If you got a Bible, go to Acts 9. If you’re new here at Mars Hill, we like to go through books of the Bible, amen? We like to go through books of the Bible. And let me just say this: I was praying just before I came out, praying for you, praying for me, praying for us. I mean this very sincerely, thank you. I love teaching the Bible, and I love teaching the Bible at Mars Hill Church, and I love the people who allow me to teach them the Bible. So, I love you and I’m very grateful to teach you the Bible today. And as we’re studying the book of Acts, I hope you’re really enjoying our examination of our family history.
While you find your place in Acts 9, I’ll ask you a question: Have you ever heard this phrase, “Tall poppy”? Have you ever heard that? If so, you have an Australian friend. I had an Australian friend I was talking to and they just threw this phrase out. They said, “Oh that guy—he’s a tall poppy.” I was like, “I’ll pray for him. That sounds horrible. How did that happen?” He said, “No, no, no. Tall poppy means somebody who rises above history,” that there’s most of us, and then there’s a few people that rise above history. They’re difference makers, they’re legacy leavers, they’re history changers. Their life changes the world. And what he was saying is in Australia that’s the little phrase they use, is, “Well, that’s a tall poppy.” Everybody knows who that person is because they sort of rise above it all and make a big difference.
I was thinking about it—that’s really true. So, think with me. You can’t have the nation of Israel without Father Abraham. You can’t have God’s people leaving Egypt in the Exodus without Moses. Similarly, you can’t even conceive of the United States of America apart from George Washington. You can’t have a category for the emancipation of slaves and the eradication of slavery without Abraham Lincoln. You can’t conceive of the Civil Rights Movement without Martin Luther King Jr.
PAUL’S LIFE & LEGACY
If I were to ask you this question—in addition to Jesus, who would you say is the tall poppy for Christianity? That if this person weren’t the kind of person they were and didn’t do the kinds of things that they did, we wouldn’t even be here today. Christianity as we know it would be radically different or maybe not even have spread across the earth to touch a few billion people on the earth today who claim to worship Jesus. Who comes to mind as the tall poppy?
Most of you said Paul. Well, that’s exactly who we’re talking about today. We’re talking about a man named Saul who changed his name—or God changed his name to Paul. He is a towering giant. He is quite a tall poppy, not only in church history, but the history of the world. He’s the apostle to the Gentiles. We are here in large part today as part of his legacy as a result of his ministry. And so I want to spend a little bit of time—some of you perhaps are familiar with him, perhaps some of you less familiar. I want to talk about his life and his legacy as a result of his ministry.
1. HE WAS PRIVILEGED
Number one, he was a privileged man. He was raised in a devout Jewish home. This is what he says regarding himself. And he was very committed to the Jewish faith, and a particularly strict sect of the Jewish faith, but he also somehow—perhaps his family was a privileged family—he had Roman citizenship. So, he had dual citizenship. He’s Jewish and Roman. This allows him to travel throughout the Roman Empire. This opens lots of opportunities for him and it gives him additional legal protections under the law. So, he’s really a rare, privileged class of man.
2. HE WAS RESILIENT
Number two, he is a resilient man. I was reading, and insofar as I could tell, his ministry lasted about 10 years. Just think about that. What have you gotten done in the last 10 years? What have I gotten done in the last 10 years? I think if we added it all up, we haven’t all gotten done in the last 10 years what he got done in 10 years. An incredibly resilient man. And I was reading one Bible scholar, they said that he walked an average, during those 10 years, of 20 miles a day. Twenty miles a day. And I’ve been to the regions in which he walked. It’s rugged, it’s rough, it’s hot. There aren’t, you know, rest stops, Slurpees, and, you know, places to walk the dog along the way. I mean, it is—you have to be very committed to be walking.
How many of you are so devoted to something you would walk 20 miles for it? Short list. How many things are you devoted to that you would walk 20 miles every day for? Unbelievable resilience, just the commitment, the life energy that this man exuded for the ministry. He was hated, he was despised, he was opposed, his reputation was set on fire everywhere we went. Sometimes he’d be in the middle of a riot. He was flogged. He says, “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” I mean, they flogged him like they did Jesus and ripped the flesh off his back. He says he was adrift on the open sea, almost died, drowned. On one occasion, they stone him. They surrounded him with rocks and everybody threw their rock at him. And they thought he was dead, so they left him. He woke up, he just got knocked out. What does he do? Walks back into town to preach some more.
You know what I would do? Retire. Retire, or at least say, “I’m taking a day off.” Because in the fine print of my contract, it says, “When stoned, I get the rest of the day off.” Instead, what he does is he marches back into town like, “I’m still alive! More sermons.” I mean, incredibly resilient what he endured and faced.
3. HE WAS BRILLIANT
He was also, number three, brilliant. He tells us in Galatians 1:13–14 that he studied under this rabbi named Gamaliel, who’s one of the leading scholars in that day, one of the greatest Old Testament teachers there was. So, he not only knew the Bible, but he learned it from one of the leading scholars in that day, the Old Testament, and he memorized it.
I’ve had the great privilege of preaching through some, and there are others that hopefully someday I can preach through, like Romans. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve been preaching 18 years here at Mars Hill. I’m not ready for Romans. I’m not ready. I still got the training wheels on. Like, someday, I’m going to get to the point where I feel comfortable with Romans. He wrote it. I’ve been spending 20 years trying to figure it out. He’s a brilliant mind.
As he’s writing books of the Bible like Romans, he quotes the Old Testament about 100 times, he alludes to it hundreds of times, and insofar as we can ascertain, he does so from memory because he’s not traveling with a huge library of scrolls. So, he’s got entire sections of the Bible memorized in the Old Testament in the Hebrew, as well as some other translations of the original Hebrew.
How many of you are bilingual? A couple of you. He was bilingual. He was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as well as possibly Latin. Not Pig Latin, real Latin. Brilliant. He studied in Tarsus. He’s called Saul of Tarsus. Tarsus was a leading university town. The university there was at least, if not more, respected than the university in Athens and Alexandria. So, he has a first class education formally, he also has amazing Old Testament biblical instruction under Gamaliel. Well, he’s such a brilliant mind, Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, called him, quote, “The wisest man after Christ.” That’s quite a statement. You say, “Who’s the wisest man that ever lived?” Well, Jesus. Who’s the second? Saul of Tarsus. The Bible scholar Paul Barnett says the he, quote, “Became the first theologian in the early church and arguably the greatest in the history of the church.”
4. HE WAS PROLIFIC
And he was prolific. That’s my fourth point, that he was prolific. When it comes to the Bible, you’ve got 66 books. It’s a library written over the course of a few thousand years by roughly 40 authors. The Old Testament is 39 books, the New Testament is 27 books. Of those 27 books in the New Testament, hear me in this, Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books. We’re not exactly sure who wrote Hebrews. We know ultimately the Holy Spirit did, but we don’t know who the human author was. Some think that it may have been Paul. If so, then he wrote 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament.
In addition, the book of Acts, which we find ourselves in, chapter 13 through chapter 28 is largely focused on the life and ministry of this man, Saul of Tarsus. He contributes the largest number of books to the New Testament. The man who provides the largest amount of content, his name is Luke. And he wrote the Gospel of Luke, which is the history of Jesus, and the book of Acts, which is the history of Jesus’ people in the church at the beginning of what we now know as Christianity on the earth. And Luke was a disciple of Paul. Luke was traveling companions and friends with Paul. His pastor was Paul. So this is how prolific he is: 13 or 14 of the New Testament books, he mentors the guy who contributes the majority of the New Testament by tonnage, and even the book that we’re in, written by Luke, his friend, 13 through 28 rather, those chapters are primarily focused on Saul of Tarsus.
Here’s my big idea: If you take Paul out of the New Testament, you’ve lost most of the New Testament. You’ve lost most of the New Testament. Much of the Bible is from or connected to the person and work of Saul of Tarsus, Paul the apostle. I mean, it’s just unbelievable the impact this man has had on history.
5. HE WAS SINGLE
As I was studying it this week, considering it, and praying for the sermon, the fifth point is the one that struck me. He was single, he may have been widowed—we don’t know. He may have never married—we don’t know. But definitely by the time we see him in Acts and the letters that he writes, he’s very clear that he’s unmarried. There are times that he is in a place for a couple of hours, starts a riot, and has to move on. There are times that he’s in a place for a couple of days, couple of weeks, sometimes for a couple of years in a place like Ephesus.
But the truth is, much of his life ministry is on the move. He didn’t have a hometown. He didn’t have a home. He didn’t have a wife and he didn’t have children. Everything that he endured, he endured, to some degree, alone. And that just really struck me, for everything that he endured and everything that he did by the grace of God, he didn’t have the benefit that I do of a loving, Christian wife. I couldn’t even fathom—I mean, what I do is nothing even close in comparison to Paul, but even with the responsibilities that God has given me, I couldn’t fathom doing them without Grace and the kids. Grace is my friend, my helper, and my wise counsel, and my joy. To not be able to go home to be with my wife, to pray with my wife, to not have my children—I mean, it’s that time of year we’re finishing the school year, so there are field days, trips, baseball playoffs, end tournaments, and graduations, and I find so much joy, refreshment, and life with my family, and he didn’t have any of that. He didn’t have any of that, yet he devoted his adult life to the service of Jesus.
Here’s what the Church Father John Chrysostom, he’s a great preacher, he says it this way: “Put the whole world on one side of the scale and you will see that the soul of Paul outweighs it.” That’s an amazing statement. He says if you look at scales and their weightiness, their heaviness, their gravitas, their impact, their effect, there’s everyone who’s ever lived and Paul, and he is weightier. This is the legacy of the ministry of Saul of Tarsus, Paul the apostle. This is what we see as he has matured, and maturing, and filled with the Holy Spirit, and growing in relationship with Jesus. Pretty amazing, amen? I mean, it’s amazing we don’t have some sort of great made-for-TV movie about the life of this man. Few have impacted history to any degree that he has.
BEFORE HE BECAME PAUL
What I want to do now is I want to go back and look at what was he like before he met Jesus. What was he like before he became a Christian? And this is really important because, for us to really understand someone—this includes us knowing one another and people knowing you—don’t just judge a person by where they are, but look at where they started. Who were they before they met Jesus? And the book of Acts gives us the account of who he was before he met Jesus. And you’re going to see this stark contrast because before he meets Jesus he’s called Saul of Tarsus, and then once he meets Jesus he’s called Paul the apostle.
The point is that Jesus says when we become a Christian, we’re born again. You kind of start over in some ways. Paul tells the Corinthians that when you become a Christian you become a new creation in Christ, so much so that you change to such a radical degree that sometimes in the Bible people actually get a new name.
So Abram becomes Abraham, and Cephas becomes Peter, and Saul of Tarsus becomes Paul the apostle. I just told you about Paul the apostle. Let’s now look at Saul of Tarsus, and what we learn is that no one is beyond hope. The first time that we meet him is in Acts 7:58. We looked at this a few weeks ago. We read, “Then they cast him”—that is Stephen—“out of the city and stoned him. “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
This is the first time that we meet Saul of Tarsus. He’s named after an Old Testament leader. And it says that at this point he’s a young man. In the Bible, when you hear a young man, that usually means under 40. Once you’re over 40, you’re just a man. So, he’s probably in his 20s or maybe early 30s. He was roughly around the same age as Jesus Christ. They were born at roughly the same time. So, he’s a young man and Saul is opposing a man named Stephen. We studied that. Stephen was an early church deacon. He was a leader in the church. He loved Jesus. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was a godly and gracious man. And Saul opposed him openly, publicly, and brazenly.
What happens is, Saul surrounds him with some men, and their intent is to stone him. And this is not legal, this is illegal. There’s no trial, there’s no justice. This is mob violence and vengeance. And the only way to get Stephen to stop talking about Jesus is to kill him. So, the way it would work, they would encircle him and everybody would get a rock. All the men would, usually, and they would each, in unison, throw their rock to put that person to death. That’s what they did with Stephen. Before they did that, they took their coats off.
This is kind of like a pitcher in a bullpen, you know? They wear a coat in baseball, and then when it’s time to warm up, you take your coat off so you can get loose. That’s what they’re doing taking their cloaks off. And they lay them at the feet—you can just kind of see a pile of coats—of Saul of Tarsus. That means he’s the leader. This is his plot; this is his plan. He is overseeing the execution of Stephen. I just told you about Paul the apostle. Well, this is Saul of Tarsus. It’s amazing that a man goes from being a persecutor of Christians to being persecuted for being a Christian, from being a murderer of church leaders to being a church leader who is ultimately to be murdered. That’s amazing. And what it shows us is that God can start with anyone under any circumstances and transform them.
SAUL’S OPPOSITION TO THE CHURCH
We pick up the story in Acts 9, which is our text today. A few chapters later, the question is then, well, he’s already murdered the early church deacon, Stephen, what’s he doing now? “But Saul, still breathing threats”—all right, threat, after threat, after threat—“and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He’s promising that Stephen is just the first martyr and there are more to come. “Went to the high priest and asked him for letters “to the synagogues at Damascus, “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” He is escalating. What happened was he attacked the church. I think it was chapter 8, verse 3 it says, “He ravaged the church.”
What happens after he kills Stephen is, some people become very scared, so they flee. And what he does is he gets permission to hunt them like a bounty hunter, to track them down. And what he’s opposed to, it says, are people committed to the Way.
Now, you and I may not be familiar with this. We call ourselves Christians today. It was actually—originally in the Bible, it was a pejorative term. It was a negative term. It was something that critics would use to explain Christians. “Oh, you’re like little Christs. You’re all just trying to be like Jesus,” and it was a negative thing that was said. But we took it and said, “Yeah, actually, that is true. We’re not Jesus but we want to be like Jesus. We want to be like little Christs.” One of the early titles for Christians was the Way. And this comes out of John 14:6 off of the very lips of the Lord Jesus who said, and I quote, “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” That’s what Jesus said. Singular and exclusive, right?
There are people, and there is God, and the only way for people to be reconciled rightly in relationship to God, there’s only one way, one truth, one life. That’s Jesus. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the only way. What got Jesus in trouble was that he said, “I am the way.” If he would have said, “I am a way,” he wouldn’t have gotten in as much trouble. The Christians came along and said, “Jesus is the way,” and they got in trouble. They wouldn’t have gotten in trouble had they said, “He is a way. There are many religions, beliefs, and philosophies, and spiritualities, and ideologies, and many paths that lead to God, and Jesus is one among many.” They wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for that. What they got in trouble for was saying what Jesus said. He’s the way. And so Saul of Tarsus is very opposed to anyone proclaiming that Jesus is the way. And the opposition that he is bringing is to get people to stop teaching and telling that Jesus is the way. So really, it all hinges on this issue fundamentally.
I need to ask you this question: Do you believe that Jesus is the way? Do you believe that Jesus is the way? You may say, “No I do not, but I am religious.” So was Saul. “I do not, but I am spiritual.” So was Saul. “I am not, but I am zealous.” So was Saul. Do you believe that Jesus is the way? That was the fundamental issue, and I would tell you, dear friend, 2,000 years later it’s still the fundamental issue. And so what does he do? He gets permission to pursue.
3 THINGS ABOUT SAUL OF TARSUS
Three things I want you to know that we learn about Saul of Tarsus here.
1. HE WAS VERY RELIGIOUS
Number one, he was very religious. He’s not doing this because he’s an atheist. He’s not. He believed that he was on God’s mission, that God had anointed him to put an end to the following of Jesus. He says it this way some years later as he’s reflecting back. In the story we’re going to ready today about Saul encountering Jesus in Acts 9. It’s something that he refers back to a few occasions in Acts going forward. He refers back to it in Galatians 1. He refers back to it in Philippians 2. This is his testimony. This is his accounting of his life before and after Jesus.
But here’s what he says in Galatians 1:13: “For you’ve heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God”—so he sees this in retrospect as persecution of God’s church—“violently and tried to destroy it.” That’s what he’s trying to do. He’s on a mission to shut the church down. “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people.” I was top of my class. I was valedictorian. “So extremely zealous”—nobody’s more committed and focused—“was I for the tradition of my fathers.” He’s very religious. It’s not enough, dear friend, to just be zealous. You’ve got to be zealous for the right things. It’s not enough to just believe that you’re doing something for God. You need to make sure that it’s actually for God.
2. HE RAVAGED
Not only is he religious, number two, he ravaged. Chapter 8, verse 3 says that he was ravaging the church. You can see it here. He’s breathing threats, he’s threatening murder, and it’s a credible threat, right? He just killed Stephen—oversaw the murder of Stephen. “And this includes men and women, that he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” I mean, he’s looking for—think about this—your grandma who loves Jesus, your mom, your sister, your wife, in addition to the men. Being bound means shackled at the wrists, shackled at the feet. I mean, this is like captured in war. This is how people, when captured in war, would be brought back for trial. He is religious, he is ravaging, he will not stop or slow down, and he relentless. The distance between where he is and where he’s getting permission to travel is upwards of 150 miles. He persecuted the church, he murdered Stephen, the church scatters, and so he is asking, “Can I hunt them down? Can I get jurisdiction for 150 miles to hunt down Christians?”
3. HE WAS COMMITTED
How committed are you to Christianity? Are you committed enough that you would walk 150 miles to tell somebody about Jesus? It’s amazing that sometimes the opponents of Christianity are more committed to their cause than the Christians. He’s willing to walk upwards of 150 miles, going from house to house to hunt down Christians. What we’re seeing here is the beginning of martyrdom and persecution, and this is where I want you to have an open heart to the persecuted church. The Voice of the Martyrs is one place I would send you if you want to track what is going on in the persecuted church around the world, where our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing this same kind of thing. They’re being killed, they’re being stalked, they’re being arrested, they’re fleeing for their lives, and their families are getting torn apart because they are committed to Jesus as the way. That’s what’s happening here.
I’ve seen this with friends of mine around the world involved in church planting, and mission work, and including some people that we’ve supported in places like India where attacks come on Christian villages, and homes are burned down, and churches are destroyed, and pastors are imprisoned, their lives are put in danger. And I’m aware of at least one case where we were supporting a mission work and a pastor was killed in another country. These things still happen. So, we want to have open hearts to be praying for and supporting our brothers and sisters that are undergoing this kind of persecution, and it starts early on right here in the book of Acts.
What are you so committed to that you would walk 150 miles for? That’s about a week’s journey. He was that opposed to the church and Jesus as the way. This is Saul of Tarsus. Do you see the change, the inexplicable, unbelievable change from Saul of Tarsus to Paul the apostle? Well, what happens? How do we explain the man who was and then the man who he became? The story continues and we learn that Jesus loves his church. Acts 9, we’ll read it together, verses 3 through 9. “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus.” He’s made the journey.
“And suddenly”—nobody saw this coming—“a light from heaven shone around him.” Jesus shows up. “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’” He finally gets a little respectful. “And he said, ‘I am’”—who? “‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city.’” Saul’s used to giving orders. Now Jesus is going to give him some orders. “‘And you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless.” This is like military guard going with a general, and all of a sudden the general is hearing a voice from heaven, he’s blinded, he’s humbled, and the two soldiers with him, the guys that are marching along are speechless. What is going on? “Hearing the voice but seeing no one.”
There’s a lot of mystery here. It’s supernatural. A lot is going on. “Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing.” Can you see Saul? He’s like, open his eyes, “I can’t see. Close them, open my eyes, I can’t see.” He’s what? He’s blind. “So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight.” Can you imagine how terrifying that would be? “And neither ate nor drank.” Saul is, as he said in Galatians, he was persecuting the church trying to destroy it, and Jesus shows up and gets involved to protect the church. Saul, we see, is surrounded in light. And Saul would have thought up until that moment he was walking in the light, that he saw things as they were and he was dealing with reality. But the truth is he was in darkness because he didn’t believe Jesus was the way. And Jesus is the light of the world, that’s what he said.
So Jesus shows up in light to reveal, “You’ve been walking in darkness. I am the light of the world.” And then Saul is blinded, and what God is doing here is God is mirroring his physical condition with the spiritual condition. He physically has sight, but spiritually he’s blind. He does not see the glory of God in Christ, to quote something he says to the Corinthians. He’s not seeing the glory of Jesus as the light of the world and the way to salvation. He’s spiritually blind, and so God allows him to experience blindness physically to mirror what he is conditionally experiencing spiritually, and that is spiritual blindness. He doesn’t see who Jesus is.
Can you imagine how terrifying this would be? Well, not surprisingly, he is in shock. Luke, who writes this, he’s a medical doctor, so there will be occasions that he gives us some medical insight. And it says that he was blind for 3 days and that he didn’t eat or drink. What is that? Shock. This is anxiety, this is distress, this is where you are so overwhelmed you forget to eat, you forget to drink. Have you been there? I’ve been there. Even recently I’ve been there, just sort of overwhelmed, kind of shell-shocked.
All of a sudden you’re like, “I haven’t eaten all day. I haven’t eaten in a couple days. I haven’t had anything to drink. I’m dehydrated. I forgot to drink water.” He’s just shell-shocked. God got his attention. Can you imagine how terrifying this would have been? You’re in your twenties or early thirties. You are strong, you are healthy, I mean, just look at what he was able to do physically. He was in good shape. And it comes on you in an instant. You don’t see it coming. Sometimes when people are in the process of losing their sight, it’s with a degenerative eye condition that gives them a little bit of notice so that they can try and prepare.
Some years ago, Grace and I had a couple over. It’s a pastor and his wife. Wonderful, sweet people who love Jesus, great people. And his wife has a degenerative eye condition where they say there’s nothing that they can do and she was slowly losing her sight. Well, it had reached the point that she couldn’t drive anymore and they had to build a home that would accommodate her as, apart from a miracle, it was inevitable that she would become blind. So, they were trying to figure out how they could set up life so that she could still be a wife and a mother without her sight. Wonderful couple, but they were able to foresee this coming and to make preparations for it.
Saul didn’t see it coming. He’s just blind. Imagine sitting there all day and you just say, “OK, I’m going to close my eyes and pray.” Open them up, “I’m blind. OK, I’m going to close my eyes and pray. I’m blind. Is this the rest of my life? What does this mean? What do I do?” He doesn’t know. It lasts three days.
4 THINGS ABOUT JESUS’ INTERVENTION IN PAUL’S LIFE
Four things I want you to see regarding the Lord Jesus from his encounter here with Saul of Tarsus. In one of the most significant moments in the history of the world—and I know that is a large statement to make, but Jesus showing up and intervening in the life of Saul of Tarsus is one of the most important events in the history of the world. And this, friends, isn’t just history, this is our family history, this is church history. If Saul isn’t stopped, we’re not here. Jesus said the gospel was to go to the ends of the earth, and it wasn’t going to make it if Paul got involved the way he was planning.
1. JESUS CONSIDERS AN ATTACK ON THE CHURCH AS AN ATTACK ON HIM
Number one, Jesus considers an attack on the church an attack on him. OK, I don’t know if you caught this, but Jesus shows up to Saul and says, quote, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Me. Jesus had lived without sin. Jesus said he was the way. Jesus died in our place for our sins on the cross as our substitute. He rose, proving he was God and Savior. He ascended back into heaven. We saw that early in Acts 1. And he is the way. He’s gone before us. He’s the way.
At this point, Jesus is seated in heaven as Lord, God, Savior, King, and Christ in glory. Saul’s not marching out to arrest Jesus. Jesus is in heaven. Saul isn’t marching out to persecute Jesus. Jesus is in heaven. Saul is not marching out to murder Jesus. Jesus already died, rose, and returned to heaven, and Saul couldn’t get to him. What is Jesus saying? “You’re persecuting me.” What is he saying, Mars Hill? Jesus loves his church so much that he considers an attack on his church an attack on him.
THE CHURCH IS HIS WIFE
The metaphor that the Bible uses often, including Paul the apostle in Ephesians 5, is that Christ loves the church like a husband should love his wife, and that a husband and wife—OK, husbands and wives—you are one. Grace and I are one. So, if somebody attacks Grace, it’s not like, “Well, she’s a person, I’m a person. If they attack her, that doesn’t involve me.” If you attack my wife, does it involve me, yes or no? You should be able to answer that one, yes, OK? Any guy who really loves his wife, if there’s an attack on his wife, does that involve him? Yes. If she’s hurt, he’s hurt. If she’s attacked, he’s attacked. If damage is done to her, damage is done to him because he loves her, and they’re one, and her well-being is his priority.
Well, Jesus’ church is like his wife. That’s what the Bible says. And he loves her. And as Saul is attacking the church, Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting me?” It’s kind of like someone is attacking a wife and a husband steps in the middle and is like, “Do not attack my wife.” That’s what Jesus is essentially doing. He’s getting involved and saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
2. JESUS PURSUES US BEFORE WE PURSUE HIM
Number two, Jesus pursues us before we pursue him. Some of you have grown up in traditions, and they believe the Bible and they love Jesus, but the way they tell you you’re saved is you’ve got to look for God, you’ve got to seek God, you’ve got to find God. Is that Saul’s story? Is he going to stand up at the campfire and say, “You know, I loved Jesus, and I couldn’t find him, and I was praying to him and looking for him, and I went on this spiritual quest and I encountered Jesus with an open heart”? Is that the story? No. In fact, Jesus would say, “I was on a quest to find Saul of Tarsus. I was the one with the open heart. I was the one who was on the mission to find him and have a relationship. He wasn’t looking for me, I was looking for him. He wasn’t pursuing me, I was pursuing him. He didn’t even want to hear from me, but I wanted to talk to him.”
Friend, before you ever pursue Jesus, Jesus pursues you. Before you ever desire Jesus, Jesus desires you. Before you ever seek Jesus, Jesus seeks you. I’m so glad that the story is told rightly because it shows how awful Saul was and how wonderful Jesus is, amen? I mean, Jesus is coming for his enemy. How many of us come for our enemy? He comes for his enemy.
3. JESUS ANSWERS PRAYERS FOR LOST PEOPLE
Number three, Jesus answers prayers for lost people. If you were here, you read it or you remember it, as Saul was murdering Stephen, Stephen prayed. He learned this from Jesus. As Jesus was being murdered on the cross, he prayed for his enemies. “Father, forgive them.” And then he died that we could be forgiven because we’re his enemies too through sin. And as Stephen is dying, he prays. He prays a prayer that echoes the prayer of Jesus as Jesus was dying. And he prays basically that his enemies would be forgiven by God for what they’re doing, killing him.
And as we just turn the page, turn another page in the book of Acts, we go from Stephen’s prayer to the answering of Stephen’s prayer. I want all of us to not lose sight of the fact that Jesus didn’t just show up, but that Stephen also prayed and Jesus answered his prayer. Who should you and I be praying for that doesn’t know Jesus? You may say, “They’re too far gone.” Well, they’re not that far gone. “Well, their heart’s too hard.” Can’t get any harder than that heart. “Well, they don’t even care about Jesus.” Neither did he. We pray in hope. We pray in faith. We pray in love. And to be sure, it’s between Jesus and that person, but we see here that Jesus likes to answer those prayers. If there is anyone you have stopped praying for, let this be the occasion that you start praying for them again.
4. JESUS SAVES BY GRACE ALONE
And number four, Jesus saves by grace alone. See, Paul, as he tells his testimony in places like Philippians 2, he’s like, “I was zealous. I studied hard. I did great in studying the Bible. I was very committed. I did everything I was supposed to. I was hardworking”—and he was wrong. Everything he thought he was doing that was good was actually bad. He was upside down. And Saul couldn’t stand up and say, “I’m a good person. I loved Jesus. I never did anything wrong and I worked my way into God’s kingdom through my great life.” Instead, he tells the story over and over like, “I’m the worst of sinners because I persecuted the church of God. I’m the least of the apostles because I persecuted the church of God. I am the chief of sinners.” That’s what he says. Jesus saves by grace alone. It’s not about Saul’s life; it’s about Jesus’ life. It’s not about what Saul has done; it’s about what Jesus has done for Saul. It’s not about what a great person Saul is, but what a great love Jesus has.
So, Saul’s encounter and experience with Jesus, you can see the themes. They spread through the rest of his instruction. If you’re familiar with Paul, you’re like, he talks about his love for the church and that we’re part of the church, and he talks about election, predestination, and God’s pursuing, loving, and saving us. And Paul’s going to talk a lot about lost people meeting Jesus and we need to pray for them and preach to them. And he’s going to talk a lot about God’s grace and how we’re saved by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. And all of this comes out of his original encounter with the Lord Jesus. So, here we meet Saul of Tarsus, and we compare that to Paul the apostle.
HOW GOD CHANGED PAUL
The question is, what variable accounts for this radical transformation, this amazing redemption, this utterly changed man? Paul himself gives us an insight in Romans 1:16, and that is that the gospel redeems. He says it this way, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Paul is saying, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” You know what? It is difficult in our world to not at least, to some degree, on some occasions, demonstrate some shame in the gospel. Tell people they’re sinners, they didn’t really want to hear that. Tell people that they can’t save themselves, they didn’t really want to hear that. Tell them that Jesus is the way, they didn’t really want to hear that. People sometimes find the gospel offensive. That’s what Paul says elsewhere, that sometimes the gospel is offensive to people. It was offensive to me when I first heard it. “You’re a sinner.” I’m not that bad. “You killed Jesus.” I didn’t do anything. “He’s the only way to salvation.” I think there’s a lot of ways. I was originally offended, and as a result of knowing that we will meet offense, we can become ashamed.
What he’s saying here is, “I’ve experienced the power of the gospel so deeply in my life that I have to unleash it to see what it does.” Because if God could save Paul, he could save anyone. And what I want to be careful is we don’t look at Saul of Tarsus and say, “What a horrible person. If God could save him, he could save anyone.” I want us to also look in the mirror and say, “What a horrible person. If God could save them, God could save anyone.” He says, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel.”
And the gospel, friends, is the good news about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. That’s what that word means, that Jesus is God become a man, that he is pursuing us as he did Saul, that he is loving us as he did Saul, that he is forgiving us as he did Saul, that he saving us as he did Saul, that he is changing us as he did Saul, that Jesus lived without any sin. He wasn’t religious, he wasn’t rebellious, he was perfect. That he went to the cross, he died in our place for our sins.
See, Saul is out trying to murder people. Jesus comes very differently and allows us to murder him. I can conceive of a world where, in anger, we murder people. It’s amazing that in love God would allow us to murder him. And in so doing, he is actually substituting himself so that his death would be for our forgiveness because he’s dying in our place for our sins.
That’s the good news, and that Jesus was buried and he didn’t stay dead. And the greatest event in the history of the world is the resurrection of Jesus where he conquers Satan, sin, death, hell, the wrath of God, that he’s alive and well, that he’s pursuing, seeking, saving, and changing horrible people like Saul and me. He’s patient in that process because it’s not all at once. And that’s the good news. It’s not about what we do, what Jesus has done. It’s not about who we are, but who Jesus is. Not about what we deserve, but about what Jesus has earned for us. He says, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel, it’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
What he’s saying is this: “Just let the gospel go. Tell people about Jesus. You have no idea what might happen.” You have no idea! You could find the people that are the most hard-hearted become tender-hearted, the people that are most opposed become most enthusiastic, the people that are farthest away all of a sudden are closest to Jesus. You just don’t know. And the gospel is so powerful and the truth about Jesus is so powerful that once you unleash it you don’t know what’s going to happen. The Greek word here is actually the same word for dynamite. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s incredibly powerful. It can change anyone, it can save anyone, it can transform anything. That’s the power of the gospel. And so our hope is not in the person that we’re telling the gospel to, our hope is in the gospel that is being told to that person. And so Saul learns about Jesus, is saved, believes, and his life is changed. His blind eyes are open, spiritually speaking. His dead heart is brought to life. His mind is renewed and changed. He’s an utterly different man, so we call him Paul the apostle.
How does someone change? This is important because we believe in good deeds where we should love, help, serve, feed, and care for people. We believe in good advice. “Hey, this isn’t a good idea. You need to make some course corrections and life changes and life could go better for you.” We believe in good deeds, we believe in good advice, but really Christianity’s about the good news. Other things may help you, but only Jesus can save you. Other things may improve your life, but only Jesus gives eternal life. Do you know Jesus? Have you experienced the power of the gospel? If not, this is the day that I want you to meet Jesus. Now, we all meet Jesus in different ways.
Some of you, it’s through hearing a sermon, or reading a book of the Bible, or reading a book that helps answer your questions, or going to Community Group and people are answering objections, and questions, and curiosities that you have about Jesus. We each come to Jesus in different ways, but we each need to come to Jesus and to meet him, and that’s what Saul did. He met Jesus. Have you met Jesus? Have you experienced the power of the gospel? Has it been unleashed in your life?
If you’re not a Christian, this is the day I want you to become a Christian. It’s for everyone who believes. Do you believe that Jesus is the way? For those of us who are Christians or become Christians today, I want you to see that God doesn’t just redeem your soul. He redeems all of you. When people say, “Oh, Jesus saves our soul,” yes, and everything else because he’s Lord. And what he does with Saul he wants to do with each of us, and that is to take all of our experiences and our abilities and to redeem them for his glory and other’s good.
I’ll give you an example. I started by speaking of the Apostle Paul.
1. GOD REDEEMED HIS PRIVILEGED STATUS
Well, God, number one, redeemed his privileged status. He’s a dual citizen. Once he becomes a Christian, now he can travel through the Roman Empire pretty freely, which is what you’re going to see in rest of the book of Acts. And sometimes when he’s arrested, he says, “Hey, I’m a Roman citizen. You can’t do this to me,” and it gives him legal protection. God redeems, God uses his privileged status.
2. GOD REDEEMED HIS RESILIENT NATURE
Number two, God redeemed his resilient nature. Here’s a guy who’s willing to make a plan, raise money, get some guys, walk 150 miles, declare war. He’s very resilient. He meets Jesus. The resiliency doesn’t go away but the mission changes. “Now I’m going to travel like that to tell people about Jesus’ love, not to shut churches down but to open churches up, not to persecute Christians but to pastor Christians.” God redeems his resiliency.
3. GOD REDEEMED HIS BRILLIANT MIND
Number three, God redeemed his brilliant mind. All of a sudden, he started thinking God’s thoughts. He started to have, as he says in Colossians, “the mind of Christ.” He starts to think about Jesus and see everything connected to the person and work of Jesus. God gave him a great mind, and until he met Jesus it wasn’t greatly used for God’s glory, but it was redeemed.
4. GOD REDEEMED HIS PROLIFIC PEN
Number four, God redeemed his prolific pen. This guy is a brilliant writer. He instructs and exhorts with amazing clarity. And once he receives the Holy Spirit, he goes on to pen books of the Bible. God redeems his prolific pen, his ability to communicate. And to this day, I’ve had the privilege of preaching and teaching through books of the Bible penned by Paul, and that’s God redeeming the prolific nature of this man’s giftedness.
5. GOD REDEEMED HIS LONELY SINGLENESS
And number five, God redeemed his lonely singleness. Some of you are single and you’re feeling or wondering, “Is God punishing me? Is God withholding from me?” Maybe God has someone for you in the future, I do not know. Maybe God does not have someone for you in the future. But Paul did not consider himself a second class citizen in the kingdom of God any less than the Lord Jesus was not a second class citizen in the kingdom of God as a single, unmarried man. Instead, God redeemed his singleness, and Paul tells this to the Corinthians. He says, “You know, a married guy’s got some responsibilities that a single guy doesn’t.”
I mean, imagine Paul’s job. “Well, I’m going to travel all the time, start riots, have rocks thrown at me, be flogged and shipwrecked with my wife and kids.” You can’t do that. Only as a single man could he do the things that God called him to do. And it wasn’t God’s punishment on him, it was God’s glory to him.
Some of you are not single because God is withholding anything good, but because he has things for you that you could only do in a season or a lifetime of singleness, and he wants to redeem that for his glory and other’s good. And so, friends, for those of you who become Christians or are Christians, my question for you is, what is God seeking to redeem in your life? You may come to Jesus and say, “I have athletic ability. I have musical talent. I’m someone who has natural, innate leadership ability. I have a business background”—or whatever the case may be. “I’m a teacher, I’m a researcher.”
WHAT TALENTS HAS GOD GIVEN YOU THAT COULD BE REDEEMED?
Whatever your thing is, I don’t know what your thing is, but what has God given you as talents, abilities, and capacities that could be redeemed? You say, “What do I do with those things?” Well, bring them to Jesus and ask, “Lord Jesus, what does it look like to do these things to your glory and other’s good? How could these be used for the betterment of the church and the forward of the mission of the gospel?” This includes sins you’ve committed. This includes sins that have been committed against you, the painful parts of our life that we have remorse and/or regret for what we have done or what has been done to us.
I assure you of this: he had that. Here’s a pastor who would get up before his church to preach at a funeral remembering, “I murdered a brother in Christ.” Here’s a man who would lay hands on a deacon and install them, and realize, “It’s the same hands that are dripping with the blood of a deacon that I murdered.” There are things that he did and there were things that were done to him that were regrettable, and they were redeemed in the grace of God to be part of his testimony and story to encourage others in the grace of God that Jesus can save anyone, that Jesus can change anyone, that Jesus can use anyone, and he wants to do that with you as he did with Saul of Tarsus, making him Paul the apostle.
So as we read of his testimony, we need to have a testimony. “Here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve done, here’s what’s been done to me. I gave it to the Lord Jesus and he’s in the process of redeeming that for his glory and other’s good. “He’s not just capturing my soul, he’s redeeming my whole life and using everything for something good.” That’s why Paul later writes that God works out all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Mars Hill, this is an opportunity for you to really think about that. “Have I met Jesus? Do I believe he’s the way? And if so, what’s he trying to redeem in my life for a testimony which is ultimately the basis of ministry?”
AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND
We’re going to respond by collecting our tithes and offerings, seeking to end our financial year strong. We’re going to respond by partaking of Communion, remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood in our place for our sins. And as we’re doing that, I want you to know that we want you to be connected, not only to Jesus but his people, the church. And we call those Community Groups, and if you’re not connected to one, we’d love to get you connected to one. Visit, meet the people, just try it out. We’re not asking for a lifelong commitment, but an initial time together. And as you gather in Community Groups this week, here’s some things I want you to think about discussing.
Number one, what most intrigues you about Paul? What an amazing life and story, amen? Just amazing. For me, this week as I studied, it was his singleness. He didn’t have a wife like I do or children like I do to be the source of life and joy. What about Paul most intrigues you?
Number two, what is your testimony about Jesus? Paul tells us, “Here’s how I met Jesus.” How did you meet Jesus? How did he come to you? I want you to share that with one another if you are Christian.
Number three, what is Jesus redeeming in your life? And number four, who are you praying that Jesus would save? And I want you to spend some time in your Community Group praying for those people. Let me pray for us now as we transition our time together.
Father God, thank you. Thank you so much that we have the book of Acts. Much of the Bible has a lot of instruction, which is so helpful. And here in Acts, we get some examples. We see what it looks like when the gospel of Jesus Christ, accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, invades, transforms, and redeems someone like Saul of Tarsus into Paul the apostle. Lord, I thank you for all of the grace that you give to sinners like Saul, me, and us. I thank you for your willingness, Lord Jesus, to pursue us, to forgive us, to love us. I thank you so much that you didn’t treat Saul the way he was treating the church.
Lord Jesus, I thank you so much that you don’t treat us the way we deserve to be treated. Instead, in love you put yourself in our place and you endure what we should endure so that you could love us, forgive us, change us, seek us, and save us. And it’s breathtaking, it’s mind-boggling, it’s eternity rattling what you do, Lord Jesus, through the gospel. And I pray for those who may not know the Lord Jesus that they would walk away today believing that he is the way.
And for those of us who are Christians, Lord, thank you for this wonderful opportunity through the example of Paul’s life and testimony to take all that we are, all that we have, all that we do, and to give it to you, and to see it redeemed so that it’s used for something good. We thank you for that and we thank you for his example in Jesus’ good name, amen. Let’s stand together and sing of God’s fierce love for his people.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.
Paul was a tall poppy, a towering giant in the history of Christianity. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming a persecuted Christian—a murderer of church leaders to becoming the church’s preeminent leader who was murdered for his witness. And the Christian church exists today in large part because of his ministry.