The effect of true change

Sermon: Sunday, 17th March, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 9:10-31

Last Sunday morning we looked together at Saul’s conversion. We thought about the man Saul was; one obsessed with destroying the church and travelling far and wide like a roaming wild animal, preying on Christians. We focused too on the man Saul met, the risen Lord Jesus. Saul realises on the Damascus Road that, truth be told, the Christians were right all along and that Jesus is the Messiah. Through his encounter with Jesus, Saul becomes a Christian. Although our stories of conversion are all different, we all share this element with Saul; we must all encounter the risen Jesus, usually through the Bible being read or preached. And we began to look at the man Saul became. Becoming a Christian radically changes us.

‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

I’d like us to continue to consider ‘the man Saul became’ this morning, as we only began to scratch the surface last time. And I’d also like us to consider the commission Saul receives from the Lord, and the ways in which we share something of this commission today.

1. Signs of true change

It’s good for us to return to the basics of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In a nutshell, it means receiving Jesus as both the Saviour of our sins, and also the Lord of every area of our lives. Often, people like the first part; Jesus died for my sins and everything is now ok, but then they refuse to accept Jesus’ rule over them. This is not true Christianity. Jesus must be both our Saviour and Lord. We see this immediately with Saul. Jesus instructs Saul (verse 6) to go into the city of Damascus, and Saul does just that. Saul has a new master. He’s now willing to go where Jesus will send him, and to do whatever Jesus commands. That ought to be true of each one of us. Is this true of you? Is Jesus and his will, as revealed in the Bible, the one who governs the way you use your time and money? Does Jesus govern your relationships and your service in the church? We must never keep an area of our lives separate from our faith and think that we can live any way we want there.

Saul’s conversion to the faith is so shocking that it took some time for Christians to trust him. After all, in human terms, he’d been the church’s greatest threat. Surely, many Christians must have wondered if Saul was a spy, faking his conversion in order to infiltrate the church and cause even more damage. How could they be convinced that this change was the real deal? Was this an authentic conversion? In his kindness, the Lord raises up men like Ananias and Barnabas to encourage Saul, welcome him into the church, and to encourage other believers to do the same.

I love how specific Ananias’ vision from the Lord is. He is told to go to Straight Street, which incidentally, can still be found in Damascus today. Understandably, Ananias himself is reluctant to meet with Saul at first, but the Lord graciously assures Ananias that Saul is the Lord’s instrument. Three things happen when Ananias arrives in Judas’ house on Straight Street. Firstly, Saul’s sight is restored, with something like scales falling from his eyes. This movement from blindness to sight is a sign of the spiritual change which has taken place in Saul. Before, Saul was blind to his own sin, being a self-righteous Pharisee. And he was blind to the identity of Jesus, believing him to be to be an ordinary man who had deceived his fellow Jews. However, now Saul can see, spiritually speaking. He is able to see spiritual realities. He sees his own lack of righteousness and he sees how wicked he had been in his persecution of the church, the body of Christ. He also sees Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God and the long-expected Messiah.

Secondly, Saul receives the filling of the Holy Spirit, which was another sign of the inward change which had taken place. This empowering of the Spirit would enable Saul to fulfil his duties as an apostle to the Gentiles. Without God equipping him, this would have been impossible.

Thirdly, Saul is baptised, as a public sign and seal that he now belonged to Christ. The encounter between Ananias and Saul is a moving one. Ananias knows many Christian widows and orphans whose lives have been devastated directly by the actions of Saul. And yet, in a spirit of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation, Ananias is able to call this man his brother in Christ. This is the power of the gospel.

2. A pattern for Paul’s life and for ours

When the Lord speaks to Ananias in a vision, he identifies two key strands which will follow Saul all the days of his life: proclamation and suffering. ‘But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ (Acts 9:15-16)

Paul is commissioned by the Lord to proclaim the name of Jesus to the Gentiles; Gentiles are all those who are not Jews, so most people in the world are Gentiles. We have to notice just how surprising God’s chosen instrument for this task is; the man who hated the name of Jesus with a passion, will now become its greatest ambassador. Saul, best known as Paul, will now devote his life to preaching and teaching all about Jesus Christ. He will never tire of telling people who Jesus is and what he has done. He will tell Gentiles and kings and Jews about Jesus, no matter what the cost.

And the cost will be very great indeed. Some of these sufferings are summarised as follows: ‘Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 11:24-30)

“…faithful witness to Jesus is a costly task in terms of the suffering that it may cause for the bearer of the good news’. Of course, we have not been called and commissioned in the way that Saul was. However, these two strands- proclamation and suffering- are not unique to Paul. In fact, again and again, the Bible teaches that all followers of Jesus have been called to be his witnesses, his ambassadors, and that all of us can expect some degree of suffering a result.” (Howard Marshall)

“Once we come to Jesus, we become his ambassadors and have the responsibility and high privilege of representing him on earth and communicating his message to the world.” (Ajith Fernando)

Fernando is quite right. ‘Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:20)

As we look around this room in our church, we can see many surprising instruments of God. In spite of our weakness, God has chosen us to be his witnesses. This ought to be seen as a high privilege. Evangelism is not something we are meant to be guilt-tripped into. So why is it that sometimes we don’t see evangelism as a high privilege but a burden we try to forget about?

I’m happy promoting different products and places. I love memory foam mattresses and tell people with bad backs how much it has helped me. I don’t get any commission, but it doesn’t cost me anything. I’ll tell people about how beautiful Fife coastal path is, and encourage them to put on their walking boots and go exploring. It doesn’t cost me anything. I’ll share places I’ve been on holiday to and say, ‘You should go, you’ll love it!’ You all know what it means to recommend things to others. The question is, why don’t we recommend Jesus more than we do? Part of this must be we are scared of what it might cost us. People might treat us differently. We might even be excluded from a friendship group.

Let’s go back to 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and read more: ‘Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ 2 Corinthians 5:20-21) Perhaps if we understood Jesus’ love for us and willingness to be made sin and to suffer for us, then we’d see it as a privilege to suffer in a small way for him.

‘I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings…’ (Philippians 3:10)

The Underwoods are hoping to be with us and share in this task of evangelism. It will be costly to them, both in terms of leaving their culture and resistance they will face here in Fife as they seek to live out and share the gospel. We cannot and must not leave the task to them. As followers of Jesus, we should all be able to say, as we reflect on our own new identities in Christ, ‘I am an ambassador for Jesus and I fully expect to suffer for him’. Can you say that?

Paul is a prototype here for our lives. And Jesus is the ultimate prototype for us. The righteous will suffer this side of eternity. ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…’ (2 Timothy 3:12) Do you remember the small flyers we gave out last year – ‘5 minutes for 5 people’. We encouraged you to pray for a friend, family member, work colleague, and so on. This has to be an ongoing thing. Let’s take our identities as ambassadors more seriously. Let’s take witnessing for Jesus more seriously. How, then, can we be better witnesses?

3. Paul’s witnessing and ours

If you want to be a better witness then learn from Paul. There are some key features which stand out to us in this chapter, and these are things we can copy.

As we witness for Jesus, we must be Christ-centred. We read in verse 20: ‘At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.’ Paul wasn’t focusing on his amazing spiritual experience on the Damascus Road, but on the person and work of Jesus, and we must do the same.

“To witness is to speak of Christ. Our own experience may illustrate, but must not dominate our testimony.” (John Stott)

Verse 22: ‘Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.’ This word ‘proving’ means that Paul opens up many Old Testament Bible passages and shows how they all point to Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God. If we want to be good witnesses then we need to have minds and hearts dominated by what Jesus has done for us, and focus on this as we share with others. Are you delighted by Jesus?

As we witness, like Paul we need to depend on the Spirit’s power. When we read in verse 22: ‘Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.’ we know that this power was from the Holy Spirit. Keep praying for the Holy Spirit’s help and strength before, during and after speaking to people about Jesus. This is basic and crucial.

As witnesses, like Paul we need courage. In verse 27, Barnabas tells the apostles: ‘… how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.’ Paul also shows great courage speaking of the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem, to the same group in which he had once played such a prominent role. Let’s pray for such courage in our own church. Pray that the Lord would give us courage in our families, and amongst friends, as well as work colleagues.

Yes, witnessing will be costly; Paul ends up fleeing from both Damascus and Jerusalem, and so we need God-given boldness.