“The Bible itself teaches that we are to understand it in terms of our own experience when it says that Paul, Barnabas, and Elijah were human beings like us . . . It means that their experience was substantial like our own . . . We must pray for the faith and the experiences that would enable us to believe that such things could happen to us.” ~ Dallas Willard, Hearing God
Lately my friends and I have been discussing the need to appropriate the Biblical experience into our own lives. Apparently James wasn’t kidding when he said, “Elijah was a man just like us.” But my friends and I have all recognized that Elijah, Paul, and even Barnabas seem way too spiritual to serve as effective role models. We might as well try to imitate LeBron James.
Over the years I’ve asked believers in many settings whether they thought they could live up to the example of someone like Elijah. No one has ever told me yes. Who could attain to a life like the Apostle Paul’s? No takers. I have finally found a minor character in the New Testament who is approachable as a role model. The book of Acts gives him ten verses, eleven if you count the shout-out he gets from Paul years later. His name is Ananias. He’s just a guy who has a daily time with God. Praying, listening, and reading the scriptures. And God speaks to him. Ananias is no super-star of Christianity. He’s just a guy living in Damascus who loves God and is respected by his friends.
You can find his story in Acts 9: 10 - 19:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!"
"Yes, Lord," he answered.
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 to restore his sight."
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on 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. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me 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. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The God of heaven chose Ananias to set Saul of Tarsus on the path to become the Apostle Paul. He was just a guy. The kind of guy we should feel we could imitate with confidence. Take a look with me at what kind of experiences an everyday disciple in the first century had with God :
- God spoke to him in a vision (v10): Yes, visions should be normative. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost redefined the role between Creator and disciple. At Pentecost Peter boldly tells us what kind of age has come: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2: 17) Peter isn’t just quoting an ancient prophet, he’s describing how God speaks to his people in Christ. God still speaks in these ways, but the average North American Christian is actually suspicious of these divine avenues.
- God gave specific instructions (vs11-12): Ananias knew where to go and what to do, because he heard from God. How many believers today know God’s specific will for their lives day-by-day? My experience as a pastor has taught me, sadly, that most Christians are confused about God’s will for their life and important decisions. Day-to-day most Christians do not even expect to receive specific instructions from the Lord. Ananias was apparently part of a church that trained and encouraged every member to expect to hear from God--and act on it!
- Ananias dialogued with God (vs13-15): It was a dialogue from the heart. He was not a robot, he shared his fears and concerns. I don’t believe Ananias argued with God. He addressed him as “Lord” because he recognized who was Master. His submission was so complete he even surrendered his fears to God. True service to God does not simply come from those who have heard from God, but from those who also feel they have been heard by God.
- God affirmed the mission (vs15-16): The Lord did not merely shake the windows or stamp his foot, he gave Ananias a picture of the future. This man Saul was God’s chosen instrument, and Ananias knew it even before Saul knew it. Part of our confidence to do the will of God comes from knowing his purposes and plans, and God is gracious to supply such vision more than we are aware.
- Ananias obeyed (vs17-19): Dreams, visions and revelations are worthless apart from obedience. God does not share information “FYI,” he shares information “FYA--For Your Action.” Ananias’ actions were filled with faith and the assurance of God’s commission. He facilitated the in-filling of the Holy Spirit; he was midwife to God’s healing grace; and he was a minister of the gospel in baptizing Saul. Ananias was in every way a full partner with God. He was just guy in Damascus. I'm just a guy in Kentucky. What are you?
Surely we could aspire to the life of Ananias! Yet the Biblical witness affirms that we are human beings--just like Paul, Barnabas, or Elijah! Perhaps we would be surprised to learn that our potential is even greater than any of these examples--we are called to become conformed to the image of Jesus Himself. But that’s another post for another day.