God Delivers Us Out of Futility

Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
— Acts 7:58 - 8:3

Saul (who eventually becomes Paul) was a person who had a passion and goal to serve God in any way that he felt God intended. He counted himself among the best of observers of Jewish law and service to God, calling himself a Hebrew of Hebrews, claiming his rank in the tribe of Benjamin (the only tribe to stand by Judah in the old testament when the tribe of Judah stood against the kingdom of Israel), claiming to be faultless and righteous, zealous and passionate in doing the things of God (more background on Paul’s claims of lineage and authority here) His name means, ‘asked for’, which communicates a position of power or demand - important and recognized.

Saul was a big deal and he had huge dreams he felt were straight from the Lord in what he was called or intended to do with his life. His passion and zeal for a pure Jewish religion and community lead him to the insane dream of killing and imprisoning the Christians to destroy the following. He was excited, proud, and commended by others by following this dream but he was wrong - this dream was not from God and was not to be pursued. He gave into the darkness of the passions of his own heart and pretended those desires were the dreams God had for him to pursue.

More on “following our dreams” and a Christian understanding of this sometime misguided cultural principle.

Saul needed to be delivered from himself and the futility for which he was living his life based on the misplaced “dreams” he was pursuing. His supposed love of God turned into the active hatred of men. As he saw himself being more useful for God’s purposes in his own eyes, he was becoming less and less useful for God’s purposes in reality. Then God changed everything:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Acts 9:1-9

God literally let Saul see the fullness of the darkness he was heading toward with his actions. The one who was ‘asked for’ was now blind and unable to eat, or drink, being lead around and dependent on others to guide him to where he needed to be.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

Saul Proclaims Jesus in Synagogues

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Saul Escapes from Damascus

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him,but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

Saul in Jerusalem

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

Acts 9:10-31

As Saul continues on his missionary journey Luke begins to refer to him as Paul (Acts 13) which would have been his Greek name given at birth along with his Hebrew name. Oddly enough, this name translates roughly to “humble, or small”. Let me be clear, God did not change the name of Saul to Paul at his conversion - he always had these two names (See here). The significance here, though, is the duality of meanings like the fight we have with our nature. Saul is “asked for” and important while Paul is “humble and small”, there is a drastic change in the meaning AND the way the individual views themselves.

Think of all the power and authority Paul had as the persecutor of the church. Suddenly all of that changed and he becomes the one persecuted by the Jews who seek to kill him! His former dreams would bring him glory, recognition, power, money, honor and fame. When God gives him a real dream from God his dreams would bring him hardship, persecution, stoning, beatings, prison, trials, shipwrecks and disdain (2 Corinthians 11). God delivers Paul over from himself (the self important version), his futile dreams (the dreams of Saul), and drives of life.

Paul counts it all as loss and goes from this:

. . . though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

to this

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ

both passages Philippians 3:3-8

Like Paul, our own desires and goal are often the inhibitor to our experiencing the joy and fulfillment of walking after Jesus and experiencing HIS mission and dream for our life. When God finally asked for the one who was named Saul (asked for), He was made humble and small (Paul) so that the mission, vision, purpose, power, and work of God could be clearly seen by those who witnessed his life.

I shared a post recently on facebook which states, “If following Jesus Christ hasn’t cost you anything, it is because you bought into American Christianity”. The point is that when we make Christianity about our goals and dreams and desires, like Saul made his walk with God about what he wanted to do, we miss out on the life transforming work of God. When we make our walk with Christ about His goals and dreams and desires, God delivers us from ourselves and allows the joy and peace of God to completely saturate our lives - even in the midst of the great trial and difficulty we face in following Jesus in this world. God delivers us out of a futile life of pursuing empty promises and delivers us into a life of fulfillment, purpose, and meaning lived out through His strength. The best part, no matter who you are or where you are, God can make you useful for His purposes when you trust Him to deliver you from yourself.

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me
— Philippians 4:12-13 ; Galatians 2:20

Scriptures Used in this Post:

Acts 7:58 - 8:3
Acts 9:1-9
Acts 9:10-31
2 Corinthians 11
Philippians 3:3-8
Philippians 4:12-13
Galatians 2:20