Passage: Acts 1:1–1:9
Ok, this morning we get to a very important story in Acts. I think this was a story that Luke has been ancy to get to as he writes his account of the early church. It’s actually a story he records three times. That story is the conversion of the Jewish leader Saul to who we now call The Apostle Paul, but to be clear there was no name change. Paul is just the Greek version of Saul. And since most of his ministry was not in Israel, Paul is the name we know him by. Many scholars have called this moment the second most historically significant event in the New Testament, second only to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s historically significant because of who Saul was before his conversion and who he became after his conversion. Saul was born to Jewish parents who had Roman citizenship, which would be passed on to Saul. He was trained by the best Jewish teachers, he was a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, and he called himself a Hebrew among Hebrews. If ever there was a Jewish pedigree, Saul had it. He hates Christianity as we will see, which makes his conversion all the more unlikely. But, something happened that caused Saul to give his life to Jesus and he would become the apostle to the gentiles and take Christianity, which didn’t even have a real name at this point, to the ends of the known Greek speaking world. Paul would become the most influential Christian in his day and, likely, the most widely read human author of all time. He would also be imprisoned and executed in Rome for his beliefs.
This is a huge moment not just in Christian history, but in world history. Jesus powerfully shows up and changes everything. But, as I was thinking about Saul’s conversion, it dawned on me how much we can see about our own conversions in Saul’s. Our own conversion and the conversion of the people we care about is no less miraculous.
So, I want to walk through this story of Saul’s conversion and I want to draw out what is true about Saul’s conversion and every other conversion that has happened over the course of church history. The first truth is that without God’s intervention, we will all oppose him.
- Without God’s intervention, we will all oppose him. 1-2
Luke records in Acts 8:3 3 But eSaul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he fdragged off men and women and committed them to prison. - Acts 8: He was present for and gave his approval of Stephen’s execution. A number of commentaries I read point out that this word ravaging is used in the Old Testament in Psalm 80 talking about a wild beast. I do think we are to think of Saul at this point as a beast of a man. I think that is why Luke says in verse 1 that he was breathing threats of murder. Why add that word breathing if you aren’t trying to see him as a wild beast hungry for the blood of Christians?
It seems like Saul desperately wanted to contain this new sect to Jerusalem and crush it there, but it’s gotten out. Saul hears about Christians over in Damascus. This is bad news because Damascus has some very large and important synagogues. He needs to figure out a way to prevent what he sees as this cancer from spreading any more. So Saul goes to the high priest and convinces him to give him letters authorizing him to go there to find and bring any who belong to ‘the Way’ (that is what Christianity was called at this early time) both men and women back to Jerusalem to be held accountable. What you have here is basically an extradition order.
Can you imagine a person less likely to give their lives to Jesus? You may feel like your neighbor is far off, but are they breathing murderous threats against any Christian they find? You may feel like your child or grandchild is straying, but are they arresting and murdering people for their faith in Jesus? I mean, maybe there are some far off terrorists who might approach this level of hatred of Christians, but I don’t personally know anyone more committed to the eradication of Christianity like Saul.
Some people have looked at this story and said, “Well, if it could happen to Saul, it could happen to anyone I guess” which isn’t wrong because it can happen to anyone, but it minimizes the true nature of our state. A better way to look at this is to recognize that all of us are this far gone because none of us will ever turn to Jesus on our own. I always feel the need to say that this isn’t a niche Reformed doctrine. This has been embraced by orthodox Christianity for over two thousand years. Sin has ravaged us so terribly that we can’t even see Jesus as our hope.
In the late fourth and early fifth century there was a theologian named Pelagius who taught that we do have enough good in us, enough morality, enough wisdom, and enough spirituality to be able to put our trust in Jesus without any divine aid. Augustine very publicly opposed Pelagius for this and he was declared a heretic at the council of Ephesus in 431. What’s interesting is that Pelagius was explicitly teaching what had been implicitly taught by most every heretic before him. The other heretics said Jesus is a good example to follow, but he can’t really save you. He can’t save you because he’s all God and not human. He can’t save you because he’s all human and not God. He can’t save you because his death showed you how much he loves us, but didn’t really accomplish anything for you. At the core of all these heresies was the implicit teaching that Jesus can’t and doesn’t need to save you. You have to emulate him in some way. He is a model to follow and that following is on you to do.
Now, you have Pelagius explicitly saying that! You don’t need Jesus to save you, you need to go seek him and you do have enough good in you to be able to go do that. Basically, you’re a little bruised up spiritually, but you’re not terminal so you just need to mend up your own bruises. That isn’t what the Bible teaches. Paul says in Romans 10 that all have gone astray and no one will seek him. Not one! In Chapter five he makes it clear that we are born into sin because we come from Adam. 12 Therefore, just as tsin came into the world through one man, and udeath through sin,and vso death spread to all men5 because wall sinned— - Romans 5:12
Our natural state is just as dire as Saul’s. None of us are going to seek Jesus on our own. None of us in our natural state even know we need to seek Jesus. And because we don’t know it, we are just reinforcing the sickness that is killing us. This is what Saul is doing and it is a pattern we all follow unless the Holy Spirit intervenes.
I listened to a sermon this week where the pastor points out that until the Holy Spirit intervenes, we have a worldview that looks inward, outward, and then upward in that order. We look inward to our desires, whatever they are. Then we look outward to form community that will reinforce those desires, then we look upward to create a God that will affirm both the desire and the community. But, not so rigidly that we have to actually stick with those desires or that community for more than five years.
But, when the Holy Spirit intervenes, we look upward first for the first time. Then, God changes our desires and gives us a new community to reinforce his will for our life. And because the Holy Spirit is working inside us, we desire this.
But, without the Holy Spirit’s work, we unknowingly look to things of this world to feel better about our fallen existence. So we look to our work to make us feel better. We look to our social status to make us feel better. We look to our morality to feel better. We look to our degrees to feel better. We even look to our spouse and our kids to feel better. But, at that moment, do you know what we are asking those things? Are you my savior, work? Are you my savior, money? Are you my savior, kids?
And the answer is always no. There is only one savior who can fix our sin problem and his name is Jesus Christ, but like Saul, we will not see this on our own, our eyes need to be opened. This is the second point. God must open our eyes.
- God must open our eyes 3-9
Here we pick back up with Paul. He has his extradition papers in and is heading to Damascus with a few other men when suddenly a light from heaven shone all around him. Saul fell to the ground and that is when he heard the voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul asked, “Who are you Lord?” To which the voice answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
It’s incredible to me to see the degree to which Jesus identifies with his people. His people are actually an extension of him. To persecute Jesus’ people is to persecute him! Show me another worldview where the deity identifies and cares about his people in this way. We have a savior who identifies with us in every possible way even down to the current pain we feel today.
So, we have Saul who was on a mission to kill Jesus’ people and to kill Jesus’ message now bowing to Jesus as Lord. And it would be easy to say, “Well, sure Jim. It would be easy to believe if Jesus shows up to me, but until that happens, I’m good.” Or, it would be easy to ask God why he would show up to Saul in such a convincing way, but why doesn’t he do that for my friend or my child?
These are good questions. First, showing up in a vision like this will not change an unrepentant heart. Do you remember the rich man and Lazarus? They both died and the poor man, Lazarus went to Abraham’s side. Where that is is a long conversation, but it’s a good place. The rich man went to Hades, a bad place. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to life to warn his brothers about this terrible place. Abraham responded, 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear qMoses and the Prophets, tneither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” - Luke 16:31
Even seeing a dead man rise will not convince someone. We are too far gone. We all need something greater than a dead person rising and greater even than seeing the risen Lord Jesus, because our problem isn’t just a lack of information. Our problem is that we are spiritually dead. Remember, there were people who saw the risen Lord Jesus and still didn’t believe. You don’t bring a dead person medical information that would have saved them. So, what must happen to believe? Paul addresses this in 2 Corinthians 4.
3 And even dif our gospel is veiled (that is, even if people can’t see), eit is veiled to fthose who are perishing. 4 In their case gthe god of this world (that is Satan) dhas blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing hthe light ofithe gospel of the glory of Christ, jwho is the image of God…..6 For God, who said, m“Let light shine out of darkness,” nhas shone in our hearts to giveothe light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor 4:3,4,6
Paul is quoting Genesis here. All the way back to creation where God said, “Let there be light!” and light shone in the universe. Paul is saying that God has to do the same thing in our hearts. He has to say, “let there be light” and our eyes are opened to see the light of the glory of Christ which has always shone so bright, but we can finally see for the first time. What has happened with all of us who believe in Jesus is no less of a miracle than what happened to Paul. And it is Paul himself making this point!
In Philippians 3:12, Paul says that Jesus took hold of him on that road to Damascus. Jesus arrested Paul before he could arrest any of Jesus’ people. Paul wasn’t even looking for it! And this is true of all of us as well. This is what we call God’s sovereign grace. He opens our eyes to see that Jesus is our only hope, our greatest desire. And if that is true, it should make us more bold in our evangelism because we know it’s not up to us. And it should make us much more humble to those who don’t believe because not for the sovereign grace of God, we would be the same. We call it grace because we don’t deserve it and it’s sovereign because God gives it to us.
I got to hear a friend’s conversion story this week. He was a committed atheist who had forgotten more about the Bible than most of the people witnessing to him had ever learned. He was well read and knew every place to go to prove that Christianity was false. He knew how to attack the inerrancy of Scripture. He knew how to attack the miracles. He knew how to draw out inconsistencies and hypocrisies in church history. This would have been a very intimidating person to talk about Jesus to. Whether it was religion, philosophy, science, or history, he had all the data he needed to not believe, yet he came to faith.
And do you know how? He wasn’t reasoned into the faith, he was loved into the faith. A brother came to him and told him he felt led to tell him that God loved him and that people were praying for him. And because of that moment, shortly after, he gave his life to Jesus. At that moment, God opened his eyes. If that is what leads people into the kingdom, why would we be intimidated or scared to go tell those people about Jesus? We humbly and lovingly listen to people and point them to Jesus and God says, “Let there be light” and we get to witness a miracle.
Now, I will say that this brother then looked at scripture, science, philosophy, and history with new eyes and what he used to see as barriers to the faith, began to make sense. And he now uses all the time and knowledge he had used to tear down the faith to instead build others up.
And this is another really good thread to pull on. God’s sovereignty didn’t show up for the first time on the road to Damascus, he had been working for much time to get Saul right where he wanted him. We can think of Paul simply as the Apostle to the gentiles, but really he was more like the apostle to help Jews and Gentiles get along in the same church. That’s most of what he writes about. Paul could only do this because he was who he was. Only a Hebrew of Hebrew can disown circumcision the way he did. Only someone who attacked the church like he did can have the credibility he did all over the empire. Because he was a Roman citizen he could say and do things that the other apostles could not.
God’s sovereignty precedes the moment of conversion. For those of us who came to Christ as an adult, the person you were before conversion is a part of God’s plan for you after conversion. Just like my friend who is uniquely gifted to build people up in the faith because of the way he attacked the faith. Who you were before conversion is a part of God’s sovereign plan for you. I can see that in my own life. You’ve heard me say how I have always had a deep fear of public speaking, but I had to confront that before I was a believer. I had to speak to very large crowds as President of the Senior class at FSU. God was already honing in on a calling that I didn’t see yet. He had me care for and lead a messy fraternity as its president. You’re probably wondering if I’m calling this church messy. It’s not as bad as my fraternity. If you came to Christ as an adult, think about who you were before your conversion and how God sovereignly prepared you before your conversion for who you would be after. Even those places of shame.
Some of you, though, don’t remember a time when you didn’t trust God. The same thing is true for you though. God has shown you that he has to come to you before you even have memory of coming to him. That’s pretty cool!
Here though is where we get to the elephant in the room. Is it fair of God to give grace to some people and not to others? Well, when we ask that question, we are assuming that God owes someone something. Grace is grace BECAUSE it is undeserved. If you were the only human God decided to save, that wouldn’t make him unfair in the least.. God is indebted to no one. God owes nothing in the created order anything and certainly not a human who has rebelled against him.
Here is how Paul answers this question in Romans 9: 14 What shall we say then? wIs there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he saysto Moses, x“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion onwhom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,2 but onGod, who has mercy. - Romans 9:14-16. I know this is a hard question, but I want you to know that when we are with God in heaven, I promise you, there will be no one questioning whether he was fair.
But, I still haven’t answered the second part of the question, why did Paul get to see Jesus and we do not? The answer is simple. Because Jesus was making him an apostle. The last apostle. And what was one of the main requirements to be an apostle? You had to see Jesus. Notice that the other men there, they all heard the voice, but only Saul saw Jesus. And when he saw Jesus, then Paul gave Jesus his life. That’s the third part.
- We must give Jesus our life 10-19a
We are not passive robots. When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, an act called regeneration, we are given truly free wills for the very first time and that is when we commit our lives to Jesus because we truly want him for the first time. I love how the British theologian, John Stott, puts it. “Divine grace does not trample on human personality. Rather the reverse, for it enables human beings to be truly human. It is sin which imprisons; it is grace which liberates. Tim Keller says that God has sovereignly ordained that you would freely choose him.
So what does it look like to commit your life to Jesus? Well, we can take a few notes from Paul. In chapter 22, where Luke again records Saul’s conversion, Saul looks at Jesus and simply asks, “What should I do?” His heart was willing to do whatever Jesus wanted. I can’t go any further in answer this the question ‘what does it look like to commit your life to Jesus?’ without first asking, is your heart in the same place? Are you asking Jesus ‘What should I do?”
Second, Saul connects to the church. Jesus tells him to find Annanias in Damascus who connects Saul to the church. I have to imagine that in heaven, there is a big joke about how unappreciated Annanias was. He was supposed to receive the single most dangerous person in the world to Christians. He had no evidence that anything had changed about Saul other than God’s word. This is a brave saint. And this brother makes sure Saul is taken in, baptised, and discipled.
I don’t know that I have used any application as much as this one this year. Connect to the church. Really any church, but I would love for it to be this church. A large percentage of the people here are new and our desire is that you would connect to the church in the same way as Saul. Be in real relationships, be baptized if that is your next step (if you have any questions about baptism, you can listen to my sermon two weeks ago), and be discipled. Discipleship is both organized and organic. Connect to things like Equipping Hours, community groups, and formation groups. Connect your children to the children’s ministry or the student ministry. And from them, enjoy relationships that will extend outside the organization and into the organic.
Then, third, and last, committing your life to Jesus means sacrificing your will for his. Did you notice that really uncomfortable verse? Annanias isn’t really sure about taking Saul in and God says, “Go, for whe is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name xbefore the Gentiles and ykings and the children of Israel. 16 ForzI will show him how much ahe must suffer bfor the sake of my name.” - Acts 9: 15,16
God’s is referring to Saul’s temporary blindness. This blindness is a foreshadowing of his ministry of suffering. The whole way to Damascus Paul is being shown by God that following him will mean suffering for Paul. And what a life of suffering. Beatings, lashings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecked, constant danger from many people, sleeping exposed in the cold, daily anxiety for all the churches, and then beheaded in Rome. But this wasn’t a punishment for his former way of life. This was how God chose to use Paul for God’s glory and Paul considered it the highest honor. Why? Back to the first question. Committing your life to Jesus means asking, ‘What should I do?’ Paul has been with Jesus for over 2000 years and I think Paul would affirm what he wrote to the Romans: 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time nare not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. - Romans 8:18
Committing your life to Jesus means that you will willingly and joyfully give up visions of your glory for one that is far greater glory.
This was the day that Saul first saw Jesus and gave his life to him. He no longer lived for his own glory, but for the glory of Jesus. And we are all called to see the same Jesus. Our faith may not be by sight the way Paul’s was in this life, but what we are invited into is no less of a seeing. And if you see Jesus, live for him. Give your life to a person and vision so much bigger than you could ever do on your own. Free yourself from the bondage of having to create your own glory and live a life for the glory of God. God called us the same way he called Paul. May we give our lives to him in the same way.