Selected highlights from this sermon.
While most of us can quickly recall the people who have hurt us, we often forget that we’ve hurt others. Paul is the perfect example. After all, he persecuted the church. Thankfully, God demonstrated His abounding grace through redeeming the “chief of sinners.”
We need to emulate Paul by admitting our past and clinging to grace. Will you ask forgiveness of those you’ve wronged, and try to make restitution? Today is the day.
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This is the seventh in a series of messages entitled, “Making the Best of a Bad Decision.” We all have our share of bad decisions under our belt and we’ve all done things that we regret. Today I am going to give it a different emphasis, namely, what about those decisions we have made that have hurt others?
Almost always when I preach I am talking about how to handle the hurts that others have inflicted upon us. Now I am talking about those who do the hurting. Usually there are fewer of those. You just can’t find them anywhere, but they exist. For every hurt, there is a hurter. Perhaps you have abused a child, perhaps you have been untrue to your marriage vows or perhaps you’ve hurt others because of deception, greed and pride. Today we’ve all hurt others, I’m sure. What do we do about the decisions that we have made that have hurt others? That’s the agenda.
I’m going to use the Apostle Paul as an example. I struggle with this somewhat because the example of the Apostle Paul reminds us of what he was like before he was a Christian. We are going to turn to two passages of Scripture. First of all, to the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, and then we are going to go into Timothy and find out how Paul handled his past, which hurt an awful lot of others.
If you have your Bible please turn to the ninth chapter of the book of Acts. It is a dramatic story that we need to read. At this time the Apostle Paul’s name was Saul. Later on it was changed. The Bible tells us that when Stephen was being stoned Saul was there consenting to this death. They took Stephen’s clothes and they laid them at the feet of Saul. Why did they do that? They were saying, “Look, we’ve done exactly what you wanted us to do. Aren’t you proud of us? Here are his clothes,” as they stoned Stephen.
Chapter nine of the book of Acts opens with these words: “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 flashed 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.”
In the intervening verses he meets a man by the name of Ananias who had to be convinced that Paul was converted. He thought it was a trick. The whole church thought it was a trick. Imagine if Osama Bin Laden said, “I’ve become a Christian and I’d like to attend your synagogue or your church.” We’d say, “Yeah, really? Spare me.” That’s what was in these people’s minds.
But notice what it says in the middle of verse 19: “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.”
What a conversion story! Notice how sudden it was. He’s going along and he’s struck to the ground by light. He actually sees Jesus, which we learn in another passage. He sees Jesus so clearly that later on he’ll say, “I saw Christ in the flesh.” And he was suddenly converted to Christianity and to Jesus, whom he was persecuting.
Now you and I do not have a dramatic conversion story like that, I am sure. But when we passed from death unto life we also crossed a line. We also crossed from darkness into light at a very specific point in time. Conversion happens in a moment, remember that. Birth happens in a moment or two. There may be a period of gestation and then there is growth afterward. But when Jesus said, “You must be born again,” it is an experience.
So I have to ask you, have you had the experience of being converted? Maybe you don’t’ remember the exact time, but there was a time when you were converted. It was a sudden experience.
It was also a very transforming experience, come to think of it. It transformed his mind. He thought that Jesus was a false Messiah. He couldn’t believe that Jesus who died on the cross could be the Messiah because that was a curse. And he couldn’t imagine that Messiah was to be cursed. Messiah was to be blessed; so he couldn’t accept Jesus. Now suddenly he becomes absolutely convinced that Jesus fits the picture. He fits the puzzle, and now he begins to convince people that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
It also changed his heart. He couldn’t stand these Christians; he hated them. Now he loves them. He couldn’t stand Jesus and now he loves Jesus. God changes his affections. That’s, by the way, proof that you’ve been converted. You and I can’t wake up on our own and say, “Today I am going to love Jesus.” We can wake up and say, “Today I am going to study Jesus, today I am going to admire Jesus,” but we can’t create the love out of nothing. It’s not like tap water that you can turn on and off.
When we love Jesus, when we love Him who we have not seen, it is a love that is implanted in our hearts by God. That’s why we love Him. It changed his affections. It changed the direction of his life. Now he is proclaiming Christ. It was a sudden conversion, it was a transforming conversion, and it was a lasting conversion. Paul spends the rest of his life doing this.
Have you ever noticed when somebody gets converted? Maybe it is a young person in a home where the parents aren’t saved and they say, “He’ll get over it. It’s a flash in the pan.” Well, for some it might be. For Paul it lasted until he came to the end of his life and he was able to say, “Now I am ready to be offered. The time for my departure is at hand. I have fought the fight and have kept the faith, I have finished the course. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness that the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day.” What a transformation of a life.
The question I want to ask today is how did Paul put these bad decisions, the persecution of Christians, how did he deal with his past? That’s a good question. If you are here today as an adult, you have a past. Some people’s pasts may be better than others, but we are all here. For that we turn to 1 Timothy where the apostle Paul gives us some hint regarding how he regarded his past.
In 1 Timothy chapter one, verse twelve he is writing to the young men. He writes two letters and this is the first of the two letters. Chapter one, verse twelve says, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
I love the King James at this point which says, “Of whom I am chief.” “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” No wonder he ends by saying, “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
How does Paul make the best of his past bad decisions? First of all, he admits what he did. He says, “I was a blasphemer because I spoke against Jesus.” You can blaspheme Jesus by denying his Lordship, by denying his Messiahship, which is blasphemy. Paul says, “I was a blasphemer.” He says, “I was a persecutor. I wanted to bind people and bring them to Jerusalem. I delighted in the death of Stephen. I was the one who had murderous threats in my heart. I persecuted Christians. I tried to deny the faith.”
And then he says, “I was an insolent opponent.” That’s not a word we use too often. In the Greek it means, “I was guilty of brutal violence.” It really means sadistic cruelty; the kind of person who delights in making other people squirm, who delights in the power, who delights in the revenge and loves to see others suffer. Paul says, “That’s the kind of person I was.”
Step number one: when we try to make the best of decisions that have hurt others, could we at least admit that we’ve made these decisions? It’s been my experience with people who have hurt others that you go to the person and you say, “You have hurt so and so.” You almost have to drag it out of the person like tweezers taking a sliver out of the finger because they don’t want to admit to anything. You can’t get them to.
If you’ve been guilty of hurting a child, admit your guilt. Stop what you are doing but admit your guilt. You’ve been a father that has provoked your children to anger and you’ve sent them into the far country because of your self-righteous indignation, admit your guilt. Admit who you are in the presence of God and admit your deceit. “Who shall cover his sins shall not prosper. Whoever confesses and forsakes them finds mercy.” Find mercy through honest admission and confession.
Paul also admits in the process who he was, that he was the chief of sinners. But notice how he also now speaks about God’s grace. He says, “Though I formerly was a blasphemer, but I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.”
In order to understand that verse you have to go back to the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, there were two kinds of sins. There was the sin of the high hand, the person who says, “I am shaking my fists in the face of God.” The sin of the Nietzsche who said, “If you prove God’s existence I will then believe him even less.” In other words, “Goodbye, God.” There’s that kind of sin.
Then there’s the sin of ignorance where you are genuinely misled. There is a difference. That doesn’t let you off the hook and it doesn’t mean that it isn’t sin. It is however more understandable. It is a lesser sin, if you want to put it that way. So Paul says, “I did it ignorantly in unbelief and I received mercy. I received mercy and mercy means we don’t get what we deserve.”
God says, “Saul, you deserve punishment, you deserve hell, we all do. I am going to prevent you from getting what you deserve.” That’s mercy. When we pray for America we have to pray for mercy and for justice. If we got what we deserved we probably wouldn’t be around here right now to enjoy what we are doing. So Paul says, “I received grace.”
If mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting blessings that we don’t deserve. It is God’s bountiful way of blessing us.
I want you to look at the text because the apostle Paul loved a certain preposition “huper” in Greek, from which we get “hyper.” Today we have active children. All children are active, but then you have hyperactive children. Some of you know what that’s all about. Even grandparents have to learn what that’s all about. We have sensitive people and then we have people who are hypersensitive. Let’s call the word “super” rather than “hyper.”
Paul actually on three or four occasions in the New Testament made up a word by putting a prefix before another word. There is no other example in all of Greek literature where that was done. Paul just ran out of a way to say it. So he used the word, “super” here.
Let’s look at the text. “And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ overflowed for me, with a faith and love that are in Jesus.” The word “overflow” is to “super flow.” First Thessalonians chapter one, verse three speaks of the “super” increase of faith, “I thank God that you have super faith.” He makes up a new word there, too.
Then in Ephesians chapter one, verse 19, he’s praying and he says, “I want you to know the “super” abounding power of God. I want you to know not just God’s power but his “super” power.” In Romans chapter 8, verse 37, he says that, “We are super conquerors through Jesus Christ because of him who loved us.” We are not just conquerors, Paul says. I know that we translate it, “We are more than conquerors.” That’s the way the translation gets a hold of this idea. Paul is saying, “I want you to be a super conqueror.”
For the apostle Paul everything that God did was “super.” He says, “I especially like super grace for a super sinner.” Super sinners need super grace. I love the words of Spurgeon and this is what he says: “Man piles a mountain of sin but God will match it, and he up heaves a loftier mountain with grace. Man still heaps up a larger hill of sin, but the Lord overtops it with ten times more grace. So the contest continues till at last the mighty God plucks up the mountains by the roots and buries man’s sins beneath them as a fly might be buried beneath the Alps. Abundant sin is no barrier to the super abundant grace of God.”
You know if the truth were known there would be some of you who have done some pretty terrible things. I want to take out a moment here and I want to speak first of all to the people who are listening to this in prison. We know that many people do. Did you know that there are those who huddle around their radios in prison? We know that because we get letters from them, and I have a word for the people who are in prison today.
But I also have a word for those who are listening who aren’t in prison but who should be. I want you to be listening, too. And then I have a word for those of us who probably shouldn’t be in prison but our hearts make up for an awful lot of evil. It’s a way of saying that I am speaking to all of us.
Your sin is no match for God’s super grace. You say, “Well, should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” No, God forbid. Paul says, “We should never take advantage of grace.” But no matter where you are or what your past is the apostle Paul is here to tell you that God is a super forgiver for super sinners.
Now notice that the apostle Paul admitted who he was and what he had done and he acknowledged God’s grace. But he also acknowledged God’s plan. Don’t you love it? We’re walking through the passage and your Bible is open before you. Notice it says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserves a full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
Notice it says in verse twelve, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service.” Here he takes a blasphemer, he takes a murderer, he takes somebody who enjoyed violence with sadistic delight and he so transforms him. He says, “I’ve appointed you as a minister and what I’m going to do is to use you as an example, as a super sinner, the chief of sinners. I want people to be able to understand that I can take a murderer and make him into a minister, and a persecutor can become a preacher. I’m going to choose the most unlikely candidate, the apostle Paul, and I’m going to show my mercy to him. I’m going to consider him to be the chief of sinners.”
God did this because he knew that in the third millennium there would be some women, some young mothers who have had abortions who wonder whether or not God can forgive them. There are also some men who have lived immorally. They’ve ruined lives and they’ve brought children into this world that they are not caring for and they’ve messed up other people’s lives. They are going to wonder, “Is there hope for me?” God says, “If you’re looking for the super sinner, sorry, I’ve already given that award to somebody that I chose to save and to show my grace to – the apostle Paul.”
Why do you think Jesus appeared to Paul like this, to Saul on the way? This was an unusual thing. It wasn’t somebody snuggling up to him and saying, “Say, have you heard of the four spiritual laws?” This was really quite different. He’s riding along, he wants to kill Chrisitians, he wants to take them bound to Jerusalem, and suddenly a light comes and Jesus appears to him and says, “Who are you?” He says, “I’m Jesus. You’re the one persecuting me because when you hurt my body you are hurting me. So I am the one you have to deal with.” He begins to recognize this is the Lord.
Why did God do it that way? Probably because there was nobody around who would have had the nerve to witness to this guy. Who in the world would want to go to the Apostle Paul and give him a witness? Who would want to go, to use the analogy, to Osama Bin Laden and say, “Would you love to believe on Jesus?” They would say, “Hey, this guy is beyond hope. He’s set in his mind and he’s a violent man. You let him be.”
Jesus says, “I want to choose somebody who is really rotten. I want to choose somebody who is deep in the pit and I want to exalt him to prove to people what I can do with the chief of sinners. I am going to have to do this one Myself.” And so Jesus comes down from heaven, speaks to the Apostle Paul, and he is radically converted.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what did Paul do in relationship to his past, in relationship to others? Did he ask forgiveness of those whose lives he ruined? There were some who were killed and he couldn’t do anything about that. The Bible doesn’t tell us probably because of problems with geography and length of time and the whole bit.
But, I have no doubt that if he had the opportunity he would have because remember this is the same apostle Paul who wrote in the book of Ephesians, “Lay aside all bitterness and all wrath and all clamor and all evil speaking and be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” That’s Paul, tenderhearted. So tender that if a leaf would fall on his heart it would leave an imprint.
He’s the same apostle Paul who wrote in the book of Galatians, “When a brother is overtaken with a fault, restore him with a spirit of meekness, knowing that you could be in the same predicament.” The Greek word “restore” was often used for setting a bone. I’ve never had a bone set but I suppose that if you break your bone you don’t want somebody in there with a crowbar trying to get this thing to set. You would want tenderness.
Some of you listening to this message today have broken bones. Others have broken bones because others have broken your bones, but you’ve also broken other people’s bones. The apostle Paul would say, “Make sure to set this very, very carefully.” If you’ve wronged someone admit it, and not just superficially. You say, “Well I might have done something wrong.” What do you mean you might have? Just say, “I did it,” and feel the other person’s pain.
I think of a man who is in his 80s, a father who really abused his children. He is dying now as a believer and he has kind of said he’s sorry. Think about how different it would be if he got down on his knees and said, “Kids, please forgive me. I wronged you terribly.” And whenever necessary what we need to do is to make sure that we even make restitution to set those bones.
If you’ve stolen something think of ways in which you might be able to give it back. If you’ve hurt someone do what you can to make it right. There are some situations that you can’t straighten out, I realize that. People may have died or circumstances may have changed such that there is nothing you can do. But, we all need to be sure that we’ve done whatever possible to be restored to our sin and our part in hurting others, and we ask forgiveness that we might be forgiven as God has forgiven us.
Well, it’s a marvelous story of grace, isn’t it? I end today with a story of a man who wrote to me from prison. Perhaps you’ve heard me mention it before. He wrote to me sometime ago and said, “Pastor Lutzer I was listening to you on the radio and I have raped four women. That’s why I’m in jail. Can I too be forgiven?”
That’s a good question. Something within us wants to say, “I hope not because you deserve hell.” He does and so do we. I wrote back and I said, “I want you to visualize two trails. One trail is a very messy trail with deep ruts that go down deep. It’s just a muddy trail. The other trail is very well traveled. Now visualize that eighteen inches of snow come and cover both trails. Can you tell the difference between that trail and this trail after the snow arrives? They are all the same.”
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow, though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” God can forgive you and cover your sin. Through Jesus Christ the chief of sinners was converted and God can covert you, too, and forgive you so that you can solicit the forgiveness and grace of others. He has super, abounding grace for super sinners.
Let’s pray. Father, we now ask in the name of Jesus that You might work in all hearts who listened. And before I close this prayer, what is it that you need to say to God today? You may be here and you’re not converted at all. There was never a time when you believed in Jesus. Why don’t you do that right where you are? Simply say, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Save me. I acknowledge You as Lord, as my Savior right now.” “For those of us who know Him, may we do all that we can to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Father, we are a needy people. We believe lies that we tell ourselves. We need a revelation of Jesus; we need a revelation of truth. Would You do that, we pray, in Jesus name’ amen.”
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