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God Saved the Worst of Sinners, to Save the Worst of Sinners (the Gentiles)
As we press into the story of Saul’s conversion this morning, I want us to make sure we have an important distinction in our minds as we get started. This story is mostly about Saul’s conversion, not his commission to be Jesus’s Apostle to the gentiles. Now, Saul’s commission is mentioned briefly in this passage, so we’re not supposed to miss it. Although the story is told with a strong emphasis on Saul’s conversion—who was he before, during, and after his encounter with the Lord, Jesus Christ?
Now, just so we can clear the air and not miss it, let’s talk real quick about Saul’s commission before we jump into the details of his conversion this morning. We do see a reference to his commission in verse 15 when Jesus says to Ananias, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”. Saul was Jesus’s apostle to the gentiles, to the children of Israel, and Saul suffered lots. No doubt, there.
However, Jesus described Saul’s apostolic ministry in this way to Ananias, not Saul. In fact, Ananias isn’t even instructed to give this commission to Saul. In verse 11, Jesus says to Ananias, “rise and go [find Saul], for 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.” So, Ananias’ primary task was to fulfill that vision—to lay hands on Saul so that he might regain his sight. It says nothing about Ananias communicating to Saul an apostolic mission to the gentiles. The only obvious reason Jesus told Ananias about his plans for Saul was because Ananias about wet himself when Jesus told him to go find Saul. Jesus essentially said, “Don’t worry, I’ve revealed my glory to him, he’s a humbled man—and he’s going to be my apostle to the gentiles”. I can only imagine Ananias’s response of bewilderment and awe. “Whoah”
The truth be told, Jesus himself gave Saul his apostolic commission to be his apostle to the gentiles when Saul was still humbled on the ground, beholding Christ in all his glory. Only, we don’t see that in our story here in Acts 9. We learn about that in Acts 26 when Paul retells this story to King Agrippa, and he includes a little bit more details than what we have here in chapter 9. There in chapter 26, Paul tells us that when Jesus said “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”, he also said in that moment—
16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness… 17 I am sending you [to the gentiles]… 18 that they may receive forgiveness of sins…
So, even before Ananias showed up, Saul had already received his commission to be Christ’s apostle to the gentiles. It’s no wonder why Christ left Saul blind for three days. It’s some serious sensory deprivation, there, so Saul would prayerfully consider these things. “For three days, I want you to be humbled and think about your new Lord, and your new commission to the gentiles.”
Now, here’s the question in all this, which makes me believe this story is calling us to consider Saul’s conversion. Why does chapter 9 leave out Jesus’s words on the Damascus Road—his words which commissioned Saul to be his apostle to the gentiles? Wouldn’t that be a helpful thing to know very clearly and plainly, at this point in Acts? This chapter—Acts 9—is the turning point in Acts when the gospel goes from the Jews to the gentiles. Here in chapter 9, Jesus saves the apostle to the gentiles. Then in chapter 10, Jesus formally pours his Spirit upon the gentiles. Why does Acts 9, then, leave out Jesus’s commissioning words to Saul?
I think the reason Acts 9 leaves out Jesus’s formal commissioning statement is because we’re supposed to read this as a conversion story before we read it as an apostolic commission. We need to feel the full weight of Christ’s power—he saved Saul of Tarsus, of all people, to be his apostle to the gentiles, of all people! Take a moment and behold Christ’s wisdom and power, and see Saul humbled and changed in this passage! It’s a beautiful precursor to Christ’s mission to the nations. The story of Saul’s conversion is a perfect set up to back up his upcoming ministry to the gentiles. In a word, you might say that God saved the worst of sinners (Saul) in order to save the worst of sinners (the dirty and godless gentiles). Just as Saul wasn’t outside the reaches of Jesus’s salvation, neither are the unclean gentiles who likewise despised the true God and creator. It’s as if Jesus wanted this entire crusade on the nations to magnify his supreme power and sovereignty over rebellious hearts.
In First Timothy 1:16, we see that this is exactly how Paul reflects upon his conversion. You have to think that Paul often considered, “why me, of all unlikely people, to be the Jesus’s apostle to the gentiles?”. He did think about that, and he wrote his reflections down in First Timothy 1:12–16. Specifically in verses 15–16, he said—
15 … Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But 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. [especially the gentiles, I imagine].
Jesus saved Saul—the worst of sinners—so that his patience and power would be shown forth as an example of Christ’s patience and redeeming power to everyone who might believe upon him. Does Jesus have patience for the gentiles? Does he have patience for your incredibly arrogant brother, or neighbor? Does he have patience for you? He had patience for Saul, of all people.
The Purpose of “Origins Stories” in the Bible
By the way, it’s not unusual in our Bibles for there to be important stories or details about a noteworthy person’s conversion, or unique origins, before we see them commissioned as a king or prophet. Think of David, as an example. We hear a lot about his origins story—it’s not a conversion story, per se, but do you remember the story of the prophet Samuel coming to David’s family to find the next king? It’s not the oldest brother, nor the next oldest, nor the next. Seven sons pass by Samuel, and Samuel has to ask “is there no other son?”. “well, there’s the youngest, David, but he’s the shepherd boy”. What’s that origins story in the Bible for? It tells you all sorts of things about God’s purposes and power, doesn’t it?
This morning, Saul’s conversion story is here to show us that Christ humbles the most arrogant Pharisee in Jerusalem, in order to save the untouchable gentiles. Like David’s origins story, or Abraham’s, or Moses’s, or especially Jesus’s origins story—we’re supposed to consider where Paul came from, how he was changed, and why that matters in light of God’s redemptive purposes. When we consider this story, we’re going to see the unimaginable power and wisdom of Christ.
Saul Before, During, and After His Conversion
So, let’s just walk through this story this morning, as we behold the Christ’s power and wisdom in Saul’s conversion. If you like the standard three-point outline, here it is—
1. Saul, Before His Conversion
2. Saul, During His Conversion
3. Saul, After his Conversion
Very simple. Here we go.
Saul, Before his Conversion
Who was Saul before Christ (in his “’BC days”, as some say)? We first meet him in Acts chapter 7, verse 58. After Stephen was martyred, we’re told that some of the young and zealous Jews grabbed Stephen’s clothes and laid them at “the feet of a young man named Saul”. So, this illustrates Saul’s prominence. You almost get a picture of these Jews laying their offerings before the king—perhaps when a king asks for a man’s head on a platter. Of all the people to receive Stephen’s clothes, it was Saul. He was given the honor. Obviously, that means he was known for his hatred against the church. It also means that if you wanted to please “the man”, then Saul’s your guy. This Saul, even as a “young man” (7:58), had prominence.
Saul the Prominent and Prestigious
He got this prominence by studying under Gamaliel, a respected and leading Pharisee at the time. Back in chapter 5 verse 34, Gamaliel was the pharisee who sat in the counsel of the Sanhedrin, and actually convinced them not to kill Peter and John. He basically said, as you may remember, “if this movement is of God, beware of opposing it; if it isn’t of God, it will fail”. Gamaliel was the real deal. He was “it”, at the time. We even have external sources that refer to his godly wisdom and life, and the respect he had in all of Jerusalem. To be his student would have been a great honor, for Saul.
Now, fast forward in Acts. Paul uses this education and background to his defense when in Acts 22, when he’s about to be arrested in Jerusalem. We’re told that, in order to defend himself as innocent, and the gospel as true Judaism, Paul stands up and reminds the crowds that he’s a Jew, “educated at the feet of Gamaliel, according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” Again, he’s talking to Jews seeking to arrest him, and persecute the church. Then, he proceeds to retell his conversion story as we see it in our passage this morning. He tells them about going to Damascus, and meeting Jesus on the way, and being blinded for three days.
So there, Saul did see a certain value in his conversion story. That’s the story he brought up when he needed to defend himself and the faith before the Jews. The story means something not to Paul, but to the Jews. To Paul, it meant nothing—“whatever gain I had, I count is as loss for the sake of Christ”. If Paul had the opportunity to win that time back and serve Christ from the very beginning, I imagine he’d be tickled at the thought. But, when he was on trial, he recognized that his background and conversion meant something significant. It meant that he, of all people, would have a certain credibility in the eyes of his Jewish audience to discern from Scriptures whether Jesus was the Christ. “I’m a student of Gamaliel—a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to righteousness under the law, blameless. I’m telling you today that Jesus is the Messiah, and these Christians are reaping the fullest and most mature expression of our Jewish faith and Scriptures”. It’s quite amazing, really. It’s one more piece to the puzzle in Jesus’s wisdom to call out Saul of Tarsus as his apostle to the gentiles. Saul puts his stamp of approval on everything that’s happening—worshipping Jesus, the Spirit’s manifestations, and even bringing the gentiles into the fold of God’s people.
Saul the Persecutor
Now, Saul’s young age, coupled with his zeal and prominence in Judaism, fueled the fire for “Saul the prominent” to become “Saul the persecutor”. That’s really where our passage picks up. Chapter 9 verse 1 (I love this)—“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. The imagery, there, is powerful. It’s depicting Saul like a demonic animal breathing in and out “murder”. Some people have seen a few other descriptive words in chapters 8 and 9 which describe Saul in beastly terms before his conversion. Like a wild beast seeking it’s prey, so Saul sought the church. It reminds me of how First Peter 5:8 describes the devil prowling “around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”. So also Saul. Yet Jesus’s power was stronger, as he subdued this man to himself, and used him as his most prized apostle to reach the nations, and write 25% of our New Testaments.
What drives a man to be so destructive, and hateful toward the church? I could think of several reasons. I’m sure Saul’s training under Gamaliel contributed in some ways. I’m sure Saul’s striving for righteousness also helped. Any religion that calls for man to be his own savior is can quickly turn a man into a terrible destroyer. You could think of the Muslim suicide bombers, as an extreme example. The more zealous you are in a religion of works, the more security and peace you’re promised. Only, they’re empty promises.
Saul the Paranoia?
However, I think there may have been one other thing that was driving Saul mad. If you’re reading the King James Version, you’ll see a statement concerning “goads” or “pricks” in verse 5. That statement, in the KJV, reads like this (after Saul asks “who art thou, Lord?”)—"I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” It’s hard for you to kick against the pricks, or the goads, Saul! Now, if you’re reading your pew Bible (the ESV), that statement isn’t there. There are some questions the translators have which lead many to not include the statement in verse 5. But it’s not a huge game-changer, because Paul tells us again that Jesus said this to him in chapter 26:14, when Paul is retelling this story to King Agrippa. So, Jesus certainly did say this.
What did Jesus mean with this strange statement—“it’s hard for you to kick against the pricks”, or “against the goads”? R. C. Sproul helped me understand this. Anyone in 1st century Rome would have understood it. At the time, transportation was often through oxcarts pulled by oxen. If you needed your stubborn ox to get moving, you’d whip the ox just like you would a horse or mule. However, the ox would sometimes get more stubborn, and kick at the back of the oxcart and damage it. So, you’d put up spikes, or goads, in the front of the cart. When the stubborn ox kicked the cart, they’d get pricked, and begin moving again. However—and, I think this is what Jesus was referring to when he made this reference to Saul—oxen would sometimes kick so hard that they’d hurt themselves, piercing their hoofs. I imagine if you have a really stubborn ox, they’d keep kicking as they got angrier, causing more harm to themselves.
Do any of you know what this feels like, perhaps those of you who struggle with anger or stubbornness? Something aggravates you, so you just keep getting more angry or stubborn to your own harm? Jesus said that Saul was the ox. Now, the only reason why he’d say this is if Jesus had been calling Saul to himself for some time, and Saul doubled down in his stubborn rebellion.
This is where some might refer to God’s “preparatory grace” that he works into people’s hearts before effectually calling them to himself. The puritans talked about this, and I think it’s right. Often, God works certain situations into a prideful person’s life that humble the person into knowing they need a savior. It’s how God often prepares us to receive him—he will often humble us through various means, and then he’ll give us the light of his grace and salvation. I saw this to be the case many times when I was working with folks in recovery—they had lost everything and been humbled to the dust as drugs and alcohol addiction stripped their lives from under them. God’s word and promises weren’t a very hard pill to swallow when you’re in that situation. Yet, I can distinctly remember one man who came through our program a number of times, relapsing into his addiction each time. Every time he came in, he called himself an atheist. He wasn’t into the “Jesus stuff” that our program offered. Each time, my coworkers and I kept gently encouraging him with discussions and questions. Everything was pointing him in the direction to trust Jesus, but he just wouldn’t do it. Finally, after coming back again to the program after his final relapse, he was so humbled that he turned to Jesus to find lasting peace and joy.
That was Saul—kicking against the goads to his own harm. What were the goads, or pricks, that he was kicking against? We can only guess how Jesus might have been troubling his conscience, making him paranoid. Perhaps it was Saul’s intimate knowledge of the Word and prophesies which pointed him to Jesus. Perhaps Saul couldn’t get Stephen’s martyrdom out of his mind—Stephen’s sermon and face that shone like an angel’s would have done it. Perhaps Saul was moved by Stephen’s final words about seeing Jesus, and asking the Lord to forgive his persecutors. Perhaps it was Jesus’s Spirit hounding Saul like a hound dog, calling him to repent. Either way, it seems that Saul’s conscience had been greatly troubled and paranoid by Jesus. Instead of humbling himself before Jesus, he kicked the goads to his own harm, and to the harm of Jesus’s church.
By the way, Saul’s paranoid conscience, and kicking the goads, is a reminder of how a troubled conscience can get agitated. Perhaps you’ve been in the situation where you know you’re wrong, but you just don’t want to face it. You don’t want to deal with the consequences and humiliation. So you suppress your conscience, along with the Spirit’s conviction. It drives you mad, you get agitated and quick tempered. Perhaps your spouse might ask, “is something bothering you?”, and you get offended at the question. The paranoia quickly gets coupled with zeal, and your life gets consumed with covering up sin through extraordinary measures. Learn from Saul’s mistake, here. It’s folly to kick against Jesus, who is offering forgiveness and freedom, and a clean conscience.
Jesus Broke Through Saul's Prominence, Persecution, and Paranoia
So, the “before Christ” Saul was a prominent man, a persecutor of the church, and a paranoid man. Jesus broke through all of that in a split second, and he used it all for his glory and kingdom. It’s a marvel that Jesus would use a prominent scholar like Saul to prove the claims of Jesus from Scriptures; or that he’d use a persecutor like Saul—with his hardened, paranoid conscience—to demonstrate his patience and power to save sinners. “I received mercy”, Paul says, “so that in me” Jesus might “display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe”. There’s Jesus’s wisdom and power, for you.
Saul, During his Conversion: “Who Are You, Lord?”
Now, let’s meet Saul on the Damascus road, during his conversion. Verse 3 says that “he approached Damascus” when Jesus appeared to him. So, he’s within eyeshot of the city after 7 days on the road. I love the timing. Jesus waits to the very end of Saul’s journey. I’ll explain why I think that’s significant in a moment—right now, let’s look at Saul’s actual conversion. Verse 3, as he’s approaching Damascus, “suddenly a light shone around him”. When Paul tells this story in chapter 26, he notes that this happened at noon, and the light was brighter than the sun (if you can even imagine that).
This manifestation of God’s light—or, Jesus’s light—happens at key points in the history of God’s salvation. When God called Moses, it was a burning bush—a much fainter light, although still terrifying to Moses. When God called Israel, the pillar of fire brought them into wilderness, where they saw the fire of God on mount Sinai. A bit more terrifying. Then, there was Moses’s shining face after he met with God on the mountain—we’re told his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil over his face when he returned to the camp of Israel. These Old Testament images of God’s radiating, terrifying glory remind us that God’s glory is something we might fear to behold. It’s an all-consuming fire. It’s so bright that even Moses’s shining face, which shone after Moses met with the Lord (as something like a bi-product of God’s immediate presence) was too bright to behold.
Jesus came in that glory, only the apostle John tells us “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. The apostle John said that because he had seen Jesus’s glory at the transfiguration when Jesus unveiled his glory and “his face shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2).
Here in our story, Saul sees the same thing—the very glory of God, unveiled, and it throws him to the ground. In Acts 26, Paul tells King Agrippa that he and all who were with him, were thrown to the ground. There’s no standing in Jesus’s immediate, unveiled glory. It’s terrifying, powerful, unmistakably of God, and humbling to every bone in your body.
Then, Jesus speaks. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. There’s a statement for you. Saul was persecuting the church, yet Jesus says “that’s me you’re persecuting!”. Don’t mess with Jesus’s bride. If you love Jesus, you’ll love the church. It’s that simple. If you hate, or persecute the church, then you hate, or persecute the church. If you say “the church isn’t for me”, then you’re saying “Jesus isn’t for me”. Is the church perfect, without sin? No, but Jesus is sanctifying her, guiding her, equipping her, even as he died for her. This is personal to Jesus.
I love Saul’s response. “Who are you, Lord?!” (verse 5). Who are you? Is there a better question to ask when the Lord presses his Spirit of conviction and truth upon you? I don’t care if you’re Saul, beholding Jesus’s unveiled glory, or if you’re any other believer whom Jesus is calling and convicting through his ordinary means of his word and his spirit. “Who are you, Lord?” is an excellent question. Saul knew it was the Lord Jesus, who just said “why are you persecuting me?"—you know, Jesus. Yet, Saul still asks the question. “Who are you?”, perhaps he means—"Are you my friend who will show mercy? Or, are you my enemy, to kill me dead on the spot for persecuting you?!”. Saul had no idea what to expect. He only knew he was persecuting the wrong guy, and he was humbled to the dust.
Jesus’s answer to the question, at least here in chapter 9, is quite simple. Verse 5—“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what to do”. Again, we know from chapter 26 that this is when Jesus himself gave Saul his apostolic commission to be his apostle to the gentiles. It’s hard to say for sure, but I suspect that those words aren’t included here in chapter 9 because we’re supposed to consider the power of Saul’s conversion before we consider his unique calling to the gentiles.
This is a powerful conversion—in just this one instant, Jesus broke through Saul’s prominence and prestige, his hateful persecution, and his paranoid conscience that was fiercely resisting Jesus. It’s the power of the gospel, ladies and gentlemen. Even though we won’t have a Damascus road experience like this, and see Jesus personally as Saul did, I imagine Paul had this experience on his mind when he described the glory of Christ in the believer. Paul reminds us that “God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Every time you receive, by faith, any truth concerning Christ, you can be certain that your faith is rooted in the Spirit’s work to shine the light of Christ’s glory into your soul with an undeniable conviction, clarity, peace, joy, and fear. By faith in the gospel, through the Spirit, we receive “the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ”. Paul had an experiential knowledge of this. It both knocked him to his butt, and humbled his soul in a second. By faith, we can have a certain spiritual knowledge of this, as it moves us to prayer and humility. It’s not just a matter of conversion, by the way. It’s the Christian’s pursuit, every day, to know and love Christ in all his glory, as he’s revealed to us through his Word and the Spirit. Never stop asking, “Who are you, Lord?”.
So, that’s Saul during his conversion. Christ broke through a prominent and prestigious man; a persecutor of his church, and a paranoid and hardened conscience. What happens to Saul after his encounter with Jesus?
Saul, After his Conversion
I said that I would circle back to the fact that Jesus appeared to Saul, when Saul was on the last leg of his week long journey to Demascus. I said that was a mercy. Why?
Well, Jesus could have made Saul spend three days on the road, all alone without any Christians to receive him, except for his travel companions. That would have been a strange three days. Instead, Jesus waited until Saul was right there, approaching Damascus. This is a mercy because it meant that Saul could be immediately welcomed into the arms of the church in Damascus. He wouldn’t have to “do penance” for three more days on the road, without any direction, or love, or help from the church. Christians are supposed to be received by the church when they’re converted. That’s the point of baptism. You can’t baptize yourself—not even Jesus could do that! I fear for the many people who claim to have a “Damascus road experience”, but never go to the church to be welcomed and loved by Christ’s people. It’s not natural. We’re saved into the church. One of my favorite parts in this story is when Ananias greets Saul “in the house of Judas” (verse 11). We don’t know who Judas is, and we really don’t know much about Ananias. At the very least, they’re both disciples of Jesus, receiving Saul in this crucial moment of the church. Ananias, obeying Jesus, finds Saul in Judas’s house and greets him, “brother Saul” (verse 17), and he lays his hands on him so that Saul might regain his sight and be filled with the Spirit, be baptized (verse 18), and be strengthened with food. So all this to say—Jesus appeared to Saul right at the end of his journey, and Saul was immediately brought into the church.
Now, verse 9 tells us that Saul was blind, and didn’t eat or drink for three days. I imagine he was in Judas’s house for three days in that condition. What was the point? Saul was fasting from everything—even as the Lord wouldn’t permit him to see anything. We close our eyes when we pray, don’t we? Sometimes we fast from food to help us pray. Jesus closed Saul’s eyes for him. “Behold, he is praying” in Judas’s house, is how Jesus described Saul to Ananias. What was he praying about? John Stott suggests that he was probably praying for forgiveness, for wisdom concerning his call to be an apostle. No doubt, I’m sure his prayers were filled with worship and thanksgiving—as the Lord had freed him from the law’s demand, from his hardened heart, and revealed to him the glory of Jesus. Personally, I imagine many of his prayers were the sort of humble prayers we pray when we’re trying to figure out a Bible passage. Saul understood the Scriptures as a Jewish scholar—he had to sift through all his knowledge and discern how Jesus of Nazareth might fulfill all of God’s promises.
Of course, that sort of concentrated prayer soon led Saul to boldly proclaim Jesus, with clear arguments from the Scriptures. If you ever need clarity when your reading your Bible, or boldness in your faith, Saul reminds us here that you must pray. Look at what happens after these three days of prayer, for Saul. Verse 19—“for some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying “He is the Son of God.” Then, verse 22 tells us, “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ”. How did he prove Jesus to the Christ? I can only imagine he was connecting the Old Testament promises to Jesus, as the Lord gave him clarity in those three days of prayer. The prestigious and prominent Saul had three days of prayer with his Lord, and he immediately began confounding the Jews with his arguments concerning Jesus, the Messiah.
So, brothers and sisters—the Lord’s wisdom and power are on full display before you this morning in this story of Saul’s conversion. Here, you can rest assured that Paul’s mission to the gentiles is indeed a work of Christ. Just as king David’s humble origins as a shepherd boy show us God’s wisdom and power through the meek and lowly, so Paul’s origins as a prominent Jew and persecutor of the church show us that God patiently humbles the proud for his purposes. As Paul himself said—God saved him, of all people, to “display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” God saved the worst of sinners (Saul) to save the worst of sinners (the gentiles). Thank God for his patience, wisdom, and powerful work of salvation—even as it comes to us this morning. Let’s pray.