Sermon - Paul's Conversion
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Acts 9:1-6
The conversion of Saul (his name was changed to Paul later) is one of the most notable in the history of the Church. Certainly within the Bible itself. Indeed the conversion of Saul/Paul, was celebrated yesterday, 25 January, in parts of the Church around the world. Luke tells us the story three times. But was Paul's conversion special? Many people say "I have not had a Damascus Road experience". There were, it is true, special events on that day, which make Paul's conversion unique. However are they in any sense so special that they constitute an example for us today? Let us look together at Paul’s conversion experience.
The only possible cause for his conversion is the beautiful sovereign grace of God. It was Jesus Christ who decided for him. Each of the three previous times Paul appears in Luke’s story, he is recorded as opposing the church & persecuting it. Paul even witnessed the death of Stephen (Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1, 3).
Now Luke resumes his story of Paul by saying that he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples (Acts 9:1). Paul had tried to contain the church to Jerusalem, but some had escaped to Damascus. Paul then devised a plan to capture the believers in Damascus. Armed with letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem, he set out for Damascus in a bid to stop the spreading of the Good News. He would arrive in Damascus, an unusually vigorous and single-minded man, bent on ridding the city of its followers of Jesus.
Why did Paul hate the believers so much? Because, to his mind at the time, a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all. How could the Saviour of the Jews, the Messiah, die on a cross and be cursed by God? Paul considered it his duty as a man zealous for the law, to eradicate all those who were followers of this man, Jesus.
Luke's description of Paul seems to be like that of a wild animal trying to destroy a flock of sheep, creating havoc and destruction whichever way he turned. Yet, he had not considered God’s sovereign grace. To a man like this there could only be one reason why he changed his mind, and became the most ardent follower of Jesus. He turned from a wolf who destroyed sheep, to become a shepherd caring for sheep. It can only be through the sovereign grace of God.
Paul and his companions were nearing the end of a week’s travelling on the 150 mile journey to Damascus from Jerusalem Then suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him (Acts 9:3), brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13). It was so overwhelming that it both blinded him and knocked him over (Acts 9:8-9), flat on his face before his conqueror. Then a voice cried out "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And in answer to Paul's subsequent question as to his identity, the voice continues “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."
Paul must have instantly realised how closely Jesus Christ identified with His followers. So much so, that to persecute Jesus’ followers, the Church, was to persecute Him. It followed, and he must immediately have understood, that Jesus was no longer dead as he supposed, but was alive and all His claims were true. Paul's companions, while hearing the voice, did not see the resurrected Jesus. They took Paul into the city of Damascus. Instead of arriving there full of pride and bravery, a self-confident enemy of Jesus, Paul entered the city, humbled and blinded, a prisoner of Jesus. The light he saw was the glory of Jesus, and the voice he heard was the voice of Jesus. In his letters to various churches in the New Testament, we discover how Paul viewed this event.
- how God arrested Paul (Philippians 3:12)
- God shone His light upon Paul (2 Corinthians 4:6)
- God’s mercy overflowed upon Paul (1 Timothy 1:14).
And yet, while it was entirely due to the grace of God, that Paul was converted from enemy of the Christ to follower of the Christ, it was not sudden. Yes, the light was sudden, and Jesus Christ appeared suddenly, but Jesus must have talked to Paul before in some way, whether through his conscience, his dreams or in his thoughts. We may never know!
The goads, that Paul says Jesus accused him of kicking against in his third account of the incident, likened Paul to a donkey or a mule being continually prodded to go the right way. The implication is that Jesus was pursuing Paul, prodding and pricking him, and Paul was resisting painfully. But what were the goads that Jesus used to prick Paul of Tarsus? While we are not told specifically what they were, by reading his letters we can gain an insight into what they were.
The first of three goads used by Jesus on Paul, was Paul’s own sub-conscious doubts. With his conscious mind, he proclaimed Jesus as an impostor, who had been rejected as the Messiah by his own people, and died under the curse of God on a cross. Yet, Paul would have heard reports about Jesus' teaching and miracles, claims and character, together with the talk that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Secondly, the goad of the testimony of Stephen. Paul had been present at the trial of Stephen and had seen his execution, both his non-resistance while being stoned to death and his face shining like an angel. He had heard Stephen's speech at his trial, his prayer for forgiveness of his executioners and his astonishing claim to have seen Jesus at the right hand of God. There was something about these Christians, that Paul could not explain - the divine living power of Jesus in the lives of His followers.
Thirdly, the goad of the inadequacy of the law to save. Paul clearly had a very extensive knowledge of the Old Testament. He must have become increasingly aware that Jesus fulfilled a great many of the prophecies of the Messiah who was to come even if he wasn’t exactly the sort of Messiah that he, Paul, and everyone else expected. In private Paul knew that his thoughts & attitudes were not clean. For example his sin of covetousness. Therefore he had no inner power or peace, and it was the goads of Jesus. His conversion was a sudden climax, to a long drawn out process with Jesus having pursued him.
Yet while his conversion was not sudden, it was not forced upon him. Although he was blinded and forced to the ground he did not change his character and it did not turn him into a robot. When Jesus asked those questions, Paul did not have to answer them. He still had freewill. Paul’s conversion, while not sudden or compulsive, was due entirely to the gracious pursuit of Jesus. Not everybody sees sudden flashes of light and hears voices that say his name. No one else has seen the historical fact of the Jesus' resurrected body and a call to be an apostle.
Yet our conversion experience today can have similarities to that of Paul. To be converted, we did not and do not, need those things to happen, any more than we have to travel to the same spot Paul was at on the road to Damascus. We must experience a personal encounter with Jesus. In doing so, we must surrender to Him our will in faith, and receive his order to serve Him. Jesus Christ has pursued all people everywhere, over the past 2.000 years, to return into a dynamic relationship with Him. Just as He did with me and I handed my life over to Him. Millions of other people have also done that down through the centuries. My final question to you is – have you?