Saul is an educated Jewish person who moves in the circles of power in Jerusalem. He is appalled at the people who claim to 'follow Jesus' and preach 'Jesus as Lord'. He sees them as deluded and dangerous, distracting people from the true Jewish faith. He is a man on a mission, and pro-active with it. He gets permission to widen his operations, to round up believers he has heard are now in Damascus.
But on his journey there God intervenes. A bright flashing light brings him to the ground. There Jesus speaks directly to him: 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'. Saul gets a direct conversation with Jesus - but the key words are from Jesus: 'I am Jesus ...'. That is enough to cut any argument, and move on to direct instruction. Saul does what he is told - though since he is now blind he kind of has little option!
Last week we heard about Cornelius and Peter. We saw that the Spirit was way ahead of Peter, working in Cornelius. This story of Saul also has the Spirit working: a believer called Ananias has a vision where he is told about Saul. Meanwhile Saul has another vision to tell him to expect Ananias. See how in these stories the Spirit clearly directs: in fact literally - to the right house! Yet also directing for a personal connection from one believer to a new believer - ensuring that there personal connection between people.
God wants relationship with Him (vertical), yet He also wants relationship from person to person (horizontal). Of course God could have intervened with either of Saul and Cornelius in visions to lead them direct to relationship with Him (with no human contact). Yet God doesn't do that - the Spirit deliberately arranges things for connection ... the basis of 'church'.
At first Ananias questions the vision, not surprising, since the reputation of Saul has gone before him. Yet the Spirit says "Go!". Sometimes we just need to go without asking questions ...
Ananias goes to Saul. He lays hands on him for healing, for the filling of the Spirit, and then baptism, followed by ongoing nourishment. Note the key role Ananias has here in setting a spiritual milestone in the life of Saul with the healing, filling and water baptism. Ananias had to act decisively and definitively. Just think - he could have visited Saul and said "so you have had a bit of a spiritual experience ... tell me about it ...". He could have then listened and finished with "that sounds interesting, go away and ponder ...". No! This was not the time for pondering, it was the time to speak restoration in the name of Jesus, to invite the Holy Spirit, and to baptise!
As Christians we need to learn the skill of sealing with a person what the Spirit is doing, for example leading in a prayer of commitment, helping them 'cross the line' from unbelief to belief. The steps are these:
- Recognise the moment
- Explain carefully (give a mini-gospel summary)
- Ask if the person is ready
- Explain how (talk through the commitment prayer, that you will pray line by line and invite them to repeat)
- Check again if they are ready
- Lead them through ...
Notice there are two points of asking/checking if they are ready: we don't want to force anyone. If they really are not ready, then back off! If they are ready, then the commitment prayer has no magic words, but simply something along the lines of thanking God for sending Jesus, recognising wrong in our lives, saying sorry for it, asking Jesus to come into my life, and declaring a desire to follow from here on in. After leading in that kind of prayer, then immediately pray directly for the person, inviting the Spirit to fill and affirm then. Then wait a bit ... and finally ask them how they are doing, and unpack further from there.
In the story of Saul he goes from persecutor to believer (and preacher) very very quickly. Of course not everyone goes that quick. Remember that even Saul had his Jewish faith pedigree, and Cornelius had already been 'seeking' for some time. For most of us ... it is a journey. Elim evangelist Mark Greenwood has helpful terminology of 'Big Yes', 'Little Yes' and 'Healthy Maybes'. We have just described the 'Big Yes' moment, of asking Jesus into a life. Yet along the way people may effectively say "I'm going to find out more ...". These are 'Little Yes' moments (there may be many). For people much further back, they may not be actively interested, but perhaps they can agree to be open-minded - this is a 'Healthy Maybe' response. The Spirit can work with that, moving through a number of Little Yes moments to that Big Yes to Jesus.
Finally another useful way of understanding is Singlehurst's Level 1, 2 and 3. Level 1 is where unbelievers meet Christians and simply find that they are 'okay', and worth talking to. Level 2 is an environment where questions can be explored and challenge dropped in. Level 3 is an unbeliever actively seeking, e.g. an Alpha course. At Countess Free Church our Imagine events, and new forms of small group like Fast Food can give those level 2 occasions.
On these faith journeys ultimately it is the work of the Spirit deep on someone's heart. We can in no way manufacture that. Yet we can help make the journey, suggesting stages, laying marker posts, and ultimately help setting a big stake in the ground for someone - a key moment of saying 'Yes' to Jesus. God is able to turn Saul from persecutor to preacher. Let us learn to recognise the Spirit's activity in people and go with it, helping lay the land-marks that they will look back on for years to come.