the story of Saul’s conversation in Acts, chapter 9. I am always struck by how soon after Saul met Jesus that people were trying to kill him!
As I have been reading in Acts in recent days the Lord has really drawn my attention to the role that Ananias played in Saul’s conversion. We all remember the story; Saul is on the road to Damascus and he sees a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus saying, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul is struck blind and has to be lead into the city by his helpers. That is where Ananias comes in.
God tells Ananias to go to Saul and restore his sight. What does Ananias say? You can read the story in Acts, chapter 9, but basically he tells God, “That is a terrible idea. No, no, no, God! I know about Saul and he is a really bad guy. He has come here to arrest people in the church and now you want me to go see him?” The Lord tells Ananias, “Yes, I want you to go.”
So Ananias is obedient and he goes to see Saul and there are two things that struck me in a new way as I read the story this time. First, Ananias reached out and touched Saul and secondly, he called him Brother Saul, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus sent me to you.” Remember just four verses earlier Ananias was telling God what a terrible guy Saul was and yet now he obeys God, goes to Saul, reaches out to touch him and calls him brother, “Brother Saul.” Then Ananias sort of disappears from the story. We don’t know what happened to him, but we sure know what happened with Saul. He became Paul, the great missionary/evangelist and the author of so much of the New Testament.
How different is that story if Ananias says no to God?
Not too long ago one of our VOM staff was in the Middle East at a meeting of Syrian church leaders. They were talking about this very passage. Some of these believers minister in the city of Damascus. For them it is very easy to see Ananias’ side of the story. They talked about that very situation. What if a guy from Islamic State (IS) calls and says he wants to meet? What if a fighter from Al-Nusra Front comes in the door of your church? “I have had a vision of Jesus and I need to meet with you to learn more.” What would these Syrian Christians do? What would we do?
Our Syrian brothers and sisters talked about that. Would they go to meet with a sworn enemy of the Gospel? One-by-one they shared that it would be difficult, it would be scary, but that if they felt God calling them to go, they would go in spite of the risks. I am thankful for the example of Ananias who was willing to reach out and touch and call “Brother” someone who had been an enemy. And I am thankful for Syrian Christians who are willing to take that risk today. It is thrilling to know that God is reaching into the ranks of terrorists, even IS, and calling people to Himself.
We have had the incredible privilege to share some of those stories right here on The Voice of the Martyrs Radio. But those new believers, those Sauls, need an Ananias to help connect them to the truth and to a body of believers, and that is not an easy job. There is a lot of risk.
But it isn’t just former IS fighters that need an Ananias, it is people coming to Christ where you live, where I live; our neighbours, co-workers, students at our children’s school. I hope that you will pray with me that God will reach more Sauls among radical Muslim groups and also raise up more Ananiases to disciple and teach them. I hope we will pray that we can be an Ananias for someone who needs a friendly face and a welcoming smile as they choose to follow Jesus Christ.
These comments were a part of a VOM Radio episode.
Todd Nettleton works for VOM USA as media spokesperson.
Periodically as I read the Bible there are verses that pop out at me appearing as though I have never read them before. Reading through Acts 26, I was stopped-short by an amazing statement that never registered in my mind before. Paul said in verses 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 Lord’s people 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. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.”
I have always wondered what motivates people to become persecutors. There is probably no single answer, but the Apostle Paul gives us insight into what drove him. He was obsessed with opposing Jesus Christ. There are theological answers to this question. Persecutors possess a carnal mind, darkened and depraved by sin so that good and evil are flipped. When doing evil, Paul thought he was doing good.
Two words intrigue me—“convinced” and “obsessed.” Most of us are convinced we are right, but we are usually convinced of things within the parameters of what is good. Paul was convinced, persuaded, motivated, and compelled to believe and do something he could never accomplish and it was outside the parameters of good. He had a strong aversion to Jesus Christ and he sought with his whole heart to oppose him. Up to this point, this seems rational, although it was wrong and futile. No one opposes Christ and wins and no one ever will—not Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, or ISIS.
The word “obsession” moves to something pathological, into the realm of the irrational. He is driven to extraordinary means and is consumed by his erroneous beliefs. Paul’s bigotry, hatred and prejudice fed his mind and heart, and he could not stop—until God stopped him!
Switching to contemporary times, we find the same irrational passion. To most people the slaughter of innocent people and the persecution of specifically targeted Christians is beyond comprehension. It is beyond reason—at least by what reasonable people do. In the Wall Street Journal (26 May 2015) is a short essay titled, “The Rational Ayatollah Hypothesis” by Bret Stephens. The argument is, given what the ayatollahs believe, can they make rational decisions? The first line of the article asks: “Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot?” Probably not. They are obsessed with their ideology and it can lead to doing irrational things to those who do not agree to their radical beliefs. One world leader said he was “not a particularly ideological person.” I think he meant he was not consumed by his ideology, but it is obvious that he has an ideology. It, in fact, drives him in his work. He, along with most people, does not understand the “compelling power of ideology” (Stephens).
The fact is that leaders can be so obsessed with ideological commitments (including religious commitments) that they may be driven to think and sometimes act irrationally. As Christians, we hate evil and before we know it, we also hate the evil-doers. This is outside of God’s will and the mandate of Christ to love our enemies. Rational faith hates evil but loves the evil-doers and seeks their salvation and restoration to a transforming relationship with God.
Is Paul the last obsessed radical terrorist who could meet God and have his life radically changed? He was so far gone in his obsession to kill Christians that it took an extraordinary act of God to change him. But it happened!
Along with our prayers for God to stop the horrendous evil and injustice we are seeing perpetuated against Christians (and others), we ought to also be audacious intercessors for the transformation of the world’s most wicked, depraved, and obsessed leaders. Radical terrorist ideology should be resisted through radical intercession.
Is there anything impossible with God? Was there anyone more impossible than Paul of Tarsus? No one is beyond the reach of God.
Do you really believe that?
Originally posted on The Persecution Blog