When your job calls for you to teach at least once a week at Sunday school or Bible study, it’s hard not to dig into the Scriptures regularly. It just is. It’d be like a sales person not having a cell phone or a programmer without a computer. The Bible is a resource that I get to reference almost daily beyond my own personal study.
One of the interesting side effects of this kind of study is that I often find myself teaching on all kinds of topics and studying passages personally that may seem unrelated and disconnected. I’m reading through the one-year chronological Bible on my own and find myself in the thick of the Old Testament. Solomon was just crowned king yesterday in what I read. That’s pre-Jesus. And in our high school Sunday school class, we’re looking at the book of Acts, what happened immediately after Jesus lived on earth.
As I taught on Acts 9, I was struck at the unexpected grace dispensed by this group of men living post-Jesus. These men were introduced to a particular man who they should have at most been expected to kill and at least been expected to permanently avoid. These men had seen a good friend of theirs killed with this particular man watching. This particular man had gotten special permission to go around executing people affiliated with this group, probably having already taken the lives of others that this group knew personally. People whose deaths were real and whose lives were mourned.
We now know this particular man as Paul. Paul met Jesus in Acts 8 and was preaching about him by chapter 9. Paul wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, and God used his evangelical work to change the world forever. Paul is a big deal in church history and is known for his bold faith in who Jesus was and is. We all know Paul. That Paul.
But the apostles gathered together in Jerusalem in Acts 9 did not know that Paul. These men knew the Paul who wanted to kill them, the Paul who stood there as their friend Stephen was killed in Acts 7. These men knew Paul as Saul, before he met Jesus.
Clearly, Paul (still called Saul, actually, in Acts 9 but soon to be named Paul) had changed. He had encountered Jesus in a way that turned this Christian-hater into a Christian himself. His story and his life was derailed from where he expected it to go and began an incredible adventure that would be retold thousands of years later. This man who they met in chapter 9 was not the same man who he was in the beginning of chapter 8.
Despite all that change, these apostles had experienced real and deep fear and hurt because of this man. These apostles had evidence that taught them to doubt him, evidence to keep their distance, evidence to set up boundaries. The expected, appropriate and realistic thing would be to at least keep their distance from him. That would seem more reasonable.
But they didn’t. They dispensed grace by welcoming him into their community. When they learned of his life change and what he was doing, he stayed with them. He became one of them. I imagine that they shared meals together, told stories together, lived to create inside jokes and developed genuine friendships. Sure, there was some tension…but isn’t that normal in a close community of people who love each other?
This kind of grace is just crazy.
And it’s hard to think for a minute that this is not because of Jesus. If you read the Old Testament, God’s grace is apparent, but there are many stories that sound similar where there is still a real, physical consequence. My own speculation is that if this happened pre-Jesus, this man would be killed or exiled because of what he did. His sins against God’s people were real. His sins were terrible. His sins had awful consequence.
But post-Jesus, when these apostles were living in the forgiveness, love and life of Jesus and had a boldness that understood this in a way that motivated them to lose their lives preaching the Gospel, they had the ability to forgive that didn’t include grudges, revenge or boundaries. They welcomed Paul. These men lived with him, the man who had caused real and deep hurt. They, in that moment, gave up the right to do what was expected or fair. And, instead, they forgave.
Seriously. Ridiculous. Forgiveness.