Acts 9:1-19 The More Unsightly Effects of the Resurrection
The resurrection of our savior is good news indeed. It tells us that death has been conquered, that forgiveness is not an empty gesture, that eternal life is already underway. Yet, just like the Cross is both God’s “No” and God’s “Yes”, so the resurrection also carries its negative connotation. At least, it did for Saul of Tarsus. On a mission for God, with priestly sanction in hand, he was en route to Damascus to root out the followers of Jesus, both men and women, and drag them back to Jerusalem. Since Stephen’s speech (in Acts 7), the Jerusalem religious authorities had come to believe they had to keep this group called the Way from bringing its claptrap about a messiah and its lack of concern about the way things should be to Jews dispersed outside the Land. Saul, playing the role of Mafia cleaner, was going to take care of the mess.
Until, that is, he was stopped in his tracks by the resurrected Lord. And unlike Jesus’ appearances in the upper room (John 20:19, 21, 26), here the risen one does not offer peace and comfort. Rather, Jesus speaks judgment: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me…I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul’s actions against Jesus’ followers is action against Jesus, a formidable opponent given his overcoming the grave and the strong relationship with God that accomplishment entails. And later the Lord reassures a wary Ananias, no doubt one of Saul’s intended victims, that it’s the opposite of what was expected; Saul will not lay hands on him but Ananias is to lay hands on Saul, effecting the restoration of sight but also setting Saul up for a difficult vocation. “For I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
For Saul, the resurrection was a reversal of fortune. An upwardly mobile Pharisee now must become an itinerant preacher. A protector of the boundaries of his people, he must now tear down those barriers in order to share God’s grace with non-Jews. The one who tortured and killed would now be tortured and ultimately killed. To be sure, Saul, who even loses his quality Jewish name for a Roman diminutive, Paulos (or Paul), receives the hope to share in Jesus’ resurrection. But that hope is never far from suffering; as he says to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).
We are very quick, especially in the Easter season, to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it affords us. And so we should. But Saul of Tarsus’ experience points to other ways of encountering the resurrection. As judgment. Sins and evil behavior, even our own, cannot be kept hidden in the darkness of death; the light will shine and the truth will be revealed. Especially grievous are any sins we may commit against God’s people (and God always seems to define that group more broadly than we’d expect or prefer). The Lord will take such sins quite personally. If we are judged severely if we neglect to offer the Lord a simple drink in his guise as “one of the least of these, my brothers” (Matt 25), how bad will it be if we openly seek one’s destruction. Again, the risen Lord is a formidable opponent and we should take every caution we do not invoke the wrath that springs from his love for his own.
And Saul’s encounter also teaches us to experience the resurrection as a call to suffer. The resurrection affords us eternal security, which means temporal security loses its value. We are set free to emulate God in his radical and self-giving love because ultimately we have nothing to lose; the resurrection shows that God has given us his all and it frees us to give our all. So, Saul travels long journeys to deliver the gospel, endures beatings and stonings and ship wrecks and more, because having encountered the risen Lord he cannot see earthly reality the same way. To believe that Jesus rose from the dead is to believe that death can be endured, more than that, death can be conquered.
Christ is Risen. Watch out.
Ron Cox (also a Pepperdine MDiv recipient) teaches New Testament, Early Christianity, and even a bit of C.S. Lewis (not yet in the canon). If you get the chance, let him take you to the Getty and explain everything. Ron also serves as Assistant Minister for the Culver Palms Church of Christ. He blogs at Prufrock’s Child, and wrote a series on Colossians through Lent that did me good. Oh, and his wife and four boys enjoy him, too.