Sunday Sermon: Ekklesia – ‘The Conversion of Paul’

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There are few things that bring more joy to a Christian than to see a life changed by the power of God. Many of us are one of those lives that has been miraculously changed. We read in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” Some believe that a better translation would be – “all things are becoming new.” Sometimes the newness that occurs in someone’s life happens instantaneously. Other times it is a part of a lifelong process. Nevertheless, no one can argue that salvation brings dramatic change to a person’s life.

I can’t think of anyone who experienced more of a dramatic change in their life than a man we know as the Apostle Paul. Yet Paul wasn’t always friendly toward the things of Christ. There was a time when Paul was Christianity’s worst nightmare.

Acts 9
1  And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2  And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. 3  And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4  And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5  And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 6  And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. 7  And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. 8  And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

Saul and Paul are the same man. It seems that Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name. In the early days of the church, Saul was a great enemy of the church. With a vengeance he attacked the followers of Christ and had many of them thrown into prison and even put to death. As we studied a few weeks ago, Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen and gave his consent. Yet by the grace of God, Saul himself became a Christian and not only turned his life around, but became what many consider to be the greatest Christian who ever lived. The man who was once a foe of Christ became a follower of Christ. The man who was once the persecutor of those who preached the gospel himself became someone who was willing to be persecuted for preaching the gospel. The man who was once the chief of sinners became the chief of saints. As one writer wrote of Paul’s conversion – “The conversion of Saul to Paul is evidence enough in itself to confirm that indeed that Jesus saves!” Can Jesus really change a man’s life?

Back in the 1950’s there was a well-known radio host and songwriter in Hollywood named Stuart Hamblen. Stuart Hamblen wrote many songs and appeared in several cowboy films with stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Some have called him radio’s first singing cowboy. Stuart Hamblen was also known for his heavy drinking and hard living.

A young preacher came to town to hold a revival. The young preacher asked Hamblen if he might appear on his radio show to help promote the meetings. Hamblen, the son of a Methodist pastor, invited the young preacher to be on his show and later the preacher invited Hamblen to come to the meetings. One night Hamblen attended and during the sermon, the Holy Spirit began to convict him of his sins. It is reported that sometime later, he and his wife went to the hotel where the young preacher was staying and pleaded with him that he show them how to be saved. That night, at 4 am in the morning, Stuart Hamblen and his wife accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Sometime later Stuart Hamblen ran into a friend named John. The friend asked – “What’s this I hear – you got religion?” Stuart Hamblen answered, “It is no secret what God can do in a man’s life.” The friend replied, “Well that sounds like a song.” And with that phrase, “it is no secret”, Stuart Hamblen wrote the song that has these words –

It is no secret what God can do.
What he’s done for others, he’ll do for you.
With arms wide open, he’ll pardon you.
It is no secret what God can do.

By the way, the friend’s name was John Wayne and the young preacher was Billy Graham. It is also reported that Stuart Hamblen was the first publicized convert of the 1949 Billy Graham Greater Los Angeles Crusade which continued on for 8 weeks and was attended by over 350,000. According to many, it was that crusade that launched Billy Graham’s great evangelistic ministry.

Like Stuart Hamblen and so many others, the man we call the Apostle Paul was once someone very much against Jesus Christ and the church. The story of his conversion is told three times in the book of Acts – once as a narrative account by Luke and twice by Paul himself as he tried to explain to others why he was who he was.

I. Saul’s Confusion

In Acts 26, Paul shares his testimony with a king named Agrippa. Consider what Paul says about himself and his conversion.

Acts 26:9  I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. 11 And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.”

A. Exceedingly Mad Against Christians

Paul says that he was ‘exceedingly mad against’ Christians. The phrase literally means that he acted beyond measure in a fit of rage. He threatened them in order to intimidate them. He stormed into many of their homes and had them chained and drug off to prison. He forced as many as possible to deny Jesus as Lord and to blaspheme Christ’s holy name. He even consented to many of their deaths. Why would Saul be so angry against Christians? It might sound strange to you, but Saul did what he did because he was seeking God.

B. Zealous Toward God

In Acts 22 we find another account of Paul’s testimony.

Acts 22:3  I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

It was his zeal towards God that caused Saul to so furiously attack Christians. Can that be true? The word ‘zealous’ is an interesting word. It means to boil with an intense, eager desire for something. Paul’s fit of rage against the church was fueled by his intense desire for God. Now there are at least two possible explanations for this.

1. Relationship – Saul believed that there was a God and as best as he knew how, he served God. Yet his zeal toward God was as he described many of his Jewish brethren – ‘a zeal … not according to knowledge.’

Romans 10:1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. 2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.

2. Righteousness – Saul’s zeal for God was not motivated as much by a desire for a relationship as it was a desire for righteousness. Look with me at another portion of Paul’s testimony as he explained it to the Philippians.

Philippians 3:4  Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: 5  Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Saul’s primary motive for persecuting the church was his desire to be righteousness. Saul loved God; yet he didn’t understand how to love God or to be loved by God. Saul thought that he had to earn God’s love by his good works. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who think the same thing. They think that they can earn God’s love by their good works and they think that they can lose God’s love by not doing enough good works. Such folks live in constant fear – “Have I done enough?”

There was a time when Saul thought that his Jewish heritage and his strict obedience to the Law and Ten Commandments were things that would help make him a better person and therefore worthy to be child of God. He was trying to work his way to heaven. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ was a great offense to Saul’s religion. The gospel teaches us that we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and that the right to go to heaven will not be by any good works that we will ever do, but by God’s willingness to be merciful. “Christ died for our sins” the Bible teaches us. Jesus Christ took our place on the cross and He paid the penalty for all the sins we will ever commit. In exchange, He offers to us, by His grace, complete forgiveness of all our sins and eternal life. The conditions for receiving this free gift is admittance of our own unworthiness and acceptance of His free gift. The biblical words for that are repentance and faith. Paul, after his conversion, went on to explain this to the Philippians.

Philippians 3:7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, 9  And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

We sometimes say that there are many religions in the world. That’s not true. There are only two religions in the world: the religion of works and the religion of grace. Saul, before he became a Christian, was a man who followed the religion of works and therefore he was a great enemy of the religion of grace.

In Acts 26:9 he said, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” To understand where Saul was coming from, you have to understand how he had been raised. Acts 26:3 “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.”

That phrase – ‘according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers’ means – {exact care in accordance with the strictness of the Mosaic law}. In other words, I was taught how to split religious hairs down to the finest point. In a desire to obtain righteousness before God, the Pharisees had elaborated on the law of Moses to the point of where it was more difficult to interpret than the current US tax code. And as it has been with so many, the more strict it was, the more righteous it seemed.

Saul wanted what was right with God, yet he was confused on how to obtain it. He, nor any of us, can ever work our way into heaven. Later Paul wrote these words – Eph 2:8 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

II. Saul’s Conversion

Acts 26:9 I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. 11  And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities. 12 Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14  And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.

A. The Difficulty of Resisting the Truth

There are only two religions in the world: a religion of works and a religion of grace. Every person in the world is a part of one of those two religions. Either we are trusting in what we can do or we are trusting in what Christ has done.

Jesus made a very interesting statement to Saul – “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” In order to make an ox be obedient to its master, a farmer would use a sharp stick to prod it. A wise animal would learn that compliance to its master’s will was the best thing for them and so they would learn to obey without the prodding. A foolish animal would continue to kick and therefore continue to be prodded.

Perhaps it was Stephen’s wisdom as he conversed with the men of the synagogue that first pricked Saul’s heart. Perhaps it was starring at the glow of Stephen’s angelic face that began to reveal to him the truth. Perhaps it was watching Jesus die on the cross and hearing Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps it was the faithful testimony of many of those whom Saul had persecuted and who would rather die than deny their Lord. Perhaps it was all of this.

Saul had been under great conviction and oftentimes when people are under spiritual conviction, they become even more resistant. No doubt a big part of Saul’s rage against the church was fueled by his resistance of the truth. It was a hard thing for a man like Saul to let go of his religion. He had been raised in Judaism. He described himself as a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews.’ He had dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ and his strict adherence to his religion had earned him much respect.Therefor it was his pride that was keeping him from bowing his knee to Jesus and acknowledging Him as Lord. Suddenly he was struck down by a blinding light and a voice that called his name. “Who art thou, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”

B. The Delight of Receiving the Truth

Once Saul became a Christian, a new word entered into his vocabulary – ‘JOY.’ Read his New Testament letters and count the number of times he uses the word ‘joy.’ Several years ago I discovered something wonderful about the New Testament word joy. It and the word ‘grace’ come from the same word which means to – rejoice exceedingly and be glad; to be well and to thrive!

The gospel is God’s good news- Christ died for our sins. The bad news is that we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The good news is that Christ died for our sins and through faith in Him, we can receive forgiveness and eternal life.

III. Saul’s Commitment

One thing you can say for Saul, he was a man of commitment. No doubt that is much of the reason God used him in such a powerful way.

A. Saul, Committed to Persecuting the Church

Philippians 3:6  Concerning zeal, persecuting < pursue 1377> the church

B. Paul, Committed to Pursuing Christ

Philippians 3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; 11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (The power of the resurrection Eph 1:18 – 20) 12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, < pursue 1377> if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14 I press < pursue 1377> toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

The phrases – ‘I follow after‘ in vs 12 and ‘I press‘ in vs 14 are the same Greek word translated as ‘persecuting‘ in vs 6. Paul was not a half-hearted man. It was all or nothing.

Once Paul accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, he gave the rest of his life to becoming all that Christ would have him to be. I love what he said in 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” In other words, it’s only by God’s grace that I am now a child of God and with this grace, I have given my life to becoming everything I can be for His glory.

Conclusion

Perhaps you are someone like Saul and confused about what it will take for you to get to heaven. Perhaps you think that you have to somehow earn your way by doing more good than bad. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no man will come to the Father – but by Me.” (Jn 14:6) After Saul became a Christian he wrote these words –

Ephesians 2:8  For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

Salvation is a free gift of God that He offers to us through the sacrifice of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. To receive that free gift, we have to let go of whatever it is that we are trusting in to get us to heaven and put our total faith and trust in the Lord Jesus. Salvation is not according to what we can do, but according to what Christ has done. In many ways, salvation is as simple as A-B-C.

A – ALL HAVE SINNED “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” (Rom 3:10-11) “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:23)

B – BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST “And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:30-31) “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Jn 3:16-18)

C – CONFESS YOUR SIN AND JESUS AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (Rom 10:9-11)

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