RPM, Volume 17, Number 21, May 17 to May 23, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth: Saul of Tarsus

Acts 9:1-12a

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now take out your hymn sheet once again that's on the desk in front of you and turn back just for a second to Hymn 483, We Sing the Glorious Conquest. We sang that hymn, of course, because it's based on the chapter we're going to be looking at, Acts 9 on the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Look again with me at verse 4:

Lord, teach Your church the lesson, still in her darkest hour of weakness and of danger, to trust Your hidden power: Your grace by ways mysterious the wrath of man can bind, and in Your boldest foeman Your chosen saint can find.

And that's the lesson, and you can go home now! (No!) But that's really is the lesson of Acts 9: that God is going to do something extraordinary.

We know the story so it doesn't surprise us in the way that it should, but you would never, ever have dreamed that Saul of Tarsus would be God's chosen vessel to take the gospel to the nations of the world—and, for that matter, back to Jerusalem.

Turn with me to Acts 9, and we're going to read the first 19—well, almost 19 verses, the first half of verse 19. Before we read the section together, let's pray once again.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Now help us again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Write this word upon our hearts. For Jesus' sake we ask it. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 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. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do." The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. 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. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for 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." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake." So 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." And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized, and he took food and was strengthened.

Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus must surely rank amongst one of the most important events, not just in church history—certainly that—but in world history. Without Paul there would be virtually no New Testament. Without Paul there would be no worldwide church. Without Paul there would not be an Augustine, or a Luther, or for that matter, a Wesley, all of whom were enormously influenced by Paul's letter to the Romans. What would Nietzsche and Freud and George Bernard Shaw have done without Paul to poke fun at?

Paul is in many respects the most important figure next to our Lord Jesus Christ, and his conversion recounted here in Acts 9 and again in Acts 22, and again in Acts 26—three times, just as the conversion of Cornelius will be repeated three times—is one of the most dominating events in the history of the world.

I want to look at this narrative briefly this evening, and I want to look at it along three lines of thought: Paul, first of all, the persecutor; and Paul apprehended; and Paul, the Christian.

I. Paul the persecutor.

First of all, Paul the persecutor. This is a dramatic, sudden, watershed moment in the life of Saul of Tarsus, but also in the life of this growing community, the fledgling church of the New Testament. We are perhaps bound to ask a few questions as we approach this story. Is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus meant to be a template for all conversions? Certainly there are other dramatic conversions in the New Testament: one thinks of the conversion of Cornelius in the next chapter; one thinks of the conversion of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. But there are quieter conversions, unspectacular conversions—the Ethiopian eunuch in the previous chapter, the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16.

As we're introduced now to Saul of Tarsus, this is not the first time we've encountered Saul of Tarsus. Saul has been introduced by Luke before. He was introduced at the death of Stephen, consenting to the violence of Stephen's death, breathing threats and murders against Christians in Jerusalem, so that the Christians in Jerusalem scattered to the four winds; dragging out men and women out of their very homes. And now here in Acts 9, Saul of Tarsus has acquired from the high priest letters to take to the synagogues, the somewhat large Jewish community in Damascus, to gain from the synagogues in Damascus those Jews who have scattered from Jerusalem and bring them back, and bring them back bound, and bring them back for trial. And perhaps even—who knows? Luke says he had murderous thoughts—to have them executed.

Saul of Tarsus, born in Tarsus, the principal city of Cilicia on the south coast of Turkey; "No mean city," it is described, where he undoubtedly absorbed Greek culture enabling him to write these New Testament epistles in Greek; a Roman citizen, suggesting perhaps that his father or perhaps his grandfather had been given Roman citizenship out of something that they had done for the city of Tarsus. You remember how he describes himself in Philippians 3? "A Pharisee of the Pharisees." Tarsus was a university city, a rival university city to that of Alexandria and Athens.

But that's not where he studied. He studied in Jerusalem. He studied at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Rabbi Hillel, who was the founder of Pharisaism. Perhaps for sure Saul of Tarsus was in Jerusalem at the time of Stephen, but perhaps also he had been there, visited Jerusalem, even when Jesus had been in Jerusalem. There are some commentators who suggest that that is a possibility. He had, you remember in Philippians 3, with regard to the law, regarded himself as blameless. And here is this man, this zealous Jew, this zealous Pharisee, bound now for Damascus with letters in hand, with murderous thoughts in his mind. He makes this 150 mile journey to Damascus. It takes him six days.

Why did the gospel offend Saul of Tarsus so much? What was it about the gospel that offended him so much? And the answer to that lies in a text, I think, in Deuteronomy 21. He hints at it later when he writes to the Galatians...the text that says that "...cursed is the man that hangs upon a tree." And here were these Jewish Christians now saying that Messiah, the Jewish Messiah who had been crucified, was none other than the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, and it was offensive to him. It was blasphemous to him! He came to see, of course, that Messiah was indeed cursed: cursed on our behalf; cursed in our place; that He bore the judgment that our sins deserve. That's what he came to see, but that's not what he sees now. He sees heresy now. He sees Judaism needing to be cleansed, and he's on his way to Damascus to do that very thing, with an entourage...Saul, the persecutor.

II. Saul, the apprehended.

And then secondly, Saul the apprehended, because he is arrested by a light, a blinding flash of light. It's mid-day. We know that from the account of this conversion in Acts 22 and again in Acts 26. With astonishing suddenness—there is no sense whatsoever that Saul of Tarsus was being prepared for this moment. It wasn't as though Saul of Tarsus was under a burden of sin. It wasn't that he was struggling like Augustine or Luther with guilt. He wasn't. With astonishing suddenness, the persecutor of the church becomes the apostle of Jesus Christ. How? What happened?

Do you remember when Paul reflects on this, as he does many times in the course of his epistles...you remember he says in I Corinthians 9, "Have I not seen the Lord Jesus?" This is what he's referring to, the Damascus road, the blinding light, the voice that speaks to him, that says to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" "Have I not seen the Lord Jesus?" You remember when he writes in I Corinthians 15 on the doctrine of the resurrection, he says, "Last of all, He appeared to me also, as one born out of due time." When Paul writes in II Corinthians 4, "God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," he's probably referring to this particular incident — that the light of the glory of God was shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

Several things come now to the surface. He tells us in Galatians 1, "It pleased the Lord to reveal His Son in me." Not "to me" as some translations have it, but "in me." So what's taking place here, Paul says, was something not just external, not just the blinding light, not just a voice that he hears, but something internal; something that challenges his heart, something that affects his soul, something that affects his spirit. Christ is being revealed to him. He's becoming aware of who Jesus is, the identity of Jesus Christ, the glory of Jesus Christ, the deity of Jesus Christ, the messiah-ship of Jesus Christ. He's come to appreciate that and see that, and that affects him internally, in the inner recesses of his heart and soul.

No doubt, too, the fact that he hears the voice of Jesus, this man that he thought was dead...this man who had been buried in Jerusalem...and, yes, there were tales of Jesus' having been raised from the dead, but Saul of Tarsus didn't believe any of that. And all of a sudden his worldview is challenged because he hears the voice of Jesus Christ, as clearly as you and I hear any voice: "Saul, Saul," (speaks to him by name!) "why are you persecuting Me?" And all of a sudden, I think, for Saul of Tarsus, the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is imprinted upon his heart and upon his mind. It accounts, I think, for why, in the epistles of Paul, the resurrection becomes such a dominating idea: that to be born again, to be regenerate, to be a Christian is someone who has died and risen again in union and communion with Jesus Christ. And the roots of it are here on the Damascus road.

Isn't it interesting that Jesus would say, "Why are you persecuting Me?" when Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the likes of Stephen and the Jews—the Christian Jews, now—who had scattered from Jerusalem to Damascus? Those are the ones he was persecuting, but Jesus says when you persecute them you persecute Me. So that for Saul of Tarsus, he begins to realize what it is that he's doing; that in persecuting the Christian church, he is actually persecuting Jesus Himself, because the Christian church is in union with Jesus, and Jesus is in union with the Christian church, and it's all the Lord's doing.

There's nothing of Saul of Tarsus here. There's no preparatory work on the part of Saul of Tarsus here. He's breathing threats and murders against the Christian church, but God arrests him. It's the Lord's doing. It's entirely of the Lord. God steps in here. "It pleased the Lord to reveal His Son in me," he would go on to say.

Saul wasn't seeking after Jesus like the Ethiopian eunuch was, poring his eyes over a copy of a scroll of Isaiah and reading from Isaiah 53, and asking somebody like Philip to interpret to him what it was he was reading, because he was seeking. But Saul wasn't seeking. At the very moment that God arrests him, he has murder on his mind. It's as sudden as that. It's as dramatic as that. It's not a picture of Saul of Tarsus having been worked on, as it were, by the Holy Spirit and brought now to a condition where he's ripe for the picking. No. Not at all.

And oh! what encouragement that is! Isn't that an encouraging thing? That the very people that you despair over...do you want to name a list of people that you despair over? And, dear friends, they may even be in your family, and you've prayed for them for years, and you despair of their conversion. And they're hostile, and perhaps you've given up praying for them. Would you ever...would you ever have thought...would you ever have thought that Saul of Tarsus would be God's man? The chief apostle of the New Testament church? Would you ever have thought that?

Imagine yourself on that Damascus road and watching what it is that God did in an instant. All of a sudden, a watershed moment—God steps in. And God can step in again. God hasn't lost His ancient power. He can step into a context in your family. He can step into a context in the church. He can step into a context in this country of ours and convert and regenerate, and turn around and bring to Himself.

He's rendered helpless. What a sight this is! He's rendered helpless, blind—this firebrand, this fire-breathing Pharisee, and he falls to the ground and he's blinded, and his entourage has to lead him the rest of the journey to Damascus by his hand. God humbles him. In the twinkling of an eye, God brings him down from all his lofty arrogance and haughtiness and defiance, and hatred of the things that God really is concerned about. God did this. The Lord did this. If ever you doubted that salvation was of the Lord, as Jonah says...well, here's the proof of it: the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor, the apprehended. God takes hold of him.

You know the language that Luke employs here for what Paul was intending to do in Damascus is the language that is often employed elsewhere for wild animals. And God tames him. And he's being brought, as it were, on a leash, blinded, into Damascus. The Hound of Heaven has caught up with him.

III. Paul the Christian.

And you see, in the third place, Paul—or Saul of Tarsus, but now the Christian—we see the persecutor, we see him apprehended, and we see him a Christian.

Luke doesn't show a great deal of interest in the psychology of conversion. At what point does Saul actually become a Christian? Does he become a Christian when he falls to the ground and he's blinded, or does he become a Christian when his eyes are opened in Damascus under the ministry of Ananias? And what happens in between those two moments? And there are those that suggest that part at least of Romans 7, when Paul describes in an autobiographical manner his struggles now with the law, and how he comes to understand the nature of sin, may well have been something that he reflected upon, and that may well have been something that God now taught him in this interval of time, from the moment that he was blinded until the moment that he received his sight again. But Luke passes over all of that. As far as Luke is concerned here, he just wants to tell us the story that whereas once he was blind, now he can see; that this persecutor of the Christian church becomes the apostle of Jesus Christ

And we're introduced just for a brief period to Ananias. (Not, now, the Ananias of Ananias and Sapphira...not that Ananias, but another Ananias altogether.) A wonderful, wonderful, extraordinary disciple, devout and full of the Holy Spirit—an extraordinary man. Imagine God coming to you...and somebody is coming to your city and is coming for those who profess to be Christians, and he's going to take you bound with Roman authorial approval to Jerusalem, to incarceration and possibly death. And God comes to you and says 'I want you to go and visit this guy.' And it's perfectly understandable when Ananias says 'Lord, You made a mistake here,' and recounts the story of what this man has done in Jerusalem (and recounts the story as though God didn't know it), of why it is he's now come to Damascus. What a wonderful, extraordinary individual Ananias is, that he would be prepared to do...once he had been assured by God, he was prepared to do whatever God asked him to do, and he goes to this house of a man called Judas, in Straight Street in Damascus, there to meet with Saul of Tarsus, this fire-breathing Pharisee. And what's the first word he says to him? "Brother." That's the first word:

"So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, 'Brother Saul....'"

You see the momentousness of that little expression, that Ananias would call Saul of Tarsus "Brother"?

"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."

What assurances do we have of Saul's conversion? Well, three of them.

Firstly, in verse 11 — at the end of verse 11: "Behold, he prayeth...behold, he's praying."

Prayer is one of the sure marks of true discipleship — the very sign that Ananias needed to assure him that Saul of Tarsus had been genuinely converted was that he was praying. Well, apply that for a second, that that is the sign that Ananias receives that you are genuinely converted and that you genuinely are in union and communion with Jesus Christ.

And then, secondly, he's baptized. What an extraordinary thing! That the symbol of union and communion with Jesus Christ is now applied to Saul of Tarsus, of all people; and he undergoes baptism, and identifies with the community of the faithful, of those who belong to Jesus Christ. He receives the mark that symbolizes forgiveness of sins, and union with Christ, and adoption into the household and family of God, and the certainty of resurrection to come.

And then, in verse 19, "He took food and was strengthened....and for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus." And he's received into the community of this fledgling church, scattered church in the city of Damascus, and he has joined.... Do you notice in verse 2, what is it that he was doing? He was going to Damascus to see "if he found any belonging to the Way." They're not called Christians yet. That doesn't come until Antioch. They are followers of "the Way." They're pilgrims who are marching along the Way, and Saul of Tarsus has joined that Way. And it's all the Lord's doing. It's all the sovereign work of God Almighty.

Never despair of your prayers. Never give up praying, because He who can convert a Saul of Tarsus can convert anybody.

Let's sing—it seems appropriate to sing the Doxology. Let's stand.

Now receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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