LIGHT IN THE MIDST OF DARKNESS
Written by Doug Ponder on March 31, 2013
The Light of Justice
Judges don’t have easy jobs. They’re tasked with patiently hearing the evidence of a trial in order to make a decision that represents the interests of an entire society. That’s a tall order to fill. Imagine how stressful it must have been, therefore, for the men who were going to oversee the apostle Paul’s trial. They have repeatedly said that Paul hadn’t done anything worthy of death (Acts 25:18, 25). Indeed, despite the Jewish leaders repeated cries for Paul’s death (25:24), the officials still couldn’t find any charges serious enough to send him off to the emperor (25:26-27).
Imagine how that letter would have gone. “Most excellent Nero, High Priest and Son of God, we deliver this man to you on the following grounds: Uh… Well, we… Umm, the truth is we, uh, we don’t really have a good reason for sending him to you.” I doubt a man like Nero, who thought of himself as being divine, would have liked to be troubled with such a thing. That’s why Paul was being tried yet again. Perhaps this time they can ferret out some reason for punishment.
Jesus’ Resurrection Changed Everything
Paul began his defense. It was all the usual stuff: he’s not guilty of blaspheming God; he believed what his Jewish countrymen only said they believed; and though he once persecuted followers of Jesus mercilessly, his hope was now in the resurrection of Jesus himself.
For a third time in the book of Acts we read Paul’s story of how the risen Jesus turned his life upside down. In a blinding light with a voice from heaven, Jesus confronted Paul’s misguided religious zeal. Far from being in the right, Paul learned that by opposing followers of Jesus he was opposing the will of the Lord himself. Paul explains that Jesus went on to say this: Rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:16-18).
Not wanting to disobey the Lord, Paul did just as Jesus commanded him. He said, “[I] declared . . . that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (25:20-23).
But with those words, the officials decided they had heard enough. “You’re crazy, Paul. Your so-called “great learning” is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24). Paul probably thought back to what he had already said to the court: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (26:8).
If they would only listen to Paul’s powerful story of change. If they would only trust the hundreds of eyewitnesses who had seen Jesus after he was raised from the dead. If they could only see what God had done for them in Jesus, surely they would see their need to repent and live a life in step with the good news about God’s kingdom.
Coming to Light
You see, Paul understood, contrary to what his persecutors believed, his real problem was that his entire life, until the moment Jesus appeared to him, was fundamentally directed toward all the wrong goals for all the wrong reasons. He had placed his trust in his own self-righteousness, hoping that his goodness would earn God’s favor (Phil. 3:3-6). This zeal led him to do all kinds of horrible things in the name of God (just as it does many people still today).
But after Jesus appeared personally to him, Paul “saw the light” in more ways than one. He came to see that that his attempts to earn God’s favor were completely out of touch with how God actually works. More than that, Paul now understood that his former life was actually being lived under the power of Satan, the accuser and the enemy of God’s people (cf. Acts 26:18; Eph. 2:1-3). It’s a scary thing to realize that you’ve been working for the enemy all along.
What was Paul to do? He needed to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15), just as all of Jesus’ followers had done before him. This was the good news that God forgives sinners, people like Paul and you and me, people who don’t deserve to be forgiven but will be because of Jesus. It’s also the good news that death has been defeated. The resurrection of Jesus is proof that death doesn’t have power over us anymore. Like Jesus (and because of Jesus), we too will be raised to share in God’s new world.
Light of the World, Salt of the Earth
When you’ve been told news as wonderful as that, it hardly needs to be said that you should go about sharing it with others. But just in case we’re tempted to be lazy or selfish or cowardly, Jesus throws in a command for good measure. Just as he appointed Paul to be a witness to the things he had seen and heard and a servant to those who did not yet believe, he has appointed us to do the same (Matt. 28:18-20; John 14:12-13; Acts 1:8).
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). More than that, Jesus says we actually become the light of the world (his witnesses) and the salt of the earth (his servants) thanks to his work in our lives. And just as Paul was before us, we are called to live in such a way that others see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).
For Your Consideration
As you humbly assess your life in light of all that Jesus did and said, you are faced with a choice: you can continue to walk in darkness, or you can follow Jesus in faith and obedience. His death shows us the cost of God’s forgiveness of sins, and his life shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness. His resurrection shows us that though death, deceit, corruption and despair appear to have the last word in this world, God really has raised Jesus from the dead and given him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:8-11).
Will you go to your Lord to find grace and mercy? Will you be a witness and servant on his behalf?
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.