Transformed By God's Grace
TRANSFORMED BY GOD’S GRACE ACTS 9:19-31
This morning, we return to the exciting book of Acts, which shows us the church afire for God. God has done wonders in the lives of his disciples in bringing about the birth of the early church. It was a church that experienced the grace and power of God. Something that I believe is still available for the church today. Many people have come to Christ as a result of the preaching of the gospel and the greatest of those conversions was seen last Sunday night in the life of the Apostle Paul.
Paul, who at that time was named Saul, was on his way to Damascus to stamp out Christianity once and for all. But God had different plans. God was going to change this persecutor of the gospel into a preacher of the gospel. God was going to change this murderer into a missionary. Folks, we need to remember that God is in the business of changing lives. For those of us who have been saved know this to be true. We have been saved from sin to salvation, rags to righteousness, hopelessness to hope, and darkness to light. God is in the business of changing lives.
Yet, there are times when we feel that things are never going to change and they will remain that way forever. This is called fatalism. And every one of us in this sanctuary has experienced it from time to time. Maybe we have felt that way about someone we love who is not saved or the current economic situation or one of our children who has gone astray.
John Piper, in a sermon on this text, said, “But one of the messages of the book of Acts is that this is emphatically not true. Jesus Christ is not dead and he is not distant and he is not silent and he is not weak and he is not uninterested in the world and the progress of his mission and in your life. He is alive and what he began to do in his earthly life he is continuing to do. He is full of surprises for churches and for nations and for families, and for individual people.”
So you see there is hope. Just look at the life of the Apostle Paul. God changed his life one afternoon out of the blue and he can do the same today. So this morning, we are going to look at the transformation that took place in the life of Saul, a man set on destroying Christianity. Before we look at our passage, I need to make known to you that there are true and false Christians. Not every one who claims to be a Christian is real. God plainly states that in Scripture. So we need to examine ourselves to make sure we are of the faith.
A hundred years ago, Bishop J.C. Ryle spoke of this same subject in describing true Christianity. “A true Christian is not a mere baptized man or woman. He is something more. He is not a person who only goes, as a matter of form, to a church or chapel on Sundays, and lives all the rest of the week as if there was no God. Formality is not Christianity. Ignorant lip worship is not true religion....All are not true Christians who are members of the visible church of Christ. The true Christian is one whose religion is in his heart and life. It is felt by himself in his heart. It is seen by others in his conduct and life. He feels his sinfulness, guilt and badness, and repents. He sees Jesus Christ to be that divine Savior whom his souls needs, and commits himself to Him. He puts off the old man with his corrupt and carnal habits, and puts on the new man. He lives a new and holy life, fighting habitually against the world, the flesh and the devil. Christ Himself is the corner-stone of his Christianity” [Holiness, 234-235].
So you can see that there is vast difference between those who are real and those who are not. We are warned by Jesus to enter by the narrow road which leads to life because broad is the road that leads to destruction and many are on it. He warns us that not every one who says Lord, Lord, we did all these things in your name are saved because on judgment day he will say depart from me for I never knew you. We know from James that the devil has an intellectual believe in God, but that does not save him. So there is a difference between those who are real and those who are not real.
Our passage, this morning, draws our attention to that very fact. So I ask you to take your Bibles and open to the 9th chapter and the 19th verse. Here is a man that was truly transformed by the grace of God. Here was a man who gave evidence that God’s grace got a hold of his life. I want to show you the difference that God made in the heart of the Saul. There are three evidences that I see highlighted in Luke’s narrative: the evangelism of Saul, the escape of Saul, and the endorsement of Saul. First,
THE EVANGELISM OF SAUL – 20-22
Luke says, at the end of verse 19, that Saul spent a few days with the disciples at Damascus. Salvation that is real gives evidence of a transformation right away. And Saul was doing this in Damascus. But notice carefully the next verse, Saul immediately proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues.
Now I am sure that this was a great shock to the many that heard him that day. Imagine a moment the scene in synagogue that day. The people of the city knew he was coming, which probably caused a stir. He had a letter from the chief priest of the Sanhedrin to bring back men and women of the Way, Christians. So he arrives at the synagogue and the ruler of the synagogue gives him the floor. There were mixed emotions among those that gathered that day. Some gazed with approval, while others were apprehensive.
He gets up to speak and those who were there thought that he was going to denounce Christianity, herald disparaging remarks about Jesus and his followers who were leading this apostasy. But instead he proclaims Jesus as the Son of God.
Luke says in verse 21, that the people were amazed. The Greek verb existanto is literally, “they were beside themselves; they were struck out of their senses.” In other words, they were so astonished that they could not believe what they had heard. They knew that Saul had wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the saints and that he had come to Damascus with the same purpose because the chief priest gave him the authority to do so. Yet, they didn’t expect to hear what they heard coming out of Saul’s mouth.
Folks, the moment you are saved, you can begin serving God by sharing with others what God has done for you. In fact, we should all be doing this on a regular basis. Saul did not sit around to proclaim Christ, he did it immediately.
He could have thought, “Well, I’m kind of new at this. I had better wait until I get it all together before I open my mouth.” He could have thought, “I’m going to look like a fool. After all, I came here to arrest followers of Christ. People will think that I’m unstable if I let them know that I now follow Him.” Or, he could have thought, “Damascus isn’t my home. I’m just visiting here temporarily. I’ll wait until I get back home to begin my ministry.” But he didn’t make up excuses.
Can I say that we learn by doing! Well, I might make a mistake or say the wrong thing or not be able to answer their question. That at least should get us in the word to find the answer. D. L. Moody said, “If you don’t go to work for the Lord because you’re afraid of making mistakes, you will probably make the greatest mistake of your life—that of doing nothing.”
I know what you are probably thinking right now, where do I start? Well, start where Saul started with Jesus. Tell people who he is, why he came, and what he did for you. Anytime, you don’t know what to say just say something about Jesus.
In verse 22, Luke said Saul increased all the more in strength. In other words, he did not cave under pressure. He was strengthened to continue on speaking and this confounded the crowd. They were bewildered at this persecutor turn preacher. Yet, Saul continued to prove to them that Jesus was the Christ. This word proves literally means “to put together or mix.” Saul, a student of the Old Testament because of his Jewish heritage was able to show the prophecies of Christ and prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of those prophecies. He showed with certainty that what was said in the Old Testament about Christ had come true in the one that he was persecuting. So Saul’s transformation was seen in his evangelism. Next,
THE ESACPE OF SAUL – 23-25
Notice the phrase “when many days had passed,” which marks out a specific time period had elapsed which Luke does not fill in for us, but Paul does in his letter to the Galatians. Now remember, Saul is on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, but instead God miraculously saves him. Immediately he has given evidence of salvation by preaching Christ, but something happened between verse 22 and 23.
In Galatians 1:17-18, “I did not immediately consult with anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.” So verses 26-30 describe that visit in Jerusalem. But somewhere between verse 22 and 23, Saul was sent by God to Arabia where he learned from God and I believe preaching the gospel there.
Now this Arabia is different from the modern day Arabia. This was known as the Nabatean Arabia and Damascus was a city on the frontier of Arabia. It was ruled by King Aretas. So Saul goes there for a period of time before returning to Damascus to preach the gospel.
When he returned the Jews were more frustrated than ever at the preaching of Saul and so they plotted to kill him. But Saul found out about it. In verse 24, they were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him. Yet the disciples looked after him by letting him down in a basket. Paul records this incident in 2 Corinthians 11 verses 32-33. Listen, “At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” The city was guarded by walls and the only way out was through gates, but some of the houses were built on the city wall to help Saul escape.
In these verses, Saul goes from the persecutor to the persecuted. Folks, I remind you that if you desire to live a godly life you will be persecuted. Maybe there is no plot on your head to be killed. But you definitely become the bearer of insults, mockery, and prejudice. The world cannot stand you because you are light which exposes their darkness. Saul was doing this in the preaching of Christ. In fact, this is what God told Ananias that would happen to Saul, he would suffer much for his name’s sake.
Don’t think it is going to be any different for any of us who name the name of Christ. Remember, Jesus told us that the world did not receive him and therefore they will not receive us. So expect to be treated differently by the world.
No one persecutes a man who is ineffective. George Bernard Shaw once said that the biggest compliment you can pay an author is to burn his books. Someone else has said, “A wolf will never attack a painted sheep.” Counterfeit Christianity is always safe; real Christianity is always in peril. To suffer persecution is to be paid the greatest of compliments because it is the certain proof that men think we really matter. So evidence that Saul was transformed by God’ grace is seen in his evangelism and his escape. Finally,
THE ENDORSEMENT OF SAUL – 26-27
In these verses, Luke says that Saul left Damascus and went to Jerusalem in order to join with the disciples. His attempt to this was not met at first with much success. Why? Because the disciples were still afraid of him and did not believe that he was real.
I think we can all understand what was happening in the hearts of the disciples because the last time Saul was there in Jerusalem was at the stoning of Stephen, which he approved. In Acts 8:3, Luke said he ravaged the church and entered houses after house dragging men and women to prison. In Acts nine, he had received a letter to do the same to the saints in Damascus. So I think we can all see the hesitation on behalf of the disciples. They were suspicious of him
How many of you know a person, that when the last time you saw them you thought they could never change. You remember they were wild and rebellious. But then they come back years later to be a different person because God got a hold of their life and changed them from the inside out. Folks, when God gets hold of a life, then that life is radically changed.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones expressed it like this. When you become a Christian, what happens is not so much that you add something to your life as that your life is changed. When men and women become Christians, it is not that they put on new clothes; no they are changed, inside and out, and the inside is particularly changed, a new creation [Exposition of Colossians 1, 113]. I encourage you to always remind yourself that God can change any life if that life will just look to Christ. If you are here this morning and think God can’t possibly do anything with you and your life, then look to Christ. Or if you know someone who is out of the will of God, then pray that they will turn to Christ because Christ is in the extreme makeover business.
So the disciples were suspicious of Saul, except for one disciple by the name of Barnabas. Thank God for the Barnabases in the world. Maybe you had one in your life that you thank God for on a regular basis. Barnabas means encouragement. So you can imagine that when Saul escaped from Damascus and came to Jerusalem to attach himself to the disciples and they didn’t want any part of him, then he might have a little down until Barnabas came along.
So Barnabas took the time to listen to Saul’s story of conversion. He believed it to be real and went to the disciples to vouch for him that Saul was a real disciple. He was no imposter or spy. He had been changed by the grace of God. And in verse 28, Saul is in Jerusalem preaching Jesus boldly. Saul was confident in the message that he came to believe and was openly speaking about it.
But here like in Damascus, Saul had trouble. This time it was the Hellenists Jews (Greek-speaking Jews). These are the same ones who disputed with Stephen and now they were in a dispute with Saul. But they too were seeking to kill him. So the disciples got wind of it and took him to Caesarea and later to Tarsus, his home town.
So Saul fades into the background for about eight to ten years before guess who goes and seeks him out. You guessed it Barnabas. Saul didn’t sit on the sidelines when we went home but continued to minister in Syria and Cilicia, according to Scripture.
Folks, these are what many scholars call Saul’s silent years, but I don’t imagine they were silent because Saul continued to minister where he was in life. No one was going to shut him up from speaking about all that he had seen and heard (Acts 4:20). May this be true of us. There may come a time when God moves us somewhere else, but this does not keep us from keeping our mouths shut. God has moved my family and I around to different places of ministry, but that doesn’t mean we do anything any different than where we were in the last place. I preached Christ in the first place I pastured and I am still preaching Christ here ate Marble City Baptist Church.
Verse 31 is the third of seven progress reports in Acts (2:47; 6:7; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). It shows the church, not just in Jerusalem, but now scattered throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, enjoying a period of rest from persecution. Although a few manuscripts read “churches,” the best reading is “church,” singular, showing the unity of the different churches scattered throughout Palestine.
So the church was at peace. Why? At this point, the emperor or Rome was Caligula. And Caligula attempted to set up idols in Jerusalem. And this got the Jews so angry that the Jews concentrated their fight against Caligula and consequently left the Christians alone for a period of time. So the church was built up by edification and multiplication. In other words, they grew spiritually and numerically.
So as we come to the close of our passage this morning, let me leave you with a story that will encourage you to do something for the Lord if you are wondering, “What can I do to serve the Lord?” I encourage you to go to Farese.com. It is the web page of John Farese. He is 44 years old and one of the oldest persons to reach that age after being diagnosed from birth with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He is bedridden and uses speech recognition software to operate his computer system, which enables him to do everything from reading the Bible to creating Web pages for his customers on the Internet.
John writes, “He has turned for me my mourning into laughter, and my desolation into joy; he has led my captivity captive, and made my heart rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. He drew me when I struggled to escape from his grace; and when at last I came all trembling like a condemned culprit to his mercy seat he said, ‘Thy sins which are many are all forgiven thee: be of good cheer.’” John is a charter member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Boca Raton, Florida.
If a man with severe health limitations like John Farese can find a way to serve the Lord who saved him, so can you. Go and do likewise!