Facts are Facts
R.C. Sproul: “As we know, Paul was not numbered among the original Twelve, yet when we look at the early history of the church, we see that, apart from Jesus, the single most important leader was Paul the Apostle, who wrote thirteen of the books of the New Testament. No theologian since has surpassed his excellence.”
John Piper: “Under Jesus, no man has been more influential in the history of the world than Paul. That is a gigantic claim, but such is my estimate of how his letters have worked their way into the psyche of the human race wherever Christianity has spread.”
What do we make of that?
Are we really meant to think of Paul in that way?
He wasn’t one of the original Twelve. Are we really meant to regard him as an Apostle? Apostle means “sent one”. Someone who is specifically chosen by Jesus to speak with the authority of Jesus.
Is Paul a bona-fide “sent one”?
We know that he went, but was he sent?
There were plenty of people, as there are today, calling themselves apostles or prophets. Do we just put Paul in that category? People who say they were sent, but really who should have never went.
At the rate we’ve been going it will be hard to believe, but Acts is actually a short book. If it were a novel it would be a 30-page book.
So why on earth would Luke, in such a short book, include this story of Paul’s conversion and commission 3 times? Acts 9; 22; 26.
Luke is going out of his way to make sure we know that Paul is a genuine, capital A, Apostle. Not just that, but The Apostle to the Gentiles.
Luke is underscoring the importance of Paul in Christian history – a point which is still just as relevant for us today.
Why it matters (that we think about Paul in the right way):
Paul wrote 13 books of the NT. How do you know they’re meant to be part of Holy Scriptures? It seems like it’s an important question.
It matters because there’s a lot of people today who try and write Paul off completely.
Google or Youtube “Was Paul a false apostle?”, “Jesus vs Paul” and you’ll find lots saying he was a false apostle, fake apostle, apostle of Satan.
It matters because there’s a lot of people today who try to play Jesus and Paul off against each other.
“I like Jesus, but I don’t really like Paul.” Can you say that?
Jesus was so loving. Paul used some harsh language, “You foolish Galatians.” “Let him be accursed.” “I wish they’d go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” Not very Christ-like.
Is it that they try to play them off against each other on particular matters.
Homosexuality. Jesus doesn’t say anything about it, that’s just Paul.
Woman preaching/leading in church. Jesus doesn’t say anything about it, that’s just Paul, so it doesn’t really matter
What Luke’s saying here by affirming Paul’s genuine position as an Apostle, is that you can’t do that.
It matters because of what Paul says…
To reject the words of Jesus’s apostles when they preached in his name, and wrote the New Testament, was to reject eternal life. Paul says about his own preaching (Acts 13:46), “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles”. To thrust aside Paul’s preaching, this Word of God, is to thrust away eternal life.
(See also 1 Cor 14:37-38)
If he’s right it means…
You can’t have Jesus without Paul.
Just like these guys had God, they were zealous for God, but they didn’t have Jesus. In fact, they didn’t actually have God at all. God without Jesus is no God. They had a wrong understanding of who God was. They were worshipping a false god – a god, in the end, of their own imaginings.
Well, just like God without Jesus is no God, Jesus without Paul is no Jesus.
Not because Paul is equal to Jesus in any way, like the God the Son is equal with God the Father.
Like God the Father has said that it’s through my Son, Jesus Christ, that I will reveal who I am, Jesus says about Paul, ‘This is the one I’ve chosen to declare my name among the nations.’
Paul could be wrong however.
Maybe he’s making up all this stuff for personal gain.
20:24, 21:13. Does it sound like this is a man who’s got his own selfish agenda?
Maybe he’s just a deluded madman?
Vv27-36, who are the madman, the ones stirring up falsehoods? See v34.
Vv37-40, Does this sound like the words of a madman?
Calm, measured, reasoned, reasonable
When you look at the story of Paul you can’t help but say, “This can only be the work of Jesus.”
What Was Paul Like?
A Devout Jew
To say that is a massive understatement.
This is no nominal Judaism for Paul here. This is no, ‘well because my parents were then I guess that’s what I’ll call myself.’
Look at v3.
“Yes, I was born in Tarsus, but really my hometown is Jerusalem.
I didn’t get my credentials from some dodgy, online diplomas-r-us.com. I studied under the best, at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.”
Gamaliel was Ivy league. He had prestige. He had reputation.
Gamaliel had a reputation for being brilliant but also gentle and tolerant. It is interesting how many students of great teachers become brash and impetuous. Filled up with the knowledge they’ve learned, they seek to impose it on everyone else.
That was this young theologian Saul. He learned a love for the law, and had acquired a passion to get rid of anybody who disagreed with this Jewish tradition.
The greatest threat at the time was this emerging sect called the Way, people who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah.
Not only was he a devout Jew, he had become…
A Determined Opponent
The conversion of Paul was the conversion of an utterly committed opponent of Christianity.
Look from the end of v3, “being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted the Way (Christianity) to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women”.
Or in v19, in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.
Paul said to the guys who were going to do the dirty work, “Here, let me hold your hat and coat for you.” I.e. he was right in to it.
He wasn’t on the periphery. His opposition to Christianity wasn’t peripheral to who he was or what he had achieved as a Pharisee.
“I haven’t devoted my whole life to Pharisaic strivings, and made a name for myself, and advanced beyond all my contemporaries in Judaism, only to have these common, no good, lousy fishermen tell me that they can get right with God and I can’t.
“My life would be zero because of what they’re teaching. Well I’m going to oppose this thing with all my might because I’m not a zero. I’m a somebody in Judaism.”
This is not the kind of person who gets converted, don’t you agree?
You agree, right? His opposition is too deep. He’s too committed.
This is the kind of person who says, “Yeah, I don’t mind going 200km north to Damascus to bring back some Christians to Jerusalem for punishment.”
Besides that, he’s gone public.
Everybody knew about him. V5, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness.
Everyone knows that when you go public with something, and thousands of people know that you’re committed to it, you don’t change your mind. It’d be too humiliating. Everybody would just think you’re a joke.
He’s too committed, too public – there is no way he is going to now support what he fought.
It would be like a man in his 40s living a self-destructive life of alcoholism being converted by Jesus and having his whole life turned around and being one of the most loyal and loving members of a church congregation until he was 97.
Anybody praying for that? Of course not, it doesn’t happen. You don’t pray for things that don’t happen.
We often forget however that it does happen. How can it be explained?
Well, maybe over time he slowly changed. He had a bad conscience after all the things he’d done, and after thinking about these things for a number of years he slowly turned around and changed his mind on a few points.
What Happened to Paul?
Sudden and Unexpected
The first thing to notice about Paul’s conversion is that it was sudden and unexpected.
V6, As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground
The whole thing came out of the blue, as we say today. Literally, out of the blue.
People who want to deny any supernatural activity do try and say that Paul had been tormented for a long time by a guilty conscience because he had stood by at Stephen’s stoning, and held the garments and listened to the speech.
Good for them, that’s not what Paul says. When he tells his own story, he simply says that he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and that he was advancing in Judaism beyond all his contemporaries until the Son of God was revealed to him from heaven.
“I was on my way. I had it made. I wasn’t feeling guilty. I was against “the Way” (he would have said disparagingly). I knew it was wrong.”
In 23:1, he says that he had lived in good conscience up to that day.
He was advancing. He was moving. He was sold out to his religion.
Then suddenly God broke in!
Saul would have given absolutely no evidence to anybody that he was on the way into the kingdom. He was absolutely, utterly against Christianity and sold out to his understanding of the Old Testament and he was right on the brink of heaven.
So that as he left Jerusalem, I can imagine those Christians saying, ‘Good riddance, we get a break for a while.’ I would have anyway, but maybe they were more gracious than that.
Perhaps there were a couple of them who were saying, ‘Lord, there’s no evidence in this man’s life, but do something, reveal the truth to him, maybe even before he gets to Damascus.’
I bet somebody did pray that and God did it.
So again, how can we explain this? What can we say here?
Not only was it sudden and unexpected…
A Work of Sovereign Grace
Paul’s conversion was a work of divine sovereign grace.
Now, every time anyone is converted it is always a work of divine sovereign grace, without exception.
Ray Meers testified to that more than anything else – the sovereign grace of the Lord Jesus.
He could speak of plenty of evidences for that at his conversion and in his life, but not quite as directly as it is here.
Here the work of Jesus is made very explicit, because there’s more at stake than just, ‘Was Paul converted by Jesus?’. What’s at stake is, ‘Was Paul also commissioned by Jesus?’
What is at stake ultimately is that our belief in Jesus rests on Paul being a genuine, Jesus-appointed apostle.
It is made clear to us who’s at work here.
On the road to Damascus, Jesus was not responding to anything Paul had done to win God’s grace. It was utterly sovereign — that means it was utterly free and unmerited and that it came with overwhelming authority and power. Whatever resistance Paul might have been able to put up against this sovereign grace gave way before the triumphant grace of God.
Look at the evidence of God’s sovereign work here.
First, what God does to him: God causes a light to flash from heaven with blinding brightness.
V11, since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me.
He didn’t ask Paul if he was willing to be blinded. He didn’t ask, “are you willing to see this light, are you willing to fall to the ground?”
He just did it.
In fact, he left Paul blind for three days — until Ananias laid hands on him (v13).
So God blinded him and God took the blindness away. I think he did it to give Paul a powerful sign of the actual spiritual darkness he was living in. “I’m blinding you because that’s in fact how you’ve been living. You’ll need me to “unblind” you because that’s also what you need. I’m doing this to you physically because I’m also doing something to you spiritually.”
Second, what Jesus says to him: notice that the voice that speaks to Paul from heaven does not ask for Paul’s free decision to believe in Jesus; it tells him exactly what he is to do. V8, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting. V10, “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.”
Who do you think you are Jesus? Telling me to get up, telling me to go into the city, telling me I’ll be told what I’m going to do.
Jesus is seen here as totally authoritative. “I am telling you what to do and it will be told to you what to do.”
He means to have Paul in his service and there is no question but that he will succeed.
Third, what Ananias says to him: v14-15, And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be (not might) a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
I’ve got his ministry all planned out for him and he hasn’t even been converted yet. I know where he’s going. I know who he’ll talk to. I know who he’ll save. I know who he’ll reach.
Jesus had chosen Paul long before Paul chose Jesus, and since he is chosen by Jesus, Jesus doesn’t speak as though Paul might not go along with it. He will. So Jesus speaks of the great ministry Paul is going to have.
He doesn’t speak of what might come true. “Oh, if Paul doesn’t respond properly. Oh, what will he do? I hope he responds.”
Jesus is in charge here. This man is coming in because Jesus wants him in.
It is clear that this conversion is a work of divine, sovereign grace.
Not only was he suddenly and sovereignly converted…
He Was Sent
V17, When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him (Jesus, the Righteous One from v14).
While we might think how convenient, he had a vision. Yeah, pull the other one!
Rather than it writing him off, it actually puts him in the same line as Peter who was in Cornelius’ house and had the vision of the sheets from heaven, or John in the book of Revelation, or Ezekiel or Isaiah.
There’s a similarity here isn’t there, between the call of Paul and the call of Isaiah in the temple?
Although Isaiah’s calling was to stay in Israel, Paul’s calling is to get out of there.
V18, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’
V21, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’
That is exactly what Paul had done. He had gone out as Jesus’ witness as the apostle to the Gentiles.
No, Paul hadn’t been numbered among the original Twelve, but he had the most important credential he could have – a direct and immediate call by Jesus. In this, we can have great confidence.
Now Paul’s testimony here won few converts, if any. Nevertheless, the testimony of Paul reaches every corner of the world today, because Jesus chose him to be the one to speak his word and write his word as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
The question for us today, as I finish up, is…
Do you listen to and love Paul?
God has chosen him to be THE apostle to the Gentiles, to people like us. So we don’t get to pick and choose.
Paul isn’t Jesu, but if we do not accept him, and do not line what we say up with what he says, then we are rejecting Jesus. His message is that important!
You won’t buy the line that you can have Jesus but reject Paul, or any other of his apostles, will you? God calls on us to listen to Paul, and love him as the gift of Jesus to us.
R.C. Sproul: “Never before has the church needed more desperately to listen again to this Apostle, because the only theology that’s worth having is the theology of Paul.”
Thank you for this witness of your servant who pointed beyond himself to the Righteous One, the Holy One, who is our Messiah and our Redeemer. May we listen to him and love him as the gift of Jesus to us. Not for his sake, but for the sake of the glory of the Lord Jesus.
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