This is an edited version on a sermon on Saul’s conversion preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.
Where would the course of human history have gone if the Apostle Paul had never existed or if Saul of Tarsus, which he was before he became the Apostle Paul, had never become a Christian? It would surely have been very different.
Anybody, whether they are a Christian or not, would surely have to acknowledge that. He was a historical figure who had an enormous impact beyond his own lifetime because he was instrumental in spreading the Christian faith around the Roman Empire. This faith, eventually becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, thereafter became so influential in many nations around the world, including ours.
We’re beginning this autumn a sermon series on the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 13 & 14). The Lord willing, this will be very encouraging for us in our Christian faith as we see the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ spreading and taking root in places where his name had never been heard.
First, though, we are going to look at Saul’s conversion as recorded in Acts 9. We see how the Lord Jesus stopped this violent, anti-Christian man in his tracks and turned his life around – transformed him into the great proclaimer of the Christian faith that by God’s grace he became.
The story so far in Acts is that the Christian faith, otherwise known as the Way, has become established in Jerusalem through the preaching of Christ’s Apostles, mainly Peter. But in Acts 7, Stephen, a prominent member of the early church in Jerusalem, is stoned to death by an angry Jewish mob. He becomes the first Christian martyr, the first person to bear witness to the Lord Jesus by virtue of being put to death for believing and trusting in him for eternal salvation. The young Saul is introduced in Acts 7 when the witnesses to Stephen’s stoning lay their clothes at Saul’s feet. This demonstrates that Saul was prominent in the violent Jewish reaction in Jerusalem against the early church.
The persecution of the church in Jerusalem forces Christian believers to flee the city, and thus the message spreads beyond Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. The scattered believers take the gospel with them (Acts 8). Meanwhile Saul, we’re told, is going from house to house dragging men and women to jail in his zeal to destroy the church.
Here in Acts 9, we find Saul still issuing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He goes to the High Priest in Jerusalem to get letters to the Jewish synagogues in Damascus in Roman Syria giving him authority to extract information about any ethnic Jewish person, whether man or woman, who belongs to the Way, the way of the Lord Jesus. Saul’s intention is to kidnap them and then drag them back to Jerusalem (v1-2).
This is a very nasty piece of work indeed. This is a very violent religious fanatic. What’s the difference between him and an Islamist terrorist? Some different religious beliefs, yes, but very similar violent behaviour, we would surely have to say.
But as Saul is approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashes around him. Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice say, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asks. ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city (Damascus) and you will be told what to do.’ (v3-6 – NIV)
Saul, blinded by the light, is led by the hand into Damascus. That’s a powerful picture when we think about Paul’s original intention in going there – to drag Jesus’s people off to jail. Once Saul is in the city, the Lord sends one of his followers, Ananias, to the street called Straight where he finds Saul and places his hands on him, thus by the Lord’s power restoring Saul’s sight and filling him with the Lord’s Holy Spirit. Saul is baptised as a new believer in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose people he had been persecuting.
The conversion of Saul – a turning point in the history of the world. A massive event in world history.
But we must be clear that this is a unique conversion and it’s important that we understand why if we are to understand the spiritual significance of the Apostle Paul. Acts records how Ananias just couldn’t believe that the Lord was sending him to Saul. ‘Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has gone to your saints (your holy ones, your people) in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’ (v13-14)
But the Lord said to Ananias (v 15-16): ‘Go (a strong command – on yer bike)! This man is my chosen instrument to bear 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.’
The point is that Saul’s conversion to saving faith in the Lord Jesus and his commissioning as Christ’s Apostle to the Gentiles – the non-Jewish nations of the world – happened together. That doesn’t happen when anybody else is converted. They become a Christian but not Christ’s Apostle to the Gentiles and are not told at the point of their conversion precisely how they are going to be serving the Lord in the future.
So we do need to grasp the uniqueness of Saul’s conversion as Acts relates it.