Circumcised Heart – Dan Teefey
Sermon text: Acts 9:1-9
This morning we are going to talk about one of the most radical and perhaps important transformations in the history of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the conversion of Paul to Christianity. Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books that we have in our New Testament. Paul was God’s chief instrument in delivering the story of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world. He went all over telling people about Jesus. Much of what we know about the early church and what they believed came from Paul's understanding of Jesus and the events surrounding his life, death and resurrection.
When I was in college I had a close friend that was Hindu and we used to have long discussions about religion and our faith and one of the questions that he used to bring up was that Christianity was not the faith of Jesus Christ, but the faith of Paul. He argued that Paul says a lot more in the Bible than Jesus does. Now I obviously think he is wrong that Christianity is Paul's invention, but the point is that any casual observer of the Bible and Christianity will notice just how important Paul's role is in our faith.
I think the conversion story of Paul is important for us to understand because it teaches us some important things about the process of conversion to Christianity. It shows us several very important things. First, no one is too sinful to become a Christian – no one is ever beyond the bounds of God’s reach. Second, the major obstacle to faith is not poor logic, but a poor understanding of reality. Finally, we will also see that our task as evangelists is not to “convert” people, but to plant seeds and be in conversation in partnership with the heart change God wants to do.
So what do we know about Paul? As we heard from the story of Paul in Acts 9, Paul was not always a big Jesus fan. In fact he was a real Jesus hater. Perhaps the best example of Paul's hatred towards Christians begins earlier in Acts in chapter 6. The 12 apostles decided they needed more help in their work and they chose 7 more people to be in leadership. One of those chosen was a guy named Stephen. Stephen was said to have great faith and to be full of God's grace and power, but a group of Jews began to oppose him strongly in what often resulted in public debates. While they were challenging him, they also began accusing him of committing blasphemy against Moses and God based upon what Stephen believed and was teaching.
Over time there was an increased movement against Stephen and more and more Jews became convinced that Stephen was particularly bad news. They found people that made up stories about Stephen and they eventually arrested him and charged him with blasphemy, claiming that he was opposing the Jewish laws and the temple. One allegation accused him of teaching that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs that Moses had handed down. These were fighting words for the Jewish leaders.
At Stephen's trial before the Sanhedrin, Stephen is asked whether the charges against him are true and then he goes into a large explanation and history of why what he believes about Jesus and God is consistent with Jewish expectations. He then ends with some strong words for his accusers.
He says, "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
You can imagine that they did not receive this well. They were furious. Acts 7 says that they rushed at Stephen, dragged him out of the city, and stoned him. But what is interesting is what it says in Acts 7:58. As Stephen is being stoned it says, “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
Paul is referred to as both Saul and Paul in the Bible. Saul was his Jewish name given to him at birth and Paul became the name he used later in life, which was more advantageous in sharing the Gospel with non-Jews. It was not uncommon for people of his day to have more than one name that they went by. So when I refer to Saul and Paul we are talking about the same person, he just went by a different name at different points in the Bible. Acts 13:9 says, “. . . Saul, who was also called Paul.”
As Stephen is being stoned the text says, ““Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Saul was at the stoning of Stephen and participated at the very least by watching the clothes of those that were participating in Stephen's execution. Even as a “young man” he was associated with Jewish leaders that deeply hated the apostles and their Christian followers.
Acts 8 pounds the point home, “And Saul was there, giving approval to his (Stephen's) death.”
Then the chapter continues. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”
Our passage then begins the next chapter in 9:1 by reaffirming Paul's involvement. The text says that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples.”
Paul and others were wreaking havoc trying to get the early Christians to renounce their faith and to return fully to the Jewish faith.
Because the violence and the persecution had gotten so bad many of the Christians began to flee away from Jerusalem and all of Judea. But as they fled, Saul and others were going after them. Letters were sent out to neighboring rulers that encouraged them to extradite these Christians back to Judea where they could be punished.
In our text this morning we hear that one of the neighboring cities that Christians had fled to – at this time they were referred to as followers of The Way – was Demascus, which was around 150 miles north of Jerusalem. Paul had papers that if he found any Christians in Demascus, he could bring them back to Jerusalem to be prosecuted.
Saul is a bad guy for Christians. In fact he would have been one of the worst types of guys for the Christians of the day. He created fear and hated them. Yet, this is the man that God chose to use to bring his message to the ends of the ancient world.
It is never clear why God chooses particular people for particular tasks. The Bible is all over the place here. We have people that are chosen because of their faithfulness. Noah was chosen to build the ark because he was the only one righteous. But we other examples that are less clear. Moses couldn’t speak well. David had all sorts of problems in his life – including adultery and murder. And then we have Paul the Christian hater.
The clear message of the Bible is that God can and will use anyone. The righteous and the unrighteous. And this means that we are not to write anyone off. No one is beyond the power of God’s transformation. No one has sinned too much. In fact, not only can severely broken people be transformed – they can become powerful and influential for the kingdom of God. This should change our understanding of those that might be receptive to the Gospel. No one is so lost that God can’t find them and bring them to Himself.
As Saul is making his way to Demascus something monumental in the history of Christianity happened. It is a continuation of the great stories of encounters with God throughout the Bible. As Paul was on his journey to further persecute Christians, our text says, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
Saul – a man on a journey to round up some more blaspheming Christians is confronted with this bright flashing, all-encompassing light that surrounds him. There is no way of really knowing what exactly this must have been like, but many scholars have compared it to being struck by lightning. Later in Acts 26, it says that the light was brighter than the sun.
Saul begins to see for the first time that in proving his commitment to God by persecuting the church, he has actually been proving himself an enemy of God.
What prompts some people to change from a heart that is opposed to God or at the very least does not understand God – to a heart that trusts in God rightly and is in relationship with God?
Now there are certainly some people that are raised in the Christian faith, their parents are Christians, and from childhood they have simply known no other way of looking at the world, but most people have some point in their life when they realize that God is calling them to make a conscious decision to give up a certain understanding of the world and to accept a new one consistent with God and His revelation to us through the Bible.
Even for people raised believing there is some process by which they make the faith they have been taught their own.
Given our sinful nature we are not born with God, but separated from God. This is an important point. Our default as human beings is not towards God, but away from God. Our sinful nature or our tendency to see ourselves as the most important being in existence draws us not towards God, but away from God. At the very least we have a false understanding of God. Thus our lives are a process of reversing this movement. Whether because our parents from our childhood have pointed us to Jesus to help us to repair our sinful nature or through some moment or process, we change. We use lots of biblical language that describes what happens. We repent or we literally turn away from our former understanding and way of doing things are pursue a new life.
And what is remarkable and deeply troubling about our sinful natures is that we often do not know, when we are saturated in them, that they are sinful or wrong. We are deeply rational people. It may not seem that way or feel that way at times, but we are essentially rational people in the way that we act and make decisions. Even when we make the worst mistakes in the world, we are still being rational, but acting on a false understanding. Our choice may not be right and good, but it is rational.
Let me give you some examples. When I was in 5th grade, my aunt, my mother's sister committed suicide. She was in an abusive relationship. She did not have the necessary resources to support her kids. She struggled deeply with her own addictions. Her life in general, or at least at home, was unbelievably difficult to live in. And she came to the conclusion, logically and based upon her experience of her life being pretty awful, that being dead could not be worse than being alive. At least when she was dead, she would not hurt.
Now suicide is not a good thing and her death caused a lot of pain to my family, but her decision was logical. It made sense even if it was not right.
Let's take another example. This one was from the news this week. There was a story in the news this week about a robber that broke into someone's house. He tied up the woman that lived there and proceeded to steal her jewelry and other things in the home. But while he was doing it he apologized profusely. He kept saying how sorry he was, but he really needed the money and had no way of making it. He even pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and told the woman that once he knew what pawn shop he was selling her stuff at, he would call and let her know so she could get it back.
Again, it was logical for the man to steal from the woman. He had no money, he needed money, and this was a logical way to get it. It was not a good choice, but it was a logical one.
The problem with sin is not that it affects our logic, or our rational ability to choose between options – the problem with sin is that it affects our understanding of how to rank our options - what is right and wrong. It affects the logical choices that we discern amongst.
Paul's persecution of Christians was logical based upon what he believed about God and the threat of those that believed in Jesus. I don't think we can underestimate how harmful the allegations of Jesus and Jesus' followers were to the faith of pious Jews like Paul. Paul was a zealous Jew. He was deeply passionate about the law and Jewish traditions. For Paul, the allegations and faith of the new Christians was incompatible with the Jewish faith.
Remember that the Christians at this time were Jewish. They were people like Paul, Jews, that had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. So we had a split amongst Jews. There were some that stayed the course and continued to strictly adhere to the traditional Jewish faith, but there were other Jews that now believed Jesus was the Messiah and all that Jesus said about fulfilling the law and challenging the traditional system.
Paul believed the old must stay, therefore the new must go. That Jesus could be the expected Messiah, as his disciples maintained, was out of the question. It is unlikely that the status, career, and teaching of Jesus conformed in any way with Paul's conception of the status, career and teaching of the Messiah – but that was not the conclusive argument in Paul's mind. The conclusive argument was simply this: Jesus had been crucified. A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms because Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Thus when Paul was confronted by people who publicly affirmed that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah, his course was clear: they were guilty of blasphemy, and should be dealt with accordingly. A crucified man could not conceivably be the elect one of God.
What had to change in Saul was the way he saw the world.
In our passage, Paul finds himself on the ground, thrown there by a blinding light – and Paul hears this voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he asks, “who are you, Lord?” His response doesn't necessarily mean yet that he knows who is talking to him. It is clear respect and even an indication that Paul knows that God is involved, but he still does not know who he is talking to him.
Then Paul gets a response that had to shock him to the core. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
The man crucified on the cross . . . was now speaking to him. Paul is given some instructions of what to do . . . but as he rises he cannot see, but is blind.
Often in the Bible we have what are often referred to as lived or acted parables. Someone's life has events that teach them too. Paul's blinding shows how blind he was to a true understanding of Jesus and God. As he was physically blinded to the world and needed a guide to Demascus, he was blinded to the spiritual world as it truly existed.
But as God simultaneously communicates with Ananias and they end up together in Demascus, we get this powerful ending to Paul's story. Beginning at verse 17, the end of our text says, “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”
“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized . . .”
In the Old Testament the Israelites were told that the males of the households should be circumcised as a symbol of their allegiance to God. But God made it clear to them that this physical act was not in itself what he wanted. He wanted it to be a physical symbol of an inward change. In Deuteronomy 30:6 it says, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”
God talks about circumcising the hearts of his people. If you remember Stephen repeats this language in his final speech to the Sanhedrin before he is killed. Stephen says to his Jewish accusers, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
On the road to Demascus, Paul recognizes for the first time that his physical adherence to the law and his outward zeal for God did not mean that he had allowed the Holy Spirit to cut through his heart. And as the scales fell from his eyes and he could physically see . . . he could also see a new reality – a new understanding of the world with Jesus as the Messiah and savior.
God had changed him and Paul knew it. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am . . .” Paul knew it had been God . . . alongside the faith of Ananias that changed his heart.
This is our final point. God changed Paul’s heart. Paul makes this very clear in Galatians 1, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
Ananias helped in the process, but God changed Paul’s heart. Often when we think about our role in sharing what we know to be true about God . . . we are overwhelmed with the thought of convincing someone of the truth of the Gospel. We get anxious and wonder whether we will sound dumb. And so we hold back. Or when people don’t change, even though we have made loving efforts, we feel guilty that we are not good enough. But Paul’s conversion reminds us that though we have a vital and essential role in sharing the Gospel – ultimately we won’t and can’t change someone. We can only participate or help in the work that God must do in circumcising hearts.
It is sin to do nothing. And it is sin to do everything as if someone’s salvation depended upon us.
No one is beyond the reach of God. Everyone is capable of believing with a right understanding. And ultimately it will be God that transforms hearts with our help . . . not the other way around.
Bruce, F.F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Witherington III, Ben. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing