************ Sermon on Acts 9:1-22 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 3, 2015
"A Tale of Two Conversions"
The title of tonight's sermon is a play on Dicken's book, "A Tale of Two Cities." Because what we have in front of us this evening is the story of two conversions: a conversion of a heart and a conversion of a mind (or attitude).
I The Conversion of Saul's Heart
A Prior to our Scripture reading Saul has been mentioned three times, and each time he has been revealed as a bitter opponent of Christ and His church. We are told that at the martyrdom of Stephen "... the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58); that "Saul was there, giving approval to his death" (8:1); and, that then "Saul began to destroy the church" (8:3), making a house-to-house search for Christians, dragging men and women off to prison. Our passage resumes Saul’s story by saying that he "was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples" (9:1). Saul has not changed since Stephen’s death; he was still full of hatred and hostility toward Christ and His church.
In our passage we read that Saul’s enmity takes a new turn. Saul hatched a plot for the removal and death of the Christians outside of Jerusalem, in Damascus, and persuaded the high priest to give his blessing (9:1b-2).
Some of the language used to describe Saul portrays him as a wild and ferocious beast. Earlier, we are told that Saul began to "destroy" the church (8:3). The word for "destroy" is the same word used in Psalm 80:13 for wild boars devastating a vineyard; and it especially refers to the ravaging of a body by a wild beast. A little later the Damascus Christians described Saul as the man "who raised havoc in Jerusalem" (9:21). This is the same word to describe what dogs do to a rabbit or a fox they have chased down. And, our passage begins with Saul "still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples" (9:1). It is not accidental that this sounds like the panting or snorting of wild beasts.
B You all heard the story of Saul’s conversion in our Scripture reading this evening. Saul’s conversion meant a change in relationships.
First of all, Saul’s conversion changed his relationship to the Lord. Here is a man who is described as more wild animal than human being; an enemy of Christ; full of hatred for anyone who dared to follow the Way; a mind poisoned by prejudice and filled with enmity. If we had met him as he left Jerusalem and had told him that before he reached Damascus he would have become a believer in Christ, he would have ridiculed the idea. Yet, this is what happened. An enemy became a believer.
Prayer is one of the first signs of Saul’s changed relationship with the Lord. Ananias was told that Saul "is praying." We can only guess what Saul was praying about because the Bible doesn’t tell us. But surely in his situation he was confessing his sins to the Lord -- especially his self-righteousness and cruel persecution. He was probably praying for healing from the blindness that afflicted him. He was most likely seeking guidance from the Lord on what he should be doing now. And there can be no doubt that his prayers also included worship, as he poured out his soul in praise to God for having mercy upon him as an enemy of the cross of Christ. The very same mouth, which had been "breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples" (9:1), was now breathing out praises and prayers to God. The raging lion has been changed into a bleating lamb.
Second, Saul’s conversion changed his relationship with the church. Here is a man who had been snorting and pawing before Christians like a beast about to attack its prey. But no more. Now He also follows the Way. Now he is no longer to be regarded as an enemy; instead, he is to be treated as a brother, as a colleague, in Christ.
We read in Scripture how Ananias went to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, indeed to the very room where Saul was. There he placed his hands on Saul -- a gesture of love to a blind man who could not see but could feel. And, att the same time, Ananias called him "Brother Saul." These may well have been the first words which Saul heard from Christian lips after his conversion, and they were words of welcome. They must have been music to his ears. Imagine: the arch-enemy of the church welcomed as a brother; the dreaded fanatic received as a member of the family! Can this be so? Is it really happening? Yes, it was so. Yes, it was happening. And, to make it public and visible, Saul was also baptized by Ananias -- and, baptism, as you all should know, is the ceremony by which people are welcomed into the church and its fellowship.
Third, Saul’s conversion also changed his relationship to the world. Saul is called God’s "chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings ..." (9:15). In future speeches Paul recognized that from that moment on he had a new responsibility to the world as a witness and evangelist (Acts 26:16ff; 22:15). But this is the way it should always be, isn’t it? Once Saul received the light of the Gospel, he passed on that light to others. Filled with the power of the Spirit, he courageously and boldly told anyone who listened about Christ crucified and arisen.
C What caused this change, this conversion, in Saul? How come he stood suddenly in a new relationship to the Lord, the church, and the world? Only one answer is possible. What stands out in the story is the sovereign grace of God through Christ. Saul did not make a decision to follow Christ. It was rather Christ Who decided for him and intervened in his life.
It was God’s sovereign grace that took an enemy of Christ and the cross and the church and made him God’s chosen instrument. It was sovereign grace that made Saul identify with Christ and the people of God. Because of that grace, God’s cause became Saul’s cause, God’s will became Saul’s will, Christ’s Father became His Father, and God’s enemies became his enemies.
The same sovereign grace that worked in Paul also works in you and me. On our own none of us would ever come to God in Christ. On our own all of us would remain lost in our misery and sin. On our own we would head straight to the fires of hell. But praise be to God, He takes people headed to the fires of hell, unworthy people like you and me, and He rescues us and saves us and intervenes in our life.
II The Conversion of Ananias' Mind
A This brings us to our second point: the conversion of a mind (or attitude).
The story of Ananias and Saul reminds us of how hard it is to always accept Christ’s ways. We set our own policies, make our own plans, and have our own ideas about what course to take. And when Christ rules otherwise, we tend to resist His will.
My father-in-law likes to tell the story of two elders who went to visit a man about his nomination as an elder. They were seated in the living room with the man and his wife and they informed him he had been nominated. The man’s wife interrupted. She pointed at her husband and said, "Him? You want to nominate him?" And broke out into gales of laughter.Something similar happens in our Scripture reading. Except this time it is Ananias who can’t believe what he is hearing.
Ananias was a good man. The cause of Christ was everything to him, but when Christ gave him that one mandate from heaven to minister to Saul of Tarsus, he was taken aback. Like the woman who laughed about her husband being nominated as an elder, so Ananias could not see how Saul could be God’s "chosen instrument." Ananias was sure God was fooling him or maybe had made a mistake. He quickly informed the Lord of Saul’s terrible past, hoping that the Lord would see it his way. Ananias, in effect, said, "Lord, let’s be careful with this man; let’s not admit him too quickly and too easily into the church and its work. Maybe, Lord, You forgot who Saul is and what he has done and how he hates You and the church."
To be sure, church membership is not meant for just anyone and we can’t let just anyone do the work of the Lord. But at the same time, let’s not forget that the church itself is the assembly of people who do not deserve salvation, people with a past as dark as death, people saved by grace.
Consider, for a moment, what would have happened if Ananias would have had his way rather than God’s way. The church of Jesus Christ would have gone without the Saul who became the Apostle Paul, the church’s greatest missionary and theologian; and we would have been missing thirteen of the books of the New Testament. If Ananias had his way the church would have lost the Paul who, by the power of the Spirit, baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 9:22).
Through the years, Ananias must have followed the mission of Saul become Paul. The more Paul accomplished, the more humble Ananias must have felt. Eventually, Ananias must have reached the point where he said, "Thank You, Lord, for overruling me with regard to Saul."
B How many times aren’t we tempted to be like Ananias? We look at someone and we dismiss them as church members and as a worker in the church and kingdom. But I want to tell you, if the Lord -- out of sovereign grace -- can turn someone like Saul into a "chosen instrument" then he can use the most surprising people today as well.
I can sympathize with Ananias. Someone asked to join the church and I was warned to do what I could to discourage their membership. I believe I was wrong in following that request and ever since have wondered what happened to them. I was like Ananias and perhaps have robbed the church of a great worker.We aren’t to look first for the flaws, warts, and blemishes of potential members. We are to consider them as fellow servants and laborers for Christ.
C Now let’s go a step further and take a look at ourselves. Have you considered how you can be God’s "chosen instrument"? Have you considered the work you can do for the Lord?
For our 25 years of existence our goal -- which is God's goal -- is that every confessing member be involved in one area of service in the church or kingdom. You heard me right: every professing member should be involved in one area of service in the church or kingdom. We do not want 20% of the members doing 80% of the work. We want 100% of the members doing 100% of the work: everyone working together, no one being overworked or overloaded. If you look at the back of the bulletin and in the church directory you see over 200 jobs that can be filled in our church alone: ushers, pianists & organists, baby-sitters, Church School teachers, parking lot attendants, greeters, hospitality families, library attendants, youth leaders, committee membership, church council, Vacation Bible School, Bible Study leader, and the list keeps going and going. Do you know what I see when I look at the back of the bulletin? I see a "Help Wanted" ad. The church is looking for workers.
Perhaps you are saying to yourself: "I can’t do anything. I have nothing to contribute." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. If the Lord can turn Saul into an instrument, he can turn you into an instrument too. In fact, that is why He has given every believer two or three or four or even more gifts of the Spirit -- so that they can do His work in the church and kingdom.
After a bomb went off in a church a statue of Christ with outstretched hands that had been carved centuries before by a great artist was still standing erect. It was virtually unharmed except that both hands had been sheered off by a falling beam. A sculptor was willing to repair the statue and he even offered to do it for nothing. The church officials met to consider the sculptor's proposition -- and decided not to accept his offer. Why? Because they felt that the statue without hands would be the greatest illustration possible that God's people are God's hands in this world, that we do God's work in this world.
Have you ever thought of yourself this way? Have you ever thought of yourself as the hands of Jesus? Jesus Christ chooses to do His work through human hands. Sometimes they seem to be the most infirm of hands, the least potentially successful of hands, or the least qualified of hands -- but those are the hands He uses. Again, if he can use Saul, he can also use you. If Saul can be His chosen instrument, then so can you as well as those around you.
Let me say something to our older members. More than once I have heard someone older say they don't want to teach or lead or help; that they want to retire from service. Really? What you are saying is you don't want to use your spiritual gifts to help the next generation.
I want to end by us reading together what we believe about involvement in the church. If you can turn with me to page 883 at the back of the grey hymn book. I will read question 55 and I ask you to respond with the answer:
Q 55. What do you understand by"the communion of saints"?
First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.
Second, that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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