5. Church Begins – Paul’s Conversion
Acts 9:1-6 But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he travelled, it happened that he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He said, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one. They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank.
The conversion of Paul is perhaps the most famous throughout the history of the Church. Luke tells us the story three times. But was Paul’s conversion special? Many people say “I have not had a Damascus Road experience“. There were, it is true, special events on that day, which make Paul’s conversion unique. Let us look together at his conversion experience.
The only possible cause for his conversion is the beautiful sovereign grace of God. It was Jesus Christ who decided for him. Each of the 3 previous times Paul is mentioned, Luke mentions him as opposing the church & persecuting the body of believers, most fittingly having witnessed the death of Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1,3). Now Luke resumes his story of Paul by saying that he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (9:1). Paul had tried to contain the church to Jerusalem, but some had escaped to Damascus. Paul then devised a plan to capture the believers in Damascus. Armed with letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem, he set out for Damascus in a bid to stop the spreading of the Good News. He would arrive in Damascus, a proud and pompous man, bent on ridding the city of its followers of Jesus. Why did Paul hate the believers so much? Because, To his mind at the time, to him a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all and how could the Saviour of the Jews, the Messiah, die on a cross and be cursed by God. No, no. Paul considered it his duty as a man zealous for the law, to eradicate all those who were followers of this man. Luke’s description of Paul seems to be like that of a wild animal trying to destroy a flock of sheep, creating havoc & destruction which ever way he turned. And yet, he had not considered the sovereign grace of God. To a man like this there could only be one reason why he changed his mind, and became the most ardent follower of Jesus. He turned from a wolf who destroyed sheep, to become a sheep with the character of a shepherd. It can only be through the sovereign grace of God. So let us look together at Paul’s conversion.
Paul and his companions were nearing the end of a weeks’ travelling of the 150 mile journey to Damascus from Jerusalem Then suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him (v3), brighter than the sun (26:13). It was so overwhelming that it both blinded him and knocked him over (v8-9), flat on his face before his conqueror. Then a voice cried out “Paul, Paul, why do you persecute me?” And in answer to Paul’s subsequent question as to his identity, the voice continues “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul must have at once, hooked on to how closely Jesus identifies with His followers, so to persecute them was to persecute Him, that he suddenly realised that Jesus was no longer dead as he supposed, but was alive and all His claims were true. Paul’s companions, while hearing the voice, did not see the resurrected Jesus. They took Paul into the city. Instead of arriving there full of pride & bravery, a self confident enemy of Jesus, Paul entered Damascus, humbled and blinded, a prisoner of Jesus. The light he saw was the glory of Jesus, and the voice he heard was the voice of Jesus. In his letters we discover how Paul views this event: how God arrested him (Philippians 3:12), shone his light upon him (2 Corinthians 4:6), and the mercy of God overflowed upon him (1 Timothy 1:14). And yet, while it was entirely due to the grace of God, that Paul was converted from enemy of the Christ to follower of the Christ, it was not sudden. Yes, the light was sudden, and Christ appeared suddenly, but Jesus had talked to Paul before. The goads, likened Paul to a wild horse needing to broken in, ready to be ridden. The implication is that Jesus was pursuing Paul, prodding and pricking him, and Paul was resisting painfully. But what were the goads that Jesus used to prick Paul of Tarsus? While we are not told specifically what they were, by reading his letters we can gain an insight into what they were.
Here are three of the goads used by Jesus on Paul:
a.. His sub-conscious doubts. With his conscious mind, he proclaimed Jesus as an impostor, who had been rejected as the Messiah by his own people, and died under the curse of God on a cross. Yet, Paul would have heard reports about Jesus’ teaching & miracles, claims & character, together with the talk that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
b. The testimony of Stephen. Paul had been present at the trial of Stephen and had seen his execution, both the non-resistance while being stoned to death and his face shining like an angel. He had heard Stephen’s speech at his trial, his prayer for forgiveness of his executioners and his astonishing claim to have seen Jesus at the right hand of God. There was something about these Christians, that could not be explained to Paul- the divine living power of Jesus in the lives of His followers.
c. The inadequacy of the law to save. Paul claimed to be faultless i e that is his public life. In private however, he knew that his thoughts & attitudes were not clean for example his sin of covetousness. Therefore he had no inner power or peace, and it was the goads of Jesus. His conversion was a sudden climax, to a long drawn out process with Jesus having pursued him.
And yet while his conversion was not sudden, it was not forced upon him. Indeed, forcing him to the ground blind, he did not change his character and turn him into a robot. And when Jesus asked the questions, Paul did not have to answer the questions of Jesus. Paul’s conversion, while not sudden or compulsive, was due entirely to the gracious pursuit of Jesus. Not everybody has sudden flashes of light and voices that say his name. No-one else has seen the historical fact of the Jesus’ resurrected body and a call to be an apostle. Yet there are similarities with us. To be converted, we did not & do not need those things to happen, anymore than we have to travel to the same spot Paul was at on the road to Damascus. We must experience a personal encounter with Jesus, surrendering to Him our will in faith, and receive his order to serve Him. Just as Jesus Christ has pursued all people everywhere, over the past 2000 years, to return into a dynamic relationship with Him. Just as He did me and I handed my life over to Him. Millions of other people have also done that down through the centuries. My final question to you is – have you?
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