The Conversion of Paul

Original URL | Wednesday, May 18, 2022


good to be with everyone this evening uh thank you for the invitation to give this class

a couple things have happened recently one which you'll know about the other probably not uh the first is we've we've recently finished our daily readings in the book of acts

the book of acts begins with the work of the twelve and ends with the work of paul

so that's the first things happened recently

the second one is i've recently retired from a career as a statistician and i i mentioned the second of these as an excuse for the graphic i want to use to start class tonight maybe i'm missing my work a bit and feel compelled to have a little bit of statistical analysis

so the graph that you might see on your screen is a frequency table of the uh ref frequent the number of times the name saul or paul occurs

that's good okay now yeah about that

so here's here's the graphic that i wanted to

show you so i've got along the horizontal axis is the chapter number in x

and the vertical axis the height is the number of times either the name saul or the name paul occurs in each of the chapters i've got solid red and paul and black so you'll several things pop out from this first of all that

the apostle paul is not mentioned in the first six chapters of the book and then he's mentioned in chapters

6 through 13 especially chapter 9 that we've just read part of

under the name of saul and then his name is changed to paul and pretty much the rest of the time he's referred to as paul rather than saul

and the the few uh little incidences in chapter 22 and 26 there are when paul is telling the story of his conversion

and he's he's quoting the lord jesus who calls him by the name of saul um

so all right i've had my statistics fixed for the night


now it's it's it's no understatement to say that the conversion of paul which is chapter nine here the great big high up reds fight there that this is one of the most important events in human history

and i say that because of the profound influence paul would have in spreading the gospel

this was the initiation of a huge change

from saul the pharisee to paul the apostle

and so as as we consider this momentous event tonight

the things that i want to emphasize are the love of christ and paul's response to it

paul had to learn

that jesus was alive

he thought he was dead

not only was he alive but that he's aware

and that he is active in the life of the believer and that he cares about his body

so we want to be stirred up to think of our lord as he is presented in acts

and so that's the first thing the second thing is i want to talk about how the grace of god impels us to a life of grace now explain what i mean as we go on

now to really appreciate the conversion of paul we need to go back to chapter six and seven

to the murder of stephen

the first man to die for the faith of christ

we recall stephen's defense

was accused of blasphemy for preaching about jesus

and he was taken before what most of our bible versions call the council

known as the sanhedrin in fact sanhedrin is is actually a greek word uh that means the assembly the the the council

it was the jewish council of elders allowed by roman law to oversee matters of personal and religious conduct and it was modeled after the system suggested to moses by his father-in-law jess jethro

who had ins who suggested it to spare him you know the impossible task of governing that whole people

it was the sanhedrin which condemned jesus and which sent him to pilate

acts chapter 4 tells us of peter and john before the council arrested because of the stir caused by the healing of the lame man i remember the lame man who'd lane for so many years

at the gate


peter and john say silver and gold have we none but such as we give you such as we have we give you in the name of jesus arise and what and they're arrested they're put in jail

they're miraculously released by an angel and they go right back to preaching in the temple and they were arrested again and beaten

now in chapters six and seven of acts it was stephen who appeared before the council

now stephen

is described in chapter six verse five and by the way it'd be good for you to have your bibles open to these early chapters of acts

as we uh consider the conversion of saul

stevens described in chapter 6 verse 5 as a man full of faith

and of the holy spirit

in chapter 6 verse 8 he is described as a man full of grace and power

he was such an extraordinary preacher

that it says in chapter 6 10 his opponents could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke

so in chapter 6 verse 12 they seized him and brought him before the sanhedrin

and here's their accusation of him

they said this man never ceases to speak words against this holy place

meaning the temple

and the law

for we have heard him say that this jesus of nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs which moses delivered to us you notice it's the exact same crazy false accusation that they had made against jesus himself

so we're probably familiar it's a it's a wonderful episode of acts chapter 7 that records the powerful powerful speech stephen made in defense of the faith

it's interesting that at the beginning of it in chapter 6 verse 15 it says that all who sat in the council and that's the greek word for sanhedrin the whole sanhedrin saw that his face was like the face of an angel

now it's possible that when it says his face looked like the face of an angel that yeah it doesn't mean anything more than that you know he was sincere

he had a certain gravity about him he was fearless he had confidence in god

but it's possible too to think that there was some manifestation of divine glory

like when jesus was transfigured or when moses came down from the mount

so there stephen is before this august council

stephen begins with an appeal

recounting jewish history and showing how the nation had resisted god and his messengers

and he'd been accused of speaking evil the temple so he concluded by by recording from isaiah chapter 66 now i'm gonna put it up on the screen isaiah chapter 66 verse one and two but what i'd like you to do is as we read this i'd like you to follow along in in acts chapter

7 verses 49 to 51. so acts chapter 7 verses 49 and 51 that's where stephen is speaking and isaiah 66 is what he's quoting

what i want you to notice is where he left the script

here's isaiah 66 verses 1 until

thus says the lord

heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool what is the house which you would build for me what is the place of my rest you know to the jews this temple was so important

but god says all these things my hand is made and all so all these things are mine says the lord

but this is the man to whom i will look he that is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word did you see where he left the script you know if they were familiar with isaiah's words which i guess they probably would have been they expected to hear him say this is the man to whom i will look he that's humble and contrite in spirit and troubles it by word

but instead stephen said you stiffnecked people

uncircumcised in heart and ears you always resist the holy spirit

the council was enraged

chapter 7 verse 54 they ground their teeth

they were so angry

and right at this moment

stephen was blessed with a vision of heaven opened

the glory of god

and jesus standing

at the right hand of god

psalm 110 is i believe the most quoted old testament passage or at least the most alluded to because in the new testament because of the frequent references to jesus seated at the right hand of god but on this occasion

stephen sees

the lord jesus standing at the right hand of god

it's as though

the lord at this moment stands up

out of respect and love for stephen

the council and witnesses

turned into a riotous mob

they were yelling and carrying on

thrusting stephen out of the city

and ultimately stoning him to death

and it's here that we're first introduced to paul in acts chapter 7 verse 58. it says that the crowd stoning stephen

laid down their clothes at a young man's feet

whose name was saul

there's a question about your courteous you know from all that we learn about saul later on

his his his incredible hatred

of the christians

he makes it he makes it clear in his later writings

and then his speeches is that i mentioned earlier in later parts of acts how much he hated them

so the question occurs well why wasn't saul in there throwing stones like the rest of them

why did he stand aside taking care of the outer garments

the executioners had discarded

in order to perform their grizzly task

the best explanation seems to be that paul's role was consistent with that of a representative of the sanhedrin

the sanhedrin

according their interpretation of the law in deuteronomy 17 passed judgment but the penalty was imposed by the witnesses who brought the accusation

brother harry whitaker argues this convincingly in his wonderful little book studies in the acts of the apostles

it's sometimes argued that paul was a member of the sanhedrin

personally i'm not sure that we be entirely confident that um

there's a passage later on in acts where he says he gave his vote with them and and

that's that's the that's the basis i think of of this idea that paul was a member of the sanhedrin

i'm not i'm not sure that we can say all that much

but we do know that paul had a close relationship with a member of the sanhedrin a man named gamaliel

gamaliel is mentioned in acts chapter 5 verse 34. he's described as a pharisee who was on the council meaning the sanhedrin

and it says there in acts chapter 5 34 that he was a teacher of the law

held in honor by all the people

he was a very important man

interestingly uh the the uh

jameson faucet and brown the commentary on acts 5 uh verse 34. this passage in particular has this observation it says in all probability one of that name gamaliel celebrated in the jewish writings for his wisdom the son of simeon possibly the same who took the infant savior in his arms and grandson of hillel who we may have heard of as a celebrated rabbi

so gamaliel was on the council he was on the sanhedrin

and years later

when paul is recounting these events and he's addressing a jewish mob that had taken him for a foreigner he says this in chapter 22 verses three to five he says i am a jew born at tarsus insilicia but brought up in this city at the feet of gamaliel

educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers being zealous for god as you all are this day i persecuted this way to the death binding and delivering to prison both men and women as the high priest and the whole council of elders the sanhedrin bear me witness

so paul had a connection to the sanhedrin and it seems likely therefore that when he is standing there witnessing the execution but not actively taking part

he's there as a representative

watching approvingly

as the life

was battered out of stephen

think about what happened

acts 7 verses 59 to 60 say this

as they were stoning stephen

he prayed lord jesus receive my spirit

and he knelt down and cried with a loud voice


do not hold this sin against him

when he'd said this he fell asleep

some of y'all

may remember brother wally scott it's been a number of years since he fell asleep but when i used to live in springfield years ago i loved wally a lot great brother and i remember a point a comment he made about this episode

he said that in james chapter 5 verse 16 which is a passage about sin and prayer

the james says pray for one another that you may be healed

the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects that's the new king james version the prayer of a righteous man has great power and its effects i love the king james version though king j version just it just sticks with you know the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much


heard stephen's prayer

and i think paul did too

do you think maybe that effective fervent prayer

availed much

i think so

though the effect was not immediate

what we read in the immediate aftermath of stephen's murder in chapter 8 verse 3 is that paul made havoc of the church

the vice version says he laid waste the church

the revised standard version says he was ravaging it

he's described

by luke as having dragged men and women off to prison

the words in chapter 8 describing paul saul at this point describe truly vicious violent behavior

chapter 9 begins with him quote breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the lord

you know it's interesting king james said breathing breathing in like as if but it's like he's he's breathing it he's just in a he's in a cloud of it he's breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the lord

and we're not given the details

but paul at least we're not giving them here

but paul himself supplies them on later occasions

for instance in acts 22 verses 19 and 20. and this is the episode where jesus where

paul has been confronted

by a jewish mob

who are convinced that he's you know foreign


as he's recounting to them his vision of jesus

he said and i said lord they themselves know that in every synagogue i imprisoned and beat those who believed in me

and when when the blood of stephen thy witness was shed i also was standing by and approving

and keeping the garments of those who killed him

later on chapter 26 when paul stands before agrippa

he says i myself was convinced that i ought to do many things in opposing the name of jesus of nazareth and i did so in jerusalem i not only shut up many of the saints in prison by authority from the chief priests but when they were put to death i cast my vote against them

and i punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme

an enraging fury against them i persecuted them even to foreign cities

and it's not only in these two speeches in acts but also in three of his letter

letters paul writes with great regrets

about his early life as a persecutor of the ecclesia

i imagine that most of us have things that we look back on in our lives

where we say if only we hadn't done that that's just a stain it's a blot it's something i know that god forgives but boy i wish i hadn't done that

and that's paul's but can you imagine what he what he had on his conscience after all those years

saul did these things

in acts chapter 8 and 9 with the memory of stephen's death

and of his dying words on his mind

i should probably leave the psychology psychologizing to others

but i can't help but wonder whether the stirrings of conscience were at work

he couldn't rid himself of the memory of that fervent effectual prayer of a righteous man

but when we come to acts chapter 9 verse 1 saul is still breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the lord as i mentioned king james version says breathing out but it's not that it's it's just breathing them it's the whole atmosphere which paul's living is filled with such malice

as to seek permission from the sanhedrin to persecute believers as far away as damascus

paul had had

in his persecution of the ecclesia in jerusalem had had an inadvertent role in spreading the gospel

because a lot of the believers fled the city and had gone throughout judea and samaria

and damascus somewhat further to the north was a city with a large jewish population and saul was intent

on preventing the further spread of st of preaching like stephen's

so saul goes to the high priest seeking the authority of the sanhedrin in his effort to thwart the spread of what's called in chapter 9 verse 2 the way

so armed with letters of authority he makes his way to damascus

suddenly there's a great flash of light

paul's later accounts in the event in chapter 22 and 26 say that it happened at midday

at noon time

and that the light was brighter than the sun

some versions say that the light flashed like light in fact it's almost the same word

as jesus uses in luke 17 when he says as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other so will the son of man be in his day

or perhaps more relevantly it's the same word as is used in luke 24 verse 4 of the shining or dazzling garments of the angels at the tomb

there are three accounts of this event in acts here in chapter 9 and as i mentioned in chapter 22 years later when he's confronting a mob at the temple in chapter 26 when he appears before agrippa

when we piece together the accounts

we see that the brilliant light struck saul and all of his companions to the ground

his companions scrambled back to their feet but saul remained on the ground

all heard a sound perhaps perhaps like thunder

but only saul perceived a voice

the voice said



why are you persecuting me

ananias barnabas and paul himself all later said that he saw

as well as her jesus

so lying there on the ground

his eyes closed against the intense light he had a vision of jesus

they said who are you lord

and jesus responded

i am jesus

whom you are persecuting

one of our one of our hymns that maybe it's not the best best known him but it's a nice old hymn it's been

our handbooks for years and years

it describes the resurrection of jesus saying this i won't sing it i'll i'm tempted by one

all the toil and sorrow done

hallelujah all the battle fought and won hallelujah

now i guess we know what it means when it says all the toilets are done but it's not quite right for us to forget that jesus is the head of the body and that if one member suffers one part of the body suffers that all do

there's something absolutely profound about jesus words i am jesus

whom you are persecuting

think of what became evident to paul at this moment

he thought jesus was dead

but jesus

was alive

jesus was not only alive but he was aware

and he was active

not only that


is not dispassionately disconnected from our troubles

we're all familiar with the lovely words of hebrews it says we don't have a high priest who can't be touched with a feeling of our infirmities

you know our high priest isn't like that

why the priest high priest understands

and so we can come boldly to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need

we recall stephen's vision

of jesus standing at the right hand of god

as the mob engulfed him

so much that paul learned in that moment

here's something interesting

uh acts chapter 9 verse 5 has one of these unfortunate variations on the new testament text so if you're reading the king james version of the new king james you'll read that jesus said i am jesus whom you're persecuting it's hard for you to kick against the pricks or the goads

now if you're reading the esv or one of the other modern versions you'll see that this part about kicking against the gods is omitted

this is the unfortunate result of modern versions basic translations on alternative old greek texts some of which i believe to be of quite lower quality but the neat thing is that when paul recounts the same episode in acts 26 14 it doesn't matter which version you're using the bit about the kicking against the goads is included so it's a genuine uh expression of things

but what does it mean

so the term refers to an instrument used to direct harnessed animals

a thorn-like projection whether in the hand of the driver were attached to the plowing mechanism itself that would keep the animal going in the direction they were supposed to be going

so in other words the ox wants to stir away off to the left so this is the left

stir away off the left he gets pricked on this side and he straightens out right or if he wants to go off to the right it's a little prick on that side it's straightened out

you know it reminds you of the power of jesus about looking back while you're plowing you're not going to make a great referral you're no good for for a plowman

what jesus was saying

was that god was already directing saul

and the soul was resisting

it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to imagine that saul's memory of stephen stoning

were troubling his conscience

that his furious persecution

was his way of resisting that conscience

so when jesus said it's hard for you to kick against the goats

he was showing saul that he knew what was going on in saul's mind

and telling him to stop resisting

you know the the conversion of paul was extraordinary and it's in its suddenness

there's a saying we hear sometimes of somebody having a damascus road move

when their eyes are suddenly opened their understanding suddenly changed and clarified

their whole course of life redirected

certainly that was what happened to

paul we might kind of wish it was that straightforward in our own lives that all of a sudden all of our doubts and weaknesses could be swept away

that we can actually hear the voice

literally of jesus

and have the course of our life changed

for most of us i suspect the example of peter is closer to our existing our experience

peter you remember peter had worked diligently with jesus over the three years of his ministry and with great enthusiasm

but he still had a conversion to come

so that jesus could say to him in luke chapter 22 verse 32 when you have been converted

strengthen your brothers


when you've been converted

for most of us our conversion is an ongoing process

i suspect it was for paul too

there was an immediate conviction that but much that had to be thought through much to change

in fact paul took years where we pieced together the chronology of paul's life uh taking into account uh galatians

paul's record of things in galatian there was a matter of years that he was in arabia

where before his his his real ministry took place

but nonetheless

right away after jesus had appeared to him and he's left blind

his companions led him by the hand the rest of the way to damascus and he spent three days fasting

neither eating their drinking

and we can imagine in our thoughts

what changes took place to his understanding during those days

maybe we get a shadow of understanding what took place in his mind from reading uh from his later letter to the philippians chapter 3. i have a slide for it but you know what i think i'm going to do i think i'm going to bring it up here on the screen

so that we can have a look at it together philippians chapter 3. and then part i want us to pay attention to is beginning to chapter 3 verse 4 and goes to verse 14. paul says you know i might

have confidence is this big enough for everybody maybe i make a little bigger i think i can do it let's see

look at that huh

wonders of computer technology

is that big enough

excellent okay verse 4 paul says i might have confidence in the flesh flesh verse 4 if anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh

i'm more so

now just before we read on

if we were to talk about what's it mean to have confidence in the flesh

like what might we think of

we might think of a big fat bank account nice 401ks

we might think of a nice house

we might think of physical strengths and vigor we might think of good smarts

all these kinds of things good looks all all the thing that's that's probably what we would

we would think about when we were talking about confidence in flesh let's look at what paul says if anyone else thinks he may have confidence in flesh i more so

circumcised the eighth day

of the stock of israel of the tribe of benjamin a hebrew of the hebrews concerning the law of pharisee concerning zeal persecuting the ecclesia concerning the righteousness which is in the law blameless

so he was circumcised he was of the stock of israel's tribe of benjamin he was one of those apostate northern tribes he was a hebrew of the hebrews in other words they spoke hebrew in the house he understood the language you want to know about the law he was a pharisee

was he passive no no he was zealous you could see it his persecution of the ecclesia

as far as anything law said

nobody could accuse him he was blameless

these are the things that paul calls confidence in the flesh

isn't that striking

like it's all the outward trappings of

religiosity it's all the things that everybody else looks at and says oh yeah that paul he's pretty religious this guy

paul calls that confidence in the flesh

that's a pretty sobering thing because you know it it's

a very clear message of the scripture beginning to end the gods looks

he doesn't want us going through the motions he wants a genuine

service to him

that is in the inner man

so paul says in philippians 3 verse 7 what things are gained to me

these i have counted loss for christ

verse 8 yet indeed i also count all things loss

for the excellency of the knowledge of christ jesus my lord for whom i have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish that i may gain christ and be found in him not having my own righteousness which is from the law but that which is through faith in christ the righteousness which is from god by faith and we hear an echo there of romans chapter 4 where it talks about imputed righteousness that if we have faith

that god counts that as righteousness and so paul says his desire is to know jesus

and the power of his resurrection the fellowship of his sufferings being conformed to his death if by any means i may attain to the resurrection from the dead

now i used to always think that if paul was saying gee i hope i make it to the resurrection

um i don't think that's what this is about

what he's saying is he this is romans 6 going on here you know romans 6 is where we talk about baptism as being a burial with christ and we're buried with him so that we can raise be raised to a new life

and paul's saying i want to be raised to that new life

and he says in verse 12 not that i've already attained or i'm already perfected but i press on that i may lay hold of that for which christ jesus has faith hold of faith brethren i kept do not count myself to have apprehended but one thing i do

forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead i press toward the goal

for the prize of the upward calling of god in christ jesus

what a profound change

took place in changing soul the pharisee

into paul the apostle

acts chapter 9 tells us in verse 18 to 22 that immediately after ananias restored his sight paul was baptized

and he shared fellowship with the believers he'd come to persecute and went into the synagogue for proclaiming jesus can you imagine what a stir that made in fact chapter 9 verse 21 says all who heard him were amazed

twenty years later

when paul wrote his first letter to the ecclesia in corinth

reminding them of his preaching to them and mentioning the pivotal occasion of his conversion and its consequences

he mentions these things in first corinthians chapter 15. it's the it's the resurrection chapter

and i'm going to read um verses four to ten first corinthians 15. i've got a couple of these verses up on the screen here for you

first corinthians 15 verse four

for i delivered to you as of first importance what i also received that christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures that he was buried that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures

and that he appeared to cephas peter then to the 12th

then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time most of whom are still alive paul's arguing that the resurrection is a fact and you know

you can talk to peter you can talk to the 12 there's 500 other people most of them still alive

verse 7 then he appeared to james then to all the apostles

last of all as to one untimely born he appeared also to me

for i am the least of the apostles unfit to be called an apostle

because i persecuted the ecclesia of god

but by the grace of god i am what i am

and his grace toward me was not in vain

on the contrary i worked harder than any of them

though it was not i but the grace of god which is with me

so saul the pharisee became paul the apostle

and he was blessed with the appearance of the risen lord jesus to him

i want us to take note here of verse 10 first corinthians 15. paul says by the grace of god

i am what i am

these are the kinds of words that you know people say them kind of

almost flippantly maybe but when you think about paul goodness by the grace of god i am what i am

paul gave all the credit to god for his conversion

but notice what he says next

his grace toward me was not in vain

on the contrary i worked harder than any of them meaning the apostles

see paul was not of the mind that god's grace means our works don't matter

like some folks think or that we might even be inclined

to think sometimes ourselves

in ephesians chapter 2 verse 10 paul presents the same balance he says we are his workmanship

created in christ jesus for good works

see so it's god's work we're his workmanship

but we're created for a purpose and and we don't want his grace to be in vain

right paul says by the his grace toward me was not in vain

it's created for good works

that's why in romans chapter 2 paul says that to those who by patient continuance and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality god will give eternal life but there's a seeking there's a response

to god's grace

this damascus road experience was not the end of the story for paul it's just the beginning

there's something else to note

every one of paul's epistles check check me out on this later on if you get a chance every one of his epistles starts with the phrase or something like it may the grace of god be to you

and everyone ends with

may the grace of god be with you

it surely can't be a coincidence i'm there i ain't going to be a statistician again the two must mean something different

and notably the same thing happens here in first

verse 10. first of all god's grace was toward paul

in his conversion and then later on it was with him throughout his life

so i believe that in his letters paul is starting out by seeking god's blessing of favor

and that he always ends seeking that such favor abide with us the first i suggest has to do with god's initiative and the second with its consequence in gracious living

it's remarkable that in uh the um

the gospel of luke the same pattern is evidenced in the youth of jesus first we read that he that the favor of god was upon him and then 12 verses later that jesus increased in wisdom and stature and favor with god in man or grace with god and man

so my point is

god's grace

provides the initiative but then we must respond what an example we have from the apostle paul

so as we consider the conversion of paul it's a good time for us to contemplate our own conversion

our own growing awareness

of christ as alive and aware

and active

and full of love and compassion as the head of the body when one one member suffers he suffers with

jesus is alive

he ever lives

to make intercession for us

we can have confidence when we come to the throne of grace to find help in time of need because we know that he's a compassionate high priest why won't we avail ourselves of that

would we act as though

jesus isn't aware

and the other thing is like paul

we give all credit to god for his abundant grace toward us it is his that is the saving initiative

and we committed ourselves

to giving our best in service

so that's it

that's uh

the conversion of i guess soul not paul sol tupole