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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Acts part 16: The conversion of a radicalised young man.

Building the right foundation part 16

Acts 9:1-23 

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were travelling with him stood speechless,hearing the voice but seeing no one. 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. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
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.” 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, 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.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 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. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 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.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptised; and taking food, he was strengthened.
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.” 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?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

English Standard Version Anglicised
The passage that we have before us today is truly remarkable in every way. We have this man Saul of Tarsus whom we have already encountered on a couple of occasions. Saul was a young man who at the time was probably in his early thirties. He was born in Tarsus at around or just after the birth of Jesus. There is no evidence found in scripture that he had ever met or heard Jesus speak but it would seem highly probable that he would have done. Saul was the up and coming Pharisee who by his own testimony was zealous for the law and a top notch Pharisee of Pharisees. He was clearly a proud and arrogant young man who was fast heading for the top. He had trained under the best authority of the day and was obviously very intelligent and a top scholar of his religion. He was also vital to the leaders of Judaism and had been entrusted with cleansing society of those who followed what he described as the Way. He hated the church and the disciples of Jesus and was commissioned to do all in his power to rid the world of the curse that is the church. Humanly speaking there can be no hope for such a man as this!


Thankfully we do not live in the hopes and aspirations of man. God has a plan and purpose in this world and He chooses to use people from all sorts of backgrounds for gospel purposes. God chose to use Saul of Tarsus as an Apostle who would eventually write a large proportion of the New Covenant scripture and who would also take the gospel to the surrounding area and in particular to the Gentile nations. Before that could happen an amazing transformation had to take place.

An amazing transformation:
Paul's own testimony is more powerful and indeed more accurate than my interpretation will ever be. Therefore come with me to Paul's defence in Jerusalem as accounted by Luke in Acts 22:3-5
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, 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. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed towards Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Look also to Paul's own defence before Agrippa as recorded in Acts 26:9-12
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.”
It is obvious from Paul's own words that he had no desire to be a follower of Jesus, in fact he says of himself that he was “ignorant and unbelieving.” (1 Timothy 1:13) Saul of Tarsus could not have been further from the faith but yet he was stopped in his tracks on that day as he travelled to Damascus. He was rabid for his religion and hated the very name of Jesus and the church, today we might say of him that he had become “radicalised!” As such an extremely religious man he could easily justify the torture and killing of Christians.
We have from his own lips a description of his own total depravity.
It seems that he loved his work and we know from the accounts that we have in scripture that he was good at it, his reputation had gone before him. Ananias when called by God to visit the newly converted Saul gave testimony to the reputation of Saul in verses 13-14.
There is also another side to what we hear from man's testimony; the Lord Jesus Christ also has an opinion. From heaven He had been observing all that was happening to the church by Saul; this passage gives us some insight as to how Jesus is affected by the persecution of His people. When He called from heaven to Saul He did not ask why he was persecuting the church but “why are you persecuting me?” Saul's attack may have been directed at the people of God but it was Jesus that was the offended One. The reason for that is that the Church is God's people, we are one with Him, when we are attacked He feels it even more than we do. It is He that is mortally wounded by the attacks that we are under as Christians therefore Jesus was offended by what Saul was doing.
By His mercy and grace the Lord Jesus Christ reached out to this unregenerate evil man and saved Him. Saul did not ask for it, he did not reach out to Jesus but Jesus reached out to Him and saved him and an amazing transformation took place.
Many Christians believe that Saul's conversion is the model for all conversions. In some ways they are right, Saul heard the word of Jesus, believed and repented and was saved. That is always the pattern of salvation but:
the mode that Jesus used to bring Saul to Himself was entirely unique to Saul of Tarsus.
He was suddenly sanctified on the road to Damascus. Does it then follow that we are all to have a Damascus Road type of experience? In one way the answer is yes in that we need our blind eyes to be opened to the truth of the gospel
the way that the Lord does that for each person is completely individual. In fact it similar to a snowflake which is totally unique in shape, size and pattern; there is not another amongst the many billions that are like it. Likewise before God we are all totally individual and so He treats us just as unique individuals. Some He brings to Himself in moments others it is a long road that leads to saving faith over a long period of time. The one thing that is certain is that He saves all that call on His name in repentance just as did Saul of Tarsus on that day. The call to salvation is twofold as is a British coin. On the one side is the sovereign's head and the other is the value and the emblem of the country. Both are together making the coin complete.
In conversion Jesus calls out to sinners and then sinners in turn call out to Him and conversion is complete!
The important question for you this morning is:
Have you called on the name of the Lord and been saved?”
If you have not then you remain under the judgement of God and if you were to pass from this life in that state then no amount of church attendance will be good enough to give you access to heaven. There is no name other than Jesus given under heaven by which you must be saved, why not trust Him today and then experience the same amazing transformation that Saul of Tarsus did. Paul was immediately transformed from radicalised terrorist to an apostle of Jesus Christ.
For Saul it was to be an amazing transformation and for those travelling with him it would be:
An amazing experience:
Just imagine being one of those travelling with Saul on that day. They would have been a happy band of brothers travelling with one purpose in mind. They were like the pack of hounds with the fox in sight. They could smell blood and were pursuing those wretched Christians wherever they could find them. But an extraordinarily bright light shone from heaven which caused Saul to fall prostrate to the ground and to speak to somebody that was unseen.
They did not know it but they were in the presence of the risen and ascended Lord of Glory.
Jesus was showing Himself to Saul; in 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul explains that Jesus appeared to Him even though he was unworthy and was persecuting the church.
The most amazing thing was happening in Saul but his friends knew nothing of it. In fact they saw the bright light:
The Light of the world was right next to them and they did not see Him!
They heard Him and were themselves struck dumb but they still did not call out to Him. Saul was led away by them, he was now blinded by the light and they were unmoved.
How amazing is that?
A miracle of grace was taking place and the onlookers were amazed but untouched by it, they simply carried on with life as before. They took Saul to Damascus but he was now of no use to them, a blind and converted terrorist is not what they needed!
Unbeknown to them Saul was now a new creation, he was done with the old way of life and now he was part of those whom he had come to destroy.
I am so glad that Luke recorded these facts because it shows clearly that people are not absorbed into the life of faith by the experience of others. We might think that this event would have been conclusive evidence to Saul's companions. After all many would say that if Jesus were to visit earth then they would believe, they never did on this occasion. They never did as Jesus lived on earth for 33 years and they never will until the day when He appears finally in glory and judgement and when he will take the church to be with Him in glory by which time it will be too late for them.
Saul's companions that last day will be saying to Jesus “did I not see You when you visited Sail on the road to Damascus?” Jesus will say “ But I never knew you!” Others will say “Did I not do this that or the other for you?” and He will once again answer “but I never knew you!” Still others will be saying “but I lived a good life, I was religious, I even attended church every week!” and Jesus will say “but I never knew you!!!”
Please do not be one of those!
If you are trusting in anything or anybody other than Jesus for your eternal security please stop and come to Him alone who alone can forgive all of your sins and transform your life just as He did Saul of Tarsus.
Jesus is:
An amazing Saviour:
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus when instructing husbands to love their wives told them that they must love their wives in the same way that Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)
Saul on his way to Damascus learned something of Christ's amazing love, grace and mercy.
It was Jesus that arrested him on his way, it was Jesus who called out to him from heaven. It was Jesus who knew his name and called him in exactly the same way as he had Samuel of old. Just as in 1 Samuel 3:10 the Lord called “Samuel, Samuel” in calling him into service so it was with Saul. There are eight incidences recorded in scripture where God calls them by name twice.
  1. Abraham when God calls out to him as he is about to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:11-13, Abraham had proven that he was willing to obey God in whatever way that God called.
  2. Jacob when he had just discovered that his son Joseph wasn’t dead but in fact he was second in command in the Egyptian empire. Jacob was old and wanted to see Joseph before he died. On his way to Egypt in a vision God called to him naming him twice and telling him not to be afraid. (Gen 46:1-4)
  3. Moses after he had killed an Egyptian and fled from Pharaoh’s punishment. He was living as a shepherd when he saw the burning bush from which God called: “Moses, Moses” God proceeded to commission Moses to bring the Israelites out f slavery. (Exodus 3:1-10)
  4. Samuels as above.
  5. Martha Jesus visited his friends Martha and Mary, who both had opposite response to the Lord. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Martha busied herself preparing food etc and had got herself upset because her sister was not helping she therefore appealed to Jesus to tell her off but He simply said “Martha, Martha she has chosen a better way.” The Lord was calling her to faithfulness to Him and not servitude. (Luke 10:38-42)
  6. Jesus at the last supper spoke to arrogant Peter who was waxing lyrical about how great he was by calling: “Simon, Simon” and proceeds to tell him that he will deny Him but that later he will be restored and we know that after Jesus had risen from the dead He returned to the subject and commissioned Peter to testify of Jesus and also to die for Him. (Luke 22:31-32 & John 21:15-19)
  7. Saul as we are considering.
  8. Finally it is Jesus calling out to God Himself from the cross when in fulfilment of all that Psalm 22 prophesies He cries “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.”
Apart from the last one each time that a person is called twice it is to call them into a clear and active service for God. It is amazing that our God knows His people by name and that He calls them personally into a working relationship with Him. The last occasion where Jesus calls out to God the Father demonstrates His own total reliance and dependence upon God and His plan of salvation. Jesus was willing even at the extremity of pain and suffering to submit to His Father's calling upon Him.
Jesus is the most amazing Saviour that calls the radicalised terrorist Saul to be adopted into His family and to save him from his sins even though he was totally dead in his iniquity and sin. This same Jesus is our Lord who has also called us by name to be His children.
Do we stand amazed in His presence and do we follow and serve Him fully as our Lord and Master just as He did His heavenly Father?
I stand amazed in the presence
of Jesus the Nazarene,
and wonder how he could love me,
a sinner, condemned, unclean.

For me it was in the garden
he prayed: "Not my will, but thine."
He had no tears for his own griefs,
but sweat-drops of blood for mine.

In pity angels beheld him,
and came from the world of light
to comfort him in the sorrows
he bore for my soul that night.

He took my sins and my sorrows,
he made them his very own;
he bore the burden to Calvary,
and suffered and died alone.

When with the ransomed in glory
his face I at last shall see,
'twill be my joy through the ages
to sing of his love for me.

How marvellous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvellous! How wonderful
is my Saviour’s love for me!

Charles H. Gabriel

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