Changed For a Purpose

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. Acts 13:1-12.

Saul and Barnabas did not just remain in Antioch as prophets in residence. The other prophets sent them out, by the Holy Spirit, to do the work for which they had been called. And when they were opposed by a false prophet, Saul (now also called Paul) pronounced a punishment that made the man temporarily blind. Now they knew who the real prophet was.

This is also the time where we start calling Saul, Paul. Not every disciple got a new name, although some did. Simon became Peter. Levy the tax collector became Matthew. And now Saul the Pharisee and violent persecutor of the church became a world shaking church planter. Perhaps the new name came because of the radical degree to which they had been transformed. Levy had been a much loathed tax collector, a sellout, a collaborator with the Romans. Simon was a loud mouth fisherman who was quick on the draw with his sword. And Saul’s reputation kept the rest of the church at arms length at first.

Several years ago, in a Good News Club at Crystal River Elementary, there was an ill-behaved little boy named James. One day he responded to the invitation to receive Jesus and become a child of God. A couple weeks later he went to one of our adult volunteers and asked if they could call him John from now on. He said he didn’t want to be James anymore, because James was not a good boy.

Jesus did not come and die on a cross just so we could get away with our sin. He did it to change our lives, empower us, and send us on a mission. It was not His plan to simply tag along with you as you went on your own mission. He has a calling, a mission, a part to play for each of us.

The Great Turnaround

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Acts 9:1-9.

It doesn’t usually happen this way, but it’s good to know that it can. And it might happen more often if we obeyed Christ’s commands to love our enemies and to pray for them. He did not tell us that to make us more pious, but to bring the power of God on our persecutors for their good. And that is what happened to Saul, who would go from venomous persecutor of the church to one of the central figures of world history, and writer of a large portion of the New Testament, which would transform whole nations. We now know him as the Apostle Paul.

Our nation is not lacking for villains at this time. In fact, the villains are in charge. Rather than merely lamenting their foul deeds, we must intercede on their behalf, making war with the demonic forces that oppress them. As Paul would later write, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

It’s not enough to criticize and complain about the wicked. We must win them to Christ, and that will require the hard work of prayer, after we get our own hearts right.