Acts (Week 4)
Saul's Conversion (Acts 9:1-19)
One of the things I was taught at bible college was how to give a good testimony. And I’ve used this same approach in coaching other people how to tell their story in a clear and concise way. When I was at Deep Water, we typically did believers baptism with adults and part of that involved people telling their story of how they met Jesus. Since Deep Water is a pretty large church, we would usually film their story beforehand and I would edit it all into a 2-3 minute video. So when people would come to film their story I would essentially ask them three questions. What was your life like before you met Jesus? How did you meet Jesus? What is your life like now?
These are the components of a good testimony. It helps focus your story on the transformation that Jesus has done in your life. Who you were, how you met Jesus, who you are today.
And so you’ll hear someone give a testimony about how they were greedy and lived a life trying to accumulate more and more, but then they met Jesus when the rug was pulled out from under them and now they live a life of generosity. Or you hear how someone was addicted to drugs and stealing from their family for their next fix, but then they met Jesus in a rehab centre and now they’ve been clean for seven years. Or for a lot of us, especially those of us who grew up in the church, maybe our story isn’t nearly as dramatic.
I first became a Christian when I was five years old. But I really started following Jesus in high school. And before I started following Jesus, I didn’t have a clear idea of where my life was going. I kind of wanted to go into business somehow but I also hated sales. Then I really started to understand what it meant to follow Jesus and he called me to be a pastor. So I could say that my testimony is about being purposeless, meeting Jesus and suddenly having direction and meaning in life.
Now, telling your story in this way is a great way of communicating how Jesus has made a change in your life. However, there’s also a risk that reducing our story to these three question—what was your life like before you met Jesus, how did you meet Jesus, what’s your life like now—can unintentionally give people the wrong idea of what salvation is and what it means to be saved.
If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and turn with me to Acts chapter 9. This morning we’re going to read verses 1 through 19 and discuss the Apostle Paul’s conversion. And I want to look at it specifically through the lens of this testimony style and ask the question, “What is salvation?” What does it mean to be saved? What are we being saved from? With that said, we read in Acts chapter 9,
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Our passage starts out, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” We’re to understand that while everything in chapter 8 was happening—Philip in Samaria and preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch—Saul was still persecuting the church. We’re told that Saul was “breathing out murderous threats.” In Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic, breath is associated with anger. The fact that Saul is breathing out murderous threats would indicate that he has a deep level of anger towards these Christians. This is interesting to note because Luke’s original audience would have picked up on this phrasing. They would have understood that Luke was trying to say that Saul was filled with rage, which they would see as an obvious character flaw.
This is something Saul himself confirms later on in his letters to the churches. Multiple times he talks about how he was zealous in his persecution of the church. But in 1 Timothy 1:13 he goes even further in his description when he says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” So who was Saul before he met Jesus? He was a violent man. He was an angry person. He breathed murderous threats against others. He was zealous in his attempt to destroy the church.
Then we read the rest of the story here in Acts 9. He’s on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem. Suddenly, he has a radically and unexpected encounter with Jesus. Jesus reveals that Saul is persecuting him not just his followers. When he stands up after his experience with Jesus, he realizes that he’s blind and needs to be led into the city. There, after three days of praying and fasting, a follower of Jesus named Ananias comes to pray for him. Something like scales fall from his eyes and he can see again. Saul is baptized, receives the Holy Spirit and immediately begins preaching about Jesus. So how is Paul’s life different now that he has encountered Jesus? Probably isn’t angry anymore, right?
Well, in Acts 15 we read, “Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Let’s call this what it was, it was an argument.
So Barnabas wants to bring Mark on their trip and Paul disagrees and an argument ensues.
Or, in Acts 23 we can read another story about Paul. “Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”
Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”
Here, Paul gets struck by someone in the Sanhedrin and immediately lashes out and insults the high priest.
If we look at these texts, Paul’s testimony is: So Paul, what were you like before you met Jesus? “I was angry, violent and full of rage.” And how did you meet Jesus? “I had an encounter on the road to Damascus where Jesus blinded me for three days.” And, how is your life different now? “Well… Honestly, I’m still kind of an angry guy.” That’s not how the script is supposed to go.
But the problem with going testimonies like this, where we have to show a marked improvement in life before and after Jesus is that it fails to recognize that salvation is both an event and a process. There is a very clear moment in Acts 9 when Saul becomes a follower of Jesus. There is a moment when his eyes are opened and he understandings that Jesus is God’s Messiah.
Luke uses Saul’s blindness as a metaphor. And so when Ananias prays for him and something like scales fall from his eyes, he can physically see again, but also in a spiritual sense, his eyes are opened. Or as J. Bradley Chance says in his commentary, “The end of physical blindness, pictured by the scale-like substance falling from his eyes, brings with it the end of spiritual blindness. Saul has regained his sight on both levels of understanding. Because he now sees spiritually, he is initiated through baptism into the faith community.”
There is an event here, a moment when Saul goes from unbeliever to believer. From dead in his transgressions to alive in Christ. He is now a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come. And yet Saul is still that person who is quick to anger. That’s because there is also a process of salvation. This is also something Paul talks about in his letters.
In Philippians chapter 3, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
The goal Paul is talking about here is to become like Jesus. And he says, I haven’t achieved it yet. I’m still working on it. There is a process to becoming more like Jesus, but that’s the goal Jesus has called us to.
Again in 1 Timothy, shortly after reminding us that he was once a blasphemer and violent man, Paul says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the very worst.” He doesn’t say, “I was the very worst.” He says, “I am.” Present tense. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I am now currently in need of salvation. That’s because salvation is both an event and a process.
The reality is that Jesus isn’t just saving us from hell in the afterlife. Salvation isn’t just saying a prayer once so that we can go to heaven someday. When we view salvation in that way, the whole thing becomes a transaction. I did my part years ago when I said the right words or prayed the prayer and someday God is going to do his part by letting me into heaven.
But the truth is that Jesus is saving us from ourselves. He’s saving us from being the kind of people who creating hell all around us by being angry or selfish or arrogant. He’s saving us by making us people who desire justice and mercy. By making us people who love and forgive and give generously.
This is why Paul can tell us in Romans 12, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Or in 1 Thessalonians 5 when he says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
Be transformed. May God himself sanctify you—purify you—through and through. These ideas aren’t secondary to salvation. They are salvation. This is God transforming us and purify us; saving us from our own destructive tendencies and behaviours.
Which should lead us to ask ourselves, if salvation is both an event and a process, where do we still need Jesus to save us? What areas of our lives do we still need him to transform and purify?
Maybe you’re like Paul and you have issues with anger. Maybe you need Jesus to save you from your own anger and rage.
Maybe your marriage is struggling and you have a tendency to put the blame on your spouse all the time. Maybe you need Jesus to save you from your arrogance and your need to be right all the time.
Maybe you’re floating through life and have a bit of a fatalistic or nihilistic outlook on life where everything is meaningless and everything is just going to happen and nothing matters. Maybe you need Jesus to save you by reigniting in you a sense of passion and purpose and direction.
Salvation is not simply a one-time event where we pray and accept Jesus and someday in the future get to go to heaven. Salvation is also a process where we continue to turn over our sinful attitudes and actions to Jesus and allow him to remake us more and more into his image.