Epiphany 3 – The Conversion of St. Paul January 25, 2004

In Nomine Iesu

Pastor Thomas L. Rank

Text: Acts 9:1-22

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” 6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. 8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12 “And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” 13 Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 “And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 “For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” 17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. 19 So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. 20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. 21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.


Dear fellow redeemed in Christ,

Saul was there when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was killed by a mob after he had boldly confessed his faith in his Savior Jesus Christ. We are told that Saul consented to the death of Stephen. And then we read in our text how Saul wanted to go all the way to Damascus and arrest any people who were of “the Way.” “The Way” was an early name for the Christians. They believed in Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Saul wanted permission to round up as many of these Christians as he could and put them in prison.

Why was Saul so opposed to the Christians, why did he approve of the death of Saint Stephen and seek to capture others? Saul was a Pharisee. He was a very learned man. He knew the Old Testament scriptures. He had studied them under one of the great Rabbis, Gamaliel. He would himself explain later on: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women….”

The strictness of the fathers’ law was not only the Old Testament scriptures, however. No, it included all sorts of interpretations of the rabbis through the decades. Saul had been brought up learning and believing the very things Jesus had condemned when He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Saul trusted in the works righteousness of the Pharisees. He believed that his strength and will were enough to please God. He would proudly point to all the things he had done and claim that certainly he had earned the right to eternal life because of his strict adherence to all the laws.

Since Saul was convinced of the rightness of his cause and of his precise understanding of the law of God he saw the rise of the Christians as a threat to how he understood and worshiped God. Saul believed that certainly God had not come in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and that to believe such a thing was blasphemy, making a mockery of God. Therefore, for Saul, it was entirely warranted for these Christians to be imprisoned, and maybe even killed, like Stephen.

It was during Saul’s journey to Damascus that the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him. A bright light shone on him and a voice spoke from heaven. The others with Saul heard a voice, but could see nothing. Saul receives the word from Jesus instructing him to go to Damascus, and to wait for a further word that will instruct him about what to do next. Saul understands that the voice he hears is that of Jesus Christ. Saul acknowledges this Jesus as his Lord, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” For three days Saul is blinded, and he neither eats nor drinks, while he awaits the Lord’s word.

Meanwhile, the Lord speaks to Ananias, a Christian man living in Damascus. The Lord directs Ananias to go and find Saul of Tarsus. Ananias has heard about Saul, and is not eager to go to him since he knows that Saul has persecuted Christians and is seeking to do the same in Damascus. However, the Lord has great plans for Saul. “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

Ananias does as he is directed. He finds Saul, and gives him back his sight. After three days of darkness, without food or drink, Saul is brought to light. And the first thing he does is to be baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit. Saul then begins preaching and teaching about Jesus, proving that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament scriptures.

Saul had gone through a complete reversal. He had been dedicated to all the laws of the rabbis regarding how to eat and drink, how to be ceremonially clean, who to associate with, who to avoid, and on and on and on. Saul had been precise in his following of these laws. He had been an expert in it all. But now not only will he preach and exhort concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins through faith alone in the true Savior, Saul will specifically be sent to the Gentiles, those who neither knew nor followed the ceremonial laws previously so beloved by Saul. The one who zealously guarded and protected the law, will now zealously preach the gospel as the only way to salvation.

Saul would be renamed Paul. He would go on missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean world. He would start new churches, strengthen others through his many letters, the divinely inspired books we know with the names: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and so on. Yet this great teacher and preacher of the Christian Church started by hating the Church, hating Christ, and wanting to destroy it. It was not false humility, but a true understanding of Saul’s (Paul’s) own sin that led him to admit: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

The point of Paul’s writing of those words is not so that we can compare our sins to his and consider him a worse sinner than we are. “Chief of sinners” is a title we can each give to ourselves, as we humbly and honestly examine our own lives, our own betrayals of God, our failure to live as the redeemed children of God, but instead to wallow in the mud and scum of sin, rebelling in blatant ways, or in less obvious ways, against God’s will for us.

Martin Luther, like Saul/Paul, understood the seriousness of sin, and the struggle that it brings to each and every Christian. Luther wrote: “For the flesh in which we daily live is of such a nature that it does not trust and believe God and is constantly aroused by evil desires and devices, so that we sin daily in word and deed, in acts of commission and omission. Thus our conscience becomes restless; it fears God’s wrath and displeasure, and so it loses the comfort and confidence of the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary constantly to turn to this petition [“forgive us our trespasses”] for the comfort that will restore our conscience.”

“This should serve God’s purpose to break our pride and keep us humble. He has reserved to himself this prerogative, that if anybody boasts of his goodness and despises others he should examine himself in the light of this petition. He will find that he is no better than others, that in the presence of God all men must humble themselves and be glad that they can attain forgiveness. Let no one think that he will ever in this life reach the point where he does not need this forgiveness. In short, unless God constantly forgives, we are lost.”

Luther had been instructed by St. Paul through his reading of Romans and Galatians especially. And Luther could only agree and confess along with Paul the depth of sin, and the great love of God that showed in the sacrifice of the Son of God, dying for us, so that we receive the forgiveness of sins, even though we are “the chief of sinners.”

Saul was converted though God’s Word, through the working of the Holy Spirit, through Holy Baptism. And by God’s grace alone Saul the persecutor of the church became St. Paul, the one who first began to bring the Gospel to the gentiles, a work that has continued all the way to us who live now in the communities around Scarville, Iowa.

By God’s love and mercy you and I hear the precious and saving word of life, the forgiveness of our sins. God help us not to turn away from Him, but to learn again and again of how much He forgives, how much He loves, how much He cares, not just for people in general, but for you, for each one of you. God grant you such confident faith, through Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Amen.

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