SAUL'S CONVERSION Reading: Acts ch. 22
We want to begin our exhortation this morning with a short exercise of the imagination. We want you to try and conjure up in your minds a picture of two different men. The first man is young, a proud, perhaps even an arrogant figure, a man of immaculate pedigree and the highest of educations. Our second man is old, a tired man, bent and frail, a man with no family and with very few friends. Our first man is successful, highly regarded by his peers, destined, it seems, for the highest office in his own nation. Our second man is apparently a failure, hated by his own countrymen and left to rot in a Roman prison. Yet despite these apparent differences in the two men and the advantage that the first seems to have in every respect, he is unhappy, he is confused, he doesn't quite know where he is going, he is fighting against his own conscience. In contrast, the second man, the old and tired man, is at peace with himself. He is a man who rejoices in his sufferings.
Of course, you have realized that these two we have described are the same man, but totally different people. They are Saul of Tarsus and Paul the apostle, and in the chapter we read we have Paul's own account of the dramatic moment which changed his life: no longer one whose amibition was to be the leader of his natural people, but to be the servant of Jesus Christ, the apostle to the Gentiles. We would like to spend a few moments thinking about this dramatic change of heart in Saul of Tarsus, a change which was effected by that glorious vision of the risen Christ as Saul made his way to Damascus.
To begin with let us read a few words of Paul which he used to describe this dramatic incident, from chapter 26 of Acts which we shall be reading shortly in our daily portions, because they amplify one or two points in the account which we would like to pick up by way of exhortation. Paul now is before king Agrippa and we read in verse 12 of the incident which we have already considered from chapter 22. Paul relates how he went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, verse 12, and then, verse 13: "At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutes! thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutes!. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee."
Paul's summary of these events is given to us in verse 19: "Whereupon, O king Agrippa, 1was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision." That is something which we would do well to think about. Obedience to the heavenly vision. Well, surely it is appropriate for us as we consider these emblems upon the table. Unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, unlike Stephen before the Council, in these days there is no open vision of the risen Christ, but if we will but open our eyes and open our hearts to see it, the bread and the wine on the table speak equally forcibly to us of the risen Christ and of the power that exists in these days, strongly to influence men's hearts and minds and bring them to God.
Surely the aim of our meeting around these emblems is to try and encourage one another and to build ourselves up so that we can be as confident as was Paul in saying that we have not been disobedient to our vision of Christ in these emblems upon the table.
So how did Saul of Tarsus become Paul the apostle to the Gentiles? Well, we know that Paul was born at Tarsus, capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. He was brought up as a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel, that greatest of the teachers of the Law in Jerusalem, and from the age of twelve he would have lived in the temple and its precincts, learning the Law, the traditions, and reflecting upon the great works of God wrought on the nation's behalf in times past. Surely it must have been during this period in Jerusalem, being instructed by the lawyers and the leaders of the Pharisees, that Saul of Tarsus must have heard many of Jesus' discourses in the temple precincts. Perhaps he was there when Jesus threw out the money changers and cleansed the house of God.
But Christ was a stumbling-block to the Jews. They looked for an all-powerful Messiah and not a silent lamb led to the slaughter, and so it was with Saul of Tarsus. When the followers of this Galilean prophet grew, his righteous anger stirred him up to destroy this false movement; and we read in verse 9 of chapter 26, "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme: and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities."
But then came the light on the road and those telling words of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." What were these pricks that Paul was fighting against? That word is perhaps better translated "goads." The goad was the sharp pointed stick which was used to encourage mules and oxen to keep on with their work, and of course the harder the animal pushed against the goad the more painful it became. This was precisely the situation in which Paul found himself. He was trying to resist the irresistible, and the harder he pushed against it the more confused and troubled in mind he became. It was so hard for him to kick against the pricks. He was resisting that irresistible evidence that Christ was indeed the Messiah and, though crucified, was now risen from the dead.
Well, what particularly were these goads that were pushing at Paul? Surely the greatest thing that was pricking him was his own conscience. We have already mentioned that Saul must have seen and heard Jesus during his period at Jerusalem under Gamaliel, but like all the Pharisees he blinded his eyes to the miraculous testimony of Jesus' ministry. We know also that Saul was closely involved with the arrest and the execution of Stephen. We know that they cast their garments at Saul's feet when they stoned him. "Saul was consenting unto his death," we read.
Let us just go back to chapter 6 of Acts and pick up one or two points that come from that narrative. We can see how Paul's conscience was beginning to work and cause him to be troubled in mind. Verse 8: "Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." Paul, we know, was one of those of Cilicia; perhaps he was one of those who had debated with Stephen but could not gainsay his wisdom. These words of the Greek Jew were further goads pricking Paul's conscience, the champion of orthodox Jewry not being able to withstand the truth of God's Word.
Well, in this attitude of Saul there is a very powerful lesson for us as we meet around these emblems to examine ourselves. It is so very easy for us, as it was for Paul for some time, to blind ourselves to the truth of God's Word as it begins to affect us personally. It is so very easy for us to see how God's Word should be affecting everybody else, but how easy it is for us to blind ourselves to the lessons that the Word of God has for us as individuals. As we meet around this Table the perfect example of Jesus, as reflected in these emblems, should be acting as goads to us, pricking our conscience to see if we are in the right way. We are asked to examine ourselves week by week, but the examination which we should be undertaking, is not like any ordinary examination which we may have had to take in our daily lives. When we take our O-levels or our A-levels or any other examination of this world, the general pattern is that we are asked to answer five questions perhaps out of seven that are set on the paper. The natural response is to attempt to answer the questions which we are happy about and which we are confident of answering.
But as we meet around this Table we have to answer every question which is posed to us. We cannot avoid that difficult or hard question which is tacked on at the end of the paper. No, we must face it fairly and squarely. Indeed, if we find that question difficult then it is all the more important that we address it and try to solve the problems which it presents to us.
The whole of our life in following Jesus is the struggle of ourselves with our conscience, a conscience which must be formed out of our own understanding of the ways of God, described to us in His Word. Paul resisted his conscience for some time, but in the end the blinding glory of the risen Christ forced him to realize that what he had been doing was a denial of his true conscience, and the need to overthrow all of his comfortable life and to dedicate himself to his risen Lord. Well, as we say, we are not going to see a vision of the glorious risen Lord Jesus Christ until the day of his return to the earth, but those goads are already there for us in the Word of God, for us to respond to and take direction from in our life, for, as we say, the day will come when we will see the risen Christ revealed in all his glory, as did Paul on the road to Damascus. But then our fate will already have been sealed. If we have not responded to these goads in the Word, then instead of the temporary darkness of three days' blindness there will be the absolute blackness of everlasting darkness.
Paul's response to his true understanding of the Word of God was, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" and as we see Christ our response should be the same.
Well, after that wonderful experience on the road to Damascus, Paul completes his journey, and there that faithful disciple Ananias is given the commission that Paul was to follow for the rest of his life. Turn over to chapter 9 and verse 15, and as we just read this narrative perhaps we should think about the wonderful example of this faithful disciple Ananias who was prepared to go and see Saul of Tarsus, the one who had been persecuting those of the Way. What an example he is to us, as well as Paul. "The Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake."
Paul did not receive that commission at once, but for three days, in the street called Straight, blind physically but spiritually the scales removed from his sight, he waited, fasting and praying. After Ananias' visit Paul was baptized, and immediately fulfilled that commission that Jesus had given him, of preaching and spreading the gospel. In this attitude of Paul we have another powerful example. Paul had been forced to recognize his faults and his failings before God. Indeed, these had been great. Yet this recognition of his own failings did not cause Paul to despair, or to become preoccupied with his own weakness. Paul was encouraged by his experience. He realized that God's love and God's mercy was far greater than his own weakness and his own sin. He was encouraged by an experience of failure as well as the joyful experience of Christ and the vision that he had seen.
Surely that is the way we should respond to our own failures, for inevitably there will be times when we do fail greatly in God's sight; and yet we have to recognize that God's mercy and His love are far greater than all of our own weakness, and He will be pleased to pick us up and put us on the right road if our mind has been properly exercised through His Word and we have a repentant attitude to those weaknesses which we have.
So there is the lesson for us. Paul, though never forgetting his past, always looked to the future. His bitter persecution of the church, his hand in the murder of Stephen, did not cause him to wallow in self-pity; and around these emblems we have to reflect upon our past life, our life of the last seven days, and if our examination is indeed an honest one then surely we, too, will recognize the flaws in our own character, words, thoughts and actions which perhaps have undermined the stability and damaged the integrity of Christ's church. Paul, too, had done this, and though his failing was ever with him, its presence was a spur to look forward to the work that he would do for Christ, and not to dwell on the past.
Let me read to you some words from his Letter to the Philippians. He reflects upon his past life: "Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. . . That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Forgetting those things behind, and pressing forward.
We are called to be followers of Paul even as he was of Christ, and that surely is what we have to do, forgetting those things which are behind and pressing forward, to follow Paul, to follow Jesus, and to live out a life in obedience to his will and his commands.
Our conversion will never be as dramatic as was Paul's, but each week we must be converted, little by little. The task of being converted from a sinner to a saint is not the work of a moment in the waters of baptism. It is the work of a lifetime. We must slowly convert the mind of the flesh to taking on the mind of the spirit. But if we can achieve that transition, what joy awaits us!
As we were preparing these thoughts it struck us—what will it be like when Paul meets Stephen in the Kingdom of God? Stephen's dying moments—he would have had perhaps two sights in his mind. There would have been that vision of the risen Christ in glory, and there would have been the sight of that proud Pharisee standing over him as the stones thudded into his flesh. Then there is his next waking moment in the Kingdom of God. There again will be the vision of Christ in glory, but there will also be that same man, now Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. What joy for Stephen to know that his death may have achieved something in translating Paul from the way of death to the way of life! What joy for the apostle Paul in realizing that his faults and his failings, his persecution of the church of God, had been truly forgiven, and his Christ had enabled him to enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom of God.
Those are just some of the joys which await those who will put their minds and their thoughts into translating themselves from followers of sin to followers of righteousness, and that joy is there for us to share and experience also.
Throughout history God has called men and women and nations to be set apart for Himself, and when that call comes all of us have to ask the question: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" The immediate response to that call has so often been indicative of the faith of those called: Noah to build the boat on dry land, Abraham to be a stranger and a pilgrim in the land promised to him, Samuel's response, "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth", Cornelius, the apostle Paul whom we have considered, and now the same call to separation and service has, in less dramatic fashion, but just as surely, come to each one of us. As we now come to take these emblems, the bread and the wine, that call is repeated to us in a quiet, simple way, and those goads should once again be beginning to prick us into a conscious awareness of our responsibility in Christ's service. For these emblems are a very powerful reminder to us of another man who kept his heavenly vision, a vision that inspired him to overcome the greatest of trials and the severest of temptations. In the Hebrews we read that we should be "looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him"—the vision of the Kingdom which he had—"endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Well, the vision of the Kingdom, the reality of the risen Christ, these same joys are clearly set before us in the words of the prophets^ the Apocalypse and the writings of the apostles. These are our visions. The emblems and the examples of Christ and the apostles are our goads. As we now come to remember Jesus let us once again resolve to follow their examples, so that when we come in our turn to stand in the judgment hall, not this time in the judgment hall of a corrupt Gentile ruler but in the judgment hall of the righteous King of all the earth, we can answer confidently and honestly, as did Paul to Agrippa: "Whereupon, O king, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.":—S. Irving