Saul was a terrorist. His mission in life was to terminate everyone who believed in Jesus. It was an obsession. He breathed hatred for Christians. He despised them so much he wanted to rid the earth of them. He went from town to town on search and destroy missions. He would crash their meetings, torture them, and haul them off to prison. At their trials, he used his influence to have them executed. Saul viciously led his terror squads to attempt to annihilate the people who followed Jesus.
He hated the Christians so much because he hated Jesus of Nazareth. He believed that Jesus was a dangerous cult leader. A sham Messiah. A liar. A rip-off. He believed Jesus was an enemy of the status-quo, the time-tested and time-honored religion and way of life of his nation. Saul despised Jesus because he made the blasphemous claim to be the Son of God in the flesh. Jesus had been executed; so, at least, he was gone. But his influence did not die with him. So Saul took on the mission to obliterate the name of Jesus from his culture. He was willing to do whatever that took. If it meant killing every person who gave allegiance to the dead prophet, so be it. Saul’s mind became programmed with one radical objective: TERMINATE JESUS-FOLLOWERS.
One of his brutal assaults was targeted for Christians in the city of Damascus, which is over 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem, where this Terrorist was headquartered. Saul was not satisfied just for Christians to leave his community. He wanted to find them and destroy them wherever they went. He assembled his death-squad; they gathered provisions and the legal papers they would need and advanced on Damascus.
On the way, the Terrorist got the shock of his life. He was traveling on the road, and it was about noon. The sun was high in the sky. Suddenly there was another light in the sky – even brighter than the sun. It beamed down, like a huge laser, and surrounded Saul and his men. It must have hit him square in the face – before he could blink he was blinded. And it knocked him to the ground. Saul, the fearsome terrorist, lay in the road quivering in fright. The fierce, flashing, pulsating light of Heaven seemed to burn away every shadow.
Then a voice spoke: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Why are you trying to get rid of me?
Saul responded: “Wh-, wh-, who are you?”
The voice answered: “Jesus.”
Jesus? The one who came from Nazareth and did miracles? The one who said obeying all those religious requirements don’t get you anywhere? The one who claimed he was the way to God because he was the Son of God? The one who alleged himself to be the King of God’s Kingdom? The one who was crucified and buried?
That’s the one.
You’re supposed to be dead and gone.
Now this could be trouble. Jesus is alive and well, present in radiant, divine glory, speaking from Heaven. Saul has been trashing his followers. It’s like if you took a sledgehammer and smashed up a car, believing some wimpy dork owns it, then you find out it belongs to Darth Vader. Yep, this could be trouble.
Jesus did have more to say to Saul. Summed up it was: “Saul, I want you.”
And the brilliant glory of Jesus shined into the Terrorist’s heart. It pierced the darkness of his arrogance and hatred. It lasered through his pride and anger. It penetrated to the core of his soul and bathed his deepest need. Saul did not feel condemnation, revenge, or judgment from Jesus. Later on, he told a friend, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14, NIV) “Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.” (The Message)
(Saul On the Road to Damascus by Richard Serrin)
Jesus morphed the Terrorist. What Saul was looking for, working for, fighting for, killing for – to be right with God – was given to him by grace. That transformed him from the inside out. He made a 180 degree turn of his life and started in a new direction. His mind was reprogrammed with a new passion, a holy mission. His heart was radicalized from hatred and violence to love and care. Jesus morphed the Terrorist.
Think about the kind of vision of Jesus that began the change for Saul. It was not seeing the sweet baby Jesus in a manger. It was not hearing the great Teacher explain the standards of morality that ought to be obeyed. It was not seeing an example of how to get along with people. It was not hearing “just follow your heart.” It was not finding out how to be more religious. It was not a bland, inoffensive Jesus. It was not a Jesus who was pretty much the same as everyone else. It was not a Jesus who could be taken or left, and it doesn’t really matter. It was not a Jesus who compromised and commercialized his holiness. It was not a Jesus who could be used, manipulated, or fooled. But it was not a Jesus who led an armed militia forcing opponents to submit or die. It was not a Jesus who threatened and demanded and fought fire with fire, terrorism with terrorism.
The vision that changed Saul was the real Jesus. Risen from the dead, exalted to the throne of Heaven, reigning until he puts all his enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25). Jesus who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus who is absolute righteousness and holiness. Jesus who unimaginably and unconditionally loves – not loves “if” or loves “when” or loves “because” or loves “but” – loves, period. Jesus whose passion for people is both intensely ferocious and gently merciful. Jesus who downpours extravagant grace and excessive kindness. Jesus who is the wonder of the universe – transcendent, magnificent, splendid, awesome, majestic, glorious.
Saul surrendered his heart to that Jesus and was radically changed. He stopped terrorizing Christians. In fact, he joined up with them and, in time, became one of their leaders and shared his story and the good news about Jesus wherever he went. But that’s not the half of it.
When Saul became a Christian, he gave up terrorism, but he still had enemies. The ones who still hated Jesus and his followers. His fellow Jewish religious leaders. His own countrymen. They went after Saul almost everywhere he went. They threatened him, ambushed him, jailed him, flogged him, beat him with rods, chased him out of town. They terrorized him.
This is what he said about them: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4).
Do you get what he’s saying? He said he would be willing to be “cut off from Christ” for the benefit of those who were terrorizing him. He would be willing to give up his own relationship with Jesus – his own salvation, his eternal life – if that could bring them to their own faith in Jesus.
Saul did not just switch sides and keep fighting. He did not just change the target of his hatred and hostility. If that’s all he did, he would not have been a changed man. But he was changed. He gave up hatred and hostility and looked at his enemies the same way Jesus looked at him. He didn’t call them “terrorists.” He called them “brothers.” Even though they hated him and wanted him dead, he cared for them and wanted them to find the “grace mixed with faith and love” that he had received from Jesus. That’s how radical the change was.
Could this man be an example and inspiration for us? Could the change he experienced and the love he developed help us deal with terrorists in 2016? I believe in self-defense. I believe evil people need to be stopped, sometimes with deadly force. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. That’s not the complete answer. The ultimate solution involves transformation, not just termination. We who have had abundant grace poured out on us from Christ and have believed in him so he can change us really need to let that affect our attitudes and goals related to the terrorism and violence and hostility that disturb the world. It’s very complex and I don’t know how to work out all the specific actions. However I know it’s critical that we believe in and follow the real Jesus and that we accept his Kingdom priorities for our own.
(Saul’s story can be read here: Acts 9:1-20, Acts 22:4-16, and Acts 26:9-19)
Jesus was different. He wasn’t an establishment-person. He did not maintain the status quo. He did not approve just any and everything that makes people feel good about themselves. He came into a world of acceptable behavior, comfortable traditions and established cultural values – just like our age. He started taking the system apart. Ripped at its foundation. Turned its values upside down and inside out. Jesus was the most countercultural character who walked planet. He followed an alternative lifestyle. On the edge. Beyond imagination. Shocking and offensive.
Here’s the real shock – he expects us to live his way. In fact, we’re not living unless we do. We’re not being fully human unless we follow Jesus’ alternative lifestyle. He loves so much that he calls us to live the only way that frees us to be what God created us to be.
Mark 9:30-31. Jesus was teaching his followers some alternatives to the lifestyle they and we usually follow. From here to the end of chapter, he challenges to adopt four alternatives.
People prefer to keep safe. Stay in our comfort zones, taking care of ourselves. Not Jesus. Mark 9:31-32.
Jesus’ alternative to safety is risk. He put himself on the line. He knew it would cost his life. Someone would turn against him and he would die. But he would gain the final victory – resurrection.
Jesus didn’t stay in the comfort zone of Heaven or even religion. He chose the alternative – death on a cross. The reason for that was to ransom many (Mark 10:45). He took the risk of suffering and death to pay for the spiritual freedom of guilty sinners. Yours. Mine. Everyone’s. Jesus did not play it safe – he gave up his life so we can be free.
His disciples didn’t understand and were afraid to ask him to explain. Why were they afraid? Probably they figured out what his betrayal and killing meant for them. He was their Leader – if he dies, their lives are at risk. Better not ask, maybe it will go away. They sensed he was leading them out of safety. Of course, he was, and still does. He leads us out of comfort zones. He calls us to this alternative lifestyle: putting ourselves on the line instead of staying safe.
The other alternatives show ways that’s put into practice.
Mark 9: 33-37. The status quo lifestyle is competition. Those disciples were masters of it. “I’m a good disciple.” “Maybe so but I’m the best.” “Nuh-uh! My discipling is way better!” Later Jesus asked about their conversation. They played dumb. We do, too. “Me – think I’m better? No way.” Come on, get real. Sure we compete. Don’t you think your opinion is closer to being right than anyone else’s? We compete in a thousand ways. It’s what made America great!
Jesus’ alternative to competition is service. Not being first – not getting attention, not getting my way, not being taken care of. Instead – being last, being a servant, a servant to everyone. Jesus drove it in deep – be a servant to children, the smallest and least powerful – the ones who can’t do anything for you.
Another way the system works is with cliques, clubs, loops, networks, denominations, elitism, races. If you are like me, then I like you, and we can hang out. If you’re not like me, please go away.
Jesus’ alternative to this rejection is acceptance. Mark 9:38-41.
The establishment way of living is to stay with your own kind, your own group and reject everyone else. Here’s a major flaw in the American church system – we require people who come in to become like us, and if they don’t, we can’t have fellowship and unity and peace with them. Jesus shattered that value system. Give a cup of water to people who are different – make a way to accept each other. He brings all of us together in himself.
Now, all traditional lifestyles are built on one common premise. Whether it’s living as a homosexual or neo-nazi or democrat or republican or red-neck or city-slicker or goth or geek or cowgirl or conservative or liberal, whatever, the systems people live by look worlds apart, but they’re built on the same principle. Self-indulgence. Whatever feels right and good to me, that’s what I’m going to indulge. Here’s Jesus’ alternative to that: Mark 9:42-49.
Okay, start slicing and dicing. No, he’s not telling us to eliminate people or mutilate our bodies. He’s telling us to stop accommodating whatever causes us to get it wrong. Stop indulging our sinful impulses. His alternative to self-indulgence is brokenness. Instead of embracing then excusing our self-centeredness, our rebellion against God, we need to admit it’s wrong and remove it.
The status-quo says be yourself, follow whatever feelings and thoughts you have, celebrate your inner drives. Jesus’ alternative says weep, mourn, wail because there is something wrong with me. Go to whatever extent is necessary to change. Whatever is in me that has no part in my relationship with God and new life in Christ must be removed. “Everyone will be salted by fire.” God will put everyone through a refining process, so we will see the wrong that’s in us and come to a brokenness over it and get rid of it.
Jesus finished his talk about this alternative lifestyle in Mark 9:50.
Having salt in you means having a unique, special character. You will agree with Jesus to live by risk instead of safety, by service instead of competition, by acceptance instead of rejection, by brokenness instead of self-indulgence – the most unique way of living, for sure. And it means you can “be at peace with each other.” You can have a life that’s new and that brings loving fellowship with others – the most alternative lifestyle of all.
By the time Jesus had finished living and teaching his alternative lifestyle, his disciples had not gotten it. The night before he was arrested and executed they argued, again, about which one was the best disciple (Luke 22:24). They didn’t get it. Didn’t live it. Then something happened. Jesus was betrayed and killed. He did rise from the dead. Eleven of those men and several others committed themselves to him and his way of life. Then the Spirit of God entered their lives and changed them. Jesus’ alternative lifestyle became theirs. It takes inside change. We will be establishment, status-quo, world-system dominated until we allow Christ to actually change us inside by his Spirit. And at the end of that long process, we will be what God created us to be.