The In-Between Years - Part 47

Series: The In-Between Years

August 29, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 47

In Acts 7, Luke records — almost as if an afterthought — the presence of man named Saul at Stephen’s execution…

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  Acts 7:58 (ESV)

And then a few verses later he writes…

1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.  Acts 8:13 (ESV)

If you didn’t know better you’d think that was it. But this was anything but an afterthought. Luke mentions Saul because he’s going to play a critical role in the life of the early church and the spreading of the gospel, and that’s a gross understatement.

In fact (and yes I am mentioning this yet once again), Paul, as Saul will also be called after coming to Christ, is almost singlehandedly responsible for initially carrying out phase III of God’s great witness projection plan as given by Jesus in Acts 1:8…

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Acts 1:8 (ESV)

But surely our first impression of Saul wasn’t a favorable one by a long shot. You might even think he was evil, as if before he met Christ he was devilish and then good after. It seems that way, but that’s just not true. Saul was simply living out his faith radically. I mean that he was 200% sincere in believing that what he was doing was right and good and God-honoring. Let me explain.

Saul was a Jew who came from a family with some means because his parents sent him to train under the great and famous rabbi, Gamaliel. Remember him? Growing up, Saul became, like many Jews in that day, attracted to a Jewish revival movement whose followers were known as Pharisees. That’s right, the Pharisees actually brought Jewish faithfulness back.

Why? Their movement brought a return to literally and closely following the Laws of Moses. It held the Scriptures to be inspired by God and without error. It looked forward to a literal resurrection of the saints on the last day. All of these things were in line with what Jesus taught. So even though Pharisees get a bad rap because Jesus butted heads with them so, they got an A+ when it came to passionate devotion to living out what they believed.

Saul became a Pharisee and a rising star in their party at that. He would later write of himself…

4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  Philippians 3:46 (ESV)

So even though we know Saul was horribly wrong to condone the stoning of Stephen, in his heart he believed what he was doing honored God. To him, the disciples of Jesus were blaspheming by claiming a man could be equal with God and he would go to whatever lengths necessary to stop it.

God however, displaying his power of providential override in a big way, will use all that misdirected passion to further his gospel to the ends of the earth. But first Saul has to meet Jesus. And that’s what Acts 9 is about and what we’ll look at today, covering quite a bit of the text for me!

1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Acts 9:12 (ESV) 

One Greek scholar explains that “breathing threats and murder” meant that “threatening and slaughter had come to be the very breath that Saul breathed, like a warhorse who sniffed the smell of battle. He breathed on the remaining disciples the murder that he had already breathed in from the death of the others.”[1]

Going to the high priest, Saul requested extradition papers for any Jew found belonging to the “Way” in Damascus, a city some 100 miles from Jerusalem. Remember, the disciples had scattered in fear after Stephen’s stoning. 

Saul’s crusade against the church was much more disturbing than this implies. He will later testify in Acts 26…

9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. 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. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.  Acts 26:911 (ESV)

It’s a 100 mile trip from Jerusalem to Damascus. By car that might take and hour and a half. But by foot or horse it would take much longer. He would have had to push a horse to its limits to make it in one day. So Saul and his party spent hours on the road. What would a devout Pharisee do with all that time on his hands? Meditate. Pray.

It’s interesting that some Bible scholars suggest Saul may have practiced on that long trip a wildly popular meditation of the day. It had to do with a prolonged focusing on Ezekiel’s vision in chapter of one of his book (you know the one with the UFOs). One scholar explains that “the point of meditating on this… for some Jews of Jesus’ day who used this technique, was to see if, by devout prayer and fasting, holiness, devotion and contemplation, one might come even in this life to share in the climax of the vision…”[2]

Here’s that climax…

26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.  Ezekiel 1:26–28 (ESV)

So maybe Saul was praying about Ezekiel’s vision, desiring to have a vision of his own when this happened…

3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.  Acts 9:3 (ESV)

Saul does get an encounter with God not unlike Ezekiel’s. A light so bright it overcame the noonday sun (revealed in another account) crashed upon him. It was so extraordinary, shocking, and obviously heavenly, it knocked him on his face…

 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  Acts 9:46 (ESV)

Okay, well Saul didn’t see that coming, now did he? In his heavenly vision he doesn’t meet strange angels or see the throne of God. He meets Jesus. The very one whose followers he hunted down.

This is the moment it all clicks. This is the moment Saul realizes Jesus is who he says he is. Saul got his vision, his encounter with God alright, but he also got a lot more than that. My favorite NT scholar writes that this encounter…

…confirmed everything Saul had been taught; it overturned everything he had been taught. The law and the prophets had come true; the law and the prophets had been torn to pieces and put back together in a totally new way. It was a new world; it was the old world made explicit. It showed him that the God he had loved from childhood, the God for whose glory he had been so righteously indignant, the God in whose name and for whose honour he was busy rounding up those who were declaring that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah, that he was risen from the dead, that he was the Lord of the world (this Jesus who had led Israel astray with his magic tricks and false prophecy about the Temple, this Jesus who the Romans had, thankfully, crucified, to make it clear that whoever was God’s Messiah it certainly couldn’t be him!)—it showed him that the God he had been right to serve, right to study, right to seek in prayer, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done what he always said he would, but done it in a shocking, scandalous, horrifying way. The God who had always promised to come and rescue his people had done so in person. In the person of Jesus.[3]

Saul wasn’t converted from one faith to another. He accepted Jesus, the messiah of the Jews, as the fulfillment of all he believed.[4] All he was, all he had learned, all he believed converged at that one point into one person: JESUS.

Now you can’t preach this text without mentioning something incredibly comforting. Saul met the risen Lord here, Jesus himself, and he wanted to know why Saul was persecuting him. That doesn’t make sense at first because Saul was persecuting Jesus’ followers, not Jesus who sat on his throne in heaven. But then you realize (as Saul did) Jesus so identifies with his followers that to persecute them is equal to persecuting him.

Here’s what happened next…

7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 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. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 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, 12 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.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

Can’t blame Ananias here!

15 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. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

There’s your evidence he had truly met Jesus!

21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.  Acts 9:722 (ESV)

And there we have the beautiful conversion story of a man named Saul. I love what one commentator says about his conversion…

One could… say that his zeal as a Christian was even stronger than his former zeal as persecutor. Luke described him as “proving” (symbibazō) that Jesus is the Christ. The Greek word means to join or put together and seems to picture his assembling Old Testament texts to demonstrate how Christ fulfilled them. No wonder the Damascene Jews were astounded and totally unable to respond to the skillful interpretations of the former student of Gamaliel.[5]

Saul, who later took the name of Paul, went on to become the greatest Christian, theologian, and missionary who ever lived. Who’d have thought the zealous, murderous Saul would become Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ? 

Conclusion: JD Greear observes that in Saul’s conversion account we see…

○  Saul the mighty, now kneeling before God.

○  Saul, the one who thought he saw so clearly, now being led by the hand because he is blind.

○  Saul, the one who seized others, now seized himself by the Lord Jesus Christ.

○  Saul, the hammer who broke others, now himself broken on the anvil of Christ.[6]

Paul, will go on to write most of the NT, and all he wrote was in some way connected to, pointed back to, that moment in time where he met Jesus and was transformed.

9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.  1 Corinthians 15:9–10 (ESV)

12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  1 Timothy 1:1217 (ESV)

4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Philippians 3:411 (ESV)

Paul is a living testimony to the truth of Rom 10.13…

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

He’ll not only save you, he’ll redeem all you were before getting saved!

[1] Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention., Ac 9:1. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

[2] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (p. 138). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[3] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (pp. 140–141). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] Carson, D. A. New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer.  1970. 4th ed., Ac 9:1. Leicester, England;  Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

[5] Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 239). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] Greear, J. D. (2017). Paul: Acts 9:1–19. In J. D. Greear Sermon Archive (Ac 9:1–19). Durham, NC: The Summit Church.

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