By Simon ManchesterSunday 8 Jan 2017Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 19 minutes
I want to begin this morning by asking you what you consider to be the most famous conversion in history? And I would quickly suggest to you that the answer to that, even amongst those who don’t go to Church often or at all, would be the conversion of the Apostle Paul, who was Saul (and who changed his name to Paul) and I am going to refer to him as Paul, converted on the famous Damascus road. In fact, it’s become proverbial to say, ‘Well, I do believe, but I have never had a Damascus road experience’.
I want to focus on this-this morning because we have come to Chapter 9 in the book, but it’s also a very helpful piece of history and also a very helpful piece of history for two quick reasons. One: most people, I suggest, outside the Church, would say that a conversion is optional. Most would say that a conversion is unnecessary. You can have some faith, you can have some beliefs, you can have some values, you can choose a religious path or you can choose no religious path, but you do not need to be converted. And people might go on to say that the claim by some that they have been converted is nice for them, but that’s all. It’s nice for them, and if they push it and say a conversion is essential, they have exaggerated, and they have entered into some false advertising. And those of course who claim to be converted can’t substantiate that they claim to be converted. They have just had some mysterious apparition; some mysterious event takes place. And of course, it’s very unnerving and unsettling when people tell you they have been converted, and you haven’t been converted. And so, for many people, conversion is seen as optional. And then there are many people inside the Church for whom conversion is puzzling. They are not actually sure whether they have had the full conversion. They feel as though something has happened, but they don’t know whether they have done the complete 180-degree. And they find themselves saying, if they are honest, every now and again, ‘What if I haven’t believed enough? What if I haven’t received everything that could be received? And what about the people – and we have read about some of them in the paper this week – which make very big claims and have very big success and then have very big falls…were they converted? And especially today, as we consider the whole issue of war and peace, and life and death, to ask yourself – what is essential to get in this world before you come face to face with the next.
Now it is not an accident that the writer of the Book of Acts – that is Luke – has written the story up three times. Once, here, in Chapter 9, as a piece of history and twice, as the Apostle Paul gives his testimony. And I want to consider the event under three headings briefly this morning. The first is the purpose of the conversion – why did it happen? The second is the miracle of the conversion – how did it happen? And the third is the significant marks of the conversion. What is significant for us?
The Purpose of the Conversion
Why are we told the Apostle Paul was converted? Well, because he was converted. But why was he converted? Why was the Apostle Paul, who was anti-Christianity, travelling to arrest Christians and throw them into prison and then confronted on the road by Jesus Christ – the light, the voice – and then transformed and became a courageous preacher and missionary – why did this happen? And I suggest to you that the No 1 reason that this took place is that the risen Lord Jesus Christ was just about to open the door for the Gospel to go to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles. And the key instrument in Christ’s hand is going to be the Apostle Paul. And that’s why, if you look at Verse 15, the Lord said: this man (Paul) is My chosen instrument, to carry My Name before the Gentiles (that’s most of us) and their kings and before the people of Israel. So we must never forget that the Apostle Paul was, and is in many ways, a unique person: he has a role as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Nobody else was given that role. And he describes himself in one of his letters as having been set apart for this role from the womb. Remarkable isn’t it. There’s the Lord Jesus Christ, on the throne, and a baby is born, and the Lord Jesus Christ has planned for this baby to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. But there is going to be approximately 30 years of religion and rebellion to Jesus Christ. And then He will turn him around, and He will use him for His purposes.
The Apostle Paul also says in one of his other letters that he was given information that was not given to other generations. And so when you read about the Apostle Paul in his letters or the Book of Acts, you read of somebody with remarkable humility and remarkable authority. The humility, because of course he was a wolf attacking the sheep … and why would a wolf, who attacks the sheep, be used, eventually, to be a shepherd, and apostolic shepherd for the sheep? That’s his humility. But then he speaks with incredible authority, as somebody who has been given the very words of Jesus Christ to give to the world, which he had and so he did. He says in Ephesians 3: Although I am the less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given to me, to preach to the Gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ.
So what is the purpose of the conversion? It is that the Lord Jesus would create for Himself an instrument who would go through the door, which is open, to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. And, down the track, into the ears of people like you and me. That’s the purpose.
The Miracle of The Conversion
How do you get a person, like Paul, who is gung-ho against Christianity to then become a preacher and a missionary? How do you do it? How do you find somebody who is keen on stamping out Christianity, who then turns around and says, ‘I would like to be baptised pride I would like to join the Church. I would like to preach to the people who I have been a part of and tell them that they are not in God’s family. I would like to associate with all the people who I have been attacking, and I would like to lay my life on the line forever.’ How do you get a person to change like that? Well, there is a book out which you may have heard of called ‘The God Delusion’ written by a man called Richard Dawkins. His aim is stamp-out belief in God. And he says, and I quote, ‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down’. The reviewer said – Dawkins seems as mad as hell and he says: religion is a form of child abuse… it warps the developing mind; in fact, it dangerously malformed the mind.’ Now it’s very interesting to read, in the same paper, that in Britain today, they are experiencing the greatest possible problems with their young people. Never before … such problems. And the British youth have been given the lowest statistics, across Europe, for values and behaviour… at the very time when there is this mass turning away and drifting away from Christianity.
What do you think would cause a Dawkins, in about two weeks’ time, to ask if his books could be burned, and which travel to say South India and begin to work as a missionary, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, at great depravation and cost to himself. What sort of even would cause that turnaround? And even that is small-scale compared with the turnaround of the Apostle Paul. And so we need to ask, why did the Apostle Paul get this turnaround? Was it because he was a seeker? You know, was he one of those people who has always got a propensity toward the mystical and the spiritual and even the person of the Lord Jesus? No. The Apostle Paul (or at least, Saul) on the road to Damascus, saw Jesus as an insult, an insult to the one God. He was against Jesus Christ. So did he get converted because he just wanted to have a little dabble in Christianity – nothing serious, just experiment a bit with Christianity? Just a couple of visits. No. He was totally, and for the whole of his life, changed. Was he looking for a crutch for the bad times? Was he like those people who are weak and need something? No. The Apostle Paul was in a huge authority, power… he was on a roll. Did he have a breakdown? Was he temporarily insane? Was he permanently insane? Was he insane to become a Christian? I once had to take part in a debate, and I was on the side of the Apostle Paul, falling from his proverbial horse and becoming a loony. It’s a very difficult debate to argue for, but no, the fact of the matter is that the Apostle Paul emerged from this conversion, the sanest, finest, clearest, greatest human that we could want to have.
So was his conversion a stepping-stone to benefits? Was it a kind of political move, designed to improve his fortunes? No. Humanly, the Apostle Paul lost everything. He lost his reputation. He lost his safety. He lost his security. He lost his possessions. And on more than one occasion, he nearly lost his life. There was only one explanation for this conversion, and that is, this is the work of Jesus Christ. It is a miraculous conversion. And even somebody like Richard Dawkins, who is having to face I would suggest tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, hopefully in his mind to dismiss as much as possible, would be hard-pressed to find a good explanation for the conversion of the Apostle Paul unless it was a miracle from Jesus Christ. That’s how he got converted.
What’s the significance of Paul’s Conversion For You and Me?
There are some changes which take place in the Apostle Paul which also take place in every Christian? So you do not need to have the flashing light or the voice from Heaven. I want to ask you whether these three factors in the Apostle Paul are present in you. Because if they are, you can thank God that a conversion is there. But if they are not, you must ask yourself whether any conversion has taken place.
The first mark, which is in Paul and every real believer, every real Christian, is a proper understanding and a surrender to Jesus Christ. Without recognising that Jesus Christ is the Lord God, around whom the universe revolves, without recognising that Jesus Christ sits on the throne of Heaven and is the only Saviour, it is impossible to become a Christian.
I remember a lady once, who was taken to Church, she said to her boss who had brought her to Church, ‘You know, I do believe in God’. She thought I think that he’d brought her because she needed to be converted (which she did). And she said to him on the way out, ‘You know, I do believe in God. I don’t see where Jesus fits in, but I do believe in God.’ And with that one sentence, she gave away completely that she had not been converted. Because it is when a person suddenly recognises that the world, the universe, is Christo-centric, in the same way, that our world is sun-centric, that we begin to realise what it means to be a Christian. Remember that the Apostle Paul thought that Jesus was dead and gone? And, to be devoted to Jesus was to be wrong and unnecessary and in fact, it would take away from the glory of God. And then suddenly on this Damascus road, the Lord Jesus confronted him and the Apostle Paul (Saul, now Paul) realised that he didn’t even know God, he had no relationship with God, and he would have to do business with Jesus Christ if he was to know God. And he began to promote the Good News with his heart and his mind and his soul and his strength.
Can you imagine the humiliation of this? Can you imagine the humiliation of having to kneel down, as he did, and recognise that you had been completely wrong about Jesus Christ. Can you imagine the humiliation of then having to join that Church and confess to the believers that you had been on the 180-degree wrong track and you are now turned completely around. Incidentally, Jesus did not force Paul into a decision. He confronted him. He humbled him. And then we know, from the rest of Scripture, that the Apostle Paul called on Christ to be saved and was willingly then baptised. But it must have been very humbling to suddenly realise that you were quite wrong about Christ, quite wrong about the Church, to have two nobodies come along – one called Ananias, help you into the Damascus Church – one called Barnabas, help you into the Jerusalem Church – two nobodies… and then, of course, to be led out in a basket. Do you notice he says, in Chapter 9, Verse 25, that he was led out of Damascus, eventually, in a basket, because he was being attacked for his Christianity. I don’t know if you know the background to this basket story, but there was a medal which was given by the Romans if you were the first person over a wall in attacking a city. If you got over a wall, you were the first person into the city and you were given a special medal.
The Apostle Paul says I want you to know about my experience. I was let out of the city in a basket to escape… the humiliation. Now God of course gives grace to the humble, and He resists the proud. On Friday at the funeral for the Major General, the idea of being proud was mentioned many times – proud of a role to play in the services (that’s exactly right), proud of being part of a battalion (that’s right), proud of his family (absolutely right). There is a pride which is outside yourself, but friends, if a person is proud before Jesus Christ, that’s a fatal position. That is an insane position. That is a suicidal position, because Jesus Christ is infinitely superior to us and He is infinitely more pure and holy than us. And if we are proud, in the face of Jesus Christ, we cannot bow. And if we cannot bow, we cannot live. Pride will block mercy, won’t it.
It was interesting, in the service, we sang the hymn, and I had never noticed this line in the hymn, that thrones vanish at His presence. Isn’t that an incredible thing? When Jesus Christ walks into a room, other thrones vanish. Well, C.S. Lewis wrote, in mere Christianity, ‘Pride has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together. You may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people, or, unchastened people. But Pride always means enmity. It is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. In God, you come up against something which is, in every respect, superior to yourself. Unless you know God like that, and therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison, you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down and cannot see someone above him.’ Now we must recognise Christ, mustn’t we if we are going to enjoy His fellowship and enjoy Heaven one day because Heaven is centred on Jesus Christ. He said, ‘In My Father’s house are many rooms. I will go and prepare a place for you and I will come and take you to be with Me’. He is central to Heaven. The only reason that Heaven will work is because Jesus is there. If Jesus is not there, we might as well just take all the chaos that is down here and just take it up the lift two floors and just plonk it up there, and it will be as terrible and forever as it is here. But, you see, because Jesus Christ rules and saves and forgives and washes and transforms, and eventually perfects His people, we are able to arrive, as the Bible says, without fault and with great joy and enjoy a Christ-centred Heaven. It’s a very good test, to ask yourself the question – do I look forward to Heaven? Would I be happy with Heaven if Jesus was not there? Because if anybody arrives in Heaven, they will find that Jesus Christ is central to Heaven and He is the key to Heaven and He is the best thing about Heaven and Heaven cannot possibly exist without Him and therefore, it is a very wise thing to get to know Jesus Christ quickly in this world, because He is wonderful.
The first mark of the converted life, you see, which is in Paul and in every believer. Not that we are perfect, but we recognise that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the Saviour. Is that you?
The second mark of Paul and every believer. It is an appreciation and an affection and an association with Christian people. Isn’t one of the most striking things – I wonder if you noticed this as the passage was read for us in Acts Chapter 9 – that Paul attacks the Christians (Verse 1) and then Lord Jesus says (in Verse 4), ‘Why are you attacking me?’ The Apostle Paul might have said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I am not attacking you, I have just been attacking Christians’… and the Lord Jesus says – No if you attack Christians, you attack Me because the Christians are my body. The believers in this world really are the body of Christ. The pain that you experience for your faith is pain that He experiences. This Chapter is absolutely full of references to Christians. I counted up 15 references to Christians. Seven times they are called ‘disciples’ in the chapter. Once, they are called followers of ‘the way’. Three times they are called ‘the saints’. Twice they are called ‘the callers’, the people who call to God. And twice they are called ‘the brethren’.
And you see how the Lord Jesus sends two believers – one in Damascus, one in Jerusalem – the help the Apostle Paul into the fellowship. One of the most wonderful things that ever takes place is when a believer helps a visitor, or a seeker, into the fellowship and enables them to get established, cared for, respected. And never underestimate the importance of a Christian friend to the person who is trying to join a fellowship. Ananias and Barnabas, they may not be famous, but they are essential to God’s purposes. And never underestimate the role, therefore, of the so-called unimportant Christian, because there isn’t an unimportant Christian.
Now real conversion is marked by a willingness to appreciate and associate with Christians. One commentator says, ‘I can refuse to have anything to do with the local bird-watcher’s society, and still be a very good bird-watcher but I cannot call on Christ and refuse His people. I cannot claim to love the Lord Jesus and refuse to love His saints’. This is the second vital stand-out mark of the real believer. You see it in Mark. You see it in every real believer. It is to appreciate and to associate with Christians. Now let me quickly say something to you about this, because we are not pretending that Christians are perfect. I hope nobody thinks that Christians ever come here thinking that they are a notch above anybody else. We don’t have to boast about our morality. Our morality is not that good. There are many unbelievers who have been morality than us. But we have a Saviour, which is no excuse for bad morality, but it is the secret and the answer for bad morality. We are not perfect. And we are not easy. We are not even great fun! Well, sometimes we are, but not often. And I have known most of you for many years, and I know you are not easy, and you are not fun! And you have known me for many years and you know I am not easy or much fun. But in the end, what is the mark of a real believer? The mark of a real believer is that he or she suddenly realises that Christ has called him or her into a family and that He has chosen people. And He has chosen people not to be independent, but to be together, and He has chosen people to meet, strengthen one another, encourage one another, love one another, serve one another, sing together, work together, witness together. So the person who says, and I need to say this on a regular basis, but the person who thinks in their head ‘I come occasionally’… that’s not Christianity; that is just natural thinking. The person who says, ‘I do not like other believers’. Well, that is natural, but it is not Christianity. The person who says, as somebody said to me this week, ‘I/we need to get away regularly on weekends’… that’s natural; it’s just not Christianity because a person who knows that they are greatly loved by Jesus Christ and that love has an impact and a transforming effect on their relationship with other believers.
A real conversion. I want to ask you whether that is you. It was for Paul. It is for every real Christian.
And the last mark of the real conversion, which you see in Paul, and you see in every real Christian, is to recognise who is needy, who is most needy. And the answer of those who are most needy is the people who are cut-off from Christ. The question, you see, in the Apostle Paul’s mind is, ‘Is a person sincere?’ That’s not the question. He was sincere, and he was sincerely wrong. The question is not, ‘Are they religious and are they happy?’ No. The Jews were religious and happy, but they were cut-off from Christ. The Apostle Paul, as you see in this Chapter, he began to preach, Verse 20: Jesus as the Son of God, Verse 22: Jesus as the Messiah and Verse 29: he began to debate with the Greeks.
Now I want to ask the regulars here today, and maybe those who are visitors today, ‘Do you honestly still believe that people who are cut-off from Christ are in the worst danger of all?’ Because I find that there is a freeze. I borrow this from another preacher; I found this so helpful. I heard him say, earlier this year, that there is a freeze coming over the western world of unbelief. And the freeze has moved very effectively into the Church and it is moving very rapidly into my brain, heart and soul and I am sure you are the same as me. It is just hard to believe keenly, because there is a saturation taking place in the world and eventually in the Church and then it comes into the individuals of just not really caring that much, because there is so much to think about and there is so much to do and we have to ask God to fan into flame that proper respect for Jesus Christ, that devotion to Jesus Christ, that proper affection and service to the believer and that proper concern for the unbeliever. I don’t know any solution, except to ask God to fan that flame, and this preacher said, ‘As the freeze comes over, I am just, by the grace of God, going to blow-torch as much of it as I can’. And I thought that was a tremendous encouragement. I cannot solve the problem, but God Himself is able, and by His Grace, I will blow-torch what I can.
An unbeliever is the same. The society has no clue, does it, about the danger that it is in. It does not recognise that to be cut-off from Christ and then suddenly meet Christ (cut-off from Christ) means judgement. But it does. The Church seems to have no great care about the situation that people are in. I want to ask you whether you have a concern about those who are cut-off from Christ.
As soon as the Apostle Paul was converted, his view of Jesus was: Jesus is central, and He controls my life. His view of the Christians was: they are Christ’s people … they have my devotion. And his view of non-Christians was incredible grief – they need the Gospel.
Now John Stott says – and I read this in his little commentary yesterday – if these three relationships to God, the Church and the world are not seen in professed converts, we have good reason to question the quality of their conversion. No interest in Jesus? No interest in His Word? No interest in the believers? No care for the unbeliever? They are the marks of non-conversion. But, praise God, some interest in Jesus, some devotion to the believers, some concern for the unbelievers are the marks of conversion. And now we need to pray that God would help those who don’t have the marks, to have the marks and those who have the marks to have them keenly. Let’s bow our heads and pray.
Our gracious God, we thank You for bringing into the family of Your people the Apostle Paul and the role that You worked, through him, to bring the Good News to so many and eventually to our own shores and eventually to our ears. We pray to they 28:58 – delete today for those who are without the marks of saving faith, which You would disturb them and unsettle them and make them restless until they find their rest in the Lord Jesus. And we pray for us, who have been given by Your goodness and sheer mercy, a recognition of Christ, some devotion for the believers, some concern for the unbelievers, that you would fan into flame these things in our own minds and hearts. Please do not let us freeze over. Please do not let our love grow cold. Please stir-up our hearts. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.