That God would save anyone is amazing, but that He would save someone like Paul is particularly remarkable. The church's greatest persecutor became the church's greatest preacher. It's a mystery that Paul never quite understood.
In this sermon, we will explore the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a man who was once a fierce persecutor of Christians but who was later transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. We will learn how God can use even the most unlikely people to spread his message of love and hope.
Dwight Moody was a famous evangelist in the last century whose ministry founded everything from schools to publishing houses to churches. However, those who knew him best as a younger man had every reason to be amazed when he became a Christian.
A man who would later lead D.L.Moody to Lord wrote these words on May of 1855: READ - D.L.Moody
Perhaps you can remember the surprise of your friends or maybe even your family when they learned that you had become a Christian.
Maybe some of you have had people say to you, “I can’t believe it - you’ve become a Christian? Not you!”
You were voted by your classmates, “Most likely to be pagan.” “Most likely to end up in jail!” Not, “Most likely to become a Christian.”
I remember reading the biographical account of Corrie Ten Boom - the Jewish woman who suffered at the hands of brutal German guards in a concentration camp. Years later, while speaking to a group of believers, she recognized a man in her audience to be one of those guards - when they met after the service - she was able to verbalize to him her forgiveness - yet she was overwhelmed with the surprise that this man could have ever become a Christian.
In the Book of Action and chapter 9, the camera lens of scripture focuses on a young zealous Pharisee named Saul. He had been sent to Jerusalem as a young boy, to live with his married sister and experience the rare privilege of being tutored by the greatest Jewish mind of his generation - the brilliant Pharisee scholar Gamaliel.
If you turn to chapter 5 of Acts you’ll hear Saul’s teacher sway the Sanhedrin with his logic - the Apostles are standing before the high court, guilty of promoting their new-found faith. Notice verse 38. “And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” 40 And they took his advice.
Evidently, between this verse and the passage we’re about to study, Saul and Gamaliel had parted ways - Gamaliel was convinced that the Apostles and the early church should be left alone - Paul was convinced that Christianity could not be tolerated - it was a threat to Judaism - it was blasphemy against the God of Abraham. Christians must be exterminated and Christianity stamped out!
Then, if you turn ahead to chapter 8, you may remember that we were introduced to Saul for the first time.
As Stephen is being stoned to death for his faith in Christ, you notice in verse one that, “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were scattered throughout. . .”
The verse in chapter 8 implies what chapter 9 will confirm - Paul is the leader of the Jerusalem holocaust - he is the dreaded hunter of Christians.
I don’t believe anyone in the history of the church shocked more people with his conversion to Christ than Saul - the man guilty of the deaths and imprisonments of hundreds, if not thousands of beleivers.
Before Luke tells us that part of the story, he opens the first paragraph of our chapter 9 with dramatic, on the edge of your seat vocabulary.
9:1. Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest.
The word in verse 1 translated “breathing” was a greek word commonly used of battle stallions snorting breath from their nostrils as they prepared charge.
A.T. Robertson in his word Pictures of the New Testament wrote, “Threatening and slaughter had come to be the very breath that Saul breathed, like a war horse who sniffed the smell of battle.”
To Saul, the battle was for the sake of God - he was defending the honor of Judaism - the Jewish distinctives of sacrifice and temple worship. He was guarding the nation against the followers of an executed imposter.
John Pollock writes, “Saul charged like an animal tearing its prey. This was not the sad efficiency of an officer obeying distasteful orders; his heart was engaged . . . every suspect, man or woman, had to stand before the elders while Saul, as the High Priest’s representative, put to them the demand that they should curse Jesus. He threw them into dungeons. The majority were punished by public flogging . . . it was not sight for the squeamish. . .Saul remained unmoved as men and women, staggered away with backs a mass of blood.
Let’s read further - “...he went to the high priest, 2. and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
“The way” was the earliest designation for Christians - coined by the believers who followed the teacher who claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life” - it isn’t until chapter 11 where they are for the first time referred to as Christians.
The hunter of wayward Jews has been sent with direct approval and commendation from Caiaphas to capture as many as he can and bring them back to Jerusalem to face torture, interrogation, if not even death.
If you were a Christian living in this day - you would be feeling a mixture of courage to share the gospel as they faithfully did, with fear of being captured and tortured.
I read this past week with sadness of reports that are now becoming more and more numerous of the many Christians in the Sudan interior who are being sold into slavery. The Muslim government is closing their eyes to this unique form of persecution - and so for 15 dollares you can by someone who has forfeited their personal rights becuase they will not recant and turn from their faith in Jesus Christ. I imagine their are slave hunters in the regions of this African country known and feared by the believers.
In Judae, the name of the hunter was Saul - and that name filled them with fear. So much so, that later on in this chapter, even after they’ve heard that Saul has come to faith in Christ, the believers in Jerusalem won’t get near him, becuase they are afraid.
What we’re about to discover that the hunter was in the process of being hunted.
As Francis Thompson once penned, “Hunted by the hound of Heaven.”
The man who thought he was going to Damascus to capture the scattered Christians, was about to be captured himself by Christ!
Notice verse 3. And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
Another passage tells us that this occured at noon - so this blinding light outshines the light of the sun.
I Corinthians chapter 15 informs us that Paul actually saw the resurrected Christ in brilliant display. This was a glorious sight for him that he would never forget.
But for now, it was the shock of his life. 3b. Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him. Verse 4. And he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Can you imagine this?
Saul’s mind as racing - persecuting God? I thought I was serving God - by persecuting and capturing and killing these blasphemers - surely I was not persecuting the God of Heaven.
And what encouraging words to all the Christians of the first century and the 20th century - when you are persecuted for righteousness sake - the enemy whispers in your ear - “You are all alone.” God doesn’t care - He’s too far removed - He might not even see!”
Yet these words have for the last 1900 years been a source of deep encouragement - can you imagine the early Christians in Rome - reading this - knowing that they are not alone - that Jesus Christ says to them - when you are persecuted, I am persecuted - I am with you - I am touched by the feelings of your infirmities - I see every act of evil against you - and I want you to know that ultimately, they are not persecuting you - those lashes and insults and murders - they are all meant for me.
4. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s mind is reeling with shock - now comes the startling insight, v. 5. And he said, “Who art Thou Lord?” As if to say, “Surely, you are not related to these runaway Jews - let me know for certain Lord - clearly identify yourself.” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
No! It was all true - this Jesus of Nazereth who was beaten and crucified and buried - He really was the Messiah - the Son of the Living God - He really did come back to life - He really was the way, the truth and the life.
Imagine the dawning revelation to Saul - “This means Stephen, whose death I approved, and all the others like him - the homes I’ve ripped apart, the grief I’ve caused - these people are innocent - the Sanhedrin was guilty - no - I am guilty!”
Turn over to the account in Acts 22 where Saul, now Paul personally tells the story
It’s in chapter 22 that were given an added, interesting piece to the account - notice verse 9 “And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. (here’s that phrase) 10. “And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’
Not, “What shall I do Jesus of Nazereth.” But, as an act of acceptance and, I believe, the moment of salvation for him, he addressed Jesus as Lord.
The hunter had been captured by the Divine Hunter of Heaven.
And by the way, Paul will rarely ever refer to Jesus Christ as just Jesus. In fact I want to encourage you to work on your vocabulary. While useing the name Jesus alone is certainly not wrong - it’s rarely done in the Epistles.
In fact, Peter’s epistles never do - it’s always our God and Savior, or Jesus Christ; or the Lord Jesus, or simply, the Lord. James never uses Jesus alone either, never refers to Him without adding titles of Deity and Messiahship and Sovereignty. John in his three epistles never uses the name Jesus alone. The Apostle Paul, who writes 13 N.T. epistles and refers to Him more than 200 times, uses the name Jesus alone at the average of one time per book.
What’s going on? What should we learn - Jesus is a special name - ordered by the angel - it was a common name though - Yeshua - Jews named their sons in honor of Joshua - hoping their sons would be leaders in Israel - it literally means Savior - but this Jesus was not a hope - He as the Christ (anointed Messiah) - He was the Lord (sovereign master) - He was, as Peter wrote, “Our God”.
Saul never got over that experience - the moment when he realized that Jesus was the Lord of Heaven.
The classic verse where Paul stresses this is in Philippians 2 - That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
“Lord, what do you want me to do now?”
Now turn ahead to chapter 26 -
Here, Paul is giving his testimony once more to King Agrippa - we discover more details here concerning what Christ told Paul on that Damascus road.
15 “And I said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 ‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’
What a comission - the one who hunted for Christians is now to hunt for those who do not believe - to capture them for the dominion of God.
Now for the next three days, Saul will be unable to see.
Turn back to chapter 9 again.
Acts 9. Notice verse 8. 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.
Now imagine this scene - the great and terrible Saul - the feared Hunter of Christians had planned to ride into Damascus with authority and power. Let all who claim this Nazarene tremble.
But now - he is led by the hand, and they come into Damascus, under the cuious stares of all the city’s inhabitants. . .especially the the Christians.
9. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
We don’t read anywhere where Saul was commanded not to eat - but if you were him, could you?
In some room, with no one there to help him, perhaps wondering if he’d ever be able to see again - the last blinding sight was the resurrected Christ - there in that room where food and drink were distatesful - he waited - we learn from another passage that Christ told him to wait in Damascus, and that he would be told what to do next. And so he waited - and while he waited in the dark, how he must have mourned his past; how his sightless eyes must have wept - the life and career of this proud, brilliant, zealous man had tumbled down around him. Everything he’d believed was wrong; everything he’d stood for was a lie. Everyone he’d wronged had been right.
One author writes, “God crushed Saul, bringing him to the point of total consecration. From the ashes of Saul’s old life would arise the nobles and most useful man of God the church has ever known.
What can we personally apply from the Damascus encounter:
1) Don’t ever underestimate the - power of simple truth
Perhaps you’re intimidated - you’d never speak to that person at work or swears; who jeers at the foolishness of Christians - who mocks the Bible - perhaps you think you need a degree in Biblical apologetics before you’d ever approach him. Perhaps you think you need profound reasoning ability; a thorough understanding of all the deep doctrinal truths - you think to yourself - that person will never be won to Christ.
The thing that God uses to win a person - to convict a person is not the brilliance of your argument, but the simplicity of the gospel.
The simple truth about Jesus Christ transformed the Apostle Paul.
Sure, the Apostle Paul had an incredible experience - yet he will talk in his epistles of salvation as an encounter with the truth of the gospel, not a miraculous vision - he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the oratorical pastor in London a century ago is supposed to have told some of his students near the end of his life, “The older I’ve become the more simple the truth of the Bible has become - until it is simply this. Jesus Christ died for me.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of this simple truth - that this magnificent resurrected Lord, died to save sinners - and sinners who admit they are, and come to Him for salvation, find in Him their Savior.
2) Don’t ever underestimate the - reach of God’s grace.
To the church - Paul would have not even been a candidate for potential salvation. He was their feared enemy. He was the hound of Hell. I doubt Paul was ever on anybody’s prayer list. Not Paul!
God’s grace would reach even him.
John Newton the slave trader who later confessed Christ as his personal Savior, would alter write the well known hymn, Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me - I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
He lived and served the Lord for many years - once as an aged man he was speaking about heaven he said, “There are three wonders about heaven to me:
the first wonder will be the number of people who are there that I did not expect to see.
the second wonder will be the number of people who aren’t there that I expected to see
the third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there!
I want you to just listen as the aged Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, his young disciple, Paul was near the finish line - he writes a personal testimony that revealed he’d never forgotten completely those early years when he as known and feared as Saul.
He writes (I Tim. 1:13)
I can truly say that I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday School class. And I think the committee of the church seldom met an applicant for membership who seemed more unlikely to become a Christian of clear and decided views of Gospel truth, still less to fill any space of public or extended usefulness.
As a result of Moody’s failed interview for membership, he was placed by the church on a year long study - the next year he applied again and barely passed.