For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 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. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. (Acts 9:19-30 ESV)
Over the last two weeks, we’ve been considering the incredible story of Saul’s Damascus Road encounter with the living Lord. He had come from Jerusalem with a letter of permission from the Chief Priest to arrest all who “belonged to the way.” Word of the reason for his visit had preceded him and everyone was expecting the same results here. He had ravaged the church in Jerusalem, and he was intending to the do the same in Damascus. Saul WOULD put a stop to this situation, just count on it.
Have you ever noticed how often we underestimate God. This new group of Jesus followers has been scattered across the area to avoid persecution. I have no doubt that there were those in the church who felt that God had somehow failed or made a mistake when this occurred. But it wasn’t a mistake, it was all a part of His plan. God was sowing the seed just like Jesus said would happen in Mark 4. Then we see the chief persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, seek permission to take the fight from Jerusalem and the Temple and move it out into the streets and synagogues of the suburbs and surrounding cities. Saul was on a mission and he was driven to put a stop to this crazy new belief.
I am certain that when word got out that Saul was on his way to Damascus, Ananias and the others in this fledgling church were afraid, very afraid of what was about to happen. I’ve been involved in enough church prayer meetings that I am certain they were fervently praying for God’s intervention. I have, on several occasions, prayed out of deep, deep desperation. I have prayed for help or intervention and made God outrageous promises which He knew I could not and would not keep. I’m pretty sure you’ve been there, too. But here’s the good news, God was working long before we started praying and long before the church at Damascus started praying.
When the church at Damascus was praying, I am fairly certain they were NOT praying for Saul’s conversion. I believe they were most likely praying for God to strike down their enemy… In fact, they might have even been praying some of the “imprecatory” Psalms. To imprecate means to curse or to call upon God to destroy one’s enemies. These are Psalms which call upon God to curse or destroy the enemies of either the Psalmist or Israel (See Psalm 7 or 35 as an example). Haven’t you asked for the same thing, at times? I know I have…
Instead of destroying the church’s enemy, Saul, with a strategic lightning strike, God decided to just show up that day. Isn’t God’s grace AMAZING! Instead of cursing or destroying Saul, God’s chose to change him through grace. As Saul would later write:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV)
Grace is able to transform us in ways we don’t completely understand. God is able to look deeper than our failures, look beyond our prejudices and see our possibilities, the real potential for which He made us. Notice the phrase in the passage above, “We are his workmanship.” We often want to take credit for our successes and blame God for our failures, when we should really take the blame for our failures and give God the credit for our successes. The change in Saul is not due to Saul’s inherent goodness. The change in Saul is only due to the mercies of God and the outpouring of saving grace. Scripture mentions that pride is often our downfall…
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:8-10 ESV
“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:5-7 ESV)
We often miss this most important aspect of God’s character and our salvation. GRACE. God’s love and forgiveness extended to us, not because we deserve it but precisely because we don’t deserve it but desperately need it. Saul knew this, not just as a theological concept or a biblical ideal but as the truth of God that was able to transform him. It is also the very thing that will transform you. Once you begin to grasp how deep, wide, high and powerful God’s grace is then you too will begin to be transformed by its amazing power.
Now, I want you to notice the reaction of those who encounter this transformed persecutor. Saul first encounters those who despise his grace transformed life, the traditional Jewish synagogue members in and around Damascus. Saul’s transformation by grace changed him from a friend to an enemy, very quickly. He was no longer their savior but was now the target of their threats and anger. He appears to have been so effective and powerful at proclaiming the gospel and proving that Jesus is the Son of God that they now wanted him out of the way and began plotting his murder.
Let that sink in… Saul has been powerfully transformed by God’s grace and now these morally good, religiously devout Jews are seeking to MURDER him. What changed? Saul did, but not into some heinous, horrible monster that deserved to be murdered. He simply became a recipient of God’s transforming grace and one who believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodiment of all that God has promised. Why would that make them want to kill him? Because it exposed their sin and the lies they believed.
The same still happens today. There are many who want to silence the truth of the gospel and the transforming power of grace. Why? For the same reason, it exposes their sin and stands in contrast to the lies they are living. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, ignoring the symptoms won’t make it go away. To defeat cancer requires an accurate diagnosis and an aggressive, effective treatment plan. To treat the sin in our lives requires the same, an accurate diagnosis and an aggressive, effective treatment plan.
But I want you to notice one more response to God’s grace as expressed in Saul, the response by the Jerusalem church. Luke tells us that Saul spent many more days in Damascus contending with the Jews in the synagogues and proving that Jesus is the Christ/or Messiah. When these Jews put together a plot to kill Saul, he escaped Damascus at night by being lowered in a rope net (basket) from a window in the city wall. He makes his way back to Jerusalem with the hope of meeting up with the Apostles and finding friendship and encouragement. But, that’s not what he found.
The Apostles’ response to Saul’s conversion is not unfamiliar to us. I have no doubt that fear motivated their response. It often motivates our responses. In fact, it often motivates our responses to situations similar to Saul’s. How would you feel if a convicted murderer claimed to have a “conversion” while in prison and wanted to join your Bible study or small group? Come one, be honest. You’d be afraid, too. We struggle with similar issues. We would question the financial integrity of an embezzler, the trustworthiness of a known liar, and so on. But, grace CAN and DOES transform. Barnabas knew that truth, grace is able to transform even the worst among us. Grace had transformed his own life, and he was certain that grace had transformed Saul’s.
I was watching some television show the other night and while I don’t remember the name of the show or even the primary plot, I do remember one scene that grabbed my attention. A young man was given a pair of glasses that, when worn, gave him the ability to see “tags” on people that told how they felt or what they were experiencing. He had been harsh and judgmental towards the same people before he had the “glasses.” But upon seeing their struggles and fears or their hurts and rejections caused him to begin changing his attitude and his behaviors. I think he not only saw their struggles, but he saw himself in a different light. He saw that he’s not alone in his struggles. He didn’t just see people differently because of those glasses, he began to see himself differently.
If you truly begin to understand grace, you too will be transformed. Not just in your relationship with God, but in your relationship with everyone. Grace gives you the ability to yourself and, thus, the ability to see others as sinners in need of God’s love, grace, forgiveness and healing. It truly is AMAZING grace.