THE POWER OF OBSERVATION
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Paul and Socrates had so many things in common. Both were trying to enrich their own people. Paul was trying to enrich the Jews, and Socrates was trying to enrich the Greeks. But both were brought to trial before the Supreme Court of their cultures on charges of corrupting the people. Both were hated because of jealously and competition. They were both considered trouble- makers because of their opposition to tradition. Both were kept in prison, but they were granted freedom to visit with their friends. Paul wrote letters to the churches, and Socrates wrote poetry and put Aesop's Fables into verse. They both eventually died in captivity at the hands of the state, and both looked forward to a better life in the world to come.
On one point, however, they were radically different. Socrates refused all plans of escape from his enemies, but Paul looked for every possible escape. The result was that Socrates survived one month, and Paul survived for years. His aggressive and clever maneuvers got him out of one jam after another and gave him extra years to accomplish the plan of God for his life. Acts 23 is a record of some of Paul's close calls and clever escapes. It begins with Paul standing before the Sanhedrin, which was the Supreme Court of Israel. There were 71 judges on this court, which was led by the high priest.
The first we see take place in this court takes place in the defendant's eyes. Dr. Luke is obviously there, for he writes this account as an eyewitness. He is an eyewitness to the eyes of the key witness, for he observing Paul's eyes. These eyes, which had been blinded by the light of Christ's presence on the road to Damascus, and 3 days later were opened by a miraculous healing. Paul's eyes had been through a lot because of Jesus, and now they were in court with the rest of His accused body. Ever since those eyes had seen Jesus they saw everything else in a new light. Paul saw in the Old Testament what he never saw before, and all of life looked different to him. He, no doubt, would have agreed with Helen Keller who said, "I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind for a few days at sometime during his early adult life. Darkness would make him more appreciative of sight."
It certainly worked for Paul, and he became a much more careful observer after his blindness and restoration to sight. His observation became a key to his survival time and time again, as it does in this chapter. It begins with Paul looking at the situation intently because he knows that if he is going to get out of this mess he had to see something that would show him the way out. Paul's life illustrates the link, not only between listening and salvation, as we saw in chapter 22, but between seeing and salvation, which is part of his conversion account, and the clever escapes of this chapter.
We cannot go into this in depth, but we need to make it clear that the eye gate is one of the primary ways that God gets into our life to guide us. The New Testament story begins with salvation by seeing. The wise men came saying, "We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." Had the wise men never seen that star, they never would have seen the Messiah. Their eyes brought them to Jesus, and so it has been with millions. People not only hear the Gospel, the see it in the lives of other people, and in the love of those who have been changed by Christ. Jesus said, "If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me." Through the centuries millions have looked up to the Christ on the cross and have been compelled to repent when they saw the love of such a Savior.
Some, like Paul, have had very special visions of Christ. Placidus was a Roman nobleman who was out hunting and suddenly confronted by a deer with its proud head uplifted and between its antlers a gleaming cross. He was so struck by the sight that he fell from his horse to his knees. He repented and became a believer on the spot. History is full of stories of those who were saved by what they had seen. Many have given testimony as to how their eyes have been opened after seeing Christ, and how they then began to see all His handiwork in a new light. George Robinson wrote in his hymn, "Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green, something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen."
Billy Bray, the evangelist of the 19th century, said when he was converted, "I remember this, that everything looked new to me, the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees, I was a new man in a new world." This describes Paul, and we can study the rest of his life just from the point of view of how he saw all things different after he saw the living Christ. He became a man of keen observation, and because of it he was able to see a way out of what seemed like hopeless situations.
Chapter 23 is a key case in point. He stands before this awesome body of judges that could take his life, and he stares at them. The Greek word here is used again in Acts 3:12 where we read Peter's response to the crowd that had gathered when he healed the crippled beggar: "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?" They were staring at Peter trying to see how it was possible for a mere man to do what he did. They were staring like we stare at a magician trying to catch the move that reveals how he does his trick.
So Paul was staring at his judges, and what a story those staring eyes told. Paul was not merely looking down at the floor like a loser who was ready to submit to his powerful foes. Instead, with head held high he boldly gazes at his accusers. The odds are overwhelming against him, but he does not flinch. Like an Indiana Jones, he looks intently for a way of escape. There is no end to the possibilities in God's providence for the man who keeps looking for a way out. In his Locusts And Wild Honey the naturalist John Burroughs says the secret of observation lies in the habit of decisive gazing. He writes, "Not by a first casual glance, but by a steady, deliberate aim of the eye, are the rarest things discovered. You must look intently and hold your eye firmly to the spot, if you are to see more than do the rank and file of mankind."
Paul saw many things others did not see, and his powers of observation are noted by Dr. Luke. In chapter 27 he saw a dangerous storm in the atmosphere when the captain of the ship was blind to it. He saw solutions to problems that nobody else saw. Now we see Paul seeing his apparent hopeless situation from a totally different perspective then it would look like to any other observer. It looks like 71 to 1 to everybody else, and it was a foregone conclusion that Paul would be loser. But Paul was seen what was not evident on the surface. He was staring at his opponent and observing that those 71 men were not united in all points. They were both Saducees and Pharisees with many points of disagreement. Paul saw a way to divide and conquer. It was only 71 to 1 if all eyes were on him, but what if he could get the focus on another issue, such as the concept of resurrection where these 71 were divided in their views? This is exactly what Paul does, and by this strategy he escapes the clutches of his enemies again.
Paul teaches us that one of the key ways by which we can be open to the guidance of God is by the power of observation. We need to be wise in the use of our eyes if we are going to rise above what is, and grasp the prize of what can be God's surprise in leading us to overcome the evil guys. Paul has the reputation of having very poor eyesight, and yet he saw what most never do. God even gave him a rare vision of heavenly glory because Paul's eyes were dedicated to seeing what God wanted him to see. Paul was a satisfied see-er of life. This combined with his ears ever ready to listen to God's voice. It made him the unique instrument he was for doing God's will. His eyes and ears carry him though the rest of his life allowing him to outwit all of the clever sources of his enemies to destroy Him.
I wanted to just move along in his chapter, but I saw in Paul's stare such an important lesson that runs all through the Bible. I decided we need to look longer at the subject of seeing, for the power of observation is the key to many values in the Christian life. The power of observation, for example, is the key to-
Paul had to observe detail and be able to see their relevance to his need, in order to keep escaping as he did. Paul had a knack for being able to see whom he could trust. He was always discovering people that helped him change the world for Christ. He saw in young men like Timothy and Titus the potential to make a difference in the world. He was able to see when a person was ready to respond to the Spirit of God. In Acts 14:9 we read of a crippled man at Lystra who was listening to Paul preach. It says, "Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed." Seeing that, he called upon to stand up and he did. A miracle happened because Paul could see the faith of another person. Paul was finding hidden treasure everywhere he went because he had eyes that could discern the presence of the unseen.
The point is, people like Paul, who are observant, see more than others who may have better physical vision, but who are not seeing all that might be discovered in a situation. Paul did not have this kind of insight before he saw Christ. He was so blind he could not see the marvelous faith of Stephen but watched him being stoned to death as a heretic. Stephen was looking up to heaven and seeing Jesus at the right hand of the Father, but Paul could not see the authenticity of his faith. Paul did not see faith until he was blinded, and then restored in his vision. Spiritual seeing that enables us to make discoveries where others are blind can only come by first seeing Jesus. All of life is seeing then in the light of the living Christ. And this gives us a whole new perspective.
Before we see Jesus, we see life from a totally self-centered perspective, and this colors all that we see. Paul didn't see any faith in Christians, but only folly, and so had only one goal and that was to blot them out and destroy the church. His perspective made them look terrible, but it was his own awful spirit that he was seeing.
In 1906 the astronomer Percival Lowell announced his discovery of canals on Mars. He even wrote a book called Mars As The Abode Of Life. He described the canals as red, and they seemed to mysteriously move. These detailed maps found their way into school atlases all over the world because he was such an authority. Why are they not in atlases today? It is because of the discovery that Lowell was suffering from a rare eye disease known as Lowell's syndrome. The symptom is to see the veins of one's own eyes. He was seeing his own veins and not canals on Mars. Such is the myopic vision of all those who call good evil and persecute the people of God. They think they see evil in others, but it is their own evil they are seeing. Paul was one of a long line of Pharisees whom Jesus called the blind leading the blind. They could not see God and godliness even when it stood in front of their eyes and did loving wonders that only God could do.
They could not discover gold if they sat on a golden throne. Jesus was throwing treasure at them, and yet they died in poverty, for they could not see it. Paul was one of those blind Pharisees also until Jesus broke through his blindness and set him free to see. One of the greatest freedom of life is the freedom to see. It is the freedom to discover the more that is always present in life, but which many do not discern because they have not developed the power of observation. If we could only see with the eyes of Christ we would discover so many opportunities to escape the evil and exalt the good. Helen Keller said, "It is terrible to be blind, but it is more terrible to have eyes and not see!"
Dr. Ralph Sockman says that we all have three sets of eyes. The eyes of the body, which see the physical world; the eyes of the mind, which takes what is seen and gives it order and meaning so that we can say, "Oh, I see." This means the discovery that we call insight. The third set of eyes are the eyes of the heart. These are the eyes that see how what is seen and understood fit into the plan of God for our lives. Here is Paul looking at the Supreme Court judges who are ready to have his hide if they can. It is not a pleasant picture, but he sees beyond this to grasp some weakness in their plot. He sees a flaw he can't exploit. But he also sees with the eyes of the heart. These are the greatest leaders of Israel. How can he make an impact for Christ? Paul sees the resurrection of Christ as the key to dividing them, but also the key he wants to focus on as the essence of who he is as an Apostle of Christ.
Paul says, "If I perish I perish, but if I go down, I will die exalting the living Christ." Paul was able to discover the key that would set him free, and also focus on the central truth of the Christian faith. The challenge for every believer is to so stare at every situation of life until they can see how to outwit the forces of evil and turn this situation for the glory of Christ. It is by the power of observation that we can accomplish this goal. We don't all face the same trial as Paul, and we don't all get into the jams he did, and we tend to feel that we don't have to look so hard for God's guidance. This is a mistake, for God has discoveries for all of us to make in everyday life. We need to pray, "God give me eyes to know the joy that lies in common things."
Paul Rees, the great preacher and author wrote, "Significant seeing is an act that moves in two directions: the discovery of the extra-ordinary in the ordinary and the discovery of the ordinary in the extra-ordinary." In other words, the Christian who learns to see will discover in the common places of life that which is relevant to the glory of God, and they will discover in the glory of God that which is relevant to the common places life. Seeing is the key to the sanctified life and Christian maturity. A little girl saw this in her grandma. She begged her mother for glasses, and when asked why she wanted them she said, "Grandma has them and she can see when people are tired and uncomfortable, and she can always see what will fix them up." She saw her grandmother seeing how to be a loving person when others did not pay attention, and she thought it was in her glasses. Such seeing is not in glasses, however, but in the eyes of the heart that had developed the power to observe opportunities to serve.
Sometimes we are like the man who always rode the bus home with his eyes closed because he didn't like to see the ladies who had to stand. Or we are like the girl who always went for a walk on Saturday morning because she hated to see her mother working so hard scrubbing the floors. This way of not seeing causes people to miss life's greatest discoveries, for Jesus made it clear that not seeing opportunities to serve is to be blind to the way of eternal reward. The goat who miss it all in the day of judgment will say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you." Jesus said, "Because you didn't do it for the least, you didn't do it for me."
Jesus is saying that we miss the boat constantly because we do not see that ministry to the nobodies of the world is ministry to the Lord of the world. When we begin to see this we will begin to discover opportunities to serve everywhere. Paul says we only see through a glass darkly now, but we can see what is the loving thing to do if we really look, and we can see what the wise thing to do is when we need to escape from the way of folly. Our prayer needs to be, "Open my eyes Lord to see how I can discover your will for me today." Seeing is the key to discovery, and it is also the key to-
Paul was always getting out of a mess and having his life spared because of his observation. But we need to see that what he saw was also the key to his being delivered from depression and discouragement when the battle was so hard and seemingly hopeless. Paul was a bold man before his superior enemies because the eyes of faith see what the eyes of flesh cannot. They have a resource that gives hope and encouragement when the visible does not offer these positive values.
It is hard to be a minority and an underdog like Paul is in these closing years of his life. To see your own people and your highest leaders wanting to kill you is not a sight you forget after a good meal and a nights rest. This is a heavy load that Paul had to bear, and if he was not seeing something besides what was visible to the eye of flesh he would be in an inner prison even more dreary than the external prison he had to endure.
When we see what Paul had to go through and the odds against him, we can better understand why God had to give him special revelation. Most of us will never face what Paul faced, and so we will have to be content with the revelation we have from him and others, but God gave Paul special visions, for he needed them to be delivered from all the negative emotions that would have to be endured by any one in his situation. He could only be an optimist because of what he saw. Like the prophet of old he needed to see that, "Greatest is He that is in us than he that is in the world." Wesley wrote,
Lo! To faith's enlightened sight,
All the mountain flames with light.
Hell is nigh, but God is nigher,
Circling us with hosts of fire.
Paul could not only see the presence of God in his terrible times, he could see beyond the terrible times to the ultimate victory, and so he was always an optimist. He wrote in Rom. 8:18, "I consider that our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." In II Cor. 4:16-18 he wrote, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." Paul was delivered from the depressing emotions of the temporal because he could see the long-range picture of God, which is always a pleasant work of art. Bliss Carman wrote,
Lord of the far horizons,
Give us the eyes to see
Over the verge of sundown
The beauty that is to be.
If we can see as God sees, we will be delivered from the awful scenes that plunge us into the pits. That is how Paul kept going when all that life offered him was one conflict and imprisonment after another. We see what we are determined to see. Paul looked intently for clues to find a way to keep pressing on to do the will of his Lord. He never gave up and threw in the towel, for he knew there was always a way if you keep looking. When we close our eyes and cease to look for open doors we have surrendered one of our key weapons to the enemy.
The life of Paul is a message to us all, and that message is, keep looking. Keep you eyes open and your ears alert, and God and His providence will show you the way. We haven't seen anything yet, for the best we only see through a glass darkly, but even in time there is so much more for us to see. A great Dutch botanist was asked what he saw when he looked at a plant stem through his microscope, and he said, "I saw the cherubim and seraphim and heard them chanting holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty." Children often see wonders that adults miss. A little girl said as she walked with her mother after it stopped raining, "Look mommy! There's a rainbow in the gutter." The mother said, "That's not a rainbow, it's only a dirty oil slick." We would see more to wonder at in the world if we had childlike eyes.
If we surrender our senses to be tools of the Holy Spirit we can see and hear what otherwise we are blind and deaf to. John Masefield in his classical description of Saul Kane's conversion has him saying,
The running brook to my new eyes
Was babbling out of paradise,
The waters rushing from the rain
Were singing Christ has risen again.
A woman said to the famous artist Turner, as she surveyed his painting of a scene she thought she knew well, "I never saw that!" Turner replied, "But you wish you could have seen it?" Marcus Bach in his book The Power Of Perception tells of his frustration of not being able to see what was right in front of his face. And amateur photographer had taken a picture had taken a picture of an old wagon shed with a morning glory vine and entwined, and he won a thousand dollar prize. He passed that scene over and over, and he had a camera too, but he never saw it. His point was that there is no end to the things that can be seen without going all over the world. Only a fool comes to the conclusion that there is nothing new to be seen where he is at, but that all such things are far away. The proverb says, "The fool has his eyes in the ends of the world." We have not scratched the surface of what can be seen right where we are.
Burton Hillis in Better Homes And Gardens tells one of his favorite stories of the little boy who didn't want to leave church. His parents asked, "Why don't you want to go?" "Because," he answered, "I haven't seen God yet." Maybe his expectations were too high, or maybe most have expectations too low. We don't expect to see God, nor do we expect to see anything new in terms of insight into life and meaning, and ways by which to escape evil and be empowered to do the will of God.
Spurgeon often lectured in his travels, and many times he concluded like this: "One more remark and I'm done. If you cannot travel, remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is more glorious than all else you could ever see. Get a view of Christ and you have seen more than mountains and cascades and valleys and seas can ever show you. Earth can give its beauty and stars their brightness, but all these put together can never rival him."
Paul's whole life was changed because he saw Jesus, and with his new eyes he had the power of observation that led him through the dark valley time and time again. May God help us to see that every day we live can be a day of victory over evil and a day of opportunity to serve our Lord if we will only turn our eyes upon Jesus, and pray without ceasing, "Lord help me to look at life and see what you see. Give me the Spirit enlightened power of observation."