The Conversion of Saul
EXHORTATION WALTON OCT. 30, ‘05.
My dear Bre. & Srs.,
Whilst we all appreciate that God is in control of nations and individuals,
they, at the same time, have a high degree of free will, but can only go as
far as God allows. He, indeed, makes and deposes not only kings, but all in
any form of authority.
Strange things happen in promotion and demotion, not only in positions but
also in assets.
In Acts ch. 8 we have brethren of contrasts: Paul humbly acknowledged in Romans
that he was “a servant (slave) of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle”. He
says there came a time when “it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s
womb, and called me by His grace to reveal His Son in me.” This, of course,
happened in his sudden conversion from a Pharisee to a Christian. Paul refers
to himself as “one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8) or, as in the NIV, “one
abnormally born”. It is not referring to a natural, premature birth, but the
dramatic way he was born a new creature in Christ. It was a quick and total
change from the old to the new man in Christ, and every one of us has been called
(predestinated) to likewise become Sons of God.
Before his abnormal birth into Christ, Paul had good reason for confidence
in the flesh: he had a natural advantage over others, born doubtless of well-off
parents who could afford for his education at Jerusalem, indeed under Gamaliel
himself. It was inevitable that with such a sheltered upbringing and education
he passionately defended the law in - the oral law and the traditions – in every
detail, becoming, in his own words, “exceedingly zealous of the traditions of
my fathers”, so that he felt able to claim himself “blameless” concerning the
righteousness of the law. His training had blinkered his mind down a very narrow
way of thinking, and anything deviating from the ‘traditions’ was anathema to
Paul was a fanatic, persecuting the Christians, sending them to prison and
to death. He was the ringleader instigating the reign of terror against the
Christians, causing them to flee or face the defenceless fury of the storm.
Paul caused havoc amongst the ecclesias; that word ‘havoc’ conveys the idea
of a wild beast ravaging the body of its victim. In v. 3 of Acts ch. 8 we read
of him destroying the church, “going from house to house he dragged off men
and women and put them in prison”. Just imagine it happening to ourselves –
a knock at the door, an inquisition, torture, trying to make us blaspheme against
Christ, chaining us up and dragging us to prison.
Was God in control? Had He forsaken the believers? Well, they were so convinced
of the Truth that although they fled persecution, amd left everything behind,
they preached the Truth wherever they went. Although Paul was only about 30,
the rulers had him in high regard. He was a rising star and possibly even a
member of the Sanhedrin, a potential leader. What encouraged him to become such
a ferocious persecutor? What is it that makes a person become a terrorist, or
a suicide bomber, a fanatic Moslem or Shiite? Or, come to that, a raving Thomasite
or a Catholic or Mormon? They all sincerely believe they are serving God, but
possibly devoid of the real Truth of God and His Word. It is no doubt the way
they have been trained and brain-washed so that they are convinced they are
right and everyone else wrong.
It is easy to see this in extremists, but perhaps all of us can, at times,
have smaller, but nonetheless extreme, ideas on which we can become so dogmatic.
It is a failure to see any good in others and a negation of the command in Philippians
. 2:3,4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility
consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to
your own interests, but also to the interests of others”.
In his ambition to exterminate the Christians Paul got authority to go to Damascus
in Syria, a foreign country 120 miles away, to search out any Christians and
take them prisoners to Jerusalem. They would have been roughly treated, chained
together to walk that 120 miles. Imagine how Ananias and the Brethren and Sisters
in Damascus felt when they knew Paul was coming to get them.
God heard their prayer. Saul was stopped in his tracks by Jesus’ intervention.
Paul arrived in Damascus blind, a broken man, and fasted for three days and
was humble and repentant in prayer. God told Ananias to go to him. To go to
this murderous man, whom they all knew about, required incredible faith. That
is something we, too, have to develop, absolute faith in God – ‘Dare to be a
Daniel’ or Dare to be an Ananias.
We read Paul’s account of what happened. Ananias said, “Brother Saul, receive
your sight”, and at that very moment Paul was able to see him. And Ananias said,
“The God of our fathers has chosen you to know His will…You will be His witness
to all men…Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away” (NIV Acts 22:13:15?).
We think of the enormity of Saul’s sins, even making others blaspheme against
Christ . - yet all were instantly forgiven. We may not see ourselves in the
same bad light, but before God we are all wretched sinners, yet repentent, forgiven
sinners providing we forgive others. It is not just a casual forgiveness but
seventy times seven a day, that’s once every three minutes
Having been converted Paul, from that hour, was a changed man; everything he
thought and did was dedicated to the Lord; his intention was, as he says in
Philippians, “that Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life,
or by death” (1:21), that is, in a way, like our baptism; we died to the past
and started a new life – an abnormal birth into Christ – but how much have we
been transformed into the image of Christ? We think of Paul’s wonderful life,
yet, like us, he realized his failings, saying, “O wretched man that I am! Who
shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God, through Jesus Christ
our Lord” (Rom. 7:24). We must not let our failings weight us down, but thank
God that, in His mercy, we will attain to the Kingdom, because he wants us..
In our training, God sees fit at times to give us what appears to be adverse
circumstances. Take, for example, Stephen’s death: -, dreadful, but it resulted
in the spread of the gospel and played a part in Paul’s life. He never forgot
that he was responsible for Stephen’s death. but he was forgiven
There are tragic incidents in our lives and sometimes, in this life, we cannot
see the reason for them, but ultimately we will see there was a purpose behind
them, for God is in ultimate control of everything, we know that not even a
bird of the air falls to the ground without His knowledge.
Stephen’s dying prayer and plea was, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”
(NIV Acts 7:60). That prayer was heard and Stephen and Paul will rejoice together
in the Kingdom. One can imagine the tears of joy as they see and embrace each
other. And I guess it will be the same with us: we may have had sharp disagreements
with some, but then there will be complete reconciliation and perpetual happiness,
with the things of the past seeming as nothing compared to the glory that will
be revealed in us.
Saul, the Pharisee, with the glittering career prospects, gave them all up
for something better. Let us just look at Phil. Ch. 3 vs. 7-9… Phil. Ch. 3 v
7: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless,
and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ
Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count
them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own
righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ,
the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
Paul was not the only one to give up something. We read of Jesus, “For ye know
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes
he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus
gave everything, including his life, so that we might be saved.
What have we really given up? We live in a highly affluence, materialistic
part of the world. Some, elsewhere, are, as we know, in dire need. But it is
not just material things that are needed. Paul says, “If I give all I possess
to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain
nothing”. We are told in Rom. (12:1), to “present your bodies (lives) a living
sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”. Micah
puts it like this, “What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (ch. 6:8). These are the qualities
God delights to see in our lives, and I guess there is room for improvement
in all of us regarding these things.
Getting back to Acts ch. 8 we have Philip going to preach in Samaria, this,
of course, being the home of the Samaritans with whom the Jews had no dealings,
so this is the beginning of the extension of the gospel to all nations. Later
in the chapter we have the Ethiopian eunuch, a Gentile, being baptised. The
response to the gospel in Samaria was tremendous, v. 6, crowds eagerly listened,
indeed, v. 8, there was great joy in the city. The Truth was the ‘talk of the
town’, as it were, and many miracles demonstrated the Truth of what Philip was
saying. Even Simon the sorcerer was baptised and followed Philip. The Brethren
at Jerusalem were excited about the results and sent Peter and John, who laid
their hands on some of them, to receive the miraculous gifts of the spirit.
Simon coveted this power to give such gifts to others and offered the apostles
money for it, but earned a severe rebuke (v. 20), “May your money perish with
you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money” (NIV).
Whilst we all appreciate we are saved by grace, I sometimes wonder if we put
too much emphasis on money. For example, about four out of every hundred baptisms
in the UK are associated with advertising, the other 96% are from personal contacts,
yet we spend, as a community, vast sums of money on advertising. We are happy
to give money to such things, but really it would seem it is more personal effort
that is needed. Not just giving a bit of our surplus money to an effort.
The next section deals with Philip going to Gaza, some 60 miles away, several
days’ journey. Why Philip and not one of the twelve? The 12 disciple were all
native Jews and needed to be gradually introduced to the fact that now the gospel
was to be preached into all the world. Philip was a Hellenistic Jew and so more
amenable to the non-exclusiveness of Israel’s Jews. He was to meet an Ethiopian,
a black man, who would carry the gospel into Africa. As the eunuch had been
up to the temple to worship, one assumes he was a proselyte Jew. He was an influential
man in charge of the Ethiopian treasury. It would have been very unusual for
a black man to enter the temple; inwardly many Jews would not have accepted
him, but he was a sincere worshipper of God.
As his chariot slowly made its way across the desert towards Egypt and thence
on to Ethiopia, he was on his way to Gaza. As he was sitting in his chariot
he was reading the scroll of Isaiah; he certainly wasn’t wasting his time. And
as the custom was, he was reading allowed, so Philip ran up to the chariot and
asked him, v. 30, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ How can I, he said,
unless someone else explains it to me? So he invited Philip to come up and sit
with him.” The man was obviously sincere and puzzled as to the meaning of what
he was reading. In spite of his high position he was humble enough to acknowledge
he could not understand what he was reading and allowed Philip to explain it
Being such an important person, there would have been others with him and I
guess they would have shooed this potential hitch-hiker away, but not so the
eunuch. Here was an honest seeker after the Truth and God arranged for Philip
to be there at exactly the right moment, it was no chance meeting. Paul says,
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to
them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow,
he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might
be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them
he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified,
them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30).
And also this applies to us. We did not come to a knowledge of the Truth by
chance. God arranged our various circumstances that at a certain time we would
accept the call and be justified. When we type on the computer the lines can
be uneven; we press the ‘justifying’ key and they will straighten up. Once we
accept the call of the gospel we are all straightened up – justified – in God’s
The place the Ethiopian was reading was Isa. ch. 53, from which it was easy
to preach Christ and explain the whole gospel. It is, of course, likely that
he had been in contact with Christians in Jerusalem and heard a lot about Jesus
and knew the Scriptures, and Philip would have enabled him to fit everything
into place and really see the purpose of God and how could share in it. However,
he knew that he lacked one thing; as the chariot proceeded along to Gaza, there
is an area with pools of water. He exclaimed, “Look, here is water, why shouldn’t
I be baptised?” (vs. 36). And so they stopped and he was baptised. He died to
self and rose a new creature in Christ and one with the believers everywhere.
Soon, Stephen, Paul, Ananias, Philip the Ethiopian, and ourselves and countleess
others will all be together in the eternal bless of the Kingdom.
The final conviction of the Ethiopian was Isaiah 53. And so lets have a look
at v32 and see was is said of Jesus huble and obedient life.
“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearers is
silent, so he opened not his mouth”.
Just think of the untruthful statements they made against him, the mockery of
a trial and the physical and verbal abuse they gave him. All contrary to the
law they so piously claimed to maintain. Pilot knew it was for envy they wanted
to crucify him – They were ambitious men directing all their energies to gain
power and control over others. Jesus was so different, he washed the disciples
feet, and we should also take on the role of slaves and not lord it over each
other. Jesus certainly teaches us a lesson of humility.
In v 33 “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his
descendants? For his life was take from him”. Why did God allow His only begotten
morally perfect obedient son to be so horribly treated and be murdered by the
religious Jews? The enigma is even deeper when it says in Isaiah “It was the
Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” Why, Why. “He was cut off
from the land of the living, for the transgression of my people he was stricken----
By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many and he will bear their
iniquities.” He had to die because of our sins and to open up the way of salvation
for us. There was no other way to save us from perishing for eternity and we
need to show our appreciation of what He has done form us. Loving mercy to others
and walking humbly with our God who as truly done wonderful things for us and
we are just not in a position to repay in any way for his mercy, but can just
show our appreciation by humbly trying to glorify him – howbeit with many imperfections.