Luke describes a poignant scene or series of scenes in Acts 9:19-21:
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 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?”
For those of us who read these words, 2,000 years later, as we are making our way through the book of Acts they seem, well, somewhat anticlimactic. After all, we know well the story of the conversion of Saul described earlier in Acts 9. After hundreds of flannel graphs and illustrated videos and sermons and lectures and commentaries and books, this scene of Paul in the synagogues saying, “Jesus is the Son of God!” has become rather passé.
Yeah, yeah, we say, just tell me what it means for me today. How will I get through my next week. How will I pay the bills at the end of the month. What nugget can the preacher give me so I can help my 14-year old stay out of trouble?
There is a reason this story should not be just passed over when we read the book of Acts. Not simply because Luke’s narrative is the breathed-out Word of God to us but because Paul’s conversion is powerful and pivotal to the story Luke is telling. The book of Acts is the story of Christ building His Church, the fulfillment of God’s promise to call out a people from every nation, tribe and tongue.
Prior to Acts 9, the Jesus movement had grown exponentially. The message about the man from Nazareth, unjustly put to death by Roman crucifixion, buried, and risen again–this message had been preached throughout Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had come in power to Jesus’ disciples. They preached with boldness the message that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God, Savior of the World, Lord and King.
But the miracle of Acts 9 was a miracle nobody saw coming. The disciples. The enemies of Jesus. Even Saul himself.
When Steven was being stoned to death by the religious leaders, nobody knew that the man holding the garments of the persecutors, who approved the stoning of Steven, the most vociferous opponent of Christianity–this man would soon become the first-century’s vocal apologist for the Christian faith.
The conversion of Saul was important for the early church because it emphasized two important aspects of the gospel. First, it told them that nobody, even the most entrenched enemy of the gospel, is outside of God’s saving power. Second, it was a powerful reminder that Christ is triumphant over his enemies.
Luke’s narrative in Acts 9 is just as important for believers today because Christ is still in the business of converting Sauls to Pauls. Its easy for us to despair, especially when we see Christianity lose its influence in the culture in the West. If we’re not careful, we’ll look at history through the lens of our own experience and only see doom and gloom ahead. We might assume that the flesh and blood opponents of the gospel are fixed in their spiritual blindness, as if they too can’t have their own road to Damascus. As if the gospel power so evident in Acts 9 can’t happen in the 21st century, right here, in our midst.
The next great Christian apologist may today be preparing briefs for the Supreme Court, teaching young college students the absurdity of the Virgin Birth, or operating his own meth lab. If Acts 9 tells us anything it tells us that Christ will build His Church, despite HIs enemies, and call the unlikeliest of servants to do it.
This has been the pattern of church history. Augustine, Newton, Lewis, Wallace, Strobel, McDowell, Bignon. The list keeps growing because Christ keeps pursuing those far from him. Every day we hear more stories from closed countries about miraculous conversions to Christianity.
You and I are on this list too, because our conversions were no less miraculous. There is only one kind of people Christ saves: enemies of God.
So let’s relish the story of Saul-turned-Paul. Let’s not despair the enemies of the gospel. Instead, let’s love them. Because in our loving, we are not only showing the world what it looks like for Jesus to love His enemies, we might also be befriending a future brother or sister in Christ.
If Christians are to obey the Great Commission in his generation, we need to stop seeing the people who don’t agree with us as our enemies but as future Pauls. That Muslim neighbor. That atheist coworker. That obnoxiously anti-Christian TV host. Where we often see Saul, God sees Paul.
Today a conversion like this might seem as absurd as the conversion of an influential Pharisee and chief prosecutor of the first-century Jesus cult. But if Acts 9 is true–and you and I are testimony that it is–then don’t be surprised if one day you wake up to see former enemies of Christ declaring, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”