Saul of Tarsus was the “Chief of Sinners.” Perhaps it would help to think of him as the great Middle Eastern terrorist of his day. He was a zealous worshiper who was most likely in Jerusalem at the Feast of Passover. Therefore, as a Pharisee and influential Jewish leader, he was most likely involved in the arrest, arraignment, and assassination of Jesus. However, Scripture is explicit in presenting him as the great antichrist of his era. As the church of Jesus Christ grew, Saul became consumed with a desire to completely purge his land of this new religious cult. His opposition began in the synagogue; it escalated in the court; and it ultimately spilt into the street. He was the one who officiated over the murderous stoning of Stephen, and he followed this up by ripping households apart looking for members of “The Way.” But even then he was not satisfied, for while the church had been seriously buffeted in Jerusalem, Christians were finding refuge and success in Samaria. So Saul, seeking to eradicate the church, requested and received permission to bring his assault to Damascus. Like a modern member of ISIS, Saul had the taste of Christian blood in his mouth. Whatever the cost, this Middle Eastern zealot was determined to terrorize and sever the head of the church. And so with great commitment, seeking to be righteous and earn paradise, Saul continued his holy jihad against Christ and his disciples.
However, while Saul considered himself the hunter, he was actually the hunted. While he exercised his free will to blaspheme Christ, resist the Holy Spirit, and terrorize the church, Christ exercised his free will to bring about revival in Saul’s heart. And when the time was right, somewhere on the desert road, the “Chief of Sinners” was thrown from his horse, humbled, educated, and regenerated. Saul was converted.
And what were the marks of a converted man?
Acts 9:5–30 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 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. 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.” 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, 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.” But Ananias answered, “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.” 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. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 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. 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.
Saul understood Jesus to be his Savior and his Lord. He saw himself not as one “inviting Jesus into his heart” but more like one bowing before the feet of a sovereign. Jesus was his friend, but Jesus was his master. Therefore, when told to go to the house of a stranger and wait for further instructions, Saul did so. He proved his love for Jesus by doing what Jesus commanded.
Saul engaged in acceptable worship. He fasted, prayed, practiced the sacrament of baptism, and communed with the disciples, and as a result he made progress in the faith. He learned from Ananias, Barnabas and others; consequently he “increased all the more in strength.” As solid as Saul was, there was still great room for improvement. Saul was a work in progress, and he was always hungry to make progress in character, skill, and knowledge.
Saul immediately ministered for Christ. Sure, he had much to repent of, much to prove, and much to learn. But without delay, Saul began using his Spirit-empowered pre-conversion gifts in service to his Savior and Lord. Saul responded to his conversion in the same manner as did the Samaritan woman or the healed paralytic. He went to the place most comfortable for him — the synagogue — and became a herald of the Gospel. Saul of Tarsus became a “Fisher of Men.” He immediately became engaged in keeping the Great Commission.
Saul, though being persecuted, persevered. Whether in Damascus or Jerusalem, Saul found himself persecuted by other antichrists. In addition, he further suffered as many in the church refused to recognize the mercy and grace shown to him by Christ. However, despite the sorrow involved in ministry, he continued on. Saul counted the cost, picked up his cross, and followed Jesus.
Therefore friends, what do we learn from this section of Scripture?
1. No one is too sinful or too hard for the Holy Spirit to convert. Let us be in prayer for the antichrists about us. The Holy Spirit can do that which Christ’s enemies will not and Christ’s disciples cannot. Let us not lose hope for our friends and loved ones who remain ambitious antagonists of Christ and his church.
2. Let us submit to the will of Jesus Christ. If we say we love him, and keep not his commandments, we lie and speak not the truth. He is the King, and we are his subjects. He is the Master, and we are his servants. He is the Owner, and we are his slaves. Obedience is a fruit of a changed relationship with God.
3. Let us not discount the importance of prayer and communion. Fellowship with the family of God is vital to our increasing in spiritual strength. Saul would spend the rest of his life planting local churches for Christ’s children. May we not slight the assembly of God.
4. Let us go to work for Christ — immediately. True, we have not all been called to be miracle-working Apostles, but we have all been called to service. The Holy Spirit lives within and spiritual gifts have been granted to all in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let us work very hard for the Kingdom of God.
5. Let our commitment not diminish when we encounter hardship outside or inside the church. The world will hate us, and the church will abuse us, but Christ is worth our continued resolve. Let us not be wimpish in our Christian service. Christ stayed on the cross out of love for us. We can stay the course out of love for him.