Scripture Reference: Acts 9
Confronted By ChristDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | July 19, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
A zealous scholar, bent on squelching the fledgling Christian movement, hurried off to Damascus. With murderous intent, he sought to imprison members of the movement and bring them to “justice.” But the head of this movement, the risen Christ, met this scholar on the road. Jesus had a purpose for this man called Paul.
In Paul’s story, we are rebuked for our moralism. By every standard of the law, he claimed to be blameless and good. But Christ came and showed that even the “good” are sinful, and that all of us are in need of a Savior.
Today I begin a short series of messages entitled The Legacy of a Converted Man. I’m referring, of course, to the Apostle Paul, and there are several aims that we hope to accomplish as we look at his life.
First of all, as a result of it we shall better understand theology, specifically the theology of salvation. When you think of the Apostle Paul, he had more impact on Christianity than anyone who ever lived except Jesus. He gave us 12 or 13 books of the New Testament, and we think of all of his writings that have blessed us. And we’ll understand all of that better.
There’s another reason, and that is that he will give us insight on how to relate to a culture that is pagan, how to be able to accept persecution, and how to be bold in a moment of American history when we are shamed into silence regarding certain issues of great importance. Paul will do all that for us.
Now, a couple of comments! First of all, in Acts 9, which is what I want you to turn to, what we’ll discover is that he is initially called Saul. And today as I preach I may continue to call him Paul because that is the way in which we know him. His name was changed later as a Christian. So we can think of Saul being his pre-conversion name, and Paul being his post-conversion name. And perhaps I will even refer to him as Paul, though the text calls him Saul at this point.
Also, I was reading a small book by Dr. Sweeting, who used to occupy this pulpit, and he had a very brief outline of this passage that I liked so I adapted it to this sermon. He said, “We have three different ways that we can view Paul here – Paul without the light, Paul under the light, and then Paul in the light.” And I kind of like that, so I took his outline.
First of all, what we’re going to do is to read this passage and then talk briefly about Paul without the light. Acts 9: “But Saul (as he was called then), still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way (In those days that’s what Christianity was called because Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’), men or women (notice his hardness of heart), he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (He wanted to bring believers from Damascus to Jerusalem in chains, as he explained later.) Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Just that far for now!
Saul without the light! Here he was. He was very well educated. He was educated under Gamaliel, the great Jewish scholar, and Paul will say later on that he was a Pharisee, and that he knew the Law very, very well, and so he rejected Jesus as the Messiah. After all, how could a dead man, a man who was crucified, be the Messiah, when everybody was looking for a triumphal political figure? And so what happened is he rejected Jesus, and notice in his blindness, without the light, first of all he was walking in religious darkness, believing that what he was doing was pleasing God. Jesus predicted this in John 16. He said that the day is coming when you are going to be cast out of the synagogue, and when those who kill you will believe that they are doing God a favor (the words of Jesus). And so he is here, very sincere, very passionate, believing that he is doing right. Religious blindness!
Of course, we have that in history, don’t we? Let me give you two examples, first of all from Christianity, and secondly from Islam. Do you realize that after the Reformation, and actually, in a sense, during the Reformation, there were those who believed that one should be baptized as an adult rather than simply as an infant? So they’d been baptized as infants, but now they were being baptized as adults in profession of faith. Did you know that official Christendom killed many of them? In fact, a scholar, who spent a year in Europe writing a wonderful book, said that more Anabaptists (the word ana means rebaptizers) died during the sixteenth century (imagine this) than Christians put to death in Rome in the first century. Whole villages of men, women and children were wiped out. Why? It was because infant baptism was the sign of the unity of Christendom, and so their prediction was that if you were baptized only as a believer as an adult, Christendom was going to break apart. And of course, that is what eventually happened, and then we have various denominations. But the point is that among these Anabaptists were some of the most godly, committed people on the face of the earth, and they were being put to death by people who thought they were pleasing God.
I don’t need to go into detail about Islam. Probably today there will be on average two or three hundred Christians put to death in North Korea and especially in Islamic countries. And many of these people, of course (I’m sure most of them), believe that they are doing right by Allah. They are doing what pleases Allah. Paul here is an example of someone who was religiously blind, thinking that the evil that he was doing was pleasing to God. Imagine it.
Something else about Paul here (and I’m calling him Paul, though in the text, as I mentioned, he’s called Saul) is that morally he was blind. You know, in Acts 26, where he tells his story (and it’s told twice in the book of Acts in addition to this account in Acts 9), Jesus apparently said to him, “Saul, Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the goads.” You know, a goad is a stick, and on that stick there is a spike and you use it to keep cows, for example, going in the direction that you want them to go. What is Jesus referring to? It must be Saul’s conscience. He knew right well in moments of honesty that he was doing wrong, but he overrode that knowledge by being so committed to his false doctrine, that he went ahead and kept doing what down deep inside he knew was wrong. It’s called managing your sin, managing the darkness. And that’s certainly what the Apostle Paul, the man who will be called the Apostle Paul, will eventually do. In fact, he’ll tell us that in moments of honesty. For example in the book of Romans he talks about the fact that sin was within him. He said, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me, for sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it, killed me.”
What Paul said was, “Here I am a devoted Pharisee, keeping all the rules, doing everything that I thought was right, but I wasn’t honest with myself. Down deep in my heart there was sin (the sin of self-righteousness surely but later on he talks about lust). All those sins were within me and there was nothing I could do about it.”
So think this through. Religiously he was blind without the light. And remember this: People who walk in darkness (Boy, this would be a sermon by itself.) believe that they are walking in the light. As Paul says, “I was deceived.” That’s Paul walking without light. He was very sincere, very committed, and very wrong.
Well, let’s look at Paul now under the light. You’ll notice it says he is going toward Damascus, as we read, and suddenly he has something happen to him. Jesus comes and you’ll notice He says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul answered and said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.”
Wow! You know the name Jesus! There were many Jesuses. That was a very common name. It was something like the name John today, but Jesus said, “This isn’t just any ordinary Jesus. This is the Jesus that you are persecuting because those disciples whom you are putting to death belong to Me and they are members of My body.”
I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Now you are persecuting my disciples,” or “You are persecuting those whom I have redeemed.” Jesus said, “You are persecuting Me, the body of Jesus Christ” and that is going to be explained later on by the Apostle Paul but it already finds its seeds here in the book of Acts. And you know there are some of you here who think it’s not important whether or not you belong to a church. You just don’t become a member of Moody Church or any other church because you think, “Well, you know we can come and we can be blessed. We can even give (and thank God that you can), but we don’t really need the kind of commitment of membership.” My brother and my sister, would you remember that the Body of Jesus Christ is the Church? And it’s not as if we’re the only body, but we are part of the Body of Christ, and you had better think twice before you take casually your lack of commitment to the Body. Jesus said, “These believers are my body.” Later on, Paul is going to say, “We are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.”
Believers are being persecuted all over the world today, and we need to keep in mind that it is the persecution against Jesus personally. And proof of Paul’s apostleship (He’s going to argue later the reason he knows that he’s a legitimate apostle.) is because of this experience of seeing the risen Christ that was so dramatic and so powerful that he recognized right away that this is the Lord. He saw it with clarity. So keep this in mind, and don’t tinker with the Body of Christ. By that I mean, watch before you criticize the body because we are important, and if you are looking for things to criticize you can surely find them. Watch it very carefully because you are talking about people who Jesus redeemed, and He said, “You’re really talking about Me. You are persecuting Me.”
So here is Paul now under the light. You know, he says, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognized Jesus to be Lord right away. Lord God! The one who we are going to worship forever! Paul had all that in that moment of insight. And by the way, Jesus is Lord. He’s not just applying for the job. He is Lord and He is God! (applause)
Now let’s look at Paul and we see him in the light. Jesus said to him, “You go to Damascus and there you are going to meet someone.” And I won’t take time to read the text, though I hope you do on your own. Beginning at verse 10 there’s a disciple at Damascus named Ananias, and God says, “Ananias, I want you to go, and I want you to communicate with Paul who is blind, and I want you to connect with him, and when you do, the scales will fall off of his eyes.” Ananias said, “Uh-uh! Lord, here I am. Send my brother would you please?” (laughter) If it were me, I might have sent an intern and said, “You go do it,” (laughter) because this man ain’t a good man! The reputation of Paul had already spread all the way to Damascus, and by the way, the fact that there were believers in Damascus really shows you how quickly the church grew. To think that there were enough believers in Damascus for Paul to want to go there and bring them all back in chains to Jerusalem!
So here Paul is, and God has to speak personally to Ananias and say these words. Let’s read them together. Verse 11: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” Well, that’s interesting. God says, “Now that you are in the light and you are walking in the light, this man is going to be my chosen instrument.” God chose a well-educated man, a man who could think in logical terms, a man who could write with clarity and precision, and God says, “He’s the one who is going to be my instrument to explain the Gospel to the Gentiles and to the Jews, and I’m going to show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Now in the next message in this series, I’m going to be speaking about Paul’s suffering and how much he had to endure because entailed in the calling of God almost always is suffering. Suffering proves that you are a legitimate apostle and really proves to us that Saul’s conversion wasn’t fake. If it had been fake, he’d have changed his mind. He would have not been willing to suffer. He’d have gone back into Judaism with all of its supports and all of its encouragements. In fact, he goes now, and by the way, somewhere in this chapter he actually goes to Arabia for three years, a separate story. It is there that undoubtedly he had revelations. Undoubtedly he studied the Old Testament in new light now that he knew that indeed Jesus was the Messiah. But you’ll notice that the Scripture says that they tried to kill him when he came to Jerusalem. He went back to Damascus and then they tried to kill him in Jerusalem. It says, for example, in verse 27: “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles (Barnabas also was a man who was willing to take the risk that Paul was for real.) and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him.”
And do you know where he goes after that? He goes home to Tarsus, which is where he grew up. Can you just imagine the conversation in that home between Paul and his parents? “We brought you up as a good Jewish boy. We got you the best education, sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, an outstanding Jewish scholar, and now you converted to Jesus? What’s going on?” And the Apostle Paul is going to prove his apostleship by standing against all opposition and boldly living for Christ.
And there are some of you who are listening who are afraid to come to Jesus Christ because you say that your family will disown you. And the Apostle Paul is telling you (and we know the words of Jesus who said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of Me. And he that does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”) that salvation is free but following Jesus can be very difficult. It’s so easy to follow Jesus until you find out where He’s leading you. And that is not quite as easy to follow Him. But if He is who He is, following Him means even standing against your family, against your culture, and against all the forces that may be against you.
Now, let’s just nail this down for us. Alright? And here it is. First of all, let me give you three life-changing applications as we think about this story. First of all, God takes the initiative in salvation. I can assure you of this. Paul was not looking for Jesus, saying, “I want to find Jesus because I want to come to God.” No, Jesus came to Paul, and the hunter became the hunted – hunted by Christ. It is Christ that chose Paul and revealed Himself to Paul in such a way that Paul could not deny that Jesus was who He claimed to be. And what we must realize is that Jesus takes the initiative.
Sometimes when we hear testimonies, especially from new converts, they’ll say, “Yeah, well you know I found Jesus.” Well, good for you! He chased you until you found Him!” That’s really true! (applause) Amen!
Do you remember that poem, The Hound of Heaven? I looked it up the other day and discovered it’s a very long poem. I also discovered that it was written by Francis Thompson in England who was an opium addict, and he would sleep outside. He was basically disowned, and people didn’t realize that he was actually a great poet. And later on some of his poems were published. But in The Hound of Heaven he talks about how God pursued him. And he says (You probably all know the opening lines.),
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.
And it goes on and on. “I’m running from God. I’m trying to get away from Him.” But near the end of the poem it says, “Ah fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He whom thou seekest.” It’s God! When your conscience troubles you and it seems as if life cannot go on, it’s God seeking you. C. S. Lewis said something like that, I think, in one of his writings. He even likened God unto a chess player. You know, when you play chess, what you need to do is to put all of your pieces in such a way that eventually your opponent has to say, “Checkmate. Game over! Nowhere else to move!” And C. S. Lewis said, “That’s the way I felt. I tried to get away from God. I tried to disbelieve the New Testament, but the more I looked into the New Testament, the more compelling it became until God, the hound of heaven, took the pieces and rearranged them, and finally I had to say, “Checkmate! You are God! You are King! You are Savior!”
How do you know when somebody is saved? It’s when they say, “My faith is in Jesus Christ alone, and I know He is the only Savior.” If you don’t say that, you’re not converted.
Well, God takes the initiative, and we could prove this from Scripture. For example, if you are saved it says, “He chose us in Christ from before the foundation of the world.” Now, you can do whatever you like with that, and of course, as we know, when we begin to discuss that, we’re jumping into the dark and the deep part of the swimming pool. But remember you are saved because of Jesus and not because of yourself. He takes the initiative in salvation. (applause)
Secondly, and this is so important. Conversion involves the shattering of self-confidence. Let me ask you a question, and I want you to get this question whether you are in the balcony, or whether you are listening online or the radio. Between you and me I want to ask you a question: Are you a good person? If you answer yes to that you have never been converted. No Christian will ever answer yes to that question. You know, the Apostle Paul was a good person. He kept all the Law. Listen to what he said in the book of Philippians. I mean, you talk about being a good person!
He says, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews (that is a top scholar); as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (I could put my life next to you, and you see whether or not you measure up to me, and you won’t.) But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish.”
The greatest enemy of the Gospel in the American church is moralism. Moralism says that “I’m trying to be a good Christian. I’m trying to be a Christian because it has to do with the improvement of the behavior. Yes, I’m a Christian because I’m going to church now. Yeah, I’m a Christian because I’m going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m a Christian because I’m doing better than I once did.” As if that is the Gospel! It is nothing but self-confidence, which God condemns. Now it’s good for you to be a better person. It’s good for you to do this, but that is not the Gospel. It’s not the Gospel. Anyone who is saved, if you ask them, “Are you a good person?” if you have been converted, the answer to that is, “No, I am not, but the good news is Jesus is a good person.” (applause) That’s the way Christians answer that question.
You look down in your heart and you’ll see what you find. Take an honest look. Not all of the religion that you see, but take an honest look into your heart and ask yourself whether or not you are really deep inside a good person.
Some time ago I told you about James Vernon McGee, who is still on the radio even though he’s been dead for many years. And he was preaching from this pulpit, and he said, “I want you to know if you knew my heart the way I know my heart, you wouldn’t be listening to me.” And then he said, “Before you run to the exit, if I knew your heart the way you know your heart, I wouldn’t even talk to you.” (Laughter)
Christians are broken people. They are people who know that they are not good, but Jesus is good and He saves us and He redeems us. (applause) So if you are sitting here today, or listening by some other way, and you think, “I’m a good person…” You know, I witness to people on the plane almost all the time, and I’ve had some very interesting conversations. Somebody said I should write them up some time, but all the interaction that I have and that you have as you witness for Christ… And one of the questions that I ask is, “Where are you on your spiritual journey?” or I ask them what they would say to God if He were to say, “Why should I let you into heaven?” The answer I get most often is what? It’s “I’m a good person.” When they answer that I can tell you they do not understand, nor do they believe the Gospel.
Paul said he was a good person, and look at him. He needed to be converted, and so do you, and so do I. When God intervenes, there is a transformation. In fact, that leads me to a final and third conclusion here.
We’ve learned that God takes the initiative. He shatters all self-confidence. Luther said that one must descend into hell before he can descend into heaven because unless you see yourself as a needy sinner who cannot save yourself, you can’t be saved, thank you very much!
Now let me say also finally that we are not saved by good works. I think that’s very clear from what I’ve said. Paul said, “I take all of my good works and I stack them together, and I have a good word for all of them, and that is rubbish.” And actually in the Greek text it’s a little stronger than that. So the point is that you’re not saved by good works, but you are saved unto good works. Notice what God said there in the book of Acts. Right out of the chute He said to Ananias: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel, for I will show him how much he must suffer for My sake.” In other words, what God is saying is that you are not saved by your works, but once you are saved, God births within us a love for God. He births within us a desire for holiness, however much we may struggle with Him and in our sins that we still struggle with. But He births that within us. He transforms us. He makes us into a different person. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) And then God says, “I have a place for you.”
In fact, why am I saying it? I might just as well quote Scripture at this point. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” If you are a believer, God has something for you to do. He has something for you to do – some of you within the church, and we need hundreds of volunteers. We need volunteers for our ministry to children, for Summer Blast, and a whole lot of other responsibilities.
Some of you will serve within the church. Some of you will serve through the church. You have ministries outside of these walls, connected with the church. And some of you will serve outside the church. And all of us will serve in our vocations wherever God has planted us. Why? It’s because we are saved unto good works.
You know, when I think about the Apostle Paul, of course, and his marvelous conversion, I can’t help but think of Martin Luther. Remember he said, “If anyone (He was in the monastery there in Erfurt, Germany) would be saved through monkery, I would be.” He exceeded all of the requirements of being a monk. He slept on a hard floor without a blanket, and Rebecca and I have been to that place many times, and the hard floor is basically a kind of plaster. And he slept that way. We went begging. He starved himself with fasting until some people thought he might die. And at the end of the day he still could not understand how much he had to do to please God until he realized the glorious truth that we can’t do it through works. We do it because Jesus pleased God, and through faith in Him, we please God. Jesus paid it all! And the vilest of sinners who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
I’ve been praying that as a result of this message that there would be people here today who believe on Jesus. If you want to believe on Jesus you come forward later and shake my hand or the hands of our prayer committee here. Tell someone that you want to believe, or that you have believed as a result of this message because the Jesus of the Apostle Paul, and the Jesus that saved the man who wrote “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” is the Jesus who is still saving people even as we heard in our testimony this morning.
Now let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will do the work because we can’t.
Father, I’m aware of the fact that I cannot save people. Nobody can. We can’t overcome their darkness. We can’t overcome their resistance. We can’t overcome their self-satisfaction with themselves. Only You can do that. We ask today that You’ll do that in many hearts, in many lives for Your glory and for Your honor. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.