We’re going to pick up where we left off last week. Stephen, the first martyr in the church, was stoned to death for his faith. And Saul approved of the killing.
This kicked off a wave of persecution against the church, and Saul was a big part of it.
Now, we know that ultimately Saul, better known as the Apostle Paul, became a hugely influential part of the early Church, he wrote parts of the New Testament…
Today we’re going to look at what happened to change the path he was on.
One little note. Paul didn’t actually change his name. Saul was his name in Jewish circles, but Paul was what he was called in Greek. Since he spent a lot of time in the Gentile church, he went by Paul there.
But for today’s message, I’m going to use his Jewish name, Saul. Because I want us to remember where his journey started: with Stephen’s blood on his hands.
So let’s dive in and see what happens to Saul the Pharisee.
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.
And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!
Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.
So, Saul the Pharisee is on a mission. He wants to stamp out this dangerous new movement.
Verse 1 literally says he was “breathing out threats and slaughter.”
Why is he so worked up? Why does he hate Christians so much?
Well, the answer comes down to one word: Zeal: passionate devotion to a cause.
Saul was a zealous man. He was zealous for God and for righteousness. In fact, this is the defining feature of Pharisees - they are single-mindedly devoted to the cause of Yahweh.
Their guiding verse was,
Psalm 69:9 (NRSV)
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.
Saul understood that in this broken world, the only way for things to get back on track was for God’s righteousness - for his law - to be established on the earth.
For sin to be abolished and for all idolatry and evil to be crushed by the power of God.
And so here comes this movement of Jewish people who claim that God’s Messiah was executed by the pagan Romans. That this peasant from Galilee was actually God in the flesh. That Yahweh’s power and Spirit was in his followers – even sinners!
It was blasphemy, right? It was evil. And it needed to be stamped out. Only a zealous man would have the will to do it. Saul would be that man.
And yet in this moment on the road to Damascus, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and shatters his worldview. “I am the one you are persecuting.”
I find it interesting that Saul is blinded here by the glory of Christ.
It reminds me of what Jesus said to the Pharisees in the gospel of John:
I entered this world to render judgment – to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind.
Symbolically it’s like Jesus is saying, “look, you’ve got all this passion, Saul – all this zeal - but you can’t see what’s really going on.”
Yes. Sin needed to be abolished. Evil needed to be crushed. But it wasn’t going to happen through violence or war. It would happen through the self-sacrifice of God himself.
Saul was blind to that truth. And for a few days he was literally blind.
Let’s read what happens next.
Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord!” he replied.
The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now. I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.”
“But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.”
But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength.
Think about how momentous this moment is. Saul, just days before breathing out “threats and slaughter” against the Church, is baptized in Jesus’ name. Declaring to all the world that he has surrendered his life to Christ.
What I find interesting is that Saul’s conversion and his call to ministry - to purpose - go hand in hand. Verse 15. “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles…”
What’s cool about this is that God is not just stopping a dangerously zealous Pharisee in his tracks. He’s repurposing that zeal for the Church.
Saul didn’t stop being passionate for God’s purposes the moment he believed in Jesus. No, his passion was redirected!
From this point on Saul fought for the truth of Christ. He suffered in Jesus’ name to make sure the gospel message took root. He was relentless in planting churches no matter what opposition he faced.
It’s thanks to Saul’s passion - his zeal - that you and I are a part of this movement today!
The zealous pharisee became zealous for Christ.
I mean, look what he does next!
Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days.
And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!”
All who heard him were amazed. “Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem?” they asked. “And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?”
Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. After a while some of the Jews plotted together to kill him. They were watching for him day and night at the city gate so they could murder him, but Saul was told about their plot. So during the night, some of the other believers lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the city wall.
Saul encounters Jesus, and within days he is preaching and proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
Wouldn’t he need some training for this? Or to spend some time learning from the disciples?
No! And here’s why. Because in his zeal, Saul understood the Hebrew Scriptures. He had memorized the promises of God. He knew the Psalms. He remembered the prophets.
He understood the storyline of God’s redemption of the world.
Recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah was just the final puzzle piece for Saul which locked everything together. Creation, the exodus, the law, the prophets, the exile… it all came together in Christ.
In a way, you could say that this wasn’t even a conversion for Saul at all; it was an awakening.
And now, with the Holy Spirit empowering him, Saul’s message of the self-sacrificial son of God was unstoppable, even though it baffled everyone around him to see him as the one preaching it.
The zealous pharisee had become zealous for Christ.
Before long, Saul finds himself on the other side of the persecution he was once a part of. Just like with Jesus, the broken world pushes back. And people want to kill him.
But what are death threats to someone who has finally come alive? What’s the fear of violence to someone zealous for the love of God?
Saul had experienced the grace of God. He was called into a greater purpose. And his life would never be the same.
So that’s the story of Saul’s conversion (or his awakening). It’s a momentous scene in the book of Acts.
In fact, up to this point Luke’s story followed Peter and the other disciples but starting in chapter 13 the story begins to follow Saul as he brings the gospel to the Gentiles (that’s also when Luke starts referring to him as Paul).
His transformation is a powerful story.
But now I want to reflect on what this story tells us not just about history, but about the character of God. About us.
I’ve got two big takeaways I want us to think about. One is a challenge and the other is an encouragement.
The first takeaway has to do with Saul’s mentality before he was saved.
Saul was zealous. He was passionate in what he believed. He wasn’t fighting against God. He thought he was fighting for him.
Saul thought he was squarely within God’s heart for the world. So much so he was hurting other people thinking it was justified.
Of course, as he later understood, he was really working against God’s purposes. Standing in his way.
The reason I bring this up is because it is very, very easy for us to think that everything we believe must be correct. And everyone who disagrees with us must be our enemy.
It’s human nature, but it’s also the world we live in.
We’ve got social media and search engines and 24-hour news channels which suck us into an echo chamber - amplifying our own perspective and demonizing all the others.
We are all susceptible to this. Outrage sells. Nuance doesn’t.
We are being turned into zealots by forces beyond our control. Every day that goes by we are more convinced of the righteousness of our cause.
And just like Saul some of us are hurting others in our life and we think it’s justified.
This is a problem because we are meant to be people of grace. Quick to forgive. God calls us to live out the self-giving love of Jesus. Open-palmed towards our neighbor.
And we can’t be that if our fists are clenched all the time.
I’m asking us, like Saul, to hold our beliefs with humility. To not just assume that everything we believe is automatically in line with God’s heart. To be aware that we may be blind to God’s truth in one way or another.
I mean, listen to how Saul reflected on this later in his life.
I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done.
Are any of our beliefs worthless? Do we have the humility to even ask?
Now, look. I’m not talking about belief in Jesus. No. “Jesus Christ is Lord” - that’s the foundation of everything.
But culture war issues? Political ideologies? Morality?
Are you basing your belief system on the God-breathed words of Scripture? Or are you believing things because of how often they pop up on your phone?
Have you wrestled your convictions to the ground? Or are you just angry because someone else told you to be angry?
I’m asking you to hold your beliefs with humility.
Look. Grow in your faith. Deepen your knowledge. Ask the hard questions. Be passionate about your faith! Be zealous for Christ like Saul! But do it with open palms.
Because if you are not growing in your love for others right now - if you’re not growing in mercy and grace for those who don’t deserve it - if your life doesn’t look more like Jesus than it did 5 years ago, you may very well be missing the heart of God for this world.
This week, will you pray for God’s Spirit to reveal where your fists are clenched and where, perhaps, you are in need of an awakening of your own?
It may not happen in a flash of light, but it could very well change the path you are on.
So that’s the challenge. The second takeaway is more of an encouragement. It goes along with what I said last week looking at the stoning of Stephen.
Luke tells us Saul agreed completely with his killing. Stephen’s blood was on his hands.
This is man who didn’t just not believe in Jesus. He actively hunted down Christians to throw them in jail. He was breathing out “threats and slaughter.”
In the story Saul is a bad guy. He’s a villain.
And yet this is the man God called to be his “apostle to the Gentiles.” This is the man the Spirit inspired to write so much of the New Testament. This is the man Jesus wanted to follow him through suffering and even death.
My takeaway from all of this is that God’s grace goes way beyond just forgiving broken people. He doesn’t just say to us, “well, I won’t count your sins against you.”
No! He also calls us to a greater purpose no matter what we’ve done. He partners with us in his mission to heal the world despite our sins. Sometimes he even shapes our past brokenness into an instrument for his purpose.
Saul’s zeal which led him to persecute Christians God turned around into zeal for Christ. And it was that passion which led Saul to persevere for Jesus way beyond the limits of normal people. Torture, prison, shipwrecks…
The grace of God includes forgiveness, but it also includes purpose.
Here’s what I want you to understand.
I know some of you wrestle with your past mistakes. Or you feel shame because of who you are or what you struggle with.
For some of you, the voice in your head is relentless. “I’m worthless. I’m garbage. I’m a loser.”
I want you to understand that when God looks at you, he doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and say, “eh, fine… I guess I’ll let them in.”
No! He looks at you with delight. And he is eager to work side by side with you. To give you purpose. To refashion the broken parts of your heart into a calling that will heal this world.
The grace of God includes forgiveness but it also includes purpose.
Do you believe that? Because the story of Saul’s awakening is proof that it’s true.
Again, listen to how Saul reflects back many years later on this grace he received.
1 Timothy 1:12-14
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus.
Friends will you let God fill you with faith and love? Will you let him silence that voice of shame in your head?
God’s grace is more than enough for you.
God doesn’t just forgive you. He loves you. And he wants you to join him in his mission.
So that’s the second takeaway. If you struggle with your own value in God’s eyes, I hope you will take some time this week to think about Saul.
To ask yourself if you really believe that God not only loves you enough to save you from your sin, but to call you into your destiny - the very reason you were born.
God’s grace is more than enough for you.
Just like Saul by surrendering our lives to Jesus, we can finally overcome our shame, we can learn how to hold our convictions with humility, we can turn from our sin, and become the people God created us to be.