19b For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. 23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
R. Kent Hughes tells of a time when he learned a valuable lesson about famous converts.
A number of years ago, when I was a youth pastor, word came to me from one of the large churches in my area that the last living member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang, Big Jim Harrington, had been giving his testimony to standing-room-only crowds with amazing results. So I made the arrangements for him to speak at our church. I arranged for special music, had several thousand handbills printed and distributed at the local high schools, and enlisted counselors. The night arrived, and it went beyond our expectations – a sea of teenagers.
Big Jim was unbelievable – an imposing man about eighty years old with tattoos on the back of his hands and an indentation atop his bald head from an old bullet wound. For two hours he regaled us with powerful stories of his wasted life with Clyde Barrow. He poignantly exhorted us not to waste our youth and urged us to commit our lives to Christ. Everyone was thrilled. The elders who had been reticent congratulated us on the service. I was very satisfied and a little smug – until two days later when I received a call from Big Jim’s agent, who told me he had just learned that Big Jim was an imposter, that in fact he was a well-meaning alcoholic who lived with his daughter out in the desert and suffered delusions about his uneventful past. Gulp! I learned a major lesson from that experience!
Perhaps there should be a word for “conversion skepticism,” the state of cynicism concerning famous or infamous converts. I have unfortunately learned to be skeptical as well.
Do you remember Mike Warnke? In the 80’s Mike Warnke was making the Christian speaking circuit with his fascinating and macabre tales of his life as a former Satanist. As a boy I remember sitting in the Civic Center of Sumter, SC, listening with rapt attention and no small degree of amazement to Warnke’s stories of black masses, child sacrifice, and other things I was amazed I was allowed to hear about as a child. Imagine my shock, then, when some years later I read an expose in a Christian magazine from some people who began to notice holes and inconsistencies in his story. As it turned out, Warnke had greatly exaggerated his story and outright fabricated certain parts of it. I should say that Warnke appears to have repented and is trying now to do well for the cause of Christ, but this was my first experience with conversion skepticism and it has made me perhaps too cynical ever since.
One cannot help but wonder if the early church felt the same about Paul? Talk about an unlikely conversion story! One day Paul is breathing murder and hatred against the Church and the next day he is preaching Christ in the synagogues of Damascus. How was the Church to understand this? How was the Church to believe this? Were they really supposed to accept this guy who had the blood of one of their friend’s, Stephen, on his hands? Were they really supposed to throw open the doors to this one who had caused so much pain and misery for the Church?
The conversion of Paul was as scandalous as it was unlikely. It was also amazing. It was amazing because it revealed just how very real the grace and power of Jesus Christ is. Let us consider the results of Paul’s conversion and the challenge it presented to the Church.
Paul’s conversion resulted in a complete change of heart that led him to call his friends to come to Jesus.
To begin, it must be acknowledged that Paul’s conversion was marked by astonishing, visible fruit.
19b For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
Luke tells us that he was with the disciples “for some days.” When reading the account of the days immediately following his conversion, we need to remember Paul’s fuller account from Galatians. In Galatians 1 he writes:
15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
When we harmonize these passages, we see the more complete picture of Paul’s conversion, his receiving of the Holy Spirit in Damascus, his retreat “into Arabia,” his return to Damascus, then his eventual journey to Jerusalem. Let us note Paul’s activity in Damascus upon his return.
20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
I was once invited to offer the prayer at a city council meeting in a small town in South Georgia. After I prayed I stayed for the meeting. I will never forget how hard it was not to laugh when I heard a local government employee note with glee that the city “had made a complete 360 degree turnaround.” Unfortunately, that’s the kind of turnaround many Christians make. They end up right where they started with no lasting change.
Not Paul. Paul made a 180 degree turn. He went from attacking the Church to helping the Church grow. He went from persecuting Christ to proclaiming Christ. He went from hostility against the Church to solidarity with it.
The most concrete evidence of a person’s conversion is their willingness to share with others what has happened to them. Paul did this with a passion that never left him throughout the remainder of his fascinating life. He “immediately…proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues.” This is astounding not only because of the content of Paul’s message but also because of the location of it. He (a) preaches Jesus and (b) preaches him in the synagogues.
We must remember that these synagogue officials would have seen Paul’s entry into their midst as a welcome relief that this Pharisee of Pharisees was going to round up and remove these rabble rousing followers of Jesus. Imagine their shock when they heard Paul stand in their midst and call people to Jesus instead! Who could have seen this coming!
It is commonplace to hear Christians say today that your friends and family are the hardest to evangelize. Not so with Paul. He went immediately to his old friends and colleagues and announced his new message! He wanted those with whom he was previously allied to understand what had happened to him. He had seen and been touched by the risen Christ, and that had changed everything!
Paul’s conversion resulted in the anger of his former friends and their attempt to kill him.
Understandably, his friends were not pleased.
23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
So complete was Paul’s conversion, and so incendiary, that his former friends now desired to kill. Luke tells us this twice: “the Jews plotted to kill him” and “they were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him.”
As an aside, note that “his disciples” saved his life by lowering him out of the city in a basket. “His disciples.” Who’s disciples? Paul’s disciples! Not only was Paul now boldly preaching Jesus, he was also showing others how to follow Jesus. He had his own disciples who were seeking to learn from and emulate his devotion to Christ. But his former friends wanted to kill him.
It is interesting to see how angry one’s former friends can become when one allows Christ to change his or her heart. Peter spoke of this reality in 1 Peter 4.
3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
Yes, they are indeed “surprised when you do not join them” in the life you used to live. Be it a life of debauchery or, in Paul’s case, self-righteous legalism. The lost do not understand when the saved throw off the life they once lived.
I once had a young man come to me for counsel. He struggled with alcohol and partying and neglecting his wife and children. He would come to me when he hit bottom or when his wife was especially angry. He would appear to repent and then he would leave and the same cycle would start all over again. Finally, one day, sitting in my office, I asked him about his friends. “They are not good friends,” he told me. “They drag me down and are bad influences on me.” He told me of his “best friend” and how the relationship was not a healthy one at all.
So I proposed to him that perhaps he should call his friend right then and there on my phone and tell him that he could no longer hang out with him if they were going to do the kinds of things they were doing. He agreed. So with trembling voice he picked up the phone in my presence, called his friend, and told him. I could hear his friend’s angry voice on the other end of the phone. I heard him curse and swear in anger. To my amazement, some weeks later, they were back to partying and wild living.
Perhaps it seems a hard thing to be very clear with your friends about your changed life, but if you do not you will always leave open a small door through which you can fall back into what you were. More important than this caution, however, is the fact that if Christ has truly saved us we should want our friends to know him as well.
Paul went to the synagogues and told his peers about Jesus. Have you? Surely this is one of the indispensible marks of a genuine conversion.
Paul’s conversion resulted in a spiritual struggle within the Church that ended in growth and the Church’s acceptance of their former enemy.
If Paul’s former friends reacted with rage, His potential new set of friends acted with skepticism, fear, and hesitation.
26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
Let us be careful of rushing to judgment. After all, how would you and I have reacted? Again, this man had caused untold pain in the Church. This was no easy situation. And so, for a moment, Paul felt like a man without a country. His former friends were gone. His new family shrunk back from him in fear.
What was the solution? The solution, as it turns out, was a man in the Church who was willing to set aside his fear, sit in the shadow of the cross, and think for a moment. If indeed the gospel they were all preaching was true, how could it not apply even to Paul? And so this man decided to break down the wall separating Paul from the Church. This man’s name was Barnabas, “the son of encouragement.”
27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
That is all it took: one man who was willing to live out even the uncomfortable implications of the gospel! Barnabas puts his arm around Paul and says, “If Christ truly died for all, that includes this guy as well.” Thus, Barnabas became a friend to and advocate for Paul. As a result, the Church welcomed Paul and sought to protect him against the murderous intent of the Jews by sending him to Tarsus.
One may be tempted to ask why this awkward introduction into the Church was even necessary. Why could God not have used Paul as something of a free-range, unaffiliated Christian? Simply put, because there is no such thing as an unaffiliated Christian. Not really. When you come to Christ, you become part of the Church. The right thing to do, then, is to live that out publically by associating with a local congregation. But more important than this, however, is the fact that Paul needed the Church if he was truly going to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ. Sociologists Berger and Luckmann put it beautifully when they said:
To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility. This is where the religious community comes in. It provides the indispensable plausibility structure of the new reality. In other words, Saul may have become Paul in the aloneness of religious ecstasy, but he could remain Paul only in the context of the Christian community.
So Paul needed the Church to grow. However, the Church also needed Paul if it was going to grow! See how the Church expanded in its understanding of what grace and forgiveness really is! Paul was a test containing only one question: did the Church really believe that Christ could reach anybody?
Have you ever struggled to welcome into the family of God somebody against whom you have a complaint? The Church has always had to deal with this. Corrie Ten Boom spent time in a concentration camp after her family was discovered harboring and hiding Jews during World War II. Before her death in the early 1980’s, she had an amazing ministry of speaking about the experiences of her life and how God blessed her through all of the hard times she and her family suffered. Here she tells of a time when she too had to come to terms with the uncomfortably realities of forgiveness.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s [her sister’s] pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
Yes. “He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Corrie Ten Boom had to learn this.
The early Church had to learn this.
You and I must learn this.
Church, it is an amazing thing to be entrusted with the gospel that can reach, break, and heal the hardest of hearts. And it is an honor to be presented with the painful opportunity to learn to love as Jesus loves.
We must do this.
We must do this.