Text: Acts 9:1-22
Have you ever lost something, and even though you searched everywhere, you were never able to find it? — I know what that’s like. We have a cubby in our utility room where the kids hang their coats and backpacks and put away their shoes. We tell them, if you put your stuff where it belongs, it will be easier to find it later when you need it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.
One morning, as we were getting ready for school, one of the girls complained that she couldn’t find her folder. It was her “important paper folder,” the teacher sent home every afternoon with homework assignments and reading books, and we were supposed to send it back with her to class the next morning. Somehow, her folder mysteriously disappeared, so we frantically searched the house. “It has to be around here somewhere,” we said. But it wasn’t in her cubby. It wasn’t buried in the dirty clothes hamper. It wasn’t on the floor of the kitchen, or on the dining room table. We even looked under stacks of papers in the desk, but it wasn’t there either. It wasn’t under couch cushions in the living room, or under her bed upstairs. It was like it vanished into thin air.
We tried to retrace her steps, asking where she had it last. She insisted that after finishing her homework, she had put it away in her cubby, but it just wasn’t there, or anywhere else for that matter. Finally, we gave up looking. “I’m sorry honey, I know it’s important, but there’s nothing we can do. I wish we were able to find it, but it’s gone. You’ll just have to tell the teacher we lost it, and we’ll buy a new folder.” We moved on, forgetting all about the missing folder, until a few weeks ago. We were doing some cleaning in the utility room, and when we moved the cubby away from the wall guess what we found? The missing folder… It had been there the whole time. She was right. She put it away, but it fell behind and we couldn’t see it.
We lose things like this often; and may never find them, as much as we try. That gets us thinking about spiritual things. We might wonder if there is anyone so lost they could never be found by God? Is there anyone who has fallen so far that they are beyond the reach of His mercy? Is there any heart so hardened that the gospel is powerless to penetrate?
We might be thinking about ourselves, wondering if God could ever love someone like me. You tell yourself: I’ve made so many mistakes, He must have given up on me a long time ago. But the Bible shows us that God relentlessly pursues us.
Maybe you’re thinking of a friend or loved one who seems to have no interest in the Lord. You have been praying for their salvation, witnessing every chance you get, but but no matter what you say or do, they refuse to listen. You reach a point where you’re almost ready to lose hope, but God doesn’t give up on anyone.
If there was ever a man who seemed like a lost cause, it was Saul. In our passage, he would have been a young man, in his mid-30’s. Saul was his Hebrew name, but the Bible more commonly refers to his by his Greek name: Paul, and he will become a key figure in the second half of the book of Acts. When we first meet him, he was not a believer, in fact he hated Christians with a vengeance, and was determined to stop the gospel from spreading by using any means necessary. (Violence, intimidation, threats… whatever worked) It’s not that he was an atheist. Just the opposite, Saul was an extremely religious man: a Hebrew among Hebrews, from the tribe of Benjamin, a member of the Pharisees, the strictest party in Judaism. During his youth he was trained in one of the premier rabbinic schools in Israel and had been climbing the ranks of the religious establishment ever since.
Saul felt that a person needed to earn his way to God by keeping the law, doing good works, and observing religious rituals. The idea he needed a Savior was offensive; he thought he could make to heaven on his own. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was a false Messiah, and anyone who claimed he had risen from the dead was not only delusional but also guilty of the worst form of heresy. And so he made it his life’s ambition to harass and persecute and terrorize followers of Christ wherever he found them.
He was there in Acts 7 at the stoning of Stephen, giving approval when the angry mob murdered an innocent man in the streets. And he is mentioned again in chapter 8, when a wave persecution swept over the church in Jerusalem. Saul led the charge, dragging believers from their homes, trying to force them to renounce their faith, casting them into prison. Many believers fled the city, seeking refuge in nearby towns and villages.
Is there hope for someone like Saul? Is it possible for someone like him to be saved? If you had been one of the believers in Jerusalem who felt his fury, you might have shaken your head in doubt. It just didn’t seem possible. But the Lord not only saved Saul. He turned his life around and made him one of the most passionate evangelists the world has seen. His conversion is a tremendous testimony to the power of God’s grace.
What the Lord did in his life proves that no matter who you are or where you’ve been, God can find you. Don’t give up on the unsaved people in your life, because no one is too lost to be found.
Christ is able to reach the unreachable.
Look at verses 1-5.
1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,
Saul was on a mission: to seek and destroy followers of Christ. It didn’t matter where they ran, he vowed to chase them down. After receiving the blessing of the high priest, he set out on the road to Damascus, which was in Syria, about 140 miles northeast of Jerusalem, a journey that would take about a week on foot. Even though it was beyond the borders of Israel, there was a significant Jewish population in that city along with a number of synagogues. Saul expected to find allies there when he arrived who would assist him in his efforts. He also brought along a small group of men, probably officers of the high priest, to help him capture believers.
If we were to pause for a moment to consider what we know about his background and personality, he was the last person in the world you would have expected to become a Christian. He was stubborn, bull-headed, unrelenting. As far as he was concerned, he was doing God’s will by acting as judge, jury, and executioner for those he considered enemies of the faith. There was no convincing him that he might be wrong. When someone tried to reason with him, he refused to listen. From a human perspective, Saul seemed unreachable. It would take a miracle to melt his heart of stone. Fortunately, the Lord is in the business of doing miracles.
As Saul approached the city, the Lord stopped him in his tracks. A blinding light from heaven surrounded him, knocking him and his associates to the ground. It was more brilliant than lightning and brighter than sun. He was seeing the glory of Jesus, and it was too intense for his eyes to endure. As he was trying to regain his composure, a voice called to him from the light, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He wasn’t sure how to respond. He always considered himself one of the good guys, and couldn’t imagine that he was the one striving against God. “Who are you, Lord?” he wondered. The voice answered. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Those words must have pierced his heart like a sword. No… how could this be? Was it true, everything the apostles had been preaching? Jesus really is the Messiah, risen from the dead, the Son of God? He had been denying it for so long, but it was difficult to argue now that Jesus was standing before him. It was time to surrender his life to the Lord.
I’m sure for most of us, our conversion experience wasn’t quite as dramatic as Saul’s. There wasn’t a blinding light or a voice from heaven calling your name. But somehow the Lord reached out and got your attention. Maybe you were at church camp, one summer, and while you were sitting in chapel it was as if the speaker was looking right at you. You had heard the message before but it never made sense until now. It was as if God was opening your eyes to the good news. Maybe you were going through a difficult time in your life, and you were humbled to the point where you realized your need for God, you couldn’t do it on your own, and you were tired of trying. So you cried out to him, and invited to become your Savior. Maybe a stranger handed you a Bible; and you almost threw it away, but something compelled you to open the pages and read a few verses. Once you started you couldn’t put it down.
Somehow the Lord got your attention. If you haven’t responded, he is reaching out to you today, calling your name. Stop running, and take hold of his outstretched hand.
Maybe you know someone like Saul: a friend, a family member, a co-worker who has zero interest in spiritual things. I have a friend who recently asked for prayer. He told me about his son was raised in church, brought up in the faith, but somewhere along the way drifted away from God. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Lord, and even though my friend has been trying to encourage him, inviting him to go with him Sunday morning to worship, it seems to fall on deaf ears. His son told him, “It will be a cold day in hell before I ever step foot in a church.” These things break our heart. What do we do when we find ourselves in that situation? Don’t give up. Keep praying for them, keep encouraging them, keep inviting them. It may take time, but remember that God can reach anyone.
Isaiah 59:1 (NIV84) tell us, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” In other words, no one is beyond God’s reach.
Imagine going to the grocery store, and as you wander the aisles, you notice an item on your list is way up on the top shelf. You stretch your arm as far as it goes, but you still can’t quite grasp those oreo cookies. You can see them, but can’t get them. That would be frustrating. But then, a friendly person comes walking by who is a little taller than you; and they notice that you are struggling. They say “here, let me help you with that, and effortlessly reach up with their long arms to pluck the oreos from the shelf. As you say, “thanks,” you tell yourself, it must be nice to be able to reach even the highest shelf.
Maybe it is a child who has drifted away… or a friend who doesn’t believe in God… or the Muslim family who moved into the house next door… not one is beyond God’s reach. Keep praying, and witnessing, and sharing his love, and let him work in their hearts.
Christ is able to forgive the unforgiveable.
Look at verses 8-15…
8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;
Saul was blinded by the light, and had to rely on others to lead him into the city. While he waited for God to show him what to do, he fasted for three days. Sometimes people went without food during times of intense prayer. Sometimes they refused to eat when they were grieving. Saul was fasting for both reasons.
He had a lot of time, during those three days, to reflect on his life, and all of the evil things he had done. Yes, he had acted in ignorance and unbelief, but that was no excuse. It was heartbreaking to realize how much pain and suffering he had caused. I wonder if he saw the faces of the men and women he persecuted, or heard their cries begging for mercy. He remembered dragging mothers and fathers away from their children and throwing them into prison. He couldn’t forget the role he played casting his vote against those who were sentenced to death for their faith in Jesus. If only there was some way to take it all back.
How could God ever forgive him? How could he ever forgive himself? Saul knew he didn’t deserve mercy, and wondered why the Lord chose to spare his life, instead of striking him down along the road.
Maybe those are questions that you have wrestled with in your life. You’ve been carrying around the weight of guilt and shame for so long, you can’t imagine that God could ever love someone like you. I’ve made too many mistakes. I have failed him in so many ways. I have wandered so far. God could never love someone like me.
But that’s not true. In reality, he never stopped loving you. That’s why Christ entered the world, becoming a human being like us, so that he could carry our sin to the cross and provide for our forgiveness. He wouldn’t have done any of that if you weren’t precious to him. He longs to bring you into his family, and to make you his child. He knows that we could never make ourselves worthy, and so he has done for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. The Bible calls this grace, and the apostle Paul would spend the rest of his life telling others all about it.
Paul found forgiveness in Christ. It wasn’t through his good works or religious rituals. Our best efforts will never be enough to make up for our failures. But the blood of Jesus can wash us white as snow.
Sometimes I’m amazed at my wife’s ability to get stains out of a favorite shirt. I’m eating a hot dog, and it’s loaded with ketchup and mustard and chili sauce, and of course it’s so messy I can’t help dripping onto my white shirt. I’m thinking, that’s never going to come out, but she knows what she’s doing. She applies the right cleaner and it comes out in the wash.
You might think the stain of your sin is so great you are beyond redemption. But the Bible promises that if we humble ourselves before God in faith, and trust in Christ as our Savior, we will find forgiveness. Yes, our sin is great, but the Bible tells us that God’s grace is greater. So what are you waiting for? Call out to the Lord and receive his forgiveness.
Later on in his life, Saul (who would come to be known as the apostle Paul) looked back on this stage of his life and he wrote,
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16 NIV84)
We might wonder why the Lord would go to so much trouble to save someone like Saul. He tells us. It was to make an example of him. He thought of himself as the worst of sinners, but if someone like him could find forgiveness, so can you… so can I… so can the people we care about who seem so far away from God.
Christ is able to change the unchangeable.
Look at verse 19
19 …Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. Acts 9:19–22 (NASB95)
Saul was a new man. His life changed course 180 degrees overnight. Those who met him could barely believe this was the same person. At one time he was consumed by bitterness and hate, but now his life overflowed with the love of Jesus Christ. Previously he had been the fiercest opponent of the gospel, but now he was the most passionate defender of the faith. Before he spent his life persecuting believers, but now he was willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. What can bring about a change like this? Only the power of God can do this.
When he began preaching the gospel in Damascus, believers were amazed. Isn’t the guy who came here to throw us in prison? At first they were afraid of him. Maybe this is some kind of trap, to lure us out. When they saw that it was real they were amazed, saying God is good! How wonderful is the power of the gospel!
His old allies couldn’t believe it either. “Hey, he is supposed to be one of us. What happened?” They tried to argue with him, but he kept proving from Scripture that Jesus really is the Messiah. Eventually, they were so upset, they plotted to kill him, but escaped and left the city. From the moment Christ entered his life he would never be the same.
The gospel should bring about a change in our lives as well. If you have come to know Christ as your Savior you are no longer the same person you used to be. He is bringing about a transformation that begins in your heart and works its way out in the way we life. Hopefully, people notice that there is something different about you. There is a joy in your step that wasn’t there before. You’ve found a peace that was missing before you knew the Lord, that sustains you even through the everyday difficulties of this world. You’ve experienced a love that is greater than anything you’ve felt before. There are new values and priorities that guide your life.
People may not be able to identify what it is, but they can sense that there’s something different about you. We can point them to the Lord.
It’s sort of like you meet an old friend that you haven’t seen for a long time, and you notice something different about them. “Did you lose weight?” -no same as it’s been – “Is that a new outfit?” -no, I’ve had it for years. “Are you wearing different perfume?” “Did you get a new haircut?” – no… “What is it?” – I don’t know I guess I’m just in a different place in my life.
Christ makes a tremendous difference in our lives. It doesn’t happen all at once. There is a process of growing in Christ that continues throughout our lives, as he molds us more and more to reflect his character. But there is something about us, at our deepest level, that changes when he enters our life.
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV84) tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
Do the people notice that there’s something different about your life? Do they wonder what it’s about?
If you’ve been struggling with some habit or some character trait, don’t ever tell yourself “It’s no use, this is just who I am, I’ll never change.” If Christ has entered your life, you are already a new creation, so live it out, ask God for the strength to overcome that you might bring glory to him.
What an incredible conversion that took place on the road to Damascus. Saul the persecutor would go on to become Paul the apostle, and the Lord would use him the carry the gospel to the furthest reaches of the world.
One author writes,
Here again we are admonished against condemning anyone as lost beyond hope, and this includes ourselves. God [can] reach to his farthest-out enemies, and defeat the uttermost human rebellion, but in doing so he does not [merely] crush these rebels but loves and converts them into chosen instruments of the good news (Acts 9:15). In Saul we see… an enemy of the long-promised Messiah. Yet Saul is reconciled to God through Jesus and is called God’s ambassador, through whom God makes his appeal to the entire world (2 Cor. 5:20).
While we may not have such a dramatic conversation story as Saul, all believers bear witness to the transforming power of Christ. We were once lost, but now we are found. We were once enemies of God but now we have become God’s children. We once stood before him guilty sinners, but now we are forgiven.
And like Saul, we too become examples of the power of God’s grace, showing the world the power of the gospel.