We’re in a series on the book of Acts and we’re looking at the conversion of Saul (that is, the apostle Paul). Last week Rod took us through verses 1-9. This evening we’ve reached 9.10-31. My title is ‘The Ministry of an Apostle’. Please turn up p1102 in the Bibles so you can follow what’s going on.
Rod mentioned Richard Dawkins who, in case you’re unaware, is an Oxford biologist, and a passionate advocate of atheism. He says in ‘River Out of Eden’:
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
He is deeply hostile to what he regards as the irrationality of the Christian faith. Some sales blurb on his website says:
While touring in support of his worldwide bestseller The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins made the case for removing the “kid gloves” when dealing with religion. To sold-out crowds on college campuses across America, he described a new “wave of reason” which he feels is sweeping the globe.
Mind you, I can’t help but note that he also quotes with approval the biologist Lewis Wolpert’s view that…
‘Science in general does violence to common sense.’[Lewis Wolpert, quoted by Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’]
He’s a brilliant man with a witty way with words; a prolific writer; a vigorous campaigner; and a persuasive preacher (though I’m not sure he’d like to be called that). He’s full of zeal for a cause that he believes to be right and true. And he seems to have a bitter hatred of the disciples of Jesus who he believes are effectively insane and in danger of destroying all he holds dear.
Imagine if overnight he was to change direction completely and become a passionate advocate of the gospel, touring college campuses around the world preaching Christ. That gives a little taste of what it must have been like when Saul was converted.
Now because this is a continuous narrative I want to recap what happens in vv1-9 and then move on to vv10-31. So here it is in five sections.
First, THE ‘ANTI-APOSTLE’
This is 9.1-2:
Meanwhile, Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked 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.
What Luke gives us there is like a summary of everything that changes about Saul – his teaching, his letters, his visits to churches, his planned visit to Jerusalem, and the source of his authority.
As a result of his encounter with Jesus, Saul’s teaching is transformed from murderous threats to life-giving promises.
His letters change from letters of permission to destroy Christian churches, to letters full of passion that he writes to young churches to build them up.
His visits continue to follow the pattern of going to the Jews at the synagogue first and then to the Christians. But their purpose changes. Before his conversion, he wanted to uproot churches. After it, he wanted to plant churches.
Before his conversion, Saul planned to visit Jerusalem with Christians in tow as prisoners. After it, he planned to visit Jerusalem with a gift for the Christians there, and he ended up a prisoner for Christ himself.
Before his conversion, the source of Paul’s authority was the Jewish high priest. Afterwards, it was the Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus.
In other words, everything about the life and work of Saul was turned upside down. So here’s a question for us all right from the start.
Do you know that God can change anyone?
No-one is beyond the reach of the grace and power of God. Not Richard Dawkins. Not Saul breathing out murderous threats. Not anyone. Saul starts off as a kind of anti-apostle. He is transformed into an apostle. How? By what happens next. So:
Secondly, THE CONFRONTATION WITH CHRIST
This is in verses 3-9. I won’t read those out, but we need to be aware of a few things about this confrontation between Saul and the risen Christ.
It’s sudden and dramatic – literally happening in a flash.
It is, so to say, man to man. This isn’t just a vision or apparition. This is the living, risen, Jesus of Nazareth meeting Saul on the road to Damascus, man to man. That’s why he writes later, in 1 Corinthians 15.8, when he’s listing the appearances of the resurrected Jesus:
… and last of all he [the risen Christ] appeared to me also…
That’s a vital element of Paul’s qualification to be an apostle. He was an eye-witness to the resurrection. He had seen the risen Jesus.
Indeed it’s in some sense a physical, even, we might say, violent confrontation. Saul falls to the ground under its force, and is temporarily blinded by it.
Saul is faced with a challenge and a command that are verbal and audible. The others with him hear the sound, though they see no one. “Why do you persecute me?” says Jesus, “… get up and go into the city…”
It is profoundly shocking. Do you see the state in which Saul is left? Not only is he blinded, but (verse 9)…
For three days… he did not eat or drink anything.
He is traumatised by the shock of it. But that’s temporary. What’s permanent is that Saul is totally transformed by this confrontation with Jesus. From being the master of his own destiny, he’s transformed into a slave of Christ – obediently being led by the hand to where Jesus commands him to go – first into the city of Damascus, but then on to a lifetime of service.
This confrontation is, as far as Saul is concerned, overwhelmingly powerful. It’s not something he has any choice about, or something he can resist. It’s not for nothing that Jesus is called the Lion of Judah, and that the Christ figure in C.S.Lewis’s Narnia stories is portrayed as the lion Aslan. Have you seen a lion close up? The most impressive thing about them is the sense of graceful, controlled power that can be unleashed at will at any moment. Jesus decided to unleash his graceful, controlled power on Saul. So here’s another question for us all.
Do you know with whom you have to deal?
It’s impossible to overstate either the grace or the power of the risen, living Jesus who’s here among us this evening by his Spirit. We have to ask ourselves whether we’ve faced up to the reality of who Jesus is and what he’s like.
Now I want to look at the next section both from the point of view of the disciple Ananias, and then also from the point of view of Saul. So:
Thirdly, THE FEARFUL FAITHFULNESS OF ANANIAS
This, then, is verses 10-19. Verse 10:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.
I love it when these otherwise unknown disciples appear on the scene in these accounts. It’s as if those like Ananias who get a kind of walk-on part in the Biblical narrative are representative of all those other unnamed disciples. Most of us are not going to feature in the history books. But that doesn’t mean our discipleship isn’t significant. The service we render to the kingdom of God is all woven in to everything that God’s doing to bring his great plan of salvation to fruition. Ananias is a reminder to us that we count. Our service and our obedience matter.
So he gets this very clear call from the Lord Jesus. There’s no indication that he has a moment’s doubt about who it is that’s calling him. He’s immediately aware that this isn’t some random dream. This is the real thing. This is Jesus speaking to him. And the Lord tells him what he wants him to do. Verse 11:
“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.”
That’s an amazing window into Christ’s sovereign control of events. He sees everything. He knows everything: every detail; every street name; every occupant; when we’re praying. And he’s ruling over all things. He knows your name, your address, how you spend your time. It’s a good thing he’s patient. And it’s a good thing he loves us.
He had to be patient with Ananias, because Ananias knows of this man Saul, whose reputation clearly arrived in Damascus before he did. So there’s an almost comic exchange between Ananias and Jesus. You can practically hear the pause, as Ananias takes in what he’s being asked to do. Then the gulp. Then in his confusion and fear it’s as if Ananias decides that maybe Jesus isn’t quite so well informed as he is, so he’d better bring Jesus up to speed on what’s going on. So he plucks up his courage to tell the boss what the boss seems not to know, verse 13:
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
There’s no refusal to do anything; just filling Jesus in, in the hope that he’ll be let off the hook. So how does Jesus respond? “Oh, thanks for letting me know Ananias, I didn’t realise that. Change of plan then. No need for you to do a thing.” I don’t think so. Verse 15:
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go!”
Jesus fills Ananias in on what’s going on. And what happens in verse 17 is to his eternal credit:
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it.
He takes Jesus at his word. He goes. He prays for Saul. And that simple, humble act of obedience was of cosmic significance. Ananias may have displayed a very human hesitation. But his fearful faithfulness – his trust and obedience – lead to far-reaching fruitfulness beyond anything that he could have imagined. There’s Godly Living in a nutshell. Trust in Christ. Obey the Word.
We easily identify with Ananias, don’t we? Let me give you an example. We’ve just completed our two week programme of visiting door to door around the parish. It’s been encouraging, but I for one have never yet been parish visiting without some nerves and reluctance beforehand. “It’s just not me, knocking on a stranger’s door. You never know who might be behind it,” I say to Jesus. But he just says to me, as it were, “I know who lives in those homes, and I love them. Now go.” So here’s a question for each one of us.
For all your understandable hesitations, will you respond to Christ’s call on your life?
We never know what might be the unseen effect of our obedience. That’s the fearful faithfulness of Ananias. Now I want to us go back over that section with Saul in our line of sight. So:
Fourthly, THE EMPOWERING OF AN APOSTLE
This, then, is verses 10-19 again. What’s happening with Saul? Jesus tells Ananias that Saul is praying, and that he’s let him know that Ananias is going to come and pray with him so that he’ll see again. So Saul is waiting. And Jesus tells Ananias what his plan is for Saul. That’s the rest of what he says in verse 15. Take a look:
“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Ananias gets out his A to Z, goes to the house of Judas on Straight Street, finds the blind Saul waiting there, lays his hands on him, and says (from verse 17):
“Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here [his conversation with Jesus, it seems, was longer than Luke has recorded] – 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 baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Now there are a number of things to notice about what’s said and done to Saul here. Saul’s calling is unique. There are many things about Saul’s discipleship that are examples for us, and indeed Saul tells us to imitate him. But this apostolic calling is unique to him. He has a particular and special role in Christ’s cosmic plan. He is the chosen instrument of Jesus.
He’s given a burden to carry. And that burden is the name of Jesus. Like Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, Saul must carry the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth – to Jews and Gentiles, to Kings and common people. He must carry the name of Jesus whatever the cost. And that cost will be high.
Saul reminds me of the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday journey. Saul is a beast of burden, carrying the name of Jesus on his bent-over back. Do you know the poem by G.K. Chesterton called ‘The Donkey’? It imagines the silent thoughts of that donkey, and it ends like this:
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
[G.K. Chesterton ‘The Donkey’]
How’s Saul going to cope with this heavy burden? He’s given three things.
First, he’s given the gift of sight. The return of his physical sight surely symbolises the fact that he is given spiritual vision. He sees the past, the present and the future. He sees what God has done, is doing and will do. He sees that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. He is given faith, and knowledge, and wisdom and hope. Not that he keeps it to himself. It’s all in here – an open book for any who will listen. But he is given sight.
Secondly, he’s given the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Jesus has sent me,” says Ananias, “so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It’s the presence and power of Christ in Saul’s life that’ll make his burden light, and a joy, and a privilege. Without the Holy Spirit he couldn’t bear the burden. The same is true of us.
Then thirdly, he’s given tangible tokens of God’s strengthening grace for those who are weak. He’s baptised and he’s fed. He’s given sacrament and sustenance, you could say.
The gift of sight, the gift of the Spirit, and those tangible tokens of God’s love and grace are all Saul needs to empower him to bear the burden of the name of Jesus and all the suffering that comes with it.
So here’s a question for each of us.
Do we honour Christ’s choice by submitting to Saul’s apostolic authority?
What’s our attitude to what Saul – Paul – says here in this book that collects so many of his letters? Do we take on board his words as the words of the chosen instrument of Jesus?
We come, then, to the final section, headed in the NIV ‘Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem’. So:
Fifthly, THE IMMEDIATE IMPACT OF SAUL’S MINISTRY
This is verses 19-31. I’ll leave you to read the detail for yourselves, but this is the broad outline of what happens next, after the dramatic events of Saul’s conversion. He gets to work at once on fulfilling the commission that the Lord Jesus has given him. Verse 19:
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues…
The message of his preaching is simply Jesus. He preached that “Jesus is the Son of God” (verse 20). He proved that “Jesus is the Christ” (verse 22). And this preaching and teaching of Saul’s is increasingly powerful. Verse 22:
Saul grew more and more powerful…
His preaching was persuasive (he “baffled the Jews”, verse 22). It was fearless. Barnabas later told the apostles how Saul “had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” (verse 27). And it was bold – verse 28 (this is when he’s moved on to Jerusalem):
So Saul stayed them [that’s the other apostles] and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
He caused confusion among both Jews and Christians because of his complete transformation – Luke describes astonishment, bafflement and fear.
But more than that, he stirs up great hostility. In Damascus (verse 23):
After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him…
And later, in Jerusalem (verse 29):
He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him.
That was the beginning of a pattern that continued on and off for the rest of his life until he was finally executed for his faith.
But he’s accepted by the church. His new fellow believers follow him. They help him repeatedly – not least to escape being killed, and sometimes by creative methods like lowering him out of an opening in the city wall in a basket. In the person of the great encourager Barnabas, they sponsor him in his approach to the apostles. Through those apostles they endorse him and his ministry. And they host him. The one-time arch-enemy of the church of Christ is accepted into the heart of the church.
And the impact not least of Saul’s ministry results in a church which is blessed by God the Holy Spirit. Verse 31:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
The church is protected, strengthened and encouraged, and it grows numerically and spiritually.
That kind of explosive impact with strong reactions for and against makes me think of, say, the effect of the preaching in Geneva of John Calvin, born 500 years ago this year; or the young George Whitefield in this country 250 years ago; or Billy Graham in the 1950s. So here’s a question for us all:
Will you pray that the preaching of Christ will once again have a profound impact on our nation and on individual lives? Will you pray that the name of Jesus will be honoured once more?
Let’s pray now: Lord Jesus, thank you that we can look back to those astonishing events in the lives of Saul and Ananias. Thank you for that revelation of your power and grace. And we ask that by the power of your Spirit there will be in our lives, our church and our nation a new transformation as you confront us and change us all once more. Amen.