To the End of the Earth: A Basket Case

Sermon by Derek Thomas on November 1, 2006

Acts 9:12b-31

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Wednesday Evening

November 1,
2006

Acts 9:12b -31

To the Ends of
the Earth

A Basket Case!

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now turn with me if you would once again to The Acts of the
Apostles, and we’re in chapter nine. We pick it up at verse 19b. the second half
of verse [19]. In some of your Bibles that verse is cut in two, beginning a new
paragraph in the middle of a verse.

Last week we were thinking together on the
incredible and marvelous story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus — the
most unlikely conversion that you would ever have imagined at the time — and God
in His sovereignty has struck him down. He has seen this great light, he has
fallen to the ground, he has been blinded by the experience. He is on his way to
Damascus with letters from the high priest in Jerusalem. He’s made this, what
would be a six-day journey (140 miles, 150 miles or so) up to Damascus, all the
way up to Galilee, and then slightly to the east, and keep on going and you come
to Damascus. And he’s been led now by the hand…this fire-breathing dragon,
Saul of Tarsus, has been reduced to a blind man having to be led by the hand
into the city of Damascus.

We saw the beautiful ministry of Ananias. God asked
him to go to Straight Street and there meet with Saul of Tarsus. Ananias, you
remember, was understandably apprehensive about going to see Saul of
Tarsus…and those astonishing first words to Saul of Tarsus, calling him
“brother.” And we saw how Saul begins his ministry as he is introduced now to
this fledgling community of believers in the city of Damascus.

Well, we’re going to pick it up now at verse 19, and
before we do so let’s pray together.

Once again, O Lord, this is Your word that we’re
about to read. We thank You for the Bible, and we thank You for these 66 books.
Every word, every jot and tittle “given by inspiration of God and profitable for
doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of
righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good
work.” Teach us; instruct us. Grant, Lord, by Your Spirit, that we might learn
the things we need to learn and implement them in our lives. For Jesus’ sake we
ask it. Amen.

Now this is God’s word:

“Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at
Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying,
‘He is the son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were
saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this
name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the
chief priests?’ But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounded the Jews who
lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.

“When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away
with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates
day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by
night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large
basket.

“When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the
disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a
disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and
described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and the He had talked to
him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he
was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name
of the Lord. And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they
were attempting to put him to death. But when the brethren learned of it, they
brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed
peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort
of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.”

Amen. May the Lord add his blessing.

When I was converted in 1971, in December — this
would have been probably late January, perhaps even beginning February 1972 — I
was an applied mathematics student, and one of my professors was a man by the
name of Professor Walters. Professor Walters had a reputation — an unusual
reputation at the university — of being a Christian, and of being an evangelical
Christian; and of now and then giving words of Christian exhortation and
witness, even in the midst of the class. The first day back at class after I was
converted, in the middle of a lecture on fluid dynamics or some such thing, he
turned to me. (And he was a very old-fashioned sort of a professor…wore a
robe, a black robe, while he was lecturing.) And he suddenly turned to me and
pointed in my direction, and he said, “Thomas! You’ve been converted. Tell us
about it.” And I’m trembling and stumbling for words, and wishing I could
disappear, before the rest of this fairly hostile but somewhat inquisitive
class, that I had been converted. And he said to me afterwards when everybody
had gone, he pulled me aside and he said, “I believe in nailing your colors to
the mast from the very beginning.”

Well, that’s Saul of Tarsus. He has nailed his
colors to the mast by preaching Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogues in
Damascus. This passage that’s before us tonight — a beautiful passage with a
gorgeous ending — is a tale not of two cities, but is a tale of four cities

(well, four regions, anyway…four districts). One is not here. We’ll have to
include that in a minute.

The first is of course Damascus. Damascus is
up north from Jerusalem. Go all the way up to Galilee, then turn
right…northeast…and keep on going for some distance, and you’ll come to the
great and historic city of Damascus — still historic and newsworthy, of course,
to this day. And Paul has been preaching Jesus as the Son of God. It’s only here
and one other instance in Acts 13 that we read in the words of Luke of Jesus as
the Son of God.

The Son of God is a distinctively Old
Testament messianic title for Jesus, for the Messiah. It comes from II Samuel 7,
and it’s derived from the second Psalm, and it’s derived again from the
eighty-ninth Psalm; and you can see what Saul of Tarsus already is beginning to
do: drawing from the Old Testament, drawing from the Bible that he had been
studying in Jerusalem as a Pharisee, and now seeing the fulfillment of those
messianic prophecies of the Old Testament in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The atmosphere in the synagogues in Damascus must
have been electric. You know, news of Saul’s coming had already reached them,
and this is the Saul who was coming to bring those believing Jews who had
scattered from Jerusalem and had gone hither and yon, but some of them had
obviously gone as far as Damascus, 150 miles away; and his intent was to bring
them back to Jerusalem; and to bring them back to trial, and probably to bring
them back at least to incarceration and possibly death. And this Saul of Tarsus,
at least according to Ananias, has been converted! And do you think that the
believing Jews in Damascus believed that?

I think the atmosphere would have been electric. I
think there would have been a fair degree of tension. I think that the
synagogues…on the one hand there would be unbelieving Jews who would now
regard Saul of Tarsus as a traitor, and there would be believing Jews (still in
the synagogue, of course) who would regard Saul of Tarsus as an agent
provocateur
, as a Trojan horse, as somebody who was pretending conversion
only to find out information about who the believing Jews were — where they
lived, and who their families were, and what their whereabouts were, in order
that he might perhaps capture them. You can imagine how tense the atmosphere
was.

We read in verse 22 of his boldness: that “Saul kept
increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving
that this Jesus is the Christ.” And you get a glimpse already, a little cameo
glimpse of the Paul that you and I know: the Paul of the missionary journeys,
the Paul of Athens, and the Paul of Ephesus, and the Paul in Rome, and the Paul
who writes letters, and the Paul who is out and out for God, no matter what;
Paul the apologist, Paul the preacher, Paul the great defender of the faith. And
already in this short space of time you see a little glimpse of what God is
about to do through this man. Damascus.

But the second city or location is Arabia.
Now there’s no mention of Arabia here, but if you turn to Galatians 1…and let
me tell you about Galatians 1, because in Galatians 1 (where Paul, you remember,
is among other things defending his apostleship) he tells us a little bit about
his conversion story and about his visit to Damascus, and about the fact that he
went from Damascus to Arabia, and then back to Damascus again, and then on to
Jerusalem, and that this covered a span (according to Galatians 1) of three
years.

Now, Luke’s time references here are fairly elastic.
They’re not precise. And somewhere in this chronology we have to fit Saul of
Tarsus’ visit now to Arabia and to the territory of Nabataea and the domain of
the Nabataean king, King Aretas IV. Nabataea is that region Trans-Jordan…east
of the Jordan somewhere, where it’s not precisely clear whereabouts he was.

Now, when exactly did Saul go to Arabia? And there
are several possibilities. One possibility is that he went immediately after his
baptism. It’s possible that he would have been baptized and then immediately
went into Arabia, and then come back to Damascus, and Luke is now picking up the
story from there. It’s possible — John Stott thinks it’s possible — that he went
to Arabia after he was lowered down from the walls of Damascus. I think that’s
less likely. It looks as though King Aretas’ involvement in why he has to leave
Damascus in the first place is tied up with the fact that he was lowered by
night in a basket. It’s possible that after he began to preach Jesus in the
synagogues he went then to Arabia for a while, and then came back to Damascus
again. And when he comes back to Damascus again, trouble breaks out. I don’t
know. I’m merely giving you the possibilities.

Why did he go to Arabia? Well, he tells us in II
Corinthians 11 that in Arabia he upset the king, Aretas IV, and Aretas IV has an
ethnarch representative, a diplomatic representative, in Damascus. What
had Paul done to upset the King of Nabataea? What had he done in Arabia to upset
the king? If he’d gone to Arabia to meditate, to pray, to study the Old
Testament Scriptures, to learn more about the gospel in some secluded place, why
would the king of Nabataea be all upset? The only reason why the king of
Nabataea is all upset is because evidently the Apostle Paul did in Arabia what
he did in Damascus, because Paul couldn’t keep his mouth closed about the
gospel. He was always talking about the gospel, and it’s more than likely that
the reason why the Nabataean king and the ethnarch of the Nabataean king is
involved now in the persecution that comes upon Saul in Damascus is because Saul
had once again been preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in
all likelihood there had been converts.

Why did he leave Damascus? And why did he leave in a
basket? And why did he leave at night in this incognito fashion?

I was reading today in one of the early church
fathers, Tertullian, and Tertullian by the year 200 or so is giving very
different advice to Christians. He’s telling Christians to face the persecution,
and if necessary to be ready to die for the gospel. So why is Saul of Tarsus
leaving Damascus when his life is threatened? And the answer, Tertullian says,
is perfectly simple: because God has told Saul that there’s a work for him to
do. He must be the apostle to the Gentiles, and that work has not yet begun. Our
lives, my friends, are immortal until our work is done. And here is Saul,
realizing now that the call of Almighty God is upon him to take the gospel to
the Gentiles — a work that he hasn’t even begun yet to unfold. And so from
Damascus and Arabia and back to Damascus, he goes to Jerusalem.

I want you to try tonight to use that sanctified
imagination that resides in your brain and mine, and I want you to try and
imagine being in Jerusalem. Now, three years have gone by, and three years in
the Jewish inclusive sense. In the same way that we speak of Jesus’ being raised
after three days, when actually He died on Friday night and He was raised on
Sunday morning. It’s Friday, Saturday, Sunday, in that inclusive sense, but not
specifically and exactly three years. It was possibly just over two years.

So he’s been gone for two years. Gone first of all
in the great city of Damascus, and then gone somewhere in Arabia, and he’s come
back…plenty of time, you understand, for the imaginations both of the Jews and
of Christians in Jerusalem now to work overtime. They were deeply suspicious of
Saul of Tarsus in Jerusalem, as they were in Damascus. Was he an agent
provocateur?
Was this all one grand scheme and plot? The Jews, the Pharisees
especially, are angry with him, seeing him as a traitor; and the Christian
church are deeply suspicious. And what does God do?

Do you remember in Damascus he had an Ananias, who
went to Straight Street and called him “brother”? And here in Jerusalem he has a
Barnabas…Barnabas, whose real name of course was Joseph — his nickname. It’s
the sobriquet that the apostles give him — “Son of Encouragement.” You
know, it’s the same word as the word used for the Holy Spirit. Jesus in the
upper room : “I’ll go away, but I’ll come to you again. I will send to you the
Comforter.” A paraclete– that’s the word…an advocate. What kind of
person is the Holy Sprit whom Jesus calls a paraclete? What kind of
advocate is the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends as His personal representative
agent? You might say His best Friend. You might say the One who knows Him the
best in all the world and out of this world. And it’s that term that the
apostles now apply to this extraordinary man, Barnabas.

We met him earlier in The Acts of the Apostles in
chapter 4, when he sold a piece of land and laid the money at the feet of the
apostles. When up in Antioch the Gentiles are being converted and the apostles
in Jerusalem are a little suspicious of what’s going on in Antioch, who do they
send up there to deal with this and to investigate this, and to inquire into
this? They send dear Barnabas. There were things going on in Antioch that no
doubt would have got some of the apostles in Jerusalem all bent out of shape.
Gentiles didn’t do certain things that some of the Jews in Jerusalem expected
them to do. They were still unclear about the way ahead with regard to Sabbath
laws, ceremonial laws, food laws, and so on…circumcision was still up in the
air. What are they to do with this? And God sends this gentle man, this
extraordinary man Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, who knows how to
encourage, who knows how to motivate, who knows how to lift up the downcast, who
knows how to say a word in season, in a difficult and tense situation. Who is it
that God will call with Paul to be a missionary on that first missionary journey
in Antioch in Acts 13:1? Paul and Barnabas. Oh, there’ll be some tensions
between Barnabas and Paul before the story’s through, and we’ll come to that
later. But what a marvelous provision. What a beautiful gift, as Ananias was in
the city of Damascus, that God had a Barnabas in Jerusalem to introduce Saul of
Tarsus to the disciples and to the apostles in Jerusalem.

He’s in Jerusalem for fifteen days. He doesn’t meet
all the apostles. Again, Luke doesn’t tell us that here, but in Galatians 1 we
read that he met only two of the apostles – the two apostles, interestingly
enough, that he mentions when he writes I Corinthians 15 and that beautiful
chapter on the resurrection. He says in I Corinthians 15 that the two people
that Jesus appeared to were Cephas and James, the Lord’s brother. And in
Galatians he tells us that the two apostles that he met with and conferred with
were Cephas (Peter, the Aramaic name) and James, the Lord’s brother.

I wonder what they talked about. Wouldn’t you like
to be a fly on the wall when Saul of Tarsus is knocking on the door of Peter and
James? Who knew Jesus better than anyone? James, who grew up with Him. Can you
imagine James sitting down perhaps over Turkish coffee or whatever it was that
they…[not the Starbucks coffee that Ligon has here, now!]…but can you
imagine James sitting down with Saul of Tarsus in Jerusalem? And Saul says to
him, Saul says to James, ‘Tell me, what was Jesus like as a little boy? What was
He like as a teenager? What was He like in your father Joseph’s carpentry shop?
Tell me about your mother.’ Wouldn’t you just love to overhear those
conversations? And as James begins to relate stories about his brother,
Jesus…his brother in the flesh, Jesus, born of the same mother…and at the
same time every now and then you’d hear James saying ‘the Lord Jesus’ —
kurios Jesu
— that this brother of mine is God, the Lord, the Messiah whom
Paul has been preaching in Damascus as the Son of God. What greater confirmation
for Saul of Tarsus that Jesus of Nazareth was actually and truly the Son of God,
than to hear it from the lips of James?

And then, the fourth place. After fifteen days in
Jerusalem – Tarsus, and the districts of Syria and Seleucia. This is Saul’s home
town, now.
He goes home now. And again, Luke doesn’t tell us all the details
here and you have to piece them all together, but he was going home, and he
would be there for ten years.

It’s during this time, according to something we
read in Acts 22, just before he leaves Jerusalem and he goes to Tarsus, that in
visiting the temple he has another vision — appearance — of the risen Jesus, who
confirms to him once again that he is to be the apostle to the Gentiles. It’s
during his time in Tarsus that we obviously have to piece in somewhere in that
time frame the five occasions on which Saul of Tarsus received the thirty-nine
lashes, the forty lashes minus one at the hands of the Roman authorities, when
his back was lacerated. And why would they do that? Because evidently there,
too, Saul of Tarsus was preaching and teaching about Jesus and proclaiming the
gospel of faith alone in Christ alone.

And then Luke tells us in verse 31 — and isn’t this
an exquisite verse?

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, and was
built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy
Spirit it multiplied.”

Isn’t that a beautiful verse? After all the trouble,
after all the threats and death threats that we’ve read about in the previous
chapters, all of a sudden there’s a period of supernatural peace; a period where
God, as it were, restrains His enemies for a season and pours out His Spirit
upon His people; and His church grows and multiplies. And don’t you want to know
— because I want to know — don’t you want to know what the secret of
multiplication of the church is? Do you want to know what the secret of church
growth is? You know – the forty days of prayer and fasting, or the DVD’s, or the
books, or the schemes, or this thing or that thing? What’s the secret for church
growth and multiplication?

And Luke tells you what the secret is:

“They walked in the fear of the Lord and in the
comfort of the Holy Spirit.”

Now my dear friends, do you find that disappointing?
Because if you find that disappointing, I want you to read that again, because
Luke is telling you something here. What is the secret for church growth for
Luke? It’s a holy people living out and out for God, and giving themselves to a
life that is lived to the glory of God. That’s the secret. They were living out
their lives, regardless of the consequences, in fear of God. They were putting
God first. God first in their homes, God first with their children, God first
with their teenage children, God first in their employment, God first with their
hopes and dreams and ambitions.

Was that hard? Of course it was hard. “And they were
strengthened by the Holy Spirit…comforted by the Holy Spirit.” Do you know
that’s the same word as Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement? It’s paracletos
again. And just as there had been a physical comforter in Jerusalem, so now for
a season there was a supernatural Comforter (after which, by the way, Barnabas
was modeled: the Holy Spirit).

Oh, don’t you long for days like that? Don’t you
long for days when the enemy is put back just a little, and you see not
something that you do, not something that you can put on a billboard outside the
church and say “Revival next week,” but an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and
the church grows and multiplies, and is strengthened as people walk in the fear
of the Lord and are strengthened by the Holy Spirit. And that’s a beautiful
thing, and oh! may God grant us in our lifetime to see something of that: to see
something of an outpouring of the Spirit that has nothing to do with us, and has
all to do with God. May God so grant it.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. We thank You
for this encouragement, that there are times when You tell Satan to be quiet for
a season and You pour out Your Spirit, and You cause Your church to grow. We’ve
seen glimpses of this in parts of the world — in China and in the Soviet Union,
and in parts of Africa — and we bless You and thank You for it. We thank You for
this sovereign supernatural work. Now bless us, we pray. Help us to learn from
this. Help us to fear You, to walk in the fear of God; and comfort us by Your
Spirit. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Let’s stand and we’ll sing The Doxology once
again, and I’ll close with the Benediction.

[Congregation sings]

Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ, be with you all. Amen.

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