We read most of our text last Lord’s Day morning, vv. 1-19, and considered the narrative for its apologetic significance. The conversion and subsequent ministry of the Apostle Paul is one of the great demonstrations of the truth of the New Testament record, of the historicity of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and of the gospel itself. Since I commented on the first 19 verses as we read them last Lord’s Day morning, I will simply read those verses and make my comments on vv. 20-31.
v.20 We don’t know how much Paul understood at this earliest stage of his Christian life, but he knew some things, and one of them was that Jesus, whom the religious leadership had crucified, was alive and well, and that he was possessed of the glory of God. Paul had seen that with his own eyes! As would be his strategy throughout his ministry, Paul began preaching to the Jews first. They were the most likely to respect Paul’s credentials as a rabbinic scholar, to understand the message that he was preaching about the Messiah, and to appreciate the radical about-face that had occurred in his own life.
v.22 Paul’s was a brilliant mind, so we can well imagine that in the days immediately after his conversion he was not only listening carefully to the other Christians in Damascus, who could tell him what he did not know about the Lord’s ministry, death, and resurrection, but was ransacking the Bible to establish in his own mind how the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets.
v.25 How quickly the tables had turned: the persecutor had become the persecuted! Paul himself adds interesting detail to this account in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33.
v.26 The Christians in Jerusalem had only a report of Paul’s conversion; they hadn’t a first-hand experience of the new man. They feared he was some agent provocateur, coming among them as a spy.
v.27 Because of the masterful way Luke has woven his narrative together, we have already met Barnabas. This good man’s reputation and assurances secured Paul’s acceptance with the apostles and so with the rest of the Christians in Jerusalem. We learn in Gal. 1:18-19 that the particular apostles in view were Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. This was the beginning of a relationship between Paul and Barnabas that would soon bear fruit in a joint ministry of evangelism and church planting in Antioch and Asia Minor.
v.29 The Hellenistic Jews, whose roots were in the Greek speaking world, were the same group that Stephen had run into trouble with when they had been similarly unable to contradict his teaching about Jesus. The same thing was happening again!
v.31 Tarsus was Paul’s hometown on the southern coast of present day Turkey. This summary statement concludes the section of the book of Acts, 6:8-9:31. Compare it, for example to the first such statement in 6:7 or the next one in 12:24.
We have before us in this thrilling narrative the account of Paul’s conversion, the transformation of his life from an unbeliever to a believer, from a bitter foe of the Christian message to its greatest champion. This is the second such account in Acts, the first being the narrative of the conversion of the Ethiopian court official in chapter 8. Following the account of Paul’s conversion, will come the account of the conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, in chapter 10. There will be a few other conversion narratives in Acts, but none with the detail provided in these three cases. We have been given, in other words, the account of three men coming to faith in Jesus Christ who, in a way, stand for all the other new Christians of whom we read in Acts, but whose personal story Luke had no time to tell. Put these three conversion accounts together, and add Lydia and the Philippian jailer from chapter 16, and Luke has given us an anatomy of Christian conversion.
Of course, no two conversions are alike, and these were not. Each has its own fascinating detail, but it is in their similarities, not in their differences that we find their great importance. Obviously only Paul saw the risen Christ and heard his voice. But otherwise his conversion, his transformation of heart and life was similar to every other Christian conversion.
We said last time that there have been attempts made to explain Paul’s conversion in some other way than here in Acts 9. Some have suggested an epileptic fit, others a psychotic break resulting from unresolved feelings of guilt, others brainwashing. But all such explanations utterly lack credibility. We are the last to deny that some people have experiences, often taken to be Christian conversions that resulted from emotional pressure, or psychological need, or, for that matter, even brain-washing. But that was not Paul’s conversion and that is not Christian conversion. It is not what the Bible describes conversion to be and it is not what it has been through the ages. It is certainly not what Paul himself understood his own conversion to be! And a man as brilliant, as self-reflective, and as powerful a thinker as Paul, certainly has a right to be heard when explaining his own experience of life!
The fact that conversions come in all shapes and sizes is further evidence of the fact that there can be no naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon of a person who is not a Christian becoming a Christian and his life changing dramatically as a result. Some are converted as children, some as young people, some as adults, some even near the end of life. Some are converted over a long period of time, through the careful weighing of arguments and evidence, others become Christians quite suddenly, even unexpectedly. For some there is a long period of preparation; for others, no preparation at all. For some it is a gentle passage to new faith, for others a gut-wrenching tearing away from one’s former life. What is more every type of person is found among the converted: the hard-boiled atheist, the practitioners of other faiths, the avowed enemy of the Christian faith, and those completely indifferent to it. The poor, the simple, and the uneducated, but just as well the rich, the powerful, and even great scholars. Indeed, some of the greatest intellects in the history of mankind have become Christians and lived as Christians throughout the rest of their lives, perfectly confident of the truth and the person to whom they had committed themselves.
What I have noticed about attempts to account for Christian conversion in naturalistic ways, leaving out of account the Bible’s own explanation – the work of the Spirit of God illuminating the heart and mind and drawing a man or woman to Christ – is that they do not want the same naturalistic explanations applied to themselves, to account for their own viewpoint, their own understanding of life, their own thinking about reality. Those who wish to explain the revolution in Paul’s life as the result of some psychotic episode or brainwashing, do not want their own thinking about life to be explained as nothing but environmental conditioning or biological predestination.
The fact is, Christians know very well that conversion is a real thing, the phenomenon accounted for and illustrated in the pages of the Word of God, a divine work, because they have witnessed it too many times and in too many ways to doubt it. What they read in the Bible is what they see in the world and, in many cases, what they have experienced themselves.
So what, then, is conversion? If Paul’s conversion was in some respects utterly unique – and Luke hardly hides that fact – in what ways was it representative? How was Paul’s conversion like any and every Christian conversion? Well, in a number of ways.
- Fundamental to Paul’s conversion and all Christian conversion is the person of Jesus Christ himself, an encounter with him, and a recognition of his Lordship.
The Ethiopian eunuch didn’t see Jesus in the sky above him. He didn’t hear Jesus speak to him. But the narrative of his conversion in Acts 8 is, as Paul’s here, the story of his realizing who Jesus is and what Jesus has done to save us from our sins. In the same way, when we reach chapter 10 we will find the account of the conversion of Cornelius a story, like Paul’s story, of how a man learned that Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the world and committed his life to him.
Paul’s encounter with Jesus was dramatically personal and immediate, but it was nonetheless in its essential nature the recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Everything else was the result of that! Paul, of course, knew that Jesus of Nazareth had existed. He had no doubt about that. No doubt he had heard a great deal about Jesus before his conversion. He knew what the Christians were saying about him, and he knew what the Sanhedrin was saying. And he had believed the Sanhedrin. The man may have lived, he may even have done mighty works, but Paul was no believer. He certainly didn’t believe Jesus to be the Son of God – he thought the very idea blasphemy – and he didn’t believe he was the Messiah. In Paul’s view, which was the view of most Jews of his time, Jesus hadn’t done any of the things the Messiah was supposed to do when he appeared.
There are many people nowadays who believe about Jesus what Paul had believed about him. But in a moment on the Damascus Road all of that was forgotten. There was Jesus before him radiating the glory of heaven; here was Jesus speaking to him, and now any thought of Jesus as a mere man; any continuing denial of his office as the Christ was now simply out of the question.
And so it is with any Christian conversion. A man or woman, a boy or girl, encounters the living Christ – not visibly, not audibly, but by the Holy Spirit, as the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius did – and all doubt about who and what Jesus is dispelled. Ask any Christian why he or she believes in Jesus, why he is determined to obey Jesus, and why she desires to serve Jesus and he or she will say, “Because Jesus is the Lord!” And how does he or she know that? Because they too have met the Lord, they too have seen him and heard him. After all, the only Jesus there is is the Jesus Christ we meet in the Gospels and in the Christian faith.
“Suppose someone should say, I believe Napoleon was a real historical character who actually lived; but I reject the legendary accretions which say he put an end to the French revolution, became emperor, fought Spain, Italy, Austria, invaded Russia, lost the battle of Waterloo, and was exiled on St. Helena. But, of course, I firmly believe in Napoleon.” Is this any more [strange] than to say I believe in Jesus Christ, but of course miracles are impossible and the story of the resurrection is a…myth.” [Gordon Clark, What Presbyterians Believe, 34]
The simple fact is that you would never had heard, the world would never had heard of Jesus of Nazareth if it weren’t for the miracles and for the resurrection. The only Jesus there is is the Jesus of the miracles and the resurrection. Many people may still think of Jesus as a good moral teacher or that he was simply controversial Jewish rabble-rouser. Paul would have said a similar thing in his day. The Jesus of the Christians offended his long-held religious ideas and threatened his understanding of himself and the world. If Jesus were not the Son of God; if he were not the Messiah; if he had not had the ministry that is reported to us in the four gospels; if he were not Lord and Savior; then let’s all be done with Christianity. It is a lie. That is precisely what Paul had thought it was. Until, that is, he met Jesus on the Damascus Road. That is the story of Christian conversion anywhere and everywhere. Whatever one may have thought before, whatever he may have been doing before, encountering Jesus changed everything!
- Second, conversion inevitably is a moral revolution.
In Paul’s case he was doing something very wrong. He told himself that he was justified in his pursuit of Christians, his persecution of them. He thought, as Jesus had told his disciples people would think: “a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” [John 16:2] Very few human beings are willing to face up to their sins, obvious as those sins are to others and as often as they themselves condemn the very same sins in others. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity to justify their conduct and to excuse their misbehavior. It is the principal reason this world is such a cruel and unforgiving place: not only do people behave badly in a thousand ways, but they are unwilling to admit that they are doing so.
But then comes an encounter with Christ and invariably he puts his finger on the moral wreckage of our lives. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What in the world are you doing, Saul? Explain yourself to me? And, of course, in that instant Saul knew perfectly well he couldn’t explain it; he couldn’t justify it; he couldn’t excuse himself without making matters still worse. He had been attacking no one less than the Son of God himself. There could be no excuse for that? No excuse either for the cruelty, the rage, the heartless indifference to the suffering of other human beings. In that moment the man was exposed as a miscreant. In a moment of utterly luminous realization a man famous for and proud of his religious zeal realized he was a scoundrel, nothing more, nothing less.
And what follows – and those suspicious of the reality of conversion should take careful note of this – is a life lived more honestly, more generously, more sympathetically, more compassionately, and more usefully. No one is going to speak as powerfully or write as helpfully about the love of God or love as the principle of the Christian life, love and forgiveness, and understanding as has the apostle Paul. If Christian conversion is actually the result of some psychotic break or epileptic fit, well, then let’s all hope for more psychosis and more epilepsy! The world needs it! What happened in Paul’s case was immediate reconciliation with his former enemies and a new interest in sharing the reconciliation that he had experienced with God with others, even when doing so posed a serious risk to his own safety. No violence; just argument. No cruelty; just earnest appeal. A better life in every way. That too is Christian conversion.
To accept Jesus Christ as Savior is Christian faith. To acknowledge him and obey him as Lord is Christian repentance. And conversion leads to both results simultaneously. But we are not done.
- Conversion is also entrance into a new family, a new community.
Paul was an honored member of a community as he traveled to Damascus. He was a prominent figure in Palestinian Judaism. He was also a citizen of the Roman Empire – a significant status in those days – a status that accounts for his Roman name, Paul. He was a respected rabbi, a teacher among people who greatly valued teaching.
But all of this was lost to him overnight when Christ summoned him to be his servant. But he was not left alone. We drew attention last time to Ananias’ kind greeting in the house on Straight Street where Paul was staying. “Brother Saul.” It was the warm welcome of a former enemy into a new family of brothers and sisters united by their common faith in Jesus Christ.
And as the days passed – this is wonderful to imagine – he would meet more Christians from the church already established in Damascus. You know how Christians are. When a celebrity comes among them, they want to meet him and they want to hear his story. I wouldn’t be surprised, would you, if the pastor of that church in Damascus, perhaps it was Ananias himself, interviewed Paul in the adult Sunday School class one of the following Lord’s Days! “Saul, tell us how you came to be here.”
And among those Christians he met, no doubt as always happens, he got to know some better than others and made some deeper friendships, perhaps friendships that lasted for the rest of his life. He was a letter-writing machine, was Paul, and I can easily think of him writing letters in his prison cell in Rome some thirty years later at the very end of his life, to some of those brothers and sisters he met in the very first days of his Christian life.
What is extraordinary about this beautiful reconciliation and these new relationships is that these were people whom Paul had despised just a few days before. He held them in intellectual and spiritual contempt. He looked down on them as both stupid and unclean. And now they were his people.
I was reminded of how this happens when some days ago in St. Louis I watched a documentary on the life and ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great London preacher of the middle of the 20th century. Lloyd Jones had become a Christian as a young medical student in London in the 1920s. He had before him glittering prospects as a brilliant young doctor who had already attracted the attention of Lord Horder, the King’s own doctor. But he had met Christ and was beginning to think very differently about his life and what he ought to do with it. One night he attended the theater with friends and as they came out of the play there was on the street nearby a Salvation Army Band oompah-pahing away. You can see in your mind’s eye the sophisticated party of young adults, dressed to the nines as they would have been in those days, walking past the band in their uniforms playing Christian hymns. This happened not long after Lloyd-Jones had experienced a powerful sense of God’s love in Christ and of the cross as his only hope of salvation. This is his own version of the experience.
“One night they wanted to go to a theatre in Leicester Square and they persuaded me to go with them. I have no idea what the play was about at all, but they were very excited about it. What I remember is this: as we came out of the theatre to the blare and glare of Leicester Square, suddenly, a Salvation Army band came along playing some hymn tunes and I knew that these were my people. I have never forgotten it. There is a theme in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, the two pulls – the pull of the world and the chorus of the pilgrims – and the contrast between the two. I have very often thought of it. I know exactly what it means. I suppose I had enjoyed the play. When I heard the band and the hymns I said, ‘These are my people, these are the people I belong to, and I’m going to belong to them.’” [Murray, vol. 1, 85, 93]
Well, something very like that had happened to Paul and something like that happens to a great many people who experience Christian conversion. They meet the Lord, their lives take a new direction, and, inevitably, they find themselves making common cause and sharing their lives with people who know the Lord as they have come to know him.
Most of us, no matter when or how we became Christians, can very readily attest to this fact. If we stop to think about it, which we often do not, there can be no doubt how profoundly our commitment to Christ has determined our associations, our friendships, and our community. It is as it should be. We want, of course, to know and share our faith with those who are not yet Christians, but any serious Christian will tell you that one evidence that a person is a follower of Christ is that he or she belongs to a community of followers of Jesus Christ. We love one another, we need one another, and much of our lives are lived together. It is the attraction of hearts beating to the same time.
- And then conversion inexorably alters one’s calling in the world.
Paul was an active churchman already, to be sure, but he had utterly different interests than he was soon to have. He was a defender of his childhood faith as that faith was interpreted by his teachers, but he had no sympathy whatsoever with the gospel of Jesus Christ. A few days later he was a preacher of that gospel, indeed, was very soon the most able, the most powerful preacher the gospel had yet found.
The man we meet in the second half of Acts 9 is a man with a mission. He had been given a commission by the Lord himself, had been told by Ananias that his new calling was to be a messenger of the Lord Christ. But, reading these verses we get the impression that Paul wasn’t speaking in the synagogues and gathering crowds to listen to him because he knew it was his new job. He was speaking out of the fullness of his heart. He was sharing with others the remarkable, the thrilling realities that had been revealed to him on the Damascus Road. He couldn’t have kept his mouth shut about what had happened to him or about the Lord if he had wanted to, and he didn’t want to.
And so it is for every Christian convert. There comes upon conversion a new sense of calling, a new commitment to doing very different things with one’s life. Wives and husbands think very differently about their marriage. Parents who become Christians realize by a God-given instinct that they have an entirely new responsibility for their children, to teach them and to exemplify before them the love of God. Employers and employees immediately understand they must act differently as bosses or as workers because they are the followers of Jesus Christ. Very often one’s livelihood even changes because of these radically new and different commitments that now fill a person’s heart. I remember Dan Naulty telling me that when he became a Christian he was in the process of returning after injury to big league pitching – clubs were interested in signing him and lots of money was on the table, “crazy” money, as Dan speaks of it – but he had lost interest in that career and wanted to do something else with his life, something more directly related to his new commitment to Christ. But whether one stays in a job or trades it for another one, one’s life has changed at that deep level that must affect virtually everything: what one does, how one does it, and why. I mentioned Lloyd-Jones, who famously abandoned his promising career in medicine to become a village pastor. At nearly the same time, C.S. Lewis was converted. He remained a university professor, but began a completely new career as a Christian writer and was to have an immensely larger influence in the latter calling than he ever had in the former.
There is more here, of course, than even all of this. We might, for example, draw attention to the fact that conversion marks only the beginning of a life-long transformation. As we read in v. 22 “Paul increased all the more in strength…” Even Paul had a lot of growing to do once he had become a Christian, a lot of learning, a lot of gaining understanding and insight. So it is with every new Christian. No Christian is an expert at the beginning! A baby Christian must become over time a grown-up disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or we could talk about the suffering that so frequently comes after and as a result of a Christian conversion. Ananias told Saul how much he was going to have to suffer for the Lord whom he had persecuted.
Is this not Christian conversion always and everywhere, whatever the particular details of a man or woman’s coming to faith in Christ? It is an encounter with the person of Christ leading immediately and inexorably to a moral revolution in life, a new community, and a new calling. Whether anyone has actually been converted can be determined by whether his claim to have met the Lord actually produces these results, actually changes his or her life in these ways. As the great Puritan Thomas Goodwin, put it: “conversion is the total change of a man’s chief end.” And, of course, it is not something than anyone does; it is something that happens to him or to her. As a famous English biblical scholar, a Jew who became a Christian, said of his own experience: “People ask me why and when I decided to convert. I did not decide at all; it was decided for me.” [Hugh Montefiore in Dudley-Smith, John Stott, vol. I, 88] Exactly what Paul would have said!
It is, Christian conversion, quite simply, the greatest thing that ever happens in this world; eternal life breaking into time, the Lord himself appearing to human beings and making them into those he can love forever!