Paul the Persecuted: When Saul (Paul), a brilliant but violent persecutor of Christians, met Jesus on the road to Damascus — it changed everything in his life. His passion and direction in life were now running in the opposite direction: He wanted to tell everyone about Jesus! Of course, it wasn’t long before he started experiencing persecution himself. There is no in-between with Jesus. Recorded on May 7, 2023, on Acts 9:19-31 by Pastor David Parks.
The Life of Paul is a new sermon series (mostly) from the book of Acts in the Bible. The Apostle Paul has a fantastic story. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians. But then he met Jesus, which changed everything. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who ever lived. Paul’s story offers a great case study of what it looks like to learn the way of Jesus.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series on the life of the Apostle Paul. And Paul’s story is fascinating, but it also serves as a great case study for learning the way of Jesus. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians at the very start of the Christian movement. But then, Paul met Jesus, which changed everything. So, as we saw last week, Paul the persecutor became Paul the Christian after seeing the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and being baptized by Ananias. What would happen next? How would this zealous persecutor of Christians explain his conversion to Christ? Would his peers, friends, and family accept him or reject him? What would happen when he goes back to Jerusalem? Would the Christians accept him after his intense persecution of them, or would they be hesitant like Ananias was initially? One thing is sure, after meeting Jesus, Paul’s life would never be the same. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open it to Acts 9:19. We’ll put the Scripture up on the screens for you as well. But today, we’ll read through this passage and unpack it as we go, and I’ll close with just one takeaway from Paul the Persecuted.
Acts 9:19–22 (NIV), “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.” Ok, let’s pause here. So after his conversion and baptism, Saul stayed with his new Christian friends in Damascus. Given his incredible zeal and his education as a Pharisee, it shouldn’t surprise us too much to find that he immediately started preaching. But where did he start telling people that Jesus is the Son of God? At the synagogue. The synagogue was a congregation of Jews who gathered together to pray, read from the Hebrew Bible, sing songs of praise (usually from the Psalms), and live out their faith together. It would have been similar in many ways to our church today. But the synagogue was where Saul was most comfortable. Remember, he was raised by devoutly Jewish parents who traced their lineage to the ancient Israelite tribe of Benjamin and who sent him to school under the most respected rabbi in Jerusalem. But for Saul, becoming a Christian didn’t mean his Jewish faith no longer mattered. He saw Jesus as the fulfillment of his Jewish faith. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. He was the one the whole Hebrew bible was about. He was the one in whom Yahweh God was accomplishing his saving and redemptive work. Jesus was the true Adam, ruling and reigning over creation; he was the true Noah, providing salvation from judgment against sin; he was the true Abraham, in whom God was forming a people for himself; he was the true Moses, leading God’s people out of captivity to sin and death; he was the true and ultimate prophet, priest, and king. And the more Saul preached this message, the more astonished people were. Luke says they were baffled. Wasn’t this the one who raised havoc in Jerusalem? And now he won’t stop talking about Jesus! The force of Paul’s personality comes out a little with the description that he was proving that Jesus was the Messiah. Let’s keep going with v. 23.
Acts 9:23–25 (NIV), “23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” Ok! The astonishment and bafflement eventually turns against him. Luke writes that after many days, but we know from Paul’s letters that it was about three years after he became a Christian that he had to flee Damascus for his life. He mentions this time period in several letters, but let me read you a section from his letter to the Galatians. “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days.” (Gal 1:13–18) So from that account, at some point during the many days Paul ministered in Damascus, he went into Arabia. We have no other information about that trip. But there are several theories for why he went into the desert wilderness. The most compelling to me is offered by N.T. Wright, in his biography of Paul. Wright thinks that Paul, influenced by Elijah’s trip to meet with God at Mount Sinai in 1 Kings 19, wanted to go meet with God himself. I think that’s possible, but we’ll have to wait until heaven to ask him ourselves. At any rate, Paul came back to Damascus and his new Christian friends before he had to escape in the dark of night. This wouldn’t be the last time he would face violent persecution. Paul’s ministry, just like Jesus’ ministry, would produce powerful enemies. v. 26
Acts 9:26–27 (NIV), “26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.” Again, despite his zeal and powerful intellect and education and all that, the mighty Paul still needed help. Paul had needed Ananias, and now he needed Barnabas. So Barnabas was actually a man named Joseph, who was a Hellenistic Jew from the island of Cyprus. That meant he was ethnically Jewish but was culturally Greek. He got the nickname of Barnabas from the apostles, which means “son of encouragement,” and that says a lot about what type of man he was. There are really two options when it comes to nicknames with guys. Either Joseph was the least encouraging guy in the group, in which case his nickname was ironic (like a big guy called Tiny), or it was a truly earned name based on his character. Given his commitment over the years to the fiery Apostle Paul, I think Barnabas was the kind of guy you would want to have in your corner. Luke writes of him that “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Ac 11:24) through his ministry later in Antioch. But when Paul arrived in Jerusalem after having been a Christian for three years and having done ministry in Damascus, still, no one trusted him in Jerusalem, and I wouldn’t have either. Three years is a long time, but not long enough to forget that Paul was there when Stephen was killed. Or that Paul was the one who went house to house seeking to destroy the church. The Christians in Jerusalem thought this was some sort of evil trick. But just as the Lord provided Ananias to vouch for Paul in Damascus, so he provided Barnabas to vouch for him in Jerusalem. We all need a Barnabas. Let’s finish our passage starting with v. 28.
Acts 9:28–31 (NIV), “28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” Ok! So here, Paul is most likely in his late twenties. He’s been a Christian for a few years. And he’s back to Jerusalem, where he lived and received his education, and developed powerful connections with the Sanhedrin, including the chief priest. I could imagine that it might be tempting for him to just blend in, but that wasn’t Paul. Once he was accepted by the Christians in Jerusalem, Paul spoke boldly in the name of Jesus. Just as he sought to prove that Jesus was the Messiah in Damascus, he talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. Paul was about as subtle as a hammer. Soon enough, he had people who wanted to kill him in Jerusalem. And so (and I just think this is funny), the other believers took him down to the port at Caesarea, put him on a boat, and shipped him back home to Tarsus in Cilicia or southeastern Turkey. And did Luke do this on purpose? His next statement is that once Paul was shipped off, the church enjoyed a time of peace and growth. (Get Paul out of here!) Of course, this is not the end of Paul’s story. But this is the start of a period of about ten years where Paul disappears from the Bible. He doesn’t come back into the story of the book of Acts until the revival at Antioch, which we’ll look at next week. And who should go get Paul but Barnabas, of course. After a decade in obscurity, living and working and maturing in his faith, when Paul reappears, he’s still bold (that never changes), but he’s much more humble. It’s clear the Lord has done a major work in his life. Paul will still cause a disruption in many places during his missionary journeys. But going forward, it’ll be because of his message and not as much because of the messenger. And praise God! People aren’t argued or debated, or forced into the kingdom of God. Paul learned this eventually, and once he did, he became the most fruitful missionary in all of history. So how do we apply this story to our lives today? I’ll leave you with just one takeaway.
There is no in-between with Jesus. Jesus is either alive or he’s not. He’s either the King of kings and the Lord of lords or he’s not. There’s no in-between. C.S. Lewis famously wrote that Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or he is the Lord of all. And Paul knew this. If Jesus was who he claimed to be and did what he said he would do, then he is the Messiah, he is the Son of God, and therefore, he deserves the whole of our lives. But if Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be or didn’t do what he said he would do, then he deserves nothing. There is no in-between. When Paul realized that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead and was the Lord of heaven and earth, he knew he had to go from persecutor to persecuted. He had to turn all the way around and be willing to give up everything and anything that held him back from total obedience to Christ. If there’s no in-between to who Jesus is, then there’s no in-between to following him. Sure, Paul would continue to wrestle, as we all do, with the temptations of the flesh. He would continue to make mistakes. He still had some rough edges to his personality. He wasn’t perfect yet. But he knew he couldn’t be a Christian on Sunday and forget about Jesus for the rest of the week. He knew he couldn’t just silently accept Jesus in his heart and keep it a secret. Of course, no thinking person wants to be persecuted, but if Jesus was Lord, then Paul had to tell others, even if it cost him relationships or opportunities or even his life. Now, there was a time in my life when I was pretty sure that Jesus was Lord, but I knew that if I really believed that, then a lot would need to change. I don’t know if you ever had a time like that, but I was hesitant to give over all of my life to him. His authority in my mind only extended to the places I was comfortable giving him. I was scared that I would lose control. I was scared about what it might cost me. I was scared I’d have to give up things I thought I needed. But I knew on some level that if Jesus was real, then he deserved all of my life. But as Paul would later write, whatever I thought were gains apart from Jesus were actually losses. Because nothing compares to knowing Jesus and being known by him. So today, what about you? Where are you in your heart in relation to Jesus? Maybe you don’t know what you think about Jesus but haven’t put much thought into it. I would say, if there’s even a chance that he is who he claimed to be, then isn’t it worth it to find out? Don’t be passive. Dig in and see what you think. If he’s real, you have everything to gain. Or maybe you’re thinking about becoming a Christian. Then you need to know what you’re getting into. It’s a whole-life commitment. Jesus called all people to follow him but was constantly telling them to count the cost. If you want to find your life, you’re going to have to lose it first. If you’re ready to pay this cost, if you’re ready to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, then you’re ready. Or maybe you are a young believer, like Paul in Damascus. Then maybe you need some time to learn and grow and mature in your faith. Don’t try and win arguments for Jesus. Arguing and debating aren’t helpful. Invite people into your life, love them, and let the whole church share good news with them. Be humble. Be a learner. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1Pe 5:6) Or maybe you are a mature believer? Then maybe you need to be like Barnabas and come alongside a younger believer. Help them. Encourage them. Put them on a ship and send them back home if they need it. You can come to faith in an instant, but it takes many years to grow and mature in your faith. Devote yourselves to this task for others. No one matures on their own. Finally, you might still ask the Lord to reveal any area of your heart or mind, or life that is not given over to the Lordship of Christ. If he is Lord, then he is Lord of all. There is no in-between with Jesus. But when he becomes the Lord of all, when he increases, and we decrease, when his Spirit bears his good fruit in our lives, it’s the best. There is nothing better. There is no better way. There is no better life. So today, may we enjoy a time of peace and strengthening. May we live in the fear of the Lord and be encouraged by the Holy Spirit. And Lord, if it be your will, may we increase in numbers for your glory and our joy and the good of all people. Let us pray.