We have before us this morning one of the most important chapters in the New Testament. I say that not because it contains the clearest exposition of the Gospel or is the locus classicus for some important Christian doctrine or teaching. This chapter is as important as it is because the conversion of the Apostle Paul was such a momentous event in the history of the Christian church. Saul – his Jewish name – or Paul, his Roman name by which he came to be known as a Christian – was to become the champion of full Gentile inclusion in the church, was to be the chief impetus to the spread of the gospel westward from the Holy Land, was eventually to write 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament (all of them letters), and within those letters was to expound the Christian faith as no one else did or could have done. He was not simply one of the greatest early Christian thinkers and writers, he was one of the very few most influential human beings ever to live on this earth. We cannot conceive of the Christian faith without the life, ministry, and writings of the Apostle Paul. And yet this man had been chief among the enemies of the Christian faith up to this point!
What is more, whatever else Acts 9 is, it is the account of the conversion of a sinner. And there can be no doubt that Paul’s conversion, the story of which we are about to read, serves in the New Testament as the paradigmatic conversion. That is, if you want to know what conversion is, if you want to know what it means for a non-Christian to become a Christian, an enemy of Christ to become his champion, Acts 9 is the text of all texts in the New Testament. Paul will be the example par excellence of the Christian in the New Testament – we know so much about his life, and about his teaching of the Christian life – and so his conversion is likewise the great example of that spiritual revolution that makes a Christian. Christ Jesus is our example par excellence in many ways, but he cannot be our example in every way. He cannot show us how a person repents of sin for he never sinned. Nor can he show us how a man or woman is converted to God in the middle of life because he was a believer from his mother’s womb. We need another example for such things and in the New Testament Paul is preeminently that example. Underscoring the importance of this personal history, Luke will repeat this story, with additional interesting detail, twice more in Acts and then Paul once again in an autobiographical aside in Romans 7.
Taking all of this material together more space is devoted in the New Testament to the account of Paul’s conversion than to any other event except the crucifixion of the Lord. Indeed, more space is given to the narrative of Paul’s conversion than to the narrative of the Lord’s resurrection! In the New Testament, and in Luke in particular, where space is at a premium and words are carefully chosen, an event that is recounted at some length three separate times is obviously an event of great importance! Luke was clearly anxious that, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, we should “have his wonderful conversion in remembrance.” [In Stott, 165]
But still we are not done. The conversion of Paul, the dramatic, sudden, and radical transformation of his life, is second in importance only to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus as evidence for the historicity of our faith, the reliability of the New Testament’s account of early Christian history, and the truthfulness of its claim to be nothing less than the revelation of God. A passage this important requires more than a single sermon and so I propose to preach on the apologetic significance of Acts 9 this morning and then, next Lord’s Day, to treat it as a specimen of conversion.
v.1 This chapter has sometimes been titled: “How Paul lost his bad breath.” Paul will later say that he had been in a kind of rage against the Christians and their movement and teaching. In Acts 26:9-11 he says, “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme [he means tried to make them deny Christ], and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” So at this point Paul had been at this vendetta for some time. He had a reputation. In modern terms we might say that Paul was the head of the Gestapo or the KGB. He was at work to identify and to punish those who were not loyal to the Jewish state and his methods were harsh and cruel.
v.2 In other words, Paul went to Damascus, a city, some 150 miles from Jerusalem, with a large Jewish population, to secure the extradition of Christians, perhaps especially the more prominent ones who had escaped to Damascus from Jerusalem when the persecution had intensified there. The journey by foot would have taken approximately a week and the company was nearly at their destination. The High Priest was the head of the Jewish state, so far as its internal affairs were concerned, and the Romans generally let them manage their affairs as they wished as a way of upholding peace and order and of dampening the spirit of rebellion. In any case, ever since what happened on that road to Damascus Christians have spoken of powerful encounters with God as “Damascus Road experiences.”
v.4 Paul will later tell us that the Lord spoke to him in Aramaic (26:14).
v.7 Paul will later say that the men with him saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one speaking to him (22:9). The idea seems to be that they heard a sound, but couldn’t understand the words the Lord was speaking to Saul. Perhaps it was something like those who heard a sound when the Father spoke from heaven to his Son (in John 12:29). On that occasion people heard a sound but some thought it was a voice, others thought it was thunder.
v.9 Was Paul fasting for three days in repentance for what he now knew had been his crimes against the Lord?
v.11 Straight Street is still today the main east-west thoroughfare in Damascus.
v.13 Given what we know of Saul’s career as a persecutor of Christians it is hardly surprising that his reputation had preceded him. So far as Ananias knew, by going to Saul he would be handing himself over to the secret police. [Stott, 175] That there were Christians already in Damascus alerts us to the fact that Luke has hardly told us everything about the spread of the gospel. [Peterson, 302]
v.17 Perhaps the first words Saul ever heard addressed to him by a Christian were these: “Brother Saul,” a kind welcome. The power of God’s grace to reconcile enemies!
v.19 Of Ananias himself we hear nothing more, but what an honored place in the history of the kingdom of God belongs to him! Most of us will never be of any note in the kingdom of God, but we may be God’s instrument in the life of someone who will be!
In the 18th century there was a prominent British nobleman, for long years a Member of Parliament, for a time Chancellor of the Exchequer, one Baron George Lyttleton. As a young man Lyttleton came to Oxford as a student. Breathing the heady air of European rationalism, Lyttleton, together with a student friend Gilbert West, agreed to research in their spare time some of the key pillars of the Christian faith – Oxford students in those days had lots of spare time – with the aim of proving them untrue. West set out to demonstrate that Jesus never really rose from the dead. Lyttleton devoted his time to proving that Saul of Tarsus was never really converted to Christianity. They agreed to do a painstaking job of their research, to take their time, to read everything of importance that bore on these questions, and gave themselves a year to establish their respective cases. People have done this sort of thing in the years since and it has often ended badly for unbelief!
In West and Lyttleton’s case, as they proceeded in their investigations, as they subjected the evidence to skeptical review, instead of growing more confident in their doubts, they both eventually concluded that the biblical record was reliable, could not be explained away, that the events actually happened as reported and that, therefore, Christianity is true. Accordingly, both men became Christians, devout and serious Christians as you may imagine.
In Baron Lyttleton’s case, his argument was published in the form of a letter to his friend George West and bore the title, Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of Saint Paul, a small book that still stands scrutiny. In it he argued that he had become so convinced of the reliability of the New Testament’s accounts of Paul’s conversion that, aside from many other arguments that can be advanced for the truth of the Christian faith, the conversion of Paul and its aftermath were, as he put it, “a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.”
As he proceeded in his argument, he considered the possible alternative explanations: that Paul was an imposter, a man telling a tale; that his conversion was the result of some delusion, or that he had somehow been, in the terms we use nowadays, brainwashed. And one by one he dispensed with these counter-explanations as simply unbelievable. Actually, as more preposterous than simply unbelievable.
Don’t laugh. Such explanations remain in use today. Some have suggested that the account we have in Acts 9 was the result of an epileptic seizure, or a psychological break that resulted from unresolved feelings of guilt, or a hallucination. But as Lyttleton showed in the 18th century and scholars have demonstrated again in the 20th and 21st, all such explanations have about them more than a whiff of desperation. There is no evidence for any of them; never has been. The arguments for some other explanation of what we read in Acts 9 are, in fact, so weak that modern skeptical scholars rarely use them. But unwilling to believe that such a thing actually happened, they throw up their hands and simply admit that they cannot explain the conversion of Paul. But no one should take that sort of cheap skepticism seriously because there is so much evidence to confirm the truth of what we have read in Acts 9.
- First and foremost, this is Paul’s own explanation of the dramatic and radical change that occurred in his life. An enemy of the Christian faith and of Christians themselves, he nevertheless became their champion for no other reason but that he had himself encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. It was an event to which Paul would make reference many times and in many ways in his letters, apart from the two fuller accounts of it later in Acts chapters 22 and 26. He would many times make the claim that, no matter that he had not been one of the Lord’s disciples during the days of his ministry, he still met the qualifications of an apostle of Jesus Christ, and in particular that he was a witness of the Lord’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians Paul claimed that “he had seen Jesus our Lord,” and that Jesus “last of all appeared to me also.” [9:1; 15:8] He claimed that he had received his commission as an apostle not from men but from Jesus Christ directly (Gal. 1:1) and that he had received his message not from other men – as if he had been taught by the other apostles or by some other Christian teacher – “but I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” [Gal. 1:12]
Saul had been persecuting the Christians on the understanding that Jesus was a dangerous imposter and blasphemer, a man claiming to be God. In his letters later he made very clear that he understood from his own experience why Jews were preconditioned to reject Jesus as the Messiah, as he himself had done. But in a moment, his entire understanding of Jesus of Nazareth had been transformed. [Peterson, 304]
- Now one can discount Paul’s own words and refuse to believe his own explanation of what had happened to him and why his life was so violently turned upside down – indeed, if anyone is determined not to believe what one reads in the New Testament he or she must refuse to credit Paul’s own explanation of his changed life – but what people cannot do is discount the Apostle Paul himself.
We have already read in Acts 8:1-3 of Saul’s involvement in the death of Stephen and of his effort to destroy the fledgling Christian movement in Jerusalem. The man was nothing if not persistent. He was committed to the destruction of the church. The description of Saul here in vv. 1-2 and then again in v. 13, leaves it beyond dispute that these months later, perhaps many months later, Paul was of the same mind and spirit. The very idea that he would soon be a follower of Jesus and champion of his cause would have seemed to him both ridiculous and repugnant.
Not only does Paul, again and again, and to his own discredit, admit how horribly he had mistreated Christians before his conversion, not only does he explain in some detail precisely what he had thought about God, man, and salvation in his days as a loyal Pharisee, but he spent his life subsequently virtually exhausting himself advancing the kingdom of Jesus Christ and planting the Christian flag all over the Mediterranean world, finally giving up his life for the sake of his loyalty to the commission he had received to preach Christ to the Gentiles. The fact is, like it or not, no serious biblical scholar doubts any of this. So at some point, for some reason, there was a dramatic revolution in his thinking and living, in the purpose for which he lived. Paul himself explains how that revolution came to be and gives that explanation repeatedly. For what reason should we, should anyone doubt the man’s own explanation, remarkable though it be.
Remember, we are not talking about some yahoo here, some religious fanatic with lots of strange ideas, some gullible rube easily taken in by stories of gods and angels and the like. Indeed, for a long time he hadn’t believed the account of Jesus Christ that the Christians were giving. He hadn’t believed he had risen from the dead. He had been a thoroughgoing skeptic in regard to all these things. We must further acknowledge that we are talking about one of the best educated men of his day; a man whose writings demonstrate his acquaintance with the most sophisticated literature and philosophy of his world, both Jewish and Greek. We are talking about a man who sat at the feet of Gamaliel, a Jewish rabbi held in great honor among the Jews of that time, but, at the same time, could speak to philosophers in Athens in a way that demonstrated his thorough acquaintance with the thinking of both of the primary schools of Greco-Roman philosophy: Stoicism and Epicureanism.
We are talking about a man whose soaring thought and whose power of expression literally changed the world. It would not be too much to claim that the Apostle Paul is the single most influential man in the history of the world, save one, the Lord Christ himself. A brilliant intellect, a writer of literary masterpieces, a man whose words have been memorized by hundreds and thousands of millions of human beings through the ages, all in the service of the commitments of a large and compassionate heart, a faithful, caring man of conviction who gave himself for more than thirty years to the service of Christ and his gospel, who eventually died for the sake of his confidence in the message he proclaimed, a man universally acknowledged as Christianity’s greatest exponent and the gospel’s greatest champion; it takes more than hutzpah; it takes almost inconceivable credulity to regard that man’s life as the result of a hallucination, or a mental break, or a pious fraud. For two-thousand years now, millions upon millions and hundreds of millions of people have carefully read the man’s writings and have had their lives changed by them and universally for the better. Like it or not, the best human life lived in this world has been for nearly two thousand years that human life most profoundly influenced by the life, the thought and the writing of the apostle Paul.Whatever else we may of Paul he was most assuredly neither mentally unbalanced nor a fraud!
Indeed it takes more gall than even most unbelievers are able to muster to dismiss Paul as a man who didn’t know the difference between a hallucination and reality or didn’t care if the story he was spreading about himself was actually true. Mostly they do what unbelievers do: they don’t think about these things. They don’t face the challenge of this history. They don’t reckon with how powerful the witness of this history actually is. They don’t care to investigate and to ponder and to consider. But they should and all the more because there isn’t a shred of evidence that any of the other apostles, those guardians of the Christian faith in its earliest years, took Paul as anything other than the man he himself claimed to be: an enemy of the gospel whom the Lord Christ made into its champion by a direct encounter with him on the Damascus road. Surely if Paul were an imposter for any reason, even for the most innocent of reasons – such as mental illness – that fact would have been reason enough to dismiss him. For a former enemy of the church who had had nothing to do with the Lord’s own ministry or with the establishment of the church after Pentecost; for that man to claim to be an apostle, worthy to stand alongside the Twelve would have been considered nothing short of outrageous by the Twelve, unless, of course, his claim was known to be true!
What I want all of you to see this morning is that the life of the Apostle Paul is itself irrefutable evidence of the truth that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that the account of salvation from sin and death that we are given in the New Testament is nothing less than the truth of God, and that what you read in Paul’s thirteen letters – 1) his great exposition of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, 2) his luminously clear explanation of the Lord’s death on the cross as a sacrifice to pay the debt of our sins – it was Paul, after all, who wrote, “God forbid that I should boast save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ,” 3) his summons to believe in Jesus that we may obtain the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and 4) his searching description of what it means to live as a Christian – I say, Paul’s own life is the proof that what you read in Paul’s letters is nothing less than the Word of God!
The fact is, this was the last of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearances. Paul himself will place it on the same level as the Lord’s appearances to Peter and to James and to the eleven gathered in the Upper Room, all on Easter Sunday itself, as well his appearance to the more than 500 disciples in Galilee sometime later. For the last time, the Lord Christ left that place, wherever it is in the vast spaces of our universe, where he now sits on his throne ruling over all things, to meet this one man and to summon him to his life’s work. And surely it is because Paul was to become so great a man and perform so great a work, so essential to the salvation of the world, that Christ appeared to him and overpowered him so suddenly on the road to Damascus. You and I will not be granted such a sight of Jesus in his glory until his Second Coming, but we know that Christ is coming again to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him in large part because of the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. Who can doubt that among the authors of the New Testament no one has exercised such a mighty influence upon the world as has the Apostle Paul? No wonder then that it should have been an enemy of the gospel who was to become its greatest champion and no wonder that this man’s conversion should have been as sudden, as thrilling, and as dramatic as it was. Indeed, if the whole message of the Bible and the whole experience of salvation that it teaches can be said to be encapsulated and revealed in two events: those events are the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the conversion of the Apostle Paul.
Now it is certainly possible to think and to say – indeed, many clever men have done so – that while they believe that Paul wrote most or all of the letters attributed to him (no one of any consequence in New Testament scholarship – even the most skeptical of scholars – any longer doubts that Paul wrote at least Romans, the two letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, the two letter to the Thessalonians, and Philippians; and most scholars, even skeptics admit he wrote even more than that), I say, while they believe Paul wrote those letters, the account of his conversion that is found three times in Acts and is reflected many times in those letters, an account that Luke would have received from the apostle Paul himself, must be untrue. Indeed, it would seem to me that if you are unwilling to believe the message of the New Testament you must think and say that.
But it has seemed obvious to many more careful readers of the New Testament that there is a natural and an unbreakable connection between the Paul of his New Testament epistles and the Paul who met Christ on the Damascus Road, that the former are impossible to explain apart from the latter, that Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians and the rest are impossible to explain apart from the Damascus Road. That was precisely George Lyttleton’s conclusion when he looked carefully at the evidence, skeptical as he had been. The fact remains that no one can explain Paul or Paul’s life or Paul’s writings in any way at all convincing apart from the explanation Paul himself gives for the sudden revolution in his thinking and understanding that took place because of his encounter with Jesus himself on the road to Damascus. This exceptional man, the exceptional influence of his life and work on all subsequent human history, is explained by him as the result of having seen the risen and exalted Christ. No one has come close to explaining it in any other way.
I am including in my sermons these days more and more apologetics, arguments for the truth, the historical, philosophical, and ethical integrity of our Christian faith. I am doing so because we are living in a time and place of ever more active hostility to our faith. I want you to know that, while there may be plenty of reasons why modern Americans do not want to embrace our Christian faith – reasons having to do with its ethical demands or its implications for human autonomy and pride – the reasons for their unbelief have nothing to do with the adequacy of the evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament, or with some lack of philosophical sophistication, or with the inadequacy of its answers to the great, the unavoidable questions posed by human existence itself.
As has been proved throughout the ages, it is far easier to make the case for the New Testament record than to make the case against it, which is why still today, after one philosophical system after another has come and gone – as will the secular systems of thought that are popular in our time which will be finished by the next thirty or forty years again as all before them – still today and day after day the Bible convinces multitudes of honest minds that it contains the truth: the truth of God, of man, of history, and of the future. And among the principal evidences of the Bible’s reliability is the Apostle Paul, the furious enemy of all things Christian, who became its greatest champion and did so because as he said repeatedly, he saw Jesus Christ ascended and glorious and heard him speak to him. In that moment all that he had formerly thought and believed fell into fragments at his feet and – though blinded by the light — the truth itself shone brilliantly in his mind. He thought he knew God only to discover in a moment that he had not known him at all. He must in those first moments have expected to suffer harsh retribution for what he had done and was doing to Christ’s followers, and instead Christ met him with love, forgiveness, and a new calling. That is how Paul became the missionary and the theologian par excellence of the grace, mercy, and love of God. Find another explanation for this if you can – many have tried – but you will not. The risen Christ is the explanation, his plan to save the world is the explanation, his mercy and love the explanation and the only explanation. We should all have supreme confidence that our faith as Christians rests on solid rock! We can thank God and we can thank Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul for that!