Wilderness Meditations: 17. The Place of Radical Change
Acts 9:1-4 Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
A Hesitation: I have pondered for a day whether to write this study, but the message underlying it has remained strong and is one that brings together the previous two studies and emphasizes what I believe the Lord wants to say to us in these days. I want us to consider Saul – or Paul as he became – and his Damascus road experience. I have always considered it a desert road experience and yet I am not certain that that is accurate. Having researched it, the truth is we don’t know what route he took from Jerusalem to Damascus, all we know is what the above verses say, that he was nearing Damascus.
Possibilities: Because I find it an area of the unknown and, more especially, an area I’ve never considered before or heard anyone else speak on, it bears a quick consideration. It seems there were three main highways, trade routes from the south to the north. To the far east was what was known as the King’s Highway, possibly the main trade route. To the west was what was first a coastal road that at various times has gone by different names, ‘Way of the Philistines’, the Coastal Road and The Via Maris, going up the coast and then sweeping in across Israel to go north on the west of the Sea of Galilee and then north and east across the mountains – south of Mount Hermon and down to the plain of Damascus. However, a more likely route was the Hill Road or Ridge Route that went more directly from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee and continued up the east side of the sea, northwards to Damascus – a rough road, wild at times. Paul was not travelling alone (see v.7) and whether these were friends, other Pharisees, or simply travellers, we aren’t told and we hear no more of them apart from fact that they led the blinded Saul into Damascus.
Transformation: Although a modern writing would have given more details, what we have in the text of Acts and the epistles is quite clear. Paul’s testimony: “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) As he later testified in Acts, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4,5) and even more, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” (Acts 26:9)
The account of his encounter with Jesus on the road down to Damascus is well known, as is the incredible change that took him from being a church persecutor to church builder, opposer of Jesus to herald of Jesus, from legalistic Pharisee to grace-filled apostle. Now consider this further: The transformation that took place is about as dramatic as you can think, but mostly we don’t like the dramatic, we prefer the known, the ordinary, the expected. But in the days we have been living through are none of those things; they have been dramatic, the future is unknown, it is certainly not the ordinary and uncertainty has replaced expected.
Yes but… Now I can hear the defensive voices rising – but I made that same radical change when I turned to Jesus and, yes, I am sure that that is so for many of us. But here’s the thing, I am certain that one of the main questions that have been coming from heaven in the recent months is, what have you been learning in all of this? I don’t know what your answer would be because I’m sure I haven’t seen the full picture of what I have been learning, but in the first of these three additional studies I wrote about how we need to adjust our thinking to see God in the midst of our circumstances. In the second one we saw God moving in the most unexpected place which required a letting go of the present days of ‘success’, submitting to God’s strange directions, directions that challenged the present security.
Change? For some of us these will be radical changes. For some of us we have so struggled to cope with the uncertainties imposed upon us, that to say that we sense the Presence and the Peace and the Provision and Power and the Protection of God in the midst of all this, is a bridge too far for us. To say that we can cope with God purposefully pushing us in new directions can be seen as just yet another lot of uncertainties that make life even more scary.
We can pretend but the reality is far from that. Yes, we are saved, we are believers, but the hard truth is that living in this materialistic and constantly changing world, so much of church life has become routine, almost habit, and the power and presence of God has become something to talk about rather than be experienced.
I have written this before but may I reiterate, perhaps in an abbreviated form, a vision of church I have used before in previous series, a vision that is simply what is portrayed in the New Testament of ‘church’: a church that is “alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of the life of the church, and the surrounding world is impacted and changed”. That is the God side of it, if I may put it that way; the other side is our part, to catch this vision, yearn for it, pray and pray and pray for it, and to be open to whatever the Spirit might say or do. For many of us, I believe, to believe this, if we dare be honest, is as radical a transformation as that which Saul went through on the road to Damascus.
Review the Change: Paul in Jerusalem, totally set in his ideas, opposed to anything other than the Judaism he knew, indeed hostile to the new ideas of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2). He sets out to strengthen his ideas by arresting those in Damascus who hold those ideas, and on the way, on a dusty road, coming down out of the mountains, his life is changed when the Son of God challenges all he knew. His set ideas, his set goals, his set vision, are all set aside, and it is a new day. This, dear man or woman of God, is the transformation that I believe God is wanting to bring to His children, His church, who have for so long accepted a second best, powerless version of Christianity, of Church. Am I feeling He wants us to change all we are doing? Only in so far as it hinders the coming in power and revelation of His Spirit. I am not there but I am praying. I think it is a day of slow and gradually progressive transformation – until He comes in power. If you have any questions, pray. Please pray.