In the days and weeks immediately following the resurrection, the news of the resurrection and its meaning spread like wildfire. The Good News, the message of life, changed more people every day. Every day new followers joined what was called the Way. In other words, they believed in Jesus and became a part of His Body, the Church.
However, explosive growth and growing popularity also meant growing opposition and alarm among the religious leaders, starting with the High Priest.
The opposition was serious. A righteous and good man, Stephen, was killed. Stephen was stoned for His testimony for Christ, becoming the first person to give His life for the name of Jesus.
Stephen’s death was a turning point. From that day on, intense persecution broke out against the followers of the Way in Jerusalem. As a result, the Way, or Christianity, quickly spread throughout the region as those who believed in Jesus fled Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, there was a man who was particularly zealous in persecuting believers. His name was Saul. Acts 8:3 tells us, “But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.”
The opposition did not stop the spread of the message of life. It hastened the spread of the message of life. Therefore, the persecution intensified. Acts 9:1 tells us, “Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.” We see the intensity of the opposition as Saul was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. Furthermore, this was not limited to Jerusalem, and it was not limited to Saul. Saul sought and received the High Priest’s endorsement or authorization to pursue the Lord’s followers to Damascus. This means he desired to travel 135 miles to pursue and imprison believers, and the High Priest approved.
This opposition to the message of life existed from the beginning. The High Priest that gave the letters to Saul was the same High Priest that was part of crucifying Jesus. Furthermore, this opposition has not let off or abated from that day to the present. Geographically, it has shifted to different parts of the globe. At the present, we do not face persecution here in the United States. However, our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are being slaughtered. Our brothers and sisters in North Korea are being imprisoned. Open Doors, a ministry to the persecuted church says:
“According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world's population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. (Open Doors, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/#where).”
Opposition to the message of life takes many forms. Persecution is not limited to imprisonment and death. There is economic persecution. Let’s face it, wherever God is at work there is opposition. It may be emotional, economic or physical. However, it is always spiritual.
We are talking about opposition, but we have not mentioned the opponent.
When Jesus confronted Saul, He said, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) Jesus did not say, “Why are you opposing my message?” This is because the opposition was personal. The opposition was against a person, Jesus Christ. In the same way, the opponent is personal. It is not Saul. It is not the High Priest. Saul, himself, later wrote, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) The Apostle Peter put it in these words, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Whenever God works in our lives, we will face opposition. We have a great enemy, our opponent, who is also God’s opponent. We are involved in a great war. We did not start it. It was happening before we were born. However, the war is already won.
Look at how easily Jesus won in Saul’s case. The Church’s greatest persecutor became her greatest evangelist. We do not even know him by the name Saul, but rather by his Greek name, Paul. His life was transformed by Jesus. In spite of all the opposition of the opponent, Saul was completely changed.
When Stephen died, the enemy did not win. We do not understand why God takes some home and leaves others here. However, we do know, “that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28)
When Saul met with Jesus on the road to Damascus, it was meant for Saul. The others who were with Saul heard the voice but they did not see anything. However, Saul, himself, fell to the ground. He was given basic instructions, but when Jesus left, Saul was blind. He had to be led by the hand the rest of the way to Damascus where he waited for 3 days. The others saw nothing and were not blinded.
We are told that Paul was praying while he waited. From what Jesus told Ananias, Saul also had a vision during these days of waiting.
God spoke to a man named Ananias, and told him to go and pray for Saul. Notice Ananias’ reaction. He said, “But Lord, I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.” (Acts 9:13-14)
In spite of every human indication, Saul was God’s chosen instrument. In spite of all the opposition that the opponent had put in Saul’s heart, God had a plan. Listen to what God said to Ananias:
But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
There are several things that we can learn about how God works to overcome the opposition in our lives.
First, He chooses us individually. Just as the meeting on the Damascus Road was meant for Saul, we all have moments and times meant just for us. In fact, God warns us, "Today when you hear his voice, don't harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled." (Hebrews 3:15) I am not aware of Jesus appearing to any other person on the road to Damascus. Each person’s experience is unique. You may not believe your experience is as dramatic as Saul’s, but remember who it is that is speaking to you. It is Jesus, the Creator, the God of the Universe. Instead of thinking about the drama, think about the significance of Who it is that is speaking and do not harden your heart.
The next thing we learn about how God works to overcome the opposition in our lives is He gives us new vision. Saul first lost his vision. Everything He thought he understood and saw in his world changed, both physically and spiritually. Physically he was blind, but he also understood his spiritual blindness. Up to the point he met Jesus, Saul thought he saw things spiritually. This is why he persecuted the followers of Jesus. He thought they were poisoning the true faith. He thought they were blaspheming heretics. This is essentially why believers are persecuted today, and it is essentially why we oppose the work of God in our lives. It is unbelief and it is spiritual blindness. Saul was spiritually blind and he became physically blind. God gave him new vision in both realms. God may not take away our physical vision, but He will certainly make us aware of our spiritual blindness. This is part of overcoming the opposition. 2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us:
Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.
The third thing we learn about how God works to overcome opposition in our lives is that He requires us to wait on Him.
For Saul, this meant praying and fasting for three days in Damascus. He was blind, and not having been blind before, he was helpless. All he could do was wait. He did not know what to do next, so he sought God. God then gave him a vision of Ananias coming and praying for him. So, he waited.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture says:
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31, KJV)
Waiting on the Lord is not necessarily inactivity, but sometimes it is. It just means trusting Him and obeying Him. Saul was told to wait, but he continued in prayer and seeking the Lord. Praying is more than just asking God for things to make our lives easier. It is more than letting God know what we want. I can hardly pray without my Bible open in front of me, because it is how I interact with God. The Psalms are rich with prayers and praises. The epistles are full of instruction and encouragement. The Gospels show me Jesus. The Bible is certainly part of waiting on the Lord, and so is obedience, doing what we are told. The one thing God requires of us is faith. He says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Also, Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. Abraham was counted righteous because of his faith.
The fourth thing we learn about how God works to overcome opposition in our lives is that he gives purpose and meaning.
For Saul, this meant that he would suffer for the name of Jesus. This might not seem thrilling to you and me, but Saul is the one who from jail wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He is also the one who said:
I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! (Philippians 3:10-11)
When God works to transform us, there is always opposition. The truth is the opponent is behind it, but rejoice because God has overcome the opponent. The opposition can be others or it can be our own reluctance to obey and believe. I want to close with the words of a song, “Trust and obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.