From Persecutor to Preacher

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We first meet Saul, who would later become Paul, as a bystander in Jerusalem. He was watching the stoning of Stephen, the very first martyr of the young Christian church. Saul would become a great threat to the future of the church.

But Paul, threatening with every breath and eager to destroy every Christian, went to the High Priest in Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1 TLB)

Acts 9 provides an account of Paul’s conversion. In all, there are three accounts of the event. More space is devoted to Paul’s conversion experience than to any other subject. Clearly this was a seminal event in the life of the Church, not to mention an event that forever changed Paul’s own life.

But before this life-changing event, Paul was on a rampage; he was a man on a mission, and that mission was to destroy the church.

Paul was like a wild man, going everywhere to devastate the believers, even entering private homes and dragging out men and women alike and jailing them. (Acts 8:3 TLB)

Paul’s whole being; indeed, his whole reason for living, was the destroy the church of Jesus Christ any way he could. His mentor was the much more reasonable Gamaliel, who urged caution and restraint in dealing with this new religious movement. This advice didn’t sit well with Paul, and he parted company with his rabbi to strike out on his own. Paul may or may not have actually killed any Christians, but he certainly approved of it. He was blinded by his mission. Paul didn’t know it, but had fulfilled something Jesus had said to His apostles:

For you will be excommunicated from the synagogues, and indeed the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing God a service. (John 16:2 TLB)

How bad was Paul? The persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem had effectively shut the church down in that city, or at the very least driven it underground. Many, though certainly not all, of the believers had fled Jerusalem. This would have pleased the religious leaders, but not Paul.

He requested a letter addressed to synagogues in Damascus, requiring their cooperation in the persecution of any believers he found there, both men and women, so that he could bring them in chains to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:2 TLB)

He was determined to chase down and ferret out any and all Christians, wherever he could find them. His goal was to stamp out the church of Jesus Christ.

As Joseph discovered, Christians were soon to discover: What was meant to harm the church, God turned around to benefit the church! The persecution not only caused the Christians to leave Jerusalem, taking the Gospel with them enabling them to start churches wherever they went, John Piper notes another benefit of persecution:

The suffering of sickness and the suffering of persecution have this in common: they are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith, and governed by God for the purifying of our faith.

This purification was certainly necessary for the early church, and it’s necessary for us, too. A little persecution can help keep our focus where it should be: on God.

Acts 9:4 – 9

Someone once remarked:

The flesh must be broken. Only then may the Lord use us.

Paul was persecuting Christians right and left with great relish, but the Lord had other plans for Him.

As he was nearing Damascus on this mission, suddenly a brilliant light from heaven spotted down upon him! He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Paul! Paul! Why are you persecuting me?”

“Who is speaking, sir?” Paul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city and await my further instructions.” (Acts 9:3 – 6 TLB)

This story is recounted two more times in Acts, but Paul probably never tired of giving his testimony to anybody who would stand still long enough to listen. He told it to regular folk, and he told it to King Agrippa. It’s the story of how God is able to change a life. When God sets His sights on a person and gets ahold of that person’s heart, he doesn’t stand a chance! God is in the life-changing business and He is an expert at it.

We can imagine how confused Paul must have been. Here he was, doing the work of God, so he thought. Jesus informed him of the truth: when you persecute a member of the church, you are persecuting the Head of church. What a solemn warning to anybody – whether part of the church or from outside of the church – of how unwise and dangerous it is to mess with the church of Jesus Christ! He takes it very personally!

Those who were with Paul were speechless. Apparently they knew something weird had happened on this dusty road to Damascus, but they didn’t comprehend it. To his credit, Paul heard and understood and did exactly as he was told.

This conversion experience gives us the template for all conversione experiences:

First, consider how the KJV translates verse 5:

And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

It seems that deep down inside his heart of hearts, Paul somehow knew he was wrong. The reason for his intensity was that he was trying to deaden the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Second, at that moment of recognition, Paul was converted. He recognized who was speaking to him.

Third, there was an almost immediate act of consecration: Paul asked what he could do.

And finally, there was communion and fellowship for the three days he was without sight, food and water.

Acts 9:10 – 19

Now there was in Damascus a believer named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!” (Acts 9:10 TLB)

We know nothing about this particular Ananias except his name, which means “the Lord is gracious.” Though we don’t know anything else about him personally, we know that this man might well be the reason you are a Christian today! Had he not been obedient to the voice of God, Paul might never have regained his sight and become an apostle. So, we’re grateful for Ananias’ obedient spirit.

In all, God give two reasons for calling Paul. First, he was chosen by God to take the Gospel far and wide.

For Paul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the nations and before kings, as well as to the people of Israel. (Acts 9:15 TLB)

Paul was to take the Gospel to three groups: the nations, or to the Gentiles. In fact, he would become known as “the apostle to the Gentiles.” Then the Lord indicated that Paul would bear witness before kings. We know he witnessed to Agrippa, but he may have also shared his faith Nero. And finally, Paul would preach to his own people.

Secondly, God called Paul to show him how much he would for Christ. He was, in effect, called to suffer.

And I will show him how much he must suffer for me. (Acts 9:16 TLB)

Who suffered for Christ more than Paul? We can’t answer that question, but here was a man specifically called to suffer for God.

So Ananias went over and found Paul and laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Paul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit and get your sight back.” (Acts 9:17 TLB)

Any fear or apprehension Ananias might have had obviously didn’t keep him from doing what God wanted him to do. He went and found Paul, prayed for him and Paul not only got his sight back, but was filled with the Holy Spirit! Paul had the passion, he had Scriptural knowledge, but he lacked the energizing power of the Holy Spirit. Sam Storms was right when he said,

God’s Spirit resides within us to encourage, energize, and enable us. 

That wasn’t end of Paul’s experience. Before the events of the rest of Acts 9, this happened to him:

I didn’t go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. No, I went away into the deserts of Arabia and then came back to the city of Damascus. It was not until three years later that I finally went to Jerusalem for a visit with Peter and stayed there with him for fifteen days. (Galatians 1:17, 18 TLB)

Almost immediately after his conversion, Paul spent some three years in Arabia before going to Jerusalem to visit with the apostles. This period of time isn’t covered in Acts, although it is hinted at in verse 23. We’re not sure exactly where Paul was in Arabia. It’s interesting how the Lord has dealt with His people over the years. He trained Moses in the desert. He put Abraham in a very difficult place to teach and train him also in the desert. Elijah also spent a lot of time in the desert. David spent a long time on the run from King Saul, hiding out in the caves of the desert. God must like deserts.

What Paul was doing out in the Arabian desert for those three years we don’t know. No doubt he had a lot of thinking to do. He had to sort out his beliefs and theology in light of what Jesus had told him. He had been trained in Gamaliel’s school for rabbis, so he was well-versed in the Scriptures. Yet God considered that Paul wasn’t quite ready to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The soon-to-be apostle Paul still needed three more years before he would be ready.

Back to Damascus, Paul’s testimony was even more powerful after his time with the Lord out in the desert.

After a while the Jewish leaders determined to kill him. But Paul was told about their plans, that they were watching the gates of the city day and night prepared to murder him. So during the night some of his converts let him down in a basket through an opening in the city wall! (Acts 9:23 – 25 TLB)

It’s hard to argue with someone who is motivated by the Holy Spirit. The Jews couldn’t stop Paul from preaching about his new-found faith, so they sought to kill him. One way or another, this renegade rabbi would be stopped. The parallel passage for this incident is found in 2 Corinthians, and it sheds some important light on the subject:

For instance, in Damascus the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me; but I was let down by rope and basket from a hole in the city wall, and so I got away! What popularity! (2 Corinthians 11:32, 33 TLB)

The ruler of Damascus was not a Roman but a Nabatean Arab – a king. The Jews of Damascus were able to persuade this Arab to put out an arrest warrant for Paul. How were they able to do this? It is entirely possible that during his three year stint in the desert of Arabia, Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Nabateans, and maybe even to the king himself. It this is true, even at this early point in Paul’s ministry, the Gospel was already getting him in trouble. Just as God told him it would.

And so the great persecutor of the church became it’s greatest preacher.

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