A Display of Perfect Patience to Save the Nations
Passage: Acts 9:1–9:19
Imagine being taught all your life that earth was the center of the universe. Imagine that’s what your parents believed, what your schools taught, what society at large accepted. It shaped your worldview. It shaped your assumptions about the way the universe worked; it was the lens through which you interpreted your world.
Then somebody comes along in the early 1500s by the name of Copernicus. He dismantles your worldview, and then compellingly proves that earth is not in fact the center of the universe; the sun is. That really happened for many. Historians call it the Copernican Revolution. It was paradigm shifting, worldview changing.
In our passage, a man named Saul experiences something like a Copernican Revolution; a radical reorientation of his worldview. Judaism had formed Saul’s all-encompassing outlook on the world. It shaped his values and heart-commitments; it shaped the way he viewed himself, the way he viewed God, the way he viewed others. It shaped the way he read the Scriptures.
Christians were challenging Saul’s worldview; Christians were calling his heart-commitments rubbish. Saul hated them for it. All of that radically changes, though, when the exalted Christ converts Saul and makes himself the center of everything. All of that changes when Christ becomes the center of Saul’s all-encompassing outlook. Let’s listen to this conversion story beginning in verse 1…
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.
Persecution Spreads with the Gospel but Can’t Stop the Gospel
To this point in Acts, powers and persecution can’t stop the gospel from spreading. The risen Jesus reigns. All power belongs to him. Persecute his people all you want, but he will spread his kingdom far and wide. It’s going out in Jerusalem. It’s going out in all Judea and Samaria. A guy is returning to Africa rejoicing in the good news.
Persecution won’t stop the gospel. At the same time, we learn from today’s passage that persecution follows the gospel. Persecution isn’t going to stop the gospel, but it will certainly follow the gospel. Jesus told his disciples that this would be the pattern: “because I chose you out of the world, the world will hate you” (John 15:19). A servant isn’t greater than his master; if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20). In this setting, we encounter Saul the persecutor.
Saul the Persecutor Seeks to Destroy Christ’s Church
Saul has been persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. The first time we see him, he callously watches people’s garments as they roll up their sleeves to stone Stephen (Acts 7:58). In 8:1 Saul approves Stephen’s execution. In 8:3 Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women to prison.
But now he takes his persecution to Damascus, which is 135 miles north of Jerusalem in Syria. It says in verse 1, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Saul is on a tirade against any Jew that identifies with Jesus Christ. He breathes to destroy the church.
He is seething mad about the spread of the gospel. More details about the nature of his persecution comes out later in his testimony. In Acts 22:4 it says that he “persecuted this Way to the death.” In 22:5, it says that he wanted to bring the Christians back to Jerusalem to be punished.
In 26:9-11 he says, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth…I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them…I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” He tortured to get them to deny Christ.
When we picture Saul on the Damascus road, don’t picture a man wrestling with whether Christianity might be true after all. Don’t picture a man who has these doubts about whether he’s been wrong all his life. Don’t picture a man struggling with a guilty conscience about what he’s doing. The Bible depicts Saul in a beast-like state—ravaging the church in raging fury breathing murder. He wars against Christ.
The reason he’s so opposed to Christianity is that the message Christianity preaches contradicts all that he’s ever known, all that he’s built his life upon. The crazy thing is that he had built his life on the Scriptures. He was zealous for God, according to Acts 22:3 (cf. Gal 1:14). But he missed the Savior of the Scriptures. His zeal wasn’t according to right thinking about God (Rom 10:2). He was committed to his roots in Judaism. See, Saul tells his background elsewhere.
Prior to knowing Jesus he boasted that he was a Jew (Acts 22:3), Hebrew of Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day (Phil 3:5). From his youth he was raised in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3; 26:4); and for Jews that was a big deal—the temple, the center of their religious life, was there. He was educated at the feet of the respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), according to the strict manner of the Law. He lived as a Pharisee (Acts 26:5). From the Jewish perspective, Saul was blameless under the Law (Phil 3:6). He had no earthly accusers.
But the gospel said that none of that mattered. The gospel said all of that amounted to a big pile of rubbish. The only thing that really matters, Saul, is a person’s spiritual union with Christ. All of Saul’s righteousness was bound up with his law-keeping; but the gospel was saying that none of that will ever make him right with God.
The Law was good—Yes, Saul. But the gospel announces that it was only a tutor; once Jesus came, the Law as a covenant was no more. Christ fulfilled it for his people—“Circumcision is unnecessary. Your feasts are unnecessary. The customs of Moses are unnecessary. Your temple is superseded. You Pharisees have an empty religion. Not only that, you don’t really know God at all.” The gospel was saying that Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus were no better off than the pagans around them.
That’s how the gospel confronts people like Saul; and it’s offensive. To everybody who does not build their life on Jesus Christ and him crucified—I don’t care how many hospitals you’ve built, how much money you’ve given away, how many good things you’ve done, if you don’t have Christ—the gospel says that your life is vain and will end in eternal punishment. Saul was seeking to destroy that message.
The Exalted Christ Appears to Saul
But the exalted Christ has a different plan for Saul. The exalted Christ appears to Saul and strikes him blind. Verse 3, “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.”
This is no ordinary light, as if the sun popped out from behind some clouds. No, Saul says later on that this light was brighter than the sun (Acts 22:6). We also learn that at this moment Saul witnesses the exalted Christ. Chapter 22:14 says that God appointed Saul to “see the Righteous One” (cf. 1 Cor 9:1). The light Saul witnesses is a manifestation of the glory of the exalted Christ.
Perhaps you’ve shone a flashlight during the day. You can’t hardly see it because the sun outshines your flashlight. Jesus’ glory outshines the sun. Look at the sun this afternoon—that’s nothing compared to Jesus’ glory. The sun exists to amaze you, and then say, “That light, that glory, is nothing compared to Jesus’ glory.”
The revelation of Jesus’ glory humbles Saul. He falls to the ground in verse 4: “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Notice the union of Christ with his people: “Why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Jesus so identifies with his people that to persecute them is to persecute Jesus. This is why the New Testament so adamantly opposes a divisive spirit in the church (1 Cor 1:10-17). To divide Christ’s body, to destroy unity in the church, is to declare war on Jesus Christ himself. At the same time we see how intimately close Jesus is to his people. Saul isn’t just warring against some organization; he’s warring against Christ.
But the exalted Christ has plans for Saul. He could’ve killed Saul on the spot, and Saul would’ve perished. Instead, he shows mercy, patience with Saul. He gives Saul some instructions in verse 6: “‘But rise and enter the city, and you’ll be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” So this isn’t a subjective, mystical experience. There were other witnesses. They heard the voice. The whole thing struck them speechless.
Then it says, “Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Saul is undone. He’s blind. The exalted Christ has put Saul in his place. He wants him to feel how dark his blindness truly is without Jesus.
The Exalted Christ Uses a Fearful but Faithful Disciple
While Saul is waiting, the exalted Christ then uses a fearful but faithful disciple. We meet Ananias. He’s a disciple in Damascus. Verse 10 says that the Lord appears to him in a vision; and this vision does at least three things.
One, it instructs Ananias to serve the exalted Christ by going and praying for Saul. Jesus could’ve healed Saul’s sight from heaven. But he chooses to work through his people. He gives Ananias instructions in verse 11: “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” Straightforward: rise, go, look, pray.
Two, the vision alleviates Ananias’s fears. Ananias is afraid of Saul. Verse 13: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” He has fears about Saul—“This guy will punish me. This guy will imprison me. What if he’s faking it? What if this is a ploy to lure me in?” Can you imagine the sorts of objections that your fears might raise? But the vision is meant to strengthen Ananias for the task. See, the Lord goes on to reassure him what he has in store for Saul.
That brings us to number three: the vision reveals God’s mission for Saul. Verse 15, “the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” That’s Saul’s mission. To carry Jesus’ name before Israel and the nations, and that will involve suffering. “Saul will so identify himself with Christ that he will suffer with Christ as he speaks for Christ. Saul the persecutor is about to become Saul the persecuted, because of his commitment to my name. You go, Ananias, and pray for him.”
The Exalted Christ Saves & Joins Saul to His Church
So Ananias follows the exalted Christ. Following Jesus doesn’t mean he won’t call us to some scary things. But he will reveal to us what we need to know about him and his purposes, in order to obey him. Whatever he calls us to do; he’ll give us the grace to do it. He gives Ananias the grace; Ananias does what he says in verse 17. And it’s here that we witness the exalted Christ saving and joining Saul to his church.
Verse 17, “So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”
Through the filling of the Holy Spirit, God opens the eyes of Saul. Saul no longer identifies with his old ways in Judaism. He identifies himself with Jesus through baptism. He puts on Jesus’ team jersey. He went from warring against Christ’s kingdom to spreading the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. He went from destroying Christ’s church to building up Christ’s church. He went from being a stranger to God’s family to being called a brother in God’s family.
All this took place because he witnessed Jesus’ glory. Hardened as he was, committed as he was to his religion, sinful as he was, seeing the glory of Christ saved him and transformed him. Jesus became the center of Saul’s universe.
Four Lessons for the Church
That’s a story worth telling again and again. It’ll appear two more times in Acts; we find it at least four times in Saul’s letters. It’s a story that’s meant to be told again and again. It displays several things about our God that should change us.
1. Worship God for his sovereign grace in saving you.
First, this story should compel us to worship God for his sovereign grace in saving sinners. If there was ever an illustration that salvation is by grace alone, it’s here. Saul was not on a spiritual journey where he finally just figured it out, just came to his senses, just hit rock bottom as if Jesus is the inevitable choice humans make after that. Saul was running a hell-bound race. He was an enemy of Christ. He was persecuting the Way while paving his own way to destruction. Whoever’s not in Christ hates Christ. We come into the world that way; and we stay that way unless God saves. There’s no “in between,” no “kinda Christian” or “almost Christian”. You either are or you’re not.
In the middle of his rebellion, God’s sovereign grace rescues Saul. From beginning to end, God orchestrates everything. Galatians 1:15 says that God planned this even before Saul was born. And here Jesus calls Saul a chosen instrument. God chose Saul to be an apostle. God planned his rescue. Before Saul had done anything good or bad, God fixed his sovereign plan. Here it unfolds.
Saul doesn’t have the slightest desire to seek Jesus, but Jesus steps in and says, “You’re mine.” That’s how grace works. Grace isn’t something God gives in response to something we do. Grace works for our good despite everything bad we did; and God chooses who gets it. The question is why any of us get grace at all? “Lord, why am I a guest at your Table this morning?” that’s the real question.
Lord, why does a guy like Saul get grace? Because God is free to save whomever he wants. He isn’t constrained by anything outside himself to save anybody. He chooses whomever he wills. Which means that in terms of our conversion to Christ, we have nothing to boast about and everything to praise God for. We owe every part of our deliverance to sovereign grace. When we were still sinners, when we were dead, God made us alive in Christ. Worship him for sovereign grace in Saul’s life. Worship him for sovereign grace in your life.
2. Never underestimate the power of the exalted Christ.
Second, never underestimate the power of the exalted Christ. Let’s pretend for a minute. Let’s say you’re a Christian in Damascus. And somebody comes up to you and says, “Who do you think is the least likely person to be saved?” It’s not hard to imagine that you’d answer, “Well, Saul certainly comes to mind. That guys hates us. Did you see what he did to Stephen? That guy’s just too far gone.”
Now let’s be real. Who have you thought that about in your own family? Is it a dad who gets sick of you talking about Jesus? Is it a son who has betrayed you? Is it a friend at work who just loves his money and his toys and his girlfriends, and you think to yourself, “Why bother? There’s no way he’ll ever believe.” Is it a husband who blows you off when you speak of Christ, and who seems to be running further and further into darkness? Is it people in a city like this one, where many people’s sense for true glory has been deadened by binging on Nascar and Pokémon? Is it a neighbor leading the way for the LGBT community, and who self-identifies as the sex opposite to that given at birth?
I know it’s true for myself: that I’ve looked at some of these people and said, “It’s not worth it; he’s too far gone.” Boy, this passage rebukes that outlook. Saul may have been the least likely to be saved. But that’s the point. God’s grace is greater than all our sin. Christ is more powerful than our sin. The Spirit is able to create a new heart in the worst of sinners. When we look at this passage, it should send us away with hope that Christ is able to save anybody—no matter how bad you think they are. He saved you, bad as you are. He saved me, bad as I am.
Our view of God is often too small. We box him in as if he can only save a certain kind of person, one who’s seeking, one who’s open to hearing, one who’s in trouble, one who has my education and my family history and my interests. Listen, Saul was punishing and murdering Christians to advance his religion. Minus the explosives, Saul is no different than a terrorist. The exalted Christ saves him right in the middle of all his evil. Christ saves terrorists.
The question is whether we believe that enough to give our lives in taking the gospel to them. Listen, Jesus didn’t ask us for advice in determining who he wants to save. He is powerful to save anybody, no matter what they’re background. Pray that we would be a people that trusts in his power to save the worst of the worst. Don’t underestimate what God can do. Pray for him to convert people like Saul. He’s greater.
3. Prepare to minister to any person Christ may save.
Third, prepare yourself to minister to any person Christ may save. If the Lord will join to the church the worst of the worst, then let’s be faithful in ministering to them, to treating them according to their new identity in Jesus. Jesus prepared Ananias to minister to Saul. Jesus will prepare you to minister to others like Saul. Sometimes we want the Lord to save people in places like White Settlement, South LVT, east Fort Worth; but we still have these lingering fears that the Lord might actually start answering our prayers—What would that look like? Where do we start? How do I talk to them? He used to deal what? She used to be a what?
Listen, do you know how many flags would come up on Saul’s background check for children’s ministry? What are you going to say to a guy like Saul? “I’m sorry Saul—I know you’re working on your thirteenth letter for the New Testament and you’ve planted a dozen churches, but you just can’t serve in DIG.” What would that say about grace to the world? Yes, yes, we use wisdom—of course. But do we really believe that in Christ people like Saul become new creations? The old has passed away, behold the new has come? Church, Christ can make anybody new. Are we ready to believe that? If not, then we don’t know grace. Grace isn’t for good people; it’s for bad people.
Let’s be ready to minister to any and all who come through our doors and enter our assembly. Ananias learned to call Saul a “brother.” He’s part of the family. Jesus gave him the Holy Spirit. Saul gets all the benefits of being a member in the church. When it comes to grace, we can’t show partiality based on a person’s past. We must treat them as Christ himself treats them—as fellow heirs in Christ.
4. Christ displays his perfect patience to reach the nations.
Fourth, Christ displays his perfect patience to reach the nations. Jesus hints at this in verse 15. He says that Saul is a “chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles.” But let’s look also at 1 Timothy 1:12-16. This is Saul’s assessment of why God converted him…
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy since, being ignorant, I acted in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience [i.e., the utmost patience possible] as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
How does Saul’s conversion function within God’s mission to save the world? Saul’s conversion is a revelation of God’s character, his incredible patience. And it has a goal: that many others would believe in Jesus for eternal life. The message of Saul’s conversion is that nobody among the nations is too far gone for grace.
That’s what our conversion is about too—so that Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience. You weren’t saved simply for your own sake, but ultimately for Jesus’ sake. You’re a showcase of his perfect patience. God didn’t save us to showcase all that was lovely in us; we had nothing lovely. He saved us to showcase all that was lovely about Jesus. Christian, your life is like a sketch book, where God has sketched out what he’s powerful to do for anybody who receives his grace in Christ.[i] He saved us to display how much patience he has in sending his only Son into the world to save sinners.
As we come to the Lord’s Supper this morning, let us remember the Lord’s patience. Let his perfect patience compel you to worship him for your salvation. Let his perfect patience renew your efforts to pray for the most unlikely of people to be born again. Let his perfect patience drive you to spread the message to others that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
[i]George Knight, Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 103.