On the road to Damascus

After more than 3 years the civil war in Syria between government forces and the rebels continues. More than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million men, women and children, have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Within Syria itself 4 million people have had to move from their homes and are now displaced. Heavy bombing has devastated the cities of Aleppo and Homs, killing and injuring thousands of people. Large parts of these, and other, cities have been virtually destroyed. There seems no prospect of an end to the conflict and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Is it possible for people whose hearts are filled with hatred to be changed? Yes it is. The conversion of the apostle Paul is a great example. He was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, when he had a life changing encounter with Jesus. Paul was extremely zealous for his Jewish faith and lived according to very strict religious laws. He hated Jesus and violently persecuted Christians. He wanted to destroy the church.

He was travelling to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, both men and women, and take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the Damascus Road he met the living Lord. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Saul lost his sight and had to be led by the hand into Damascus. After 3 days the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to visit Saul. He placed his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight, was baptised, and began proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. Saul was a changed man and, despite great suffering, preached the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire for the rest of his life.

The good news about Jesus is a life transforming message. Those who receive Jesus as their Saviour are forgiven and begin a new life. An inner, heart change takes place. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” When this happens in places of conflict today, those who become Christians often find their lives are in danger from their old friends, who consider them traitors. Yet they continue faithfully to follow Jesus, whatever the cost, because he “loved them and gave himself for them” and taught them to “love their enemies.”

Because I live, you also will live

The joyful message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!” On the third day after Jesus died the women went to the tomb early in the morning, just before sunrise. They had bought spices and were going to anoint Jesus’ body. As they walked they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

When they arrived at the tomb, however, they saw that the very large stone had been rolled away from the entrance. They went into the tomb, but did not see Jesus’ body. Two men, in clothes that gleamed like lightning, appeared to them and asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!” The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples the news, but they did not believe them, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Later in the day Jesus appeared to the disciples personally. Then they knew that he really had been raised from the dead.

The resurrection transformed Jesus’ disciples. They were devastated when they saw him condemned and crucified. They saw the body of the One who was so full of life, and who brought blessing to so many, hanging lifeless on the cross. They were broken-hearted. The hopes Jesus had kindled in them died when he died, but when they saw their risen Lord their hopes returned with new reality and power. Jesus sent them out to proclaim to all people the good news that he had died for our sins and been raised again to give us a living hope. The lives of countless people, from all nations, have been transformed as they have believed in the risen Jesus.

Last week my wife and I went to a thanksgiving service for the life of a dear friend who has died from cancer. She was a young person in our first church and, as a teenager, trusted Jesus as her Saviour. For the past 40 years she has been a bright witness for Jesus to her family and friends. One of her friends told us she had given him a book, “Heaven is for Real!” As Christine drew near to the end of her life, the reality of heaven, and Jesus’ love for her, sustained her. She knew that, after she died, she was going to be in heaven with Jesus, her risen Saviour and Lord. His promise to all who trust in him is “Because I live, you also will live.”

It is a thing most wonderful!

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross was both a tragedy and a triumph. It was tragic that after the remarkable events of his 3 year ministry, Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders and people. Jesus had taught great crowds who came gladly to hear him. He had healed many people from all kinds of diseases and afflictions; the blind, the deaf, the dumb, cripples, lepers, and those possessed by evil spirits. He had even raised to life some who had died. But his teaching challenged those who had power and they determined to destroy him and silence him.

Yet the death of Jesus was not a defeat but a triumph. The cross was not the end of Jesus, but the glorious climax to God’s great plan of salvation for all nations. From his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane to the moment of his death at Golgotha it is clear that Jesus was not overcome by events, but was in control. As he was arrested, falsely accused, mocked, viciously beaten and nailed to the cross there was an amazing calmness in how he behaved and spoke.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah had spoken in detail of his sufferings. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah also explained the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

We all struggle to come to terms with our sinfulness. We “go astray” and “turn to our own way.” Human sinfulness is the cause of all the personal and communal misery in this world. Through Jesus’ death on the cross forgiveness and new life is offered to all because “the punishment that brings us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” As William Walsham How reflected on the cross of Jesus he wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

What is truth?

Easter reminds us of the climactic events of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. When the Gospel writers wrote their biographies of Jesus all of them focused most on the last week of his life. That week began with his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem when the crowds proclaimed him as their Messiah King. As he entered the city, he fulfilled a prophecy, written more than 500 years earlier, “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” Jesus is a king like no other; he is the Prince of Peace.

When he was on trial, Pilate, the Roman Governor, asked him “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate asked, “What it truth?”

Pilate decided that Jesus should be executed, even though he knew he was innocent, but that did not bring an end to Jesus’ kingdom. Following his death and resurrection the message of Jesus has spread throughout the world. In the early years of the Christian church the number of Christians grew despite the fierce persecution they faced. The power of Imperial Rome came to an end, but the kingdom of Jesus continues still. It has outlasted every earthly kingdom because it is different. It is a spiritual kingdom; it is “not of this world.” Those who belong to Jesus’ kingdom are “on the side of truth” and listen to him.

People still ask the same question as Pilate asked, “What is truth?” The pundits of our modern world tell us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but they are wrong. The outworking of their philosophy is plain to see in the moral chaos and tragic personal emptiness of our western world. How different it is when, like little children, we listen to Jesus and receive the truth we see in him and hear in his words. As we listen to Jesus and trust in him, we understand how we, too, can enter into his kingdom, which is so different from every worldly kingdom, but which will outlast the years.