We are currently in a sermon series in the book of Acts, looking at the experiences of the early church.
Last week you will have heard Chris Knowles preach on the persecution faced by the early church, starting by the execution of Stephen for his faith in Christ.
You may remember that Saul the Pharisee was present at that execution and approved of what was going on. It is clear that Saul was a zealous Jew, and had no time for the new Christian church. He disbelieved their claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, and denied their claims that Jesus had risen.
As we join the story today, Paul has moved from being a spectator of Stephen’s persecution, to a leading agent of the Jewish authorities. Verse 1 tells us that Saul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 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.” Saul set out on a 200 mile journey, beyond the borders to Palestine, to persecute the expanding Christian church.
But what followed was arguably the most dramatic conversion in human history. Saul came to Christ in the most spectacular and supernatural way. So much so that we still use the expression “a road to Damascus experience” to describe a dramatic change of allegiance.
Imagine atheist Richard Dawkins suddenly announcing that he had come to believe in God - or an Islamic extremist suddenly professing Christian faith - and you get some idea of the scale of the change that took place in Saul’s heart and mind that day. Saul’s conversion was even more unexpected and surprising than Thursday’s General Election result!
Saul’s experience: A vision, a voice and a choice
Let’s look back at this morning’s passage to remind ourselves what happened to turn Saul’s life around.
It seems that as Saul travelled along that road to Damascus he experienced a vision, a voice and a choice.
The vision Paul experienced was “a light from Heaven”. A light that “flashed around him”. A supernatural light stronger than the sun. A dazzling light that forced him to his knees and blinded his eyes for three days.
Paul also heard a voice. A voice from Heaven that knew his name. “Saul, Saul” it said, “why do you persecute me?” Paul did not know who was speaking to him, and so asked ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
The reply Saul received must have left him speechless. Dumbfounded. Because the voice said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
This reply must have turned everything Saul believed upside down. Rather that being a false prophet, this heavenly voice showed that Jesus really was God’s Son. And rather that being dead and buried, this voice proved to Saul that Jesus was very much alive!
That voice also meant that the Christians Saul was persecuting were right all along – and Saul was wrong. By hurting and harming the church, the ‘body’ of Christ, Saul had been hurting and harming Jesus himself.
You might have thought that Saul’s mistake would have led to him being condemned by Christ. You might have thought that he would be struck dead by God on that Damascus road. But instead Jesus gave Saul wonderful grace. He offered him the chance, the choice, to follow him.
Through a disciple called Ananias, Jesus offered shell-shocked Saul full forgiveness. And he offered Saul a new mission for life. Christ offered Saul a wonderful outlet for his religious zeal and his sharp intellect.
Rather than being a persecutor of the Christian church, Jesus was inviting Saul to join it. And rather than being an enemy of the Gospel message, Jesus called Saul to proclaim it to the nations. Let me read Jesus’ words in verse 15 today: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles, and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Rather than trying to silence the Gospel message, Saul’s new role in life was to speak of it.
And it’s a role that Saul took to with gusto. After changing his name to Paul, Saul would spend the remaining thirty years of his life travelling thousands of miles telling thousands of people the good news about Jesus. In fact, Paul is still sharing the message of Jesus today, 2,000 years after his death, as people read his letters and epistles in the New Testament. Letters like the book of Romans, which we will be looking at in our sermons next month.
Applications for us
Before I finish, its worth reflecting on what lessons we ourselves can learn from Saul’s conversion.
I should say at the outset that there are some parts of Saul’s experience that are unique and unrepeatable. We should not expect to see lights from heaven in our daily life, nor do many people hear Jesus speak to them audibly today.
But other parts of Saul’s experience are wonderfully relevant to us today.
- For a start, Saul’s experience is a wonderful reminder that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. No one, not even someone as sinful as Saul, is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. Anyone anywhere, anytime can receive God’s forgiveness if they repent and put their faith in Christ. If we hear Jesus speak to us in Scripture, and belive what he says, we can enjoy the same salvation Saul enjoyed. Like Saul, we have done nothing to deserve God’s mercy, it is all a free gift of grace.
- Secondly, Saul’s experience should also remind us about the importance of the church in God’s eyes. Saul was told that when he persecuted Christ’s people he was persecuting Christ himself. Every Christian is part of Christ’s body and enormously precious to him. Those who persecute Christians around the world today (in places like North Korea, Nigeria and the Middle East) will be held accountable to the Lord for their behaviour.
- And lastly, Saul’s experience on the Damascus Road reminds us that Christian conversion should lead to action. Saul responded to his encounter with Christian by joining the church, being baptized and then beginning to tell other people about Jesus. Saul’s example challenges us to be committed to our Christian brothers and sisters here at St. Michael’s. And his example challenges us to be eager to tell our neighbours, friends and family about our faith. We should be as keen as Saul was to tell people about the free forgiveness and eternal life that is on offer by the risen Jesus.
Saul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus turned his life upside down. And, through him, it led to thousands of other people coming to know Jesus as their risen Lord and Saviour. Let’s pray that God will help us to be just as open and excited about our own Christian faith today.