SURPRISING (AND DRAMATIC) CONVERSION OF SAUL (CHIEF OF SINNERS) HIGHLIGHTS GOD’S SOVEREIGN GRACE IN PREPARATION FOR EMPOWERED MINISTRY IN THE FACE OF GREAT SUFFERING
Chapters 9 and 10 report two very remarkable and significant conversions: that of Saul and that of Cornelius. The story about Saul must be especially important to the Lord because it is repeated in the personal testimony Paul offers in Acts chapter 22 and chapter 26 as he makes his defense before various officials. This story forms the basis for the remainder of the events of the Book of Acts as we will trace the missionary journeys of the one who came on the scene as the chief persecutor of the followers of the Way.
GOD’S SURPRISING CHOICE FOR KEY MINISTRY – THE CONVERSION AND COMMISSIONING OF THE APOSTLE PAUL
Think of God’s surprising choices down through the ages:
– Abraham – Jewish nation from a family immersed in idolatry in the land of Ur
– Jacob – a conniving deceiver who schemed to snatch the birthright away from his twin brother Esau
– Rahab – a harlot of Jericho who by faith hid the spies and ended up as the mother of Boaz – being included in the genealogy of the Messiah – what privileged service
– Gideon’s small band of chosen warriors – who fought the enemy with trumpets and torches – showing that God chooses to display His power through weakness
– David – the runt of the litter; the youngest of the children of Jesse – all of whom were paraded past Samuel and rejected with the statement: “The Lord has not chosen
– these” (1 Sam. 16:10) but David was revealed to be the sovereign choice of God for the kingship of the nation
– Each of the Apostles (fishermen, tax collector) – not the educated or the rich or the famous or the movers and shakers
SURPRISING (AND DRAMATIC) CONVERSION OF SAUL (CHIEF OF SINNERS) HIGHLIGHTS GOD’S SOVEREIGN GRACE IN PREPARATION FOR EMPOWERED MINISTRY IN THE FACE OF GREAT SUFFERING
There will be elements of the miraculous in this account where we acknowledge that God is not commonly working in this way today as He initiates the salvation of His elect. But we will also see many common elements that will teach us much about our own conversion and commissioning to serve our Lord Jesus Christ today.
I. (:1-2) NATURAL DEPRAVED VISION – SELF SUFFICIENCY AS SAUL LIVES TO ATTACK GOD’S KINGDOM PURPOSES – MISSION OF MURDER
A. Violent Opposition
“Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,”
Establishing his pre-conversion state = not a seeker, but fully engaged in hateful persecution of believers
Not someone you would expect to respond to the gospel message
Certainly familiar with the message – had God’s choicest servants witnessing to him as he cast them into prison and condemned them to martyrdom – not a problem of the intellect – a brilliant man trained in the best education of the times at the feet of Gamaliel
MacArthur: literally “breathing in” in the Greek. The idea is not that he’s expelling air, but that he’s inhaling it–he lives in an aura of threat and slaughter, breathing the very air of slaughter. He is totally encompassed–his whole life-style and life’s breath is threat and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. It is all that occupied him–he is consumed in it. The consuming passion of his very existence was to exterminate every Christian he could find.
Stott: This, then, was the man (more wild animal than human being) who in a few days’ time would be a converted and baptized Christian. But he was in no mood to consider the claims of Christ. His heart was filled with hatred and his mind was poisoned by prejudice. In his own language later, a “raging fury” obsessed him (26:11, RSV). If we had met him as he left Jerusalem and (with the benefit of hindsight) had told him that before he reached Damascus he would have become a believer, he would have ridiculed the idea. Yet this was the case. He had left out of his calculations the sovereign grace of God.
B. Religious Collusion
“went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus,”
expanding his geographic range – Christianity spreading to city 120 miles north of Jerusalem; about a 6 day journey
gives new meaning to concept of Pauline Epistles (Gk word from which we get epistle)
the Jewish believers at this early juncture still had some connection to the synagogue – Saul was going to identify them and root them out and take them as prisoners
along with the high priest, he was a religious fanatic who was filled with zeal and passion to try to serve God … but was acting in spiritual ignorance; complication of political vs religious jurisdiction for these supposed offenses of blasphemy and treason
C. Lifestyle Identification
“so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women,”
Refs to “the Way” – 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22; disciples of Christ; living a transformed lifestyle; pursuing path of holiness and performing good works; pilgrim existence on earth
Our transformed lives should be evident to the world; should not be difficult to identify those who freely claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ
D. One Way Ticket to Judgment
“he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Not dealing with violent criminals who are a threat – yet he slapped the cuffs on these righteous individuals; guilty until proven innocent
Think of the disruption of families; the children left behind without parents
Pre-cursor to the type of ethnic scourge conducted under the hateful leadership of Adolf Hitler
Our natural vision like Saul’s is totally depraved – we cannot think God’s thoughts or value what God values; we are blinded to spiritual truth; we are consumed with our own agenda; we are walking down a path that is 180 degrees opposed to God’s kingdom purposes; we are on Satan’s team whether we realize it or not; we imagine that we are independent and self sufficient, but God can strike us down in an instant and bring us to an end of ourselves
II. (:3-9) NO VISION – BANKRUPT AND DYING TO SELF AS THE LORD COMMANDS SUBMISSIVE OBEDIENCE – REDUCED TO HELPLESSNESS
A. (:3) Blinded by the Brilliant Light of God’s Glory – Sovereign Initiation of Salvation
“And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him;”
God can intervene and disrupt man’s agenda at any point He pleases
Kent: It is clear from other Scripture that he also saw Jesus at this time (9:17, 27; 22:14; 26:16; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8) . . . his question should be understood as a request for this divine personage to identify himself. When this Lord of glory identified himself as Jesus, Saul’s persecuting hatred was turned to faith, for he had been confronted with the basic concepts needed for salvation.
MacArthur: Biblical evidence that Saul saw the resurrected Jesus:
(1) 1 Corinthians 15:8 — “And last of all He was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.”
(2) 1 Corinthians 9:1 — “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ, our Lord?…” Sure he saw Him. He saw Him right there on the road to Damascus.
(3) Acts 9:17 — “And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way….” Ananias acknowledges the fact that Jesus appeared to Saul and that he saw Him.
(4) Acts 9:27 — “But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way….”
(5) Acts 22:14 — “And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth.”
Very important to understand that God takes the initiation in our salvation. We are the responders in repentance and faith.
Saul had been denying that Jesus was alive. He had been living in the realm of darkness.
B. (:4) Startled by a Divine Voice of Personal Accusation – Bringing Conviction of Sin
“and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’”
Blinding light – think of driving into the sun – windshield obscured by the grime from the snow; sun reflecting off the road and directly into your eyes; struggling to see the car ahead of you; now magnify that experience many times over; you would be fearful to take another step – you cannot see where you are going
Forced down to the position appropriate for humility and worship – lying prostrate on the ground; the high and mighty Saul no longer so full of himself and his importance
Searching words as he heard his name called out twice (think of the voice that Samuel heard as he lay in bed in the house of Eli – being called and commissioned for service)
Ask yourself this same key question of motivation – Why would you ever reject the God who has demonstrated such love for your?? Why would you choose to be a rebel and live outside of the blessings of God’s family and kingdom – What are you thinking??
Pursue, persecute — Concept of the Body of Christ – our solidarity with our persecuted brethren
Obviously did not understand who Jesus really was
C. (:5-6) Enlightened Regarding His Accountability to the Divine Jesus
“And he said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.’”
“I am Jesus” – words that would have cut Saul to his core; nothing like finding out your life has been a complete waste – you have been investing your time and energy in things that are counter productive; you are in a position of deserved condemnation – but not a hopeless state
“but rise” = grace and mercy and patience of the Lord – rather than destroying Saul; if God could show such grace and mercy to Saul, how much more He can save anyone today who will respond to His call to obey the gospel
Entering the city on different terms
Toussaint: The words, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (KJV) are not in the better and earlier Greek manuscripts. But this statement is found in Acts 26:14.
There is a transfer of control of life that is taking place here – Saul was used to giving orders to others
D. (:7) Experience Verified by His Traveling Companions
“And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one.”
Longenecker: 9:4, 7; 22:9; 26:14 while the whole group traveling to Damascus heard the sound from heaven, only Saul understood the spoken words
E. (:8) Guided Blindly Into the City of Damascus – Helpless state
“And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.”
Charles Spurgeon: I have no doubt that on the way to Damascus he rode a very high horse. But a few seconds sufficed to alter the man. How soon God brought him down!
F. (:9) Weakened by Prolonged Blindness and Fasting
“And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
Focus was switching from the visible, natural realm to the invisible, spiritual realm
Remember the temptation account of Jesus in the wilderness – the lesson that “Man shall not live by bread alone” but the importance of obedience to the revealed Word of God
Chris Tiller: When Saul lost his sight for three days, more was going on than a physical reaction to a really bright light. The Lord was letting Saul know just how blind he had been…that his rejection of Jesus was the result of blindness…that his zealousness in persecuting the church was the result of blindness…that even his devotion to the Law was a blind devotion.
Stott: Does Luke intend us to regard Saul’s conversion as typical of Christian conversion today, or as exceptional? . . . Nevertheless, it is clear from the rest of the New Testament that other features of Saul’s conversion and commissioning are applicable to us today. For we too can (and must) experience a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, surrender to him in penitence and faith, and receive his summons to service. Provided that we distinguish between the historically particular and the universal, between the dramatic outward accompaniments and the essential inward experience, what happened to Saul remains an instructive case study in Christian conversion. Moreover, Christ’s display of “unlimited patience” towards him was meant to be an encouraging “example” to others. . . He who had expected to enter Damascus in the fullness of his pride and prowess, as a self-confident opponent of Christ, was actually led into it, humbled and blinded, a captive of the very Christ he had opposed. There could be no misunderstanding what had happened. The risen Lord had appeared to Saul. It was not a subjective vision or dream; it was an objective appearance of the resurrected and now-glorified Jesus Christ. The light he saw was the glory of Christ, and the voice he heard was the voice of Christ. Christ had interrupted his headlong career of persecution and had turned him round to face in the opposite direction.
Understand doctrine of Holy Spirit drawing people to Jesus Christ – working in hearts prior to the new birth – At what point was Saul born again?? We do not need to point to the specific verse – it happened during this interaction with the resurrected Jesus
III. (:10-19) NEW SPIRITUAL VISION – CONVERTED AND EMPOWERED (THROUGH THE AFFIRMATION OF ANANIAS) TO LIVE FOR THE LORD – COMMISSIONED FOR SPIRITUAL SERVICE
A. (:10) Availability of Ananias
“Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Behold, here am I, Lord.’”
Not an apostle or even one of the seven from Acts 6; shows prominent role of every disciple;
Also important because Saul was going to be an apostle directly commissioned by the Lord Jesus – not subject in any way to the Twelve
Kent: the choice of Ananias for this task made it clear that Saul of Tarsus was not dependent upon the Twelve, and also that an apostle was not required for bestowing the Spirit (as might have been concluded from the case in Samaria).
B. (:11-12) Surprising Instructions
“And the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.’”
Very specific directions
Significance of Saul praying – what was he praying about for 3 days? Probably confessing his sins!
C. (:13-14) Hesitancy of Ananias
“But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name.’”
Remember the hesitancy of Jonah – but by contrast, Ananias expressed his reservations but still obeyed the clear command
D. (:15-16) Assurance of Divine Commissioning
1. Based on Sovereign Election
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine”
People commonly stumble over this concept of Sovereign election –
– they want to use that as some type of argument against the need for aggressive evangelism – “God will save whoever He wishes so my efforts at evangelism are not really needed”
– or they use it as an excuse to dismiss their responsibility – “I can only be saved if God comes down and slays me like he did Paul on the road to Damascus … so what does it matter what I think or how I respond or don’t respond to the gospel” –
Paul did not draw such faulty applications from his own experience – notice his testimony repeated in Acts 26:12-18
– Believed fervently in the necessity of missions and aggressive evangelism – Rom. 10
– Offered the gospel freely on a universal basis putting the obligation of response on the individual – don’t try to pull back the curtain and look at what God is doing behind the scenes – respond to the opportunity that is before you
2. Focused on Proclaiming Jesus
“to bear My name”
3. Targeted Towards All People
– Gentiles and Jews
– Kings and all classes
“before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;”
4. Destined for Great Suffering
“for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
No gospel of health and wealth and prosperity offered to Saul (2 Cor. 11:24-27)
Lord wasn’t kidding as we learn from the long list of hardships and persecutions that Paul later endured
E. (:17) Accepting Obedience – Risked his life in faithful obedience
“And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’”
“Brother Saul” – what words of comfort and assurance – Saul is regarded as in the family of God; full forgiveness and acceptance; clean slate
Key focus in Acts on the filling of the Holy Spirit; baptism in the Holy Spirit took place here or earlier
F. (:18-19) Miraculous Deliverance
“And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.”
Baptized by Ananias – no special ordination or credentials needed to baptize
What a truly amazing conversion story! Saul moved through the stages of Natural Depraved Vision to come to an end of himself with No Vision and then be granted New Spiritual Vision by the Sovereign Grace of God. Centuries later another prominent servant of God would be chosen for significant ministry: John Bunyan – whose autobiography title captured the theme we have been studying this morning: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. As you reflect on your experience of conversion and commissioning to privileged service in the Body of Christ, hopefully you have a deeper sense of your own unworthiness and of God’s amazing grace.