“What on earth happened to Paul?” Acts 9:1-5
by Ross Paterson
Today we celebrate an event which changed history for time and eternity. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the conclusive evidence that His death for our sins on the cross was accepted and received by the Father. The conclusive evidence also that He is alive and active in our world today.
For some of us it is easy for that to be simply a familiar story which somehow does not impact us at the deepest level. For others it has the status of a myth, some philosophical parable that is not rooted in fact, but rather fiction. For others it is simply not true. Whichever category you fall into, the story of the apostle Paul in the Bible will help us to approach this amazing and life changing truth in a new way.
Consider Paul at the beginning of Acts 9. Verse 1 tells us that “...he was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He defined his life in terms of a passionate commitment to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ and every member of it, particularly its leaders. Rarely has passion in the mind and the heart of a man been so clearly defined. Yet within a few years we find the same apostle Paul making this statement: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24). How can we explain such a total change in Paul? How could the man who hated Jesus and desired to destroy His followers later say that his deepest desire was to die and be with Jesus for eternity, but also that if he could help the followers of Jesus he was willing to stay on earth! How could anyone change so dramatically?
We can find the answer in Acts 9. As Paul travelled to Damascus on his murderous task, he came face-to-face with the risen Jesus. “Saul, Saul why do you persecute Me?” … “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). The only possible power to change Paul was the discovery that Jesus was indeed the risen Son of God, and that Paul had been tragically deceived in his hatred of Jesus. It was that single encounter with the risen Jesus that changed Paul for the rest of his life and for eternity. There is no other possible explanation. This was no dream, nor was it a mystical vision. Only the risen and alive Jesus could change Paul and turn his passion from destroying the church to planting churches throughout the known world.
Let us consider the issues that that raises for us.
1. The first issue is a simple one. Can we today experience Jesus in the same way? Or was Paul’s experience unique? The answer to that is simple, and is written in many lives here, including mine. We may not have seen Jesus face-to-face in the way that Paul did. But we have met the risen Jesus. Many of you like me come from non-Christian families, families that discouraged us from any involvement with real Christianity. The only explanation for our ability to follow Jesus against parental pressure and pressure from friends is that we met Jesus who is alive, and found Him to be the most faithful friend we could possibly encounter.
2. There is a second issue: how could Jesus possibly forgive Paul, when Paul had caused so many disciples to suffer imprisonment and even death? Again, the answer is simple. For Paul and for you and me, Jesus died for our sins on the cross, the event we remembered two days ago on Good Friday. That truth is captured in one of the most famous verses of the Bible, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The offer of eternal life was not just to the “good people”, but to all people – to “whoever” will believe in Him. That grace was available for Paul, as it is available today for you & me.
3. There is a third issue. Why Paul? Why would Jesus particularly choose him? Paul gives an interesting answer in 1 Timothy 1:13-14. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the grace and love that are in Christ Jesus.” That is a truly amazing statement. What I believe Paul is saying is that no matter how deep our ignorance, how deep our unbelief, the grace and love in Jesus can still reach us. And can change us. And can even fill us with “His grace and love.”
Only a deliberate rejection of His grace in our lives can prevent us meeting and walking with the risen Jesus. No matter what I have done, no matter where I am in my thinking and unbelief, no matter if I am “a violent man or woman”, the risen Jesus wants to do for me what He did for the apostle Paul.
That is the Easter offer. That is the truth that many of us have found. We were in unbelief, but we met the risen Jesus and our lives were never the same again. If that is not yet your experience, that same offer of amazing grace is for you – if you choose to want it!