Radical Transformation

Acts-The Holy Spirit in his people  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  28:35
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In Acts 9 we hear of Paul's radical transformation from persecutor to proselytizer. What effected this transformation? Is this power available in our lives?

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Over the last two weeks we have looked at two individual conversion stories in Acts, where a person has come to believe in Jesus. This week we will look at the third of these that Luke records: the conversion of Saul.
The first two individuals Luke mentions have not gone on to have a major influence on Christianity. Simon the Sorcerer did give his name to a specific sin, and the Ethiopian treasurer was probably very influential on Christianity in Ethiopia. But Saul is on another level entirely. Much of the New Testament is formed from his letters, and most of the book of Acts is concerned with Paul’s missionary work. (Paul is, of course, the Greek name that Saul uses.) Paul is one of the most influential people in history.
Paul’s conversion is so important to the church that it is recorded four times in the New Testament: here in Acts 9, again in Acts 22 when Paul explains it to the Jewish authorities, once more in Acts 26 when he explains it to the Roman governor, and finally in Galatians 1 when it recounts it to the church at Galatia.
Let’s look now at Luke’s historical account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9.


Acts 9:1–19 NLT
1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. 2 He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. 3 As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” 5 “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! 8 Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. 9 He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. 10 Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord!” he replied. 11 The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now. 12 I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.” 13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! 14 And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.” 15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” 17 So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days.

Saul’s testimony

Now that’s a testimony!
Saul went from executing Christians to executing arguments against Christ. He was completely transformed.
Now, there’s lots going on here: Paul’s face-to-face encounter with Christ equips him to be an apostle, commissioned to the Gentiles.
For most of us the Holy Spirit works in more subtle ways than this. But in the process of conversion, the Holy Spirit must be at work.
And that’s what I want to focus on today, the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of his people.

Three Conversions

In Acts chapters 8 and 9, Luke has suddenly shifted focus from the growth of the church down to individual conversions. He records three individual conversions in a row. Why does he do this?
If we follow the flow of Acts, what we see is a selection of accounts that help us understand what the new body of believers, the church, both is, and is not. Luke is working on presenting a definition of the church through its historical development.
He tells us of its boldness in preaching the Gospel, of its generosity and care in sharing together, of how it is not dishonest like Ananias and Sapphira, but generous like Barnabas. He gives us Stephen’s amazing sermon, grounding the gospel firmly in Jewish salvation history, in full, and shows how this was a life-and-death matter for Stephen. And then he shows us vignettes of what it means to become and be a follower of Christ through three individual conversions and the salvation of a Gentile house. And he does all this while also telling the story of the expansion of the church from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and all the world. Luke is a master storyteller.
Let’s look at those individual conversions with an eye on what is different between them.

Simon the Sorcerer

Acts 8:13 NLT
13 Then Simon himself believed and was baptized. He began following Philip wherever he went, and he was amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip performed.
Simon the Sorcerer saw the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, healing and casting out demons, and he saw that this power was greater than the power he had, so he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and followed Philip.
But Simon soon revealed that his heart had not been transformed, rather it was bitter and enslaved by sin, and he tried to buy God’s power for himself.
So Simon experienced the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, but that was not enough to transform his heart.

The Ethiopian

Let’s move on to the Ethiopian treasurer. This man was already heavily invested in God’s word. He was, as Graham said last week, a seeker of God.
Isaiah 53:7 NLT
7 He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.
When we meet him, he was not experiencing the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, but rather wrestling with the Scriptures. Philip helped him by explaining the Scriptures to him, much as Stephen did in his sermon earlier in Acts.
The Ethiopian encountered Jesus in the prophecy of Isaiah and that encounter was strengthened by Philip’s testimony that tore apart the curtain of confusion. The result of that encounter was a transformed heart. He went on his way filled with the joy of salvation.

Saul the Pharisee

And now we return to Saul the Pharisee. Like the Ethiopian, Saul was steeped in Scripture.
Acts 22:3 NLT
3 Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today.
His problem was not a lack of knowledge. Saul was present at Stephen’s sermon, so he had heard it all. Nor was it a lack of experience in the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul had undoubtedly made a study of all the actions of the disciples of Jesus, so that he could better counter them. He cannot have been unaware of the miracles they were doing.
But none of this had an impact, he was filled with zeal for what he perceived as God’s honour. This rough carpenter from Nazareth who had died messily on a Roman cross could not have been the Messiah of the almighty one.
Paul suffered from what author David Robson calls the intelligence trap. Basically, too much intelligence allows a person to become overconfident (a nice word for proud) in their thinking, and refuse to entertain possibilities that didn’t fit into their elaborate and intelligent worldview. Paul, like most other intelligent people, lacked intellectual humility. Humility is what prevents us from doing stupid things. Neither intelligence nor experience can rescue us from error.
Towards the end of his life, Paul looked back and said to his Spiritual son, Timothy,
1 Timothy 1:12–14 NLT
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, 13 even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. 14 Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus.
What was it, then, that made the difference for Paul? It wasn’t more information. It wasn’t more experiences.
No, it was a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Now, you could be picky and say that this is both more information and another experience, but the point is this was personal, relational. Paul didn’t just see more power being exercised. He didn’t just hear more scriptural evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. He spoke with Jesus, face to face. It was that personal encounter that broke through his pride and allowed him to reconfigure everything he already knew into the right formation, and to submit wholeheartedly to the Spirit.

The personal encounter

It is my belief that it is not only the apostle Paul whose heart and life were transformed by a personal encounter with Jesus. I believe that we are all transformed through encountering Christ.
Our encounters don’t have to be as concrete and dramatic as Paul’s. Paul needed a mark of authenticity to ground his mission as apostle to the Gentiles. He refers to this in his contentious letter to the Corinthians,
1 Corinthians 15:7–8 NLT
7 Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.
The mark of apostleship in this list of Paul’s is seeing Jesus (and being commissioned by him) in the flesh. This is not something that we require, just as the Ethiopian treasurer did not require this.
Rather we require an encounter with Christ that transforms us, as Paul explains to the church as Colossi.
Colossians 3:9–11 NLT
9 Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. 11 In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
The thing that unifies all followers of Jesus is the indwelling presence of Jesus himself.
It is not the laying on of hands that transforms us, although that may form part of our experience. Nor does water baptism change us, even though Luke records that all these new converts responded immediately by getting baptised.
The key to salvation is simple: it is a genuine encounter with the person of Jesus. It is shifting from being a person who rules their own lives, to being a person who is ruled by the indwelling person of Jesus.

Encountering Jesus

There are many ways we can encounter Jesus. Some people in Islamic countries encounter Jesus in dreams. Some encounter Jesus in their friends or family. Many encounter Jesus in a crisis, sometimes mediated through friends or family, sometimes in a spiritual experience. Some, like C. S. Lewis, encounter Jesus in the thrust and cut of argumentation. Some encounter Jesus in literature or art. And some even encounter Jesus in the church!
Don’t think that this is a once-off event, either. We grow in our relationship to Jesus over time.
When I was three years old, I remember experiencing Jesus’ presence walking with me and my parents on the way home from church. As a three year old there’s not a great deal you can do with that knowledge, but it did ground my identity in a way that helped me flourish. When you know you are loved unconditionally by the creator of the world, you tend not to be anxious or worried about things.
But while this child’s faith was sufficient for a child whose life was largely managed by my parents, it became less effectual as I grew up and began to have to take control of all aspects of my life. By the time I graduated from Uni, I was struggling to submit myself fully to the Spirit. It took another encounter, in which all that I desired was denied to me, and I had to choose to let Jesus reign over my entire life or take the reins for myself. I met Jesus more fully in the humility of kneeling on the floor of my lonely apartment, and I was transformed in a new way which grounded my adult faith.

Jesus is waiting

Jesus wants to dwell in each of us, for us to know him as he truly is: as Lord. Don’t overthink this. We are not the initiators, God is. We just need to accept his constant call.
If you have yet to encounter the living Jesus, or if you are struggling to allow him deeper into your life, please stop resisting him. Stop on the road, like Paul, and look up.
If you need help, find someone here like Philip, and they will help draw aside the curtain.
Life with Jesus is true life, and it’s only one step away.
Let’s pray,
Lord Jesus, we know that you are always present, just waiting for us to turn to you. Help us to put aside our pride, like Saul had to do, and to reconfigure our thoughts and lives to live under your lordship. We know you love us, and we want to love you.
In your name, Amen.
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