Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future. Those words were penned over a hundred years ago by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde but they could very well have been written about a young man named Saul who came to a pivotal point in his life where he would have to choose to live in the past or to live in the future.
This summer our series is “Say What?” and we been looking at common phrases that are used today that had their origins in the Bible.
Over the past several weeks I’ve spoken on, my brother’s keeper, the apple of his eye, cast the first stone and Pastor Rob looked at The salt of the Earth and You reap what you sow.
This week we are looking at a phrase that is sometimes used to refer to a point in time when someone has a dramatic change in their life.
It has been defined this way, Damascus Road experiences are those in which a person has a sudden insight that radically changes their beliefs.
And you thought a Damascus Road experience had to do with shopping in Bedford.
And the phrase shows up in current thought and literature.
Anna White wrote, “I doubt that anyone has a Damascus moment after experiencing discrimination. Most people seem to have shining moments of change after experiencing grace.”
And in his novel, A Murder of Quality John Le Carre wrote, “It was from us they learnt the secret of life: that we grow old without growing wise. They realized that nothing happened when we grew up: no blinding light on the road to Damascus, no sudden feeling of maturity.”
When I see biblical phrases used like that, I often think, that people accept the what without understanding the why. That is, they know what it means but they don’t know why it means what it means.
That is, they don’t know or they don’t understand the back story
The back story here is about the conversion of the man we now know as Paul, but whose name was originally Saul. And how he went from being involved in the death of the first Christian martyr to becoming one if not the most influential voice in Christianity.
Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament and developed and shaped the theology that would make Christianity distinct among world religions.
The story begins with the death of Stephen. One of the leaders in the early church. Stephen had been appointed by the apostles to assist them in their ministry duties within the rapidly expanding church in Jerusalem and we are told in Acts 6:8 Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people.
And it was because of these miracles and signs that Stephen came to the attention of the religious authorities and he was brought before the High Priests under the false charges that he had blasphemed against Moses and God. And it was while he was being questioned by the high priests that Stephen preaches the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts. Which was really to be expected, after all, they gave a preacher the floor to speak. I’m not sure this is what they were expecting though. Stephen had been brought to them charged with blasphemy. And then the High Priest asks a fairly simple question. We find it in Acts 7:1 Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these accusations true?”
Now that sounds like it could be answered in only one of two ways a) “yes they are” or b) “no they aren’t”. Instead, Stephen reaches back to the Old Testament and begins with the story of Abraham. But ultimately his message had the same recurring theme that all the sermons in the first part of the book of acts had. “God sent his son, you killed him, say you’re sorry.”
And the account of Stephen’s message concludes with these words, Acts 7:57-58 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. Let me reiterate, if I ever preach a sermon that you really disagree with, just tell me.
But what links this story to our theme are those words at the end of this section His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. And then the story concludes with the first verse of the next chapter where we read, Acts 8:1 Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen . . . This is the same Saul that Bonnie read about earlier in the message. The Saul who came face to face with Jesus on the Road to Damascus.
But, then there is nothing more written about Saul in that chapter. Instead, we read how Philip went to Samaria and preached the gospel and we read about the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and how when they came to a source of water Philip baptized the man. And then chapter 8 concludes with these words Acts 8:40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.
Sounds like Philip is doing an awesome job spreading the gospel. Maybe he would be the one who will see Christianity taken beyond the borders of Israel? But no, the next time we read about Philip is in Acts 21:8 The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been chosen to distribute food. Looks like Philip got as far as Caesarea and settled down.
And chapter 9 begins with these words that were read for us earlier Acts 9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.
So what do we learn? The first thing is that Saul Had A Past When most people think of Saul they think of Paul, the man who wrote most of the New Testament. The man commonly referred to as Saint Paul. But the story of Paul is not complete unless we also know the story of Saul. And that is the truth with most of us. That our future is in some way shaped by our past. That our story isn’t complete without the early chapters.
Before I was Denn the Christ-follower, I was Denny and I wasn’t a Christ-follower. I would like to tell you that I consciously changed my name to reflect a new beginning in my life, and while it might be a good story it’s not the true story. I stopped going by Denny because I felt it was a little boy’s name.
But who I am today is partially shaped by who I was on September 1, 1979, even though on September 2, 1979, I was born again and made a new creation,
I Don’t know what Paul had against Christians, but it coloured and shaped who he was. We are told that he was uttering threats with every breath he took. What could possibly have caused that much hatred? Traditionally we are told that Paul and Jesus had never met, outside of their meeting at his conversion. There is no mention of Paul in any of the Gospels and at no point in his writings does Paul specifically refer to a conversation that he had with Jesus.
But listen to the account of the Last Supper, a scripture that we read almost every time we take communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:23 For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread . . .
And there are those who would tell us that Paul simply received this in some form of revelation from Jesus. Maybe a dream or a vision. But what it says is this 1 Corinthians 11:23 For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. Doesn’t say how he received it. Hmmmmmmm.
Later in his story, Paul tells us that he received some of his training as a Pharisee in Jerusalem. It would appear that he was close to the same age as Jesus, and he belonged to the religious groups that brought charges against Jesus. So I wonder, now understand that this is just speculation, Denn’s mind doing what Denn’s mind does.
I wonder if the many stories that Luke told, in his Gospel, of Jesus meeting and debating with the Pharisees came from a young eye witness named Saul? Or maybe one of the many stories that are recorded where Jesus speaks with an unnamed “expert in religious law” if the person Jesus was talking to might have been named Saul. Again, I’m just pondering.
I wonder if Saul may have met Jesus during his ministry years and rejected his invitation to follow him? And if that is indeed the case it might account for the hatred that Saul had for those who had met and accepted the claims of Christ.
The bitterness that he must have felt when he saw the grace in the lives of those who had chosen to follow Jesus, the same grace that he had rejected. And so to justify his earlier decision to reject Christ he demonized those who had accepted Christ. Just wondering.
You see, we often define Paul’s greatest sins as his persecution of the early believers, but his greatest sin was ignoring the grace of God.
You’ve heard me preach about the story of the Prodigal son. (That’s another one of those phrases from the Bible)
We often think that what broke the father’s heart was how the younger son was behaving. That may have been a factor, but what broke the father’s heart was that his son had rejected him. The kid could have been a church-going businessman living in a big house with a wife and 2.3 kids and still have broken his father’s heart by rejecting him.
And so, we see Paul, who in the eyes of his peers was probably a great guy, a good man, a religious man. A man who sincerely believed that what he was doing the right thing, but he was still a man who was separated from God.
Years ago, when I was pastoring at Truro Wesleyan, my lay assistant at was visiting an elderly man in the hospital and he had the opportunity to lead the gentlemen into a relationship with Christ before he passed away.
I was asked to do the funeral and I discovered that this man was considered by all who had met him to be a good man. He was a good husband, he was a good father, and a good friend. But for over seventy years he had rejected the claim of God on his life. And the bible tells us that being good is not enough, that we can’t “earn” a spot in heaven, regardless of how good and sincere we are. That’s why we are told in Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Heaven is not a reward for being a good person.
The message I preached at that man’s funeral came from this scripture that was read for us earlier. And the title of my message was “A Good Man-Made Better”.
But it doesn’t matter what sins were in Saul’s past. What matters is that Paul wasn’t always Paul the Saint. That Paul was a man with a past, who if he didn’t actually kill Christians, wanted to kill Christians and watched as Christians were killed.
Every Christian has a past. I don’t know what all lurks in your yesterday but understand you are not alone. And as far as I can tell the only sin that can’t be forgiven by God is the sin of rejecting the forgiveness of God.
Maybe it was his own conversion that Paul had in mind when he wrote 2 Corinthians 5:17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
This leads us to our second point. Saul may have had a past, but Paul Had a Future. Who you were doesn’t have to dictate who you will be. Saul rejected the claims of Christ and did everything he could to destroy the early church. And then he goes on to become the single greatest force in the shaping of Christianity.
Changed lives are the greatest miracle of God’s grace. The old Hymn says “Amazing grace how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now I’m found was blind but now I see.”
Jesus never leaves a person the way he found them. Instead, he forgives the past and presents them with a limitless future. Through the years I have met scores of people who were radically changed when they turned their lives over to Jesus.
Abusive husbands and wives who have become loving partners. Rebellious teens who have become friends with their parents. People who have struggled with addictions who have been able to put those demons aside. When they accepted the forgiveness and grace that God had to offer they became a new person, their old life was gone and a new life began.
And not everyone could accept the change that happened in Paul’s life, there were people who never completely trusted Paul, they would always see him through glasses that had been coloured by his past. There are people in my life who when they think of me if they think of me, will think of things that I did or said before I met Jesus. For better or for worse that is how I will always be defined and identified in their minds.
But regardless of what some people might have thought of Paul, God had a plan for his life.
If we skip down in the story God calls a man by the name of Ananias. His job? To minister to this man named Saul who was now in Damascus. Listen to Ananias’ response Acts 9:13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem!” Ananias knew about Saul’s past but listen as God reveals Saul’s future. Acts 9:15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.”
And that’s exactly what Saul did. For the next thirty years, he would travel across the known world, preaching the gospel and starting churches.
It was Saul, who we know as Paul who would take the church far beyond Jerusalem and Israel, and nobody least of Saul would have ever expected that. It was Paul who wrote most of the New Testament including some of your favourite verses. Philippians 4:13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. And Romans 8:38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. And do you remember when 1 Corinthians 13 the “Love Chapter” of the bible was read at your wedding? Those were Paul’s words.
Every person who comes to Christ for forgiveness and accepts the grace of God receives a blank sheet in return. A blank sheet that represents their future. God took Saul, a man who was full of bitterness and hatred against all things Christian and used him to change the world, through Christianity.
In spite of your past, what is it that God could do through you?
But there had to be something between Saul’s past and Paul’s future. This brings us to the third point, which if we had of kept reading in Acts chapter 9 we would have read this Acts 9:19-20 Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God!”
Paul Chose his Future Over Saul’s Past You understand that God did a lot of things to get Saul’s attention but the decision to follow Jesus could only be made by Saul himself. He could have decided not to follow Jesus. As Alan Bradley wrote, “Saint Paul on the road to Damascus might have pleaded sunstroke, for example, and the world would have been a different place.”
God will not force anyone to follow him. He woos us. He invites us to follow him, but ultimately we have to make the decision. And that decision will forever colour who we are.
The decision that Saul had made to not follow Christ made him the man he was, the man who was hell-bent on destroying Christianity. And the decision that Saul made to follow Christ made him the man he would become, the man who was heaven-bound spreading Christianity across Asia and into Europe.
And maybe you are wondering about your conversion experience, and you’re wondering why you didn’t have a Damascus Road type experience.
You’re not alone, and you’re in good company, author Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience. I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known.”
But, regardless of how it happened, at some point, you made a choice. I come back to this time after time, we are who we are because of the choices we have made. Good choices or bad choices, they all shape us.
Paul understood that when he wrote in Romans 6:16 Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.
Today you have the opportunity to start over. To say “I can’t change my past but I can change my future.” Are you willing to let go of your past? Are you willing to define your future by your actions today? And it’s tough, if it was easy everybody would be doing it but just as Jesus believed that Saul could make the right choice he believes that you can make the right choice.
The bigger question though is: do you believe that you can make the right choice?