Chambersburg, PA
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

“The God Who Saves His Enemies” Sermon Text

The God who Saves His Enemies

Acts 9:1-20

This is the famous account of the conversion of Saul – from enemy of Christ to believer in Christ and servant of Christ.

Like many in that day, Saul had two names – he is the same person that we better know as Paul.

Saul was his Hebrew name; Paul was his Greek name

he always had both names – his name was not changed from Saul to Paul at his conversion; but it does seems that he is predominantly referred to as Saul before and shortly after his conversion; and then predominantly referred to as Paul afterward, beginning around his first missionary journey in Acts.

and I would guess the reason for that change, was not so much his conversion, so much as it was his call to be “Apostle to the Gentiles” – this would make sense of his switching to primarily using his Greek name; but it’s become sort of short-hand to refer to him in his pre-conversion days as Saul and in his post-conversion days as Paul.

So I’ll probably follow that conventional usage: Saul, persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, believer in Christ and servant of Christ.

Certainly a surprising turn in the book of Acts.

This story is, in one word – if I had to pick one word to describe this account of the conversion of Saul – that word would be: Surprising.

If I and I bet if you had never heard the story of Christianity & the early church before – and we got to this part for the first time, with fresh ears – this would shocking – it would be like if those first people who saw “The Empire Strikes Back” and learned the shocking truth of Darth Vader’s identity –

And I bet if you or I were writing the history of the early Church we would never write it in this direction – but God, the author of all history and the history of his Church – God can surprise us. And often God’s way of working – the instruments he chooses to accomplish his will – shocks us because we’d never see it coming.

4 surprising things:

1) Saul discovers a surprising truth

2) Saul discovers surprising grace

3) Saul experiences a surprising change

4) Saul receives a surprising welcome

1) Saul discovers a surprising truth:

These words, the words of v 4 & 5, stayed with Saul the rest of his life –

(4) “Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute me?”

And, then when he doesn’t recognize the speaker and asks who it is:

(5) “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”

These words stayed with him the rest of his life because these words literally flipped his world upside-down – showed him the wrongness of his convictions, and the sinfulness of his religious zeal;

these words showed him that everything he thought about Jesus – and God himself! – was wrong; and all his energy and dedication to opposing him – actually made him the enemy of the very God he thought he loved and served.

These words, turned on the lights – literally – for Saul; and though he thought he had seen the truth so clearly – that he was in fact blind to it; a reality that he had time to think about as this vision of Christ left him blind.

And all the while he thought he was zealous for God – he comes to the realization that he was against God – he thought he was the good guy; but all of a sudden sees that he’s the bad guy.

Paul’s whole world – his whole reality – is flipped upside down and he is staggering – and his 3 days of blindness no doubt helps him to realize that he needs a whole new way of seeing Truth; a whole new way of seeing himself; a whole new way of seeing Jesus.

He thought that these followers of Jesus were blasphemers – but these words taught him that he was the blasphemer; he thought that these believers in Jesus were opposing God – but these words taught him that he was opposing God – because he was opposing God’s glorified Messiah.

He discovers the surprising truth that the one he thought was dead and cursed by God – was in fact alive, and exalted by God.

Dt 21:23 in part is what led him to believe that Jesus was cursed by God – “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree/pole”.

Not only did Jesus die; but he died a shameful death that signified God’s curse – and so, how could he be God’s chosen anointed one?

But later he came to understand (Gal 3:13) that Jesus was cursed only because he took our curse upon himself – to deliver us from sin:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”.

and this shifted Paul’s whole religious paradigm – such that now, all that he once thought gain, now he counted as loss. All that he once prized – all his supposed religiousness and righteousness he now considered garbage – wanting to gain only Christ and the righteousness found in him.

He was opposing Jesus; and you can’t oppose Jesus without at the same time opposing God – because Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God – Jesus is the one God has honored and exalted; Jesus is the one God pre-eminently loves – the one who is God – the only way to God;

and so loving him means loving God – and opposing him means opposing God

And later Saul would marvel that Grace was shown to him because he, as he described, he was “once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” – yet he was shown mercy – the grace of the Lord was poured out abundantly upon him.

That is the surprising Truth that Saul discovers.

But there’s more – another surprising truth that stays with Paul the rest of his life – and forms the basis for one of Paul’s distinctive theological emphasis – and that is this:

And you might expect Saul – if he could have the courage – or foolishness – to argue with the Lord at this point, might say, “Well, sure I don’t like you very much, but technically speaking, Jesus, I’m not persecuting you.”

“I’m persecuting your followers”:

v1 – “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples

v2 – if he found an there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners

But Jesus’ words emphasize that in persecuting his people, Saul was persecuting him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And when Saul asks who this is – “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

He is opposing the true people of God – the church.

And in opposing the Church; he is opposing Jesus himself. In persecuting the church, he is persecuting Jesus himself.

Think about what encouragement this would be to the Church – and I don’t just mean that the persecuting agent – Saul himself – has been dealt with – although that would be a welcome development I’m sure – 

And, Saul’s conversion led to a reprieve in persecution, but of course it didn’t lead to the end of persecution for the Church.

But, these words of Jesus give tremendous encouragement to Christians who experience persecution for their faith in Jesus – because they are words of solidarity.

That, he stands in such complete solidarity with his persecuted people that when they are attack, he takes it personally – he considers it an assault upon himself.

Because by faith – he is in us, and we are in him. (“Union with christ” “In Christ”)

With all the news of all the terrible things people do to one another, these things are sad to hear and of course we ought to be sad and grieve these things.

And, I am saddened when I hear it happening to people in general, but I don’t take it personally. I don’t know them, I don’t consider it an attack against myself.

But, if it were my own family – my daughter, my son, my wife; then I wouldn’t just be sad about it; but I would take it personally.

And I would stand by them and stand with them in a way that I wouldn’t if it were any other person – not because i don’t care about someone else but because I don’t know them, I’m not connected with them.

Jesus doesn’t just care; isn’t just saddened, when his children are persecuted and harmed and attacked for their faith in him; but he takes it personally, and stands with them and stands by them in the more personal way – because you aren’t just “some person” to him – but his; (Hebrews 2) “he is not ashamed to call us brother and sister – because we are of the same family”; by virtue of his death and resurrection and our faith in him we are connected to him in the most personal way.

Aren’t these beautiful words? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus says.

When you suffer persecution for Jesus’ sake, you don’t go through it alone and it doesn’t go unnoticed. He stands with you, he deals with those who bring his children harm, and he rewards you who stand faithfully for him even when standing faithfully for him is very costly.

1) Saul discovers a surprising truth

2) Saul discovers surprising grace

If there was anyone who deserved God’s wrath; if there was anyone who didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness; it was Saul.

But later Paul writes that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life”.

Paul being shown mercy, he says, is an example, that God has immense patience and abundant mercy and amazing grace for sinners.

Remember: Saul stood by and watched in approval as Stephen – a holy man of God – was stoned to death. Saul made it his personal mission to wipe out those who believed in Jesus.

There is no one more seemingly disqualified from the mercy of God; there is no one further away and farther gone from receiving the mercy of God.

But that’s just the point of mercy, right?

And what that does is give us hope for ourselves; and hope for others.

There might be times when we look at ourselves, and we think that there is no hope for us; that we are too far gone, too sinful, too lost, too damaged, too guilty;

Or we might look at others who God desires to show mercy and we might write them off, thinking, they could never come to Christ; they would never believe in the gospel;

and at those times we look at Saul and remember:

that even the hardest heart can be softened by the gospel

that there is no one who is too far gone for the reach of God; there is no one too lost for the power of God; there is no one who is too sinful for the grace of God; there is no one who is too guilty for the forgiveness of God.

Sauls conversion 1) unique 2) common

Unique – unique to his special calling as an Apostle, and so we shouldn’t expect all the particulars to be an example to us, to be repeated in our situation.

Can’t press details of Paul’s conversion as required universal experience.

And If you remember way back to chapter 1, I made the case that Acts was teaching there were 12 and only 12 apostles; And at that time I didn’t deal with the problem of Paul – that he was really the 13th apostle – one “abnormally born” as he called himself – and the 12 apostles were primarily entrusted to Jewish people – representing the 12 tribes of Judaism; but Paul was given a special commission beyond that – the “apostle to the Gentiles.”

And, so, just as the Apostles were all witnesses of the resurrected Christ – Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus is part of his unique call as an Apostle — we shouldn’t expect to have a similar extraordinary experience of seeing a vision & hearing an audible voice of Jesus.

And, Paul himself would later write that the normal way for conversion to happen would be through the normal preaching of the gospel – Romans 10

Unique; but also Common

Everybody has a different story. Some people have an “exciting” testimony: I was on the “highway to hell” and then I found Jesus!

Some people have a “boring” testimony: “I grew up in church and always knew the love of God and the salvation of Jesus.”

But, neither of those is valid or invalid; authentic or inauthentic; more illustrative of God’s grace or less illustrative; exciting or boring;

but they are simply different. And both demonstrate the radical grace of God because no matter the external or experiential differences going on, the internal spiritual reality is the same.

And at some point in everyone believer’s life comes a point of conversion.

That conversion might feel differently in the experience of it – it might feel like a one-moment radical event; or it may feel like a long process that is the fruit of many different events;

But it isn’t merely a psychological experience – it involves a spiritual reality that is common to all:

in which we are made new in Christ – we are turned from darkness to light; blindness to sight; lostness to being found; guilty and condemned in sin to righteous and accepted in Christ; spiritually dead and in bondage to sin, to being alive and set free in Christ – new creatures.

where we go from being enemies of God to being made the children of God.

And, what’s common to all of us in conversion – that we see exemplified most drastically and dramatically in Saul, is that, even if we weren’t persecutors of Jesus and his church as Saul was; we were enemies of God as he was.

Saul’s conversion is an example of every conversion – because in every conversion, an enemy is conquered and subdued.

Calvin: “Our will was not one hair readier to by than Paul’s” – before God’s grace came into our lives.

“In Paul, we have a universal picture of that grace which the Lord shows forth daily in calling us all. All men do not set themselves so violently against the gospel; yet nevertheless, both pride and rebellion against God are present in all… Therefore, in that we are turned to God, that can only come to pass by the wonderful and secret power of God…” By grace alone, “the Lord sought us of his own accord, when we wandered and went astray; and he changed the stubborn affections of our hearts,” when our hearts were set against him.

Romans 5:6-10:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

It’s inconceivable that Paul wrote these words without thinking of and being inspired by his own story; but what they remind us is that in this way Paul was not at all unique –

He shows us a glimpse into all of our hearts before our conversion – we were God’s enemies.

And, we may not have felt that; we may not have been aware of it – remember Saul wasn’t either – he thought he was fighting for God!

And later, Paul would write about his conversion in Phil 3 and how his opposition came not only by persecuting the church, but also by thinking he could earn righteousness by his good religious works;

Whether you were opposing God speeding down the highway to hell, or whether you were opposing God by thinking you were climbing to heaven; either way – in our hearts, we raged against God as his bitter enemies – wanting to go our own way and be our own gods.

And, there was no inclination in us; nor was there any ability in us; to subdue or conquer that hatred –

Even if we could see it, we weren’t able to stop hating & opposing God; and even if we were able, we didn’t want to stop hating & opposing God.

We would have opposed him all the way to hell; had he not intervened.

And, thank God, he did. If you know God, it’s because he came to you in grace. He came to you and won over your heart of hatred with his heart of love.

He came for you; he sought after you; he won you to himself.

We love him, only because he first loved us.

He made us his children – children born not by human decision or effort, but born of God.

Turned from enemy into friend; welcomed into the family as his children; and one another’s brothers and sisters.

1) Saul discovers a surprising truth

2) Saul discovers surprising grace

3) Saul experiences a surprising change

Paul’s life, as a result of encounter Jesus – was never the same.

This grace, gripped him. This encounter with Jesus, changed him.

And, that should be true of all who encounter the grace of Jesus Christ.

Previously, he was dead-set against Jesus; after this experience, he was sold-out for Jesus.

And, that change is glimpsed in this passage – in the beginning of this passage – he is a picture of pride, arrogance, and anger. But by the end of the passage, he is pictured as humble.

The grace of God humbled him (3 things show his humility):

he’s blind, helpless – v8 – led by the hand into Damascus – quite a different picture from how he was initially heading into Damascus;

he’s also is fasting – v9 – for 3 days he doesn’t eat or drink. fasting – a sign of repentance over sin and a desire to be sensitive towards seeking the will of God – that which he was previously confident he knew, now he is seeking afresh.

and he’s praying – v11. This doesn’t mean that Saul didn’t pray previously but it is the first mention of Saul’s inner spiritual life – quite a contrast to him breathing out threats and murder against God’s people – now breathing out

nothing we do earn’s God’s love or grace; but the love and grace of God coming into our lives, changes us. “We love, because he first loved us.”

In this passage, we see only the first glimpse of Paul’s personal transformation; and in the rest of scripture we see just how radical it was.

Paul became the pre-eminent preacher and defender of free grace in the New Testament. And the reason was, because of his deep and abiding awareness that he was a recipient of free grace.

That’s why he could call himself “the chief of sinners, but who was shown mercy.”

He knew that he was a recipient of pure, free, unearned, undeserved, grace.

And that’s why his life was so transformed, so captivated by Christ – because he knew and was gripped by Christ’s gracious love.

He knew God’s gracious acceptance of sinners, who are then graciously transformed into the likeness of Christ.

“In the NT, religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude.” Sums up the outline of most of the letters of Paul in the NT: the first half shows that religion is grace; the second have shows that ethics is gratitude.

“Paul certainly knew the love of Christ to be the all-compelling power in life. Where love is the compelling power, there is no sense of strain or conflict or bondage in doing what is right: the man or woman who is compelled by Jesus’ love and empowered by his Spirit does the will of God from the heart. For (as Paul could say from experience) “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there the heart is free.”

1) Saul discovers a surprising truth

2) Saul discovers surprising grace

3) Saul experiences a surprising change

4) Saul receives a surprising welcome

Ananias comes to Saul, and the first words out of his mouth – v17: he calls him “brother Saul”. Those have to be some of the most beautiful words in the bible. “Brother Saul.”

He who was previously public enemy #1, is now brother.

And Ananias is a little hesitant – um, hey God are you sure you want me to go to that guy? I’ve heard some thing about him, are you sure this isn’t some kind of trick or something? but he trusts God’s word that he has subdued this enemy and has a purpose for Saul in service to him and his people.

And Saul is welcomed into the family – though he had previously been the ring-leader of persecution against them, he becomes part of them.

Because God is in the business of rescuing his enemies, and making those who were once enemies, friends.

Because not only does the gospel teach us that God saved us when we were his enemies; but it enables us to love our enemies and welcome those who were previously enemies as fully-included members of the family.

When we have experienced being loved by God to whom we were enemies, we then get the opportunity to demonstrate that to others – loving all our enemies, but especially those who may have been opposed to the Christian faith but then come to faith – they are welcomed with open arms into the family of God – because the family of God is a family of grace.