READ – Acts 9:1-25
Acts Chapters 8-11 are all about conversion. Here we find three very different conversion stories. In chapter 8, an African (an Ethiopian eunuch), meets Philip on the road while reading the Old Testament and is baptized right away. Acts 10-11 tells us the story of the conversion of a Roman soldier named Cornelius through visions sent to him and to the apostle Peter. In Chapter 9 we find what may be the most well-known of any conversion story – the conversion of Saul the Pharisee on the road to Damascus. These are 3 very different people who came to faith in 3 very different ways. From this we learn 1) conversion is necessary but 2) conversion is varied. There is no one template for how God changes a life. The bible clearly teaches us that each person’s conversion story is unique. Keep in this mind, we must also listen to how the apostle Paul (Paul is simply Saul’s Greek name) reflects back on this Damascus road experience and says that the way God changed his life happened in the way it did as an “example” (1 Tim. 1:16) to all. In other words, it can be seen as a pattern or a blueprint for the way God changes a life. From Saul’s conversion we can identify 3 essential parts to how God changes a life.
1. CONFRONTATION – A NEW VIEW OF GOD
For God to change a life, for there to be true conversion, for any real turning point to happen, there must first be a confrontation; a confrontation that results in a new view of God. Saul the Pharisee had set himself on a direct collision course with God. It was Saul who stood by (as the organizer?) of the stoning of Stephen. It was Saul who orchestrated the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem that scattered them all over Judea and Samaria (Acts 7:53-8:3). He was the archenemy of God’s people and main opponent of God’s message of grace in Jesus.
Verse 3 describes what happened when God confronted his archenemy. Saul was knocked to the ground and forced to cry out, “Who are you, Lord?” This was the one question that Saul thought he would never ask God. He knew who God was. He was an expert in the law. He spent his whole life studying God, teaching others and living in strict adherence to the laws of God, persecuting any who he though had the wrong view of God. But here he finds himself falling to the ground, asking the most basic starting question of faith - Who are you? If Saul were to ever change, ever truly meet God, he first had to be confronted with the reality that he didn’t know who God was. He was wrong about God. All this time, all his life, he had made up a god of his own.
What’s the lesson of this for us? The truth is we all prefer a god of our own making. This “god” always affirms us and never calls us to account. But all true conversion and any subsequent turning points faith require meeting a God we have not constructed in our own image. A god we have made will never confront us so a god like this will never change us. All change, all real relationship involves confrontation. It requires us falling to the ground and asking, “Who are you Lord?” and letting God answer the question.
2. BLINDNESS – A NEW VIEW OF OURSELVES
After Paul’s encounter with the glorious appearance of Jesus, he was struck with blindness for three days. We are told he went into the city of Damascus and didn’t eat or drink for these three days. What was going on within Saul during this time? From this text and from places in Paul’s letters, we can be fairly certain what he was happening. For one, we know he was fasting, implying humility and repentance (ie a change of mind). We also know he was praying. Verse 11 reports this with shock when God tells Ananias “Behold, he is praying there!” (v11, ESV). God is saying, “It’s ok Ananias, Saul is really praying, he is finally praying to Me.” Clearly, Paul was undergoing a radical reorientation of mind and heart.
Paul’s letters provide us with the specific things that were changing inside of him. It can be boiled down to this: He was coming to grips with how his new view of God (revealed in Jesus) changed everything he knew about himself. It was as if he had always been blind to who he really was, but now, in seeing Jesus, he was seeing himself for the first time. Paul’s reflections on this experience reveal the 2 insights that changed everything for him:
1) I am a far far greater sinner than I ever thought. In Galatians 1:14, Paul tells us that prior to his conversion, he believed he was better than anyone (“I was advancing beyond my contemporaries”). In Philippians 3:4-6, he says he was “confident” his spiritual resume would stand up against anyone’s. Only in the blindness could he finally see that all this was ignorance, arrogance and blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:13). Only by admitting his blindness could he ever see his sin and guilt (John 9:39-41). During those 3 days, Paul learned something he called a “trustworthy saying” that everyone should accept – “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim 1:15). In those three days of blindness, he was overcome by a sense of his own darkness and sin. The one who saw himself as the best of the righteous, now saw himself as the worst of sinners. When he saw this first insight, the second insight came rushing in…
2) I am far far more loved and accepted by God in Messiah Jesus than I ever imagined was possible! Even more than the realization of his own sin, the reality of the personal and sacrificial love of God in Jesus overcame him and forever changed him. He realized God had called him by grace even before he was born – fully knowing he would become his archenemy. (Gal 1:15) How could it be? Why would Jesus call him by name in love and not squash him on the spot for all the evil he had done? He realized the “grace of our Lord overflowed” to him. It wouldn’t stop pouring over and onto all the sin and guilt he saw in himself. All this time, he thought he had to live to earn God’s acceptance and now he realized it was a gift given even to the worst of sinners. He realized only Jesus the Messiah could deal with our sin and earn us a secure place in the love of God (see theological reflection below).
What does this mean for us? All conversion and all subsequent turning points in our lives require seeing these 2 things “as if for the first time”. We don’t primarily need new insight to change, we need to see these 2 things more clearly, more deeply and more fully about ourselves. This is the how God changes a life.
3. CHANGE – A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Once was confronted with who God really was, what God really did for him in Jesus and what this meant about who he really was, Saul was ready to embrace the gospel and a new way of life as a Christian. God immediately taught Paul two things about this new way of life.
· It was a new life in community. Prior to his conversion, Saul didn’t think he needed anyone else. By his own admission, he was too arrogant and self-confident to rely on others. But God calls another ordinary Christian, a man named Ananias, to show Paul this new way of life is life in community. God could have healed Paul’s blindness directly himself. But He didn’t – Saul was not restored without the touch, the welcome, the and the presence of another Christian; not without submitting to the sacrament of baptism by another welcoming Paul into the community, the body of Christ. Conversion is conversion to Christ and to a new way of life in, his body, the church.
· It was a new life of surrender. God told Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument”. The word instrument is translated elsewhere “vessel”. It’s a word Paul would later use about the how the way of life we are called to live as Christians A vessel is ordinary, fragile and expendable – but when surrendered to God reveals to others the all surpassing power of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). The rest of Paul’s life shows us how God can work through a weak and flawed vessel fully surrendered to Him.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions? Do you sense the need for a turning point in your life or in a part of your life? If so, where and how? How does the story of Paul’s conversion encourage and help you?
2. Though we shy away from talk of conversion in our modern world because we are wary of people trying to convert others, this story teaches us that conversion isn’t something that people to do people, it’s something God does to people. Saul’s story makes it clear it was God’s initiative and work. Why is this important for us to remember in our hopes and efforts to see ourselves change AND for others to believe in and embrace the gospel?
3. How can we tell if we are following a god of our own making? How can we “invite” God to confront our false views of him? What has this looked like in your life? Where do you sense you need this?
4. Why is it so hard to see our sin? Why is it so hard to see that God knows and loves us fully and completely in Christ? Why is it so powerful when our eyes are open to see how these two insights (mentioned above) are true at the same time? How is God showing you these things about yourself (or do you feel your blind to these)?
5. How might you more fully need to embrace your need for the body of Christ (the church)? What would this look like? How might you need to more fully surrender your life or areas of your life to God as “vessel” for his glory? Pray for these things to change for each other in 2019.
Gospel Theology Extra: It’s fascinating to see how Paul’s gospel theology was contained in “seed form” in the simple response of Jesus to his question. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting” (v5). In this one sentence, we see the three great themes of Pauline theology. Here’s how this appearance changed everything for Paul:
1. The resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus was really appearing and speaking to Paul, then He was truly alive and risen. If Jesus is risen, then his death on the cross was not because of his sin, or rejection by God, or being cursed by God. It must be that the sin, rejection, the curse that took him to the cross was the sin, rejection curse that others deserved! This changes everything!
2. The deity of Jesus. Paul asked, “Who are you Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus”. If Jesus is Lord, then he is God. This means it was God on the cross who died! What?! This means only a perfect life, a perfect a God-man could save us. The Messiah was God substituting himself for us! For me!? This changes everything!
3. The unity of Jesus with his people (union with Christ”). “I am Jesus, the one who you are persecuting”. If persecuting the church is persecuting Jesus Himself, then He is somehow one with all who believe in him. He is united to them and they are united to Him. If Jesus is united with his people, then his identity is theirs. This means to be united to Him, the Messiah who died and rose again is for me to die and rise again in Him. It’s what he has done for me, not what I have done for Him that brings me to God and secures my place united to Him forever – This changes everything!