Acts 9: The Conversion of Saul
This talk was given by Martin Ansdell-Smith on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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I don’t think I need to say a lot about Paul’s conversion because we’ve heard it several times. We’ve seen cartoons of it. Even those of us who didn’t know it before are probably well aware of what it’s all about. Paul received two calls, or a call with two parts to it, if you like. He had the call to become a Christian and also the call to become the apostle to the Gentiles.
This morning we’re going to be thinking about God’s call. The English word, call, or vocation, calling, has gathered some more specialized meanings over the years. One relates to jobs that perhaps traditionally involve compassion or that were done by those in holy orders, so medicine, nursing, teaching, church staff. Any others? Anybody else got any ideas, things we call vocations? No? Okay. I’ve got most of them. It’s also used for manual trades.
You get vocational training, perhaps as against academic education. It can also be used to distinguish between laity and clergy, or between secular and religious. That one was addressed by Martin Luther. He emphasized that all useful spheres of activity are vocations for the Christian, as “all things are to be done in the name of, for the sake of, and to the glory of Christ, and the true witness is borne by work well done as well as by words of testimony or acts of love and mercy.” [Bromiley, G. W. (1979–1988). Vocation. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, p. 996). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]
Today I’m going to be talking about vocations call as God’s call, summons, or invitation.
It’s “God’s invitation or summons to His (chosen) people, to which they respond in faith and obedience. The called are a larger company than the chosen (Mt. 22:14), for the chosen are those who make a positive response to the call.” [Bromiley, G. W. (1979–1988). Vocation. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, p. 995). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]
Andrew read to us the story of God’s call to Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul was a zealous Pharisee. As we’ve heard, he was intent to wiping out this new sect of the Nazarenes who were claiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Messiah.
Equipped with authority from the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, he was going to Damascus, about a week’s journey, with some of the Sanhedrin police to arrest and extradite followers of this sect when he was met by the risen Christ and his world turned upside down. Another story continues after Saul is led blind to Damascus. Acts 9, it continues at verse 10.
Acts 9:10–19 (NIV Anglicised, 2011):
“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’
‘Yes, Lord,› he answered.
The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’
‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’
But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here–has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.”
God’s call is not just an invitation to salvation. The call is also a summons to service, to love others with the love of God. God’s call is also an invitation to community. Indeed, the word in the New Testament that’s translated as church literally means those who are called out. The people of God as a whole are invited to serve, as the apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Saul is called to salvation and to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Incidentally, the name he adopts, Paul, is indicative of this change of his life’s purpose. Paul, if you like, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, Saul. It’s also a nickname along the lines of shorty. Some people claim Paul was actually really very, very short. Whether that’s right or not, I don’t know. I haven’t time today to talk about how we discern God’s callings to us, but if you reread the chapter, note that Saul is praying and fasting. As a Pharisee, he would have known the Old Testament thoroughly. These are all good practices for discerning what we should do day by day and in special circumstances.
Remember too, he’d have been doing these things, reading the Bible, praying, fasting. He’d been doing all those since childhood, but not until he met with Christ and received a new life, a new heart, and the indwelling Holy Spirit did the practices begin to orient Saul to God’s way. But Ananias is also called. All we know about Ananias is in the accounts of Saul’s conversion and call in Acts. Ananias is called to visit a man who has come to identify an extradite Christians.
Understandably, he is initially reluctant to go and visit him. Ananias though did obey God’s call, and given Saul’s reputation, I find his attitude towards Saul really amazing. There are no recriminations, no reminders to Saul of the crimes he’s been doing against the church. His first address to Saul is, “Brother.” The Christian community in Damascus also respond to their call. Saul is promptly baptized and fed. They take Saul into their community.
A note too, Saul’s call to be an apostle to the Gentiles was for life. Ananias’ call in this case was a very specific task, albeit one that would go down in history. Vocation call from God is not just for the few. There are such calls. Paul had one in his call to be an apostle, but every one of God’s people is called, initially to salvation and so to service. Biblical sense of vocation is not limited to an upfront ministry, perhaps as a church leader or a missionary. We all have a divine vocation.
Everyone is called to salvation, and is therefore called to service, to ministry. To be ministers, all Christ offers us, to those within the Christ community and those outside. For us, God graciously calls us to salvation. That comes to all though not all respond positively. By God’s grace, we can respond to that invitation and receive salvation. The start of a new life, a life of mercy, love, and service.
Our service is to love God, to love others. Maybe quiet, unglamorous, unseen. We have other calls mentioned already, ones we skip over and don’t realize, but right at the beginning of this chapter, it talked about how Paul was persecuting the followers of the way. These were the early Christians. They’d responded to God’s call to salvation. For them it meant persecution. For many, prison and death. They were following their Lord. Ananias received a call, the Damascus church had.
If you’d follow the chapter right through to the end, you’ll find the story of someone called Dorcas. All these were, in many ways, quiet and unglamorous, almost unknown people. In the chapters are some quite spectacular calls. We get Paul’s and Peter. We are all called to live lives worthy of God’s call. We have all the resources of God to enable us to do it. If we’re willing, God does not just give us rules and problems. He provides the solutions, the gifts, the resources, the Christian community, and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The service we are called to also requires our effort. Any good that we are or do is a free gift from God, but it requires our effort. It brings the crucifixion of our old self but also brings rest and peace. I’m going to read some New Testament passages that tell us more about what the content of God’s call to us is. From the beginning of 1 Corinthians, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:1-3 NRSV)
Incidentally, we’re used to that phrase of Paul’s, “Those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Saints are all God’s people. The first time Christians were called saints, that’s recorded, was by Ananias in that passage we had read earlier. God also calls us to the fellowship of His Son. Again, from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1, “God is faithful; by Him you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor 1:9 NRSV)
The call from God is also to freedom. Paul, in Galatians, writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another, for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:13-14)
We are to help one another as part of a Christian community. From 1 Thessalonians, “We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thess 2:12 ESV) Again, Paul emphasizes this in 2 Thessalonians, so the second time he writes to the same people. “To this end, we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of His call and will fulfil by His power every good resolve and work of faith so the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess 1:11-12 NRSV)
Peter puts it, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NRSV) The call is also to holiness. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians, “God did not call us to impurity but in holiness,” (1 Thess 4:7 NRSV) and in Peter, “Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” (1 Peter 1:14-15 NRSV) Again in Peter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people, in order you might proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9 NRSV)
Peter also says that God called us by His own glory and goodness. Paul in Ephesians writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Ephesians 4:1-7 NRSV)
Finally, two quotations that relate to what I’ve been talking about.
First is John Stott commenting on that passage from Ephesians: “… we must actively cultivate a Christian life. For holiness is not a condition to which we drift. We are not passive spectators of a sanctification God works in us. On the contrary, we have purposefully to ‘put away’ from us all conduct that is incompatible with our new life in Christ and to ‘put on’ a lifestyle compatible with it.” [Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (p. 193). InterVarsity Press]
CS Lewis: “… putting on .. Christ is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; and It is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity. Christianity offers nothing else at all. And … it differs from ordinary ideas of ‘morality’ and ‘being good’.” [Lewis, C. S. (2001). Mere Christianity (p. 195). HarperOne.]
References and sources
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