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"The Chief of Sinners - Saved!"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
April 9, 2008
Theme: The story of Paul's (Saul's) own conversion illustrates the greatness of the saving power of the very gospel he was called to preached.
A very helpful way to understand the divisions of the Book of Acts would be through Jesus' promise of the spread of the apostles' Spirit-empowered witness, as that promise was given to us in Acts 1:8; that is, that it spread first to Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), then in Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-12), and finally into the remotest parts of the world (chapters 13-28). But an equally valid and helpful way of dividing the book would be through the two apostles it highlights: that is, by its focus on Peter's ministry (chapters 1-8), and its focus on Paul's ministry (chapters 9-28). Tonight, we begin our study of that section of Acts that highlights Paul's ministry.
This important division of Acts begins with Paul's conversion. There are three sections of the Book of Acts that describe, in detail, Paul's conversion (who, up until Acts 13:13 is known to us as Saul). In Acts 22:1-21, Paul describes his conversion to his hostile Jewish brethren; and in Acts 26:4-23, he recounts his conversion before King Agrippa. Tonight, in Acts 9, we study the first of the three accounts, given through Luke (which he, no doubt, drew from his personal encounter with Paul, and with whom he began traveling after the 'Macedonian Call'; see Acts16:11ff); and as a continuation of his reference to Saul in 7:58 and 8:1-3.
I. SAUL'S AGRESSIONS AGAINST CHRIST (vv. 1-2).
A. In 8:1, we're told that Saul not only consented to the martyrdom of Stephen (see also 7:58), but that he afterwards personally embarked on a campaign against the church (8:3)—causing "havoc". His own account is that he "persecuted this Way to the death"; binding and delivering into prison both men and women (22:4); punishing in synagogues, and compelling them to blaspheme (26:11). His own testimony is that he thought it necessary to "do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (26:9). His motivation—outwardly, at least—was to defend Judaism from what he perceived to be a threat. But if the words of 9:5 are genuine (and even if they are not genuine in 9:5, they are clearly genuine in 26:14), they suggest an inward struggle on Saul's part against the message of Christ.
B. The story begins in Acts 9 with Saul "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (v. 1). Clearly, he didn't have the 'wait and see' spirit of his famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-39; see also 22:3). He was determined to destroy "the Way" out of a zeal for God (22:3)—though not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). He had apparently been pursuing the Christians in various places—even in foreign cities (26:11); and had, according to this evening's passage, particularly obtained letters from the high priest that permitted him to enter the synagogues of Damascus and he might find and bring to Jerusalem any Christians he found there (v. 2).
C. Note that God not only calls a man; but He calls the man as the kind of man that God made him to be. Paul had a zealous nature; and that nature made him the church's greatest antagonist. But when God converted him, that same zealous nature made him into the church's greatest missionary! We should remember this when we see someone who is viciously antagonistic against the faith. Who knows what the sovereign God may yet do in and through them for His own glory?
II. SAUL'S ENCOUNTER WITH CHRIST (vv. 3-9).
A. Saul's plans in Damascus were altered by God's plans for him! While on his way to Damascus, a "light" from heaven suddenly shown around him (v. 3). Other great encounters with God in the Bible were accompanied by a light (e.g., Exodus 3:2-5 and Matthew 17:2-5). Saul fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (v. 4). How grateful we should be that the Lord Jesus here identifies Himself with the suffering of His people (v. 5). (Note that some ancient manuscripts do not contain the latter half of verse 5 and the the beginning half of verse 6.)
B. One would think that the Lord would have sent Saul back to Jerusalem. But surprisingly, the Lord told him to continue into the city. It would not be, though, to fulfill his original planned mission of persecution. It would be so that he could await further instructions. 22:10 says that it would be to hear the things that were "appointed" for him; and 26:16-18 gives us further details of what he was told to do. In 9:7, we're told that those who traveled with Saul heard the voice (which 26:14 tells us was speaking in Hebrew), but saw no one. But an apparent conflict arises in the English translation when we see that, in 22:9, we're told that they didn't hear the voice. There's no conflict, however, if we note that, in Acts 9:7, the Greek word for "voice" or "sound" is used, and that, in 22:9, the Greek word for "speaking" was used (the same word as is used in Acts 9:27). Those with Saul heard the sound of a voice; but apparently could not discern the message that it spoke.
C. Saul arose, opened his eyes, and found that he was blind (v. 8; see also John 7:39). What a humbling experience it must have been—the bold persecutor of the church being led by the hand into the very city in which he intended to bring havoc upon the church! For three days, he sat without sight—neither eating or drinking. Perhaps the three days can be seen as a parallel to our Lord's three days in the tomb—given that Paul testified that he had been 'crucified with Christ' (Galatians 2:20).
III. SAUL'S CONVERSION TO CHRIST (vv. 10-19).
A. As Saul sat in Damascus—very deep in humble reflection, no doubt—God was at work in the city of Damascus itself; preparing the means of Saul's conversion. He called a man named Ananias (a very different man—both in identity and character—from the Ananias mentioned in chapter 5). He was the kind of man that, when God called his name, he said, "Here I am, Lord" (v. 10).
B. The Lord gave Ananias specific instructions—where to go, and what to do (v. 11-12). But apparently, Ananias knew well who Saul was. He was fearful of him; and proceeded to tell the Lord about his concerns (vv. 13-14). But the Lord responded by saying, "Go" (v. 15-16); letting Ananias know that Saul was "a chosen vessel", set apart by Him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. There's an ominous tone to the fact that the Lord would show Saul how many things he must suffer for His name's sake (v. 16). This suffering, however, was not to punish Saul. Rather, it was Saul's share in the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10; also see 2 Corinthians 11:22-33 for just a taste of these 'things' he suffered for Christ's name!)
C. Ananias went in obedience to the Lord (with more details of the encounter given in Acts 22:13-16). What an act of courage that must have been! He prayed over Saul in obedience to the Lord—perhaps with trembling hands placed upon him; and Saul received the Holy Spirit. Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes; and though he was blind, now he could see. He rose up immediately, and was baptized; also ending his fast. He stayed several days with the disciples in Damascus—know doubt learning more from them about the Lord he now knew (vv. 17-19).
IV. SAUL'S PROCLAMATION OF CHRIST (vv. 20-22).
A. Verse 20 tells us that "immediately" Saul began to preach Christ in the synagogues. Paul was a man with a remarkable mind; and with a great storehouse of knowledge and understanding with respect to the Old Testament Scriptures regarding Christ. Note that the two themes of Paul's message—that Jesus is the Son of God, and that He is the Christ—are in perfect accordance with the great profession of Peter in Matthew 16:16!
B. Everyone was amazed at the fact that this man—who once so viciously fought against the faith—now preached it (see Gal. 1:21). But Saul felt no sense that it was inappropriate for him to now preach Christ. He increased all the more "in strength" (that is, in strength of faith); and confounded those in Damascus who opposed the gospel—"proving that this Jesus is the Christ" (vv. 21-22).
V. SAUL'S CONFLICTS FOR CHRIST (vv. 23-31).
A. It didn't take long for the opposition in Damascus to turn to violence. After many days, the Jews plotted against his life—planning to watch as he passed through the city gates and kill him. This is the first of several attempts on the great apostle's life (see also 20:4, 19; 23:21; 25:3). The plot became known to Saul (by the gracious providence of God); and he suffered the indignity of having to be let down through the wall of the city in a basket (see 2 Corinthians 11:32-33). What a remarkable thing it is that those Jewish people who were once so excited about his zeal against the faith were now wishing to kill him for the faith! And what a remarkable thing that those believers that Saul himself once sought to kill were now graciously holding the ropes that allowed him to be lowered down the city wall and out to safety! What a testimony of the change that God had brought about in him!
B. Saul then made his way to Jerusalem. But he was received with a great deal of suspicion from the believers there. And who could blame them? It would have been easy to think that his "conversion" was a plot on his part to trap them and bring them to prison (v. 26). But Barnabas (whom we've already met, and know by the name "Son of Encouragement"; see Acts 4:36-37), proved true to his nickname. He took Saul under his wing; and introduced him to the church as a new believer (v. 27).
C. Paul moved about freely in Jerusalem (v. 28); but began again—this time in Jerusalem; where all the events of the life of Jesus originally occurred—to boldly speak out in Jesus' name (v. 29). The Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) arose to kill him; and when the plot was discovered (this time, by the believers whom he had formerly persecuted); and they brought him safely out of Jerusalem to Caesarea; and from there, to his birthplace in Tarsus (v. 30). It's interesting to note that, after Paul was sent away, it was then that the church was said to have "peace" (v. 31)—testifying to the controversy that Saul's conversion and preaching brought about. But we're also told of the church's growth— testifying to God's great blessing on Saul's ministry of preaching.
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One of the remarkable benefits of the story of Saul's conversion is the way it illustrates the saving power of the very gospel he was called to preached. This, in fact, was what Paul himself asserted—that he was an example of how great God's grace is through Jesus Christ toward even the greatest of sinners who turns to Him (see 1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
There's no better way to close our time together this evening than with Paul's own thoughts concerning the lesson we should learn from his conversion:
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And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Thess. 1:12-17).