04 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
4th of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” (Paul – Immediately After his Conversion) – Sunday, December 16, 2018
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
Some years ago Linda and I attended a conference for pastors and their wives which was on the grounds of the Navigators at Glen Eyrie Castle – that’s right outside of Colorado Springs. And it was only a moderate sized group, probably no more than 30 or 40 pastoral couples. One of the smaller group sessions that I remember attending was led by a fellow, I think he was connected somehow with the Navigators, that he brought along with him a young cadet from the Air Force Academy nearby – Blake will of course remember that quite well – who had just been brought to faith in Jesus Christ roughly about a week or two perhaps before. And so before a group of ministers – can you imagine this now, you being a brand-new convert – this guy was invited to kind of in a conversational style talk about what had happened in the last and previous days, of how he had made his decision for Christ and also some of the things that already had been going on so that this young man might start to grow in his relationship with Jesus Christ. I don’t ever know what happened to that individual. I’d like to believe that he went on to develop and flourish in his Christian walk. But it was an interesting experience to observe, to hear about the first hours and days of an individual who has come out of spiritual darkness into the light of Jesus Christ, who has gone from the old life to the new life and to hear what was going on in that person.
And some of us might even think about that as we picture that in our minds this morning, that same kind of event that happened within us when we came to know Jesus.
This morning we’re going to come to another episode in our studies of the apostle Paul which occurred in his personal experience that immediately followed his conversion to Christ which was on a road when he went from Jerusalem all the way up to Damascus and he got right outside of Jerusalem. And that’s the reason why I have put that little box there (map on screen) that indicates – I don’t know if I’m going to get this thing to work here, but that there it is – somewhere in that area is where the apostle Paul, still known as Saul, came to an encounter with Jesus Christ while he was going to Damascus to persecute Christians, whom he had come to despise. And God had stopped him dead in his tracks. There was a brilliant light that flashed from heaven all around him. It caused him to be blinded for the next three days. And he heard a voice, and he quickly learned that it was the voice of Jesus Himself. And Jesus told Saul that in all the persecutions he had been carrying out, he was actually persecuting Jesus Himself. “You think you’re hurting my people, but you’re really hurting me,” He said. Saul then would ask the Lord what He had been have him to do, which indicated a responsiveness on the part of Saul himself, an openness and even a readiness and a submissiveness to the Lord. It’s very possible, even though the Scripture doesn’t tell us this, but is very possible that it was at that moment that Saul became a new creation in Christ and had started him in a totally different direction, totally opposite to what he had lived all his life up to that point. Yes, he had been religious, he had been devout about in his Jewish religious views, but he was just as lost as anyone else.
And so he was led into the city and it is at this point that we pick up with the account that is given to us of what happened following his conversion. It is actually in three accounts in the book of Acts. We’re going to be looking first at Acts chapter 9 this morning. But some years later when he was recounting this as he testified before individuals, officials, in Acts chapter 22 and Acts chapter 26, he also filled in some additional details to this account. But follow along in your Bibles or on screen as I make it available there beginning in verse 10 of Acts chapter 9.
Acts 9:10-19 (New International Version)
10In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!"
"Yes, Lord," he answered.
11The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight."
13"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name."
15But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
17Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Now you will see two characters who are introduced in this passage in their involvement with Saul in their first hours and days following his encounter with Jesus Christ and his conversion. Both of them were residents of the city of Damascus. One is a fellow by the name of Judas, and that’s all we know about him – Judas. And that would indicate that his name being Jewish background that he himself was a Jew. The only other thing that we are told about him in just a moment is the location, the name of the street in which he lived. But other than that Judas is unknown. When I read about individuals like this, I have to admit I wish God would have filled in just a few more details about this guy. What was it about, that Saul was even brought to his house for one thing? What did the the street Straight that he lived on – did it have any significance. Did he have any idea beforehand who he was inviting into his house? That this was the number one persecutor of God’s people? And also was he aware of what Paul, or Saul then even had originally planned to do when he headed his way towards Damascus? When we think about it this Judas who never comes up again in any account in the New Testament really becomes a kind of hero. He lodged Saul during the opening days of his conversion. We may even wonder what they talked about during those three days while Saul stayed in his little abode. All those questions and more go through our minds perhaps. But here was an individual who enters the scene and then he leaves just as quickly as he enters.
The other character that comes into the picture is a man by the name of Ananias. He’s called here in this passage “a disciple”, indicating that he had already come to faith in Jesus Christ himself. That’s what the disciples were called. In fact, we learn later in the book of Acts that the disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26). So they were actually disciples before they were even given the name or the label of “Christians”. That’s what Ananias was. In one of those later parallel accounts given by Paul that I referred to a moment ago in Acts chapter 22 where he reflected back on that experience, he added that Ananias was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews who were living there (Acts 22:12). There’s something very positive about Ananias. And of course, him having become a Christian just added to all that respectability.
Now the Lord unexpectedly surprised Ananias on one of those days, just as He had with Saul out on the road outside of Damascus. He engaged verbally through a vision calling Ananias by his name and then following that with a message. It’s interesting how visions were on occasion one of the many ways by which God spoke and revealed himself in Biblical times. Hebrews chapter 1 tells us that there were many ways in which God spoke to people. One of them we would say was because of visions. Every now and then you come across a character in the Old Testament in which God revealed Himself through a vision. And in rare instances to a few of His servants in key moments during the first period of the early church God continued to do that, and this is one of those cases in point here – first with Saul, now with Ananias. The next chapter He’ll do so with a man by the name of Cornelius who was a Roman centurion. And then He will also reveal Himself in a vision with an angel coming to appear to Peter, along with that vision to Cornelius. And several times in the later chapters of the book of Acts even Paul after having become a Christian, having been a missionary had visions in which God revealed Himself to him. God spoke to him.
Now the question sometimes is asked – Does God still give visions today? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe, He could if He wanted to. I’m not sure He does, and one of the reasons is because He’s given everything that we need right here in His Word to reveal Himself to us.
In any case, the Lord reveals Himself in this vision which was explicitly focused on Saul. Ananias was told exactly where Saul was staying – on a street that was called Straight. That’s Judas’ place, remember? And also what he was doing – praying. In fact, as far as we know that’s all that we are told about what Saul was doing during those hours and days following his conversion, except that verse 9 tells us that he ate or drank nothing. And then in verse 12 Ananias was also told that Saul had seen a vision and something that was in that vision, which may have been in addition to when he was on the road outside of the city, that Ananias was to going to come over and put his hands on Saul – that’s what Paul said years later – and that that would end his blindness. And there was apparently no doubt in Ananias’s mind who this was who was speaking to him.
Notice how he begins his words, “Lord”. He knows that God is speaking to him. Now let’s put ourselves for moment in Ananias’s place. How would you have responded? How would I have responded? I think any of us would have probably done exactly what Ananias did as recorded in verses 13 and 14 which essentially is this, “You can’t be serious!” For word clearly had been spreading fast about Saul the persecutor and the harm that he had inflicted on many back in Jerusalem which was over 100 miles south of Damascus. And apparently it was no secret that he was on his way to the city to do the same thing to Christians there. If it would have been me, I would have been me, I would have been ready to say, “Lord, just leave him blind as far as I’m concerned.” Ananias likely had even more to say in his response to God. But before he had a chance it’s almost as though God interrupted him and said, “Go! And that’s an order!”
But the Lord also supplied Ananias with a few key details and components of His plan. One of them was that Ananias was to be an instrument whom God had chosen. Think about that. Long before Saul chose Jesus, God had chosen him. In time after he was involved in carrying out his role and his mission as God’s apostle, that truth that God had chosen him would continue to be overwhelming. He would never get over it. In fact, he would write about it on several occasions. A few weeks back when we were going through several Sundays on the theme of the sovereignty of God, we looked at a few of these. But I like to repeat them again this morning.
Ephesians chapter 1 where in the opening segment of his letter there to that church he wrote (verse 3), “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Well, what are those blessings? Number one, “for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (verse 4a). Notice he used the word “us” there. That included Paul himself. To the Thessalonian church he wrote, “From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2nd Thessalonians 2:13b-14)
In a way that is incomprehensible to us that we cannot explain if we had the foresight, the ability, the intelligence, even the words in the vocabulary, this is what God has done in His mysterious sovereign will. He chooses beforehand. And a few weeks back, I know I spoke a little bit about some of the issues and the problems that that raises, and I don’t think we can ever deal with some of those issues themselves because we really don’t know all the answers. But somehow behind-the-scenes God was working to sovereignly draw this man named Saul unto Himself. And that’s what happened with all of us. And that is what is included next in the words of the Lord to Ananias, that He had “chosen” him to “carry out my name” (Acts 9:15), that is, to bear witness not just to the Jewish people, his own people Israel, but also to the Gentiles as well. Ananias by this point had to be wondering – How in the world can God take a man who has done such vicious, merciless and murderous treatment to Christians, innocent Christians and turn this man into an ambassador for Himself?
The Lord also intended to “show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). Yes, it says “suffering” there. The affliction that he had been in inflicting on those who had believed in the name of Jesus, he would in turn endure as much if not even more for that same name. You know, suffering has always been a part of God’s sovereign plan to prepare His servants to be His channels of grace to a world in desperate need. Few of us, if any of us, escape it. Jesus once said the night before He went to the cross, “In this world you will have tribulation” – that’s trouble – “but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It wouldn’t be too many years after this when the apostle would give this testimony that that indeed had been the case. I won’t read the whole passage, but in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11 – we studied the book of 2nd Corinthians couple of years ago – and there he recorded how he had been imprisoned, beaten numerous times, undergone multiple lashings, experienced dangers of all kinds from thieves and false deceivers in various settings. All of those had put him in danger of death. The list went on. He had suffered insomnia, starvation, dehydration, disease, hypothermia, shipwreck, near drowning. And each painful, dreadful ordeal had brought Paul to a greater dependence upon the Lord, and it used him to turn him into a man who more deeply experienced God’s grace and was more humbly committed to following his Savior. Yes, he would suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. There’s a lot of suffering that’s going on today – isn’t there? – for the name of Jesus Christ, maybe not in our country as much, although it’s coming, but in other parts of the world there’s a lot of suffering for the name of Jesus Christ.
Without delay, Ananias was on his way. I have to admit or I have to wonder – his heart was probably throbbing every step that he took. In fact, it’s possible that multiple times along the way he was ready to turn back and say, “I’m not doing this.” He found the place though and he was invited in. And sure enough over by himself in the corner was this man that God sent them to. He was blind, helpless, bent on his knees in prayer, nothing like what been thought about him just a few hours or certainly days earlier, about the most feared Saul. Look at him right now. He’s weak. I believe this is one of the more moving scenes in all of the Bible. In the parallel account of the apostle’s personal testimony he described in Acts 22 how Ananias stood beside him, “He stood beside me” (Acts 22:13). And then Paul had felt the hands of Ananias, likely trembling by the way, as they rested upon him. Imagine laying your hands on someone whom you know only a short time before would have had you arrested and had you hauled away.
And then Paul also heard the first words of Ananias to him, “Brother Saul.” One writer says those were words of fraternal welcome which indicated that he accepted what Jesus had assured him about when he spoke to him just a while earlier, that the former torturer had indeed become a believer. He was recognizing that there was a new relationship between them. Maybe they had never met before – I doubt if they had – but that they were now both brothers in Jesus Christ. They were members of the same body. If you think about that, that’s absolutely amazing. It’s interesting that Ananias’s name means “God is gracious,” and certainly it was in these moments he displayed grace in as great of a measure as you can possibly think. He in essence was also openly acknowledging when he called him this, “I’m forgiving you, Saul. I’m forgiving you for all that you’ve done.” This man Ananias is absolutely astounding, isn’t he?
And then he delivered the message that God directed of him – that he hadn’t come there just solely on his own to talk to him, to greet him and so forth, but that he had a message that Jesus wanted to give to him, just in the same way Jesus had appeared to him on the road outside of town. The substance of this message involved several things. First of all, he says, “I’ve got good news for you. Within moments you’re going to see again.” And then secondly, “You will be filled with the Spirit.” By the way, this is one of a number of times in the book of Acts that the phrase of being “filled with the Spirit” is used. It speaks of the work of God through his Spirit empowering His people. With Saul having just become a new believer in Christ the Spirit of God had already entered into his life to live within him. And in the coming days and months and years he was going to learn much about what that meant. He would also leave for subsequent generations, to you and to me, teaching and truth about how we could live by the power of the Spirit that Saul who became Paul learned to live by, how we could be controlled by the Spirit and walk by the Spirit in our daily lives.
And then the other thing that is given from the parallel account in Acts chapter 22 that Paul would give testimony to years later, he reported that Ananias had also told him, “You’re supposed to be a witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here’s how it’s put in Acts chapter 22, verses 14-15, “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.” And then when you jump a few pages over to the other account in Acts chapter 26 where he kind of brings the words of Christ spoken to Ananias together with what Christ had spoken to him personally, Paul puts it this way, that Christ had said, “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them” – that is, “the very people I’m rescuing you from I’m going to send you back to them” – “to open their eyes to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:16b-18)
This encounter with Christ had occurred not only to bring Saul to salvation but also to make clear to him that he had been divinely set apart with a mission, and the mission was to be a witness for Christ to all people, not just to fellow Jews but also to non-Jews, to Gentiles. That’s whom the Lord was sending him to. And just like he had been in spiritual darkness up to that point, so God was going to use him to open blind eyes, spiritually, people entrapped in darkness, bound by Satan’s power, bringing them into a new realm, the light of the Lord, so that they could be delivered and experience God’s power instead. And while that commission that was given had a special purpose for Saul for that time in the early church, that charge is nonetheless still in effect for all of us, isn’t it? We’re all called to be light-bearers, to bring light. There are blind people out there nearby, acquaintances, family, friends and so forth. They need their hearts delivered from the domain of the adversary of men’s souls so that they too can receive the forgiveness of their sins.
Now think about this for a moment. Saul had just become a new believer in Christ, a brand new believer, like the fellow that I referred to that I began with. And here he is just a few days after and all if this is just coming at him at once. For a moment, it but must have been overwhelming when you think about this. But no sooner did he hear all this, but sure enough, just as Ananias told him only moments before, his blind eyes were restored. Luke, the author of Acts gives an interesting description. You would expect this maybe from a guy who was a doctor – immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes. I wish here too he would have explained a little bit more what that was. Some have given all kinds of explanations. It apparently was something visible because it was observed, but exactly what these scales were, we don’t know. In fact, isn’t it interesting today – you will even hear an expression that is sometimes used even among non-Christians, “the scales have fallen from their eyes.” Where do they get that? Right here from the experience of Saul. And it was obvious to those who saw it, to Ananias himself that something miraculously had happened. In a split second his sight was totally restored, which by the way mirrored his spiritual transformation inside, that he had been given new vision not just in his eyes but in his heart and in his soul. Saul experienced the same miracle that only a few years earlier had gone on repeatedly during the ministry of Jesus Christ as He lived and worked and as He moved among people. And this added further evidence that all this had been the work of the same Jesus who lived then, who died on the cross, who rose again and that He had appeared to Saul. This was the same Jesus.
And then it tells us that Saul was baptized, an act which came to be an outward witness in the early church of the interworking of the Spirit as well as the bond that believers had both with Christ and also with each other. But all of this that it transpired was only the beginning of God’s plan for Saul. Luke wrote further that after he ate some food and regained some strength, in verse 19 –
Acts 9:19b-22 (NIV)
He spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
I want you to imagine once again for a moment that you are one of those Jews that is sitting in the audience on the Sabbath day in that synagogue, in one of those synagogues, and all of a sudden this man gets up and you hear – there’s a little murmuring around you. People are whispering, “Isn’t this a guy that was coming to persecute us? Isn’t this the guy that did all this back in the city of Jerusalem, terrorizing innocent Christians, imprisoning them, even consenting to some of them being executed?” And all of a sudden right in front of your eyes he stands up and he begins to preach. And he preaches that Jesus whom he despised and he hated and who he thought was a fraud, that he is the Son of God. It’s no wonder that Paul would write a few years later in Galatians 1 and verse 23 that there were others who are hearing the report that “the man who formally persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And Paul preaches that Jesus is the Christ. Verse 22 states that Saul continued to grow quickly in the Lord and he powerfully proclaimed Christ. He proved it. That word “proved” by the way comes from a term that means “to knit together from several different strands.” What Saul was doing was preaching, what he preached was skillfully woven together – again, he’s a new Christian – seamlessly delivering with compelling logic, letting us know something of the remarkable skill that had rapidly developed. If he was already a good debater, we might say, he got even better after he came to know the Lord. The idea conveyed is that he walked his listeners through passages of the Old Testament that he would have known well from his background and he presented a convincing and airtight case for believing that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews.
You know when we think about what occurred as we’ve looked at this account this morning, it is actually absolutely remarkable – within only about a week’s time God had transformed a vicious, ardent, Christian-hating tormentor into a passionate proclaimer of Jesus the Christ. The same vigor that he applied in opposing the gospel and suppressing it, now he applies to promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that stunning? His conversion demonstrates God’s limitless capacity for the pouring forth of His grace and the granting of His forgiveness. If He could forgive Saul, He could forgive anyone.
In addition to Saul’s radically changed heart and life I want to you also think about for a moment the reprogramming that he had to go through within just days, a reprogramming of those deeply ingrained views and beliefs of Judaism that he had come to hold so strongly to from all of his past training, and particularly concerning the person of Jesus Christ. And within a very short time after he was confronted with the plain truth, he’s now preaching the opposite. I believe this should be an ongoing going challenge to all of us who know the Lord. You know, a lot of us have come from backgrounds and where we have beliefs about certain things that we may feel dug in pretty deep at some points, that we would even go to the stake for some time. And sometimes we wonder to ourselves, “Is this really the truth?” And some of our own beliefs and views may at times need some refining and even some revision. Even after our salvation we should always be in a process of continued learning with the realization that there could be some areas where we might need some correction. It’s one of the reasons why we have gone and as we did a couple weeks ago to the Pre-Trib conference in Dallas, not just to focus upon the coming of Jesus Christ which is imminent, but also some other things that are involved in that because it stimulates the possibilities that are given to us about the teaching of God’s Word. And sometimes I have faced some things that maybe I’ve had to revise just slightly or alter. And I think this is especially true these days when there have come to be a lot of trends with regard to taking the Scripture and not using it in the way it should. One of those that I’ve been encountering a lot lately is this matter of spiritualizing or allegorizing the text, in other words, not taking what God has written in his plain and normal and ordinary sense, assigning meanings to words and phrases and statements in the Bible other than what is the literal sense. There’s no question that with the majority of Christianity today, that’s the view. If you would go to churches that are the majority of, even evangelical churches you would find that there’s a lot of that going on in which the text is being allegorized, where it’s been given another meaning rather than the literal meaning, that is, the literal approach. And some of us preachers are some of the worse, by the way, when it comes to this. This is just one example of what can be a need for some refining of certain views and beliefs that may have been ingrained within some of us.
What is given to us about Saul here in the early days after his conversion should really serve as a model for our need of spiritual growth, openness to the Spirit of God to lead us further into the truth of His Word. This was the foundation on which his new life in Christ was built as well as his mission for the many adventurous years ahead. It would be the foundation out of which would grow 13 books of the 27 of the New Testament in which he would leave truth to you and me today. It’s amazing what God did with a man like this and what God still wants to do, maybe in less dramatic ways perhaps but in each one of our lives all the way to the end of our journey as well.
Well, let’s go to the Lord in prayer and ask that he may continue that work within us.
Lord God, it was this servant of Yours, Paul, who once wrote these words that he who began a good work in you will continue to carry it out and even complete it. Lord, one day You began that work within him. And thank You for all that You did to bring about transformation in his life, the same transformation You brought to Saul who became Paul You’ve brought to many of us, I hope all of us here this morning. And I pray Lord, that as we see what You did in commissioning him to be the kind of servant that he became, that we might see also that You have a mission for us as well. There may at times it may be just one person or a few persons that You want to us to reach out to with the light of Christ, that You want us to serve in some way that may seem menial or rather trivial at first, and yet that’s what You called us to do. During this season where we remember Your Son’s coming, may we also remember that just as You called Him to be a servant, You call all of us. And may we do that with that fresh invigoration day by day of the work and the power of Your spirit ready and available to perform His work within us. We pray this in the matchless name of our Savior Jesus Christ and our coming King. Amen.