(Pastor starts wearing black.)
There are some things about God that amaze me. I don’t just mean the creation of the world. I mean, I’ve traveled all over. I’ve walked the deserts of Asia minor. I’ve hiked the mountains of Turkey. I’ve swam in the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve been all over the known world, now, and I have to say that it’s beautiful. There’s really some lovely things to see. It’s so appropriate to be amazed at God’s creation. It’s just like my favorite writer, King David, once said, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Yeah, I’m a big fan of nature. I think it’s pretty amazing, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. When you think about things that amaze you about God you might think of delicious food, friendships, lovely music—you might even say, “Hey, Paul, what about babies!” And I agree, those things are truly wonderful, but they aren’t the most wonderful things.
Here’s what I think is even better. Have you ever had one of those days where you feel really weighed down—a day when your heart is heaven, your guts feel tight, you’re on edge, you feel dirty? I had days like that. I had days when I felt like I could just never match up, and to be honest. That’s exactly what you should expect if you’re trying to earn your way to heaven. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not doing that anymore, but for a very long time I was. I thought that there was one thing that God wanted: obedience. He wanted me to take his commandments and follow them exactly, and if I did that, one day God would accept me into heaven.
I can say, with a little bit of bragging, that I was the best at it. No one tried harder. I know every single one of God’s commandments. I obeyed every single festival and holiday in the Bible. I made sure that I gave 10% of everything I had to God. And then, I ramped it up. I decided I could do even more if I became a Pharisee. Do you know what a Pharisee is? It’s like a type of teacher. In my time, if you go to a Jewish synagogue, it’s probably run by the Pharisees. But, do you know what the Pharisees were best known for? Keeping God’s law. And not only keeping it, but they went so far as to add some more laws so that you wouldn’t even come close to breaking God’s law. I’ll give you an example. You know the second commandment, right? You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God? We wanted to be so sure that we wouldn’t use God’s name wrong, that we stopped saying his name altogether. They thought it would pretty hard to break that commandment, if they never actually used his name.
And still, I took it one step further. I didn’t just become a normal Pharisee, I became the strictest kind I could. I learned from a Pharisee who was so famous and well-respected that everyone in the whole world knew him, a man named Gamaliel. But you know what? I didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough that I should keep all of God’s laws, or be a Pharisee, or keep them better than everyone else, I wanted to show beyond the shadow of a doubt, to God, to other Jews, and maybe even to myself, that I could be sure I would be saved.
There were this new group of people running around. They were mostly Jews, but they weren’t really Jews. It’s hard to explain, and to be honest, I didn’t understand it at first. I thought they were just a bunch of fringe lunatics. We got those sometimes in Jerusalem. They called themselves, The Way. They met in the temple, they met in synagogues, and they acted a lot like Jews. As far as I could tell, they followed these twelve men around, who taught them from the Bible. But there was something off about them to me. It wasn’t until I heard the preaching of a guy named Stephen that I was able to put my finger on it.
I still remember that day. They had brought Stephen out into the open, and everyone surrounded him holding large rocks. I knew what was coming. This man had obviously committed some terrible sin, and if I had to guess it was probably blasphemy. Blasphemy is when someone says something untrue about God, or claims to be God, or in somewhere misuses God’s name. Do you remember what I said about the second commandment before? This Stephen had done something that the Pharisees hated. He had said that God had come to earth, as a man, and that God had died, and that we the Jews were the ones who put him to death. He said a lot of things that day, but one thing was clear. He believed that God was some guy named Jesus. I had heard of Jesus before, but he was dead. Yeah, there were rumors going around that he had been resurrected, but those were just rumors. Dead people stay dead.
They killed Stephen. I didn’t participate, aside from holding people cloaks for them. It gave me some time to think. I saw an in for myself, a way that I could advance and become the Pharisee of Pharisees. These members of the Way, these Christians, they needed to be dealt with. If they were preaching this sort of message, and growing as fast as they were, somebody needed to deal with it. And I was that man. I set about it with zeal. I rounded up Christians. I beat them. I arrested them and threw them in prison. Do you know why? Because this was the way I could live with myself. At least I wasn’t a blasphemer like they were. At least I followed God’s commands. No one was working harder than me to get into heaven. It was the only way I could start to feel good about myself.
But it never really stuck. Maybe you’ve tried this yourself. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself feel better. I think that people do this all the time. Especially when sin is involved, we tend to try and find a way to fix the issue, or to hide it, or to pretend it isn’t real. We try to do anything we possibly can to avoid acknowledging and confessing that sin. In my later years, I’ve even noticed that Christians do this sometimes. They can come to churches like this. They can stand in front of God and confess their sins, but you know what? In their hearts, they still hold on to them. They think that God can take care of some of their sins, and they can take care of the rest. Or maybe they think that if they start doing enough good stuff, then they can make up for their sin.
One time I sat down with a man in Philippi. His name was Shlomo, and I tried to help him see this. I told him not to hid his sin. Don’t try and pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t try and cover it up. I remember I even had a great analogy for it. Think about mold. If you have something that is gross and moldy, and you cover it up, it just gets worse. The mold spreads. It starts to stink. Some people treat their sin like that. They think that if they can just keep it hidden, everything will be okay. But Shlomo needed to know that wasn’t the case. Sin will rot and mold. It festers. If you choose to coddle your sin, that’s what will happen. Do you struggle with that? Is there a sin that you are coddling? Don’t do that. Bring it out into the light. Let Jesus kill it.
That’s what happened to me. Maybe you already know the story. I’ve told it so many times I can’t remember who I have told it to. But I was going to a city called Damascus. In fact, I was going there to arrest more Christians. But as I went along, I suddenly found myself on the ground. I was blinded by this bright light, and a voice thundered. As I looked up into the sky, I saw a man, and he asked me a question. He said, “Saul, Saul,” that was what I was known as back then, rather than Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” And I was shocked. Who was this person? He obviously wasn’t a normal guy, if he was up in the sky, glowing and shining with heavenly radiance. He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
To be honest, it was too much for me. I thought Jesus was dead. I thought that he was a normal, dead person. Yet, here he shone like God from heaven, and that’s when it clicked for me, I think. Imagine the turn around that happened in my mind as I realized that these Christians had been right all along. God really had come to earth. He really had become a man, and I was speaking to him. This whole time I had been the one speaking incorrectly about God—I was the blasphemer. So many more things happened to me than I have time to tell you about right now. But, I’m sure that they’ll be written down in some book someday.
Here’s the last thing I want to say. That same Jesus Christ, he looked down on me and saw a persecutor, a blasphemer, and a violent man. In fact, despite all my good works, despite the fact that I thought I was the best person of all people, the one most deserving to get into heaven, I saw that it was the opposite. I was the worst person. I was the worst sinner of them all. Here’s the thing that amazes me about God. Jesus looked down on that kind of person, and he still showed me mercy. He still saved me.
(Pastor removes black robe.)
If there’s anything that I want you to take away from this message, it’s the “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Not the people who try hard, not the people who are good enough, not the people who think they can get to heaven on their own. He saves sinners—even the worst one, me. You’ve heard my story today. You know that I am an example of the kind of person God saves. The worst sinners. The ugliest ones. He saves me. Believe that. If Jesus saves me, then he saves you, too. Maybe you think you are the worst sinner, maybe you struggle to feel forgiven. Maybe every day is hard as you wrestle with your sin. But, you know what. Christ saves the worst sinner. Believe that Christ has saved you. Everyone who believes in that message has eternal life. So believe it. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).