To The Cross

Bible Book: Acts  9
Subject: Cross; Paul, The Apostle; Christian Living
Series: The Way of the Cross
INTRODUCTION

When Jesus wanted to teach people that He is the Bread of Life He gave them the sign of the feeding of the 5000 men, plus women and children. When He sought to teach them that He is the Resurrection and Life He raised Lazarus from the dead. When He wanted to teach His disciples what it meant to follow Him He said, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34‑35, HCSB).

What better example can we find of cross-bearing than Saul of Tarsus - Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles? There are many people who believe that Paul lived the Gospel more fully and sacrificially as any other person ever has. Paul, who called himself the least of the apostles, would never have made a statement like that, but if you would know what it means to bear the cross, there could hardly be a better example. I would like to know how many of those men who seem to have the attitude that Christianity is some how a religion for the weak, for sissies, or for women and children, could stand up to the suffering and sacrifices of Paul. The prince of this world would have every man believe that those who are totally committed to any religion are weak, when in reality many or them would tremble in their tracks at the thought of telling a child that they love Jesus.

If you see a six-pointed star you call it the Star of David. If you see the Star of David you realize it is a symbol for Israel. So it is with various religions or nations. For example, the hammer and sickle was the emblem of the old Soviet Union. The best known symbol of Christianity is the cross, though it would seem as appropriate to use the open tomb, but that might be less attractive on a gold chain. The cross represents death. It was an instrument of execution, just as the gallows, electric chair, or gas chamber was an instrument of death. The cross meant death of Jesus and when He commands us to take up our cross and follow Him, He is not dealing in generalities, such as saying, “find a cross and follow Me.” This clearly teaches that there is a cross for each of us, a cross which we must bear. In this series on the cross, I would like to remind you of a few simple facts. First, there is a cross for you. Second, I would remind you of the high cost of cross-bearing. Third, I would like to remind you of the blessings that come to those who, like Paul, bear that cross without compromise.

Let me stress a very important point here: the cross was not a beautiful, gold symbol. It was crude, cruel, ugly, menacing, ominous. It was an object upon which condemned criminals died a cruel death. Jesus, however, converted the cross into a symbol of victory.

A. W. Tozer was right on target when he said:

 “I am afraid we modern Christians are long on talk and short on conduct. We use the language of power but our deeds are the deeds of weakness. We settle for words in religion because deeds are too costly. It is easier to pray, "Lord, help me to carry my cross daily" than to pick up the cross and carry it; but since the mere request for help to do something we do not actually intend to do has a certain degree of religious comfort, we are content with repetition of the words.”

Now, let us take a look at one person who was willing to take up his cross and follow our Lord, regardless of the cost. The irony of all is that this was the most unlikely candidate for cross bearing.

I. SAUL WAS BEING PREPARED FOR THE CROSS BEFORE HE CAME TO THE CROSS.

A. He Was From a Strict Hebrew Family.

1) He was a Hellenistic Jew. He grew up in the city of Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia (Acts 9:11). A Hellenistic Jew was one who had grown up in a Gentile land that, in spite of the fact that Rome was the world power of the day, was still under the influence of Greek language and culture. What this meant is that Paul would be able to move into the Gentile world much more comfortably than a Palestinian Jew, like Peter or John. They would become involved in the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman world, but it was young Saul of Tarsus who was called to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was uniquely prepared for that work. Peter and John often labored where Paul had planted.

2) He was a strict Hebrew. This means a lot more than saying that he was a Jew. There were a lot of Hellenistic Jews who lived and worked in Gentile lands, who did not strictly follow the Mosaic Law. Young Saul surpassed all his peers in the observance of the Law, both as a child growing up in Tarsus, and later as young Pharisee who sat at the feet of the highly respected Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law in Jerusalem. Listen to what Paul says about that in his own words:

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you.

“Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh— although I once had confidence in the flesh too. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.

“But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:1‑7, HCSB).

Jewish readers would understand that when he called himself “a Hebrew born of Hebrews,” he was saying that when it came to the Levitical Law, he was among the most strict adherents anywhere. Even among the Pharisees he stood out for his religious zeal.

3) He could boast of his religious pedigree. He had grown up outside Palestine, but he had grown up in a strict Hebrew family and he had, probably at great price and certainly with great commitment, observed the Law as strictly as if he had been in Jerusalem. When he asked to address Jewish mob at the temple, from whom the Roman commander Claudius Lysius had rescued him, he addressed them in Hebrew, their native language: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense before you.” When they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even quieter” (Acts 22:1-2).

4) He was deeply religious. As a child, young Saul would have attended the synagogue school in Tarsus. Any city that had as many as ten Jewish heads of families could have a synagogue, where people came together to worship on the Sabbath and where children were taught the Law during the week. From what we read of Saul, there is little doubt that he was an outstanding student. After all, when he graduated from synagogue school he went on to graduate school in Jerusalem where he studied at the feet of Gamaliel, the esteemed teacher of the Law.

B. We Can Only Speculate About His Early Life.

1) That he had a brilliant mind is obvious. A politician would declare that his much learning had made him mad. Peter would claim that it was hard for him to follow Paul’s writings. He was an intellectual, and though he could communicate with the average man or woman on the street, he could match wits with the greatest philosophers in the world and then be invited to address them on them on Mars Hill in Athens.

2) That he was the product of the local synagogue is obvious. Paul knew the Law. He would not have been in the school of Gamaliel if he had not learned the Law. He would never have been accepted as a leader of the persecution of the saints if he had not excelled in the Jewish religion. After he came to know the Lord he continued to observed the Law so that he would not be a hindrance to others.

3) He may have studies in other schools in Tarsus. He not only grew up using Hebrew, he also had more than a working knowledge of the Greek language. He understood Greek philosophy. He understood the Greek and Roman cultures. Saul of Tarsus possessed perhaps the ideal combination of intellect, common sense, courage, commitment, and tenacity of purpose necessary for his unique ministry. If there are one talent people, five talent people, and ten talent people, where would you put Paul? Perhaps a twenty talent man?

I have known a lot of talented people. I have known some very intelligent people. I have known some people who had the combination of training, experience, and wisdom to guide a major denomination as one would steer a ship at sea. I watched Dr. Jimmy Draper do that as president of LifeWay Christian Resources. I am watching Dr. David Hankins do that as the Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. I have also known a few people whom the Lord used to sort nudge that ship back on course when it drifted. There are more of those than one might imagine.

General Dutch Shoffner (Ret. Three Star) has helped me to understand military history, methods, protocol, training, and procedure better than I ever had before. I had talked with my friend, Col. James L. Yates, about the military many times, but there were questions that never came to mind until I became acquainted with General Shoffner. I had asked him about a general I had met a number of years earlier. This man was very impressive and it was obvious that he loved the Lord. Dutch had known him and pointed out that this man was not brilliant, but he was well trained by the best army in the world and that our army is the only army in the history of the world to have a training program for general officers. On a number of occasions, I noted the distinction General Shoffner made between brilliance and training. I can testify to the fact that General Shoffner is both brilliant and well trained. After he retired he served as a senior vice-president with Lockheed-Martin for ten years. My sons and I have joked about the friend who said of another person, “He ain’t no rocket surgeon.” How is that for mixing metaphors? I know Dutch is no “rocket surgeon” but it is amazing to think what God has done with a country boy from Oklahoma. I know something of his background because for a number of years his brother John was my hunting and fishing buddy, as well as a deacon in the church I served.

Paul was brilliant. He was well educated. He was practical. He was courageous. I don’t know how many times I have heard someone say, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the greatest preacher since Paul.” An elderly man once grabbed R. G. Lee’s hand and pulled it behind his neck and said, “Now, you hand has been where Spurgeon’s hand has been. Spurgeon baptized me.” Okay, I shook R. G. Lee’s hand, so....!

Spurgeon was in such demand that he did not get to pursue the educational opportunities he probably would have preferred. Yet, Dr. Leo Eddleman once told me, “If you want to learn the English language read Spurgeon.” Dr. Eddleman read one sermon by Spurgeon each morning, five days a week, for several years. Whether we mention Spurgeon, Thomas Chalmers, or Jonathan Edwards, the standard by which other preachers compare them is Paul. He was uniquely prepared to bear the cross before he came to the cross.

C. Young Saul sat at the feet of Judaism ’s Greatest Teachers in Jerusalem.

1) He studied the Scripture. He was a student of the Law. It is doubtful that many of us could imagine the rigid schedule the young student followed as a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel. He had spent much of his life studying the Law before going to Jerusalem. There, his studies would have been very intensive and exhaustive.

2) He was a strict Pharisee. When he addressed the mob in Jerusalem after his rescue (he was not arrested, but he was treated like it!), he said:

“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense before you.” When they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even quieter. He continued, “I am a Jewish man, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and educated according to the strict view of our patriarchal law (Acts 22:1‑3).

“Brothers and fathers” were titles of respect a Jewish man would use when addressing other Jewish man. He identifies himself with them, not with Gentiles here. Saul may have been a Hellenistic Jew, but in many ways he outstripped his contemporaries in “Jewishness.” He was a strict Pharisee.

II. SAUL WAS A BITTER ENEMY OF THE CROSS.

A. A Hellenistic Jew, He Was More Pious Than Most Palestinian Jews.

1) He surpassed his Palestinian contemporaries in zeal.

“He continued, ‘I am a Jewish man, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and educated according to the strict view of our patriarchal law. Being zealous for God, just as all of you are today, I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women in jail, as both the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me” (Acts 22:3‑4).

2) In Jerusalem, he had been known as a strict Pharisee.

“All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem. They had previously known me for quite some time, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4‑5).

B. Saul Became a Leader in the Persecution of Christians.

1) In Jerusalem, reports of this new “Way” fanned the flames of his religious zeal. This new “Way” was not yet called Christianity. Believer would be called Christians first in Antioch of Syria, and believe me, that name was not intended as an endorsement of Christ. It was a term of derision.

“In fact, I myself supposed it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. This I actually did in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. In all the synagogues I often tried to make them blaspheme by punishing them. Being greatly enraged at them, I even pursued them to foreign cities” (Acts 26:9‑11).

Picture the zeal of many young men in the Middle East today who become enraged when there is any report of an offense against their religion. If the Iraqi army tries to arrest a Muslim cleric in Baghdad and the Arab news networks throughout the region declare that American soldiers tried to go into their mosque. Thousands of enraged young men hit the streets to demonstrate, or even worse.

2) Leaders of this new “Way” were attracting a lot of attention. James, the brother of John, had been martyred in A. D. 44, the first apostle to die for Christ. Peter, John, and James the half-brother of Jesus were leaders in the church in Jerusalem. Paul writes in Galatians that those three men were recognized as pillars of the church. Paul would have heard a lot about early believers in Jerusalem.

3) To young Saul, this new movement could destroy Judaism. Again, we only have to watch the news to see his intense religious zeal can become in the Middle East. In fact, when you watch pictures of wild street demonstrations by Palestinians against Israel you have to wonder if these great mobs of young men ever work. According to some reports, they are supported by other Islamic nations so that they can harass Israel constantly.

4) The more Jewish leaders persecuted “the Way”, the more it grew. That is a principle Paul could not have appreciated as a young Pharisee and student in Jerusalem. Yet, it was the persecution that forced many Christians to leave Jerusalem and settle in other places, taking with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus had given His church the Great Commission, and then in Acts, He predicts that once the Holy Spirit comes upon them, they will carry out His Great Commission, first in Jerusalem, and then they would reach out to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the world.

It took persecution to get them to leave Jerusalem. It took persecution to fuel the engine of the Reformation. Persecution is working in China today. Right now there are more Christians in China than Communists! Seven percent of the people are Christians and only five percent are Communists. Of course the Communists control the government and they have done everything imaginable to stamp our religion. The more the church is persecuted the more it will grow. You want to know what it will take for another Great Awakening in America? I don’t want to go through it, and neither do you. Yet, if persecution comes, and we may well be moving in that direction, the glowing coals of evangelism will be fanned into fresh flames. No power on earth can stand up against the persecuted church! That is because the church will be purged of those who are lost, the hypocrites, and those who are walking in the flesh. Those who remain faithful will value the cross above jewelry and the Kingdom above society.

5) Saul raised the persecution to a new level. In everything he did, he seemed to raise it to new levels. In his own words, he said, “In all the synagogues I often tried to make them blaspheme by punishing them. Being greatly enraged at them, I even pursued them to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11).

C. We See Saul’s Involvement in the Persecution at the Stoning of Stephen

1) We meet Stephen in Acts 7. He was one of the seven men set aside by the church to meet a pressing need. The office to which those seven men were elected is the biblical basis for the office of deacon, men set aside to serve the Lord in His church.

“Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56).

“Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:57‑60).

After Saul met the Lord on the road to Damascus, I have a feeling he heard the prayer of Stephen over and over when he closed his eyes at night. We would like to think that he would have heard those words before he was saved, but sometimes we give the lost soul too much credit. There are people who sin to the point that they are past feeling remorse or guilt. In Paul’s case, in his religious zeal, he persecuted the church until it exploded all over the area, and then to other counties.

When we read Paul’s personal testimony about the death of Stephen and the persecution of believers after that, you know that Paul never forgot the fanaticism with which he had persecuted the church.

2) Saul was instrumental in spreading the persecution of the church.”

 

“Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. But devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply over him” (Acts 8:1-2).

D. Saul Assumed a Leadership Role in the Persecution of the Church.

1) Saul persecutes believers with religious fanaticism.

“Saul, however, was ravaging the church, and he would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison” (Acts 8:1‑3).

Again, let me remind you of the fanaticism of great crowds of young Muslims who fill the streets in any city in the Middle East to protest, throw stones, burn, and even kill anyone they see as a threat to that which they consider holy. Paul was eaten up with that kind of fanaticism, though controlled by the Law to some degree. Yes, he knew the Ten Commandments. Yes, he knew that it is a sin to commit murder. But that is not what he thought he was doing. He was leading in a religious purging. He was fighting for God. Everything he was doing, he told himself, was for the Lord.

2) Success fed his rage.

“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1‑2, HCSB).

III. ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS, SAUL MET THE LORD.

A. On The Road to Damascus to Persecute Christians, Paul met Christ.

1) On the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus came to the Cross.

“As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

“Who are You, Lord?” he said.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

“The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. He was unable to see for three days, and did not eat or drink” (Acts 9:3‑9).

2) Paul came to the cross, and then he came under the cross. In my youth, I often heard people speak of the Damascus Road experience. It seemed that many people lacked assurance because they could not point to a Damascus Road kind of experience. This was unique. People are saved by believing in Jesus Christ, not by being struck blind!

The Holy Spirit was sent to convict people of sin and to draw them to the cross. Here, Jesus Himself intervenes to call Saul of Tarsus to salvation and they to service. In a sense, Jesus called him to the cross, and then placed him under the cross, a cross he would bear as few, if any, have ever borne it.

B. In Damascus, the Apostle Paul took up his cross and followed Christ.

1) In Damascus, Saul learned what the cross of Christ was going to mean to him.

“Now in Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. And the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Here I am, Lord!” he said.

“Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord said to him, “to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, since he is praying there. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and placing his hands on him so he may regain his sight” (Acts 8:11-12).

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name” (8:13-14).

“But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before Gentiles, kings, and the sons of Israel. I will certainly show him how much he must suffer for My name!” (8:15-16).

“So Ananias left and entered the house. Then he placed his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” At once something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized” (8:17-18).

Specifically, the Lord appointed Saul of Tarsus to be an apostle, taking the Gospel to Gentiles, kings, and th Children of Israel. He would take up his cross and follow his Lord, preaching, teaching, suffering, and finally dying for the Lord.

2) The persecutor becomes the persecuted.

Saul of Tarsus, who had raged against the cross, came to the cross while on way to Damascus to persecute followers of Christ. After Saul came under the power of the cross, he discovered what it meant to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

“Saul was with the disciples in Damascus for some days. Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:19-20).

“But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name, and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (9:21).

“But Saul grew more capable, and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through [an opening in] the wall” (9:22-25).

C. Saul Spent Three Years Studying Theology Before Returning to Jerusalem.

“I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before me; instead I went to Arabia and came back to Damascus” (Gal. 1:17).

“Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas, and I stayed with him 15 days. 19 But I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 Now in what I write to you, I’m not lying. God is my witness” (Gal 1:18‑20).

Paul does not say that he spent three years in the desert of Arabia, nor does he tell us what he was doing there. Some believe he spent three years studying the Scripture before he began the ministry to which he was called. Others believe he spent most of those three years preaching and teaching in Damascus. I believe he probably needed a significant amount of time to go back through all he had learned from the Scripture and then related that to Jesus. I also doubt that it took a young man with Saul’s zeal three years to stir up opposition in Damascus. We are told in Acts 9:22, that Paul was becoming more effective in proclaiming the Gospel and in debating the Jewish authorities.

He may have spent a significant amount of time in Arabia, then returned to Damascus for some time before going back to Jerusalem. If there is one thing I am sure of, it is that Saul was doing what the Lord wanted him to do.

CONCLUSION

Jesus declared in John 12:32, “As for Me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all [people] to Myself.” He said this to signify what kind of death He was about to die (John 12:32‑33). We can take no credit for going to the cross because no one goes to the cross on his own. We must be drawn to the cross by the Lord Himself. He drew Paul to the cross. Then Paul made the decision to take up his cross and follow Him.

First, Saul of Tarsus had been the enemy of the cross. Then he met the Lord on the Road to Damascus - he came to the cross. Then, he came under the cross - he took up his cross and followed Jesus. Following Jesus did not make Paul healthy, wealthy, and wise. Okay, I am sure it made him wise, but the Lord never promised anyone who takes up the cross a life of ease, comfort, and the riches of the world.

For Jesus, the cross was an instrument of death. For you and me, the cross should remind us of the price Jesus paid for our salvation. Then, it should remind us that when we take up our cross and follow Him, He determines where we will bear it. He had given us the Holy Spirit to empower us to take up the cross and follow Jesus. When you take up the cross and follow Jesus we must remember that the cross is a symbol of death. It means a death to the flesh, death to the world, death to self that we might live for the Lord, serve Him and glorify His name.

I must needs go home by the way of the cross,

There’s no other way but this;

I shall ne’er get sight of the gates of light,

If the way of the cross I miss.

I must needs go on in the blood sprinkled way,

The path that the Savior trod,

If I ever climb to the heights sublime,

Where the soul is at home with God.

Then I bid farewell to the way of the world,

To walk in it never more;

For the Lord says, “come,” and I seek my home,

Where he waits at the open door.

The way of the cross leads home,

The way of the cross leads home;

It is sweet to know as I onward go,

The way of the cross leads home.