At the beginning of our last lesson, we learned that there is one very determined Pharisee named Saul who has launched a very aggressive assault against the believers in and around Jerusalem. This Saul is the same fellow who you know as the apostle Paul, and we’re going to refer to him as Paul from now on to minimize confusion. Luke will continue to refer to Paul as Saul until a certain point in his letter when he’ll make the switch.
Now Paul is so effective in his manhunt that nearly all of the believers have fled from the city. This tells us that Paul isn’t doing a half-hearted job. He’s gathering intel. He’s planning his moves. He’s nailing his targets.
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t have a huge army of fellow Pharisees supporting him. In fact we’ll learn that he’s pretty much a one man show. Certainly he’s got at least a few companions—perhaps some muscle that he’s hired to join him. But when Paul finally ceases his attack, there will suddenly be peace for the Church, and this should strike us as a very odd thing. After all, Jesus was a major threat to all Jewish leaders, and His miracle working disciples have greatly embarrassed the Sadducees multiple times right inside the Temple. So why aren’t all of the leaders in Israel making more of an effort to exterminate the Christians? Well, consider how long it took them to get rid of Jesus. Certainly the Sadducees and Pharisees view the Christians as a threat, but they’re also lazy and too focused on their own careers to want to deal with the problem themselves. Whenever there is trouble in a community of folks, we often find a lot of stalling around while everyone waits for someone else to take care of it. As soon as Paul steps up, all of the other preachers can feel free to sit back and relax. Let Paul be the one to get the blame if things go wrong. Let him spend his own time, effort, and resources. As long as he’s taking care of it, no one else has to get their hands dirty. Paul is a very handy guy in the eyes of the Jewish preachers. He’s young, he’s motivated, and he seems to have endless energy. Thanks to him, the Jesus fans have left Jerusalem and there are no more scenes being made in the Temple. How nice.
But wait—what’s in it for Paul? Why is he going to all of this trouble? Why is he so personally invested in stomping out the Jesus movement? Well, true Judaism is a monotheistic religion, and Jesus claimed to be Yahweh’s equal. So perhaps Paul is so deeply committed to Yahweh and so offended by Yahweh followers promoting polytheism that he’s being fueled by righteous anger. Today some Christians say that Paul was always passionate for God, he was just honestly confused by the Jesus thing at first. And yet, no, this theory really doesn’t work.
Today in the Church, we worship Paul. Let’s just get that out there and stop pretending that our blatant idolatry of this man is not offensive to our Gods, because it is. It is extremely offensive. And while we pray to St. Paul, name churches and schools after him, and claim that his writings were inerrant and God-breathed, we also circulate all kinds of deceptions about him. We say he was hardcore committed when he so wasn’t. We say he had a deep understanding of truth, when he so didn’t. We say he was a brilliant theologian, when really he’s an arrogant, blaspheming fool. And while we’re busy exalting a man who so openly bashes on both Christ and Yahweh, we circulate other rumors about him as well.
Many Christians erroneously believe that at some point non-Christian Saul became Christian Paul. The Saul to Paul name change reminds of how the apostle Peter was always called Simon until Jesus gave him a new name. When Jesus rechristened Peter, He did so for spiritual reasons.
“Now I say to you that you are Petros (a little rock) and upon this Petra (a large, unmovable rock foundation) I will build My Church, and all the powers of Hades will not conquer it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18)
Back in Lesson 55, we learned about how this passage is commonly misinterpreted to mean that Jesus said He was going to build His Church on the rock Peter, when in reality Jesus said that the Church would be built on Jesus. Jesus refers to two different kinds of rocks in this passage—a point which our Bible translators hide from us. Jesus essentially called Simon a piece of gravel while He called Himself a large, foundation stone. But He also spoke of giving Peter the keys of Heaven, which was a symbolic way of saying that Peter was accepted into Yahweh’s kingdom. So we feel good about Peter’s salvation because of how Jesus spoke to him, and the Simon to Peter name change communicated Jesus’ personal acceptance of Peter. Because of this story, many Christians think God did a similar thing with Paul. Well, no, He didn’t.
Paul never had his name changed. Paul always had two names. Paul was a Benjaminite Jew whose Jewish name was Saul. But Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, which conveniently allowed Paul to inherit that citizenship at birth. The Romanized version of Saul was Paul. So Paul had both a Jewish name and a Roman name. This is like a guy named John being called Juan when he’s among Spanish speakers. This dual name business was a very common custom in these times, and being the clever politician that he is, Paul switches which name he uses depending on who he’s talking to. When Paul is hanging out with the Pharisees, he naturally goes by his Jewish name of Saul. But when he’s campaigning among Gentiles, he dusts off his Roman name of Paul. The point is this: God never rechristened Paul. God never declared His acceptance of Paul. God never said Paul was “in.” Paul says that, but Paul says a lot of other things that make it quite clear that he was very out of touch with God on a soul level.
As a Pharisee, Paul was not just one of the commoners. He was a somebody. He had received special training in Scriptures, and he had a title which earned him the instant respect of Jewish commoners. Who was more qualified to preach about God—a fisherman like Peter or a Pharisee like Paul? Peter and all of the other nobody apostles would have said that Paul was more qualified. Just as a pastor always outranks a non-pastor in the eyes of Christian laypeople today, so also the title Pharisee gained a man instant clout among Jews. Understanding the social and spiritual supremacy that Paul held in the eyes of common Jews is going to help us understand why he was able to climb the social ranks of Christendom so fast. The first wave of Christians were mostly Jewish, and the Jews admired the Pharisees. All Paul had to do was convince the Christians that he was one of them, and he would gain an instant following for himself. But he hasn’t had this aha moment yet, nor is he at all interested in being seen as a Jesus follower. Instead, he wants to step up his efforts to stomp the Jesus movement into the ground.
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill Jesus’ followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. (Acts 9:1-2)
The high priest is all too pleased to give Paul the documents he is asking for—documents which will essentially intimidate Jewish commoners into betraying their fellow Jews. Remember that religion and government were inseparable in New Testament Israel. The high priest was a very powerful politician, judge, and law enforcer. Messing with him was bad news.
So what is Paul’s motivation here? Why is he on such a bender about trashing the Christians? It’s all about power. Paul is a very clever and ambitious guy. He’s also extremely greedy. He isn’t content to just be one of many Pharisees. He wants to make a name for himself. He wants to climb the ranks of power in Israel and perhaps even land a seat for himself on the Sanhedrin, which was a parallel to the American Supreme Court. Paul wants glory, power, and a boatload of worship for himself. Why not? He’s the fabulous Paul.
Ethnic Jews were raised from the cradle to be patriotic little bigots who considered themselves to be Yahweh’s favorites. But Paul is not just Jewish, he’s also a man, and that adds another layer of arrogance to his personality. Jewish men were taught to view themselves as superior to women in all areas, including spirituality. Every time Paul goes to the Temple, he’s gets to go closer to Yahweh’s Presence than Jewish women and Gentiles. Getting told “you’re special and you’re better in the eyes of God” from day one is going to do things to a man’s ego. But now we have to add still another layer to the pile, because Paul is a Pharisee.
Pharisees didn’t just claim to be better than everyone else, they claimed to be perfect. Absolutely perfect. More perfect than the snooty Sadducees, and sinless in the eyes of Yahweh. As a Pharisee, Paul has no doubt he’s going to Heaven when he dies. He has no doubt that Yahweh thinks he’s fabulous. Paul has decided that he perfectly obeys all of Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. He has also decided that salvation is granted entirely through good works, not right soul attitudes, and since Paul considers himself to be behaviorally perfect, he doesn’t have to bother with things like sincere soul submission.
You have to understand Paul’s mindset, his Pharisaical theology, and his immeasurable arrogance before you can understand how totally out of touch this man was with Yahweh. Paul struts around acting like “the man” and telling himself that no one is more perfect than he is. He isn’t inwardly seeking Yahweh, he’s defying Him. Paul has no use for submission, because he’s already got Yahweh submitting to him. Yahweh is going to shower rewards onto Paul in Heaven. Paul’s going to be at the front of the line. Paul’s going to be applauded as more fabulous than all of the chumps around him. This is how Paul sees it. So is Paul threatened by Christians on a theological level? Not at all. Paul is just using the Christian crisis as a way to win big points with the high priest and to protect the turf he is hoping to rule over with greater and greater authority. Paul is as threatened by miracles as every other Jewish leader because miracles wow the commoners and then they stop being so easy to manipulate.
So, obviously we are not fans of the apostle Paul. And if you’ve been indoctrinated with the Church’s idolatrous awe of this man, then you’re going to be feeling quite shocked by now and wonder how we can justify painting one of your heroes in such a negative light. Well, it’s easy for us to justify this. In the Gospel books, Jesus provides us all with a plethora of insights into how Pharisees thought (see Lesson 62). And when we find a God as gracious and patient as Jesus referring to Pharisees as “children of Hell” and angrily accusing them over and over again of intentionally leading souls astray while they personally refused to submit to Yahweh, it’s going to be very hard to argue that Paul wasn’t a hardened spiritual rebel. For that, we would need to hear the man saying God honoring things and showing evidence of a real connection with God. Paul claims to have such a connection. In fact, he claims to have been personally educated by Jesus Christ.
Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12)
The problem with Paul claiming to be taught directly by Jesus is that Paul then goes on to make Jesus out to be a limited mortal who is currently locked in a battle with enemies who He cannot find a way to conquer. You see, according to Paul, Jesus has been temporarily assigned as manager over this earthly realm by Yahweh. But things are in a mess right now—there are all of these other rulers and authorities and powers that are giving Christ no end of trouble. And since Christ is such an incompetent wimp, He just can’t find a way to best this army of foes that is currently working against Him. But Paul is confident that someday, Christ will find a way to finally humble His enemies—even the most formidable power named Death. Then, as a reward for completing the task that Yahweh has assigned to Him, Christ will get fired as manager over this place and have to hand all of His power back to Yahweh, who is the only real God. Christ will then “be made subject to Yahweh,” because of course Yahweh is greater than Christ, and then everything will be fabulous. This is what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:25-28. In Romans 1:1-4, Paul says that Jesus didn’t even qualify as a “Son of God” until after Yahweh raised Him from the dead. In Ephesians 2:14-18, Paul says that Christ’s purpose in dying on a cross was to make peace between the Jews and the Gentiles and to reconcile them both to Yahweh. This isn’t at all why Christ said He died, and according to Yahweh, salvation has always been available to any Jew or Gentile who sincerely submits to Him. But Paul spews lies about both Christ and Yahweh all throughout his epistles, and at some point you need to face up to this reality and stop promoting Paul’s irreverent rot as “God-breathed.” No, Jesus really didn’t teach Paul to view Him like some struggling dolt up in Heaven who can’t figure out how to beat Death. And while Yahweh has always invited Gentiles to come to Him, Paul has the audacity to tell Gentile Christians that before Christ came, Yahweh wouldn’t have anything to do with them.
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the Covenants of the promise, without hope and without Yahweh in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13)
Well, no, Gentiles were never “without hope” nor were they were ever “without Yahweh.” But occasionally Paul likes to remind Gentiles that they have always been lesser in Yahweh’s eyes, because this is how deluded our “expert on Scriptures” is about what the Scriptures actually say.
While he will say things like “There is no favoritism with Yahweh” in Romans 2:11, Paul doesn’t really believe it, nor does he want Gentile believers to ever forget that they are inferior exiles who can’t really claim to belong to Yahweh’s Kingdom. And just to help Gentile believers remember their place, he comes up with a nasty little metaphor of branches in Romans 11. You see, there’s this glorious, carefully cultivated olive tree which represents the people Yahweh accepts, and naturally all of the branches that grow off of this tree are ethnic Jews. But since Paul can’t get around the fact that many of his fellow Jews are rejecting Christ and Yahweh and thus clearly on their way to Hell, he says that some of the branches of this fine tree have been broken off by Yahweh and temporarily set aside. And according to Paul, that’s the only way inferior Gentile believers ever had the chance of getting “grafted in” to the tree that represents Yahweh’s accepted people. It’s because some far better Jews were torn off the tree and rejected by Yahweh that these inferior Gentiles have now had the chance to be grafted in. Paul does a poor job of hiding his disapproval of this system, and he doesn’t want Gentile believers to stop feeling unworthy of being a part of Yahweh’s tree. He also refuses to accept that the ethnic Jews who Yahweh rejected will remain permanently rejected because, well, they’re ethnic Jews, and obviously God couldn’t really turn His back on the world’s best people.
For if you Gentiles were cut off from your native wild olive and against nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these Jews—who are the natural branches—be grafted back into their own olive tree? (Rom. 11:24)
See how it works? It was an unnatural thing for yuck Gentiles to be grafted into Yahweh’s tree—it went “against nature.” But ethnic Jews—well, they belong in Yahweh’s tree. Well, no, this business of teaching some believers to feel one down to others is absolute rot. In the days of Moses when He was giving His Old Covenant Laws, Yahweh specifically said that all believers were equal in His sight regardless of their ethnicity. Are you seeing the problem with saying that Paul’s teaching is “Divinely inspired”?
Once you take off those blinders of idolatry, it really is amazing how idiotic Paul talks. He even says that before Christ, Yahweh didn’t punish anyone’s sins.
Yahweh presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. Yahweh did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. (Rom. 3:25)
Really?? Because when we read the Old Testament, we find Yahweh saying that He’s going to flood the whole world because of sin. We find Him saying that the lovechild that David had with Bathsheba will die because of sin. We find Him killing scores of Israelites in the days of Moses because of sin. We find Him destroying the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, burning His Temple to the ground, starting famines, and wrecking economies all because of sin. Why did Yahweh destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did He send a demon to plague King Saul? Why did He ban Moses from the Promised Land? Why did He drive Adam and Eve out of Eden? Why did He strike King Nebuchadnezzar with insanity? Why did He have Queen Jezebel eaten by dogs? Why did He kill Jews for looking into His Ark of the Covenant? Why did He fry Aaron’s sons for bringing Him the wrong incense offering? Why did He turn Gehazi into a leper? Why did He have Jonah swallowed by a fish? Why did He turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt? According to Yahweh, these were all disciplinary acts which were direct responses to people’s sins. Oh, but Paul says that before Christ, Yahweh never punished sin. The man is an idiot who makes up total lies about our Gods, yet in the Church we hold him up as a fabulous spiritual role model. Are you seeing the problem?
How many times does a man have to rip on your Gods before you’ll begin to question his claim to be passing on direct revelations from Christ (see The Great Offense of Paul: Rejecting the Divinity of Christ)? Do you know that there are scores of prophets speaking in God’s Name today who are really on their way to Hell? Talk is meaningless, and your Gods hate idolatry. So it’s time to stop fawning over Paul and start doing some serious praying. You have three Almighty Gods making Themselves available to you 24/7. There is no excuse for you to just swallow whatever some created being says about Them without checking with Them yourself. You’re not going to get very far listening to church leaders who teach you to admire a man who is so spiritually obtuse that he actually thinks Yahweh never punished sin before Christ. If Paul hadn’t grown up being extensively educated on the Old Testament, that would be different. But this is not the case. And while he will try to impress Jews by throwing around a bunch of Old Testament quotations in his epistles, he lies his face off about what Yahweh actually said.
In his letters, Paul claims to have received direct revelations from Christ, and to have visited Heaven itself. Yet the man has such a low value of Christ that he actually boasts of how quickly he’d chuck Christ and Yahweh aside like so much garbage if he could see his own ethnic people receive salvation. In other words, ethnic Jews mean way more to Paul than his own Creators.
With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. (Rom. 9:1-3)
Wow, what an idiot. And we’re supposed to believe this man is saved as he publicly declares how much Yahweh and Christ don’t mean to him? If you’ve got your hackles up because we’re using such derogatory language about Paul, you need to take a hard look at where your loyalties lie and ask yourself why you think we should be downplaying the fact that Paul makes Jesus Christ out to be an incompetent dolt and Yahweh out to be such a chauvinist. Our Gods take issue with being intentionally misrepresented by people who go around claiming to be Their followers. When our Gods are angry, They don’t bother with diplomatic language, which is why you’ll find Yahweh comparing people to poop in the Old Testament and you’ll find Jesus saying in Revelation that the fickle devotion of Christians makes Him want to vomit. There is no room for “speaking the truth in love” when a man claims to be passing on messages from Jesus while simultaneously slamming who Jesus is. As a Christian, you need to pick a side: Paul or your Gods. You can’t side with both because they are directly countering each other.
BACK TO ACTS
So now that we understand that Paul’s attack on the Christians is driven by selfish greed and has nothing to do with pleasing Yahweh, let’s get back to Acts. Paul knows that the political heavyweights in Israel have their hands full trying to keep the peace with Rome. He knows what a headache Jesus’ followers have become, and he knows that a young fellow like him is in the perfect position to deal with it. So he steps up, and it’s a politically savvy move to make. Because when the Christians have been totally shut down—and confident Paul is quite certain that he will succeed in his mission—then the high priest will know that it was Paul who did it and Paul will be able to leverage that to expedite his rise to power. Now he’s armed with documents from the high priest and on his way north to the city of Damascus. But why has he set his sights on that particular city?
We find references to Damascus as the capital city of Syria all throughout the Old Testament. Like Israel, Syria has been taken over by Rome, but Damascus continues to remain a major city. It’s also the closest major city where a Jewish Christian could flee if he wanted to escape Jewish territory. Even though the Romans have taken over so much land, the Jews still view the Promised Land area as being their native homeland. So Paul is essentially trying to hunt down Jewish Christians who are trying to lay low by not hanging out in the homeland. And the letters he’s bringing are an order from the high priest for other Jews to rat these traitors out. This is how determined Paul is to squelch this whole Jesus movement.
Now it will take Paul 4-6 days to reach Damascus, and he is almost at the end of his trip when suddenly something unexpected happens.
As Saul was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a Voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?”
“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.
And the Voice replied, “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s Voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. (Acts 9:1-9)
Remember that “lord” to the Jews was like “sir” is to English speakers—it’s a common term of respect. Also remember that the Jews were highly superstitious people who had an insatiable appetite for miracles. It is also their cultural custom to demonstrate respect by physically bowing. The lower you go, the more respect you show. So when a supernatural light shines all around Paul, he immediately hits the deck and he stays there when he hears a Voice calling out to him. What on earth is going on? Is it an angel? Is it Yahweh Himself? No, it’s Jesus—that son of a carpenter who Paul likely saw in action many times. But how can this be? Jesus was just a normal human being—how can He possibly put on a light show like this and call out from the place of the dead?
As a Pharisee, Paul probably doesn’t buy the story that Jesus rose again. From where he’s sitting, Jesus was just a regular guy who definitely seemed to have some kind of supernatural hookups. But remember: sorcerers abound in these times. In our last lesson, we learned how the people in Samaria were calling a sorcerer named Simon “The Power of God.” So Paul can theologically attribute Jesus’ power to demons and get out of viewing Jesus as really being approved of by Yahweh. And yet now the Jesus who wasn’t supposed to really be anyone special has somehow returned from the place of the dead and pulled off a miracle. Wow. Talk about a theological shocker. And when Jesus then strikes Paul with blindness, Paul is going to be terrified. What on earth is happening? How can that Jewish nobody from Galilee do something like this?
Being blind doesn’t kill your appetite. Being psychologically traumatized does, and Paul is totally freaked out by what has happened. Imagine how you would feel if you were suddenly struck blind. Throw in the voice of some guy who you thought was dead, and you’re in quite the pickle. What does this mean? Is Paul now blind for life? And as he sits in a city that is inhabited by people he was hoping to assault, it is a very pride grinding situation. There’s no question that Jesus is giving Paul a major opportunity here. But will Paul respond with sincere submission?
Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. Jesus spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord!” he replied.
Jesus said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to Me right now. I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.” (Acts 9:10-12)
Wow, talk about amazing grace. Jesus knows what a pride puff Paul is, and no doubt Paul is desperately pleading for healing. So Jesus speaks to a believer named Ananias who is also staying in Damascus and He tells Ananias to hurry on over to help Paul.
But wait—isn’t this psycho Paul, the Pharisee who’s been brutalizing the Christians in Jerusalem? What is Jesus thinking?
“But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon Your Name!”
But Jesus said, “Go, for Saul is My chosen instrument to take My message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for My Name’s sake.”
So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:13-17)
There’s an interesting discrepancy between what Jesus said and Ananias’ summary of what Jesus said. All Jesus said was that He was going to use Paul for His own ends and that Paul would have to do a lot of suffering. But Ananias tacks on that bit about Paul being filled with the Holy Spirit. Hm.
Today in the Church, Christians resist the idea of God accomplishing His will through spiritual rebels. Of course this is absurd—especially when we read through the Old Testament and find Yahweh referring to the pagan rulers of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires as His chosen instruments. Our Gods work through whoever They want, and while we’re busy taking the bows for what They do through us, the truth is that They do not depend on us in any way to accomplish Their wills in this world. Of course this isn’t what Paul will say. Later on in his letter to Rome, Paul will promote the arrogant notion that God can’t possibly work without the aid of human preachers.
For “whoever calls on the Name of Yahweh shall be saved.” [Joel 2:32] But how can people call on a God who they do not believe in? And how can they believe in a God who they’ve never heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how will people preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” [Isa. 52:7] (Rom. 10:13-15)
Isn’t Paul smooth? In just a few lines, he makes Yahweh out to be so pathetically limited that He doesn’t know how to make His own creations aware of His existence. Then Paul credits mere mortals for spiritually illuminating people and uses a quotation from Isaiah to pat himself on the back. What an arrogant glory hog. And yet today we Christians cherish this kind of rot because our egos love the idea that we’re God’s indispensable assistants. So Paul portrays Yahweh as being totally inept without our help. We can just picture Yahweh saying, “I just created humans—I have no idea how to communicate with them.” Yeah, that’s “God-breathed.”
Speaking of irreverent rot, in our last lesson we discussed how obnoxious it was for Peter and John to claim to be dispensing the Holy Spirit through the laying on of their hands. The Holy Spirit is God Almighty, not popcorn at the movies. We humans don’t just pass Him around whenever it suits us. Yet here in Acts, Ananias shows up at Paul’s place saying, “Jesus told me to come here and give you the Holy Spirit.” Well, no, Jesus didn’t. Jesus doesn’t promote the Holy Spirit as an object that we can control. The Holy Spirit is God Almighty, but He’s being grossly disrespected by these early believers. And let’s get real about how inappropriate it is to refer to all of these folks as “believers” in the first place. In our last lesson, a herd of folks called some demon worshiping sorcerer “The Power of God” because they were so out of touch with God that they couldn’t tell the difference between Him and a demon. Then Philip showed up and they all rushed to fawn over him as the new show in town. Then Peter and John showed up claiming to be imparting the Holy Spirit to everyone through physical touch and we’re just supposed to swallow that whole ridiculous sequence without question? Not hardly. Where is the reverence for God? Where is the submission? A bunch of people schmoozing miracle workers and lining up to get dipped in some water hardly qualifies as sufficient submission to God. What we have in Acts are a bunch of heady disciples going around slapping the “Christian” label on anyone who gets in line to be touched by them. There is a shocking lack of spiritual discernment, and as Ananias shows up claiming to be yet another Yahweh handler, we have good reason to conclude that he’s just assuming he’s there to “convert” Paul. But Jesus didn’t say Paul was “in”, Jesus just said He was planning to use Paul for His own Divine purposes. Being used by God is an entirely different thing than being approved by Him.
Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength. (Acts 9:18)
Jesus graciously heals the freaked out Paul and then Ananias dunks Paul in some water. And from this we’re supposed to conclude that Paul is now a bona fide believer? No, that’s simply not good enough. The only guy who is theologically interpreting this moment is Ananias, and he doesn’t know better than to suggest that his physical arrival at Paul’s house is necessary for Paul to get saved. What is wrong with these people? They talk like the Holy Spirit is some kind of contagion that can only be spread by physical touch. Why isn’t anyone saying, “If you sincerely seek God, He’ll show you the truth, and if you sincerely submit to Him, He’ll accept you”? No one is talking about submitting to God. Everyone’s just talking about believing that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and that He died for their sins.
Faith is not submission. Faith is a form of trust, and a lot of people today think they’ve got salvation all sewn up because they’re trusting in all sorts of things about God. They’re trusting that He was just kidding about Hell. They’re trusting that He thinks they’re as wonderful as they think they are. They’re trusting that He’ll bow to their will when they reach those pearly gates. Well, no, He won’t. Trust doesn’t save us. Faith doesn’t save us. We have to submit to our Gods as the Supreme Authorities that They are. No one is teaching the true Gospel in Acts. Jesus’ disciples are not teaching what Jesus taught, because Jesus taught that salvation was acquired through submission. We’ll discuss that more in a moment, but now let’s see how Paul is going to react to Ananias, who undoubtedly declared Paul to be saved.
Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of Yahweh!” (Acts 9:19-20)
Now let’s think about this. Paul was on his way to Damascus when a Man who he has zero respect for suddenly showed up in a miraculous way and zapped Paul with blindness. Wow. As a pompous Pharisee, Paul considers himself to be perfect in Yahweh’s sight, and far more righteous than some bum from Nazareth. And yet that bum from Nazareth has just proven beyond all doubt that He not only has some incredible connections with Yahweh, He also has a kind of power that Paul has never heard of. Men performing grand miracles on earth? Yes, that’s something Paul knows about. And those miracles can be as amazing as raising people back from the dead. But no human does miracles after they’re dead and gone. That’s totally unheard of. What is this remarkable hookup Jesus has with Yahweh that Yahweh would continue to work His wonders through Jesus even after Jesus’ soul has left the earthly dimension? There is no earthly glory that can even touch this kind of exaltation. Suddenly Paul finds himself pondering some astounding possibilities. After all, if Jesus was no better than Paul on earth, yet Jesus managed to land in such a glorious position in eternity, is it possible for Paul to follow in his footsteps? If Paul plays his cards right, can he manage to get a share of the kind of awesome glory and power that Jesus has gained access to? Here’s a wild theory: what if the whole Jesus thing was about something way bigger than saving Israel from Roman oppression? What if Yahweh is really using Jesus to raise human expectations about how much glory they can get their hands on in eternity? What if the real “Good News” from Yahweh is that it’s possible for humans to reign like demigods in eternity? Paul will later write to believers in Thessalonica:
Yahweh called you to salvation when we told you the Good News; now you can share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 2:14)
To the believers in Corinth he will write:
For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. (2 Cor. 4:7)
To the believers in Rome he will write:
Yahweh will give everlasting life to those who search for glory, honor, and immortality by persisting in doing what is good. (Rom. 2:7)
Glory has always been the end goal for Paul. Before this encounter with Jesus, he was going for glory among his own people. But now that he has just experienced one of his own countrymen striking him blind and calling out from the next life, this changes everything. Forget the high priest—this Jesus Fellow is clearly the One who Paul should be trying to schmooze. Promoting Jesus as the Son of Yahweh? Not a problem! Paul calls himself a son of Yahweh—all Old Covenant male believers did. So he’s hardly exalting Christ above himself by giving Him a common Jewish title. But this isn’t nearly enough. While Paul marvels at new possibilities in his mind, he rushes to start promoting Jesus on earth. After all, the obvious first step to getting on someone’s good side is to start acting like you’re his biggest fan.
All who heard Saul were amazed. “Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem?” they asked. “And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?”
Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. (Acts 9:21-22)
To put this “powerful” preaching in perspective, realize that none of these people are walking around with pocket editions of the Old Testament. Jewish commoners had very limited access to Scriptures, but in his years of training, Paul has committed many Scriptures to memory. As he fires off verse after verse, are these people going to know if he’s misapplying them or not? Not at all. But they do know he’s a Pharisee who has friends in the Sanhedrin and the favor of the high priest. Paul is a big shot in Jewish society and it really isn’t going to take much for him to wow these Jews in Damascus.
Well, while the Jesus followers in Damascus vacillate between suspicion and awe, there are others who are disgusted with Paul’s treachery. In these times, Jews met in local synagogues, which were like house churches which only Jewish men were allowed to attend. And just as Christians today feel like big stuff if they lead a home group, it gave you social clout to lead a synagogue. The synagogue leaders in this town don’t like Paul promoting Jesus. It’s annoying. And if he’s just come to be another Stephen, he deserves to share Stephen’s same fate.
After a while some of the Jews plotted together to kill Saul. They were watching for him day and night at the city gate so they could murder him, but Saul was told about their plot. So during the night, some of the other believers lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the city wall. (Acts 9:23-25)
Notice how quickly Jewish Christians rally around Paul in Damascus. And why? Because he is promoting Jesus as a son of Yahweh. Paul isn’t teaching that Jesus is a Divine Being, he’s just saying that Jesus really is the promised Messiah. At this point, Paul is so impressed with Jesus’ power that he’d call Jesus anything just to earn points with Him.
If you really are a Christian today, then in your mind, you’re worshiping Gods who have always been Gods. You might say with your lips that you worship only one God, but just listen to how often you direct your prayers and worship songs at Yahweh, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re a polytheist. But your Gods have always been Gods. This isn’t how it is for Paul.
To understand Paul’s point of view, choose some human in your life who you’ve known for a while. Then imagine that person dying unexpectedly. You liked them, so you’re grieved. But then one day, that person suddenly shows up in your bedroom and does something miraculous. Are you seeing them like a God? Of course not. They’re still a human in your mind, only something wild has happened to them. And since you view them as just another human like yourself, you naturally wonder if you can end up like them after death. Well, suppose you thought that you could if you just pleased your friend enough by going around promoting them and telling everyone else to admire them? If you were as hungry for honor, power, and glory as Paul is, you’d put your heart into it.
We’re going to hear Paul waxing on quite a bit about how great Jesus is. But Paul doesn’t think Jesus is God—Paul thinks Jesus is proof that humans can get their hands on way more God power than Paul ever realized. Yes, being a follower, servant, and promoter of Jesus is extremely attractive to Paul—but not for the right reasons. There’s a big difference between really caring about someone and just trying to use that person for your own selfish ends. There’s a big difference between loving God Himself and just loving how much God can bless your life.
The kind of submission that Jesus demands from us is the kind that says, “I recognize that You are the Supreme Authority and I am the powerless speck. As the Supreme Authority, Your opinion is the only One that really matters, for Your judgments are the only ones that will stand in the end. So I want to please You because I fear Your wrath.” Yet Paul says:
Yahweh will give everlasting life to those who search for glory, honor, and immortality by persisting in doing what is good. (Rom. 2:7)
So really? Yahweh is all about us searching for glory, honor and immortality? What do any of these things have to do with pleasing God? Nothing. If these are our goals, then all we care about is being exalted and comfortable and we’re only valuing God as Someone who can make our carnal dreams come true. Well, one time Jesus told a parable where He told His followers to submit to His yoke.
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
When an animal submits to a yoke, he is allowing a human to trap him in an apparatus that will inflict misery on him unless he conforms to the human’s will. Submitting to a yoke is a surrendering of independence. It’s a relinquishing of control. In this speech, Jesus assures people that He is good in Character and that people needn’t fear being abused by Him. But He’s still telling them to willingly step into a situation where they will relinquish all freedom and submit to His will for their lives.
In the yoke parable, Jesus emphasizes His goodness. In plenty of other parables, He doesn’t. Most of His parables emphasize the supremacy of God and brutal punishments are doled out for those who refuse to show sufficient respect. In the Parable of the Great Feast, the God character sends out an invitation for people to come to a banquet that He is putting on. Well, plenty of people aren’t in the mood to attend a banquet at that time, and they say so. The God character responds by cutting off His association with them. Once again, we see this theme of having to surrender our preferences and align with God’s agenda simply because He is the Supreme Authority.
In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the God character is a king who throws a grand wedding feast for his son. One invited guest shows up in his regular duds—he didn’t bother to dress up. The king sees this, and immediately orders that man to be bound up and thrown into “outer darkness.” In other words, that character ends up in Hell. Why? Because he had insufficient respect for his hosts: the father and son who represented Yahweh and Jesus. Insufficient respect for the king’s authority: that’s all it took to get eternally damned. That’s all it takes today, as well. Our Gods demand a certain degree of reverential submission from us, and if we don’t meet Their demands, we’ll end up in Hell.
In the Parable of the Unworthy Servant, Jesus puts out a powerful, pride grinding metaphor of the kind of soul response our Gods want from us. He describes a servant who has worked hard in a field all day being expected to then come inside and serve his master dinner. While the master eats, the servant is expected to stand at the ready in case the master wants anything. It’s only after the master has finished his own meal that the servant finally gets to eat himself.
“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.’ And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey Me, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” (Lk. 17:7-10)
Jesus says we should consider ourselves unworthy servants—unworthy of what? Unworthy of thunderous applause simply because we did our servant duty. Unworthy of being treated as our master’s equals or being invited to sit at his table. Unworthy of getting to put our desires ahead of our master’s. Unworthy of ever having our master serve us. This is the attitude that Jesus said He wanted His followers to have, but what does Paul teach Jesus followers to go for?
This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him. (2 Tim. 2:10-12)
Where in the “we are unworthy servants” mindset is there room for lusting after eternal glory? And what is this garbage about reigning with Christ? If we’re planning to squeeze onto Christ’s throne with Him, then clearly we are a million miles away from the attitude that Christ said He wants from His followers. Instead of submitting to His yoke, we’re grabbing at His crown. Instead of understanding that we deserve no applause for serving our Master, we’re expecting to co-rule with Him. Are you seeing the problem? While he claims to be fully devoted to Christ, Paul is going to keep encouraging believers to embrace soul attitudes which Christ says He doesn’t like. And then there’s Yahweh, who makes it very clear throughout the Old Testament how much He loathes humans exalting themselves. Yet in his letter to Rome, Paul will write:
The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are Yahweh’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of Yahweh and coheirs with Christ—seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Rom. 8:16-17)
No, no, no, we’re not “co” anything with Christ. Christ is God Almighty. He’s not our sibling, our peer, or our fellow human. We don’t get to claim a share of Christ’s stuff after we die. We won’t see the day that we are glorified as His equals. Where is the humility? What happened to that part where we’re supposed to say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty”? Yes, our Gods are generous Rewarders. But Their rewards are Theirs to pass out as They please. It is utterly obnoxious for us to be greedily claiming dibs to power, glory and honor all on our own.
Because we can look ahead at the kind of teacher Paul will become, we just can’t get excited about his supposed conversion to Christianity. We can’t believe it’s authentic, either. Yet thanks to the lack of discernment among early believers—and no doubt due to the fact that many of them were also feigning their devotion to Christ—Paul isn’t going to have to work hard at all to gain major clout in the early Church. If he can get the main apostles to accept him, he’ll be in solid. And when a Pharisee with impressive social credentials sets out to impress a couple of common Jewish fishermen, it’s a given that he’s going to succeed.
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