The Conversion of Saul–Acts 9
Someone once said, “Being a Christian is like putting a new suit of clothes on a man.” But that’s not accurate. Becoming a Christian is like putting a new man in the same old suit of clothes–you look the same on the outside, but you are radically different on the inside. Christianity is not a patch job–it is a transformation. It’s not turning over a new leaf, it’s getting a new life. And that, is what happened to Saul who became Paul.
Open your Bibles to Acts 9 and take your outline to discover how Christ transformed Saul. It is fitting that Saul’s conversion was distinctive, because he was such a rare person. By birth a Jew, by citizenship a Roman, by education a Greek, by religion a Pharisee, and by grace a Christian. But where did Saul come from? Saul’s hometown was Tarsus, which was located near Syria, north of Israel. Saul’s father was a Roman citizen, a Jew and a Pharisee–which meant Saul could match zealous credentials with any Jew. Plus, in keeping with Jewish tradition, the young Saul learned a trade—he was a tentmaker.
Who is thirteen years old? Around the age of thirteen, Saul was packed off to Jerusalem to sit under the teaching of Gamaliel, the Jewish religious Einstein of his day. Now as Saul ministers in Jerusalem as a young Jewish zealot, Saul is offended by a man named Stephen. (Look at Acts 7:58.) Stephen was an on fire for Christ and Saul hated him enough to kill him. So Saul led others to stone Stephen to death. Laying their coats at Saul’s feet shows his leadership in this execution.
Picture this scene found in Acts 7:58, “When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Then in 8:1, “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem.” This event gave Saul his first taste of blood, but it also planted a time bomb in his soul that God finally ignited on the Damascus road.
After Stephen’s death, Saul became the leader of a persecution against the Church. According to Acts 8:3, “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women,” and he would put them in prison. The Greek word ravage describes a wild boar ripping a garden to shreds, As a result, the Church was scattered. But by God’s design, it forced the Church to be established in other cities. As a result, many more Jews were becoming Christians. This made Christian-hater Saul even more mad. So after hearing about the Jews becoming Christians in Damascus, Saul determined to go there to stomp out Christianity in that city as well. But our God had other plans in Acts 9 . . .
#1 True TRANSFORMATION of a Christ-hater Verses 1 to 9
This is Paul’s date with destiny, beginning with . . .
First Paul’s SINFULNESS Verses 1 to 2
Probably in the year AD 37, verse 1 begins with, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest”—breathing threats is literally breathing in the air of slaughter. Saul’s mission was to cut Christians out of Jewish life. But before Saul could abuse, attack and arrest Christians, he had to get permission from the High Priest (verse 2) “and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
These letters are a legal permit, giving Saul freedom to harm Christians under Roman law. The Roman government recognized the rights of the High Priest within the Jewish faith, so Saul’s letters would allow him to wreak havoc on believers who, verse 2 says, belonged to the Way. Everyone lift your index finger up to the rapture sky and say, “ONE WAY”—ready? 1-2-3, “ONE WAY!” The Way became a popular name for Christianity. The New Testament calls the Christian faith The Way, the way of God, the way of righteousness–Christianity is the only way.
Yet Saul was so self-righteous and religious, he wants to arrest believing men and women–bring them back to Jerusalem to suffer a religious inquisition, involving verbal and potentially physical torture . . . a heresy trial, in order to prevent other Jews from embracing Christ. Can you feel the hate, murder and cruelty in Saul’s heart? Paul was incredibly sinful. But the good news is, God can save incredibly sinful people. But the Lord will stop him as Saul travels 150 miles north.
Second Paul’s SALVATION Verses 3 to 7
In order for anyone to be saved . . .
1 God initiates CONVERSION Verses 3 and 7
The Lord chases Saul down to save him. Even though Saul hates the Lord, the Lord loves Saul. And even though God doesn’t always save so dramatically, God always initiates salvation. Friends, you might not be blinded by light from Heaven, but in order to get our attention, God must do some violent work in your soul in order for you to be saved. You were dead in sin and had to be made alive. You were blind and had to be given sight.
That’s what happened to Saul in verse 3, “And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” Acts 22 tells us it’s noon, when the sun is brightest–but this light from Heaven is the very glory of the risen Christ, so it virtually eclipses the sun. It is so bright, the entire entourage hits the ground as Christ speaks to Saul on the road.
Saul thought Christianity was a cult, but now Saul sees and hears Jesus, who will save him, forgive him, and cleanse him. That is good news! God even saves hateful, murderous, self-righteous people like Saul. But here you see–we don’t seek God, God must seek us. John 15:16, “You did not choose Me but I chose you.” And when He does . . .
2 God will CONFRONT sin Verse 4
True salvation always results in conviction over sin, because sin separates all people from a holy God. Sin must be dealt with. Being flat on his face, Saul is ready to be confronted over his sin. In verse 4, Saul heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” You kids know why Jesus says Saul’s name twice-when you are in trouble, your parents don’t say, “Matthew.” They say, “MATTHEW JOHN.” As Jesus says, “Saul, Saul”–that means Saul is in trouble with God. Acts 26:14 adds, “When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”
A goad is a device used to give pain to a plow animal when the animal is fighting against the owner’s plan to plow. Saul has been fighting against God’s Word and God’s will. It isn’t easy for anyone to live in rebellion to their creator. Can you imagine the anguish ripping through Paul’s soul as Paul sees himself accurately according to the truth? True transformation begins with an awareness and admission of your vial sinfulness before a perfect God.
As Saul was abusing Christians, he was actually abusing Christ. Jesus asks, “Why are you persecuting Me?” And the key to transformation–the real issue in your life is, what are you doing with Jesus? God didn’t say, “Saul, you’ve been a bad boy–now I want you to live moral and say your prayers.” No–God said, “Saul, you are persecuting Jesus.” The issue is Christ.
You can be a nice guy, have no hate in your heart–but if you don’t turn from sin and commit to follow Christ, you are doomed. Paul shocks us in 1 Corinthians 16:22, “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed.” To love Christ is to follow Him, obey Him, live only for Him. What are you doing with Jesus He is not merely to be a resident in your life–He’s to be the president of your life. But that is about to change with Saul.
3 God will CONFIRM who Jesus is Verse 5
This is where Paul gets saved. “And he said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’” And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’” This is incredible. Paul’s entire life up to this point had been a declaration that Jesus was just a man. And now Saul is talking to Jesus as His God. Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” He knows he’s talking to God–and with the Lord’s answer, he knows that Jesus is God. And when that occurs, the light in his soul flicked on. How? Saul knew the Gospel message–he’d heard it from Stephen and the Christians he’d persecuted.
The Lord’s undeniable signs, supernatural teaching, volitional death, resurrection and ascension has hit Saul like a brick from Heaven. Jesus is alive, meaning all Jesus said and all Jesus did is true and all the Christians “I persecuted, I killed, I abused” were telling the truth. Paul was shattered, repentant and grateful to now be under God’s mercy. God’s peace flooded Saul’s soul since the war was over and Saul finally found rest.
Acts 22:10 tells us the first thing Paul said as a Christian, “‘What shall I do, Lord?‘” Paul immediately understands Jesus is His Master. Never say, “I know He’s my Savior, but I haven’t received Him as Lord.” Never say, “I prayed to receive Christ as a 5-year-old, but I really wasn’t committed to Him until after college. The Bible says that’s not accurate. You can’t have Christ as Savior but not have Christ as Lord–He is Lord.
When you have Christ, He comes to you as He is, not what you might want. He is Lord and you are not ever to say, “I received Him as Savior ten years ago, but today I made Him Lord. You don’t make Jesus Lord–He is Lord. Jesus said in John 13:13, “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.” Luke 6:46, “And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” The question in the Christian life is not, is Jesus Lord of your life? The question is, are you obeying Him? Saul immediately obeyed his Master. The Lord gives Saul his first command.
4 God will CALL us to obey Him Verses 6 to 8
Jesus says in verses 6 to 8, “’But rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.’ 7And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. 8And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.” Saul did exactly what Christ told him to do, and for the rest of his life, Saul sought to obey Christ.
When you are genuinely transformed by Christ, you will want to do what Jesus wants you to do. Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” You can obey if you have Christ. You will want to obey if you have Christ. The question is, will you obey Christ? Saul did! This was a dramatic change–instead of entering Damascus a conquering hero, Saul is the broken, blind man, lovingly crushed by his all-wise, all-powerful Savior. For as you are crushed . . .
5 God will encourage us to COMMUNE with Him Verse 9
“And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Do you remember as a kid, looking directly at the sun? (Don’t do it now!) Then as you looked away, the sun spot was still burned in your eyes? Saul has been blinded–but burned into his mind is the dazzling picture of the glorified Christ! As a blind mind–for three days Paul fasted. And the only image Paul could picture was of Christ Himself. But as He does, God is busy arranging . . .
#2 True Transformation results in IMMERSION into the Church Verses 10 to 19
God never transforms sinners, then leaves them on their own. God never saves you, and dumps you as an orphan. He adopts you into His family and immerses you in His body. Saul is led to Damascus, to the house of a man named Judas, who lived on Strait Street. And friends, do you know what it means that Judas lived on Strait Street? Hang on–it means the name of the street was Strait Street. That’s it.
One of the great attributes of fruitful believers is their heart of availability–a willingness to do the difficult job and serve Christ in any way they can. God immediately sends such a Christian to Paul. His name is Ananias–and in verses 10 to 12 the Lord tells Ananias to go see Paul at Judas’s house to restore Saul’s sight. Ananias is cautious in verse 13, cause he’s heard about Saul. But because we don’t live by the emotion of fear, but Spirit-empowered faith–God tells Ananias to go, since Paul is a chosen servant of Christ.
Verse 15 to 16, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Don’t you love this? Paul has just been saved—and with salvation came immediate service. A sovereign mission is already planned. Almost immediately, verse 20 says Saul was preaching Christ. God transforms sinners to serve. Yes, there was study in the desert, preparation in the Antioch church. Yet Saul/Paul pursued his mission in life immediately.
There is no dichotomy between His salvation and His service. Verse 16, along with his service there would be suffering. Second Corinthians 11:23, Paul was beaten, imprisoned, stoned, flogged, shipwrecked and without food, clothing or sleep. I love it–God had revealed His prechosen design for Paul. And like Paul, God has a prechosen design for each of you–Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Each Christian here has a preplanned mission from God–designed for you before creation, and activated the day Christ saves you. You are saved to serve. But you can’t serve in your own strength, so verse 17, as Paul regains His sight, He is filled with the Spirit. He’s already indwelt with the Spirit of God in salvation, and now is filled with the Spirit in sanctification. Like Ephesians 5:18, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Every Christian is to be saturated in God’s Word, dependent upon the Spirit, confessing sin and serving Christ in all things.
You’re either filled with the Spirit or filled with yourself. You either live in God’s strength or you live in your strength. You’re either relying on God’s power or your own power. And whenever a believer is immersed in the Spirit of God, he’ll be immersed in the Church of God–one with the saints. Verses 17,19 and 28 “So Ananias … said, ‘Brother Saul,’ … 19Now for several days he [Paul] was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 28And he was with them.” Paul was immediately with God’s family.
I love Ananias–he says to this ex-Hitler, “Brother Saul”–you now belong to the family. You’re a brother. All who are transformed in salvation will want to be with other Christians. First John 3:14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” You’re either disobedient or deceived, if you say you love Christ but have no desire to gather with a local church. A Christian without a commitment to a local church is like a tree that is never planted, because God made you to grow in the soil of the Christian community.
No matter what you’ve done in the past–like Paul, you belong with us. You belong in the local church family. And as soon as Ananias showed up, three indicators prove Saul had been transformed.
Visible Proof–Paul regained his sight Verse 18a
Visible Profession–Paul was baptized, the first step of obedience for every Christian Verse 18b
Visible Participation–and he took food and was strengthened—“now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus” Verse 19
Saul was nurtured by people who had to choose to forgive him for the injury he had committed against fellow Christians–even friends or maybe family members. And only after a few days, get this, verse 20 says the persecutor of Christ has become a preacher for Christ. Friends, when Christ transforms you, there’ll be evidence of change.
#3 True Transformation is always EVIDENCED Verses 20 to 30
When you’ve been genuinely transformed in salvation, you can’t hold back from talking about what Jesus did for you.
First A passion to PROCLAIM the Gospel Verse 20
“And immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” The Jews were expecting Paul to arrest Christian prisoners, but now are hearing him proclaim the good news of Christ.
Second Accelerated maturity in MINISTRY Verses 21 to 22
“And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ [They could not comprehend this drastic change.] 22But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” Increasing in strength is power, ability, and capacity–Paul is unstoppable. Saul was literally blowing them all away, because he could prove from the Old Testament that Jesus is the true Messiah and the only way to Heaven.
Third FEARLESS in life or death Verses 23 to 31
He’s a new convert. Most believe there is a time gap of three years between verses 22 and 23. Galatians 1:17, “Paul went to Arabia for three years, then returned once more to Damascus.” Paul was in the desert in solitude, learning from God. But now verse 23, he returns to Damascus even more prepared to preach Christ–so much so, the Jews knew they had to get rid of him. Paul was fearless, but . . .
Verse 25, believers helped Paul escape Damascus in a basket over the city wall at night. Saul, the ex-Christian killer now follower of Christ, travels to Jerusalem. But there, he finds a cold reception–the leadership there don’t trust him, verses 26 to 27, “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.”
At first, in Jerusalem they were afraid of Saul. They didn’t believe he was sincere, so believers avoided him until the amazing Barnabus (whose name means the Son of Encouragement–and he was) vouched for Paul. Then they accepted him. While others didn’t trust Paul’s past, Barnabus believed Paul’s present. Barnabus didn’t see what people were, but what they could become.
And regardless, in verses 28 to 30, Paul was so effectively preaching Christ, the Jews tried to kill him again. So again, believers had to sneak Paul out of town–this time to the coast in Caesarea. When you’re filled with the Spirit and immersed in the Word of God, you will be fearless. Second Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” So what happens when sinners are truly transformed?
#4 True Transformation of the saints results in the HEALTH and growth of the Church
Verse 31, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” Besides Saul’s departure, political changes contributed to the Church’s temporary peace. Pilate was removed as governor and Herod Agrippa, who was hard on the Jews, took over–which restricted the Jewish persecution of the Church.
As a result, the Church caught its breath, and verse 31 informs us Christians were built up, growing in their fear of the Lord, relying on the comfort of the Spirit and seeing sinners get saved and join the Church. When God transforms the sinner into a Christian, true believers will transform the Church to be a light to the world. Saul’s life was dramatically transformed near Damascus–and from that moment on, the world would never be the same.
TAKE this HOME
A STOP running from Christ
God’s love is persistent. Christ will not give up on you. The last thing Saul ever wanted was to know Christ in a personal way–but in one brief flash of light, that all changed. Some of you are still running from Christ. And though Christ may not blind you with lights from Heaven, He will pursue you. So stop running away. Right now, stop making excuses and ask the Lord to transform your heart as you surrender to Him.
B SUBMIT to God’s process of change
Being transformed involves two things–first giving yourself to Christ in salvation, and second giving yourself to Christ daily through the filling of the Spirit and obedience to the Word of God. Many Christians are reluctant to believe God will change them. They fail to see the work of God in their lives. As they doubt the Lord, they grieve the Spirit, which prevents their growth.
Remember friends, your growth is guaranteed. Can you say with Paul in Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Depend on God’s Spirit, saturate yourself in God’s Word, immerse yourself in God’s Church and the other means of grace, and you will grow over time.
C SEEK to pursue a life of ZEAL
There is not a single Christian here who doesn’t long for the zeal of Paul. We all want to be as committed and as passionate for Christ as Paul was. But remember where Paul got zeal from? Seeing Christ, knowing Christ, and intimacy with Christ. Only as Christ is the most beautiful–more satisfying than anything or anyone else in your life will you be as zealous as Paul. Passion for Christ means He fires you up more than any person, or any thing, or any event. To grow as zealous for Christ as Paul, do two things.
1-Cut out anything from your life that holds your passion
2-Replace that heart focus with intimacy to, and service for, Christ. Let’s pray.