A Damascus Road Experience
Bible Text: Acts 9:1 – 43 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Acts – What Kind of Church? | Acts 9:1 – 43
A Damascus Road Experience
The world’s most unlikely convert
Think for a moment, if you will, of the person who seems to you, the least likely to ever become a Christian?
It might actually be you, you might think “I don’t think there’s any chance of me ever becoming a Christian, and that’s OK.
I was going to get you to turn to the person next to you and tell them who you think is the least likely to ever become a Christian, but just in case the person next to you is the person you thought of, I won’t get you to do that!
On any list you draw up of unlikely converts , Saul of Tarsus would have to be on it. Here in Acts 9 though, we have the extraordinary story of how this man goes from hunting Christians, to being hunted by God.
Remember last week when we were looking at the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, we saw how Luke, the author of Acts, slowed the pace of the story right down, to make sure we could see the importance of that moment in the history of the church.
Well, with this episode, Luke uses a different approach to highlight its importance. And that is , he records this event three separate times in Acts. We have it here in chapter 9 and then also in chapter 22 and chapter 26, as part of Paul’s speeches before the crowd in Jerusalem and before King Agrippa
The Book of Common Prayer, written in 1559 during the English Reformation, includes a prayer acknowledging that we should, and I quote, have Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance. That’s what Luke wants for us. This event is of such importance, it gets triple the airtime.
So let’s take a look. Meanwhile, Saul was still 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.
This is the 3rd time in the book that we’ve encountered Saul. We first met him as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7.
Chapter 8 verse 3 tells us that Saul began to destroy the church Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
And now things have gone up a notch, Saul is breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, and not just content to arrest those in Jerusalem, he’s sought permission to round up Christians in Damascus and take them back as his prisoners. Verse 1 of chapter 9 literally reads that Saul was breathing out threats , and murder, against the disciples, and by Paul’s own admission in chapter 26, these followers of Christ were put to death.
We know that Saul doesn’t understand who Jesus is at this point, but he has figured out the point of discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity.
If a person can be declared right in God’s eyes, not guilty, purely by faith, by trusting in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, believing that he took the penalty that we deserved, if that which Christianity holds to be true is true, then clearly, trying to get right with God through obeying the law of Moses, will not get you anywhere.
The Christian message is one that undermines anyone’s attempt to please God and get into a right relationship with God by any other means, and so Saul’s solution is to wipe out those who are spreading that message.
And do you see how earnest Saul is in his persecution?
Years ago I read about a study in which the researchers wanted to learn about people’s driving habits when they see wildlife on the road,
How far people are willing to swerve out of their way to avoid hitting lizards and frogs and things.
Will they just weave a little bit?
Will they go right onto the other side of the road,
How hard will they brake?, and so they got some rubber lizards and put them on the road and secretly recorded people’s reactions.
And that they discovered, was, that lots of people, weren’t swerving to avoid the lizards, but they were actually crossing over the white line onto the other side of the road in order to squash them!
Well, Saul is the driver and the Christians are the lizards!
It’s not just that those Christians who happen to cross Saul’s path had better watch out, He is seeking out Christians, followers of the Way, which, is not a bad name for Christians is it, Jesus himself said I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Saul is seeking out people, who trust in Jesus, and even managed to secure official endorsement and permission for his terrible persecution.
It was about 240 kilometres from Jerusalem to Damascus. It would have taken close to a week to walk, I’m sure none of those drivers in that study would have driven a week out of their way, in order to squash a lizard, But Saul sets out on this journey,
And just as Damascus is probably on the horizon, Saul has this experience that has given its name to any kind of life-changing experience. A Damascus Road Experience is now short-hand for a confrontation that reorganizes priorities and gives a new purpose and a new vision.
Saul has Misunderstood Jesus
Verse 3, As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
I read that and I really wonder, “what went through Saul’s mind?”
He’d been hunting down this group of people, because he’d been convinced that they were blaspheming, saying that Jesus was God come to live among his people, and that after his death and resurrection, he had ascended to the right hand of God the Father, reigning over the world as its one true king.
And yet what does Saul discover as he lies in the dust on the Damascus road?
Jesus is alive.
Jesus is in heaven, reigning in glory.
Have you ever had that feeling that dawns on you, as you realize you’ve made a colossal mistake?
I suspect it happens to some of us more than others.
A couple of years ago I received an email from Virgin Blue saying I was getting a free upgrade to their high level frequent flyer and valued customer program, I’d get valet parking, priority check in, extra baggage allowance, all that kind of good stuff.
Turns out I was one of a million people who were accidentally sent an offer that wasn’t intended for us. When the story hit the papers, the manager of Virgin’s loyalty program revealed that staff had broken down in tears in the office, when they realized the sheer scale of their mistake.
If a mistaken email can reduce corporate executives to tears, imagine the horror in Saul’s heart, as he realizes he has been completely mistaken about Jesus.
It turns out, he hadn’t been doing what he thought he’d been doing, because he’d misunderstood who Jesus is.
He thought he’d been chasing down a bunch of heretics, troublemakers, blasphemers.
In actual fact, he’d been persecuting Jesus Christ, the risen and exalted Lord of the universe,
Later on, in letters of Paul, as Saul becomes known, we see this idea expanded. The church is the body of Christ. When Christ’s people suffer, he suffers.
So now, unable to see, Saul is led into the city, where he waits for a man named Ananias, whom God sends to meet him.
Verse 11 . The Lord told Ananias, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
Having imagined what Saul must have felt like, we can imagine how Ananias must have been feeling.
It would have seemed like God was asking Ananias to go and hand himself in to the religious police.
“I’ve heard about this guy, Lord, and to tell you the truth, it’s fine with me if he stays blind, all the harder for him to catch me and throw me in prison!”
But God’s answer to Ananias in verse 15, shows us the reason why this episode is in the Bible. And I think it’s a kindness of God to Ananias, and also to us, here’s is our insight into God’s plans and purposes. God could have just said to Ananias “Go and do what you’re told” you know, the kind of divine equivalent of “Because I’m the Daddy, that’s why!” which I’m sure that many of us have either said, or had said to us, but he lets Ananias in on his great plan: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.
God wants Ananias to know that he is bringing these events about.
God is behind every detail of this story.
And Paul becomes the apostle, the messenger, which is what apostle means, to the Gentiles
God is performing a wonderful act in the life of the very last person that Ananias could possibly have thought would ever have become a Christian.
A genuine conversion?
We Australians tend to be skeptical don’t we?
We’re skeptical about death bed conversions and those sorts of things, if anything seems too good to be true, it probably is!
But Luke gives us two good pieces of evidence that Saul’s conversion is genuine, it’s the real deal.
One is, as Jesus says to Ananias, Saul will suffer for my name.
The genuineness of Saul’s new faith, is illustrated by his transformation from persecute-or to persecute-ed,
From hunt-er, to hunt-ed.
The second mark of the genuine nature of Saul’s conversion is the ministry that he now engages in, first in Damascus, and then in Jerusalem.
This man who previously hunted down those who taught that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, now goes around proving to the Jews, verse 22, that Jesus is the Christ.
The Greek word there for “proving” is the word for joining, or piecing together. Think of putting the pieces of a jig saw puzzle together so that you can see the whole picture.
That’s what Saul did for the Jews, in regard to Jesus’ identity. He put the pieces together. No doubt, pulling the pieces together from their Jewish Scriptures. As Philip did last week, for the Ethiopian Eunuch, explaining Christ from the Old Testament.
No wonder Luke tells us they were baffled!
I was trying to think of what the equivalent would be for us. The closest I could think of was that it would be like walking into your Bible Study group and finding Osama Bin Laden leading the study.
What a turn around!
No other explanation than a real encounter with the risen Lord Jesus.
Verse 23 is probably after that period of 3 years that Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians, and so even in just these few verses we have a significant period of ministry.
An atypical conversion
So that’s the event, a most unlikely conversion. Saul, who later comes to be known by his Greek name, Paul, went on to write 13 of the 27 books of our New Testament, about 31% of the whole New Testament
Which means this is a watershed event isn’t it?
There’s a historical marker alongside the US 550 Highway in New Mexico. Any rain that falls on the Western side of the sign , drains away to the Pacific Ocean, while any rain that falls on the Eastern side of the sign, drains away and eventually ends up in the Atlantic.
That’s actually where the term watershed comes from, the point at which things diverge.
Well that’s this episode isn’t it?
Nothing would ever be the same,
For the church,
For the world.
So is this event a typical Christian conversion?
Does Luke include it here to let us know what the usual experience of coming to faith should be like?
Now, that might seem to you to be a strange question, because perhaps none of these dramatic elements were present at your conversion, they definitely weren’t part of my experience of coming to faith , but from time to time I meet people who want to say that this is the prototype of Christian conversion,
They say that the way things happen in the book of Acts are the way things should always happen in the church today, and that extends to conversion, the experience of coming to faith in Jesus.
And that means they say that unless you have some sort of strange supernatural experience, hearing a voice, someone calling your name, maybe falling down, unless you get all that, at the moment you become a Christian, well you’re not really a Christian.
You may not have come across someone who tells you that, but let me say, when you do, it can be incredibly unsettling.
For someone to start saying that your conversion was , faulty.
That you can’t really be a Christian,
Or, OK, so maybe you are a Christian, but kind of , just a, home brand Christian, just a base level Christian. Because your conversion didn’t match Saul’s, you need an upgrade to be a proper Christian.
But there are some aspects of this event are clearly present because of its uniqueness, because of its watershed significance.
I had a skim through the New Testament this week. I couldn’t find anyone else’s conversion which was accompanied by a bright light shining from the heavens for example.
A voice, calling from the heavens Saul, Saul, in Aramiac, as we find out in chapter 26, that’s also unique, and in fact, has more in common with other significant turning points in salvation history, the story of God’s dealings with his people.
Think Moses at the burning bush,
The little boy Samuel being called by God
It seems to be more a sign of commissioning than conversion.
Nowhere else do we see temporary blindness as pre-requisite to coming to faith.
It’s interesting that Saul considered this incident to be a very real physical encounter with Jesus. He understood it in the same kind of terms as the other apostles, who had all seen Jesus face to face, met with him, after his resurrection from the dead.
For Paul, this wasn’t just a vision.
So is that the element from this episode that is required of our conversion, do we actually have to see Jesus?
Well in 1 Corinthians 15, where Saul talks about this encounter with Jesus, he puts it in the context, not of proving his conversion, but of proving his apostleship. Proving that although he didn’t encounter the risen Jesus at the same time as all the other apostles did, still Jesus, appeared to Saul, and commission him for this unique ministry.
He says of Jesus, last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
His language actually says “that was the last one of those kind of appearances of Jesus. Don’t expect him to appear to you, as he appeared to me on the Damascus road.”
People might have visions of Christ, or dreams of Christ, but here, the Holy Spirit through Paul tells us, they are not on the same level as this. This was an appearance for the sake of apostolic ministry, not an appearance necessary for conversion.
So in lots of ways, Saul’s coming to faith in Jesus was atypical, shaped by this unique moment in God’s plans, when the good news of Jesus is poised to break out beyond the Jews to all the world, including, to us.
A Typical conversion
But, there are a number of features of Saul’s coming to faith in Jesus that are absolutely typical, and are absolutely necessary for anyone to come to faith in Christ.
First of all, to become a Christian, you have to encounter Jesus.
Now, I hope I haven’t confused you having just said that we don’t see Jesus like Paul did.
But you have to meet him,
You have to encounter him,
You have to know him.
As we’re growing, more and more people in the community are hearing about our church, and I get asked from time to time, “so what do you do? What is your church on about?”
My answer to that is always, “We want to introduce people to Jesus.”
You can’t trust in Jesus if you don’t know him.
Does anyone here trust in, or have faith in Trevor Gross?
I have great faith in Trevor. I put my life in his hands every day.
Trevor is the mechanic who fixes my car.
He works on my brakes.
He tells me “they’re working! The car will stop when you put your foot on the brake pedal”
And Trevor has proved entirely worthy of my trust. So far my car has stopped every single time, I’ve put my foot on the brake pedal.
Now the reason that none of you trust Trevor is not that he’s not trustworthy, It’s that you’ve never met him, you’ve never encountered him, he’s never demonstrated to you, what he’s demonstrated to me.
It’s exactly the same with Jesus.
To come to faith in him, to become a Christian, you have to encounter Jesus.
You have to learn what it is that he’s done,
Learn why he can be trusted.
Learn why, when he says, your sins are forgiven, that can be trusted.
You need to learn what it is that he saves you from, learn the terrible cost of your own rebellion against God, even as polite as your rebellion might seem to you.
See my answer to that question, “what is your church on about?”, has a second part.
“We want to introduce people to Jesus, as he’s presented in the Scriptures.”
The 16th Century theologian John Calvin wrote: “We ought to believe that Christ cannot be properly known in any other way, than from the Scriptures; and if it be so, it follows that we ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them.”
That’s where we meet Jesus.
And if you don’t know who Jesus, we’d love you to take home the red Bible you might have received on the way in, or grab one from the table up the back, and read through one of the accounts of Jesus’ life, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and encounter Jesus.
Find out who he is,
Who he claimed to be,
And what he’s done.
OK, a bit more briefly, the second typical and necessary part of coming to faith in Christ that we see in Saul’s conversion, is humility and repentance.
You cannot become a Christian, without repenting of sin, and humbly acknowledging that there’s nothing you can do about the problem of your sin that stands between you and God.
Remember Paul’s old way of thinking? “Works of the law will get you right with God, ”
In our society it’s more likely to be “Doing more good things than bad things, will get you right with God”
But the Christian message says there’s nothing you can do, to get right with God, it’s only through what Jesus offers through his death on the cross.
I used to think that the word “repentance” just meant turning around, doing a U-Turn. And there’s an element of that, but there’s more to it than that. To repent of sin is to turn to God.
That’s what Saul does. He’s humble,
His whole life is turned around, and turned towards God.
Another feature of Saul’s conversion that is typical of everyone who comes to faith in Jesus, is his submission to the service of Christ.
For Saul God has a specific task in mind, but if you come to faith in Christ, trusting the forgiveness he offers for your attempts to run your life your own way with no regard to God, it makes no sense to keep living your own way, does it?
Dear Jesus, please forgive me for trying to run my own life, now Jesus, please just back off a bit and let me run my own life.
If you’ve been around church for a while you may have come across Two Ways to Live, it’s a little method of explaining the Christian faith with some simple stick figures and some Bible verses.
The key question in Two Ways to Live, is “which one of your stick figures is wearing the crown?” “Who’s in charge – you, or Jesus?”
If you’re a Christian, this is one I’d really encourage you to think about. What does it look like for Jesus to be Lord of your life?
For you to live in the service of Jesus?
The last feature of Saul’s conversion which seems to be typical of all who come to trust in Jesus, is that for everyone who comes to faith, an act of God is required.
When we were on holidays I was afraid we were going to get stuck on the Gold Coast because of the volcanic ash cloud, and sure, there are worse places to be stranded than beside the pool in a Gold Coast hotel, but I did wonder, will our travel insurance cover this?, or is this what they call an “Act of God”?
“Act of God” is insurance speak for “something big, something unusual, something beyond our control”
Well, I’m not saying we need a Chilean volcano to erupt in order for someone to become a Christian, but if you come to faith in Christ, it is evidence of God’s work in your life.
Later on, in his letter to Christians in Rome, Paul writes, Romans 3:11 there is no one who seeks God. Left to our own devices we’re like Paul, a lot nicer and with less murder, but we’re running from God, and we need God to step in, turn us around, and draw us to himself.
That’s an act of God.
There is actually a miraculous, spiritual event, associated with every coming to faith.
And that is only possible because God has already acted in Christ, paying the penalty for sin, making the way open for people to come to him.
This is the God who the poet Francis Thompson called “the Hound of Heaven”
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
And then, at the end of the poem God speaks,
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”
No wonder, that when we read Paul’s letters, his speeches recorded in Acts, they reek, they drip with God’s grace, his undeserved kindness.
By rights it shouldn’t have been a bright light on the Damascus road, but a lighting bolt to reduce Saul to a pile of ashes.
But God acted.
God acted in Christ.
God acted in the life of Saul.
God has acted in the life of many many here.
And maybe, God is still waiting, for the right moment to act in the life of whoever it was, you thought is the least likely to ever come to faith in Jesus.
If there’s a lesson for evangelism in this passage, it’s “Don’t ever write people off” isn’t it?
Don’t ever think that anyone is beyond God’s reach.
Maybe that person was you, and you think you’re beyond God’s reach.
Well, does Saul have news for you!