Skip to content
Mar 9 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

March 6, 2016 – Acts 9:1-32

Christ, the Ruler of All

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belong to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem Acts 9:1-2

Intro: Do you remember the 1997 movie, Amistad?

African men and women were on a slave ship from Cuba to the U.S.
– they staged a revolt on board and took control of the ship
• misled, they sailed into U.S. waters and were apprehended by the American navy
• put on trial for mutiny, they were at a loss not knowing the English language
– one of the slaves began thumbing through a Bible, “reading” the drawings in it
• from those pictures alone he was able to decipher the story of Jesus
◦ in it he found comfort and hope

Perhaps you’ve seen children’s Bibles with illustrations of some of the stories
– these are meant to increase a child’s interest and his or her understanding
• God’s design for his sanctuary included sacred art (Ex. 25:18-20; 26:1)
• when serving in the Holy Place, the priests were surrounded by angels
– so we begin this morning with sacred art

Early Christianity’s form of sacred art: Icons

In my religious upbringing, there was no place for icons
– what we were told, Roman Catholics worshiped idols
• we were never taught the difference between idols and icons
◦ or between worship and veneration
• nevertheless, we had pictures
◦ in our “Sunday school” classes we colored in pictures of Bible stories
◦ sappy paintings of Jesus decorated the front wall of the sanctuary
– when exposed to icons, I thought they looked weird – I didn’t get them
• but prior to my first trip to Russia, a friend had me to rethinking icons
◦ then, when visiting orthodox churches, I found myself deeply moved
◦ it was learning to read and art appreciation at the same time
• there is still a lot of junk art that that annoys me, but icons are–something else

Like books, icons communicate through visual symbols
– they deliver their message not only conceptually, but directly
• their purpose is facilitate an encounter — to give the viewer an opportunity to:
◦ experience the story they tell
◦ experience the truth they proclaim
– what could be done with the interior walls of churches?
• Nilus, a fifth century monk suggested the following:

“Let the hand of the artist fill the church on both sides with pictures from the Old and the New Testaments, in order that the illiterate, who cannot read the Divine Scriptures, should, by looking at the painted images, bring to mind the valiant deeds of those who served God with all sincerity and be themselves incited to rival the glorious and ever-memorable exploits, through which they exchanged earth for heaven, preferring the invisible to the visible.”

◦ in the seventh century, John of Damascus, the great defender of icons wrote:

“What the written word is to those who know letters, the icon is to the unlettered” (though “all of us,” he added “benefit from what is painted in the icons”)

• when you see an icon, think of it being like a book – a “devotional”
◦ it is something you read to warm the heart to God’s presence
◦ a tool that serves to inform and inspire

But why the funny looking art form?

Icon artists never tried to recreate a photographic likeness
– they were not making copies of material people or things
• rather, they were bringing into focus a reality that was spiritual and dynamic
• so for example, they worked at capturing the godly qualities of a person’s life:
◦ courage, compassion, selfless devotion and so on
– that is why the physical body is frequently distorted or hid in loose clothing
• the twisted body of Jesus on the cross
• or in “Our Lady of Tenderness”:
◦ the long arm of the infant Christ stretched around Mary’s neck
◦ his head is turned at an impossible angle to make contact with her cheek
◦ one feels the bond between mother and child and the deep sadness in her eyes
– some icons depict characters whose faces are thin and drawn
• perhaps how a person of deep piety would look from frequent fasting and vigils

Linette Martin, “Icon art communicates spiritual reality; what something looks like, as though seen through a camera, is of minor importance–though, of course, in the case of ascetic saints, the emaciation may have been literally true. But in general, there may be a tendency toward dematerialization to heighten the spirituality of the icon . . . .

• other observations regarding facial features include:

Ouspensky and Lossky, “An excessively thin nose, small mouth and large eyes–all these are a conventional method of transmitting the state of a saint whose senses have been ‘refined’ . . . .”

Renaissance artists emphasized perspective in their pursuit of realism
– lines drawn from the periphery to a center point pulled viewers into the frame
• the inverse perspective icon artists has the opposite effect
◦ the person or scene comes out to the viewer, includes the viewer

William Dyrness encourages us to, “Notice the figure’s . . . tendency to fill the frame and even push itself out of that frame.”

◦ the icon is considered incomplete, missing a character, until someone is looking at it
• the icon always addresses us directly

Linette Martin, “Space in the icon is the reverse of Western perspective; it includes us in the picture space by moving the figures out to meet us.”

– most icons begin with white pain, next light color and then dark color
• as a result, it seems that the icon is illuminated from within
• or that the light comes from behind the icon and shines through it

“Christ Pantocrator” – “Almighty” or Ruler of All

The Pantocrator icon has undergone many permutationssid's icon
– in the original, Jesus’ face had two expressions
• his left side expressed anger and judgment
◦ his left eye is narrowed and frowning
◦ the side of his mouth and left nostril raised in a sneer
◦ he looks as if he is offended or disgusted
• his right side expressed compassion and mercy
◦ his right eye appears kinder
◦ his features on the right side are definitely friendlier
– the Renaissance brought two changes to this icon:
• the left side was softened to match the right
• the book he holds was opened, revealing a quotation
◦ usually, Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden
or, I am the light of the world

The painting shown here is based on the classic Pantocrator icon
– this one, however, is very stylized–something Orthodox iconographers refuse to do
• it was painted by my son-in-law, Sid Stankovitz
◦ his version is far more three-dimensional than the original
• noticing difference in his eyes, Sid modified the left eye
◦ he painted the pupil significantly larger than the left and focused it on heaven
◦ this is reminiscent of something Henri Nouwen said of the original:

Henri Nouwen, “. . . the same eyes of Christ which see the splendor of God’s light are the same eyes which have seen the lowliness of God’s people. . . . The one who sees unceasingly the limitless goodness of God came to the world, saw it broken to pieces by human sin and was moved to compassion. The same eyes which see into the heart of God saw the suffering hearts of God’s people and wept.”

The fingers of the Lord’s right hand are formed to bless
– the first two fingers represent the two natures of Christ
• the third finger touching the thumb speaks of the Trinity
◦ his hand is also turned slightly toward the book
– the closed book may have alluded to the book of judgment (Rev. 20:12)
• in that light it is interesting that Sid added the seven seals
• the book could also be the four gospels as indicated by the four crosses

Linette Martin, “The Pantocrator is not intended to represent Christ as the Jesus of Galilee, but as the awe-inspiring God-Man, the King of the Universe and terrible judge at the end of time.”

Now let’s jump back into Acts 9

A strange thing happened to Saul
– still on a mission, he was “breathing threat and murder”
• later on he’ll confess that he was furiously enraged at the disciples (26:11)
• notice it happened – Saul had not planned on this, it just happened
◦ he was no longer in control; someone else had taken over
◦ “Saul, Saul” his name was called twice, like Abraham, Moses and others
– Luke puts off telling us whose voice spoke to Saul until he asked
• if we had never heard the story, this would have increased the suspense

Most likely, Saul had always viewed Jesus as his elders and other Pharisees
– now he is face to face with the One he’s been fighting
• it must have rattled him to discover that Jesus was all that the disciples said
– here is a great line, though his eyes were open, he could see nothing
• a perfect description of how he had read the Scriptures until that moment
• there is irony in the fact that he was blinded by a vision

Meanwhile in Damascus, Ananias also had a vision

The classic statement when God calls someone’s name, Here I am
– only Ananias added, Lord
• this is how people presented themselves to God, present and available
• it is not a bad way to begin our time of silent prayer
◦ it is always helpful to bring our awareness to meeting God in space and time
here, this particular place — am, present tense, now
◦ we meet God in the here and now — in every here and now
for he is praying – had Saul never prayed before? Of course he had
• but something different about his prayer now that he had met Jesus

Jesus explained to Ananias that Saul was a chosen instrument – what is that?
– the batter drops the bat after he hits the ball
• carpenter returns the hammer to the tool box
• the value of a tool is its usefulness to the one using it (cf. Lk. 17:7-10)
– the pattern of Saul’s new life emerges immediately
• he speaks boldly for Jesus, is threatened by death and escapes to another city
• this was repeated when he reached Jerusalem

Conc: I have a couple of concluding thoughts

First, Luke seems at a loss as to what to “name the baby”
– in this chapter he refers to communities of Christians as:

  • the disciples
  • the Way
  • all who call on the Lord’s name (twice)
  • the brothers
  • the church
  • the saints (twice)

Second, this story is filled with people who wrestled with God’s will
– Saul, Ananias and the apostles in Jerusalem
• they all resisted or hesitated at first when confronted by God’s will
• but that is resolved in the many references to Lord and the Lord
◦ more times than in any other chapter in Acts
◦ the highlight (for me) is when Ananias says to Saul, the Lord Jesus

This brings us back to Christ Pantocrator
– we can see how fitting it is for believers to be reminded of this
• Jesus may call us his brothers and sisters and he may be our Savior
◦ but what defines our lives is his lordship
◦ when it comes to everything our lives entail, Jesus is ruler of all
• it was his Lord that Saul met on his way to Damascus
◦ and it was in surrendering to Jesus that Saul discovered his mission

It is alright that we sometimes wrestle with God’s will
But ultimately we must reconcile ourselves to it
God wills that we accept Jesus, and then that we accept each other
In doing this, according to his will, we eventually become the real deal


Leave a comment
  1. Bill Livingston / Mar 11 2016

    I love this story, and the way you breathe life into it. I have seen a few dramatic conversions and at first doubted their authenticity; the radical life change is hard to accept. So I can understand the doubt of the disciples and others.

  2. Bill Livingston / Mar 12 2016

    Also, thanks for the lesson on iconography; little understood in our tradition. I can appreciate it better, now.

Leave a comment