One Changed Life
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One Changed Life

Acts 9:1–18  (ID: 2452)

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the most dramatic and widely known accounts in the New Testament. Paul vehemently hated Christians, yet when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, his life was radically changed. While it may seem that Saul was transformed instantaneously, Alistair Begg explains that God’s grace was sovereignly working long before. The same grace that converted Saul is at work in our own lives, molding us into Christ’s image.

Series Containing This Sermon

When the Church Was Young

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26401

Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read from Acts chapter 9, if you would like to turn to it. I’ll read from there.

Acts 9:1: “Meanwhile”—and this is after the record of the conversion of the Ethiopian and his baptism—

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 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.”

In other words, in contemporary terms, he went to the high priest, and he got an extradition order so that he could haul these people who’d escaped from Jerusalem, having been unable to contain these believers in Jerusalem. A few of them had skipped off to Damascus, and he figures he needs to go and get them corralled and bring them back.

And “as he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.

“‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’

“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 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. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’

“‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered.

“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. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’

“‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I[’ve] heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’

“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’

“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.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”


Now just a brief prayer as we turn to this passage:

Our God and our Father, we pray that as we have sung your praise, that we might now hear your voice and that you will speak to us clearly and plainly by your Spirit through your Word. Because we certainly are not interested in simply listening to the voice of a man rambling, filling up our time, but we do long to hear from you, the living God. “Speak, Lord,” then, “in the stillness while [we] wait on thee.” We hush our hearts “to listen in expectancy.”[1]


The Least Likely Person to Be Baptized

I’ve chosen to read from Acts chapter 9 tonight because there may be somebody here who, if we were to suggest to them that what is about to happen in this baptismal pool will one day soon happen to them, they would say, “You have to be kidding me.” Indeed, they may go as far as to say, “The least [likely] person in this whole room to get baptized is me.” They may actually go as far as to say, “I don’t have the slightest intention, ever, any time, of being baptized.” Well, that’s fine. And I love that kind of clarity. Of course, it’s conjecture on my part. I’ve haven’t met anyone who’s saying this. But it comes to mind because in the story that we’ve just read, in the account here in Acts chapter 9 which Luke gives us, we’re really introduced to a man who clearly did not have the slightest intention of being baptized.

The central character is Saul of Tarsus, recognized in the history of mankind as one of the greatest men of all time. You don’t have to stay within the realm of biblical history. You can go to secular history, and Saul of Tarsus appears in most works that identify those who have had an amazing influence on their time and beyond their time. He was born a Roman citizen in the Greek city of Tarsus. His parents were Jewish. He was brought up within the framework of strict Jewish teaching. He became a student in Jerusalem in the best of schools and studied under the tutelage of one of the great teachers of the time, a man by the name of Gamaliel.

One of the central tenants of Judaism—orthodox Judaism, then and now—was the fact of monotheism: that there is only one God. And so the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was God was something that just didn’t fit within his framework. He knew, from saying the Shema as a boy, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord [your] God, the Lord is one.”[2] And whatever was going on with Jesus of Nazareth—somehow or another creating a second God, or whatever it might be—Saul knew this must definitely be wrong. He had no idea of three in one and one in three. How could he?

His religious convictions were strong. They were strong to the point that he was prepared to do just about anything to anyone to ensure their continuance. Indeed, he was so opposed to these expressions of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth that he determined that he would punish every one of them, that he would root them out, that he would find them where they were, and as quickly as he possibly could, he would be at the forefront of stamping out this fledgling group of followers of this clearly dead Jesus of Nazareth. And again I say to you that if we’d met him in the streets and said to him, “I think, Saul, one of these days soon, you’re going to be a baptized follower of Jesus,” he’d have said, “No, no. You have the wrong person. I don’t have the slightest intention of doing anything other than putting to death those who are the followers of Christ.”

You have his testimony a number of times in Acts. We’re going to come to them in our morning series. Let me just quote to you from what he tells Agrippa at a later point in his life. Explaining to the king his Christian testimony, he said,

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority [of] the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and [I] tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.[3]

So it’s not as if he’s got some casual disinterest in the affairs of Jesus and his followers. The hatred that fills the heart of the apostle Paul—now apostle Paul, then Saul of Tarsus—was absolutely at the core of his being, and it spewed out of him.

The classic illustration, of course, we find at the end of Acts chapter 7 and the beginning of Acts chapter 8. You can turn back a page and you’ll see it there. It’s the record of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen, you remember, was stoned on account of these trumped-up charges of blasphemy. And while the clothes of those who were conducting the execution were laid at Saul’s feet, Stephen’s face shone like an angel,[4] and he looked up, and he saw the risen Jesus in heaven, and he commended his spirit to him.[5] And Luke tells us that “devout men buried Stephen,” but “Saul was ravaging the church.”[6]

Now, Saul of Tarsus had these wonderful characteristics. I mean, if you just think about this individual and what he brings to the table: he was a man of great intellect; he was a man of terrific drive; he was a man of solid determination; he was a man possessed of peculiar leadership abilities—all characteristics which, under God, were going to be used for the advance of the church and for the salvation of many people. God, in the creation of Saul of Tarsus—intricately wrought in his mother’s womb[7]—in the establishing of his DNA, in the putting together of the package called Saul of Tarsus, puts him together in this express way, knowing from all of eternity that these characteristics that will be used so vehemently against the followers of Jesus are going to, by his grace, become the very vehicles of the advance of the church. It’s a marvelous thought, isn’t it?

“And we know,” says Paul later on, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose[s].”[8] When Paul was saying that, remember what was in his mind. “And we know that in all things God works.” Think of what some of the “all things” were in Paul’s testimony: the stoning of Stephen, the casting of his vote at the execution of the followers of Jesus, his vitriolic hatred against those who professed faith in Jesus. And now he writes, “And I know that in all things—the good, the bad, and the ugly—God is actually at work for the good of those who love him, who’ve been called according to his purpose.”

Baptism is a badge of discipleship. It is an expression of those who are following the Lord Jesus.

And soon these very traits are going to be channeled in the opposite direction from which we find him here. He was antagonistic, he found the Christians contemptible, he despised them, he had no interest in the notion of the resurrection of Jesus or his lordship, he was a self-confessed persecutor, and, again I say to you, he clearly had not the slightest intention of ever being baptized.

What Baptism Is

Well, of course, why would he? Because once he got an inkling of what was involved in this baptism, it clearly would not have been something for Saul of Tarsus. And some of you are here tonight, and you’re about to observe this take place, and you’re wondering to yourself exactly what’s going on. You’re about to hear a good variety of people stand up and say a little of their story—just very briefly, for want of time. And in it all, you may be trying to put the pieces together. Let me just say a number of things to you in order to set what we now see in context.

First of all, we should acknowledge this: that baptism isn’t something that can be taken or left. Baptism in the New Testament is not a kind of extra. It’s not a sort of added course—an elective if you want to do a little for credit. Saul knew that it wasn’t that, as he observed these people being baptized, as he realized what it cost them to come out of the baptism pool and say, “Jesus is Lord.”

Secondly, we should note that baptism is not the washing away of sin. This is just ordinary water in here. There’s nothing special about the water. The Bible tells us that it is only the blood of the Lord Jesus that can cleanse us from our sins. So what is actually happening in this baptismal pool is that what is performed by the blood of Jesus is pictured in this water.

The third thing we need to know is that baptism is not the way to become a Christian. And the people tonight who are being baptized are not coming into an awareness of who Jesus is and what he’s done. That’s a very important point, because so many people think that you become a Christian as a result of somebody doing something to you. Depending on the religious background out of which you’ve come, you may actually believe that the way to heaven is to be in the company of somebody who represents, if you like, established religion who is able to make pronouncements over you or to be able to conduct rituals involving you. No, the only way to become a Christian is in turning from our sin and turning to the Lord Jesus as the Savior for the sin we’ve admitted.

Also, baptism, while not coming to faith in Jesus Christ, is nevertheless a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Well, how would baptism confess faith in Jesus Christ? Well, the Bible tells us that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and he rose again on the third day.[9] The Bible talks about being buried with Christ and being raised with him to a brand-new life.[10] So each candidate who comes down into this baptismal pool and goes under the water is saying this, amongst other things: “I believe that Jesus died for me. I believe that in his death there is forgiveness for my sins. And I identify fully with him as I go down under the water. And in his resurrection, he rose triumphant over death and sin. And as I come up out of the water, it is a picture of the way in which God raises me to a brand-new life.” Also, baptism, in that respect, then, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible change. It is, if you like, a badge of discipleship. It is an expression of those who are following the Lord Jesus.

What Changed in Saul of Tarsus?

Now, all of that involved leads me to say to you that we have here in Acts 9 the record of somebody who didn’t have the slightest intention of being baptized. So what changed that? How do we explain the change in Saul of Tarsus? That’s actually one of the great intellectual questions of anybody who does any kind of reading of history. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is surely one of the most striking statements with which any serious seeker needs to reckon. If a person is saying, “Is there any validity to this Christianity, or is this just a pipe dream? Or is there anything that actually happens? Is there a transaction that takes place?” one of the places to which a person must inevitably look is to this record of the change that was brought about in Saul of Tarsus.

Because what happens here is dramatic, isn’t it? People talk all the time about how, you know, “I haven’t had a sudden conversion like Saul of Tarsus. No Damascus Road for me!” Well, do you think this was sudden? I mean, the moment in which the transaction took place was sudden, but there was a lot of background to this, wasn’t there? Do you remember in the encounter, when he speaks to Jesus and Jesus speaks to him, he says, “Saul, isn’t it hard for you to kick against the goads?”[11]—a picture of a beast of burden being involved in the plowing, and being goaded on, and resenting the fact of their position, and kicking against it, and bearing the impact of the goads in their hind quarters. And Jesus says, “That’s what you’ve been doing, Saul. You’ve been kicking against me.” See, Jesus knew what had been going on in Saul’s life. And Jesus knows what’s going on in each of our lives. Jesus knows all the different things that we kick against.

Now, I could spend a long time—and I can tell by your eyes you don’t want me to—but the fact of the matter is, if you think about this phrase “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” you’ve perhaps wondered about that. You said, “I wonder, really, what that means.” Think about the goading impact of the death of Stephen. Do you think there was a day in Saul of Tarsus’s life that he didn’t, at some point in the day, go back to that scene and see the face of Stephen, like that of an angel, looking up into heaven and declaring that he sees Christ at the right hand of the Father? And instead of turning to say, “Oh, I wonder if Jesus is real?” he kicks against it. His own doubts. Oh, you see, when a person is this vociferous, when a person is this vitriolic against something, it is almost inevitably tied to a measure of insecurity in their own position—that there’s a sneaking suspicion that they like to drive away, in the back of their minds, that maybe, actually, this Jesus thing is true. And it goads him, and he kicks against it.

From my reading of the Bible, it seems to me that Jesus and Paul were probably about the same age. Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus and Paul—and Saul of Tarsus—might have been in Jerusalem at the exact same time? You ever thought about the fact that Jesus may actually have preached, and Saul of Tarsus heard it—at least out of the corner? You ever thought about the fact that Jesus and Saul of Tarsus looked one another in the eye? It could have happened. It doesn’t say it happened. You don’t need to worry about it.

But the fact of the matter is, when Jesus says, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads,” they were the goad of the death of Stephen, the goad of his own doubts, the goad of his sinful heart—because he knew he couldn’t keep the commandments. Even if he was doing good on no images, even if he was doing good on no stealing, even if he was doing well on no adultery, even if he was doing well on not bearing false testimony against his neighbor, how was he doing on covetousness? Because covetousness is not a thing; covetousness is an affair of the heart. And Saul of Tarsus would have known in his heart that all of his agendas were not right, that all of his desires were not pure, that all of his longings were not the kind that God would honor. And Jesus says, “Hey, it’s hard for you to kick against these goads, isn’t it?”

But in all of these things, the grace of God was at work in the life of Saul of Tarsus, bringing him to a moment in time when in this great denouement, when this great revelation takes place, in all the drama of the brightness of a light that shines brighter than the noonday sun[12] and he falls to the ground, prostrate at the feet of his conqueror, heading for Damascus with his chest out and his robes flowing and his entourage in place, ready with the orders of extradition to bring more of these silly Christians with their stupid ideas about the resurrection—bring them back to Jerusalem and imprison them or kill them… But how does he arrive in Damascus? Not as he intended. He arrives in Damascus, we’re told, led by the hands of his helpers—a strange sight!—humbled and blinded by the very Christ he had opposed.

No wonder Ananias said what he said! “Ananias, if you go to the house, you’ll find this fellow, Saul.”

“Ooh! I know! I don’t want to go find Saul. I’ve heard about Saul. No.”

God said, “No, you go. You’re going to find him a little different from how you expected him.”

Do you know how Paul put it later on? He put it in a number of ways. This is what he said—“Christ … took hold of me”[13]—when he wrote to the Philippians. In 2 Corinthians 4, he says that “in the same way that God, at creation, said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ he shone the light of his gospel into my heart.”[14] And in 1 Timothy 1, he talks of how the grace of God flooded his heart with love.[15] In other words, I think he would have been very, very happy to sing with us our song: “Oh, the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!”[16]

What you have in this story, in the way in which Saul becomes Paul, is a story of the sovereign, gradual, gentle grace of God. The sovereign, gradual, gentle grace of God. When he is brought to his knees before the risen Christ, you will notice that Jesus speaks to him, involving the use of his mind, asking him to consider things: “Why do you do what you do?” Saul responds with two questions of his own: number one, “Who are you?” and number two, “What do you want me to do?” Those are two very important questions. “Who are you, Lord?” Have you worked that one out? “And what do you want me to do, Lord?” He actually tells that in one of his other testimonies.[17] Here it’s in the direct statement: “Now get up and go into [that] city, and you will be told what you must do.” Later on, he says that that came to him as a result of him inquiring, “What do you want me to do?” And God said, “Get up and go into the city, and you’ll be told what to do.” Now, you see, that’s a problem for many of us, isn’t it? We don’t want anybody to tell us what to do. Well, you see, you can’t be a follower of Jesus unless you’re prepared to have him tell you what to do. And that’s the rub for some of us.

Well, I think I’ll stop there. I’ve said enough. I think the baptisms will clarify it.

I want to give you a quote from Surprised by Joy, one of my favorite biographies. You’ve read, I’m sure, C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity and so on. If you haven’t read Surprised by Joy, then pick up a copy, and you’ll enjoy it. In his final chapter, called “Checkmate,” which is a wonderful statement of how he… Actually, the final chapter’s called “The Beginning.” The penultimate chapter’s called “Checkmate.” He talks about how he’d been reading G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man. And C. S. Lewis regarded Chesterton as probably the brightest man that he knew, and so it unsettled him when he recognized that Chesterton was also a man of faith. And then he was further unsettled, he says, when “early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good.” Now, C.S. Lewis is not a believer. He is running from God. He’s the least likely ever to be baptized, you know. And here, sitting opposite him at the fire, engaging in an intellectual dialogue, one of his key atheist friends opens the door just a crack, saying that it seems to him that the evidence for the truth of Christianity actually seems “surprisingly good.” “‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’”[18]

It is the grace of God that frees us from the bondage of our pride and our prejudice and our self-centeredness and enables us to repent and believe.

And here there’s a chink in the armor of Lewis. And he talks about how God closes in on him, in the climax of a long, drawn-out process. And this is my quote and we’re through: “The odd thing,” he says,

was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. … I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was[n’t] moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I[’m] more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, “I am what I do.”[19]

In other words, Lewis’s discovery was akin to Saul’s—namely, that it is the grace of God that frees us from the bondage of our pride and our prejudice and our self-centeredness and enables us to repent and believe. It is the grace of God that liberates us and enables us to make the freest choice we have ever made.

Is there a Saul of Tarsus here this evening? I wonder.

Let’s pray together:

God our Father, we thank you for your amazing grace—sovereign, gradual, gracious, freeing grace. There’s really no explanation for Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul the apostle, the evangelist, apart from this fact. And there is really no explanation for all that we’re about to share apart from this. There is no reason under the sun apart from your intervention in our lives that any of us would come in childlike trust and with a repentant heart to believe in Jesus and to declare the same by being baptized. So grant that as we listen and share in these moments now, as we bring our lives to you, that we might do so gladly. Turn our gaze towards he, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”[20] For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] Emily Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920).

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV 1984).

[3] Acts 26:9–11 (RSV).

[4] See Acts 6:15; 7:58.

[5] See Acts 7:55–56, 59.

[6] See Acts 8:2–3 (RSV).

[7] See Psalm 139:13.

[8] Romans 8:28 (NIV 1984).

[9] See 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.

[10] See Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12.

[11] Acts 26:14 (paraphrased).

[12] See Acts 26:13.

[13] Philippians 3:12 (NIV 1984).

[14] 2 Corinthians 4:6 (paraphrased).

[15] See 1 Timothy 1:14.

[16] Samuel Trevor Francis, “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!”

[17] See Acts 22:10.

[18] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), chap. 14.

[19] Lewis, 224–25.

[20] John 1:29 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.