The Conversion of St. Paul
Rev. Rolf Preus| Acts 9:1-22| January 25, 2004
Saul was committed to the destruction of the Christian Church. He was convinced that their doctrine was false and that Jesus of Nazareth had been a false teacher. How could a man who was crucified on a cross be the Son of God? Why would God permit His holy Son to suffer such shame? It was unthinkable. God rewarded the righteous and God punished sinners. Jesus could not be God’s Son. God could not punish the righteous and there was no doubt that Jesus had suffered punishment at the hands of God.
Saul was sure that the Christian religion was a false religion. And Saul was a very well educated man. He knew the Holy Scriptures as few men of his generation did. He had been taught by Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis of his time. Saul knew the Law of Moses inside and out. He was a Pharisee who excelled in doing those things that set him apart from ordinary men. By all appearances he was a pious, upright, and righteous man. It galled and angered him that disciples of a man like Jesus would turn the world upside down with their heretical teaching. He regarded persecuting the church as a holy service offered up to God. Should he not oppose those who opposed the truth?
Saul persecuted the church out of deeply felt religious convictions. It was his religion that led him to breathe threats of violence and murder against the disciples of Jesus. There is a popular notion that, in matters of religion, one size fits all and that one faith is essentially the same as every other faith. This is not true. Terrorists who murder innocent civilians are religiously motivated. Philanthropists who endow hospitals are also religiously motivated. Clearly, there are different motivations at work.
What motivated Saul to hate Christians and Christianity was what they taught. It conflicted with Saul’s most strongly held religious convictions. The Christians worshipped a God who became a man. The idea of a man becoming a god is far more popular. The Mormon religion, for example, is founded on this principle: “As man is, so God once was; as God is, so man may become.” Mormons believe that a man can become a god by doing godly things. On the surface Mormonism appears to be a rather bizarre religion with its golden tablets, magic spectacles, and fanciful history of non-existent ancient American peoples. But it is actually as American as apple pie. So is every other religion of the flesh. The religion of the flesh is the religion of human potential. It’s the spiritual version of the “Little Engine that Could.” It’s that “can do” religion of human spirituality. It is the religion of human achievement and human pride in that achievement. It is the religion of works-righteousness. Those who hold to this religion believe that the essence of religion is obeying the right rules in the right way so that by so doing you will become righteous.
Disciples of this religion have no use for a crucified and risen Savior. Jesus was crucified on account of our sins. The suffering of Jesus on the cross teaches us something we don’t take to very well. We will reject it unless God changes our hearts. Who can readily and willingly admit that he deserves to suffer what Jesus suffered? And yet the gospel of Christ makes no sense at all unless all of us, bar none, deserve to be punished as Jesus was punished.
The crucifixion of Jesus is an offense to our pride. It is a scandal to those who believe that the road to God is paved by their own good deeds. The crucifixion of Jesus teaches us a fundamental truth about ourselves and about God. Concerning ourselves, it teaches us that we all deserve what Jesus suffered. That is the sharpest blow to our pride. It is an affront to how we view ourselves. Concerning God, the crucifixion of Jesus is also an offense to our natural way of looking at things. God is transcendent, holy, pure, and perfectly righteous. How could this God, who by His very nature as God must be above and beyond the sin of this world, not only become a human being, but humbly take upon Himself the sin of the entire human race, suffering its full penalty, and dying the death of a sinner? How could the holy God enter into fellowship with sinners? He not only welcomes sinners to Himself; He even bears the entire ugly and loathsome burden of their sins.
This was and is and will always be an offense to the proud. Those who trust in their own flesh and blood cannot tolerate the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why St. Paul hated Christians, Christianity, and Christ.
His persecution of Christ’s disciples was a persecution of Christ. To His church Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He means it. Wherever Christ’s body is, there is Christ. Christ is the head of the church. The head and the body cannot be severed. Saul was fighting a battle he could not possibly have won. He was fighting against God. His own teacher, Gamaliel, had counseled against persecuting the Christians. He said:
And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest you even be found to fight against God. (Acts 5:38-39)
This is what Saul was doing. But, as Jesus said to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” A goad was a sharp stick used to prod oxen to walk faster. Sometimes the oxen would kick back against the goads and get pricked harder. This is what Saul was doing in his fight against the church. He was fighting Jesus, the Lord of the church. He was fighting God. The God whom Saul sought to serve Saul could not serve. The righteousness that Saul sought to achieve eluded him. The harder he tried to extirpate the Christian gospel the harder he was fighting against the only hope he had to find peace with God. He was torturing his own soul as he fought with all his might against his soul’s salvation.
No conversion recorded is as dramatic as St. Paul’s. Jesus appeared to him in such glory that Saul was struck blind. He remained blind until Ananias laid his hands on him three days later. He was baptized immediately for the forgiveness of sins and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that when he saw Jesus he was blinded. He remained blind until through Christ’s minister, Ananias, he received his sight. Christians who want a dramatic conversion such as Saul’s, might want to consider that St. Paul’s confidence in his own personal salvation never rested on what he saw when he saw Jesus with his own eyes. It rested rather in what Jesus gave to him, which he received by faith in Jesus. Here is how Paul later described the difference between his life without Christ and his life with Christ. It was the difference between faith in his own flesh and faith in Christ. He wrote to the Philippians:
If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; (Philippians 3:4-9)
Saul did not know God until he found God in the innocent suffering and death of Jesus. The God before whom we must stand and give an account of our lives is the Man who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. This is the Man whose righteousness alone can stand before the judgment of God’s law. Christ’s righteousness is flawless. There is no bad motive, no sin, no falsehood, and no deceit of any kind. Christ’s righteousness is what we need and it is what God gives to us freely by His grace.
This is what Paul learned and this is what He preached. He preached Christ, not as the great moral teacher, but as the Savior of sinners. He preached Christ to sinners like himself. St. Paul was a saint as are all Christians. That is to say, he was holy because he had received from Christ the only righteousness by which sinners can become holy. Throughout his life, however, Paul also considered himself to be the chief of sinners. It was not false humility for him to confess this. He had persecuted the church of Christ. He had persecuted Christ. He saw himself as chief of sinners. To Timothy he wrote:
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
If Saul can receive mercy from God and be justified through faith in Christ so can any other sinners.
St. Paul was the greatest missionary and the greatest theologian the church has ever produced. But the church did not produce him. God did. He did great things through Paul. First, He had to humble him. Saul suffered many things for Christ’s sake. He suffered shipwreck, beatings and whippings, being stoned by angry mobs, and being exposed on the open sea. But Jesus was referring to more than these things when he said to Ananias, “For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” He was referring to the crucifixion of the flesh and the rising to eternal life that God, through our baptism, works in us every day of our lives. We, who by the grace of God share the faith that Paul preached, know that our faith is constantly assaulted by doubts, sins, and false teachings. When we stand on our pride and glory in the praise of others we need to be humbled. Only God can do it. When He does, it brings us no joy. It brings us quite a bit of pain, in fact. Our flesh is such a liar and yet we love those lies that flatter us and make us feel so good about ourselves. But when God has exposed our lying flesh and crushed our pride and laid us low, He always does so for the purpose – the sole purpose! – of raising us up again and giving us confidence in Christ. Looking to our baptism where we were clothed in Christ, we see that spotless righteousness of His holy obedience. We see the blood shed once and for all on the cross to wash away our sins. We hear God’s voice of absolution that sets us free. We find our true glory and worth in God. The pain of hurt pride that comes from confronting our spiritual poverty and our offensive sins of thought, word, and deed, is only temporary. The joy of knowing Christ remains forever. God turned Saul into Paul. He changed his heart. He destroyed Saul’s faith in his own flesh. He created Paul’s faith in the righteousness of Jesus. This same God works within us to destroy our false faith in ourselves. He also hears and answers our prayers to keep us steadfast in the true faith.
On my heart imprint thine image, blessed Jesus, King of grace
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures have no power thee to efface
This the superscription be: Jesus crucified for me
Is my life, my hope’s foundation and my glory and salvation.