Tenth Sunday after Trinity August 16, 1998
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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. 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?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
In the name of the risen and glorified Savior, who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light, dear fellow believers in Him, dear fellow redeemed.
There are times when meeting certain people will change your life. For instance, when you meet your husband or wife, you go from the life of a single person to that of a married couple. When your children are born, your life changes dramatically. Maybe there’s someone who influenced your choice of profession. Maybe a certain individual was influential in your religious convictions and helped you become a member of this church. Let me ask you this: is there anyone whose influence made a significant difference in the kind of life you have today?
Maybe you’re thinking of a real, live person with a name, phone number, and address. Well, I too am thinking of a real, live person, but His address is not a building on this earth. His address is in your heart. It’s the same person who changed the life of the apostle Paul, also known as Saul in our text. When you look at this story, you can plug yourself into the picture. You can also remember and apply the truth of our theme.
It’ll happen in three significant ways. Our life will change…
There’s a certain form of advertising that uses “before-and-after” pictures. They show you the picture of a person before they use a certain product. Then they show you the same person after they have used the product. You’re supposed to notice a big difference. You’re supposed to be impressed, even to the point of wanting the product for yourself. Well, Paul is a great “before-and-after” picture of the Christian. Let’s notice the life-changing difference, by comparing verse 1 with one of the last verses. Before knowing Jesus, Saul was “breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord.” But after he met Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a changed man, “preaching in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God.” What a turn-around! What a testimony to the power of the Savior! When you know Jesus, your life will change from sin to grace.
Now we know that Saul was no common thief. He was not from the “dregs of society.” He was a religious fanatic who operated within legal limits. Here’s what he had to say about his former self: “a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” (Phil. 3:5-6) He was born and raised on the notion that he could make himself right with God by following all the commands of the Old Testament Law. And from an outward point of view, no one could prove that he had failed. He was the super-Pharisee. He led the league in work-righteous deeds and faithful obedience to ceremonial rituals. But that, dear Christians, was a mere facade, a false front. Saul was just as much a sinner as the next guy. And the proof is right here in this text. He actively and aggressively pursued the arrest, the torment, and the execution of those who believed in Jesus.
Saul and his partners had done a thorough job of persecuting the believers in Jerusalem. Of those who had not been arrested or killed, most had left the city to live somewhere else. So the super Pharisee decided to take his persecution act on the road. He got permission from the Jewish council to bring Jewish Christians back from Damascus for trial and prosecution in Jerusalem. Now you need to realize something: Saul thought he was doing the right thing. He sincerely believed that Jesus was a false Messiah who blasphemed the truth of Scripture and that His followers had to be stopped. He was convinced that arresting and killing Christians was the right thing to do in the eyes of God. So you can imagine the shock when the event of our text finally arrives.
Out there on the highway, somewhere near the city of Damascus, he was overwhelmed by a dazzling light from heaven. Only Saul could hear Jesus speaking. The others could hear a voice, but not the actual words. Now imagine the feelings Saul had when Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting Me?…. I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Talk about a loaded statement. Jesus was saying that all these believers were His own special people. He was identifying Himself with them. So the fact that Saul was persecuting the Christians was in reality a terrible act of violence done to Christ Himself.
Not only that—it was violence committed against the Lord God. When Saul left Jerusalem, he was of the opinion that Jesus was a dead man. But the truth was impossible to deny. The Lord was there, right in front of him, very much alive. Slowly but surely, it began to sink in. Jesus had to be what the Christians said He was: the Son of God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and the Savior of the world. Saul knew the story; but he didn’t believe it. Now he had to face the facts, including a startling fact about himself. His mission of persecuting Christians was nothing but a vicious attack on God. His behavior was thoroughly wrong, and there was nothing he could do to make amends. Saul was confronted with the fact that he was trapped in a sinful way of life.
But there was more to this encounter than accusations and guilt feelings. When Jesus appeared to Saul, it was the call of grace. Notice what they didn’t discuss. There was no conversation about the cross or the reason why Jesus died or the benefits of His death. That’s because Saul already knew the Gospel. But in a state of unbelief, he had chosen to reject it. Well, the appearance of Jesus led to a change of heart. Christ was risen; there was no denying that. And the fact of the resurrection made everything else about Jesus just as true. In a very powerful way, the Lord confronted Saul with the truth of how we are saved through a substitute sacrifice. Saul was being turned from a life trapped in sin to a life covered by grace, a life of knowing that he was a forgiven child of God, made acceptable to the Creator not through his own efforts but through the work of the crucified and risen Savior.
Remember, now, this story is a picture of us. Before we know Jesus, we too are trapped in sin. It may not be the exact same kind, but it’s just as damning and just as troubling. If you did not know Christ today, your life would follow a similar route as that of Saul. You’d be busy doing something you considered to be right and proper, when in reality it was tainted with sin and falling short of God’s requirements. Saul was trying to hit the mark set by God and missing badly. Could we have done any better? God says no, and we have to agree. Without the Savior your life would follow one of two paths. You would either live in total ignorance, doing whatever you felt like doing, only to die and face God’s judgment. Or you would try to save yourself by good works, only to fail miserably and face the same judgment that every unbeliever will face.
But thankfully for you and me, the Lord has turned us around. He has used the Law to confront us with our sin and make us realize our tremendous guilt and our inability to save ourselves. He then brought us to the cross, where we see Jesus doing for us everything that God requires. We are led to welcome His sacrifice as our personal rescue and the only reason why God forgives us completely. It’s a totally different outlook, one that comes from faith, one that comes from knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
We’re not dealing with a mere idea or possibility. It is life-changing reality of the greatest kind. Before Jesus enters your existence, there’s nothing but sin, slavery, and death. But after—boy, what a change! Once you know Jesus, your life will turn around. We come under the sunshine of God’s grace, and the freedom of God’s forgiveness, and the promise of life everlasting. Such life-altering change will surely affect your heart and mind. Once you know Jesus, your life will turn from unbelief to faith.
Again we have Saul as the example. He illustrates in striking terms the problem that we all have. By nature we are born as unbelievers. You know what unbelief is. It’s the rejection of Christ and His Word. Part of the problem is blindness. Our natural way of thinking is guided by logic and reason. If something defies the laws of nature, we dismiss it as unreasonable, unscientific, something that we should not believe. Well, faith is believing the unbelievable, trusting something that God has said, even though you can’t explain how it could be true. Saul refused to believe that a man from Nazareth could be true God and at the same time suffer, die on a cross and rise from the dead.
Unbelief is not only blind. It also suffers from pride. Saul was deceived by the idea that he could be his own savior. Deep down, that’s the feeling everyone has. If there’s a way into heaven, they’ll find it themselves. When God gives you faith, He has to overcome your pride and knock it out for good. Faith, you see, is characterized by humility. How else can you trust a Savior, if you think you can save yourself? First you realize how helpless you are. Then you grab onto Jesus as the lifeline which pulls you out of hell and brings you into heaven.
Our conversion does not follow the same format as it did with Saul. But the results are the same. We are turned around, 180 degrees, from unbelief to faith. We could use a comparison to illustrate the point. If you’ve ever played with magnets, you know that every magnet has a north and south pole. The north pole of one magnet will attract the south pole of another and vice versa. But if you line up the two same poles—north to north or south to south—the magnets will push away. It’s the force of repulsion. That’s the way it is with us and God, before we know Jesus. In a state of unbelief, we keep pushing God away. So the Lord has to turn us around. When He gives us our faith, we are now attracted to His love and mercy. We are drawn to the cross, wanting all the benefits that Christ has won through His death. It’s quite a change that can only occur when the Spirit does the miracle of creating our faith.
This is never a casual moment. It’s a dramatic turnaround. I know that for many of you the change occurred in a quiet way during your infant baptism. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful or any less important. No, we are not Saul, but we can identify with the same experience that he went through. God took a self-righteous Pharisee who persecuted the church and turned him into a sincere believer who actively proclaimed the message of Christ. That’s the way it is when you know Jesus. Your life will turn around from the worthless pursuit of work-righteousness to the willing service of our Lord’s kingdom.
Saul had to learn this lesson the hard way. What he thought was a great service to God turned out to be a worthless cause and a sinful activity that took him farther down the road to hell. But the Lord made the necessary change. He took this enemy of the church and turned him into an ally and a co-worker. Saul was not forced to be an apostle. He was compelled by love. Once he knew what Christ had done for him, he was too overwhelmed by thankfulness to walk away from the work that Christ had given him to do. We Christians will follow the same pattern. Once the turn-around is made, we stop serving ourselves and start serving Him. The love of Christ will bend our wills and move us to say, “You’re in charge, Lord. What do you want us to do?” We hand the reins over to Him, and He directs our course down the path of His Word. All the commands that we typically break, because of our flesh, can now become ways of pleasing Him and doing the work of His kingdom.
There’s plenty of work to do, and God has given the duties to us. We look to Saul as the example to follow. Once he was healed of blindness and baptized, he went out and witnessed the truth that Jesus was the promised Savior. He devoted his time and energy, yes his whole life to the one who saved him from death and hell. Granted, we don’t have the same call to be an apostle. But we do have the same calling to spread the news that Christ is Lord. We can do this work in its various forms. We can do this work with the conviction that Christ will turn the lives of many other people, just as He turned us.
Before and after Jesus—let there be no doubt that Jesus makes the greatest change. Only His cross can bring us the forgiveness of God’s grace. Only the knowledge of Him can produce our Christian faith. He even changes our actions and leads us to willingly work in His kingdom on earth. Let’s be sure to thank and praise Him for the great turn-around that He has made in our life. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.