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Storytelling is Glory-Telling
One of the greatest problems we face today, in our age of entertainment and rampant screen time, is the lost art of storytelling. To many Americans, storytelling is simply retelling a series of events, in the order they occurred. Perhaps we’ll flair it up with a joke, a punchline, or an applicable point that might involve the storyteller saying, “yep, I can empathize”—or “I’ve been there, too”. The storytelling, there, is emphasizes the storyteller. “I can empathize”, or “see, this story illustrates my point”, keeps the focus on storyteller, doesn’t it? So, a lot of the stories we tell today focus on the storyteller’s experiences.
At the same time, I fear that the majority of stories which we consume today actually are oriented toward the listeners—but, it’s for our entertainment. At least, we think it’s for our entertainment. As we all know, the movies and shows we consume do have an effect on our hearts, don’t they?
In the end, storytelling is never about entertainment, or even sharing our mutual experiences. Good storytelling is all about formation—cultivating within us all virtues like bravery, truth, zeal for goodness, peacefulness, selflessness, discernment, and a taste for Godly beauty. These virtues are glimpses into God’s own glory, who himself is truth, goodness, and beauty. So, these virtues cannot simply be taught to us in a classroom—they need to be shown to us over campfires, at bedtime with our children, or from the pulpit on Sundays when God’s people gather to hear from God, our great Creator and storyteller of history. These virtues need to be shown to us, demonstrated to us, and enjoyed by us, that we would enjoy them as God’s glory shines through them. That’s storytelling. You might even say “good storytelling is glory-telling”, and that’s formative to our souls.
Saul’s conversion is that sort of story. It should have a formative impact on our souls as we gaze through it, onto God’s great work through Christ. Just in Acts alone, this story is told three times—and, there’s good reason for it. We read about it here in chapter 9, and then Paul tells it in chapter 22 to defend his ministry before the Jews in Jerusalem. Then, he tells it in chapter 26 to defend himself before King Agrippa. So when Paul is on trial, and he needs to defend his ministry before a Jewish council or a pagan king, he thinks it wise to appeal to his conversion story. Then, Paul refers to his conversion story in several places throughout his letters in our New Testaments—1 Timothy 1:12–17 and almost all of Galatians 1–2, to name the two substantive examples. Saul’s “Damascus Road experience” is all over our New Testaments. It’s when the keynote apostle was radically converted, and radically commissioned to an unexpected task. It can’t just be a historical event to us—it’s brought up in all of these chapters for reasons we must discern for our own encouragement in the faith. In a word, this story reveals Jesus to us, even from a few different perspectives.
Encountering Jesus’s Patience, Providence, and Peace
Two weeks ago, we looked at this story exclusively from the perspective of Saul’s conversion, rather than his commission. Here in Acts 9, the emphasis seems to be on his conversion on the road to Demarcus—that’s one perspective on this story. But as I said, this story of his conversion and commission keeps appearing in our New Testaments, with different emphases or perspectives. This morning, I want to get that fuller, Biblical perspective on this story, from different perspectives, as it leads us to a greater picture of Jesus.
First, this story will show us Jesus’s patience. That point will be a matter of review from last week, as Jesus patiently saved Saul, of all people. We want to encounter Jesus’s patience, this morning.
Then from another perspective, this story tells us about Jesus’s providence. By “providence”, I’m referring to Christ’s work to uphold, direct, dispose, and govern” all things for the good of his kingdom. In Saul’s story this morning, we’ll see Christ providentially upholding and directing both Saul himself, and his church through the first few years of Saul’s life as a Christian.
Those are the two initial perspectives on this story this morning, as they reveal Christ to us. You might say that Christ saved Saul to display his patience, and you might say that Christ commissioned Saul to the gentiles, uniquely revealing his providence. Then, of course—why does that matter? Where does Jesus’s patience and providence take us? Jesus’s peace. You see that in the last verse of our passage this morning, where verse 31 gives us a summarizes the church’s condition for us at this point in its growth. I love verse 31. The end result of Saul’s conversion and initial interactions with the church, “the church … had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied”. Do you want that? That summary statement is there to show us the result of Saul’s conversion, and initial ministry, under Christ’s perfect patience and providence. When Christ meets you with his patience and his providence, you get peace.
So in this often-repeated story of Saul’s Damascus road experience, we’re going to see Jesus’s patience, providence, and peace. Let’s dig in.
Jesus’s Patience in Saul's Conversion
Two weeks ago, we looked at the event of Saul’s conversion, and I had mentioned that Acts 9 first tells this story in a way that highlights Saul’s conversion rather than his commission. At this point in Acts, we’re supposed to feel the weight of Christ’s power in saving Saul of Tarsus, of all people. Chapters 7 and 8 intentionally set us up for this shocking story, where we learn that Saul was a zealous pharisee who was at Stephen’s martyrdom. He was the guy who got the high honors to receive Stephen’s bloodied up clothes. It’s almost the picture we get in stories when servants deliver an enemy’s head to the king on a platter. He was a prominent and prestigious pharisee that people wanted to please. He had high accolades in Judaism from the school of Gamaliel. However, he didn’t strictly follow Gamaliel’s approach to Judaism. In chapter 5, Gamaliel advocated to not kill the Christians. Here, we see the student straying from his teacher’s instincts, with a more aggressive approach to persecute them and kill them. Saul was prominent like his teacher Gamaliel, but unlike Gamaliel, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill false teachers in Jerusalem. He used his prominence to persecute the church. When we turn to the story of Saul’s conversion in chapter 9, Saul’s persecution is mentioned as a predominant backdrop to the whole story. Verse 1 opens the story up by describing Saul as “still breathing threats and murder”, and then we see Ananias, the disciples in Damascus, and the disciples in Jerusalem struggle to overcome a certain fear of this man after his conversion. John Stott made the comparison—
His reputation had preceded him, so his coming would have seemed to the fledgling church much as it would seem to us if Osama Bin Laden were to come to America claiming to be a convert to U.S. patriotism.
That’s about right. He was prominent like his teacher Gamaliel, yet unlike Gamaliel, he was a zealous persecutor of the church. This is why he said in Philippians 3 that he had “more” reason to be confident in the flesh—in worldly prestige and circumstance—than anyone else. “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless”. By worldly standards, Saul was “it”—the zealous, righteous, disciplined, knowledgeable, pure-blooded Jew who might have the honors of receiving Stephens’ bloodied-up clothes. Pride, no doubt, radiated from this man.
Yet, as we mentioned two weeks ago, Saul the prominent persecutor of the church was also paranoid in his conscience. “Saul… it is hard for you to kick against the goads!”, Jesus says to Saul on the road to Damascus. Two weeks ago, we learned how this statement is in verse 5 of the KJV, but not our modern translations. Still, we know Jesus said it because Paul makes mention of these words when he retells this story in chapter 26:14. The phrase, as we saw last week, is an illusion to the fact that Jesus had been calling Saul through his Spirit for some time, troubling his conscience and making him paranoid, although Saul adamantly resisted Christ. He kicked against the goads—against sharp pricks on the front of an ox cart that were designed to keep oxen from kicking back at the driver. It’s painful to kick back at Jesus when he’s calling you, isn’t it?
Now, that was last week—and, we should feel the awesome power of Jesus as we see him break through Saul’s prominence, persecution, and paranoid conscience in a split second. That’s power, but it’s also patience. Jesus chose to save Saul of Tarsus, of all people. As Paul reflects on Christ’s purposes in his own salvation, he tells Timothy that “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent… I am the foremost [of sinners]… I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
Thinking about God's Unusual Patience
Have you ever really thought hard about the patience of God? Saul did, every day, as he considered his former life and the way Jesus changed him. He deserved God’s unbearable wrath—not his patience and grace! The astonishing reality of Christ’s patience is that it’s set up against the backdrop of our sin against Christ. It’s set up against the backdrop of Christ’s wrath, which will be poured out against all his enemies who do not love him by faith, for all eternity. That’s Christ’s patience! As Paul himself said, “don’t presume upon Christ’s patience!” (cf. Rom 2:4). Behind his patience is wrath! Do you not know that “God’s kindness [and patience] is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). Shai Linne, a Christian artist said it this way through a sort of prayerful poetry—
Due to our sin, we don't deserve the least of Your blessings
But through the cross and believing that Jesus is risen
Even the worst of sinners can be redeemed and forgiven
I'm living proof when I say this and these are truthful statements
You're beautiful when displaying Your unusual patience
You take the blasphemous, pridefully stuck in our blindness
Instead of smashing us, decided to love us with kindness
Even with unbelievers facing Your terror, You slow up
Like when You waited patiently in the era of Noah
We know that with You, a day is just like a thousand years
So does that mean for every sin, You cry a thousand tears?
The Lord patient with his worst enemies—even Saul, an extraordinary example to us in this matter. Let his story fill your soul with the food of God’s patience and power, as he’s still patient with every one of us in this room, being pleased to see us through Christ’s sacrifice and righteousness. The story before us this morning, in Acts 9, displays Christ’s patience and power to us as we consider Saul’s conversion.
That’s all review from last week, where we went a bit deeper into this. Still, it’s a good word we need to hear. If Christ weren’t patient, we’d have no hope in repenting every week from the same sins that we struggle with every day. We’d have no hope of waking up every morning, with a militant perspective against sin and this world. We’d have no hope in reaching out to certain folks who are so hardened against God that they don’t even see it. We’d have no reason to pray unceasing prayers for our brothers and sisters who need extra grace in their fight against sin. Feel the weight of Christ’s patience, against the backdrop of his wrath, and let it motivate you to love and serve him with utmost zeal and unending prayers. I have no doubt that it’s this thought of Christ’s patience that drove Paul to such a zealous faith. Paul likely thought, over and over again—“He was patient to save me, although I must not presume upon his patience, and waste my life with the diddly things of this world which brought me to ruin in my former life”.
Jesus's Providence in Saul's Ministry
Now, as Christ is patient with us as his people of faith, we can therein rest assured that he is providentially working everything together for our good. If Saul’s conversion reveals Christ’s patience, then you might say his commission and ministry uniquely reveal Christ’s providence.
Christ's Providence to Prepare Saul
Consider how Christ providentially cared for Saul, and directed him, from the moment of his conversion through the initial years of his ministry. Even at that moment, the Lord was working to prepare his apostle for great things. Two weeks ago, I pointed out that verse 3 tells us that Jesus appeared to Saul as “he approached Demascus”—the language there means that he was within eyeshot of Damascus after a 7 day journey. Jesus providentially appeared to Saul on the last leg of his 7 day journey so that, after being humbled under Christ, he could immediately be welcomed by Christ’s people in Damascus. We’re saved into the church, folks. It’s where we grow, get nourished, and encouraged through Christ’s hands and feet. It’s unnatural for believers to “get saved”, and then never step foot in a church, to be welcomed by God’s people.
More than this, we saw that Saul’s first three days as a Christian were spent blind, in fasting. Christ providentially orchestrated that for Saul, to say—“for three days, I want you to keep your eyes shut, pray, fellowship with me in the Spirit, and think about the glory of your new master whom you just saw and heard”. During those three days especially, I imagine Saul was prayerfully reconsidering the entire system of Scriptures he knew so well and realizing how wrong he was about Jesus. Verse 22 illustrates this quite well when it describes Saul’s ministry immediately after these three days. “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ”. He was proving—from Scripture, that is—that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Where did he get those conclusions? Jesus gave him three days of intense prayer, thought, and revelation. That’s Christ’s providence, as he was preparing this man to be his servant.
It wasn’t hard for Saul to see Christ’s providence in all this. Providence is something that belongs to kings who providentially rule over—and provide for—their kingdom. Providence belongs to God who providentially rules over—and provides for—his creation. Providence is a thing for royalty. As Saul humbled himself before Christ, he humbled himself under his providential guidance and provision. He knew immediately who Christ was. On the road, he said “who are you, Lord?”. So, he knew even at that juncture that he was encountering the Lord, Yahweh, his God, who providentially governs and sustains creation. He knew he was the Lord, but he didn’t know if his Lord was for him or against him—“are you going to kill me, or are you going to care for me?”. Then, after praying blind and fasting for three days, we read that Saul “immediately… proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (verse 20). That’s the only time that title shows up in all of Acts—and, it’s significant that it shows up here as the subject of Saul’s first proclamation. In the Old Testament, the “son of God” is the royal Messiah who would exercise unchallenged authority as king over the nations. You could think of Psalm 2 or 2 Samuel 7:14, for example. Saul knew who Jesus was—the king whose providence cannot be thwarted!
Christ's Providence in Saul's Commission
Now, where else do we see Christ’s providence guiding Saul as he began his ministry? Consider the way Saul received his commission to be Jesus's apostle to the gentiles. If you remember from two weeks ago, I had mentioned that Saul received his commission from Christ himself on the road to Damascus. We don’t see that here, in our chapter (chapter 9). We see that in chapter 26, when Paul retells this whole story to King Agrippa. There, Jesus tells Saul on the road to Demascus, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness … I am sending you [to the Jews and the gentiles], to open their eyes so they might turn from darkness to light… that they may receive forgiveness of sins…”. So, before Paul even entered Demascus, he knew Jesus had commissioned him to be his apostle to the gentiles. It’s no wonder he was blinded for three days, to ponder these things.
That said, I think it’s fair to assume that Ananias relayed Jesus’s words concerning Saul’s mission, which Ananias received in verse 15. When Ananias was shaking in his boots at the thought of going to Saul, Jesus reassured him that Saul is “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel [i.e., the Jews]. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”. So, these two words of Christ cohere. Saul heard his mission to the gentiles from Jesus, and then we might assume he heard it from Ananias as well. Only, Ananias uniquely heard about all the suffering which Saul had ahead of him, for Christ’s name.
Does it comfort you to know how clear this commission was to Saul? Does it reassure you that this gospel was revealed to Saul, and then confirmed by Ananias? For almost the entire history of God’s people, going all the way back to Abraham, God’s people were associated with the children of Abraham. God’s people were Jewish. To worship the true and living God, a gentile like most of us in this room would have to become Jewish by circumcision, and other ceremonial washings. Now, Jesus was providentially revealing that his kingdom is no longer bound by ethnicity, nor by ceremonial observances to Moses. Gentiles now become members of God’s people as gentiles—no need to become Jewish, first. To say that I’m a Swedish Christian and you’re an Italian Christian is revelation of Christ in the New Testament—that would have been blasphemous in the Old Testament. God’s people were, by definition, Jewish. Now, anyone can believe upon Jesus, be baptized, and enjoy all the benefits of Christ and his covenant people as we are protected, provided for, and loved by our king. We take this for granted, now that we’re 2000 years removed. Although, this was an astonishing change of events for the early Christians. Saul heard Jesus speak of it on the road to Demascus, Ananias confirmed it, and we’ll see even Peter receives revelation on the matter in the next chapter. Proof after proof after proof is provided concerning this outstanding revelation. Jesus is providentially guiding and governing his kingdom, to his glory throughout all the nations.
Now, we’ll continue looking at the nuances and glory of that commission to the gentiles in the coming weeks, and what it means for us today. For right now, I want us to continue looking at how Christ providentially guided and protected Saul as he began his ministry after his eyes were opened up.
Christ’s Providence in Saul’s Early Ministry
First, Jesus protected Saul as one of his own. You see that in a number of places this morning. Verse 16—“I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”. So, any suffering Saul would go through was in Jesus’s providential hand. It’s all suffering for his name—it wouldn’t be wasted; it’d all be purposeful in giving glory to Jesus. Yet more practical and to the point, consider how quickly Saul attracted enemies and persecution. In verse 23, we read that “when many days passed” (we’ll consider that in a moment) “the Jews plotted to kill him”. They watched the Damascus gates every day, to make sure he couldn’t leave. Police do this today with criminals when they set a perimeter around a fresh crime scene. Yet, Jesus ensured that the plot would be made known to Saul, and his disciples lowered Saul down in a basket so he could escape scratch-free.
Then, he arrived in Jerusalem where he received resistance from the church itself. But Christ appointed Barnabas, the “son of encouragement”, to testify to the church that Saul’s conversion was genuine. Verse 28, “So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of Christ. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus”. It’s like the church was always one step ahead of Christ’s enemies, to protect Saul whose testimony was enraging the Jewish people.
Let this sink in. Christ is protecting and providing for the same man who was just killing his people. It’s the patience of Christ, again—is it not? If Christ has called you and you respond to him by faith, then you can rest assured that there is no sin that he will hold against you. He’ll protect you, provide for you, and love you, for you are his. Christ’s gracious patience is the foundation for his gracious providence. That’s a big point for us, and for our comfort this morning. Even when we are suffering terrible things in this world, we can rest assured that it’s in his gracious providence rather than in his punitive wrath. As a father patiently disciplines his children, so the Lord patiently disciplines us in our sufferings to make us stronger and more at peace in the faith.
“When Many Days Had Passed” in Damascus (and Arabia)
Now, I mentioned that we’d circle back to the vague statement in verse 23, “when many days had passed”—then the Jews plotted to kill him. Verse 19 says something similar, “for some days he was with the disciples at Damascus”. How much time are we talking about, here, and what’s the point of this time in Damascus? Let’s take a brief moment to consider that, as we remember that Christ is providentially orchestrating all of these things according to his plan.
We get a glimpse into this time in Damascus when we turn to Galatians 1, if you’ll turn there with me for a second. Actually turn there if you can, I want you to see this. Remember, I said earlier that for most Galatians 1 and 2, Paul is telling us his conversion story, and the course of his ministry. What’s his point in telling this story?
Chapter 1 verse 11 gets to the point—“I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”. So, Paul is seeking to convince the Galatians that the gospel he preaches is from God—not man. Then, he reminds them that he was a persecutor of the church as a zealous Jew. Verse 15, “but when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me…” Stop there.
So, Paul thinks it’s significant that he received this revelation of the gospel in isolation from the apostles in Jerusalem. Do you see that? “[when] he was pleased to reveal his Son to me”—by the way, in Demascus—“I did not immediately consult with anyone”, not even the apostles in Jerusalem. In other words, Paul is saying that there’s no way he “got saved” through the apostles, or received instructions from them, or anything of that sort. He heard the gospel, and received his commission to the gentiles, from Jesus in Damascus, not in Jerusalem. He certainly would not have been in cahoots with the apostles, this had to have come from the Lord.
Now, keep reading in Galatians 1:17, “…but I went away to Arabia [from Demascus], and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem, to visit with Cephas [Peter] and remained with him fifteen days.” Then he goes on to explain the same events that we read about in our passage from Acts 9, only with more detail.
So there, in Galatians 1–2, we see Paul’s own reflections on what he thinks is significant from this period in his life. He was in Damascus for three years—that’s the time period that Acts 9:23 is referring to when it says “when some days had passed”. Galatians 1:17 says that time period was three years. What’s the big take-away that Saul sees in all this? It’s not simply that Christ providentially provided for him, as he was protected from Jews who wanted to kill him. Saul sees this time period as a period when Christ confirmed the gospel to him as a true revelation from God. For three years in Damascus, Paul didn’t consult with anyone except Jesus and the word.
In fact, Paul speaks as though he viewed himself like an Old Testament prophet. God “set me apart before I was born”, Paul says. That’s exactly how Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke about their prophetic ministries—set apart, before birth, to receive revelation as a prophet. Then, there’s that strange Arabia comment. Paul “went away to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus”. There’s a lot of speculation about what Paul is alluding to here, but I can’t help but think that it’s another way Paul is identifying himself with the Old Testament prophets. Elijah himself went away to Arabia in 1 Kings 19 where God sustained him and gave him instructions concerning his prophetic ministry. Then, the last instructions God gave Elijah in Arabia were “return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint [the next kings and prophets over the lands]” (1 Kings 19:15–18). Sound familiar? It would appear that Paul spent time in Arabia, only to return to Damascus with the sole purpose to proclaim Jesus as the true king and prophet over the nations. Paul is identifying himself as a prophet who, not unlike the Elijah, received revelation from Jesus for three years before ever talking to an apostle in Jerusalem.
It really is a beautiful tapestry of Christ’s providence, that he raised up Saul this way, and gave revelation to him in this way. When he arrived in Jerusalem, the apostles confirmed Saul’s revelation as true as it cohered with their own revelations from Christ. No teaching needed to happen—Christ had already humbled and taught Saul of Tarsus, and freed him from his slavery to sin and the world. What a joy it must have been for Paul to meet up with the church in Jerusalem, after three years, and hear them speak of the same gospel which Christ had been teaching him. It’s like that moment when you meet a stranger on the street, and as you begin talking about the Bible with them you realize they’re Christian too, and that they read the Bible the same way you do. “Where did you learn this from?” “Well I listen to R. C. Sproul.” “Wow! He’s my favorite! It’s so great to meet you, I feel like we’re old buddies”.
So, Christ was patient with Saul, and then Christ providentially protected Saul from the Jews who sought to kill him. But more than this, Christ providentially called Saul as his apostle to the gentiles, revealing the gospel to him in Damascus of all places so that we might have certainty that Saul’s revelation was from Christ. He wasn’t simply parroting the apostles or other Christian leaders in Jerusalem.
Jesus's Peace to the Church
Now this is all supposed to land on our hearts this morning in a wonderful way. This is going somewhere specific, as our passage in Acts 9 guides us along. As Christ’s patience toward Saul in his conversion yielded to his providence, this all brings to us Christ’s peace. Verse 31, “So [as a result of everything we’ve been talking about] the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied”.
Let me ask you this. What would you experience in your soul if you saw the greatest threat to the church today church disarmed, and brought under the Lordship of Christ? You’d experience peace. What would you experience if you truly understood Christ’s patience toward his people who sin against him every day? You’d experience peace. What if you understand Christ’s providence in protecting his people, and providing for them in extraordinary ways? You’d experience “the peace of Christ which surpasses understanding”.
As word spread about Saul of Tarsus, I can only imagine the peace, growth, and reverence in Christ that was at work in the early Church.
Brothers and sisters, lean hard into the assurance, peace, and comfort that this story offers; even as it reveals Jesus from all these wonderful perspectives—his patience, providence, and peace. Let’s pray.