Saul: The Religious Master

Series: When Love Comes to Town

February 17, 2019 | Taylor Rutland
Passage: Acts 9:1-31

We continue our journey in our series, When Love Comes to Town, this morning. We are going to be looking at a familiar story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Probably the most transformative account of an individual in all of scripture. Imagine for a moment the worst person that you know. Perhaps it is the person that you are currently sitting next to, a person you knew growing up. Whoever it is then imagine that you run into them again 10-15 years down the road and they are a completely different person. Their demeanor completely changed, their tone, the way they treat you it’s like they became a completely different person. For some of us in this room this is nothing more than a thought experiment, but I would guess that there are some people in this room who have that experience. The person you thought you knew has completely changed. Our story today is an account of this type of transformation. It’s the story of a hater of Christians turned into the most successful missionary in the history of the world. So listen in to this story that Luke records for us in Acts 9.

Blinded by Religion:

"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." — Acts 9:2

Most of the time when we look at the story of Saul we focus on the fact that he was a murderer of Christians. At the end of Acts 7, Luke gives us this description of Saul standing over Stephen as the people stone him. Saul was certainly a killer of Christians, but in his own mind his intention was good. He didn’t think he was doing evil.

He was blinded by his own religious zeal. That is what makes the story of Saul so scary. Religious activity is not a bad thing. In fact, I encourage it. Being faithful to a church, doing good works in the community where you live, reading the Scriptures, fasting, praying these are all good disciplines that the church of Jesus Christ should be pursuing. But what is the motive behind these disciplines? Do they make us more humble or more haughty? Do they make us more aware of our own inadequacies before a Holy God or more judgmental of those that are not like us?

The religious fervor that Saul exhibited made him haughty and judgmental. So much so, that he was not able to see that murdering people was even wrong. The Devil used religion to blind him to the truth of the Gospel, and I would argue that this is very scary for those that grew up in a religious context.

Religious activity becomes what we worship instead of God himself. We find in these activities happiness and fulfillment but if we were to be honest with ourselves we still would communicate that these cannot bring fulfillment. There will always be in the back of our mind this belief that what we are doing for God is not enough. And that is exactly right. You could never perform enough good works to make yourself right before God.

But the Gospel teaches that you don’t have to perform enough good works. Jesus performed the good works on your behalf for you because he knew you would never be able to achieve enough good works on your own. We overcome religious zeal by resting in the ultimate work that Christ performed on the cross for us. This is the message that Saul needed to hear.

  • If you fall in the religious effort camp this morning, I want you to know that Jesus’s death on the cross frees you from this obsession. You will never find true freedom in Christ as long as you are living your life functionally believing that your good works make you right with God. Place your faith in Jesus alone for salvation, and allow the good works you do perform to be a response to your love for him.

The Importance of Obedience:

"And the Lord said to him’ Rise and go 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." — Acts 9:11-12

Ananias is a crucial character in the story of Saul’s conversion because it is Ananias who helps Saul process the experience of his conversion. Imagine going through a life transforming experience alone. Jesus knew the importance of Saul being able to pray, share, and process what had happened to him with someone who was further along in the faith than him. In many ways, Ananias is the hero of this story.

Why does Saul need Ananias? Because processing an event like this alone would have been really dangerous. There is no telling what conclusions Saul would have drawn from this experience alone. He could have dismissed it as a weird dream or interpreted it wrongly.

Ananias’s obedience should not be overlooked here. He was risking his life associating with someone like Saul of Tarsus. It was dangerous, and costly for him, and yet Luke shows us that he was obedient in spite of the danger.

  • I love this quote that I heard in an interview with Rosaria Butterfield, whose name I have mentioned multiple times over the last few weeks. She said this, “The early church feared false teaching more than it feared persecution and because of that the early church was willing to do anything to see their neighbors converted.” She takes it one step further by arguing that the western church today fears persecution more than false teaching which is having a direct result of less and less people being willing to share their faith. I agree with her assessment 100%. We have allowed the truth of Scripture to be compromised in order to accommodate more people and lessen the amount of persecution we experience, and yet the statistics tell us that the church is not growing in the West using this type of model.

Ananias was way more concerned with Saul fully understanding his conversion experience than he was his own life. He knew the risk. Saul could have easily murdered Ananias just like he had murdered others before him, but that price was worth it if it meant that Saul had a true understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus.

Do you Believe This?

"And all who heard him were amazed and said, 'Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon his name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?'" — Acts 9:21

The people were astonished at the transformation that Saul made. We just read at the end of Acts 7 that he was murdering Christians and seeking out any people who were followers of Jesus, and now he is preaching in the Jewish synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the ultimate 180. It seems almost too good to be true.

There is no other explanation of this transformation except the Spirit of God changing the heart of Saul. When Paul writes 2 Corinthians sometime later he writes that, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away behold the new has come.” And this is exactly what happened here. New birth has occurred. It can’t be explained any other way. Saul didn’t just s become a missionary because he was educated to be one, or knew the scriptures well enough to be one. In fact, he would never be qualified to be a missionary by today’s standards.

The people were highly skeptical of Saul’s transformation. What they were really communicating is that they didn’t think that God could save a person like Saul. I’ll confess to you this morning that I am very much like the group of people in this story. Sometimes I believe that certain people are incapable of being saved, and I use that as an excuse to not share the Gospel with them. I’ll say things like, this person doesn’t want to give up this habit to follow Jesus, or this person is an atheist there is no need even bringing up the Gospel to them they’ll just be super antagonistic, or this person has no clue about Jesus and it would take too long to explain to them anyways.

At the end of the day, if we were to be honest with each other we doubt the power of God to transform people’s lives sometimes. We don’t actually believe what Paul himself tells us in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Why do we not believe this? Why is our faith weak sometimes? I believe part of the reason for this is because we live in a naturalistic world where we need scientific explanations most of the time in order to believe that something is true. Another reason is in a postmodern and post truth context where absolutes truth is frowned upon, we take the absolute commands of Jesus and we try to make them optional.

  • Barna just recently released a new study that shows 47% of American Christian millennials are of the belief that sharing one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share that same faith is wrong. But at the same time 94% say the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus. I understand the trepidation that many of us have about sharing our faith with others, but just imagine if Jesus had that sort of outlook with the people he talked with. This cannot be the way forward for Christianity in America. We have to be willing to have disagreements without it destroying the relationship we have with them. We have to be willing to enter into a world where people are not like us.
  • Sam Chan in his recent book Evangelism in a Skeptical World points out the importance of plausibility structures. Plausibility structures are simply the believability status of truth claims. For instance, if I said a UFO landed in my backyard last night and I invited the aliens in to have dinner with my family you would immediately dismiss the believability of this claim. It’s implausible. But for all of you in this room if I began talking a virgin birth, a man being raised from the dead after 3 days, and then later ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of God almost all of you would say that is very plausible even though in many ways it’s just as farfetched as the UFO story. Chan points out that one of the primary ways plausibility structures develop is through community. So one way to get more people to believe what you believe about Jesus is to get them into a community of people who already believe all of these things about Jesus. Instead of trying to convince your non-Christian friend about Jesus on your own invite your non-Christian friend into your Christian circle. We need to do a better job of merging our universes. Our Christian friends and our non-Christian friends need to be in the same circle instead of two separate circles. Maybe you’re struggling with the 4 the city emphasis, how about partnering with someone else and do it together. Take some of your Christian friends with you and focus on some non-Christian friends together. Have a potluck dinner and ask everyone to bring a dish. Don’t try do this alone. Merge the worlds.

A Trusted Friend

"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." — Acts 9:27

The true hero of this story is Barnabas. He was able to advocate on behalf of Saul. Willing to stand up and say look I know this guy has a rough past, but I believe that he has been transformed by the Spirit of God.

In a lot of ways, Barnabas is the one in this story who has the unwavering faith in God’s ability to save and transform. He was willing to stand up not because he trusted Saul, but because he trusted God to transform a person’s heart.

Maybe you have been the trusted friend before. Advocating for the new found faith of a brother or sister in Christ. Or maybe you have been like the disciples doubtful of a person’s transformation. Skeptical that they are coming to faith in Christ for the right reasons. Or perhaps down the road you will have an opportunity to come alongside of someone and be a Barnabas type figure in their life.

As we close today, I want to share with you a story. I was an 18 year old student just beginning college at a school I won’t name for fear of persecution. I was experiencing significant growth at this point in my walk with God. Studying God’s word, praying, active in church, avoiding the typical sins of college students. And yet as I grew, something happened. It was a slow growth but pride began to take over. The time I spent in the Word and prayer was hijacked by a temptation from the Devil to think that these things made somehow better than others. And I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Fortunately, someone in my life noticed this trend and called me out on it. Loved me enough to say you think by reading all of these books and spending time in prayer is making you closer to God, but the judgment that you have in your hearts towards others is actually distancing you from the things of God. The danger in the story of Saul is a danger that everyone of us in this room who are in Christ can fall prey to. The danger of thinking that our religious activity makes us right with God. None of us have murdered Christians like Saul did, but I bet we have murdered them in our hearts. The scariest lesson from this story is that Saul was not even aware he was in the wrong until Jesus stopped him in his tracks. Saul had to discover the Gospel, but for many of us we need to rediscover the Gospel. The Gospel is not a one time event. It is a daily rediscovery. Tim Keller says, “Religious people obey God to get things. Gospel people obey God to get God.” Which one are you?

Series Information

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