On fire

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The preacher stands tall and scans the congregation, making eye contact with the squirming parishioners. The sermon begins quietly, but quickly builds to a thundering crescendo. God’s word is proclaimed with both passion and conviction.

The preacher, we would say, is “on fire.”

As I’ve said before, I’ve seen my share of first sermons. Many, while obviously sincere, are hampered a bit by a case of first-time jitters. And none were as successful as the apostle Peter’s, after which 3,000 believed and were baptized (Acts 2:41).

Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and on fire. 

And at his first sermon, so was Saul of Tarsus.

Saul had come to Damascus to root out and arrest the believers who had fled Jerusalem, to crush the dangerous and unholy following of a false messiah. But then the risen Jesus — the true Messiah — confronted him on the road, turning his world upside down. He had been utterly wrong about Jesus. Struck blind by the encounter, he had a few days to pray and think things through.

What would happen next? Luke tells us:

He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared. Everyone who heard him was baffled. They questioned each other, “Isn’t he the one who was wreaking havoc among those in Jerusalem who called on this name? Hadn’t he come here to take those same people as prisoners to the chief priests?” But Saul grew stronger and stronger. He confused the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:19-22, CEB)

The people had every reason to be surprised by this turn of events. Word of Saul’s reputation and mission of persecution had reached Damascus ahead of him. Only a select few knew of his life-changing encounter with Jesus. The last thing they expected, when Saul set foot in the synagogue, was that he would declare Jesus to be the Son of God.

“The Son of God.” This is the only place in the entire book of Acts that the phrase appears, and significantly, it’s the theme of Paul’s first sermon. The phrase would have rich significance for a Pharisee, associated as it was with the expectation of a promised king from the line of David who would restore Israel’s fortunes. (To Saul, the phrase would not have meant, as it does for many of us today, “the second person of the Trinity.”)

What Paul never imagined was that he would come to believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was that King, the anointed Messiah, the true Son of God. And with all his prior learning, transformed and imbued with new meaning by that one new fact, he was ready to publicly make his case.

The man who had burned with self-righteous rage against Jesus was now on fire for Jesus.

Unfortunately for Saul, his preaching seemed to have little effect. The people were confused, but not converted. If anything, they were mad. Mad enough to hatch a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23), and his fellow believers had to help him escape the city under cover of darkness, by lowering him in a basket through an opening in the city wall (vs. 25).

We should note that there’s some controversy over the timeline here. Paul describes the escape from Damascus in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, mentioning that the city was under the control of Aretas IV, who was king of Nabatea, an Arab state far south of Damascus, occupying much of the Sinai Peninsula. In Galatians 1:13-20, Paul also describes a three-year period between his conversion and a trip to Jerusalem to visit Peter. He mentions a trip to “Arabia,” i.e., the Nabatean kingdom, prior to returning to Damascus.

Putting these accounts together with Acts 9, it may be that Saul first preached in Damascus; then in the Nabatean kingdom, arousing the anger of Aretas; then back in Damascus, where Aretas’ governor was looking for Saul to arrest him. The Jews ratted Saul out, necessitating a daring escape. All of this took place over a span of three years, during which time Saul had the opportunity to develop his own following of disciples who, according to Acts 9:25, were the ones who lowered him through the city wall to safety.

Whatever the full historical truth of the matter, Saul seems to have been on fire wherever he went, right from the get-go. One might say that before his conversion he had been a hothead. After, he became…well, a humbled hothead, not lacking in zeal, but wanting to point it in the right direction.

Because even some of the most annoying parts of our personality can be put to good use in the hands of a sovereign God.