Sermon: Paul’s Encounter With Christ (Acts 9)

From a Ravenous Wolf to a Loving Shepherd

Paul’s Encounter with Christ

Acts 9:1-22

Acts 9:1-22 (ESV) 

    But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  [2] and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  [3] Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  [4] And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  [5] And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  [6] But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  [7] The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.  [8] Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  [9] And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

    [10] Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”  [11] And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,  [12] and 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.”  [13] But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  [14] And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”  [15] But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  [16] For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  [17] So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  [18] And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;  [19] and taking food, he was strengthened.

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.  [20] And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”  [21] And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?”  [22] But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

1. The Condition of Paul’s Heart (9:1-2)

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  [2] and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 

Luke gives us a brief history of Paul’s attitude toward those of the Way.  He shows just how much Paul wanted to stamp out Christianity.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord

He is filled with violence against them. Yet we know from Ephesians 1:4 that God had chosen Paul to be one of His own before the foundation of the world. The time for Paul’s conversion had come.

John Calvin compares Paul to a mad wolf searching violently for prey.  At just the perfect time Christ overpowers Paul and brings him to the ground.

((We see how well He knows the exact moments and opportune times for doing any particular thing. He could have encountered him earlier, if He had seen fit, in order to release the godly from fear and anxiety; but He gives a clearer demonstration of His mediation in closing the gaping mouth of the wolf only at the very entrance to the sheepfold.-Calvin))

Paul was merciless in his pursuit of Christians.  It didn’t matter to Paul he wanted them all wiped out.  Luke stresses men or women.  Even enemies in war show mercy to women and children but not Paul.  He wanted them all dead. 

Later Paul would speak of this in his letters:

1 Cor. 15:9 (ESV) 

    For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 

Galatians 1:13 (ESV) 

   [13] For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 

1 Tim. 1:13 (ESV) 

    [13] though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 

Acts 8:1 (ESV) 

    And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 

Many scholars believe this persecution began by Paul himself.  He was responsible for the vicious persecution that broke out in Jerusalem. 

Trying to stomp out Christianity is like trying to smash Jell-o with a sledge hammer.  The harder you hit it the farther it sprays out.  Paul smashed the disciples as hard as he could.  Many found their way 150 miles to the north of Jerusalem in the great city of Damascus. 

Paul still wasn’t satisfied.  He goes to the chief priest and gets permission through signed documents to go and bring them back bound in chains to be executed.

But something happened on the way to Damascus that Paul did not intend to happen.  Paul met the Lord Jesus Christ, the very One he was persecuting.

2. The Sovereignty of Paul’s Conversion (9:3-9)

[3] Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  [4] And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  [5] And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus,  whom you are persecuting.  [6] But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Here we see Paul’s conversion.  There are some very important things I want us to notice in this account of Paul conversion.

A. Paul’s Conversion was Sudden.

[3] Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 

As we share our faith, we should not be frustrated or despair because we are not seeing any signs of the Spirit of God working in individuals that we have been praying for.  Because of Paul’s conversion we can have confidence that the Lord saves, at times, very suddenly.  When we share our faith with others we mustn’t have any preconceived ideas about whether or not the Lord is working.  We must be faithful in sharing and leave the results to the Lord.

We must not think that our conversion is any less a work of Christ than Paul’s. Just because we didn’t see a bright light that knocked us to the ground doesn’t mean our conversions are any less spectacular. 

B. Paul’s Conversion was Unexpected

[10] Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”  [11] And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,  [12] and 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.”  [13] But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  [14] And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 

What is Christ telling us in Paul’s conversion?  He is saying that our Lord can save anyone He chooses.  When the Lord saves the chief of sinners, which Paul calls himself, He can save anybody.

That gives us hope when we evangelize.  We can share our faith with everyone and do it with anticipation of Christ actually converting souls because if Christ can save Paul…He can save anybody.

We also see another side of the story.

I can relate to Ananias and his reluctance.  The news of Saul of Tarsus had spread from Jerusalem.  This mad wolf, as Calvin portrays him, is coming up the road to destroy all who call on the name of Christ.  Ananias knows what Paul’s intentions are. 

Jesus, why not send an angel?  Why not speak to him again Yourself?  Why not send an apostle?  Why do you want me to go?  Have you ever asked that question when the Lord wanted you to go speak with someone?  Have you ever been a reluctant witness? 

What’s your response when you’re prompted to go and tell someone the good news?  Do you say no or do you go?  Have you gone lately? If you haven’t gone, why haven’t you?

Ananias had a good reason not to go- Saul of Tarsus would try to have him executed.

Ananias had a better reason to go- God commanded it.

He feared God rather than man. I pray we would all fear God rather than man.  The last time I checked no one is under the threat of being murdered because they shared the Gospel with their neighbor.

C. Paul’s Conversion was Planned

[15] But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  [16] For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Referring to this account John Stott writes,

((What stands out is God’s sovereign grace. He decided to save Saul of Tarsus and He saved him. Saul’s conversion is an example of what Paul wrote in Romans 9:18. Paul had surveyed the cases of Jacob and Esau and Pharaoh. One of his conclusions is found in verse 18. “Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy…-Stott))

John Stott has it right.  What stands out in this passage is the sovereign grace of Christ. 

Conversion is a total work of God.  God did not ask for Paul’s permission to save him.  He didn’t invite him to walk an aisle or raise his hand. In God’s good pleasure and for His glory, God overwhelmed Saul of Tarsus with His blinding glory and Saul was converted exactly the way God planned.

Jesus had chosen Paul long before Paul chose Jesus. 

Galatians 1:15 (ESV) 

    But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 

Saul of Tarsus did not resist God’s eternal decree and the grace God extended to him through His mercy to save him.

Some Christians don’t like the term ‘irresistible grace’ because it seems to imply that people do not make a voluntary, willing choice in responding to the gospel. It’s true that God does not save a person against their will. But the fact is that God changes a person’s will. He transforms them completely. Part of this transformation involves their will. God summarizes this process in Ezekiel 36:26f. He said,

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

At high noon on the road to Damascus Christ switched hearts on Paul.  He switched them and Paul’s will was changed.  Christ switched hearts so quick Paul didn’t even know what hit him.  He was given everything needed to be converted, he was given a new heart; he was given faith to believe. 

How do I know Paul was given faith?

Paul knew all about how conversion works.  In his letter to his brothers and sisters at Ephesus he writes:

Ephes. 2:1-10 (ESV) 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- [3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- [6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Christ had prepared many things for Paul to do. 

As Paul approached the city of Damascus he was planning to wipe out the name of Christ.  He was on a mission to do away with all those Christians who carried the name of Christ.  Our Lord had a different mission for Paul.  Guess which mission Paul was faithful in accomplishing?

D. Paul’s Conversion had a Purpose

[15] But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.

Paul’s mission would be the exact opposite of what he intended.  Christ had prepared beforehand that Saul the persecutor of the church would be transformed into her greatest missionary.

In a message that John Piper gave on this passage he closed his sermon with this truth.  He made the statement that the purpose God had in Paul’s conversion is expressed by Paul himself.  It is for us that Saul of Tarsus was converted. I want you to take this very personally as we close. God had you in view when he chose Paul and saved him by sovereign grace.

1 Tim. 1:15-16 (ESV) 

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that 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. 

If you believe on Jesus for eternal life–or if you may yet believe on him for eternal life–Paul’s conversion is for your sake. It is to make Christ’s immense “longsuffering” vivid for you. Paul’s pre-conversion life was a long, long trial to Jesus. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asked. “Your life of unbelief and rebellion is a persecution of ME!” Paul had been set apart for God since before he was born. So all his life was one long abuse of God, and one long rejection and mockery of Jesus who loved him.

That is why Paul says his conversion is a brilliant demonstration of Jesus’ longsuffering. And that is what he offers you today. It was for our sake that Jesus did it the way he did it. To show us “the whole of his longsuffering” to us. Lest we lose heart. Lest we think he could not really save us. Lest we think he is prone to anger. Lest we think we have gone too far away. Lest we think our dearest one cannot be converted–suddenly, unexpectedly, by the sovereign, overflowing grace of Jesus.-Piper

What about us?  What about you?  Is there someone in your family, in your circle of friends that you think could never be converted?  What effect would it have if they were?  Would your family be different?

The conversion of Paul had a rippling effect that is still being felt.  Gentiles came claim Christ because God worked mightily through Paul.

Paul’s encounter with Christ radically changed him.  He went from a mad wolf persecuting the church to a faithful shepherd protecting the church from wolfs in sheep’s clothing.  He went from an attacker to a protector because Christ overpowered him with His grace.

Philip. 3:4-11 (ESV) 

    though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:  [5] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  [6] as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.  [7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  [8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 

    [9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- [10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  [11] that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

 

 

 

 

 

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