We’ve talked about three specific agendas that Satan has. Not, sort of, the scary type demonic things like on movies but subtle agendas that are deceitful. The kind of agendas that get us off course and we don’t even know it. Acts chapter 9 may be the most diabolical and most deceptive of all. Because it comes packaged in spirituality. We’re going to talk about agenda number four. And agenda number four is death by lethal religion. Religion may be one of the most powerful ways in all the world, in the name of God, that Satan deceives people, steals their life, ruins their relationships, warps their thinking about themselves and God. And as I was doing the research, I came across a little information about lethal injection. The way lethal injection occurs is you anesthetize persons, then you paralyze them, and then you put a toxin that goes straight to their heart to stop the heart from beating. And I want to tell you if you want a profile of how the enemy works through religion, it’s that.
In essence, religion is an external set of rules and practices to either merit God’s favor or to avoid his or her wrath, depending on the religious system.
And so, at the end of the day, it’s rooted in fear. Religion binds people. It ties people up. It gets them on some sort of a performance trap to think, “If I do certain things at certain times in certain ways, somehow I’ll be acceptable by God.”
Jesus, interestingly, speaks to religious leaders. If you want, open to Matthew chapter 23, I’m not going to read the whole chapter at all but I, as you open to Matthew chapter 23, I’m going to skip around but here’s what I’m going to do. I want you to hear what the Son of God said to the most religious people on the planet.
This is what He said to the people that were the most disciplined, were the most spiritual, they knew the Bible better than anyone else. This is from the very lips of Jesus, this is His view of what religion does. How diabolical it is.
“Then Jesus said,” Matthew 23 verse 1, to the crowds and to His disciples, “‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, they sit in Moses’ seat so you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do for they do not practice what they preach.’”
Now, listen to what He says religion does. “They tie heavy loads and they put them on men’s shoulders. Everything they do is done to be seen by men. They love the place of honor. They want the most important seats in the synagogue.”
Skipping down, verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of God in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter and you will not let those who are trying to enter to enter. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and then you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourself.”
These are not calm words. These are not nice words. These are not Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus attacking what’s diabolical and what religion does to the human heart. He goes on because this is what really happens.
“Woe to you, blind guides.” Later He calls them “blind fools.” Then He says, “You blind men.” “Woe to you, teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you hypocrites, you give a tenth of your spices, of your mint, of your dill, but you have neglected the far more important matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup but inside you’re full of greed and self-indulgence.
“Blind Pharisees, you hypocrites, you look like whitewashed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside but on the inside you’re full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as though you are righteous but on the inside you’re full of greed and hypocrisy and wickedness.”
And then it’s just like Jesus went off. And He said, “You snakes! You vipers! How will you escape the condemnation of hell?” And then He says, “I’m sending you prophets, I’m sending you wise men, and I’m sending you teachers. Teachers and wise men of the truth, of love, and life.” And this is the prediction He makes: “Some of them you will kill and crucify, others you will flog in your synagogues, and you will pursue them from town to town. So upon you will come the judgment of all the righteous men all the way from Zechariah to Berekiah, all will come upon this generation.”
I don’t know about you, those are the strongest words that are anywhere in this book. Those are from the lips of Jesus about religion. And no one is immune, over time, to becoming religious. You can even make up your own religion. Secularism is a religion. Humanism is a religion.
So here’s the question I want to ask and answer: what’s the difference between dead religion and a living relationship with God? What’s the difference between a dead religion and a living relationship with God? And I want to suggest that Acts chapter 9 will give you a very clear picture of it.
And what I’m going to do is I’m going to read through Acts chapter 9 but I want you to think more like a movie viewer than someone sitting in a church listening to the Bible being read.
Open your Bibles to Acts chapter 9. You need to follow along. Scene number one, the movie has begun. We pick up the story.
“Meanwhile, Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and he asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so if there were anyone found there who belonged to the Way,” the early Christians were called that, they were the Way, they said Jesus is the Way, “whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground, he heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul said. ‘I am Jesus, who you’re persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.’
“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the sound but they didn’t see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus and for three days he was blind. He didn’t eat or drink anything.” We’ll learn later he’s praying during this time. His world has turned upside down.
Scene number two: the big change in Saul’s life. Picking it up at verse 10. “In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias and the Lord called to him in a vision. ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered.
“And the Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him and restore his sight.’ ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I’ve heard many reports about this man and all the harm that he has done to the saints in Jerusalem and he’s come here with authority from the chief priest to arrest all who call upon Your name.’
“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go, this man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.’
“Then Ananias went to the house and he entered it and placing his hands on Saul he said, ‘Brother Saul! The Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, He has sent me here to you so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’
“Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again and he got up and he was baptized and after taking some food he gained his strength and Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.”
In a word, he was converted. In a word, he realized that the Yahweh of the Old Testament, that the angel of the Lord, that the Messiah is Jesus. And all that knowledge and all that wisdom - he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, he was trained under the top Pharisee of the day.
Secular writers say of the apostle Paul, he was the greatest intellect in all of the culture in the first century. And now this man has just had this jarring relationship. He’s gone from a religious person, literally, without fault to someone that has met the living God personally.
Things are going to change.
Picking it up, verse 20. So what happened to him? “And all at once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on His name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priest?’”
I mean, they are just, like, wiping their eyes going, “Are you kidding me?” “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and he baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ, He’s the Messiah.” He’s the long awaited One. He’s the One Isaiah 53 foretold. He’s the One that would be born of a virgin. He’s the One. All those passages.
Paul, likely, had nearly all the Old Testament memorized. And all those passages and all that learning and all that religion and all that discipline - now he’s looking at it through a brand new lens. It’s through the lens of Jesus, who he’s met.
Notice what happens next. “After many days had gone by the Jews conspired to kill him. But Saul learned of their plan and day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But the followers took him by night and they lowered him in a basket through the opening in a wall.
“Later, when he’d come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples but they were afraid of him, not believing he was really a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and he told them how Saul, on his journey, had seen the Lord and how the Lord had spoken to him and how in Damascus he’d preached fearlessly in the name of Christ.”
See, he didn’t have just an experience. His experience led to a calling. His experience led to behavior that demonstrated he had a change of mind, that led to a change of heart, that led to a dramatic change in mission in his life.
And so Barnabas says, “Guys, you can trust this guy. Believe me, I’ve seen him. I mean, I’ve seen him preach now. He’s on our team.”
“So, Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and he debated with the Grecian Jews but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this they took him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”
Now, every now and then, Luke does this about three or four times. He’ll not only have an intermission but he’ll have a commercial. And what he does in the commercial is he stops and gives a progress report.
So, you know, we’re now in Acts chapter 9 and so he stops and says, “Oh, by the way, remember Jesus was ascended in chapter 1? Remember how the Church was born in chapter 2? Remember all those miracles? The growth of the Church, then the persecution? By the way, let me give you an update on how it’s all happened.”
And so he gives this progress report in verse 31. Then notice the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. Well, their number one enemy just became their number one advocate.
“It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit and it grew in numbers living in the fear of the Lord.” And if you’re in your own Bible, circle the words “the “Church.” And I just want you to notice it’s singular. The Church where? Judea, Galilee, and Samaria – those half-breeds.
See, there are a lot of local expressions but “the Church.” It’s all of us. And we’re all in this together.
Now, scene number three. “As Peter was traveling about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. ‘Aeneas,’ Peter said to him, ‘Jesus Christ heals you; get up and take care of your mat.’” Immediately Aeneas gets up. “And all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
And so we get this quick snapshot. And so we have the apostle Paul, on the one hand, a religious man walking, ready to kill people. And he’s blind. And when he ends up being blinded by the light of truth he becomes an invalid and they walk him into Damascus.
Now the author wants you to know that’s what happens with religion. People who think they can see are actually blind. And then here’s someone who’s in need and is paralyzed physically.
And notice how carefully the text says, “Peter says, ‘In the name of Jesus.’” It’s the person, it’s the power, it’s the living relationship. And then he says this little phrase, “Take up your mat.” Now, it’s similar to when Jesus said, “Take up your mat,” but this phrase is a shade different.
When we see that and I read that, because he’s a paralytic, we often think it’s about taking up your mat and walking, which it could be. But the primary use all through the New Testament of this little phrase is that you can now get up. You can live, you can do something. Open your mat and eat to get strengthened so that you can begin a new life.
Scene number four. Peter is about ten miles from another city called Joppa. And as we pick up the story in verse 36, “In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time, she became sick and died and her body was washed and placed in the upstairs room.
“Lydda was near Joppa so the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once.’ Peter went with them and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room and all the widows were standing around crying and showing him the robes and the other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
“Peter sent them all out of the room then he got down on his knees and he prayed. Turning toward the dead woman he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes and seeing Peter, she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet, then he called the believers in and the widows and he presented her to them alive.
“This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord.” And then notice this final line: “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”
And here’s the kicker. Luke lets us know, he’s staying with a tanner.
The rabbis in the day would talk about a tanner as an unclean person. You don’t go to a tanner. You don’t stay in a tanner’s house. You don’t get near tanners. What tanners do, is they would take animal skins and go through the process of what you do to animal skins, either to make a leather coat, or leather things that you could drink out of.
But it was a smelly, yicky thing; they were usually on the edge of town. And Luke wants to be sure that we understand that this follower of Jesus is breaking the taboos of Judaism and because of personal relationship and life he is with a tanner, an undesirable, an unclean person.
And here’s what I want you to see. This is a picture of dead religion versus living relationship and Acts 9 is a study of contrasts.