God on the Move: “False Start”- Acts 9, 2 Corinthians 11

What does MARINATING SAUCE, an NFL LINEBACKER and a GIRAFFE CALF all have in common? Today is your day to find out! But more on that later…

linebackerIt is hard not to take off when there is so much at stake!” I could SO understand what the linebacker was saying in that locker room interview. Yet, the false starts cost penalties, and the penalties probably cost the team the game and the series. You can understand the problem. That man is lined up opposite some of the largest and most powerful men any of us will ever have the misfortune of opposing. Every player is hungry to win. No player wants to miss a “beat”. Each wants to cover his man or his territory… but the quarterback’s syncopated count can easily draw the overanxious into stepping forward on the line at the wrong time. False starts happen all the time in the NFL. Once a player jumps over the line of scrimmage before the ball is in play – a penalty ensues… because false starts incur penalties.

Unfortunately, they happen all the time in LIFE too… They happen when young people rush to feel grown up and engage in activities that are Biblically wrong and emotionally harmful for the stage of life they are in. The penalties for sinful engagement include mental tapes of memories that do not please God, along with a raft of other consequences. A false start happens when a couple rushes into marriage – and then finds the need for hours of counsel to unravel the mess they make in each other’s lives to get back to the beginning of the marriage and make it work. There is a penalty for “false start” marriage. Since marriage is a covenant to remain together no matter what happens, Biblically sensitive people that unadvisedly rush into marriage should plan hours of counseling in their “Day Timers”. False starts happen when we make that major purchase and sign for the credit, without carefully measuring the effect on our bank account and monthly expenses. The months and years that follow help us reflect on why that was a bad decision – but we are stuck in it. The penalties are numerous, but I suspect don’t need much elaboration for many who are considering this lesson.

Our story today is not about someone who made a “false start” by doing something morally wrong. Rather, it is a warning about the need to allow a time for education and transformation from the Spirit of God and the “marinating in the Word” that is necessary to be fully useful to the Lord.

We have to admit that we are a culture that is much more about DOING than PREPARING. We seem to want to “get right into things”! At the same time, this isn’t a new phenomenon. If there was anyone that would have been tempted to push past the training stage, it was the Apostle Paul. After all, he came to Messiah with substantial pedigree and accomplishments – even in the Word itself! Not only that, but his forceful personality and keen mind would have made listening to “lesser speakers” a difficult task at least, while allowing the misuse of Scripture in a class where he was sitting would be absolutely an intolerable circumstance. He was a man that was given a mind and voice for God, and wanted to use it… but God knew that tempering and soaking in God’s Word and Spirit was essential. It is for that reason God “benched” Saul of Tarsus for a time, then led him through obscure ministry in small circles before He released Saul to the greater ministry of church planting and Apostleship ministry. This time included critical lessons learned in the heat of the desert, and the apparent insignificance of the more rural regions of Cilician and Syria before God opened to Paul his life’s assignment. Those training years offered setbacks that helped Paul later in the ministry to recognize God’s good hand despite tough times. Here was the big lesson…

Key Principle: God is in no hurry unfolding His outreach plan and His personnel assignments.

He works at seasoning, training and molding carefully each servant He will use for important upcoming assignments. As a result, we must stop rushing God’s transformation and let His changes both inform and infuse us.

It can be incredibly hard for a zealous, young believer to have the patience to follow God and not drag God along behind him or her. God’s plan is GOD’S PLAN… and He is under no obligation to match my timing, or my insightful understanding as to how things should play out. I must learn to listen to His voice, follow His lead, and rest in His arms when He blocks the way forward. Look at the place Saul of Tarsus learned these lessons. There are three passages that overlap. The first is from Dr. Luke’s record in the Book of Acts:

Acts 9:19b: “…Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he [began] to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and [who] had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?

Before we look carefully at the passage, let’s be clear – we are not talking about LAZINESS in the Kingdom. Saul wasn’t set aside and drawn in slowly because he was reticent to jump in – quite the opposite. Saul was, like anyone who comes to Christ with a leadership personality, only too eager to move into the ministry without allowing time to have his mind transformed and renewed… and the church is often so eager to see this work that it may not easily recognize the need for curing, maturing and tempering…

Look at what happened when he first found Jesus and had his eyesight renewed! The Saul that condemned those who followed Jesus went right in to the Bema of the “Straight Street Synagogue” and began preaching the message of the Risen Christ (Acts 9:19-20)! People were not sure what to make of what he was saying (Acts 9:21). This record reminds us of some significant problems we create in “jumping the gun” on training:

Problem 1: When we move too quickly people are DISTRACTED by US – and may not be able to properly evaluate the message we bring.

There are some who believe that those who come to Jesus should immediately be put “on the line” to evangelize. They argue that these are people with the most direct contacts with the world – because they have just made a decision to come to Jesus. With a greater list of contacts, it is easier to engage lost men and women. The argument is repeatedly made: “We are called to make disciples of Jesus!” and off they run, pulling the uninformed and untransformed behind them. The zeal of the new convert makes the call for immediate action an appealing transition from the old life – but it is as dangerous as placing men on the front lines of a physical battle without a “boot camp” training experience.

Again, we are not arguing for laziness, and certainly one can – and should – share Christ with those around them as a natural part of “not denying Him before men” (cp. Mt. 10:33, though the context of that passage is not exactly and directly applicable in many cases). There is a need for holy boldness, and a call for spiritual sensitivity for the lost from the day of our new birth. At the same time, there is a need to for transformation of our minds and tempering of our spirit by God’s Spirit – and that process is not instantaneous regardless of the knowledge we possess at salvation. Here is the truth:

We cannot make disciples until we learn how to become one.

We will not get people to truly follow Jesus until we learn to follow Jesus. For that reason, Paul later revealed that God stepped in at the moment Saul was growing in strength and sent him away. Compare Acts 9:19-21 with a later writing that offers another window to the lessons of the early days to the Galatians. In this passage, the Apostle is reflecting back on what happened in his early days with more specificity than Luke recorded in Acts:

Galatians 1:13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. 15 But when God, who had set me apart [even] from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.

Even with all the training that preceded his coming to Christ, there was a need for the Saul of Tarsus to get alone with Jesus and learn to follow Him. The point of Galatians 1 was clearly to argue that Saul received his message from God, and not a consensus vote of any earthly group, but the fact is that God stepped in and sent him off when the Master could have used him mightily from day one.

Acts 9 is a truncated record of what took place in Saul’s early ministry. The order of the events, if one looks carefully at Galatians 1, appears to be as follows:

1. Baptism by Ananias in Damascus (Acts 9:18).
2. Preaching right after his salvation in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:19-21).
3. An extended time in Nabatea (probably in modern Jordan) for discipleship by the Savior (Gal. 1:13-17).
4. After training, another campaign in Damascus led to the plot to kill him – a long time after his salvation (Acts 9:22-25). Look at the record of Saul’s return to Damascus in Acts 9:

Acts 9:22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this [Jesus] is the Christ. 23 When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through [an opening in] the wall, lowering him in a large basket.

Luke signaled that 9:23 was LONG AFTER 9:19 and 20, but is is easy to miss in the narrative. It appears that since Saul could become the DISTRACTION, God’s pattern was first to change him – and ground him with sufficient stability to preach the Gospel in the face of steady opposition. This highlights a second problem:

Problem 2: When we move too quickly we haven’t grown strong and stable enough– and that will cause us to be too easily removed from the battle.

Consider the sufferings that were ahead for the Apostle Paul! Ask yourself, “What kind of training should Paul have had to be prepared for this list?”

2 Cor. 11:23b “…Are they servants of Christ? — I speak as if insane– I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine [lashes]. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 [I have been] on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from [my] countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 [I have been] in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 Apart from [such] external things, there is the daily pressure on me [of] concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?

Now let me ask you this” “Based on the way you see things going in our world, how strongly should we be training the next generation of believers?” Look at the list again in 2 Corinthians 11.

• Paul was trained to recognize the need to labor and not expect others to pay for God’s call in his life.

• Paul was trained to believe that God was faithful even when he was unfairly imprisoned for his faith.

• Paul didn’t think that knowing Jesus and the faithfulness of God was somehow breached when he was physically attacked – whether by “men” or by “nature”.

• Paul didn’t think that he was entitled in Christ to never be left hungry or thirsty – he saw God as meeting his needs even when his stomach growled and was empty.

• Paul recognized that ministry meant pressure, and that pressure wasn’t a sign that he didn’t trust God nor that God wasn’t being good to him – it was hard to carry the burdens of leadership of men and women in their sinful state.

I stopped reading in 2 Corinthians before I got to the point that Paul was making in the passage… that he was TRAINED for what he was doing beforehand. Look again at 2 Corinthians 11, this time in the ending verses of the chapter…

2 Corinthians 11:30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and [so] escaped his hands.

The apostle went back to the time, early in his ministry, when God first rescued him through the wall of Damascus. He had already learned that life wasn’t going to be amenable to his message, and that ministry for Jesus was going to be a battle. He learned that civil authorities were already going to be used by the “Prince of the Air” to fight the Prince of All Heaven. He was rescued from Damascus, but read the play and saw the hand of God because of the three years of training in the Arabian desert.

Let me say it plainly: A Christian that is trained to think that “God is faithful” only when their belly is full, when their bankbook is fat and when their government is encouraging is not ready for troubled times – but will be cut down quickly by a vicious and mighty fallen prince and his followers. Our spiritual training must change to that of the early church – to anticipate hatred and match it with love; to anticipate unfair treatment and match it with fervent and unending prayer; to anticipate physical weakness and need and match it with trust that God has not left us without the rich resources found in Him alone.

Our training must widen the eyes of disciples to recognize the historic reality that darkness has often seemed to be stronger than light – but that God will emerge victorious in the end just as He has promised. We dare not become impatient in trouble and allow circumstances alter our view of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Yet, these truths come from tempering and training – and will require (in many cases) a reversal of modern trends of discipleship instruction.

Paul didn’t just “learn it from Jesus” and then know everything. He needed to learn from other men and “fit into” the church structure if his ministry was going to be supported and successful for the Master. Yet, he needed to know the Master’s voice more than that of any other. The END of his training came with his beheading – not earlier! Let’s continue with the story of Saul’s early training with two passages that tell us what happened:

Acts 9:26 When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic [Jews]; but they were attempting to put him to death. 30 But when the brethren learned [of it], they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Galatians 1:18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was [still] unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; 23 but only, they kept hearing, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they were glorifying God because of me.

The three events that are referenced in Acts 9, Galatians 1 and in Acts 22 should be woven together in our minds:

• Paul’s trip to Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18) – where he stayed with Peter for fifteen days (Galatians 1:17-18) – but saw only James and Peter was the setting of a vision setting out his Gentile ministry (Acts 22:15-21).

• When the plot to stop Paul’s disputations among Hellenistic Jews was uncovered at Jerusalem in that half-month, Paul was escorted to Caesarea and sent back to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30). Some scholars believe the first of his shipwrecks may have occurred along the way home from Caesarea (2 Cor. 11:25).

• Paul preached from his home base in Tarsus, occasionally traveling to surrounding Syrian and Cilician territories (Galatians 1:21-24). He stayed there four or five years, when Barnabas sought him in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26).

That means that although Paul came to Jesus in the year 36 CE – he wasn’t used by God as a missionary until at least SEVEN YEARS LATER. That helps us recognize the third problem…

Note: 2 Cor. 11:32 reminds that Paul escaped Damascus shortly after his salvation, while Aretas was king of Arabia (which took place between 36-39 CE). Eusebius recorded that Paul came to Messiah at the beginning of Aretas’ reign. The three years in Damascus and Nabatean territory would have taken place, by this reckoning, between 36-39 CE. The remaining years (39-44 CE) were likely consumed with Paul’s Tarsian and Cilician excursions until he was brought to Antioch.

Problem 3: When we move too quickly in our training we learn how to mimic other men –but not hear Jesus’ voice.

In the passages of Acts 9 and Galatians 1 we skipped an insightful few verses that explain Paul’s redirection by Jesus. For that we have to go to Acts 22. The text was one of Paul’s defenses after his arrest, and the detail he included fits exactly into the time we are looking at from his life history…

Acts 22:17 “It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, 18 and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ 19 “And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in You. 20 And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him.’ 21 “And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’

Here is the point: Paul was SO ready in the eyes of MEN to reach out to other Jews. He was a trained Pharisee. He had both the education, and the ability to lean into the Jerusalem synagogues and be heard. His voice would have been welcome in Jewish evangelism. No apostle could have been expected to do a better job in those tough rooms… yet that was not his calling. Jesus made clear that he was being sent to “pig eating pagans” instead.

Notice that even Paul OBJECTED in the passage. He was a KNOWN QUANTITY to the Jewish leadership. His transformation would have been easiest to map in front of those who knew him in his “before Jesus” days (Acts 22:19-20). Yet, Jesus commanded redirection. He commanded him AWAY from Jerusalem, and away from Jewish ministry. Paul was able to recognize the voice of Jesus, even if he couldn’t yet recognize the wisdom of God’s direction. That is what tempering does. That is what training yields. That is what transformation creates – ears to hear the Spirit’s call through the Word of God. A renewed mind is a mind that can hear from the Word of God and spiritually discern direction – in spite of the way it looks in the physical setting… but that takes time to learn.

Have you noticed that God’s early training of Paul wasn’t EASY? His training included some small successes (some people heard the Gospel and were unable to refute Paul’s testimony), but it also included things like death threats and hot retreats into the desert among strangers…Why didn’t God make it EASY for Paul? Because God is into preparation, not comfort. When everything is EASY, our growth is little. When it is hard, we learn to stand up.

Do you know how a giraffe is born? The average gestation period for giraffe is approximately 15 months (453-464 days). Giraffe gives birth at a ‘calving ground’ – mothers have been known to return to where they were born to have their own babies. In herds, calving is often synchronized to provide safety in numbers against predators. Yet, the process of having the calf seems very hard indeed! When the baby giraffe starts its journey down the birth canal, the mother seeks out a spot where there are no bushes, just flat open ground. The “momma giraffe” gives birth standing up, requiring the newborn to fall about two meters to the ground! Designed for such an abrupt entry into the world, a newborn calf can stand up and run within an hour of being born. When the calf hits the ground, it may not move of its own accord. If it rolls over and just lies there with legs all curled up under it, the momma may take her very strong legs and kick the calf, causing to fly across the dirt. If the calf does not stand up, the mother may go over and kick it again, until the calf finally stands up. She knows that the calf needs to learn, and her offspring must remember how to stand so it can save itself later in a time of danger.

Let me ask you to do something this week. “Stop asking God to end the swift kicking. Start asking Him what He has been trying to get you to learn!” And don’t forget… it will take time to soak in His Word and follow His voice… but you have His Spirit.

Look at the bright side: God didn’t make you a newborn giraffe!

Remember, God is in no hurry unfolding His outreach plan and His personnel assignments. He works at seasoning, training and sculpting carefully each servant He will use for important upcoming assignments. We need to sit in the soup and soak it in, and then allow the world to get it when it is squeezed out of us!