From Zealous Opponent to Zealous Proponent

Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  40:18
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Intro: We’ve come to the place in Acts where Christ has just transformed the primary persecutor of the church into a zealous proponent of the gospel. Right after the episode of Saul’s conversion and commissioning (Acts 9:1-19), we get to observe what happens when Saul switches sides (9:19b-31). We observe a dramatic change in Saul, and how the Jews react to his bold gospel preaching, and the church in Jerusalem’s response to this turn of events, and the overall blessing to the church that God has changed Saul from zealous opponent to zealous proponent, from enemy to teammate.
Acts 9:19b–31 (ESV)
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
1. What happens when God changes a zealous persecutor (of Jesus) and makes him a bold proclaimer (of the gospel of Jesus)?
2. What happens when that former persecutor wants to join the disciples in Jerusalem (whom he previously terrorized)?
3. What is the overall beneficial impact on the Church since God turned the zealous opponent into a teammate?
Putting these pieces together, we see that the overall thrust is the blessing that results for the church and the advancement of the gospel because Christ changed Saul.
Lest we should think this is academic and not about our own relationship to God…. What difference should it make to us what happened to Saul after his conversion and commission?
Well, does it matter to you if your faith is genuine and the Spirit’s work is evident in your obedience? Should we care that persecution against us only confirms that we belong to Christ? Shouldn’t you be comforted that God will preserve his people in safety if it is not yet their time to go home to be with him? Doesn’t it matter that God has placed you in the body of Christ and given you teammates to include and encourage you? Doesn’t it matter for your comfort and courage and growth that Christ is spreading and building his church in times of peace or in persecution because he will be glorified… and you get to be a part of that?

What Dramatic Change Looks Like (vv. 19b-25)

When Saul committed his life to Christ, everything changed (his occupation & decisions, his message & movements… everything). If we have really been given spiritual life and turned from sin and self to faith in Jesus, shouldn’t there be change in our lives?
The change in Saul is dramatic, so dramatic that it’s hard for people to believe at first, and so dramatic that those who would have been his former comrades now want to kill him.
(19b) Damascus, being the chief city in Syria, evidently had a number of Jewish synagogues (see v. 2). Evidently, there were already some Jewish converts to following Christ in this city, such as Ananias, but there was still much work to be done. Saul’s previously misguided zeal has now been corrected and redirected by Christ, and so Saul wastes no time (without delay or hesitation; no intervening time) in heralding Jesus in the synagogues.
In particular, he is proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God (v. 20b). This terminology would become a mark of pauline theology, so we know that it carries the weight of two things in it:
1. The messianic fulfilment of a perfect and idealized future son who would be the consummate king for God’s people (Israel in the OT was called God’s son but proved to be a rebellious one; God preserved Israel for his own glory and purposes. The king of Israel could also be called God’s son, but in a limited way that always pointed forward to a better king and a better kingdom.)
2. The unique divinity of this Son, the one whom God sent as ultimate deliverer and whom he raised from the dead to prove his divine place and power. Paul would later make this theology abundantly clear in his letters—the divinity as well as the humanity of Jesus. Here as just a couple brief examples:
Romans 8:3 ESV
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
Galatians 4:4 ESV
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
You can also read in Romans 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20 as other clear examples that Paul believed Jesus to be God in the flesh, Messiah and Lord, who willingly gave his life to pay for sin and offer us forgiveness, and who rose from the grave and is exalted on high to conclusively prove his position and power and authority and ability to mediate a right relationship to God, himself both God and perfect man.
Their reaction is priceless (v. 21)... and understandable, really.
So even though the first reaction was amazement that this Saul was the same guy who had been persecuting Jesus followers, the seriousness of Saul’s turnabout settles in (v. 22). The text tells us that Saul is increasing in strength, and this isn’t from taking ‘roids and pumping iron. No, it’s abundantly clear that this new faith in Christ and gifting in the Spirit is growing exponentially in this man who was already full of scriptural knowledge, now discovering the true meaning with spiritual sight.
As I’ll explain more in just a minute, this isn’t all happening overnight, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit is now wielding Saul as he wields the word. The Jews in Damascus are bewildered, confounded by the strength of Saul’s argumentation and reasoning that Jesus is indeed the Christ.
I mean, no wonder, right? Saul undoubtedly has so much to grow before he can craft the doctrinal treatises under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we have recorded in God’s word. However, he’s already trained in the best Jewish education concerning Scripture and spiritual teaching, etc. And you get the idea he’s no intellectual slouch. Steer this zeal and learning in the right direction, and you have a potent weapon for Christ.
Some of us may wonder how our past training and experiences can be used for the cause of Christ, but we really ought to be praying and seeking opportunities to let God use our history for his own purposes. (examples?***)
Now when the author tells us in v. 23 of the negative reaction from the leadership in Damascus, he mentions also that many days passed. In Paul’s own references to this time period in his letters, namely Gal 1:11-24 and 2 Cor 11:32-33, we learn some additional details.
[map & same map closer] Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (#1 on this map). After his interaction with Ananias, and following these earliest days of proclamation we’ve been talking about, Galatians 1:17 tells us that at this point he spent some time in Arabia (#s 2 & 3), probably witnessing to others in the region concerning Christ. It seems that we now pick up there again back in Damascus, and that the Jewish leaders are plotting to kill him, and even the provincial governor is involved in this plot (“governor under King Aretas,” 2 Cor 11:32-33). This whole period from his conversion and before going to Jerusalem covers at least overlapping portions of three years (Gal 1:18), so this “many days” is longer than it might seem at first.
The reason Luke doesn’t give these additional details is almost certainly because it doesn’t serve his purpose. His goal in this part of Acts is to show the Spirit’s work to spread and grow Christ’s church, and to highlight major players and major events. This is a summary of the major events in the early days after Saul’s conversion, including his being active and effective in gospel proclamation, leading to opposition and persecution, and then the transition to being accepted as a fellow believer, and the positive impact on the church to have a period of peace with their chief persecutor having become a teammate.
So (back in vv. 24-25), their is a plot afoot to kill Saul, and since Damascus is a walled city, the gates would be the only passage in and out. But with the gates being closely watched and guarded on the lookout for Saul, his disciples come up with another escape route. The fact that he has disciples (students who follow a teacher) is another indication that some time has passed, and speaks of his impact even in these early days.
They let him out “through the wall,” whether a high window or some other opening, lowering him down in a basket. (Apparently Saul left both his repelling gloves and his man-card at home.) Actually, the likely explanation is that this was the safest and least conspicuous method (since it also took place at night under the cover of darkness… perhaps the large hamper itself was a dark color).
Twice in this section about the new Saul, both here and in Jerusalem, God provides a means of escape from persecution through the help of his people. Here is indication that on some occasions Christians didn’t wait to be martyred but moved on to preach another day.
Now, the second movement in this passage involves…

How the Church Responds When Sinners Are Converted to Fellow Believers (vv. 26-30)

So Saul, having been a believer for some time now but not known to the church in Jerusalem, makes his way there. And what should be natural for those who claim Christ, Saul wants to “join” the disciples in Jerusalem (to attach himself, to be united with them).
But they are scared, afraid, apprehensive. And who can blame them here in Jerusalem for their reticence after he had been such a zealous persecutor, the chief persecutor?
But praise the Lord for Barnabas—the generous, kind, and cooperative spirit of this “son of encouragement.” This is not to say that Barnabas is gullible and imprudent, but he is quick to believe the truthfulness of Saul’s tale of his conversion and to see the fruit of his zeal for proclaiming Christ.
The way to quiet the fears of the church in Jerusalem is to get the support of the Apostles, so he brings Saul with him and explains both his conversion and the resulting change and passion for ministry in the name of Jesus.
We find out a couple of things here again from Paul’s own parallel account of this in his letter to the Galatians. There he tells us that the only Apostle he got to know well at this point was Peter (over a period of 15 days), and then only James the brother of Jesus to a much lesser degree (Gal 1:18-19). That makes it very likely that here in Acts 9:27 Peter is the representative of the Apostles to whom Barnabas brings Saul.
This effort from Barnabas resulted in two things for Saul in Jerusalem (v. 28): Apparently upon Peter’s confirmation, Saul is accepted among the believers and able to go in and out among them, AND… just as he had done in Damascus, Saul launches into ministry and (here we have a Gk word that means) he “spoke out freely and boldly” in the name of the Lord.
(Same word in v. 27 and v. 28) Such bold preaching becomes a mark of Paul’s ministry, but is not something he presumes upon without dependence on God. He will ask the Ephesian church to pray that the Spirit of God will give him clarity and boldness in his gospel proclamation (Eph 6:18-19).
Well at v. 29, we have the same song, second verse, only this time Saul is debating the Hellenists (Gk-speaking Jews). And these would not be ones who have come to faith in Christ, but the same kind who opposed Stephen. Although some time has passed while Paul was absent in Damascus and Arabia, you can imagine how this would have enraged them with hatred for Saul now that he had turned from being so vigorously on their side to now being one of these Jesus followers.... And a bold and capable one to boot.
Also similar to Stephen, and Saul’s own experience in Damascus, they can’t contend with the apologetic work of the Spirit through this guy, so they desire to silence him by stopping his breathing… permanently.
The Christian brethren again learn of this desire, ...
[map again] and they bring him down to the Mediterranean port city of Caesarea and put him on a ship to his hometown of Tarsus.
According to Galatians 2:1, this period in Paul’s life lasts for the better part of 14 years, where he undoubtedly continued to reshape all his former learning in Scripture to understand and defend its relationship to Christ.
Remember, for someone who will become the premier missionary and church planter around much of the Mediterranean (and his teaching in his letters becoming the central pillar of sound new covenant doctrine), he would need greater maturity and clarity to himself be equipped to disciple and establish other elders.
So too Paul likely continued in mostly peaceful ministry in the region. And it is that note of peace which I believe is key to our understanding of the way the author concludes this section with another one of his patented summary statements.

What God Is Doing for and Through His Church (v. 31)

God gives the church peace & growth.
Here is another instance that in the NT the word church (ekklesia, assembly, community) can refer not only to a local congregation in a particular locale, but also to the totality of the congregation of God’s people through faith in Jesus Christ.
In context, this period of peace is connected directly to the amazing transformation God did when Christ confronted Saul and changed him from enemy to teammate.
Also in this context in Acts, we see that there will be periods of peace and periods of persecution — God is sovereign over them all, and still grows Christ’s church.
We might do well to remember that the peace we enjoy is likely temporary, not enjoyed by the church everywhere, and that God is caring for and growing his church in both circumstances. We should pray for the persecuted church and offer as much support as we can to the persecuted church. So too, even as we’re trying to light a fire under the comfy church—that’s us, the affluent church—we might to well to remember that such blessing from God has produced immense multiplication of gospel efforts around the world. I’m not saying we shouldn’t sharpen the church around us… just saying that we should also give God credit for the mighty work he has done through this time of freedom and peace in parts of the world.
But whether in peace or in persecution, God is sovereign and he is multiplying Christ’s church according to his will and for his glory.

Concluding Applications

Let’s close by reviewing key points of contact with us that we should be applying.
1. Christians behave differently.
I’ve been changed. Can you tell?
Shouldn’t there be some evidence of change? Shouldn’t evidence of genuine saving faith be obedience to Christ?
- Not perfect, but making progress (1 Tim 4:15). Not immediately mature, but clearly growing. Not completely sin free, but giving evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Not automatically the sharpest tool, but desiring to use whatever gifting the Spirit has given.
2. We are one in Christ.
Opposition to one believer is opposition to Christ is opposition to us all. There is a unity and strength in Christ’s people that should give us comfort and courage.
3. Christians look out for one another and work together to proclaim Christ.
Every team needs Saul’s and Barnabas’s. And every team member should aspire to emulate their qualities.
Who are the bold proclaimers? Who are the merciful peacemakers?
There are people among us who are uniquely gifted in mercy and encouragement, uniquely gifted in evangelism and teaching. But being ambassadors for Christ is the privilege and responsibility we all share as believers, even as we are all commanded to strive for peace, and to pray for peace (See Mt 5:9 & Jam 3:16-18 & Rom 12:17-19 & 1 Tim 2:1-2).
Finally, one chief application is always to
4. Know God and worship him.
So what do we learn about God? God is at work to make himself known, and he’s therefore working on behalf of and through Christ’s church.
What does that mean for us?
We trust God’s will to grow us and use us, whether we experience peace or persecution, whether we testify to Christ in martyrdom or whether God protects and provides escape. To live is Christ and to die is gain. We are his; him we proclaim.
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