An unlikely candidate

Sermon: Sunday, 10th March, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 9:1-19

1. The man Saul was

If ever there was an unlikely candidate to become a Christian it was Saul. He was the arch enemy of the church. We first hear about Saul in Acts 7:58. When Stephen is being stoned to death, Saul is present giving his approval and clearly part of the group involved in the death of the first Christian martyr. Then in Acts chapter 8, we have this description of the man Saul was: ‘But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’ (Acts 8:3)

Saul is ringleader of those persecuting Christians. His hatred towards Christians is so evident; he doesn’t even spare women but drags both men and women off to jail, leaving their children in an horrific situation. Saul sees Christians like rats which need to be caught and disposed of. He is obsessed with ridding the earth of them. Acts chapter 9 opens with these words: ‘Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.’ Imagine being a Christian back in Jerusalem in Saul’s day and hearing him say: ‘If you carry on believing this blasphemous teaching about Jesus of Nazareth, you will end up dead, just like him – I will make sure of that.’

Saul’s hatred of Christians was so strong that it wasn’t enough for him to deal with those in Jerusalem; he even wants to pursue those who had fled to Damascus. It’s really astonishing to think about. He is willing to travel for 150 miles, a week’s journey, in order to track down Christians as far away as Damascus. Saul is utterly convinced that Christianity is a false and dangerous sect and a threat to Judaism and everything Saul held dear. Listen to Saul’s own description of himself, after he had become a Christian : ‘I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.’ (Acts 26:9-11)

‘For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.’ (Galatians 1:13)

Why does Saul hate Christians so much? He’s like a wild animal hunting down his prey. This man is a Pharisee and so he knows the Scriptures better than most. He’s an expert in the law of God. He knows that God in the Scriptures had promised that one day the Messiah would come and rescue the people. The Christians were claiming that Jesus himself was the true Messiah of God, the Saviour. This claim makes Saul sick to the stomach. How could the Messiah be crucified, dying in shame and humiliation. He knows that anyone who dies in that way is cursed by God. (Deuteronomy 21:23) So, in Saul’s mind, it was impossible for Jesus to be God’s chosen one.

I think it’s likely that when Stephen was debating with the Jews in Acts chapter 6, Saul was there. Even though he, and the other religious leaders, were experts in the Scriptures, we read: ‘But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave [Stephen] as he spoke.’ (Acts 6:10) Sometimes, when people are unable to defeat the truth through argument, they turn violent, or grow hard-hearted.

Another possible reason for Saul’s hatred is his self-righteousness. As a Pharisee, Saul’s whole life had been one of trying to earn God’s favour by doing his best. He thought that if we only keep the rules, then God will accept us. Christianity was a threat to Saul’s whole belief system, rightly teaching that none of us can use God’s law as a ladder to climb up into Heaven. None of us can earn God’s favour, because the truth is, we all break God’s commands again and again. These followers of Jesus rightly taught that we can only become holy by accepting Jesus’ death for our sins. Only the blood of Jesus can pay for our moral debt to God. We have nothing to pay off our debt to God with because that debt just gets bigger and bigger. In other words, Christianity contradicted the very things Saul had devoted his life to.

Never doubt that Saul was sincere as he persecuted Christians. He was sincere; but he was sincerely wrong. This is a reminder to us that we might sincerely think that we don’t need Jesus. However, the truth is that Jesus is the only one qualified to forgive our sins and the only one able to take us to Heaven. He is the rightful King of the universe. If we reject this, we might be sincere, but like Saul, we are sincerely wrong. We need to be sure about the truth about Jesus. Are you?

2. The man Saul met

As Saul approaches Damascus, the whole course of his life is about to change, and for the better. Jesus breaks into his life to save him. Saul had not been looking for Jesus; he was an enemy of Jesus. But Jesus goes looking for Saul. ‘As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9:3-4)

Saul knows he’s in the presence of God. This is something supernatural. It’s like the call of Moses, when the LORD appears to Moses in a burning bush, and calls his name twice: ‘Moses, Moses’. The blinding light signals the presence of the divine, as does the voice from Heaven. Even the fact that Saul falls to the ground is another indicator of God’s presence, as again and again, this is the response of sinners before a holy God. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. (Acts 9:5)

Can you imagine how Saul must have felt hearing this reply? This was the last thing he was expecting. He had believed that Jesus was a liar and a traitor. He had thought he was doing God’s will as he zealously dragged men and women off to prison. He was wrong. For Saul, this is the moment of shocking realisation. Jesus was the Messiah after all. The Christians were right to worship him. No wonder they were willing to die rather than denying that Jesus had risen from the dead. Now Saul understands. His old certainties have been blown away. Saul had thought he was the gatekeeper of orthodox Judaism and that Christians were heretics; for the first time he sees the truth – he is the heretic. For, by persecuting Christians, Saul was persecuting Jesus himself! That’s how connected Jesus is to his church. We are the body of Christ.

Saul is blinded by this divine light. For Saul, this must have felt like the judgment of God. As an expert in the Bible, he knows the covenant curses for the disobedient outlined in Deuteronomy 28. One of them says: ‘At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do…’ (Deuteronomy 28:29)

What a transformation. The man who had hated Jesus, now comes to realise that he is the Lord, and obeys Jesus’ instruction to get up and go into the city. What’s this dramatic conversion got to do with us today in 2024? I’ve never seen the risen Jesus or heard his voice like this. What can we learn from this event?

Application 1. We learn about the grace and patience of God. Saul did not deserve to receive God’s mercy. None of us do. He was a bitter enemy of Jesus. And yet, Jesus does not treat him as his sins deserve, but with grace, forgiveness and love. Paul writes, ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.’ (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

In Saul, God is giving us an amazing example of his mercy. This means that for you, even if you have ignored God for most of your life, and refused to trust in Jesus, and done many things for which you are ashamed, God is willing to forgive you, if you but submit to Jesus’ rightful rule in your life. If Jesus is willing to save Saul of Tarsus, then he no one is beyond his mercy. God’s love is so incredible that it extends even to the man who dried to extinguish his church. Never think: ‘I’m too bad for Jesus to save’. That’s not true. Perhaps you’re thinking this morning, ‘I’m not like Saul. I’m no persecutor.’ You might be more like him than you think! Like Saul you might reject Jesus’ rightful rule in your life! Just by being your own boss, you share in the main problem Saul had.

Application 2. We also learn that God specialises in saving the most unlikely people. We might look at someone in our family or a friend and think: ‘That person will never become a Christian’. But perhaps, like with Saul, Jesus is already pursuing that person, and is about to break into his or her life. Keep on praying for more people to come to faith in Jesus. You might know people who ‘slag off’ the Christian faith. You might know people who claim to be atheist. They might blame God for the suffering in the world. They might say they believe in science. They are not beyond the grace of God. ‘The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephaniah 3:17) Don’t lose hope – keep praying for your loved ones.”

Application 3. We are reminded that God is always in sovereign control. It might have seemed to the early Christians that Saul was unstoppable. His efforts to extinguish the church seemed successful. There seemed no end to the amount of damage he could inflict on the church. But God had other ideas. God was in control all along. Jesus is the good shepherd, who even now goes after the lost sheep of this world and brings them into his flock. And when he does that, he is irresistible. Listen to how Paul describes his coming to faith : ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’. (Philippians 3:12) When Jesus gets a hold of you in his loving arms, he’ll never let you go. That’s our ultimate hope for the church plant in Leven. Our confidence isn’t ultimately in the core team, or their skills. Our confidence is in Jesus, who seeks and saves the lost.

Application 4. We see what it means to become a Christian. Granted, we’re unlikely to see a blinding light or hear a voice. We might not be changed in such a dramatic way. We don’t need to be. But in many ways, Saul’s experience is common to all who become Christians. What do I mean? John Stott puts it so helpfully: ‘For we too can and must experience encounter with Jesus Christ, surrender to him in penitence and faith, and receive his summons to service’.

All the Christians in this room have a different story about how God has worked in our lives. But we have this in common – even though we haven’t seen Jesus physically, we have met with him in the pages of the Bible, and in the preaching at church, and have talked to him in prayer and put our trust in him. In other words, we have encountered him and have a relationship with him. We talk to him in prayer and he talks to us through the Bible. We know he loves us as he died on the cross for us. Jesus has become our Saviour and our King. We submit to his rule in our lives, just as Saul did here.

3. The man Saul became

Saul becomes Paul. His life is so utterly changed that the persecutor of the church becomes a missionary and church-planter. God has an amazing job for Saul: ‘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)

I find verse 17 incredibly moving. Ananias knows the havoc and misery Saul has brought upon the church, and yet he says: ‘Brother Saul…’. Saul now trusts in Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus was once an enormous stumbling block to Saul. But now he knows Jesus’ death was necessary to pay the price of his sin. He trusts in Jesus, and so joins the family of Christians. He is baptised and receives the Holy Spirit. ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.’ (Acts 9:19-20) We don’t have time just now to go into detail about the man Saul became, but he became one of the most influential Christians of all time, evidence that Jesus truly is God, has risen from the dead, and is willing to change anyone who asks him to.

Perhaps today we can reflect on our own lives and share our stories with others. We can share something of the people we used to be before we knew Jesus. We can remember the time when we met with the risen Jesus and became Christians. And we can consider, imperfect though we are, the new people God has made us.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found;
was blind but now I see.