The Apostle Paul’s life is a display of the radical change that occurs when a person surrenders fully to Jesus. We learn in the Book of Acts that Paul was highly educated—a student of Gamaliel who was a leading scholar and Rabbi of his day. Paul was a Pharisee—the most intense sect of the conservative Jews who sought to obey every detail of the Mosaic Law and all the subordinate laws that the scribes had dreamed up over the centuries in their interpretations of God’s Laws. Paul was a radical defender against perceived heresy—we find him giving approval to the execution of Stephen and then seeking others who were followers of Christ so that they could be imprisoned and or executed because of their heretical beliefs that threatened Paul’s understanding of Judaism. This radical behavior led him to get authorization to travel as far away as Damascus in his search to capture and arrest these radical heretics called Christians.
But then Paul met Christ. And the whole trajectory of his life changed.
The need of the church today is that its members have personal encounters with God. It is not enough that our grandparents or parents had encounters with God—each generation must have its own experience.
Paul’s encounter was unique to his own situation, just as God’s dealings with each of us are unique according to our own personalities, circumstances, and needs. But there are essential elements in each experience that we all share.
Let’s consider Paul’s Encounter with God and see what we can learn about our own encounters with God.
i. IT WAS AN ENCOUNTER WITH TRUTH.
a. Paul in his writings in the New Testament makes it clear that in his pre-Christian life he thought he knew the truth. In Philippians 3:5 he called himself “A Pharisee of the Pharisees.” The implication is that he really believed that the Pharisee brand of religion was the right way, the only way, and that any other way should be stopped. But on the Damascus Road he was suddenly faced with a Truth that was contrary to the truth he had been defending. In John 8:32 Jesus had declared, “You shall know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.” In John 17:17 Jesus prayed that his disciples would be “Sanctified by the Truth,” and then he declared,”Your Word is Truth.” In John 14:6 Jesus declared himself to be “The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” We know from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (1:17) that after his Damascus Road Experience, he went to Arabia and spent three years in solitude, seeking God and discovering the Truth as to Who Jesus Was and What He came to do. Paul’s intellectual understanding had collapsed and through the tutelage of the Holy Spirit he had to discover the Message, the World View, that God was revealing to Him.
b. Now, let’s pause a moment and think about a few of the other encounters with God that we read about in the New Testament. There was the old priest Zachariah who while serving in the temple encountered God’s Angel Gabriel. There was Mary who also encountered the Angel and was told she was highly favored of God and would be the mother of God’s Son. There was the demoniac named Legion who encountered Jesus in the cemetery and was set free.
There was the Widow of Nain who met Jesus as she was taking her dead son to be buried and Jesus restored her Son to life and to her again. And we could go on with many other encounters. Each person was different. Their circumstances varied greatly. Some were devout God-fearing people who were walking in light of their understanding of God. Some, like Paul, were fighting against God. But the one thing they all had in common is that when they met Jesus, they were confronted with Truth—The liberating Truth, The Sanctifying Truth. For some like Paul, it involved a complete overhaul of his understanding of God’s Plan. For others, like Zachariah and Mary, it meant saying, “Yes,” and submitting in obedience to God’s Direction.
c. In our society it is amazing how many hold beliefs about Christianity and God that are not grounded in God’s Word. Society at large holds tenaciously to the belief that, if we just do enough good things and the good things we do outnumber the bad things, then we will be accepted by God. And I’m amazed at how many people at funerals are convinced their deceased loved one is in “a better place,” even though that loved one never attended church or obey God’s Commands. And how often we seem to practice the belief that “the end justifies the means.” According to that view it is alright to steal, cheat, and lie if it somehow produces something good.
d. But a real encounter with God, a real face-to-face with Jesus, is a confrontation with the real Truth as revealed in Christ and in God’s Word!
ii. IT IS AN ENCOUNTER THAT WAS HUMBLING.
a. In Paul’s Damascus Road encounter with Jesus, a blinding light strikes him down and leaves him blind for the space of 3 days. This self-righteous Pharisee had to be taken by the hand and led to the city and to the place where he would be staying. This man, who believed everyone else was seeing life incorrectly, suddenly could not see anything. Blind, and humbled, he did not eat or drink anything for those 3 days. I can only imagine what was going through his mind. The very Jesus he had been trying to silence had confronted him with Truth. And all his education, all his spiritual and intellectual pedigree and all his human wisdom had failed him. He who was so sure he was right suddenly realized he was completely wrong. That would have been –and still would be—a tough pill to swallow!
b. And, as unique as each of our personal experiences with God may be, the confrontation with Truth is a confrontation of God with our pride. Fallen Humanity comes from the moment Adam and Eve listened to the lie that Satan told them that, if they would just eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—the Forbidden Fruit—they would not die as God had warned, but instead would become like gods themselves. And the root of sin has always been selfish pride. The very word “Sin” has “I” in the middle (s-I-n).
c. So when we have an encounter with God we are made aware of our own inadequacies and our need to depend up God. Isaiah’s call as he described in Isaiah 6 involved Seeing God in all His Holiness, and in contrast recognizing his (Isaiah’s) own uncleanness, and accepting the cleansing touch of God through the hot coal placed on his lips by the Seraphim.
iii. IT WAS AN ENCOUNTER THAT REVEALED THE NEED TO BE FILLED WITH HIS SPIRIT.
a. After Paul had spent three days in Damascus blind and going without food or drink, God spoke to a Christian named Ananias and directed him to go pray for Paul. Listen to what Ananias said to Paul when he arrived: “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” (Acts 9: 17b).
b. First, let’s consider the fact that Paul was able to see again. We are told that when Ananias prayed for Paul that immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see again. That was a physical healing that pointed to spiritual truth. Paul had been blind spiritually up to this encounter with God. He was blind to the truth about Jesus and about God’s plan of salvation. But with the return of his sight, Paul now could see the real truth—that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, the Promised Messiah and that, by placing our faith in Him we could be reconciled with God. I have often heard people say that they tried to read the Bible, but they just could not understand it. But when by faith they accepted Jesus as Savior, the Holy Spirit suddenly began to help them understand more clearly what God wanted them to learn from His Word. And my prayer today is that the scales will be removed from our spiritual eyes and that we would see more clearly God’s Message for our lives!
c. But Ananias didn’t stop by saying he had come to restore Paul’s eyesight. He continued by saying he had come so that Paul could be filled with God’s Spirit! I believe at the moment Jesus confronted Paul on the Damascus Road and Paul responded to him, saying, “Lord, Who are you?” and “What would you have me to do?” that Paul by calling Jesus “Lord” was in fact admitting his guilt and surrendering to Jesus. I believe he was saved at that moment. The fact that he continued his journey in obedience testifies of a change that had taken place in his heart. And when we confess our guilt and seek God’s forgiveness and place our faith in Jesus we too are saved in that instant. But to be forgiven is one step that needs to be followed by another. When “Pride” is surrendered, there is a vacuum in our hearts that needs to be filled. And when Ananias prayed for Paul on the third day after his conversion, Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit of God! Here is the truth we need to accept: Being forgiven is not enough. We cannot live for God if all that has happened is that we have been forgiven. We are doomed to failure if we do not allow God’s Holy Spirit to fill us completely. To be filled with the Spirit, we with the Spirit’s help must first of all, empty our hearts of our selves. In Galatians 2:20 Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” When we empty ourselves of Pride, allowing Christ to “crucify (ego) Self,” then we must consciously invite the Holy Spirit to fill the vacuum that was left. Then our lives must be the living out of the prayer Jesus prayed in Gethsemane—“Not my will, but Thine be done, Lord, in me!”
It is interesting in how God orchestrates personal encounters with us. I read this week the story of a woman in an African country who came along with her dog to church every Sunday and every Wednesday evening. She loved God but she was married to an extremely abusive husband. In fact, he was so abusive that he eventually killed her. Then it was only he and his wife’s dog left in the home. Then he began to notice that every Wednesday evening the dog would disappear for an hour or so. And then he noticed the dog was also disappearing every Sunday morning for a few hours. His curiosity got the best of him and he followed the dog on Sunday to see where it was going and it led him to church. There he heard the preacher tell about Jesus and his heart was touched and he bowed at the altar and accepted Christ that day. A faithful wife and then her faithful dog had guided the husband to his personal encounter with God.
I read another story about a man who went to church each week because he liked the music, but he didn’t want to hear the preaching, so he would put his fingers in his ears when the preacher started speaking. But during one of the sermons, he forgot for a moment and took his finger out of his ear to scratch his nose and heard the preacher say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And so he listened and gave his heart to Jesus.
I don’t know about your encounter with God. I don’t know if it came or will come while you are rejecting Him or while you are seeking Him.
But this I do know. When you come face to face with the Living God you are confronted with a choice. You can either surrender to Him or you can turn your back on him. Either way, your life will be changed. My prayer is that you will choose to give your heart totally to Him and allow Him to fill you with His Spirit.
Have you done that? Isn’t it about time?