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"Saul, Off and Running"


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          This week, as we continue our study in Acts, we move to the account that confirms that Saul of Tarsus did not merely have an emotional experience on the Damascus Road; he was genuinely and supernaturally converted to Christ.  Saul, who was later renamed Paul had a ministry without peer—unprecedented in its impact.  In our text for this morning, Luke records the opening pages of this ministry that begins here around 37AD and stretched to perhaps 65AD when he was executed in Rome.  Last time, we looked at Saul’s conversion—how incredibly unlikely it was—how it so dramatically demonstrated the sovereign power of God in salvation.  We also briefly saw the  grace of God in Paul’s response.  This week, we more fully unpack that astonishing grace of God present in Saul even here in the opening moments of his ministry.  The grace of God seen in the qualities that will mark his entire apostleship are nearly all present right here at its inception.  Although it’s clear, even from Luke’s account that Saul grew in his understanding, that growth was a matter of degree, not kind. 

As I studied Luke’s account, I saw seven qualities of Paul’s apostolic ministry--all of which we can learn from.  The first quality is: Saul’s great zeal to be faithful to God in his gospel ministry.  We see this in the opening verse of our text. Luke writes in verse 19, “…For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.  And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues…”  Focus on that word “immediately” and contrast that with the other apostles.  Jesus didn’t have them preaching as soon as he called them—they had been systematically prepared by Jesus for three years with only a few short term mission trips where they struck out on their own.  With Saul, it's more like three days before he strikes out.  To say that Saul as an apostle “hit the ground running” would be an understatement.  God propelled him into ministry like a bullet from a gun.  To be fair to the other apostles, God had been preparing Saul for gospel ministry all his life through his training as a Pharisee—Saul just didn’t know it at the time. 

Again, as we mentioned last time, think about the major shifts in Saul’s thinking that would have had to have occurred in these few days after his conversion in order to enable him to preach Jesus.  His understanding of the central message of the Old Testament had been turned upside down.  And yet, with all of the quantum shifts in Saul’s thinking, in only a few days, he is preaching a message that only a week earlier he was sending people to prison for believing, much less preaching.  Jesus had given him a message and called him in ways similar to the Old Testament prophets.  Saul understood the weight of that and he wasn’t about to waste any more of his life doing misguided things for God.  The same zeal he had expressed in destroying Christians would now be applied to creating them. Church history teaches that zealous atheists and unbelievers often make the most zealous believers and that is certainly true in Saul’s case.  God has wired them for zeal and when they meet Jesus, they have finally found someone—the only One worthy of their energies!  Saul’s entire ministry was marked by this kind of rabid zeal for Christ as he repeatedly plunged headlong into contexts no one had ever experienced.  We see God’s gracious deposit of zeal in him right from Saul’s new birth.

A second quality of Saul’s ministry present here at the beginning is: Saul’s radical Christ-centeredness.  We pick this up from verse 20 which says, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”  Paul learned in a few days what some preachers never learn and that is—preach Jesus!  Don’t preach moral lessons—don’t major on political or social issues—don’t preach motivational or self-help sermons—preach Christ!  Preach his perfections—preach his majesty—preach his grace—preach his holiness—preach his mercy—preach his compassion—preach his patience.  Preach him as sovereign Lord.  Preach him as the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah.  Preach him as the second Person of the Trinity—preach him as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, Judge and coming King.  Some preachers never learn that—Saul catches it right here on the front end. 

One reason it was so natural for him to preach Christ and so unthinkable for him to preach anything else is because he had personally met him!  Saul experienced a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and in that moment he knew that this One was not only the center of God’s redemptive plan for humanity, he was the central reality of his life and in fact, the center of everything.  When a person truly, genuinely encounters Jesus—they change.  They can’t help but change.  We know from Second Corinthians chapter three that believers are increasingly transformed as we behold or encounter his glory.  We know that in that moment when we will finally be made completely like him in heaven, that will occur when we see him.  It only follows that when you genuinely encounter him fir the first time in conversion, you must change—transformation MUST begin in your life because encountering Jesus brings transformation.

Saul preached Jesus in the synagogues and proclaimed to these other Jews that, “He is the Son of God.”   This is incredible.  The One he formerly maligned and killed Jews for following, he now declares to be his God as the Son of God. This One who, only a few days earlier, he thought was a wretched counterfeit of the Jewish Messiah, has now become his Messiah and in calling him the Son of God, he proclaims that he is THE Jewish Messiah.  The One he scorned is now the One he worships. The people’s response is predictable.  All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon his name?  And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?”

The third quality of Saul’s ministry is seen in verse 22.  Luke says, “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.  A few observations before we get to the main point of the verse.  First, this is the first time in Acts that Luke differentiates between followers of Jesus and “Jews.”  By this time, there is a clear line of division between disciples of Jesus and the Jews.  Up to this point, the church was seen as a sect of Judaism.  Because most Jews around Jerusalem had by this time rejected Jesus, it became important to distinguish between “the Jews” and the church of Christ.  Second, notice that Saul was growing in strength.  In other words, even Saul had room to grow and this tells us that you don’t have to be an expert on the new birth to tell others about it.  You need to know the gospel well, but if you wait until you feel ready to share it—you’ll wait all your life.  No one is sufficient to preach the gospel, but we are all called to be ready to do so. The reason God calls insufficient people to preach the gospel is so that his sufficiency can be seen in our weaknesses.  Woe be to us if we ever feel sufficient to share the gospel.  Who is sufficient for these things?

The next quality of Saul’s ministry on display here is: Saul’s invincible argument.  Though a newly minted believer, Saul is already able to confound the Jews “by proving that Jesus is the Christ.  The main issue for Jews about this new was over the question—is Jesus who he said he was—the Christ—God’s Messiah?  From the very beginning, Saul is winning that argument—even if he’s not convincing these stubborn Jews.  The goal of evangelism is obviously not just to win the argument and we mustn’t credit Saul for this anyway.  He had at least two weapons the Jews didn’t have.   

First, he had the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would lead him into all truth and who would even put words in his mouth when he was on the ropes.  He had the Spirit who alone can convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.  The Spirit alone can invincibly convince a sinner that they are in rebellion against a holy God, headed for eternal destruction and in need of life-changing repentance.  Only the Spirit does that.  But second, he had the truth--which makes for a much more compelling argument.  The Old Testament, as we have seen so clearly, points to Jesus and Jews can see that once God removes the satanic veil that darkens their minds to the truth.  It’s much easier to win a debate when you are right—when you happen to have the truth on your side!

A fourth quality of his ministry is the intense opposition Saul encountered.  The gospel message was so controversial that when Saul preached, they didn’t simply leave the room when they had heard enough.  They didn’t just heckle him—they worked to kill him!  There is no indication that there was any Jewish leader there to legally authorize Saul’s execution.  This was pure blood lust.  Verse 23, where Luke speaks about the Jews in Damascus, “When many days passed, the Jews plotted to kill him.”   This was the first of many such resolutions.  Again, when he went to Jerusalem—where he had grown up and where he knew so many people who had admired and loved him, verse 29 says, “And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists.  But they were seeking to kill him.  We must know that this murderous rage didn’t originate with the Jews—Paul’s battle was never against flesh and blood.  Paul’s real enemy was Satan, his former boss who was doubtless smarting over the miraculous coup God had pulled off in snatching away one of his most effective servants and turning him against him.  Satan doubtless shuddered at the notion of what God could do through this man in whom he had already invested such astonishing grace.  Satan, as he did with baby Jesus, worked to kill this “infant” apostle early--before he could wreak havoc on his dark kingdom.

This opposition was continuous throughout Paul’s ministry.  This is just his first taste.   Someone once said that when Paul arrived in a new city, the first thing he inquired about was how nasty the local prison was because he knew that’s where he would end up.  Paul was the poster child for the truth of John 16:33 where Jesus said, “…In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  The words Paul penned in Romans 8:16 were not theoretical to him—they had been chiseled into his soul by his own experience.  He writes, “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Opposition was THE norm—it was and is normal to be opposed for preaching the gospel.  You are telling people who think they are righteous that in fact their righteousness is at the level of a filthy, bloody rag.  You are telling them that the law they thought would justify them before God in fact, condemns them as sinners.  You’re also telling them that, of all the potential roads to get to heaven, the only one that actually terminates there is the road to Calvary and the cross of Christ.  All the others are dead end streets and if they don’t believe your message, they already stand condemned before God. That message—no matter how graciously you state it, has never been a way to win friends and influence people.  It attracts opposition like moths to a fire.

A fifth quality of Saul’s ministry, which we see continually through his apostleship was Saul’s intense dependence on Christ through his church.  We see this twice in this opening account.  Luke writes in verse 23, “23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.”  You’ll notice that by this point, Saul already has disciples—members of Christ’s church without whose help his ministry would have ended right here in Damascus.  He was dependent upon the church to pull off this escape.  Likewise, when he came to Jerusalem and the officials there were seeking to kill him how was Saul rescued?  Verse 30 says, “and when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”  Once again, Saul is rescued by the church. 

Unless you see Saul as being a product of the church, your understanding will be skewed.  In Acts 13, we see that the local church at Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas had been serving, as a church had already been preaching to the gentiles.  God called Paul and Barnabas from the church at Antioch to help that local church reach out even further to minister to the Gentiles.  Acts 18 tells us that Antioch was his home church—where he returned after he had finished his missionary journeys.  Clearly, because Paul was an apostle, his ministry transcended the church at points because he had authority over the church, but even as an apostle, he served within and was called from within the local church.  Local churches supported his missionary journeys.  Local churches, like the ones here in Damascus and Jerusalem encouraged, prayed for and when necessary, protected him from opposition.  Much of his ministry—especially his writing ministry, was directed to local churches.  We mustn’t see Saul as detached from the local church.  Three days after his conversion, he is baptized into the church of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).  Saul’s dependence on the church begins right here in the opening pages of his ministry.

A sixth quality of his ministry is seen in Saul’s boldness in preaching. Luke reports that in both Damascus and in Jerusalem, Saul’s preaching was marked by boldness.  When the church in Jerusalem is afraid of Saul, Barnabas convinces them of his authenticity in part by citing the fact that in Damascus he “preached boldly in the name of the Lord.”  In verse 28, Luke employs the same word to describe his preaching in Jerusalem.  “So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.”  We must understand what Luke means by boldness.  Is he talking about someone who yells loudly or is combative or antagonistic?  Is that boldness?  That’s NOT what the Greek word Luke uses for boldness here.  The Greek word is parresiazomai and it simply means “to speak with candor.”  To speak with candor doesn’t have anything to do with the loudness of your voice or how red your face gets.  This isn’t about your style or manner of speech; it’s about your willingness to be open about the truth with someone without regard to the consequences.  That’s boldness.  The other things are not boldness—they are related to style, not the condition of a person’s heart and some of them are unworthy of the gospel.

We want to get this clear because sometimes people shy away from evangelism because they are more quiet in their demeanor and they mistakenly assume that means they can’t be bold enough.  Listen, if you go up to a lost person and in hushed, even tones say, “Without Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are eternally condemned,” that is boldness—candor.  It’s true that Paul debated with these people. Verse 29 says, “And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists.”  It’s clear that Saul and the Jews in Jerusalem were having an argument—they held two polar opposite opinions about the person of Jesus Christ.  If these two parties were going to talk about Jesus, they were going to argue.  But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Paul is being combative or antagonistic—he almost certainly wasn’t.  We know that because in Colossians chapter four he writes, “5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always [irrespective of the context] be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” 

Paul clearly got into some heated discussions with people.  In Acts 18, after the Jews in Corinth reject the gospel, in verse six Luke records, “And when they opposed him and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads!  I am innocent.  From now on I will go to the Gentiles.  Note two things here.  First, he had spent a load of time with these people before it came down to this.  This was not the first time he had given them the gospel and second, he is simply telling them that if they reject it, the responsibility is theirs’ alone.  That means by implication that if we do not warn people, then in some sense, their blood will be on our hands—and Paul is only repeating what Ezekiel had said 500 years before. 

The point in all of this is--we mustn’t shy away from being faithful witnesses to the gospel because we have a wrong understanding of boldness. You can be bold in a whisper. Boldness is simply your willingness to openly tell the truth to people in candor, irrespective of the possible negative consequences.  A seventh and final quality of Saul’s ministry also serves as a conclusion and provides some application for these other qualities.  That, as we said at the outset is: Saul’s initial ministry authenticated the genuineness of his conversion.  Some elements of Saul’s conversion are unique and have little application to us.  Very few people are confronted with the risen Christ and the blinding glory of God.  But Adjith Fernando does some insightful analysis as to what we can learn from Saul’s conversion about what happens when God converts someone that I think is very helpful.[1]

Fernando finds in Paul’s conversion five features typical of biblical conversions—we’ll look at four this morning.  First, he says, conversion comes as a result of a divine initiative.  We labored this point last time, but suffice it to say that when God saves people, he initiates the process, not the person.  Listen for God’s initiative in conversion when Paul speaks of it in Second Corinthians 4:6. “6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” GOD shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  GOD turns the light on in a sinner’s dark heart, not the sinner.  This was clearly the case with Saul.

Second, in genuine conversions, there is a personal encounter with Christ.  We already mentioned this as it relates to Saul—but it applies to all genuine converts.  Although this personal encounter with Christ will not manifest itself as dramatically as it did in Saul’s case, our conversion is dependent upon an encounter with Christ.  We know this because Jesus defines eternal life in these kinds of personal, relational terms in John 17:3.  He says, “3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  If eternal life is defined as personally knowing God and his Son, then certainly when God gives you eternal life at conversion, that must involve an encounter with Christ.  You can’t possibly know someone you haven’t personally encountered.  Most often, this occurs when someone confronts you with the truth about your sin.  In these encounters with Christ, it is Jesus himself through the Holy Spirit who is confronting you through that person.  Anyone who is a genuine believer has experienced this.  They know that it is not a preacher talking to them—it is the Lord of the universe confronting them about their sin and revealing his Son to them as their only hope.   

We mustn’t be too rigid or narrow in defining how this happens.  As John three tells us there is an element of mystery in the new birth—that’s why people can have very differing stories about their conversion, but the results are equally apparent.  This personal encounter with Christ is the missing link for many false converts who, without hesitation mentally assent to the truths of Christianity and in that sense “believe,” but whose life has not appreciably changed.  They are still very much calling the shots in their life, not Christ because they have never personally met the King before whose Lordship they must bow.

Related to this is another feature typical of genuine conversions we see in Saul’s.  That is—there is a surrender to the Lordship of Christ.  It was clear that from the earliest moments of his Christian life, Saul’s life belonged totally to Jesus.  Jesus many times taught the necessity of his Lordship over a believer’s life.  He says in John 10 that he is the door, through which the sheep must pass.  9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”   In Matthew chapter seven he says that this door—this way of salvation is narrow.  Today, many people who claim to be converted are oblivious to this.  They call on Jesus because they want to go to heaven, but, figuratively speaking, their arms are filled with large parcels representing those areas of their life where they won’t allow Jesus to interfere—they want to have Jesus and still hang on to all these things.  They can’t get through the door.  The Door—Jesus—will allow only the sinner who is naked and empty handed to pass through him—the narrow gate.  Sinners must drop all those things they treasure most and leave them on the front side of the cross.  Many in the church today think they are in the kingdom when in fact they have never entered through the Door because they haven’t surrendered their lives to Jesus. 

Now, this surrender is a life-long process, but in genuine conversions there is an experiential understanding that knowing Christ requires a surrender--this door means death to the old life, including those treasures you drag around that are incompatible with the kingdom of God.  Fernando cites an evangelist who says, “…he does not use the phrases `decided for Christ’ or `committed to Christ,’ though decision and commitment are certainly involved… Conversion is at root not a decision, nor a commitment, but surrender to the supreme authority of Jesus.”[2]  Saul of Tarsus did not fundamentally decide or commit, he surrendered.  That is why his conversion was genuine and why his life so radically changed.  We must remember that this surrender is in response to God’s grace and goodness to you in saving you from hell—it’s not something we can do on our own—it’s all gift of grace.  It’s always hard to die to those things and people we treasure that, as in the case of the rich young ruler, hinder us from coming to Christ, but God will enable us.  Think about it--If someone you have made war against all your life offers to sovereignly take you off the road to hell you were walking on and place you on the road to righteousness, joy and peace and heaven and promises to keep you there, wouldn’t you want to surrender to that Person?  Surrender is a good thing if its surrendering to Jesus.

That leads to the final feature typical of conversions and that is—Saul’s conversion resulted in a witness for Christ.  Paul will later say in Second Corinthians 5:20, “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Don’t miss the connection between being a new creation in Christ and being his ambassador--continuing his mission of reconciling sinners to God.  One result of being reconciled to God is that you become a reconciler.  The question is not whether you are an ambassador for Christ—that’s included in being a new creation.  The question is—are you being a faithful witness and ambassador?

Where are you in respect to all this?  When you received Christ, was there in some sense a personal encounter with a holy God?  Or, did it simply occur to you that this was a decision you needed to make and now was as good a time as any?  Sure, I’ll be a Christian—now, what do I need to do again?  That doesn’t sound very God-initiated, or the result of a personal encounter with the Lord of the universe.  Did you surrender your life, your will, your relationships, your possessions to God?  Or, did you try to pass through that narrow door with your arms loaded down with your idols?  Although followers of Christ are always discovering more that we must surrender to Jesus, when a believer is genuinely converted, there is a death to the old self—a gift of God called repentance from dead works and from sinful relationships and from things that are incompatible with following Christ.  Finally, has your Christian life produced a witness for Christ?  You simply cannot be a Christian and not be a witness. The question is—are we faithful witnesses when God burdens us to share our faith or form a redemptive relationship?  If God is speaking to you right now—that you are not genuinely converted, that can change today.  Simply come up after the service and we have some people who would be thrilled to pray with you.  May God give us the grace to know where we are with God and to live as truly converted people for his glory and our joy.

[1]This section is largely dependent on  Fernando, Adjith, NIV Application commentary on Acts—electronic version—Acts 9:19-30.

[2] Fernando, electronic edition.


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