Redirecting a Rebel
June 13, 2004 | Brian Bill
Today we’re wrapping up our series called, “Beyond the Tomb,” during which we’ve studied the various appearances Jesus made between His Resurrection and His ascension into Heaven. This morning our focus in on one last appearance, though this one took place after the Ascension, as Jesus radically redirects a rebel named Paul (also known as Saul – his Hebrew name). Please turn in your Bibles to Acts 9.
Imagine if you will that Osama bin Laden has just left Madison, Wisconsin, God’s holy city in the Promised Land, and is on his way to our town, a distance of about 200 miles. He is specifically targeting this church for destruction. After locking the doors, we’d pray, wouldn’t we? What would we pray for?
- That God would waylay him.
- That God would somehow strike him dead.
- That he would have a divine accident.
- That God would send His angels to set up guard around this building.
Would any of us pray that Osama bin Laden be converted and saved from his sins? That’s what happened to the fanatic named Saul. Just outside the city he was targeting, God broke through and redirected the trajectory of his life. I’d like to suggest that Saul’s salvation has application to us today. As John Piper says, “God’s design in converting Paul is to give you hope for yourself and for the people you want to see converted.” Let’s look at the details of how God tamed this terrorist.
His Struggle (1-2)
Saul was a Pharisee who believed that he needed to kill Christianity because it was a threat to Judaism. Actually, he believed he was doing God’s will by wiping out followers of the “way.” In his mind, believers in Jesus were heretics and blasphemers and if he did what he could to stop this new religion, maybe God would then bring the “real” Messiah to Israel. Saul was very religious, well-educated, ambitious, zealous, and full of hatred and bitterness. In that regard, he was like Osama bin Laden, thinking that those who didn’t believe like he does should be eliminated.
When Stephen was martyred in Acts 7, we read that the executioners “laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In Acts 8:1, we learn that Saul not only stood guard over their outer garments, he was complicit in their actions: “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” After Stephen is slaughtered, persecution broke out against the church and the apostles scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Incidentally, God used this persecution to help fulfill the mission mandate of Acts 1:8 as the believers didn’t stay huddled in Jerusalem, but spread out to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Acts 8:3 gives us a window into what kind of man Saul was: “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”
As believers are being persecuted, some of them fled to Damascus, a city about 200 miles away. They thought they would be safe there. But like a warhorse sniffing the smell of battle, Saul headed to this community out in the desert. Notice Acts 9:1-2: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
Paul was not just doing a job; he was on a murderous mission. His very breath was venomous with spite and slaughter, and he hissed with hatred. The image is one of intensity. He didn’t care if the believers were men or women; he was armed with the legal documents to arrest and extradite, and nothing was going to stop him.
Paul was religious but he had no relationship with God; he thought he was doing “God’s work,” but he wasn’t doing His will. Does that describe you today? You may be zealous in what you’re doing, you could be far from what God wants you to do, or maybe you’re just far from God.
His Salvation (3-9, 18)
Paul might not have agreed that he was in a struggle but verses 3-5 reveal that he was actually in a battle with Jesus Himself: “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.” Saul could not stop God’s purposes. Saul learned that he was a sinner and that the Savior was alive. On his way to arrest others; the Lord arrested him.
We know from Acts 22:6 that it was about noon when this light from heaven flashed around him. Acts 26:12 indicates that it was brighter than the sun. Last week we learned that the cloud that enveloped Jesus when He ascended into heaven was likely the very Shekinah glory of God’s powerful presence. Likewise, this “light from heaven” was no ordinary streak of lightning. In the Bible, bright light from heaven is the radiance of God’s glory.
2 Samuel 22:13: “Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth.”
Psalm 76:4: “You are resplendent with light…”
Psalm 104:2: “He wraps himself in light as with a garment…”
Isaiah 9:2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…”
Isaiah 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the LORD binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted.”
Isaiah 60:19: “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”
1 Timothy 6:15-16: “…the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light…”
Revelation 21:23: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
When God shot a laser beam of light from the throne room of Heaven, Paul hit the dirt. He probably thought he was in big trouble because when God sent this type of light it usually meant judgment. He then heard a voice repeat his name twice for emphasis: “Saul, Saul.” God repeated the name of Moses twice in Exodus 3:14 and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha” and “Simon, Simon” in order to correct them. Now imagine how Saul must have felt. He has been certain that he is doing God’s work and then the voice says, “Why do you persecute me?” This also got his attention because Acts 26:14 indicates that Jesus spoke in Hebrew.
When a believer is persecuted, Jesus feels the pain
To his credit, when Saul asks who is speaking to him, he refers to Him as “Lord.” The next statement must have shaken him to his sandals. He thought Jesus was dead and that members of the Way were mistaken. And then he hears the words, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The phrase “I am” hearkens back to Exodus 3:14 when God Himself states: “I am who I am.” Jesus is the Great I Am. Also, don’t miss the connection between Jesus and his church. What is done to Christians is done to Christ. When a believer is persecuted, Jesus feels the pain. He takes persecution very personally.
In verse 6 Saul is told to go into the city where he would receive further instructions. Verse 7 gives us some insight into how Saul’s traveling companions processed everything when we read that they “stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.” This is similar to John 12:28-29. When Jesus cried out for the Father to glorify His name, a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again. The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.”
When Saul got up from the ground, he opened his eyes but could see nothing. His friends then take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus. What a picture! The tough terrorist is now led like a child. Verse 9 tells us that he was blind and was so traumatized that he didn’t eat or drink anything for three days. In the darkness of his sight, he realized how dark he was in his soul. I’m sure he replayed his life during these 72 hours, remembering ways in which he had wronged God and times in which he had persecuted people. I wonder if his mind went back to Deuteronomy 28:28-29: “The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark…”
After struggling and then getting saved, Saul needed some support.
His Support (10-19)
The Lord now calls out to a disciple named Ananias in a vision in verse 10. Interestingly, his name means, “Jehovah is gracious.” He was about to find out what grace really means. His assignment is found in verse 11: “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.” The street called Straight was very well known; it would be like Michigan Avenue in Chicago. And he was told to go to the house of a man named Judas and ask for Saul.
A believer who is not praying is an oxymoron
Interestingly, Jesus describes what Saul is doing in order to help Ananias see that Saul’s conversion was real. Prayer is evidence of conversion as he has been changed from a persecutor to a pray-er. He is not breathing out rage but is instead blowing out requests. Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Prayer is the autograph of the Holy Ghost upon the renewed heart.” A believer who is not praying is an oxymoron. Our sermon series later this summer will be called, “Power Prayers,” and is designed to help us pray with more perseverance and with more power.
Ananias responded like many of us would have in verses 13-14: “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” Ananias doesn’t want to even get close to Saul because he doesn’t trust him. He doubts whether his conversion is real. Maybe Ananias is thinking that since Saul is blind he can escape before he knows he’s there! The Lord then reiterates his command in verse 15: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Saul’s future ministry is going to be marked by suffering.
I love verse 17. Ananias does two things to communicate acceptance and support. First, he places his hands on Saul and second, he calls him “brother.” Through touch and words of inclusion, he gives Saul the support he needs. Drop down to verses 26-27. When Saul returned to Jerusalem, he tried to hang out with the disciples but they were scared to death of him, doubting whether or not he was really saved. This time Barnabas came alongside him and brought him to the apostles, telling them how Saul had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
A little boy made his mom and dad very upset so they made him sit by himself at a different table during supper. The boy bowed his head and prayed before he ate, “Thank you, Lord, for preparing a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Brothers and sisters, in God’s family, we are not to be enemies, but rather we are to embrace one another. We need to accept and include. We all need someone who will help us feel included, don’t we? Who are you helping? Is there a new believer who needs you to stand alongside him or her? Be a Barnabas to someone today. Here’s another question. How are we doing as a church including people who have bad backgrounds? Let’s cut some slack to new saints. It’s interesting that there is more space in Scripture devoted to convincing Ananias to be accepting than there is to the conversion of Saul.
The principle is this: Once you become a follower of Jesus, you become part of the family of God. There is no room for someone to say, “I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.” To be saved means to be connected to a caring congregation. Paul wouldn’t have understood the common refrain we hear today, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”
In verse 18, described only as Doctor Luke could diagnose it: “Something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.” He went from darkness to light, from not being able to see spiritual truth to having the eyes of his heart open. I want you to notice once again how belief always precedes baptism. Saul is saved and then he is soaked; he’s delivered and then he’s dunked! And he doesn’t waste any time doing so.
His Service (20-22, 28-29)
After struggling, getting saved, and then finding support from other believers, Saul then models the importance of serving. Verse 19 states that he spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. Notice what he does next in verse 20: “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” People are astonished in verse 21 because they remember that he was the one who “raised havoc” in Jerusalem. Verse 22 tells us that Paul grew bolder and “baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.” The word, prove means “to bring or put together.” Using his sharp intellect, Saul was able to bring all the pieces together into a cogent whole, demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah.
In verse 29 we read that “he talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him.” He knows that he has been saved in order to serve, and part of his purpose was to be persecuted. Likewise, we are members of the body in order to be ministers of reconciliation. As we learned this weekend, when we find peace, we must be involved in making peace by sharing the gospel of peace. Are you serving selflessly? Serving is the natural outflow of our salvation.
As we look at Paul’s conversion, we might be tempted to think that his experience is unique and that we can’t relate to it. While his circumstances were certainly exceptional, how he got saved is an example for you, and for me. Listen to what he writes in 1 Timothy 1:15-16: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Paul referred to himself as the “worst of sinners.” And yet, Christ Jesus displayed his unlimited patience and saved him from his sins. He went from struggling to being saved to being supported to serving. And his conversion was an example for you and for me. I see at least three implications.
1. You can be saved.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how you’ve been living. You can be, and must be converted. You may be religious, you may be rebellious, or you might just be a regular person. Either way you need to be saved. Saul’s name was changed to Paul after his conversion – his nature was changed and so was his name! Later, in his epistles, Paul described salvation in no uncertain terms. You are either a child of light or a child of darkness. You are either in the kingdom of darkness or the kingdom of light. You are saved or lost. You are on the path to paradise or on the highway to hell. You are in or you are out. It’s time for you today to be saved. Respond to God now or He may do something dramatic to knock you down so that He can pick you back up.
2. Anyone can be saved.
Have you lost hope about a family member ever coming to Christ? President Ronald Reagan, whom the country has been mourning this past week, made many unforgettable statements. One of my favorites was when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Reagan family had some walls that needed to come down as well. While his children went through some rebellious times, they were eventually reconciled with their father. His son Michael made a tribute to his father this week at the White House complex: “As the years went by and he could no longer recognize me, I began a process of hugging him whenever I would see him. I would hug him hello and goodbye.” One time he forgot to hug his father goodbye and the former president followed him out the front door and stood with his arms open. Michael then said, “I ran back and gave him a hug,” his voice cracking with emotion. Of all that he is thankful for, the greatest gift his father gave him was faith: “I know where he is. I know he’s in heaven. Someday I want to be there with him, and I know I will be. My father and I, and all of us, will be dancing before the great Father in heaven, Alzheimer’s-free” (“The Pantagraph,” 6/11/04, page A11).
I really respect those of you that are following Christ faithfully and praying for a family member to be saved. Just as Paul was saved as an example for us, you have been saved for someone as well. For whose sake have you been saved? Don’t stop praying and loving and serving and living authentically. Model the gentle spirit of one who is serving the Savior. And take the opportunities to speak for Christ when they come up. Even Osama bin Laden can be saved. If God could save Paul, He can save anyone.
3. Don’t tire of giving your testimony.
Paul knew that it was God’s grace that saved him; it had nothing to do with him. It’s no accident that every time he writes to a church in his letters, he begins with the same words: “Grace and peace to you…” He knew he did not get what he deserved but instead received the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. And he couldn’t stop talking about it. Paul’s conversion is recorded in Acts 9and he tells the story again of how he was saved in both Acts 22 and Acts 26. I recommend that you read these accounts because Paul demonstrates how best to share a salvation story.
Here’s a simple outline taken from Acts 26.
- Be respectful (1-3)
- Summarize what your life was like before you met Christ (4-11)
- Describe how you came to Christ (12-18)
- Talk about your life now (19-24)
- Make an appeal (25-29)
I want to give you the opportunity right now to respond to the Lord’s leading by asking two questions.
Are you ready to be saved? If so, please pray along with me. “Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living. By faith I appropriate your gift of salvation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. I accept you into my heart. Be my Savior and Lord, my Forgiver and Leader. I surrender to your leadership in my life. Make me into the person you want me to be. Amen.”
Whose conversion are you praying for? Please pray with me: “Lord Jesus, I commit ( ) to you. You came to seek and save the lost. Break through this heart with your love. If you need to do something in order to get his or her attention, then do it. Please remove the spiritual blindness and may your Holy Spirit do His work of conviction so that he/she will be saved. I claim the truth of 2 Peter 3:9, knowing that you don’t want anyone to perish but for all to come to repentance. I know that everything is possible with you. Help me to not lose hope. Give me patience and perseverance so I can live the life you call me to. Amen.”
Paul went on three different missionary journeys because he was convinced that people without Christ are lost. He was willing to travel anywhere in order to spread the good news. Leigh Sullan, a senior at Prairie Central, has been on several missionary trips, and is leaving for New Orleans this week. Leigh will also be a member of the Memphisministry team later this summer.