Encounters with God is a sermon series about the theophanies or divine appearances and how they reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him. The Apostle Paul (known as Saul) had a life-changing encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Paul began his trip on a mission to arrest followers of Jesus and ended his trip proclaiming him as the Son of God. What happened to bring about this dramatic reversal? He saw Jesus, high and lifted up. Recorded on Jan 2, 2022, on Acts 9, by Pastor David Parks.
All year, we’re talking about The Greatness of God. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series called Encounters with God. After this week, we only have one more week in this series before starting a new series called The Making of Heaven and Earth from Genesis 1-3. The greatness of God is evident in the work of creation. But as we approach the end of this series, as we’ve said all along the way: in the Bible, when God appears to someone it’s known as a theophany or divine appearing. And these encounters are wild stories; God never seems to act how we would expect. But these encounters, reveal the stunning character of God, and his heart to save a world that is lost without him. Today, we’re making the big jump from the OT to the NT, but we’re jumping over the gospel accounts of the NT. Christians believe that Jesus wasn’t just a great man, but that he was the only one who is fully God and fully man. So the whole life of Jesus in one sense is very much an encounter with God. But given the fact that we spent all of last year focusing on the person and work of Jesus, today and next week, we’ll look at a few divine appearings of Jesus that took place after his resurrection and ascension back into heaven. These appearances are not the Jesus meek and mild of his first coming, but the Jesus high and lifted up of today, the Jesus who is seated at the right hand of the Almighty, the King of heaven and earth. So today, we get to unpack the famous encounter with God and the Apostle Paul, who was also known as Saul, on the road to Damascus. In this encounter, we’ll see that God is the great Redeemer, even of his enemies. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Acts 9:1.
Acts 9:1-9 (NIV), “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”
Let’s pause here. Back on Christmas Eve, I said that Luke was a physician who became a Christian through the ministry of the Apostle Paul, likely in the city of Ephesus in Turkey. After becoming a Christian, Luke did a careful investigation into the life/ministry of Jesus by interviewing eyewitnesses who were there. This investigation resulted in the book of Luke in the Bible on the life/ministry of Jesus and the book of Acts in the Bible, which is all about what happened next. What happened after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus back into heaven, so much of which had to do with the man who is introduced here, that is Saul. Now, Saul is the Hebrew form of his name, which makes sense as we start this chapter of the story in Jerusalem. But as he was sent out to the Gentiles and traveled through the Greco-Roman cultures around the Roman Empire, he used the Greek form of his name, which was Paul. So Luke starts this incredible encounter story with Saul breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, against Christians, against the Church. Now, the murderous threats of Saul weren’t hollow threats. Back in Acts chapter 8, Luke writes that Saul had approved of the public killing of Stephen, a deacon in the early church of Jerusalem and the first Christian martyr. And after Stephen’s death, as a zealous young man, Saul launched himself into a widespread persecution of Christians. Luke says, “…Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3). Later in Acts, Paul described his mindset during this time, saying, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.” So it was this man, arrest warrant papers in hand, who was traveling [map slide] the approximately 135 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus, the capital city of Syria. Apparently, it was likely that there were Christians in the city of Damascus, but, as we see here before anyone was known as a Christian, the disciples of Jesus were known as The Way. They were known as The Way because they followed the way of Jesus.
But, in v. 3, “As [Saul] neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” Just as in many of the other encounters with God that we’ve looked at in this series, Saul falls down on his face. And what does God say? This is so fascinating. He says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Why do you persecute me? Wait a minute. I’m persecuting followers of Jesus. Saul is an expert in the OT Scriptures. He would’ve known this was a theophany. But his whole life was founded on the belief that Jesus wasn’t God. This is why he has to double-check. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked in v. 5. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Now, it’s hard when your deeply held beliefs/convictions are upended by new information. All at once, Saul could not continue to hold to the belief that Jesus was a fraud and a blasphemer when he came face to face with the risen Jesus and realized he had all the glory/honor/power of God. No doubt, Saul experienced profound disorientation in the face of the crumbling deconstruction of his former beliefs about Jesus. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He had been completely wrong. He thought he had been working for God but he now realized he had been working against God. His companions knew something had happened but they weren’t clear exactly what, but Saul knew what he saw and heard. He was so stunned physically (and in every other capacity), he was blinded and refused to eat or drink for days afterward. Let’s keep going. v. 10.
Acts 9:10-16 (NIV), “10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
So Ananias is called by Jesus to minister to Saul, the infamous persecutor of the Church. How would you feel about that? Ananias is understandably confused. Who do you want me to go to? To Saul of Tarsus? Lord, don’t you know who that is? He’s your enemy! And he has authority from none other than the High Priest and the Jewish ruling council of Jerusalem. But Jesus says, “Oh no he isn’t. Not anymore. He’s mine. Saul will be my chosen instrument to proclaim/bring my name to the Gentiles (or non-Jewish people) and to their kings, but also to the people of Israel. This statement is amazing to me. Just think of all this reveals to the early Christian church and to us today about the character of God, about who God is, and what he is like. In this story, it’s clear that it’s the risen Jesus, high and lifted up, who is the Lord of heaven, but who also knows who Saul and Ananias are. Jesus knows where they’ve come from. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus knows what he has planned for them, too. Jesus even knows if they intended to do him harm and how to work it so that it comes out for the good and for his glory. But if this was true then, is this not true of Jesus today? Does he not know who you are or where you’ve come from or what he has planned for you? Does he not know how to take our evil and turn it out for good? This is incredible. Jesus never once lost an ounce of his kingly authority or rule or the ability to execute his plans during the persecution of his people. Why? Because he is not far off and removed from the world he has made. Rather, he is near, he is involved, and he knows you by name.
But it’s not all rainbows and light for Saul. In v. 16, Jesus assures Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Saul was an enemy of God, but now he was a child of God. But that wouldn’t keep him from suffering. Saul would suffer terribly for the name of Jesus. In 2Co 11:24-28, later in Saul’s life, he wrote, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” But to Saul, just like the prophets of old, this hardship was just part of the calling he had received. He told Timothy, another minister of the gospel, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2Ti 2:3) In one sense, Saul had lost everything when he became a Christian. He lost his job, he lost his credibility, he lost what he thought was his religion, his home in Jerusalem, and probably many friends. But even with all that he lost, he could say, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” On paper, it looked like Saul had lost everything. But in reality, and how he looked at all the pain and hardship that he experienced in his life as a Christian, he was blessed beyond measure. Jesus was real and he was the Lord and he knew everything about Saul. But instead of treating him how his sins deserved, he encountered a God who was willing to love/serve/save his enemies. He encountered the grace of God. Name one other religious system that is like Jesus. No other god is like him!
Acts 9:17-22 (NIV), “17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.”
What an incredible turnaround. What a dramatic reversal. The enemy of Christ becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles, for Christ. The one who hated Christians and was notorious for their persecution becomes a Christian and gives his life to help other people follow Jesus! It’s hard to explain this testimony any other way if the gospel isn’t true. But if Jesus really appeared to Saul, if he really had an encounter with God and God revealed himself to be Jesus, then this reversal, Saul’s conversion to Christianity, is very rational, it makes complete sense. This is what God can do. But actually, this is what God has always done. The story of salvation, in the Bible, doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t start with people who are super smart and figure out who God is on their own. It doesn’t start with people hungry to know God and be obedient to him and seek him out. It starts with a God who loves people, but surprisingly, not just the people who love him. It starts with a God who loves even his enemies (Saul) and is willing to move heaven and earth to pursue them in order to rescue them. In this way, the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is a wonderful picture of the spiritual journey of everyone in Christ. It’s a story of a dramatic reversal and of spiritual revelation in Jesus and of the mighty grace of God for sinners, even sinners breathing out murderous threats against the people of God. This is our story in Christ, too. Maybe the circumstances of our conversion didn’t quite have the same sound and light show as Saul, but it’s really the same thing. While we were yet sinners, Christ lived/died/rose again for us, Christ reigns and rules over us, even today. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
My final observation from this encounter with God is this. The impact of Ananias on Paul’s life is proof that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, what your spiritual resume looks like, or how impressive your experience of God’s power or presence has been, everyone needs the ministry of other brothers and sisters as you follow the way of Jesus. There are no orphans in the family of God and there should be no lone wolves either. Even the mighty Apostle Paul needed Ananias to pray for him, to heal him, to instruct him, to baptize him, and vouch for him among other rightly skeptical believers. If you believe that being a Christian means it’s just you and Jesus, you will miss out on so much spiritual power/blessings/transformation, besides, of course, the actual commands of Christ. You need the Church and the Church needs you. So today, consider this: Jesus knows you, he knows your name. He knows everything you’ve been through but will not treat you as your sins deserve. You, like Paul, might suffer greatly, but when you understand who Jesus is, like Paul, you will count it all joy to be found in him and to be counted among his people. This is who God is. And this is what God does, even now.