When I was in year 11, a lot of my mates at school used to try to get into pubs under-age. Many of them could do it. Yet I saw no point, not only because I did not drink; but also when I was 17 I looked like I was about 14 and found pubs to be very intimidating. But on my 18th birthday, I went around to see my brother and he took me to his local pub in Rozelle, a suburb of Sydney, called The Three Weeds. I particularly remember excusing myself to go to the men’s room and whilst there, unbeknownst to me, my brother had told the entire front bar that his little brother had just turned 18. When I came out, all the patrons sang happy birthday to me and I was given my first drink, a complimentary shot of some poison called Tequila.
The reason I tell this story is that I recall afterwards thinking about the sort of people who were at this pub, and they were very different to the sort of people whom I normally mixed with, especially those whom I mixed with at the Anglican Church I attended. To my shame I remember writing them all off, “as if anyone in that pub would ever become a Christian”. “As if anyone in that pub would even set foot in a church”; “As if anyone in that pub would even consider Christ”. Undoubtedly, I was wrong. I was 18, immature, arrogant and proud. And not only was I writing people off, I was also writing God off, assuming that he would not, could not and does not save those “sort”.
Am I honestly alone in that thinking? Am I now immune from that thinking? Are there people in your groups who are so different to us that we think “they will never become Christians”? If we were Christians in the 1st century as opposed to the 21st; if we were living in Jerusalem, rather than Tamworth, this is certainly what we would have thought of the man named Saul.
We first met Saul very briefly in chapter 7 of Acts. If you remember, Stephen was martyred. After giving his big speech to the Jewish Sanhedrin; he was thrown out of the city and began to be stoned when Luke introduces Saul in Acts 7:57:
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
It is very brief introduction. And Luke’s mentions him again in Acts 8:1-3:
1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Luke is very clear about the sort of man Saul was. He is the destroyer. Saul begins to destroy the church. Luke goes off on a tangent by presenting us with the wonderful account of how God was using another deacon named Philip to proclaim and spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But at the same time, Saul – the destroyer is still at work. Look with me at Acts 9:1-2:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
Saul seems a very unlikely candidate to be God’s instrument to bring the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to an unbelieving gentile world. Luke mentions him thrice and each time the picture is the same, he is anti-Christ and anti-Christ’s church. It was not enough for Saul to witness and approve the martyrdom of Stephen. His personal mission of dragging Christians, men and women to prison did not satisfy his hatred. In these verses we see the extent of his hatred. We don’t how the Gospel came to be in Damascus, perhaps Christians had gone there to escape the persecution. It was long to travel on foot, about 220kms Northeast of Jerusalem. But Saul was not going to let go of his hatred or let the Christians go. He was going after them.
Saul was obsessed and was enraged, he was more like an animal than a man. If we were Christians then and were told that before Saul reached Damascus, he would become the very thing that he sought to destroy, we would have thought, “What a load of tosh”. “He is anti-Christ”. “he is anti-church!” “He is anti-us!”.
But a reading of Acts reminds us of five very important things:
- The Lord Jesus Christ is alive.
- The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is spreading & cannot be stopped.
- God is building his Church.
- God the Holy Spirit is strong-arming his church.
- God is sovereign and his sovereign will cannot be thwarted.
And this is something that Saul becomes acutely aware of when he literally sees the light. When this happened he realised the truth, because the truth encountered him, the truth is the God/man, the Lord Jesus Christ. It was undeniable, unstoppable, irresistible! Saul recognises that he is dealing with the Lord. But does not know the identity of him. So he asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord Jesus makes it perfectly clear who he!
Everything Paul stood for, everything he believed, everything Paul had done and was doing was challenged and exposed by those three words:
Paul’s convictions, his actions, his theology, were wrong. Paul thought he knew how God was working in the world, and how he was saving people. He was wrong. It was always God’s plan from the very beginning to the send his only begotten Son to die and rise again. He thought Jesus was a blasphemer and a fraud. He was wrong. Saul thought Jesus was dead. He was wrong. Jesus was and is alive!
Paul thought that the claims that Christians were making about the Lord Jesus Christ were false. He was wrong. Saul is transformed. The self-confident destroyer has now become the humbled.
Saul’s encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ was undeniable, unstoppable, irresistible and so was the grace that was shown to him – undeniable, unstoppable, irresistible. Saul gives up the reigns, the reigns of self-rule, because Jesus Christ is Lord. The voice he heard was the Lord Jesus’. The light he saw was that of the Lord Jesus.
Now I don’t know of any Christians who have had that sort of conversion, in fact Paul’s conversion is not the norm nor is it presented here by the Apostle Luke as prescriptive experience, but one thing that every Christian can testify to, along with Saul, is the grace that has been shown to us. That undeniable, unstoppable and irresistible grace. And this grace is very humbling, and it is ego-shattering, one might even say it is concrete shattering! And this is not that surprising – for God’s grace can crack the concrete of the unbelieving heart!