The Conversion of Paul (Part 1)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 9:1-9

August 23, 2015

 

As we continue working through the first half of Acts, we come to a pivotal point, the conversion of Saul, who became Paul, the greatest missionary of our faith. Things have been building up to this point, as we’ve seen Saul supporting the crowd’s murder of Stephen and then participating in the persecution of Christians. But Saul does a 180, going from persecuting Christians to being persecuted!  But this isn’t Saul’s decision; God through Jesus Christ has the starring role in this drama.  Read Acts 9:1-9

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It’s late summer and the pennant race is on.  The Central Division of both leagues is where all the action is at and at times over the past couple weeks, the top three teams of that division in the National League, (the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs) would been in first place if they were in any other division of their league!  Thinking about baseball, let me share with you the top ten reasons for quitting baseball which I shared in my e-newsletter this past week.  For those of you who missed them, here they are:

  1. Every time I went to the ball park, they asked for money
  2. The people I sat next to didn’t seem friendly
  3. The seats were hard and uncomfortable
  4. The coach never called on me
  5. The game went into extra innings and I was late getting home
  6. The umpire made decisions I didn’t agree with
  7. The organist played numbers I’d never heard before and it wasn’t my type of music
  8. I suspect that I was sitting next to hypocrites. They came to see their friends and talked throughout the nine innings
  9. I was taken to too many games when I was growing up
  10. It seems they scheduled the games when I always wanted to do other things

 

If the Cubs or Pirates go on to win the World Series, some people might take it as a sign from God…  Joking aside, many people think they need a sign from God before they believe or act on what God wants them to do, but why?  The really obvious signs from God, even in Scripture, are few and far between.  Not many of us have the opportunity Saul to see his Lord, face to face.  The signs we get from God are more subtle (often they are more visible to those around us rather than to us, which is why having friends in the faith is important).  I don’t know why Saul was so lucky to have such an unmistakable sign, maybe it was because he had such a hard head and this was the only way for Jesus to get his attention.

Let’s consider the life of Saul for a moment.  He has it all planned out.  He’s a man destined to do great things, having studied under a top rabbi in Jerusalem.  It’s like having a Harvard education.  Not only does he keep the law, he’s a captain for his local neighborhood watch association.  With a top-rate education and a squeaky-clean record; he’s set to go far.  So when a group of intruders, known as the Way, began to create a disturbance within Judaism, Saul steps up to protect his childhood faith.  Paul doesn’t say he’s going to arrest Christians…  The earliest name for the church was “The Way.”  Jesus’ early followers didn’t have any buildings or anything else to tack a name onto.  They were on the “way,” down the path of the Master.

From what we learn in Acts, there appears to have been an intense effort by Jewish leaders to rid Judaism of this heretical sect.  Since the Roman conquerors gave Jewish leaders the responsibility of maintaining order within their faith, they used their power to squash “The Way.”  Things got hot for Christians in Jerusalem, so many of Jesus’ followers fled.  Since the High Priest had authority over Jews in other territories, Saul was able to receive a letter granting him the right to arrest those Jewish Christians in Damascus.  Saul was like Dog, the bounty hunter guy on the old cable TV program, except that he didn’t have as much ink as that was prohibited in Jewish law.[1]  As a bounty-hunter, he planned to round up the followers of The Way, chain them all together (even the women, we’re told) and drag them back to Jerusalem for trial.

It’s interesting that Saul was going after men and women.  Generally, in first century Palestine, and especially within the religious debates of the day, women didn’t matter much.  The fact that Luke, the author of Acts, notes that Paul was out to arrest both sexes’ shows the power and prestige women had in the early church.[2]  We know women were helping finance Jesus’ ministry.[3]  Women were there at the crucifixion, they were the ones that stuck around when most of the disciples had fled.[4]  They were present at the open tomb and at many of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.[5]  They were there in the Upper Room at the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.[6]   Some of the women who had fled to Damascus may have been following Jesus since Galilee.   I know some think Paul hated women.  I don’t think that’s the case, but even if this was so, that’s not why he’s after them. Saul knows that women are some of Jesus’ most effective evangelists[7] and as a pious Jew; he feels they need to be stopped with the same force applied to the men who are following Jesus.

As I’ve tried to make it clear earlier, Saul has it all worked out.    He’s going to make a name for himself while strengthening the Jewish faith by removing heretics.  He’s out to purify the faith.  He’s a zealot!  He has a marvelous plan, but the best laid plans are often thwarted by God.

For a moment, put yourselves in Saul’s shoes.  You set out to persecute the followers of Jesus and then meet Jesus, face-to-face.  This guy whom everyone knew was dead (after all, he’d been hung on a cross), and there he is in a blinding light, speaking to you…  Yeah, there’d been talk about Jesus coming back to life, but from Saul’s and the High Priests’ perspectives, such talk was only from those deluded enough to have followed Jesus in the first place.  Such idle talk was easily dismissed.  Jesus is gone, Saul thought.  It’s pretty safe to say some nasty things about someone no longer here…  Like Dog the bounty-hunter, we can imagine the trash talk Saul did as he makes his way to Damascus.

Ever been in such a situation?  Doing something dumb like talking about the bully in your class…  Going on about how you’re going to whip him, only to discover he’s listening in on your conversation? This is kind of what happened to Saul.  Except that Jesus is no classroom bully; he’s the Lord of the Universe. Surprisingly, Jesus isn’t mad at Saul, just disappointed.

Jesus does the seemingly impossible.  Instead of pounding Paul’s head into the pavement for mistreating his followers, he converts him.  Jesus isn’t out for revenge; he wants to change people, to soften hearts.  For a hard-headed man like Saul, Jesus allows him no way out.  Saul has no choice but to accept Jesus and to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the good news.

Saul goes from being a persecutor of the faith to one who is persecuted for the faith.  He goes from being one of the feared enemies of the early church to its all-time greatest missionary.

There are a few things I’d like us to understand about Saul and his conversion experience.  First of all, Saul’s experience is unique.  If we’re expecting to see Christ in a blinding light or, like Moses, to encounter God in a burning bush, I’m afraid we’ll be disappointed.  I won’t rule it out, but such events seem to be few and far between.  Although I’ve known a few who have had extraordinary experiences, most of us will come to know Christ in more ordinary ways.  Most often, God works through very common events and uses very ordinary people, like you and me, to share his message.  I suppose Saul was just too hardheaded and would not have been open to the message of Jesus without some miraculous encounter.  But most conversions do not take place in a flash.  Most conversions occur because people are humbled to know what God has done for them.  Most conversions occur (to use one of Paul’s later analogies) because God planted a seed through one witness and someone later came along and watered it.[8]

The second point I want to make is that Saul’s conversion resulted in a great deal of humility in a very proud man.  From what we know about Saul’s life before conversion, he had a big head.  He’d studied law in the Ivy League of the day and kept the law to the letter.  He fasted; he sacrificed; he gave alms to the poor.  If anyone is going to get into heaven by earthly deeds, Saul’s the one.  But after meeting Jesus, Saul realizes the futility of his efforts and, from then on, credits everything he does to Jesus Christ.[9]  His pride is tempered.

We need to use Saul as a model for our lives.  We need to be as humble as the converted Saul.  We need to realize we are in need of a Savior, that we can’t save ourselves, and that we have a Savior in Jesus Christ.

Another point about conversions that I’d like for us to understand, which we see in Saul’s story, is that conversion does not mean that we’re made-over in the ways we often think of it.  Being born-again is a metaphor; when God created us, he gave us what we needed.  Conversion, or transformation, involves us accepting who God made us to be and using what God has given us to fulfill our purpose in the world.[10]  Saul’s conversion didn’t make him smarter or stronger or take away his ailments…  Paul talks about that “thorn-in-his-side.”[11]  I’m sure he’d like God to have taken away that thorn, whatever ailment it was, but God didn’t.  And it’s like that with us; God doesn’t completely clean the slate, we still have a past, but we are rerouted to a more promising future.

For a final point that I’d like to make, I want us to reconsider the reasons I listed at the beginning of the sermon for quitting baseball.  I’m sure you understood it was a parody of the many reasons people give for not attending church.  Unfortunately, too many people see worship as entertainment, which is what makes the joke both funny and sad.  For if entertainment is what people expect at church or in worship, they’ve missed the point.  The story of Saul’s conversion speaks to this.  Paul, the Latin name for Saul, the name that he’s best known as, didn’t establish churches all over Asia-minor and Europe because it was fun.  It wasn’t fun; he was hounded and imprisoned and beaten.[12]  Paul’s preaching must not have been too great as we know people fell asleep in his sermons (as some of you may do in mine).[13]  Paul did his missionary work because he was committed to his Savior.  He knew the truth was in Jesus Christ and wanted to share Jesus’ message with others.

Don’t go out this week looking for Jesus to appear to you in a sunburst of blinding light.  Go out and look for Jesus in the ordinary.  And if you experience Jesus, don’t think of yourself as special.  Be humble, like Paul, for it means that the burden of being your own savior is lifted.  Don’t think Jesus is going to completely remake you, like you see happening to a house one of those reality TV programs.  Jesus loves you just as you are.  He may not like all you do, but he loves you.  Just be open for Jesus to meet you where you are and then for him to use you for his purposes.  Remember it’s not about us, it’s about him.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Leviticus 19:28

[2] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (HarperCollins, 2014), 71.

[3] Luke 8:1-3

[4] Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40, Luke 23:27 and 23:29; John 19:25-27

[5] Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:5, John 20:1

[6] Acts 1:14

[7] As for a woman who was a most successful evangelist, see the woman at the well in John 4

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:5-9

[9] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[10] For more on this, see John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[11] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[12] As an example, see Acts 16:16-24

[13] Acts 20:9


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