MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 29, 2010 FROM ACTS 9:1-19
The greatest and most important event in salvation history is the life and death of Jesus Christ and all that it accomplished for God and for humanity. That is far more important than any other event in Scripture. But vying for a distant second place is the event recorded in the text for this morning. That is the conversion, call and (a bit after) the ministry of the apostle Paul. In Paul, we almost certainly find the greatest apostle, the greatest missionary and missionary strategist and the greatest pastor. He was the greatest theologian and probably the greatest Christian in all of church history. All of God’s grace to him was absolutely necessary to accomplish the mission God gave to him—namely, to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and thereby—“to the end of the world” as well as write about half of the New Testament. This morning we begin Luke’s historical recounting of Paul’s life with his Damascus Road conversion and his call into gospel ministry. With some notable exceptions, from this chapter on, Acts is a book about the apostle Paul and his missionary journeys. Last time, we saw Luke’s account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. We saw from that text the amazing level of sovereign power God manifested in bringing about the convergence of a set of very unlikely circumstances resulting in his salvation.
It’s no accident that Luke follows that account of a personal encounter with Christ that powerfully highlights God’s sovereign work in salvation, with another personal encounter with Christ that highlights God’s sovereign working in salvation. In fact, God’s sovereign power manifested in the conversion of Saul is even more profound than what we saw in the eunuch’s conversion. In the account of the eunuch, God’s sovereignty is seen mostly in the providential convergence of circumstances, with only limited personal intervention by God. In the conversion and call of Saul, all of the account is marked by Gods personal and direct intervention as Christ meets Saul on the road to Damascus. Let’s look at yet another evidence of God’s zeal to reach his people as we see that in the conversion and call to ministry of Saul of Tarsus.
You could divide this story into two very unequal parts. First, those elements of the story related to God’s work in Saul’s conversion and call and second—Paul’s grace-filled response to God’s overpowering work in his life. The first section is: Christ’s incredible conversion and call of Saul of Tarsus. When I use the word “incredible,” I mean that quite literally. The word literally means—something that is so out of the norm, that if you told someone about it—your credibility would be at risk because it is IN-CREDIBLE. It is not believable and people will not swallow it unless you can prove it. Christ’s conversion of Saul was genuinely “incredible” in that sense. If it weren’t recorded in the pages of inspired Scripture, it would have absolutely no credibility. We would write it off as a myth and we would call into question the credibility of anyone who seriously reported this conversion. This just should NOT have happened by any human measure and we mustn’t allow our familiarity with this story to mute the utterly astonishing nature of what God does here.
I find three elements to highlight within Saul’s conversion. First, its sheer unlikeliness—second, its intense display of God’s raw, sovereign power and third, its indisputably miraculous nature. First, let’s look at the sheer unlikeliness of Saul’s conversion and call. We have already witnessed how opposed to the church Saul was at the stoning of Stephen when, as a young man, he held the garments of those who killed Stephen. We must assume that Saul had heard every word of Stephen’s anointed and compelling sermon. He saw Stephen’s face appearing like an angel, yet he remained utterly unmoved. Nowhere in Paul’s future accounts of his pre-Christian experience does he ever say, “Though my heart burned within me as they were stoning the dear saint Stephen, I held their garments.” No—in fact, he was ecstatic they were stoning Stephen and he never would have viewed him as a saint, but as a heretic and the worst of deceivers. He would have interpreted the angelic look on Stephen’s face as the idiotic stare of a man in delusion, not God-inspired serenity.
That is the Saul we meet at the outset of chapter nine. Verse one says, “1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” Notice three things here. First, Saul is not acting on the initiative of the high priest, but on his own. The high priests doesn’t come to him, asking him to wipe out the Christians—he goes to them and offers his services in helping to eliminate the church of Christ. Second, he was asking the high priest for “letters to the synagogues of Damascus.” What Luke means by that is—the high priest had legal authority over all the synagogues in the Ancient Near East. That meant that if you were doing something deemed illegal in the synagogue, you could be arrested by his appointed officers. So Saul is getting letters of extradition from the high priest to secure permission, not only to arrest these people, but also drag them back to Jerusalem.
Third, Damascus was 135 miles from Jerusalem. This was not in Jerusalem’s back yard. It wasn’t as if the believers in Damascus posed any threat to the temple or Jerusalem. This was about a week’s journey by foot. If he travelled by foot, that means Saul walked for a week to get there on this mission and he planned to round up both male and female believers in these synagogues and travel a week with these bound prisoners back to Jerusalem. For days he would hear pleadings and appeals like, “Oh, please Saul, don’t make us abandon our children! “Oh please Saul, let me just go and make sure my aged mother will be taken care of before you imprison me!” He knew that would happen because he had done this many times before. Saul was so zealous to persecute Christians that his reputation for ruthlessness preceded him wherever he went. Ananias, who later baptized Saul and who lived in faraway Damascus had even heard about him. Saul was like a hunter stalking his prey. He tracked believers, trapped them and in some way dispensed with them. The believers in Damascus 135 miles from Jerusalem knew of his reputation in an age before newspapers or media of any kind. Word was OUT on this Saul—if you were in Christ and you saw Saul of Tarsus coming—run for your very life!
He was “still
breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
Luke wants us to see just how impassioned Saul was about his work. This
wasn’t just another assignment he received and passively carried out.
This was his passion.
He hated Christians and that hatred manifested in his murderous threats against them. He
didn’t approach Damascus with cat-like stealth.
He came in like a dragon, breathing out these fiery, murderous
threats against the church. This is Saul of Tarsus—this is who he was!
The question of course is—what would prompt such impassioned hatred
and intense pursuit of these believers to either imprison or execute them?
The answer is--the same thing that prompts radical Muslims to
blow up dozens of people a week in the Middle East today. Saul was driven by misplaced religious zeal. Think
about it. Stephen
has implied in his sermon that the Jerusalem temple was obsolete—there was no use for it now that Jesus has come. Saul
grew up as a supremely devout Jew in the shadow of the temple—was probably educated there by Gamaliel and had certainly
worshipped in that temple complex that he knew as the dwelling place of God.
That’s where the Manifest Presence of God dwelt.
You might as well say that God himself is not necessary!
Beyond that, the thought that the great and heroic Deliverer of the Jewish people—the Messiah would die as a criminal under the curse of God, naked on a cross—that to Saul and most of the Jews wasn’t just improbable—it was scandalous–perhaps blasphemous. God’s Messiah under the curse of God? He must have fantasized about the fate of all these fools if the REAL Messiah would come and expose this cursed imposter they followed. Finally, Jesus claimed to be God’s Son, which any Jew at that time would have seen as an undisguised claim to be God. At the heart of Judaism was the Shema. 4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Because God is ONE, that means to Saul that these Christians are polytheistic idolaters surely under the wrath of God. He doubtless saw himself as God’s servant, chosen by him to preserve the sacred faith of the patriarchs by destroying this increasingly growing cancer on Judaism.
This man who hated the church and was on a mission from God (and there is no one harder to dissuade than someone on a mission from God) would destroy this fledgling church before it could spread its malignancy any further. THAT MAN--with all of those horribly entrenched and impassioned attitudes which he was zealously acting out—THAT MAN became a follower of Jesus Christ as his Messiah and that incredible transformation took only a few moments. This just doesn’t happen. Because Saul was so zealous to destroy the church, it’s hard to find modern day parallels. It would be a bit like if Christopher Hitchens—the world renowned atheist who has given his life to pummeling God and faith in him and the Bible, in a single evening, was converted and immediately went on television to argue for the legitimacy of Christianity. As we read in the story, this conversion was so in-credible that when the risen Lord gives devout Ananias a vision from God and personally charges him to go get Saul, Ananias’ immediate response to that once-in-a-lifetime, supernatural encounter was to doubt God. To make this kind of radical, 180 degree change is incredibly unlikely, but for it to happen in a matter or moments, that’s simply off-the-charts… inconceivable.
Next, let’s look at the intense display of raw, sovereign rule God displays here. The manner in which Jesus interacts with Saul here is nothing short of astounding. He flat out hijacks him. If a fallen human being did the things to Saul that Jesus did, we would say he mugged him. Listen to what God did to Saul and how he did it. Verse three, “…suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.” So, out of nowhere a bright light flashes with such intensity it drives Saul to the ground. God literally bowls him over and he hears a voice speaking words of rebuke and correction to him. The voice he hears says, “Saul, Saul…” In the ancient near east, when you repeated someone’s name it was for emphasis. The modern day equivalent of what Jesus is saying to Saul in the midst of these other men with him is, “Saul, I’m talking to YOU.” He follows that, not with words of comfort as so often accompany appearances of God. Noticeably absent are words like “fear not” which is what the glorified Savior said to John in Revelation chapter one. No, after he emphatically addresses him he says, “Why are you persecuting me?” This is not a rhetorical question—it’s a guilty verdict from the Judge of the universe. Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my church.” That would have been less confrontational. Jesus chooses to make this personal—you are persecuting ME.
We can’t leave this statement Jesus makes about his relationship with to the church without giving a brief word of application about how his question to Saul should shape our theology of the church. There are many people today who claim to be believers who say things like, “I have no use for the church—they get in my way. Frankly, the church is mostly irrelevant today.” These people sometimes have jettisoned all contact with the church. The question Jesus asks of Saul here means that when we say, “I have no use for the church”—what the Lord hears is, “I have no use for Jesus” because he charges Saul that in persecuting the church, he was persecuting Christ. The truth of the church as the body of Christ is implied here. One inescapable implication of Jesus’ words here is—what you think of the church is reflective of what you think of Jesus.
After he rebukes him, he says, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” This is SO un-American. He doesn’t ask Paul to carefully consider his claims of authenticity. He doesn’t plead with him to give him permission to come into his heart. This Jesus is not gentlemanly. He’s clearly not—as J.I. Packer says “a Savior forlornly knocking at the door of someone’s heart—a door he is powerless to open.” That Jesus is not here because that Jesus doesn’t exist! This is King Jesus and he is barking orders like a General officer because as King, he has every right to command people to do what he tells them—even people who have hated him with a passion. Then, Jesus does something else. Verse eight, “Saul rose from the ground and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.” First, Jesus charges Saul with a crime against himself, then, as if he were a buck private, he orders him what to do and where to go and finally, Jesus blinds him so that he cannot even independently find his way so as to obey the order he just gave him. Jesus forced this proud, zealous man to take hold of someone else’s hand in order to walk into Damascus like a little child. He was without sight for three days until Jesus commands another of his servants, Ananias to go and restore his it. The apostle Paul often refers to himself as a “bond slave of Jesus Christ.” We see right at the outset of his ministry that this wasn’t a hypothetical enslavement. He learned the reality of that relationship very early in his Christian life—right here. Jesus appears to him as King and Master—he appears to him as…God. He was many other blessed things to Paul, but he was never less than his King.
A final display of God’s muscular sovereignty is seen in what Jesus tells Ananias after he voices skepticism about Saul’s conversion. Verse 15, “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Here, we see that Jesus as Saul’s Master already has all of his life planned out for him. Saul is not given any input on what he is going to do for the next 30 years or so--none. He’s going to carry the name of Christ all over the place—mainly to Gentiles, who at this point he would have considered dogs and would not have eaten with. But he’s going to preach to them and shepherd them and become their spiritual father. He’s also going to bring Christ’s name to his own Jewish people—people who hate Christ almost as much as he had and who would now see Saul not only as a fool, but as a betrayer. Jesus says, “He’s going to preach my name to those people.”
Again, this would never fly in America. Where are his options? Where is Paul’s freedom to choose for himself the kind of life he wants to live? Where is his “free will” in all of this? He has none. Finally, Jesus makes a very sobering statement about the quality of this life he has called him to. “…I will show him how much he MUST suffer for the sake of my name.” So, this ministry that Jesus has for Saul is going to involve much suffering. Just as Saul inflicted much suffering, now Paul will endure much suffering. Do you see why I call this a hijacking? With no warning, Jesus hijacks Paul’s life! He rebukes him, blinds him and issues commands to him that, as he openly declares, will bring intense suffering into his life. If that’s not a hijacking then I don’t know what one is. Let’s just remind ourselves of some of that suffering from Second Corinthians 11. Paul says, “24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
That’s the suffering Jesus was talking about and that doesn’t include any suffering Paul endured after he wrote Second Corinthians. When he wrote this, he has a minimum of seven more years of ministry and suffering ahead of him before he dies. His final list of sufferings could have perhaps been twice as long as this one… and Jesus calls him to this kind of life. Luke’s point in recording this is to give an account of this conversion and call, but also because—as he did with the Ethiopian Eunuch, he is saying that NOTHING could stop God in carrying out his mission to reach the ends of the earth. In part, to illustrate that, he took the most vicious enemy of the church and in a moment, turned him into the church’s most impassioned and productive leader. Luke’s point is not that God goes to these extremes with everyone—clearly he doesn’t. What this account and others like it in the bible does do is to explode the notion that God will never force himself on anyone. Of course he will! What do you think he did with Paul? He does the same kind of thing repeatedly with Ezekiel. He will save those whom he has called—irresistibly.
In order to do this, God used many miracles in this conversion, so let’s briefly look at the miraculous nature of Saul’s conversion. The blinding light of the revealed glory of Christ is surely miraculous—God invaded our world and appeared on the road to Damascus. This bright light was no sun dog—it was the Lord of Glory. God’s blinding of Saul likewise can’t be written off as a natural response to stimulus—it was supernatural. Jesus also pulls off two visions. One, to Ananias where he tells him about his plans for Saul and another vision is given for Saul. Jesus tells Ananias in verse 12 about the vision he has given to Saul, “and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in a lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” That’s a pretty specific vision isn’t it? He even names Ananias. He wouldn’t have had to do that. If Ananias came in to Saul’s room and said, “I’m the one God sent so that you may regain your sight…” Saul wouldn’t have said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name, so keep your hands off me.” God gave Saul even Ananias’ name to show that he had completely and totally orchestrated this whole event—down to the specific players. This conversion, this charge, this commission is from King Jesus! And Paul needed this kind of call, didn’t he? You don’t undergo the kind of brutality and suffering Paul endured if you’re in doubt about whether your mission is from God. You have to KNOW that with utter certainty to risk and suffer what Paul did for Christ.
Finally, I want us to look briefly at Christ’s saving and enabling grace in Saul’s life.
There isn’t much to say here because, as we have labored to show, Saul had only a very minor role in this hijacking of his life. We do see a couple of interesting responses, however. First, when the blinding light appears and Jesus charges Saul with persecuting him, Saul’s response is, “Who are you, Lord?” The word “Lord” can have two meanings. It can mean “God” or it can mean something like “sir.” If blinding light—the glory of God appears all around you and you are so overcome by it that you fall to the ground, I doubt if you are going to ask, “Who are you, SIR?” Saul knows that “sirs” don’t manifest the glory of God! No, Saul knew this was God and he knew something else that in this moment must have absolutely blown his circuits. That is—that this One he had spent years studying about, this One who he had worshipped, whose word he had memorized, who he had taught others about and this One who he was serving so vehemently as he persecuted the church—this One was…a complete stranger to him. “Who are you, Lord?”
This is an admission that this up and coming theologian didn’t know this God who had appeared to him. After Saul was led by the hand into Damascus, verse nine tells us that “…for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” This is the most intense fast practiced—nothing by mouth—not even water for three days. The scholars tell us that “people engaged in such fasts only if they were repenting or seeking God’s face.” Saul was probably doing both. The thought that he had personally been attacking and persecuting the promised Jewish Messiah must have absolutely overwhelmed him with shame. The thought that he had been entirely wrong about the main message of the Bible—about the identity of the Messiah—about the very identity of God himself and God’s plan for his life—would surely have been more important for Saul to process than taking food or drink. He had to know the significance of all of this and so he abstained from food and water to more clearly hear from God.
From this account, we also know only that he received Ananias, his sight and the Holy Spirit and consented to be baptized as a follower of Jesus Christ. In his baptism, he is completely identifying himself with Jesus Christ and the people he had only days earlier been working to eradicate. Next week, Lord willing, we will see God’s grace far more clearly in this new convert. What can we learn from this account? We must learn that we must buck the trend today and adopt a biblical, high view of Christ’s church. Church bashing is much in vogue today and it is sin. Jesus so identified with his church that he experienced the persecution directed at it. It is his bride and just as you men would not want someone to speak ill of your bride, neither does Christ. Second. We must praise God for his sovereign power in accomplishing his mission. We labored this truth last time in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and the fact that Luke writes another account emphasizing the same truth must mean it’s important. If God tells you to do something, he will give you whatever you need to do it. He is faithful because he is all powerful and is in complete control of everything in the universe—including the hearts of those who hate him most.
Third, we must know that no one is outside the realm of God’s grace. Like the Old Testament story of the evil king Manasseh’s repentance, this account tells us—if God can save Saul of Tarsus, he can save anyone. As you are laboring in prayer for those who are tougher than nails and whose opposition to Christianity is so strong, know this—God converted someone much tougher and much more vehemently opposed than the person you are praying for. Probably all the believers in the early church had written off any hope of seeing Saul of Tarsus converted. Their votes didn’t count---only God’s did and HE hadn’t written him off. He was a chosen instrument of his. He just needed to draft him into his service. Fourth, it’s possible to think you know God, when you really don’t know him at all. Do you know God theoretically as Saul did for all those years, or do you know him by personal experience? Do you recognize his voice—are you intimately acquainted with him? Finally, we must understand that when God converts you, he also has a mission for you. To put it another way—he’s not only your Savior, he’s your King. Like Paul, God saved us to be bondservants at the disposal of our Master. We are driven by our love for him in response to the gospel to be sure, but he is our King. Many in the church are simply not getting that message. As we said several weeks ago, though church attendance has only dropped 10 percent in the last 20 years, the percentage of people who do anything more than attend Sunday morning worship has dropped 50%. Now, there are clearly many ministries that take place outside these walls and if God has called you to them, then let us know how we can support and enable you. But the reason the participation in church ministries has been cut in half in the last 20 years is NOT because people have increased their participation in ministries outside the church. It’s because they are putting their own personal wants and desires above the body of Christ. Yet, at the same time—even with this depleted labor force, people’s expectations for the church have never been higher and the needs have never been greater.
Is Jesus your King? Is that how you relate to him? Does he command you or just offer you options? If it’s the latter, you may not know God any better than Saul did. He is a loving King—he loves Saul very much here--but he is a king. Jesus says in Luke 6:46, 46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? If Jesus saved you, it’s not only because he wants to spare you eternal judgment, it’s also because he has work for you to do for him. Do you know what that work is and are you about doing it? May God give us the grace to love God more deeply and follow him more closely as his loving bond slaves.
 Fernando, A., (1998) NIV Application Commentary-- Acts, Electronic version.
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