Rev. Erik Veerman
Called as an Instrument of Grace
I’m guilty. I have friends and family members that I’ve written off for the Gospel. In my mind, I’ve thought, “no way would they ever believe. They have too much anger, or other sin, or unbelief, or hurt. They are too opposed to the claims of Christ… or they don’t see their need… or they’re too proud to submit to Christ… and would never to turn their life over to him.” And the sad result of these thoughts is I’ve stopped praying for them, I’ve stopped sharing Christ.
I don’t think I’m alone here. Take a moment and think of one person in your life that you feel is a lost cause for Christ… Is it a sibling, a co-worker, a friend, a parent? Maybe yourself? Whoever it is – there is hope.
If there’s one takeaway from these verses – it’s this: There is not an individual in the whole world whose heart is outside of God’s ability to change and forgive. No one. And that includes you.
Case in point - Saul here hated the believers in Jesus. He was breathing threats and murder against them. In other words, his hatred oozed out of everything he said and did. Saul wasn’t just an enemy of the church – no, he was the chief enemy. I mean, look what happened after his conversion – verse 31 – “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.” Before, Saul had been ravaging the church. That’s what it says in the beginning of chapter 8 – he had men and women in Jerusalem dragged off to prison. Saul was like a ravenous wolf – in pursuit of prey –he saw that the believers were scattered in Samaria. And so he sought official papers to pursue them in Damascus… and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. His goal was to snuff out those according to “the Way” – that’s what some people called the believers, verse 2.
And, of course, the Christians were afraid of Saul. We see a little bit of that in Ananias’s initial reaction to the Lord… and even the disciples were apprehensive at first. They had certainly written him off for the Gospel. But God had other plans.
In the bigger story of Acts, so far, we’ve seen this growing opposition to the early church. But what has happened is that the church has grown despite the persecution and actually because of it. And we come now to another big turning point in our church history. I say turning point because of all the ways God would use Saul of Tarsus for His kingdom. Let me note up-front… Saul is his Hebrew name. The translation in the Greek and Latin is Paul. We know him mostly as the apostle Paul– but he wasn’t called that until a couple chapters later – so I’ll stick with Saul for now. For him:
• What seemed impossible was made possible.
• Out of the darkness in his heart, came light.
• He was an enemy that became a brother.
• The one most opposed to Christ became the great proclaimer of Christ.
• He was a persecutor but became the persecuted.
If you look at the outline in the bulletin – those are all the subpoints. The two main things that happen here are first Saul of Tarsus was Called out of darkness into light and second, we see he was Chosen as an instrument of grace. Called by God and chosen by God… all because of his grace.
And let me make this real in your life. This is not just an account of someone 2000 years ago transformed by God…. neither is it just a picture of what God can do in someone else’s life who you or I have written off. No, if you are a believer in Christ, this is also the story of your life. Yes, there are a couple of unique things that happened to Saul – but our heart condition… yours and mine. our enmity with God – it’s the same rejection of God and impossibility of faith… were not God to have called us and chosen us. I hope you’ll see that as we work through these verses.
1.) Called out of darkness into light (Acts 9:1-9)
So first, called out of darkness into light. Saul had acquired letters from the High Priest so that he could imprison the Christians. And Saul is on the way from Jerusalem to Damascus! It’s about a 135 mile journey. A long way back then. And his purpose was to lock up the believers.
From a human standpoint – it seemed impossible that Saul could ever believe. In fact, it was impossible, humanly speaking. Romans 3 – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… no one is righteous… no not one. No one understands, no one seeks God.” None of us are able to believe God. That’s because we are dead in our sins. Spiritually dead and depraved. Our hearts are stone. We are wretched and blind. That’s what the Scriptures say and what we sang. And that’s the amazing grace. Because what was impossible for Saul – impossible for us. God has made possible. He’s done it through Jesus.
As Saul was approaching Damascus – everything changed – he was ready to put an end to the Way. And then, all of a sudden, he was blinded by a light all around him. The light was so overwhelming that Saul fell to his knees, verses 3 and 4, and a voice from heaven called to him. “Saul, Saul!” Naming him twice – that’s an intimate emphasis.
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”
We’re not given insight here into Saul’s thoughts. But we do know that he and all those opposed to Jesus – believed that Jesus was dead. To them, Jesus was not God and they themselves had had him put to death. But here’s Saul, on his knees, blinded by the light… not only was Jesus not dead, he was very much alive, displaying his glory and power in the light and his place in heaven as his voice resonated. The resurrected and ascended Jesus. And Jesus made this profound statement to Saul and for us. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” In other words, “As you, Saul, have been persecuting believers in me… you have been persecuting me”
There’s not time to get into all the amazing things about this – but when you are in Christ, he is in you. You’ve been grafted in through His Spirit into the source of life – the true vine. He abides in you. So, any persecution against the church is persecution against Christ.
It’s here that God called Saul to himself – out of the wretchedness of his sin – his total opposition to Christ, and into belief and forgiveness in him. He was spiritually blind. Before Saul’s conversion, he could see on the outside with his eyes, but his heart was dark on the inside. And at his conversion, he became blind on the outside, and the light of the Gospel shone on the inside. In other words, his eyes had gone from sight to blindness and his heart had gone from blindness to sight. Later in Acts, Saul himself recounted his conversion… and he connected his calling to darkness and light. Spiritual darkness and spiritual light. I think God blinded Saul to show him that. To reveal the light of the Gospel within… and his utter dependance on God.
This was a very different kind of conversion than the Ethiopian eunuch from last week. The Ethiopian had been seeking the truth. Reading from Isaiah. – when God placed Philip in his life.
God was pursuing them both, but in different ways. For Saul of Tarsus – it was a sudden conversion. Saul was stopped in his tracks, literally! But in both cases, in fact, in all cases, it’s the Lord’s work. He is the one who pursues.
In 1893, poet Francis Thompson penned what has been called the most magnificent poem in the English language – titled “The Hound of Heaven.” It describes God’s relentless pursuit of a sinner – despite fleeing and hiding. Here are the first lines:
“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways…
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears…
I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, They beat—
and a Voice beat… More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’”
Thompson was likely reflecting back on God’s pursuit of him. For multiple stanzas he writes of all the ways that he fled God, all the things that he pursued besides God – He asked the darkness to hide him and the evening to cover him. But happiness and peace eluded him in all his worldly pursuits.
For Thompson, that included many things even an opioid addiction. Yet God would not let up
Thompson ends as he has come to his end. A word from God “Rise, clasp my hand and come! …Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, …I am He Whom thou seekest”
The hound of heaven… the pursuer of sinners… For Saul, nothing would stop God’s pursuit. Despite Saul’s rejection of Jesus, Jesus himself would call and forgive.
Some of you came to faith in Christ as an adult. And as you reflect, you sensed that pursuit of God in Christ. And you know, he pursued you, and not the other way around.
Others of you, myself included, believed in Christ as a child. And although maybe you don’t remember a day that you didn’t know Christ, yet it was still God who pursued you, who turned your heart and mind to him.
Or perhaps God is still in pursuit of you – and you sense it – he will not give up - and he’s calling you as he called out to Saul. There is no sin so big that God cannot forgive you. Saul was complicit in murder and totally opposed to Jesus, yet God pursued him like the hound of heaven. Maybe you’ve even written yourself off… maybe you’ve thought that God couldn’t forgive you…. Our God is greater than all our sin, as the hymn goes.
Despite Saul’s grievous sin, yet he was called and forgiven by Christ - out of the darkness of his sin and unbelief, and into the light of his grace. It’s the work of God alone – his pursuit of Saul and you and me. God has made the impossible possible.
2.) Chosen as an instrument of grace (Acts 9:10-31)
That brings us to the second part of this text. Not only was Saul’s heart transformed by the Gospel, God also chose him to be an instrument of His grace. That’s point number 2.
You see, at the same time as Saul was blinded and entered Damascus, The Lord spoke to a believer named Ananias. Ananias was to seek out Saul and pray for him to receive his sight. His first reaction was “Who?! This guy, Saul? You mean the one who persecuted the saints in Jerusalem and came here to persecute us.” Here’s how the Lord responded. Verse 15, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
God had chosen Saul, before the foundation of the world, to be an instrument of His grace… not because of any worth or value or knowledge that Saul had, but because God willed it. God had prepared Saul for this very time.
And Ananias obeyed – and not only did he go and find Saul but look at Ananias’s first words to Saul in verse 17. “Brother Saul!” Talk about a heart receptive to God’s Word. If you were in Ananias’s shoes… would you have called him brother? Or would you have started out by saying, “Saul, you have caused so much pain… I hope you will never forget that.” No, that would be bitterness.
“Brother, Saul” Words full of grace and forgiveness. Words that ministered to Saul. This enemy had become a brother! A brother in Christ, a brother in ministry, a partner in the Gospel.
As Ananias prayed, Saul regained his sight, he could see… and he received the Holy Spirit. He was soon baptized. He’d been fasting as well, but receved food and was strengthened.
Even in the first days or weeks after his conversion… God would use Saul as an instrument of Grace. Verse 20, “Immediately,” it says, “he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogue.”
Think of the irony. Saul had been on his way to Damascus to destroy the church… but instead, God used him to build up the church. Instead of carting off believers taking away from their numbers, God used Saul to add to their numbers. What an amazing testimony.
A few years ago, I was visiting someone in a state prison. I was there as a pastor to pray for and just be with the son of some dear friends. This young man asked if I would be willing to visit with some of his fellow inmates. Many of these guys don’t have anyone to come and visit – their families have disowned them and their friends have moved on. Of course – it was an honor to meet these fellow image bearers. A couple of them were believers… and a couple of them weren’t, so it was an opportunity to share Christ or encourage them in Christ.
One of these men began to tell me his story. He’s serving multiple life sentences with no chance for parole. He’d been a drug dealer and had taken the life of at least one other person. He described to me the initial shock of his arrest and imprisonment… and how in the first decade in prison - he grew more and more angry at God - hateful toward himself and resentful of others.
Until the glorious day that God called him out of his sin and darkness and into the light of God grace. It was a transformational experience. He wrote a book about his conversion. In it he writes, “[I was] once upon a time a street dealer and hit man for hire, but now I’m a man forgiven by the Love and grace of God that comes only through His son, our Lord Jesus Christ…”
And beyond God’s Gospel call in his life, God chose him to be an instrument of grace. Since that day, he’s grown in God’s Word… taken some remote seminary classes and he’s become a pastor to the other inmates. He started a Sunday church service, where he preaches the Bible every week. In fact, right now he’s probably preaching God’s Word.
We stayed in touch for a couple years through email. I sent him a couple books on preaching and pastoring. His days are filled with study, and counselling and prayer for these other men. I remember him saying to me, “I wish there was more time in each day.”
God had called Saul out of darkness and chose him to be an instrument of God’s grace to the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel, verse 15. And God called this man out of darkness and chose him to be an instrument of grace and the Gospel in prison. In both cases, going from opposing Christ to proclaiming Christ. And we’ve each been called out of unbelief and sin to be an instruments of God’s grace. Proclaiming Christ wherever God has called and placed us.
But be warned, being faithful to God’s call involves suffering. Back in verse 16, God said to Ananias that he would show Saul just how much he would need to suffer for his name. Saul would soon experience the same persecution that he himself had inflicted on the church.
Now, these verses don’t tell us how long Saul was in Damascus. but in the book of Galatians chapter 1, the apostle himself tells us that he was there for three years – and that included preaching in nearby Asia. That’s a considerable amount of time. Saul was preaching that Jesus was the Son of God, verse 20, and verse 22, proving the Jesus was the Christ. Christ in the Greek is the same word as Messiah in the Hebrew. In other words, Saul was declaring to all the Jews in Damascus… that Jesus had fulfilled the Messianic promises. He was the Christ.
Many believed, but of course, many were not happy with Saul! And so now he becomes the target. He had been a persecutor, and now he was persecuted. So much so, that they wanted to kill him. Twice in these verses. First in Damascus, but he escaped. That would have been a sight to behold. First of all, how did he fit in a basket? I’m not quite sure I would fit in a basket. And then, if it was me, the rope would have snapped.
But Saul escaped! He made his way back down to Jerusalem – there he met some of the apostles, ministering with them. And he was faithful to boldly preach the word – it says he disputed against the Hellenists. Remember, those were the Greek Jews. Possibly some of the very men that participated in killing Stephen. But now, they wanted Saul killed! But, again, Saul escaped. This time with the help of the disciples… and they sent him off to his homeland in Tarsus to preach the Good news.
The called and chosen one… was an enemy, and now a brother, was an opposer, now a proclaimer, was a persecutor and now a persecuted.
Let me take a brief tangent before we close. In these 2 cases of persecution, the disciples sought to protect Saul from threats. In another case later in chapter 14, Paul was kicked out of a city. Well, he goes right back in. Applied in our lives, we are given latitude to make decisions based on circumstances –there are times when fleeing a dangerous situation is best and other times we may be called to stay.
Christians sometimes have a times a fatalistic mindset. Well, if I die, I die – so be it. But taking precautions is important, it’s precedented in Scripture. But yet, we do have eternal rest and peace and joy to look forward to… so remaining in a hostile situation may be God’s call, just like Stephen. But we’re also given tasks to do. There are people to care for and people with whom we’re to share the hope of Christ – Saul had more work to do and so he escaped these two situations. We’ll see other examples like this as we continuw in Acts.
In summary, God took a man who not only rejected Christ. But who was dedicated destroying Christ. ANd Jesus himself called him and chose him. It’s first of all a reminder that there’s no one out of the reach of Christ… In fact, faith is impossible without Him, impossible without the Holy Spirit. But utterly possible in Him. Faith in Christ is God’s work - it always has been. And so, we should continue to pray for and engage our friends and family who do not know the grace of Christ.
If you were drawn here this morning… and have never submitted yourself to Jesus, never come to him with your sin and shame… he is able to forgive and give you great honor. Nothing is too great. It can all been nailed to the cross.
And finally, if you are a believer in Christ, you are a chosen instrument of His. You and I are not Apostle Pauls – but you are chosen, I am chosen to bring the message of hope and grace wherever God places us. May we be faithful and obedient to the call of Jesus no matter the suffering that may come – just as Saul was faithful and obedient.