The Conversion of St. Paul - Acts 9.1-22 - January 25, 2015
1) St. Paul’s conversion seems so spectacular. This is for two reasons. First, when we consider the murderous hatred in Paul’s heart for Christ, his conversion to faith in Christ seems so much more miraculous. Saul had not been ambivalent toward the faith. He sought to destroy it. While St. Stephen was being made into the first martyr of the New Testament Church, St. Luke records that “the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58) Saul approved of Stephen’s death. He held everyone’s coats while they fulfilled their bloodlust. Stephen’s death breathed a new life into the hatred the Jews had for Christ and began a persecution of Christians in Jerusalem and the outlying areas. Again, St. Luke records, “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” (Acts 8:3) Saul seethes with hatred for Christ and His Christians because Saul was wholly committed to the Law of Moses, specifically he was committed to the idea of works righteousness. Saul was zealous for the idea that in the performing of the works of the Law sinners could be justified before God. Saul was totally committed, zealous, and single-minded in his defense of Moses as a the way of salvation which is why he must so vehemently oppose Christ, who teaches not works but faith in His atoning death upon the cross. Saul stood to lose so much if Christ was true. In Philippians 3:5-6 Paul lists the credentials he held under the Law. “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” If Christ was truly the Son of God who saves only by faith, all Saul’s credentials, all his works, all his zeal, meant nothing.
2) Later in life, writing as a prisoner for the sake of Christ, He writes: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9) Because of his conversion to Christ, Paul counts all his own good works as trash and refuse. All that matters is knowing Christ and having the perfect righteousness of Christ, not his own works of the Law which were, in reality, filthy, hypocritical, unclean rags. Paul, once the Apostle of Moses, teaching justification by works of the Law, now casts all of that thinking aside for the sake of faith in Christ. Christ turned Saul’s zeal for the Law into zeal for the Gospel of faith in Christ. Chris reshapes Saul’s vim and vigor for Moses into a faith which would rather die a thousand times than reject Christ. We see this towards the end of the reading from Acts. “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” (Acts 9:20, 22) Saul’s conversion sticks in our hearts because we see the complete change that Christ works in this man, making a disciple of the Law into a preacher of the Gospel.
3) St. Paul’s conversion seems so wonderful and spectacular to us because of this utter change. And it should bring us all true hope and consolation whenever we despair about the magnitude of our own sins. We must not look at the depth of our sins and wallow in despair, thinking that our sins are too great and numerous to be forgiven by God. The Lord works this great salvation in Saul to demonstrate to all mankind the extent of His mercy. St. Paul writes to young Bishop Timothy, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16) The Gospel is for all people because Christ died to atone for the sins of the entire world. But Paul serves as the chief pattern of God’s mercy that we are to look to when our sins overwhelm us. Look what the Lord God does with the chief of sinners! He was a murderer. He spilled the blood of the saints in the streets. He imprisoned our brothers and sisters in Christ. He struck terrorized the faithful with his threats. He denied Christ openly, loudly, and impenitently. St. Paul calls himself the chief of sinners and this most certainly true, for the Holy Ghost inspired St. Paul to write this of himself. If the Lord shows mercy to this man who is chief of all of us sinners then what will the Lord show to you, to me, to all the world. It doesn’t matter if your sins are different from Paul’s sins. You can’t stack yours up against his for comparison. He is the chief of us. And Jesus came into the world to save the chief of sinners to show that He wants to save all sinners, not by works of the Law, not by Moses, not by what you can do within yourself by your own power, but by faith in Christ’s righteousness and confidence that His death atones for all your sins. St. Paul’s conversion is spectacular for this great turn around. But this turn around in Saul is for you, to show you that this is how Christ deals with all sinners.
4) The second reason that St. Paul’s conversion seems so spectacular is the mode in which it seemed to occur. Bright, unapproachable light, the voice of Christ booming in his ears. Christ appears to Saul and preaches the sternest law to him. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 9:4-5) The full force of Christ’s judgment is brought upon Saul. Saul has been persecuting Christians. But Christ says no, when you persecute them you are really persecuting me, for they are my body, they belong to me and I to them in the mystical union of faith. Saul is crushed by the hammer of Christ’s accusation and brought low by His word of condemnation. We must note that this is not where Saul is converted. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), not the Law. The Law does not convert us to fear, love and trust in God above all things. The Law does not inspire true faith in our hearts towards Christ. The Law always condemns us for our sins and leaves us bloodied, bludgeoned, and beaten. Saul is not converted on the road to Damascus. He only hears Christ’s accusation against Him and learns of His true blindness. Christ blinds Saul physically to show Saul just how spiritually blind he has truly been. It is a picture of his spiritual condition. It is a visible manifestation of the preaching of the Law against him.
5) When Saul asks the Lord what it is that he should do, Christ does not preach the Gospel to him. He says, “Arise and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:6) Christ reserves the great honor of preaching the Gospel for the Holy Ministry which He ordained before He ascended into heaven. The Lord Jesus sends His servant Ananias to Saul. Ananias enters the house where Saul was and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you came, has send me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” (Acts 9:17-18) Here is St. Paul’s conversion. Not in the blinding light of the Law on the Damascus road, but here in the Gospel given in Holy Baptism. We should note that Saul wasn’t baptized by immersion because they were in the rather large city of Damascus and nowhere near a river. St. Paul’s conversion from the religion of the Law to the religion of the Gospel happens at the hands of Ananias pouring water combined with God’s Word over the head of Saul. Christ gives the Holy Spirit to sinners when they are baptized so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, sinners can then believe the Gospel that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ, for “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
6) So we see that our conversions to the true faith are just as spectacular as St. Paul’s. His was perhaps more flashy in the sense that Christ physically appeared to him, but this was necessary so that Paul could see the risen Christ and be called as His Apostle to the Gentiles. But in the way the conversion happened, it is the same as ours. Saul was converted by Law and Gospel. Christ condemned Him for his many sins and transgressions. Christ then absolves his many sins and transgressions by faith, which is given through the Gospel in Holy Baptism. Christ does this through the Office of the Ministry. He does not do with without means, but uses His pastors and His Sacraments to do His Gospel work while He is ascended to the right hand of the Father. St. Paul’s conversion is spectacular, but not because Christ just zaps Paul and makes him a changed man. His conversion is spectacular because it shows us our own conversions, through the preaching of the Law and the hearing of the Gospel that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. His conversion is spectacular because it shows us how Christ deals with the chief of sinners, and if He is merciful to the chief of sinners, how can He show us anything but great mercy and abounding compassion when we repent of our sins? Saul’s conversion points us to our own conversion that happens ever day, for Christians ought to be daily repenting of our sins condemned by the Law and daily hearing the good news of great joy: that Christ is mercy, and that He shows His mercy in the Gospel, no matter the depth of our sins or the width of our transgressions. How He deals with Saul is how He deals with all of us. He gives us His mercy through His Gospel and means of Grace. Amen.