Grace For The Journey
Today ’s encounter is one of the most unusual encounters of our study. It is unusual because of the person himself – Saul of Tarsus, faithful Jewish leader and persecutor of Christians – and it is unusual because the encounter does not take place during Jesus’ earthly reign, but rather at a time after His resurrection, when Jesus has already ascended back up into heaven.
I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the encounter we look at today is the most dramatic, and arguably most significant encounter with Christ yet. It is often said that if a skeptic wished to be honest in his serious consideration of the historicity of the New Testament and the authenticity of the Christian faith, he would have to explain to historical facts: one, the resurrection of Christ; and two, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul. Both events are difficult to dismiss out of hand if one takes seriously a study of the faith.
We jump right into the narrative, reading about this man named Saul, a guy who believed Christians were wrong and devoted his life to seeing that they were arrested and imprisoned. If we had time we would go back and look at the end of chapter 7 and beginning of chapter 8 of the Book of Acts where the Christian Stephen is being stoned to death for his faith in Christ and we are told that Saul was standing there while that was taking place, “consenting to his death,” approving of what was taking place. The story about Saul of Tarsus picks back up, then, in chapter 9 and verses 1-9, “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’ And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
Three days without sight. Can you imagine? Saul is on his way to Damascus, hoping to find Christians he can arrest. He has warrants in his hand as he journeys along and suddenly he is blinded by a light from heaven and he falls to the ground in an encounter that leaves him three days without sight. He is feeling his way around. Others leading him. We will read later that his sight is restored. God does that. God blinds him and God restores his sight. I think that’s kind of funny because it is a metaphor for what was going on with Saul spiritually.
Saul believed he could see – spiritually –
But he was really blind to the truth.
So, God blinds him in order to help him see!
I give the title for this study, “Vision Correction Procedure,” because God conducts this operation, spiritual eye surgery, on Saul of Tarsus so that when the procedure is complete, the encounter is so radical and so powerful that Saul of Tarsus goes by a new name, the Apostle Paul.
We can learn some characteristics of the Christian faith from this study. More pointedly, three essentials of genuine Christianity. I want to share these with you as signposts along the path of our journey through this text.
Three Characteristics of True Christianity:
I. The Necessity of Conversion – Verses 1-9.
Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3). We cannot be saved from sin without the new birth. God gives us new hearts and we believe by faith in Jesus Christ. This is conversion, we were once headed in one direction, but we have changed course. We are now following and living for Jesus Christ. The Bible describes conversion as a new creation. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away; all things have become new.” This was true of the Apostle Paul. He was on his way to Damascus, living a life in opposition to Christ, but God got hold of his heart and he was converted, turned around, saved, and he began living a new life in Christ.
One of the things I like about this passage is we see so clearly that it is God who takes the initiative in our conversion. He makes the first move. He seeks us before we seek Him. Remember Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one comes to Me unless the Father draws him.” And that his happening here. Paul is not interested in Jesus. Jesus just knocks Paul down and speaks to him. One of the things Jesus says in the passage, is where He says to Paul in verse 5, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” That phrase is also found later in Acts 22 and 26 where Paul tells this story of his conversion.
Using the phrase, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” is a way of describing how hard it is to resist something that is prodding you along. A “goad” was like a sharp stick used, for example, by a sheep herder. Sheep are not real focused animals. For example, if water is this way the sheep may want to go the other way, or if safety is this way, and a cliff is this way, the sheep naturally go toward the cliff – the sheep herder would use the goad to steer them in the right direction.
This is what God does. We are naturally going in the wrong direction and, in His love, He comes along and goads us in the right direction. When we feel like God is “goading” us, prodding us, moving in our lives, we are wise to respond the correct way, not by resisting Him and kicking against Him, but by following Him.
Let me give you a couple truths about conversion before we move on to the next characteristic.
1) Apart from Christ, we are spiritually blind.
We cannot see the truth because we do not yet have the ability to see the truth. We are dead in sin and therefore blind to spiritual things. I raise this point as a matter of compassion; compassion for those who are spiritually blind. A person can be spiritually blind to the truth without realizing it. If you have ever been to a movie theater, you know what I’m talking about. You sit inside that dark theater for a couple hours and, you see quite well. You can see the person next to you, see your drink, and see the popcorn that has fallen onto your chest. When the movie is over and you step outside and the bright light causes you to squint and it makes it difficult to see right away. What happened was that you had gotten used to the darkness without even realizing it. You were just used to sitting in the dark. You could see, but all you could see was the stuff in the dark. People can be in darkness and not realize it. It is a matter of compassion. We do not make fun of them or look down upon them as though they were dumb, or something. We do as others did for Paul, take them by the hand, as it were, and lead them into the light.
2) Lost people are not always miserable.
We think sometimes that people who are not Christians are just so miserable and just so down and discouraged. Many lost people are that way, but not all. In fact, some are very happy in their lost condition and may even be very religious. This was Saul of Tarsus. Saul was very religious, as he says elsewhere, “a Pharisee of the Pharisees” (Philippians 3:5). He was very religious and very dedicated to his religion. He was walking a 150-mile journey to do what he believed was right. He needed the truth, but he did not know it. We must remember that not every lost person we will witness to this week is some foolish, non-religious person, or miserable person, but simply a person who needs to know Jesus.
I love the way Jesus introduces Himself to Saul of Tarsus. He asks him in verse 4, “Saul, Saul, why are persecuting Me?” And Saul responds, “Who are You, Lord?” That is a great question and an important question. This is the honest response every lost person will make as the Holy Spirit works in their hearts. We do not have to know all there is to know about Jesus but we will have a desire to know Who He is, what He has done for us, and what we need to do to know Him better.
Jesus’ question is also a reminder that an attack on Christians is an attack on Jesus Himself. He asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting Me?” To attack Christians is to attack Jesus. So united are Christians with Christ that to attack the one is to attack the other. That is why Paul later uses this relationship of Christ to His church as an image for Christian marriage. The Bible says Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” The husband and wife are one. If you mess with my wife, you are messing with me! We are one. I about a husband’s response to his wife’s threat to leave him, “If you do, I am going with you!”
This takes us to the next point. The second characteristic of true Christianity is . . .
II. The Necessity of Community – Verses 10-19.
Through the Gospel, God unites people together as a community of faith, a community of believers, and a church family. The pursue is that we may grow in in a healthier relationship with God and with one another. Verse 10 says, “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.” And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’” That’s a great response, right?! God calls your name, you say, “Here I am. Use me.” But do we mean it when we say it? Ananias said it right away. Let’s see if he means it.
Verses 11 through 14 say, “So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’ Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’” It is easy to understand Ananias’ dilemma here! Ananias wants to do the Lord’s will, but he’s like, “Uh, God, are you sure about this?! I do not know if You have thought this thing through. I mean, I know You know everything, but, well, this Saul guy, he has been persecuting Christians. He has authority here in Damascus to arrest people!” By the way, how many of you think God was worried about the authority Saul had?! You and I talk to God, we say: “Lord, I trust You. I believe in You. I want to live Your plan.” Then God unfolds His will and we are like Ananias here trying to make sure God has all the information He needs. Just do what God says! He will always honor our doing the right thing.
Verses 15-17 state, “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’ And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” I just picture Ananias gingerly approaching Saul, probably still thinking, “I don’t know about this!” He enters the house and tip-toes near him. And then, the beauty of this picture, verse 17 says he lay his hands on him. He touched him. Then he said . . . What did he say? “Brother Saul.” That is beautiful. Paul is now in the family of faith. It is so amazing, the way God uses the Gospel, through the power of Christ, to bring people together. We can get along because we are brothers and sisters united in Christ!
Verses 18 and 19 say, “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.” Saul can now see! Something fell from his eyes like scales, maybe like a film had been over his eyes, but now he can see. And then first thing he does is get baptized. Throughout the Book of Acts we read that as soon as people receive Christ, they are baptized. The first step of a new believer is baptism. It is the first step of obedience. Baptism, a word that means “to be immersed into water.” It pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And baptism pictures what happened to the new believer. We have died to the old person and the old way of life, and have been raised now to walk in a new way of life. When you receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the first thing you should do is get baptized as a sign of identifying with Jesus and an obedient commitment to following Him forever. And baptism happens in the context of the local church, in the community of faith, in the church. That is why when a person is baptized here that person is a candidate for membership in this church.
This part of the passage really stresses the need for community in the Christian life. We are relational beings, and we need one another. Saul needed Ananias. And Ananias blessed Saul by being the one to be there with him, to lay hands on him, to touch him, to pray for him. I cannot help but think that as Paul walks around in heaven today that Ananias is close by reminding everyone: “Hey, I had something to do with this guy being here!”
We often say that every Christian needs two groups – a big group to worship with, and a small group to study the Bible with. Both are necessary. We come together in big group to unite our hearts in worship and praise and to hear the Word of God together as the church. But true community also means that we are in a small group, too. The smaller group affords the opportunity to really get to know brothers and sisters and to share encouragement with one another, and struggles, and prayer requests, and praying for one another, asking Bible questions, getting answers, and growing in our faith.
Some of you are not yet in a small group Bible Study class and you need to be. It is not just for your benefit, or what you can get out of it, but you need to be involved in a small group for the benefit of others, what you can contribute. You have a personality, insights, and giftedness that others need. You need to be in a small group where you can do that. If you are not in a small group, get in one today.
The third characteristic of true Christianity is:
III. The Necessity of Confession – Verses 20-22.
Confessing our faith in Christ . . . Telling others about Jesus . . . Telling others that Jesus is Lord. Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit so he is able now to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Paul later writes, in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” So, Saul of Tarsus now has the Spirit of God within Him. He is now a new creation. He is now the Apostle Paul. So now he can confess Jesus is Lord. He can now say truthfully that Jesus Christ is the One True and Living Lord. He would write later in Romans 10:10, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
If you are saved, something has happened in your heart that just naturally, then, comes out of your mouth! What has happened on the inside is something you share on the outside.
If you are “in Christ,” you then
Begin telling others “about Christ.”
Verse 20 says, “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. When did Paul begin sharing Jesus with others? Immediately.
Verse 21 declares, “Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’” Everybody knows he is different now. Something has happened! He is changed! 2 Corinthians 5:17 describes what happened, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
Let me ask you these questions, “If you are a Christian, do people see a change in your life?” “Do people notice you are different – different in a good way?” “Do you have a joy in the Lord that others see?” “Do you have a commitment to Christ and His church, a love for and dedication to Jesus Christ?”
Verse 22 states, “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” Paul is changed and he naturally now confesses Christ, tells others about Jesus. That is what every believer does.
Every Christian confesses Christ. It is just like ministry. Every Christian is a minister. Not every Christian is a pastor, not every Christian will preach to a congregation, but every Christian is a minister and will confess Christ, speak of his or her faith in Christ as one of His witnesses.
We can do this today. I find it really easy to talk about things that I like. Things that give me joy. If I go to a new restaurant and the food is so good, I’ll tell all kinds of people about it – even total strangers!
That is all witnessing is.
That is all confessing
Christ really is.
It is just telling others
About the One who has
Given you forgiveness,
Purpose, fulfillment, life,
Peace, joy, and the ability
To experience and enjoy life
As God intended.
If you have that,
You just want to
Share it with others.
True Christians do that.
Tell someone today how you met Jesus. Just tell them.
- Tell them how you encountered Christ.
- Tell them how He came to you and how you came to know Him.
- Tell them the difference Jesus is making in your life.
You can do that today. True Christians confess Christ as Lord.
Some of you have family members who are not walking with Christ. Or a friend or co-worker. Some of you may feel like, “I just do not ever see this person coming to know Jesus.” Be encouraged: remember Saul of Tarsus. Keep praying. Keep sharing. No one is ever too lost to be saved.
Remember that it was Stephen who, in a sense, prayed for Paul’s salvation. As Stephen was being stoned to death, remember his prayer? Remember what he said? It was much as Jesus had said on the cross. He said, “Father, do not charge them with this sin.” And who was standing there when Stephen prayed that way to the Lord? None other than Saul of Tarsus. Do not stop praying for lost loved ones. Keep praying
Sometimes police districts will ask their officers to participate in a team-building exercise that is meant to build trust and camaraderie among the officers. What they do is blind-fold each of the officers and then placed them at the entrance of this rope course, a kind of maze made out of ropes where you had to feel your way along in order to make it through the maze. None of the officers can talk to one another! They are blind-folded They cannot see anything. They are them told expected to go through the course. Some would reach out trying to find the way, some people walk past others or push through, and some just stop helplessly. When one officer miraculously makes it to the end. Is he congratulated and told to sit down? No, since he has found the way, is to go back through the course and help all of his friends find their way. That is his responsibility. He is a leader who is leading others to make their way along the journey.
That training exercise illustrates the need for community among brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all making our way along the journey. We do not do it alone. We do not just push through people and pass over people. Nor are we simply to sit still and let everything else go on around us. Rather, we follow Christ – the way the truth and the life – and go to people and we help them find their way, lovingly taking them by the hand and making the journey together. That is our responsibility as followers of Jesus.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”