Sermon title:

The Worst of Sinners Converts

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, December 27, 2020

 

 

Before the Advent season

we were looking at the Book of Acts.

 

And we spent some weeks looking at

the first deacons appointed

in the early Church by the Holy Spirit.

 

Seven godly men were appointed as the very 1st deacons

the 6th Chapter of Acts.

 

And the 7th and 8th chapters we read about

the heroic exploits of two of them

Stephen and Philip.

 

When Stephen spoke convincingly about Christ

some men who could not prove him wrong

brought false charges against him,

and had him stoned to death.

 

Acts Chapter 7 tells us

there was a young man named Saul at Stephen's stoning

who watched over the clothes of the men

who took off their coats to throw the stones.

 

Saul was his Hebrew name, but his Greek name was Paul,

and he later became the Apostle Paul.

 

But, at this point, his zeal for traditional Judaism

made him hostile to

the new Messianic Jewish movement

of those who followed Jesus.

 

Acts 7:57 says,

57 ... they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed at him with one accord. 58 They threw him out of the city, and stoned him. The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

 

Deacon Stephen died faithful, with Jesus’ name on his lips.

 

But that young man Saul who guarded the garments

of those who stoned him to death—

that young man Saul went on to persecute

the remaining Christians in Jerusalem.

 

Acts Chapter 8 begins saying,

1 Saul was consenting to his death. A great persecution arose against the assembly which was in Jerusalem in that day. They were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen, and lamented greatly over him. 3 But Saul ravaged the assembly, entering into every house, and dragged both men and women off to prison.

 

It was Saul’s devotion to traditional Judaism

that led him to persecute the early Church,

which was made up of Jews

who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

 

Years later he spoke to a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem

and told them at Acts 22:2,

3 “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, instructed according to the strict tradition of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, even as you all are today. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

 

It was Saul’s adherence to “the strict tradition”

of the Jews

that made him view Jewish followers of Jesus

as apostates, heretics—

who needed to be stopped—

an evil movement that needed to be crushed.

 

So, Saul led the persecution, which was so intense

that believers were being taken to prison,

both men and women.

 

To avoid being arrested and locked up

almost everyone in the early Jerusalem church

fled from the city.

 

They took off in every direction,

but they kept on sharing the Good News about Jesus

wherever they went,

throughout Judea

and its northern neighbor Samaria.

 

After arresting many believers in Jerusalem

and driving others to flee the city,

Saul, too, went off after them

 to persecute Christians elsewhere—

wherever he could find them.

 

Acts 9:1-2 tells us that Saul was on way to Damascus,

which is now the capital of modern-day Syria,

with authority to arrest any Christians

he found there.

 

1 But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

 

The road Saul took from Jerusalem to Damascus

was around 150 miles long,

and he undertook that journey

with the aim of arresting Christians there.

 

His plan was to bind them with handcuffs, ropes or chains

and take them back to Jerusalem

to be put on trial by the Sanhedrin religious court.

 

Their punishment would be death for alleged “blasphemy”

if they held to their belief in Jesus.

 

But, as Saul was on his way to Damascus,

accompanied by men who would help him

take Christians into custody,

something unexpected happened.

 

Something miraculous happened.

 

Something happened that Saul would not have expected

in a million years.

 

Acts 9:3 tells us,

3 As he traveled, he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. 4 He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 He said, “Who are you, Lord?”

The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

 

It was a brief encounter.

 

But it was a miraculous intervention

that dramatically changed Saul’s life.

 

And Jesus was calling Saul,

not only to change his life,

but to give him work to do

that changed the Church

and changed the world.

 

First, though, Saul had to digest what he saw and heard—

to process in his mind what it meant

to find out that Jesus was really alive

and that the disciples he had been persecuting

were right, after all, in following Jesus.

 

We read,

7 The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. 8 Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one. They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. 9 He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank.

 

The bright light accompanying Jesus

left Saul temporarily blinded for 3 days.

 

He needed that time, free from other distractions,

to focus on what he had seen and heard.

 

He needed to re-think his religious beliefs,

now that he knew Christ rose from the dead—

just as those he persecuted used to tell him—

and that Jesus rules in heaven.

 

Saul must also have been crushed by the weight of guilt,

knowing now that he had persecuted and even killed

innocent people who were serving God.

 

Later in Acts Chapter 26, he admitted in Verse 9,

9 “I myself most certainly thought that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 This I also did in Jerusalem. I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death I gave my vote against them."

 

It must have been that weight of guilt

that made him fast those three days,

neither eating nor drinking.

 

The Lord gave Saul that time to think,

and to pray.

 

And, in his prayers, he turned from

relying on his own righteousness as a Pharisee

and turned to Jesus as his Savior and Lord.

 

But then Jesus prepared to introduce Saul

to the Christian community—

to the people he had been persecuting and killing.

 

We read,

10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.”

11 The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, 12 and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”

 

These were very specific instructions

the Lord gave to Ananias in this vision.

 

But Ananias objected.

 

Verse 13 tells us,

13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

 

So, Ananias knew Saul’s reputation,

as well as the mission that brought Saul to Damascus:

to arrest and imprison Christians.

 

He must have been really afraid of Saul

to question the assignment Jesus was giving him.

 

The Lord understood Ananias’ hesitation.

 

We read,

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

 

Now it would be Saul’s turn to suffer—

just as he brought suffering

to the Christians he persecuted.

 

Much later in his life he listed the sufferings he experienced

as the Apostle Paul,

preaching Christ in a hostile world.

 

He listed his sufferings for Christ as follows,

beginning in 2 Corinthians 11:23.

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

 

Saul, known later by his Greek name Paul,

willingly suffered all of that

in order to share the Gospel,

to plant new churches,

and to build up and strengthen fellow believers.

 

He was subjected to these sufferings by hostile Jews,

hostile Gentiles, and even by false believers

in some churches.

 

As the risen Christ told Ananias,

Paul was “my chosen vessel

to bear my name before the nations and kings,

and the children of Israel.”

 

So, despite his misgivings about this man

who had been persecuting Christians,

and who came to Damascus to arrest them,

Ananias listened to Jesus and obeyed him.

 

He went to see Saul the persecutor,

and greeted him as a brother.

 

Acts 9:17 says,

17 Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized.

 

The Lord had left him blinded for 3 days,

giving him time to think over what had happened to him.

 

He got to think about how he had persecuted the followers

of the living Christ who appeared to him on the road.

 

He got to think about what the Christians said

when he arrested them

and when they were put on trial.

 

Sitting there blind and unable to do anything,

he must have thought about the Gospel message

that he refused to listen to in the past.

 

He had evidently covered his ears,

along with the others who stoned Stephen to death

to avoid hearing that Deacon talk about Jesus.

 

Acts 7:57 tells us that,

as Stephen testified to seeing Jesus in a vision

at God’s right hand in heaven,

57At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

 

Sitting there blind for 3 days,

Saul must have thought about the Christian message

that he blocked his ears to in the past.

 

He must have called to mind all the Hebrew prophecies

about the coming Messiah,

and realized now that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.

 

As a highly-educated Pharisee,

Saul had detailed knowledge of the Old Testament.

 

He must have gone over in his mind

each one of those Messianic prophecies,

realizing now that they spoke of the One

whose appearance on the road had blinded him.

 

As soon as he could see again,

and had been baptized as a follower of Christ,

he began putting his knowledge to use,

talking to others about Jesus.

 

Acts 9:19 says,

19 He took food and was strengthened. Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus. 20 Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God. 21 All who heard him were amazed, and said, “Isn’t this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name? And he had come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests!”

 

Yes, it amazed the Jews in those synagogues

that this deputy of the Jewish courts,

who came to Damascus

with authority to arrest Christians

was now a Christian himself—

and an outspoken one, at that.

 

Paul was so knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures—

and so empowered by the Holy Spirit—

that the proofs he presented about Christ

could not be refuted by his listeners.

 

So, just like those who had Deacon Stephen killed,

they plotted now to kill Saul.

 

We read,

22 But Saul increased more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived at Damascus, proving that this is the Christ. 23 When many days were fulfilled, the Jews conspired together to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They watched the gates both day and night that they might kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through the wall, lowering him in a basket.

 

Everyone entering or leaving Damascus

passed through the city gates,

and Saul would have been ambushed & killed there,

but fellow Christians found a way

to get him safely out of the city

by lowering him in a basket.

 

This enabled Saul to escape their plot,

and return safely home to Jerusalem.

 

But when he tried to connect with Christians there,

he was met with skepticism and fear.

 

Had he really become a believer now?

 

Or was he claiming to be converted as a ruse?—

—to flush Christians out from their hiding places,

in order to arrest them?

 

Verse 26 says,

26 When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.

 

Saul was finally able to connect with believers

when Barnabas—who would later travel with him

as his partner in missionary work—

Barnabas believed him

and took him to the Apostles.

 

Verse 27 says,

27 But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.

 

The Apostles believed Barnabas, and, when they heard it,

they believed Saul’s testimony that he shared with them.

 

So, the Apostles took him into their company,

as they went about preaching in Jerusalem.

 

The account continues,

28 He was with them entering into Jerusalem, 29 preaching boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. He spoke and disputed against the Hellenists, but they were seeking to kill him.

 

Educated, not only in Hebrew, but also in Greek,

Saul was able to address the Greek-speaking Jews,

who were called Hellenists.

 

But, once again, those who could not prove him wrong

in a free and open discussion,

tried to win their argument by killing Saul.

 

Other Christians rescued him.

 

Verse 30 says,

30 When the brothers knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the assemblies throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, and were built up. They were multiplied, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

 

Saul went back to Tarsus, his own hometown,

and the churches enjoyed peace,

free from the wave of persecution

that Saul had been spearheading

before his own conversion.

 

==================

 

What do we learn from this episode

in the early Church’s history?

 

Well, we get to know about the background

of the Apostle Paul—how he was miraculously changed

from a violent persecutor of believers

to a powerhouse preaching the Gospel of Christ.

 

We also see an example that should encourage us today.

 

Those among us who have a sordid past—

those among us who lived a life of sin

before coming to follow Jesus—

we can take comfort in knowing

that even the worst of sinners can be saved.

 

In fact, Paul used that term to describe himself.

 

At 1 Timothy 1:13 he wrote,

I was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent.

And then he added,

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst.

 

So, even the worst of sinners

can turn to Christ and be saved.

 

If we put ourselves into God’s hands,

he can transform us into a new person,

just as he did with Paul.

 

Just as he transformed Paul from

a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent

to a mighty Apostle,

a powerful example of Christian faith,

he can do the same with us

regardless of our history.

 

Sitting there blind for 3 days

must have been the worst time in Paul’s life.

 

He had to face the fact of how wrong he had been—

how sinful he had been.

 

His prayers during that time were prayers of repentance.

 

But, it was also the best time in Paul’s life,

because now he knew that his Savior lives.

 

And, just as God miraculously restored Paul’s sight,

and opened his eyes to the work he called him to do,

the Lord can do the same for us.

 

No matter how sinful we may have been,

he calls us now to repent

and follow Jesus.