Saul of Tarsus was an unlikely candidate for conversion, a “hostile witness” against Jesus who had no prior reason to believe that Christ was resurrected before meeting him on the road to Tarsus. While Luke doesn’t present Paul’s conversion as a template for everyone else’s conversion, we all must be converted. This sermon explores a few things that our conversions must have in common with Paul’s.
Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7
Filmmaker Oliver Stone has a new movie out this weekend about Edward Snowden, the former U.S. spy and computer genius who leaked top-secret information a few years ago and fled to Russia. Right now, many Americans are arguing over whether Snowden is a hero, who deserves a presidential pardon, or a traitor, who deserves life in prison—or worse. One thing’s for sure: If he leaves Russia, he’ll be arrested immediately and brought back to the U.S. to face trial. If he stays there, he’ll be safe. The U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia. As long as he’s there, the Russians aren’t going to do anything to help us bring him to justice.
Believe it or not, something similar is happening in today’s scripture: A Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul has gone to the high priest in Jerusalem to get extradition papers to arrest Jewish Christians who have fled government persecution in Israel and are now living in Damascus. Saul is trying to extradite these Christians, to arrest them, and bring them to justice in Jerusalem.
These Christians didn’t leak top-secret information, obviously. But they have spread information that the government in Jerusalem considered very subversive: that this man Jesus, who was tried, convicted, and executed for treason and blasphemy, didn’t stay dead: he was resurrected instead, and now thousands and thousands of people are joining this Jesus movement known as “The Way.”
This movement must be stopped, and this man Saul, who later was re-named Paul, is just the man to do it.
Only… a funny thing happened to Saul when he was on his way to bring these Christians to justice: that’s what today’s scripture is all about.
Last week, yet another high-profile person had their emails hacked: former Secretary of State Colin Powell. His emails revealed disparaging comments he made about both major presidential candidates—as well as people he used to work with in the White House.
These email hacks are becoming so common in Washington and in the corporate world these days that a lot of political and business leaders are scared about things that they’ve written. They no longer consider email a “safe” and private way to communicate. The New York Times reports that executives in Silicon Valley are even using a new acronym in their emails: “LDL,” which means “Let’s discuss live.” They don’t want to risk putting in writing—in an email—sensitive or embarrassing information that may become public when someone hacks into their account.
And who can blame them? At our worst, all of us have said things about other people—either out loud to friends, or in emails, or in private Facebook messages, or on Snapchat, or in other social media—that we would be deeply embarrassed for these people to know about. Right?
Now consider Paul: he has now come face to face with the One about whom he’s not only been saying harmful and untrue things but the One whose followers he’s also been arresting and throwing in jail! He’s come face to face with the resurrected Lord!
But wait… that’s impossible, right? No one gets resurrected…
A lot of modern-day skeptics attempt to explain away the resurrection of Jesus by saying that Jesus’ disciples imagined seeing Jesus because they wanted so badly to believe that he had come back to life: Their minds were playing tricks on them. They experienced some kind of hallucination… But notice that’s not what’s happening with Paul. First of all, unlike Jesus’ twelve disciples, he didn’t believe in Jesus. He certainly didn’t expect Jesus to be resurrected. So it’s not like the resurrection was some kind of wish-fulfillment for him. Moreover, we’re told in verse 7 that the men who were traveling with Paul—police officers from Jerusalem—they heard the voice, too. We’re told later in Acts that they also saw the light but didn’t understand what the voice was saying.
In other words, Luke wants us to know that the resurrection of Jesus was an objective, historical, physical event that took place in time and space; Jesus was bodily raised from the dead; it wasn’t some kind of private experience that happened in the minds of people who wanted so badly for it to be true! In fact, this same Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, refers to 500 other people who encountered the resurrected Jesus. He says that most of them are still alive. In other words, “When I say that the resurrected Jesus appeared to me,” Paul says, “don’t just take my word for it: you can ask them!”
Also, consider what the Lord tells Ananias in verse 16 of today’s scripture: “For I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Jesus wasn’t kidding: Paul, by choosing to follow Jesus, would suffer greatly for the sake of Jesus’ name. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11, Paul describes some of the ways that he suffered: He went hungry and thirsty. He was imprisoned many times. He was beaten with rods and whips multiple times. He was stoned with rocks and left for dead. He was shipwrecked. He was constantly on the run from people who were out to get him. Not to mention all the anxiety he suffered on behalf of the churches that he started. And we know from history that under the Roman emperor Nero, Paul would give up his very life—all because of what happened on this road to Damascus in today’s scripture; all because he encountered the Risen Lord; all because Jesus was resurrected, and the resurrection changes everything!
We’ll sometimes hear of people who get converted to Christianity as having had a “Damascus Road experience.” But the truth is, Paul’s experience was unique. Luke isn’t trying to give us a template for what Christian conversion looks like for everyone. In fact, elsewhere in Acts, people are converted in more ordinary ways—without being blinded by the light, without being thrown to the ground, without Jesus appearing to them in this dramatic way. And that’s perfectly O.K.
But everyone, the Bible wants us to know, everyone must be converted in order to be saved. If we have been genuinely converted, I want to talk briefly about three things that we should have in common with Paul and with what’s described in today’s scripture.
First, if we have been converted, we will commit ourselves to live under the authority of God’s Word, the Bible.
Think about Paul. When he realized that Jesus was resurrected, that meant that everything that Jesus taught, and everything Jesus claimed for himself, and everything Jesus believed about the Bible, was true. It meant that most of what Paul believed before was wrong. So Paul must have had a thousand questions. For example, it couldn’t have been easy for Paul, the strictest of Pharisees, to accept the fact that we are helpless sinners saved by grace rather than obedience to God’s Law. Or that Jesus’ was God in the flesh. Or that the Jewish sacrificial system in the Temple was now fulfilled in Christ and no longer necessary in order to have our sins forgiven.
But, Paul reasoned, Jesus was resurrected, so all of that must be true—in spite of my questions, in spite of the things that don’t make sense right now.
Our questions today are different from Paul’s: Why would a good and loving God permit so much evil and suffering? How can Jesus really be the only way to heaven? Why is the church such a stickler when it comes to marriage and sex? At some point we Christians must say, “Jesus taught these things and believed these things and viewed holy scripture in this way—and he was resurrected from the dead, which proves he was right. So I need to obey his Word, and everything that he inspired the writers of the Bible to say—even if I don’t always like it or understand it. The resurrection proves that Jesus knows what he’s talking about, and not me!
Second, if we have been genuinely converted, we are willing—even though we still fail, and fail often—we are willing to do difficult and uncomfortable and costly and even frightening things for the sake of God’s call on our life. Just like Paul… And just liked this ordinary Christian, Ananias! He’s called by God to go see this man who he knows has been out to get Christians like Ananias—to arrest people like him. Yet God wants him to go see Paul. That must have been uncomfortable for him. But he went anyway…
We do those kinds of things if we’ve been converted.
Finally, if we have been genuinely converted, we will live our lives under grace. Think of Paul: He realized that nearly everything he’d been teaching about God and doing in God’s name was wrong—even evil. It’s no wonder that Paul can say of himself, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” And yet, God does not condemn him. God does not strike him down. God does not judge him immediately and send him to hell. God instead saves sinners like him, who “confess with their mouths Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead.”
Why does God do this for even the “worst” of sinners? Because salvation doesn’t depend on what we do, but on what Christ has done. Christ lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable live and died the god-forsaken death that we deserved to die. He paid the debt that we owed and were unable to pay ourselves. That’s the only basis on which we’re made right with God—and not on the basis of anything that we could ever do ourselves.
As the words of that great hymn say:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Those are the words of some self-righteous Pharisee but someone who’s living under grace—who knows that he’s a debtor to grace.
Have you been converted?
1. 1 Timothy 1:15 NIV
2. Romans 10:9-10