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Even as the persecution of the Church intensified, the manifestation of Christ’s sovereignty became more manifest. Christianity became a “spreading flame” as F.F. Bruce has called it. After thousands were saved in Jerusalem, more were saved in Samaria. And now an enemy of Christ is saved who will become the most effective evangelist who ever lived. Let’s look together at Saul’s conversion and find out what is involved in conquering an enemy of the Gospel and transforming him into a champion of the same.

 

A number of years ago, a woman named Rosaria Champagne Butterfield was a professor of English and Women's Studies at Syracuse University. She had reached all of her dreams. She had finished her degree. She had landed a prestigious intellectual post, and she had reached tenure. She was happily settled in her home with her lesbian partner. 

 

Up to that point in her career, she had mostly tolerated Christians, whom she called stupid, pointless, menacing. She didn't admire Jesus either. She said that he looked to her as powerful as a Breck Shampoo commercial. She didn't find the Christians in her classroom particularly engaging, but she tolerated them. She tolerated them, that is, until 1992 when Pat Robertson compared feminists to those who practice witchcraft. She thought that was a bridge too far, so she set her sights on destroying the Christian Right, thinking that everyone in the Christian Right represented all of Christendom. 

 

She wrote an opinion piece that gained a lot of traction both negatively and positively. She started keeping two boxes for the mail, one for letters of support and one for letters of criticism and hate mail, even death threats. She received one letter, however, that fit neither category. She crumpled it up and threw it away. Later, in her intrigue about the difference in that letter, she pulled it out of the trash, unfolded it, and read it again. It was from a local pastor at a reformed Presbyterian church named Ken Smith. He didn't criticize her; he was very kind. But he asked her questions, the kind she encouraged her students to ask but did not like being asked of her in this particular area. On what do you base your authority? What are your presuppositions? Can you explain how you get logically from point A to point B. At the end of the letter, he continued his kindness, warmly inviting her to lunch with he and his wife. 

 

She was disturbed by this letter, finally agreeing to have lunch with Pastor Smith and his wife. Again, at that lunch, Ken did not fit the stereotype of Christians she had. Instead, he and his wife were kind and generous to her. He even began his prayer for the meal by confessing his own sin and asking for forgiveness. It started a friendship that would continue for years, and eventually, she said that she got up out of the bed of her lesbian lover and went to church. She wasn't converted right away. She continued an unrepentant lifestyle. She continued to think the same way about most Christians, with the exception of the little congregation with which she was attending worship each week. For years, they loved her, prayed for her, invited her to their home, and showed her kindness.

 

So, how do you conquer an enemy of the gospel? Does it take superior arguments, belligerence, or power? What we see in this passage and in other places in scripture is that God overcomes enemies to the gospel with his kindness. As Paul, the subject of this passage, says in Romans, God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (2:4). God’s method of evangelism should be ours as well. This passage shows us a few ways he does it.

1. Courageous Supporters (20-31)

Sometimes the real challenge begins after one comes to Christ. Professing faith may initially seem rather easy, but then opposition and suffering come. How will an new Christian survive in a world that can be harsh? How can a young Christian survive when at times even the Church is insensitive and unsupportive? Humanly speaking, a young Christian can only survive if surrounded by courageous supporters. Paul certainly was. Even those young disciples converted under his ministry prove to be real heroes of the faith and essential to Paul’s going on in Christ.

A. Defense (20-25)

New believers need friends who will provide defensive protection for them. That is what these new friends in Damascus do for Paul. Shortly after he becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ, he starts preaching (20). The same zeal with which he persecuted the Church is now harnessed and brought into service to advance the Gospel.

 

Paul entered the synagogues where the people expected him to enlist their help in finding Christians and instead preached Christ (21). Specifically, Luke says that he “proved” that Jesus was the Christ (22a). The verb translated “prove” refers to bringing many parts together to enable someone to draw a conclusion. Paul was bringing together the many parts of the Old Testament in order to prove Jesus was the promised Messiah. His logical proofs from the Scriptures were too much for his opponents; they were overpowered and baffled (22b).

 

Eventually, the Jews requested that the governor, an appointee of King Aretas, help them capture Paul and put him to death. It is understandable that the governor may have been eager to do so because he was offended by Paul’s preaching.

 

Discovering the plot, the disciples put him in a basket, and under the cover of darkness, lowered him over the city wall so that he might escape (24,25). This instance proves to us that when we feel doubts and inadequacies about our ability to share Christ with others, we are not alone. God uses people like us to accomplish his mission, even Paul. From Paul’s own testimony, he was weak and cites this instance in 2 Corinthians 11 as proof.

B. Encouragement (26-31)

Paul needed those who would protect him, but he also needed those who would encourage him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that God’s word has a “peculiar power” when spoken through the lips of a friend.

 

We need Christian friendship in this life or we will not make it. In fact, to be one who professes belief in the gospel is by definition to be a friend because of the incarnation of Christ in the gospel. We must be friends by incarnating the gospel to others and inviting others to bring Christ to us.

 

I was recently interviewed for a doctoral dissertation. The interviewer wanted to talk to me because of my battles with anxiety, depression, and burnout. What he and I began to discover as we talked was that my story has been characterized by friends. God has used many great friends in my life to encourage me, mentor me, pray for me, and teach me at every turn of my ministry. If we are to live this Christian life, we need friends. If we are to conquer enemies of the gospel, we must be friends to others who incarnate the kindness of God that leads to repentance.

II. Courageous Disciplers (9-19)

Before these encouragers come into Paul’s life, however, we find another category of person essential to a young Christian’s prosperity.

A. Gospel Ministry (9,17-19)

A new convert has some essential needs. Most pressing perhaps is the need to know that their sins are completely forgiven in Christ. They need to know the details of the Gospel: how their sins are forgiven, the promises of the Word, and how those promises come to them in Jesus. This was no less Paul’s need. While he was suddenly converted upon his confrontation with Christ, he was in a severely depressed state (9). This makes sense considering the fact that the blood of scores of Christians around the world was on his hands. He had created widows by martyring their husbands, he had dragged mothers out of their homes and separated them from their children, and there were people rotting in prison by his doing. In his blindness, he was forced to play over and again the picture of those whom he had beaten, stoned, and locked up. Now he knew that Jesus was the Christ, but he did not know yet that he could be forgiven.

B. Jesus’ Ministry (11-16)

But God sent a personal messenger to him, a Gospel minister named Ananias to apply the sweetness of grace to him. Notice the personal attention Jesus gives to this situation. It shows his eagerness to assure new converts of forgiveness. Jesus bridges the gap between these two men by prayer. He first appeared to Paul and introduced Ananias, then he appeared to Ananias and calmed his fears about Paul (11,12). Jesus is personally involved in bringing his children together for mutual strengthening through discipleship.

 

Through this example we see that discipleship is simply Jesus’ personal ministry of connecting you to another believer. Discipleship is not you passing on your expertise. It’s holding on to your friend and to Jesus. Paul was made a powerful preacher this way, through the courageous discipleship of Ananias.

 

If your experience is like mine, you may be tempted to assume a posture of self-protection when it comes to discipling others because of past experiences with those who profess to be Christians but turn out to be imposters. Experiences like these can leave you feeling foolish and disillusioned. But one Ethiopian (see Acts 8) or one Paul will make putting your encouraging arm around a thousand imposters more than worth it.

 

Barnabas’ encouragement emboldened Paul. He went on to preach to the Hellenists in Jerusalem (29). From Jerusalem he went to Syria and Cilicia (Ga. 1:21). Then he returned to Tarsus, his hometown, and waited for many years until Barnabas the encourager came once again and recruited him to take the Gospel to the whole Empire (11:25,26). Some ask, “Where would the Church be without Paul?” We could just as easily ask where the church would be without Barnabas his encourager. Because Barnabas was secure in Christ, he was able to take a risk on Paul and become a key encourager in his life. When we know the kindness of Christ that has led us to repentance, we are able to give ourselves to the work of encouraging others, no matter the cost.

 

III. Conquering Christ (1-8)

But now let us scroll all the way back to the top of the chapter and find the real secret to an enemy’s being overcome with the Gospel. Yes, it takes people. But those people are but instruments in a sovereign Savior’s hand. In fact, you would have no motivation for becoming a courageous discipler and no promise of enablement to become a courageous comforter if it were not for the fact that you serve Christ the King.

A. Man’s Plans (1,2)

Why was Paul so concerned about the Church in Damascus? Because it was a key international intersection. It lay on the Abana River and was thus a well-irrigated commercial city serving as a crossroads for caravans from around the world. Christianity had begun to flourish there and Paul knew that if it continued it would quickly spread throughout the world. Paul was extremely zealous in his pursuit of Christians. He even traveled to foreign cities (Acts 26:11) with the full support of the Roman government. The Romans had given the Jews the right of extradition in 147 B.C. and Julius Caesar renewed it in 47 B.C. He particularly extended that power to the high-priesthood. Therefore, the high priest had Roman reinforcement to pursue any religious criminal anywhere in the world. That is why Paul goes to the high priest for letters (1,2). Paul was particularly pursuing those who had fled Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen. Presumably he was charging them with complicity in Stephen’s scheme to destroy the temple.

B. God’s Plan (3-8)

But Jesus was waiting for Paul. In the course of Paul’s dark deeds which he thought were pleasing heaven, a bright light from heaven forces him to the ground. The Lord Christ confronts him and demands an accounting for his deeds. Notice Christ’s expression of union with his people, “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus completely identifies himself with his people who are being persecuted. Union with Christ means not only that we benefit from the life of Christ, but he also bears and endures our daily struggles for his Kingdom’s sake (cf. Mt. 10:40; 25:45).[1]

 

Back up now and think of the significance of this event. The most powerful government in the civilized world has extended authority to the Jewish religious leadership to track down and destroy Christians anywhere in the world. That task has been delegated to the most brilliant and brave zealots among the Pharisees, Saul. He is personally responsible for dispersing nearly ten thousand of them from Jerusalem and now appears to be on his way to striking a decisive blow in their most strategic location. There is no hope for the Church, that is, if it depended on human strength. However, Christ’s strength is greater. He converts Christianity’s greatest opponent into one of its greatest advocates and the eventual author of much of the New Testament. God’s plans cannot be thwarted.

 

At least one application from this is the way we view politics. Over my 30 years of ministry that has spanned 7 presidents, I have found that Christians are entirely too anxious about the political situation. In our anxiety, we tend to believe that the kingdom of God arrives and departs on Air Force One. It does not. If we become overly exuberant or overly depressed about the results of any election, our Christ is too small. Being a citizen of the kingdom of Jesus means that we never totally align with either political party’s ideology. No elected official will ever thwart God’s mission in the world. He proved it with Paul. Christians in that day were living under an incredibly despotic and tyrannous rule. Even so, Christianity became a spreading flame because they believed that Jesus was more powerful than any political leader. We must believe the same.

 

Rosaria Butterfield continued in that local church. She also continued in relationship with the Smiths and other friends in the congregation. She resisted repenting of her lifestyle. As a professional academic, she said she felt she had to understand something before she could obey it or believe it. One day, however, Christ met her in a worship service and convinced her that she had to obey him even before she could understand, for when you lose your life for him, you will gain it. 

 

This is the way she describes her conversion: 

Then, one ordinary day, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. In this war of worldviews, Ken was there [his wife] Floy was there. The church that had been praying for me for years was there. Jesus Triumphed. And I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sand a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world. I drank, tentatively at first, then passionately, of the solace of the Holy Spirit. I rested in private peace, then community, and today in the shelter of a covenant family, where one calls me "wife" and many call me "mother."[2] 

 

The kindness of the sovereign God draws to repentance. The kindness and confidence of Christians living in fellowship with one another draws enemies of the gospel to Christ. 

 

 

[1] See Bruce’s commentary for the account of Sundar Singh’s similar conversion experience. For a time, Singh attended a Presbyterian seminary.

[2] Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, “My Train Wreck Conversion,” Christianity Today, February 7, 2013. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/january-february/my-train-wreck-conversion.html?wptouch_preview_theme=enabled&start=6.