03 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
3rd of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” (Conversion of Paul, Formerly Saul) – Sunday, December 9, 2018
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
The New Testament clearly indicates that when a person becomes a Christian, there’s a work that God has done within that creates a change, and it occurs beginning at a particular moment in time when an individual who up to that point has not previously believed in Christ becomes a believer, trusts Christ personally, puts their faith and trust in Him. The Bible tells us that that results in a new spiritual state. One goes from being in darkness and spiritually blind in that darkness to having entered into the domain of light, the light of the Lord. One who has been apart from Jesus Christ enters a new relationship to being in Christ and with Christ within the person, which means that the old is now gone and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
You remember that line in the lyrics of that well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that expresses so well that conversion, “I once was blind but now I see” or “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Now with many individuals who become Christians that moment may not be all that dramatic but somewhat low-key and subdued, which is very unlike one particular character in the New Testament whose life we’ve begun studying and whose life was reversed course on a particular never-to-be-forgotten day when he experienced a 180 degree turn-about that totally transformed him from the inside out. His name was Saul – that was his name given to him at birth – born of a Jewish family, a couple during the opening years of the first century, probably only within a few years after the birth of Jesus Christ
This took place in a city in what was called ancient Asia minor, in a little province there in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea called Cilicia, the town of Tarsus. And during his childhood years to the time in which he became a young man Saul had been steeped in the teachings and the traditions of Judaism, so much so that he eventually became one of its leading members. So devoted was he to his Judaistic traditions that he ended up taking that system of beliefs to an extreme to the point that it resulted in radical actions that were way beyond the pale, in fact actions that were detrimental and harmful to those who had become believers and followers of Christ the son of God who had risen from the dead just a few years before. He and his accomplices were totally intolerant of the views of those believers in Jesus. They were convinced that these people were guilty of blasphemy, so as a result this movement needed to be stopped. It needed to be stamped out actually. And he and others with him engaged in heinous actions of going out and actually persecuting these first Christians. His blind hatred and rage for these followers of Christ became so intense that we read that after the stoning of the first martyr of the church that we know of, Stephen, who is spoken about in Acts chapters 6 and 7. In the opening of chapter 8 Saul began to go about destroying the church that had started in Jerusalem. He went from house to house. He dragged off men and women and put them in prison. If you or I had been one of those early believers living in or around the capital city in that time, much of our days and nights would have been spent in dreadful fear. We would have been wondering – the next sound that we heard if that was Saul and his cohorts who were ready to barge in and take us and our family away by force.
Many of those first Christlike followers made a run for it. They scattered some distance away into some of the neighboring regions, as verse 1 says. But that only caused Saul to be even more determined. His rage was fueled even more. It drove him to charge out towards those communities where those refugees may have fled to find a safe haven. And one of those is spoken about in the opening verses of chapter 9 of the book of Acts, where we read that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priests and he asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus so that if he found any there who belong to the Way” – that was the identification that was used about these, this group of this community of followers of Christ – “whether” they be “men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
You’ll notice here that Saul’s prime target is Damascus. It was located over one hundred miles to the north of Jerusalem. There apparently an established community of a number of Jews had developed and there they resided. They had also formed multiple locations where they gathered for their Jewish worship. Notice that the plural “synagogues” is used, so we might take from that that there was a fairly good-sized community of Jewish people there. After the high priest authorized Saul’s aggressive plan, he sets out on his long journey and he was consumed with hunting down any of those that he viewed as renegades so that he might extradite them back to Jerusalem. He hoped to do that, by the way, in other locations as well.
In one of the parallel passages that we read of his testimony in Acts chapter 26 Paul said, “I went to foreign cities” (plural) to persecute them as well, so Damascus was not the only city on his target list. He would get to Damascus all right, but as he approached the city limits his sinister plots would be interrupted and would be brought to a divine halt.
And I invite you to follow along beginning at verse 3 of Acts chapter 9 as we read just a short portion that tells us about what happened.
Acts 9:3-9 (New International Version
3As he (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6"Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
It would be about 15 years later – the apostle Paul would stand before individuals who were in key leading governmental positions. In both of those situations recorded in Acts 22 and Acts 26 he would recount this experience which closely parallels what we just read here in Acts chapter 9. When we put them together, even though there are few details that are slightly different, we are able to see a composite of what occurred in what is considered to be the conversion of this man Saul. There are also several other instances in his letters where he makes brief allusions to this moment, and we’ll come to a couple of those later.
Now there can be no question about the magnitude of this single event, not only to Saul’s life personally but also in how it had an enormous effect upon others in that first-century time period, as well as effects that have rippled over the centuries to you and to me today in our present age. It has been said that other than the coming of Christ in His life and ministry of 30-plus years that culminated in His death and resurrection, the conversion of Paul has proven to be a leading, if not the foremost contributing factor for the course of all of Christian history. Think about that for a moment – that had Paul not converted to Jesus Christ how differently things might be.
Now we might wonder if that was the case why did God not step in sooner to make his move to meet Paul and spare many of these early Christians from experiencing all of this rampage and persecution that was lashed out against them? But instead for a time it seems that God remained silent and restrained while Saul carried out his ruthless plans beginning in Jerusalem, then here in Damascus and then possibly also in other places as well. God waited and He did not interrupt until the hour in which His intervention would have its greatest impact.
I want you to notice several things here in this passage that stand out.
First of all, God’s intrusion was sudden and unexpected. Saul was given no advance notice, no warnings of what was about to happen. Little did he know in just a couple of minutes as he was walking along this road before this occurred that God was going to stop him right there and then in the most dramatic fashion. He and his fanatical rebels were on the last leg of this long and grueling journey. They were likely within eyesight of the city of Damascus. They were ready to storm it the moment they made their entry. And then with no notice or any indication of any kind God stopped them dead in their tracks. It’s quite interesting that God has always worked in that way. He still works in that way today. He steps into the scene of our lives even, sometimes quite suddenly and unexpectedly that it results in an abrupt turn that we’re not ready for, that we had not planned for and that can even have long-term impact and effects upon our lives as well. God’s intrusion was sudden and unexpected.
Another thing about His intrusion – it was also dramatic and overpowering. There were several things that happened all within seconds. A bright light, first all, from heaven flashed all around him. And again, when we go to the parallel accounts we will see that Paul gave years later, that he described this light like it was brighter than the sun in Acts chapter 26. What is notable there and in the previous testimony in Acts 22 is that this occurred about noon which would mean that the sun would have already been about at its highest and its brightest. And yet this flashing light completely overpowered even the sun’s light at that time of the day. So there could be no question that this was a phenomena that was far beyond anything produced by any natural means. This was supernatural. There was no other explanation for what was occurring here, and it was God. And you remember that like that group of shepherds who were watching over their sheep some years earlier before this, which was another significant moment outside of Jerusalem, but that one occurred at night. Saul and his companions fell to the ground here just like the shepherds did. They were totally stunned. And because of the brilliance of the light it tells us that Saul was blinded. He was unable to see anything to the point that he had to be led by the hand of someone else for the next three days.
It’s quite noteworthy that for the first time in Paul’s proud life that had already spanned over three decades in which he had been able to always operate on his own self abilities, his own independence, he was able to be in control to handle things on his own, Saul now found himself desperately dependent on someone else.
Not only was what he saw overpowering, the brilliant light, but while he was lying there flat on the ground he also heard a voice that may have been deafening to some degree. With clear and distinct words this voice called out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It’s noteworthy that the Lord called him by name. It tells us that even in our pre-conversion state God knows every person, and He knows us by name as He knew Saul. That should not be too surprising because you remember during the ministry of Jesus He at one time said that every hair on our heads is numbered by God. But God also knows not only what is on the outside of our heads, He knows also what is on the inside. He had known every vicious thought that Saul had had up to this point of time – every malicious motive inside that had driven him now to Damascus. The Bible teaches that nothing escapes God’s knowledge of each one of us, each day, every moment. And again, that’s true whether a person knows Christ or not. In this case Paul was not yet a believer but he would be within just moments.
Well, Saul was taken back so much by this voice that he did not recognize at all that all that he could do was ask, “Who are you, Lord?” When he uses the word “Lord” here in this first question that he that he asked, it was probably more like a simple mode of address like we use the word “Sir” or “Your Honor” today – “Who are you, Lord?”
The Person behind the voice quickly identified himself, “I am Jesus” – which must have hit Saul like a ton of bricks. And over the next few seconds his mind must have been turning – “Jesus, this is the one that I’ve always considered to be a fraud. He cannot be real. Others have said that He is risen, that He’s alive, but He’s not. In fact, I believe that He is not alive so much so that I’ve actually been going out and persecuting people who do believe that He’s alive. And they have been duped into thinking that He had been risen. It cannot be Jesus.” – may well have been Saul’s thoughts at that moment.
Now in the first letter to the Corinthians the apostle also revealed that not only did he hear a voice but he also saw visibly the Lord Himself. He asked a question in 1st Corinthians 9, verse 1, “Have I not seen Jesus the Lord?” And then in 1st Corinthians chapter 15 after he listed out various individuals like Peter and James and others whom Jesus had made post-resurrection appearances to, Paul added lastly – He also “appeared to me” as well (v. 8), indicating that Saul would have seen Jesus Christ even in a visible form. What this means is that right before his very eyes there was the risen living Christ whom he had just heard speak.
The Lord then added that it wasn’t only other humans that Saul had been brutalizing but that in persecuting those whom Jesus loved and were His, Saul had actually been persecuting Jesus Himself. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” He said. And then in another account in chapter 26 when Paul recalled further words that Jesus had said, that He had added, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). We don’t find that statement here in Acts 9. That is an expression that apparently would have been rather common in rural settings of that day. It had its basis in the practice of farmers who would carry with them a long slender stick which was pointed on one end, and they would sometimes use it as they were trailing behind oxen to, you know, kind of poke or prod the oxen, which would give for just a split second a piercing pain to the beast and hopefully prod the ox into motion. And sometimes the ox would even react by kicking back. That’s the picture that Jesus was using of how God had been working on Saul’s heart for some time, maybe even for years, trying to prod, trying to goad him in various ways. One of the ways in which God had goaded him probably was as he rounded up these believers to imprison them and persecute them, he had seen how they had unyielding allegiance to Christ because they were convinced that He was risen and fully alive. I’m sure that another way that God had used to goad Paul’s heart was that day when he heard the message by Stephen in his glowing testimony as he was being mercilessly stoned to death and in his last moments he cried out, “Lord, receive my spirit” and “forgive them of what they’re doing, don’t lay this charge against them” (Acts 7:59-60). All that and more God had used to move and convict, to goad Saul of his need for the Savior, to prod his stubborn pride that had made them so resistant.
Up to now Saul would have never admitted to himself that this was actually what was happening on the inside of him, that he had actually been fighting Jesus and in the process also was fighting himself – his conscience, the darkness and the chaos that was in his soul. But all the while God had already been working, presently, quietly, powerfully, to bring him to this moment. And the fight was just about over and Christ was going to win. It was the noted British author of the past, C. S. Lewis, who once likened God’s conquering work of Saul’s rebel will to a divine chess player who systematically and patiently maneuvers his opponent into a corner, into a space and to where all he has left is that is that king, and there’s that word “checkmate” that is used. This was that checkmate moment that had come to Saul’s life.
In the account that is given in Acts 22 the apostle recalled another question that he had asked when he said, “Lord, what shall I do, Lord?” Now this by the way is the same term that he used in the first question, “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” But this time there seems to be a sense of willingness to submit himself to the Divine will, “What shall I do, Lord?” he asks. And I believe it is very possible that when he said that, he was indicating that this was the moment that he was trusting this One who had identified Himself as the Christ who was risen, who was living, who even appeared before him. And he was forgiven of all of his past, and he became a new creation. The moment that he came to realize that the living Jesus whom he had denied, even hated his entire life, had now become his Savior and his Lord.
And the first act of obedience to Jesus was to do what Jesus had said, to go on into Damascus, to not go on and carry out his original plan – that had already been totally scrubbed – but to wait there to be told what he should do next. And so Saul was led by the hand of his companions who, by the way, were just as stunned as he was. They had heard the sound of the voice but they couldn’t understand what was being said, nor had they seen anyone else. Only Saul could understand and had seen the Lord. And even though when he opened up his eyelids all he Saul was nothing but pitch black, there was something that was happening inside as he described it when he would write to the Corinthians in 2nd Corinthians chapter 4 and verse 6 – God had “made his light shine in” Saul’s heart “to give” him “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”.
In the three days that followed when he was physically blind, Saul let the light and the love of Jesus begin penetrating deeper and deeper into the recesses of his soul.
There’s a biography that was written about a half-century ago on the life of Paul in which the author makes these comments – that in the hours of his blindness the more he immersed himself in the love of God who had sought “him out and showed him a love of which surpassed anything he had ever known, the more he was broken down by the enormity of what he had done” before this point, because “he had imagined that he served God. He had supposed himself climbing into God’s favor. He had set up his standards of goodness. compared himself with others and seen that he was good,” at least that’s what he thought. “But now, in contrast with Jesus whose Spirit had invaded him, he knew his purity was a counterfeit of the inexpressible pure. The good deeds” had become “a parody of true goodness. He had been mentally and spiritually hostile to God, though honoring him,” at least he thought, “by his mouth. He been busy in evil though punctilious in religious rights. He had been altogether estranged, fit for nothing but to crawl away as far as he could from the blinding light that was God. And yet Jesus had grasped hold of him.” (John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, page 20)
Around high noon on a few years after Christ death and resurrection and ascension on a dusty road to Damascus the rebel Pharisee from Tarsus had been captured and his life would be forever transformed. And the world of his day would never be the same either. And generations that would follow to our present day, countless lives would be impacted by his life and by his words just as they are still doing even on this present day. This was the one who had been the fiercest persecutor of Christ’s people, now was becoming the most ardent proclaimer of His gospel.
I’d like to end with just several things that I’d like to mention.
One is that while few of us will ever have experienced the dramatic and spectacular display at the moment of conversion as Paul did, our inner transformation can nevertheless be as real and life-changing. I can personally testify that the morning I came to a full assurance of my salvation in Jesus Christ after I had struggled during much of my teenage years with doubts and wonderment whether I really was a Christian, whether I had eternal life, whether I would go to heaven someday, I heard no sounds or voices and I certainly saw no flashing lights. Everything was quiet, subdued, like normal, and yet there was the quiet inner workings of the Spirit who used the truth and the promises given in His Word. In over five decades God has continued to work, molding me, shaping me, doing a lot of reshaping also in the process many times, forgiving me, cleansing me, breaking my will so as to keep making me a little bit more into the image of His Son so as to be usable to Him. Your transformation or mine may not be dramatic but it can be just as real and life-changing as it was with Paul.
The second thing I want us to notice from this account is that while what we may have done in our lives prior to when we were converted may not have been of the magnitude of wickedness and evil as what Paul did, all of us were still as sinful and blind in the darkness of our souls before we came to Christ. We weren’t any better off really than what he was. And so as a result we should never get over it, we should always be thankful every day that we like Paul, as he put it in 1st Timothy chapter 1, “were shown mercy” by Christ and that “the grace of our Lord was poured out upon (us) abundantly” (1 Timothy 1:13-14), which we didn’t deserve any of that grace and that mercy, and that He rescued us and He made us alive with Christ when he saved us (Ephesians 2:5).
And then one more thing I’d like to mention this morning – though Paul was deserving of the of the assessment that he gave of himself at one point in which he called himself “the worst of sinners” (1st Timothy 1:16) because he persecuted God’s people, what is amazing is that even before his conversion in an ironic twist he became an intended instrument whom God used in the marvelous outworkings of His sovereign ways and will that would lay the foundation, because he was persecuting the church for the believers to get out of town, to scatter around, to do what Jesus had given to His disciples, to go to the ends of the earth to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). And because of the persecution of Saul before he became a Christian people were forced to begin doing that, which they may not have done had that not been the case. Sometimes God uses even terrible circumstances to ultimately advance His cause.
A Sundays ago, or a few weeks ago we heard that recently from our guest missionary, Joseph Kong who told how the horrendous killing fields in Cambodia back in the 1970s led to later an openness to the message of Christ and the conversion of many souls to come to know the Savior. Sometimes God’s sovereign will is working even when we do not see it.
Well, I’d like to with those things in mind conclude this message by us going to the Lord in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank You so much for this great event that occurred that may not necessarily compare of the same level, of course, to the coming of Jesus Christ and His work done for us. But it certainly was very prominent. Thank You for working on Paul. Thank You for bringing him to Yourself, for hunting him down, to pursue him to where he yielded himself to You and became a follower of Christ himself. It reminds us again of Your great grace which You have poured out on each one of us. We thank You. We praise you. We will praise You all the way to eternity for what You did through the marvelous work of Your Son Jesus. And I pray that as we think of other people around us during this season who need the light of the message of Jesus Christ. the good news, that You would lay it upon our hearts to in some way be an influence on people’s lives who are going into eternity without the Savior each day. And I pray that You would use us in some way, either in prayer or by our witness to reach out to them as well, that they might come to know the Savior that Saul who became Paul experienced and also each one of us. We pray in His precious and wondrous name. Amen.