Many years ago a man began to attend our church with his then girlfriend (now his wife). Having little exposure beforehand to expositional preaching, what he heard seemed strange to him. After attending a few weeks he said to his girlfriend, “What planet is that guy from?” It all just seemed so far out to him. That brother is now one of my neighbours on this same strange planet, enjoying its peculiarities with me!
The other day I was reading one of Iain Murray’s latest books, which is about the preaching ministry of the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who for many years served as the pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London. Murray was sharing the testimony of a godless woman, who had been invited to join her nephew in attending Westminster Chapel for a Sunday evening service. After hearing this strange little Welshman preach about the awfulness of sin and the grace of God to deliver one from such sin, she commented to her nephew on the way home, “I love the darkness.” Later, however, and unbeknownst to her nephew, she began to attend the Chapel on a frequent basis, and it was not long until she stopped loving the darkness and started loving the light!
In both of these cases, the reason for the complete reversal of opinion about the things of the Lord was the gracious power of God. Lives were transformed by the gospel of the grace of God and, like Saul of Tarsus, that which they once rejected, they now loved and proclaimed. Everett Harrison, commenting on the transformation in Paul’s life as recorded in our passage said, “His life was in a different orbit now.”1 So it is with all those who are truly converted by the Spirit of God through the gospel of God. They are, quite literally, “delivered out of the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s dear Son” (Colossians 1:13).
As we continue our exposition of the book of Acts we will study the second half of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, as recorded in 9:19b-31. In these verses we will note some of the characteristics of the person who is converted by God. May you and I be able to relate to these and enjoy assurance of salvation. In fact, let me say a word or two about this matter of assurance.
When Saul was saved he was gloriously transformed into Paul. And when we think of Paul we usually think of one who was tireless in his efforts to know Christ, to win the lost, to plant churches, to disciple leaders, to write Scripture, to direct churches, to go on missionary journeys, and to boldly proclaim the gospel in the face of what was often fierce opposition. In fact, Paul would eventually quite literally lose his head because of his commitment to Christ. How can we explain this?
I suppose that some would credit this transformation to Paul’s “personality type,” or his “temperament,” but that does not seem to explain it in its entirety. I suppose that some would say that it was because he was an apostle, which emboldened him to so serve. No doubt this is a good answer but it is not the full answer.
Others would argue that it was because he was a man who was filled with the Spirit. This is a good but, in my opinion, a not quite full answer.
I believe that it was the fact that Paul experienced full assurance of salvation. It was the assurance that his sins were forgiven and that he belonged to God through Christ that explains Paul’s indomitable courage in life and ministry.
In the book by Murray mentioned above, Murray notes that it was Lloyd-Jones’ contention that the reason that the church in the UK was in such a sorry condition in his days (1940s-1970s) was precisely because the average churchgoer was simply that: a churchgoer rather than one who had assurance that they had been and were being transformed by the gospel of the grace of God. He believed that a large factor behind the experience of historic revivals was this matter of assurance. You see, if one is unsure that they are saved, they cannot live with any kind of true spiritual authority. The one who is converted to God and who is really aware of this will live with conviction and confidence. We clearly see this in this early picture of Saul of Tarsus, the great apostle Paul.
In the text before us in this study, I wish to unpack it with a view to see this main thing: the marks of the true convert of and to Christ. If ever there was a picture of this then it is here in the story of the transformation of Saul the persecutor to Paul the persecuted! Let’s note several characteristics of this man who was sure that he was saved.
He Identified with Other Disciples
Having recorded Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road, Luke now continues the story: “Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus” (v. 19b). He fellowshipped with God’s people. He was sure about where he belonged.
I love how Donald Fortner paints this picture: “The lion who once roared against God’s little flock was made to lie down with the lambs.”2 So it always is with those who have experienced conversion. Those who are sure that they are saved desire to be with others who are also sure that they are saved.
Let me put it this way: Saul was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and therefore he was not ashamed to identify with those who also were not ashamed.
Commenting on v. 20 Charles Erdman writes, “The confession of faith was immediate and heroic. The story should be pondered by all who hesitate to acknowledge their allegiance to Christ.”3 And a huge part of this confession of faith was made first in his joining an otherwise despised community. He connected to a community of disciples. He was not a lone ranger. He communed with the committed. (And evidently they were pretty committed if they would embrace such a new and therefore risky convert!)
MacArthur notes, very importantly, “That does not mean, of course, that Christians are to have no contact with unbelievers. But a professing Christian who prefers the company of the people of the world is probably still one of them.”4 The simple point is, those who are sure that they are saved are connected to God’s people.
If one is not willing to identify with God’s people then they have no right to instruct God’s people. As Calvin said, “No man is fit to be a teacher in the Church save only he who willingly submitteth himself, that he may be a fellow disciple with other men.”5 This is why the local church is the place to test a man’s call to preach.
He Initiated Opportunities to Make Disciples
Saul was convinced about the person of Christ and he wanted others to be convinced as well.
Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
For Paul, Jesus was not a theory. He was not an ideal. He was not a religious metaphor. There was no need to try and demythologise the Jesus of the Bible and to try and find the real Jesus of history. No, the recently converted Saul was sure that Jesus was real.
My father-in-law, the man whom I consider my pastor, was saved under the ministry of a man named Dallas Billington. Billington’s biography is titled, God is Real. He was a man who believed that God is real, and he therefore wanted to tell others.
From a personal perspective, I remember back in 1980 reading a book Josh McDowell, dealing with the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It had a profound impact on me. Having read it, I was assured in my heart that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was real, and I immediately wanted to tell others.
Such assurance gives the believer courage to confess the Lord Jesus Christ, what MacArthur calls “courageous compulsion.”6 And as Erdman writes, “Today the world is waiting for the blessed influence of such men, who have the courage of their convictions, and who in all the relations of life will be openly loyal to their divine Master.”7
Assurance of that nature further gives us confidence to engage. A. T. Robertson writes, “Thomas had come to this place slowly. Saul begins with this truth and never leaves it. With his faith he can shake the world. There is no power in any other preaching.”8
How did you behave immediately after your conversion? How does it compare to now? Are you merely a silent witness?
He was Indoctrinated as a Disciple
Our text speaks of a time frame of “many days” that passed between Saul’s initial time in Damascus and the plot of the Jews to kill him (v. 23a). To properly understand the time frame here, it is helpful for us to turn our attention to Paul’s own recollection of his early days as a disciple, as recorded in his letter to the Galatians.
But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
You will notice from the above text that there was a gap of at least three years, during which Paul was alone with the Lord being prepared for his apostleship. It was there that he learned of the mystery which he reveals in Ephesians 2-3. He was quite literally (like the other apostles) being discipled by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those who are truly saved love the Word and saturate themselves with it. They desire to learn it. And as they are instructed they are equipped to disciple others.
He Continued to Identify with Christ and the Church
Next, we see Paul’s commitment to both Christ and His church.
He was Sure that Christ was Worth Dying for
Luke shows that Paul’s life was at risk from the very beginning by recording his first escape from the Jews in Damascus.
Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.
Paul himself recalls in a letter to the Corinthians how he faced danger on a frequent basis: “In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26). As Calvin notes,
He who of late ran headlong against Christ with furious force, doth now not only submit himself meekly unto his will and pleasure, but like a stout standard-bearer fighteth even unto the utmost danger to maintain his glory.9
Harrison comments, “That he was able to travel and preach with this kind of pressure on him much of the time is an indication that he had committed his life completely to the Lord and was trusting Him for safekeeping.”10
When we have assurance of salvation—through assurance of knowing the Saviour—then we will be willing to lay it all on the line for Him. We will continue to confess Him even though there is much cost involved.
Please note that these verses also point us to the assurance of faith that other believers had. Those who helped Paul to escape were taking a huge risk. But they, like Saul, were sure that their Saviour was real!
He was Sure that Christ had Established His Church and therefore he Joined it
Having escaped with his life from Damascus Saul headed immediately for Jerusalem. When he arrived there, he once again did not see himself as a lone ranger Christian. Instead, he immediately sought to join the church.
And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out.
It is interesting that Paul saw church membership as such a priority that he persevered in his pursuit to join these believers in Jerusalem. MacArthur points out that “the imperfect tense of the verb translated “was trying” suggests that repeated attempts by Saul to join the fellowship were rebuffed.”11
Understandably, however, the Jerusalem saints were sceptical and fearful. They believed that Saul was perhaps just pretending to have been converted in order to infiltrate their membership so as to intensify the persecution. “He had escaped his persecutors only to find difficulty among God’s saints! They did not persecute him, but neither did they trust him.”12 But God provided a wonderful brother, much like He had provided Ananias in Damascus, who extended the right hand of Christian fellowship and who encouraged others to do the same. “It is to the credit of Barnabas that he had the insight and the courage to stand by Saul at the crucial moment in his life when the evidence seemed to be against him.”13
We might add that it is to Saul’s credit that he did not give up trying to join the church when it spurned him. He knew the importance of church membership and therefore he persevered in his attempts to join. The local church does not always look very attractive, and yet we must still join it!
We have all heard ad nauseum the argument, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” How should we respond to that?
On one level, of course, it is true. We are born again by the Spirit of the Lord according to His wills (John 3). This can occur anywhere.
But in a very real and true way this statement is very, very false. Everyone who is born of God immediately becomes a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, by definition, a disciple is one who follows the teachings of another. Jesus taught the importance of the church. In fact, the church was so important to Him that He died for it (Ephesians 5:25). The church is what He is building (Matthew 16:18). The church is what He is purifying (Ephesians 5:26-27). The church is where He dwells (1 Corinthians 3).
John Gill insightfully writes, “It is the duty and interest of every gracious soul to join himself to a church of Christ, which consists of the disciples of Christ, who have learned Christ and the way of life and salvation by him. . . . To be joined to a church is to become an open subject of Christ’s kingdom, a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, one of the family of God, and a member of the body of Christ visibly.”14
The church that serves as a sanctifying means in the life of the believer. As one of my fellow elders recently preached, the put on, put off dynamic of Scripture is revealed in a communal context.
We must appreciate the truth that the body (i.e. the local church) heals itself. Therefore, for someone to dismiss church membership with the claim that church membership is irrelevant is to perhaps indicate that that person is not, in fact, a Christian.
If we will grow in Christlikeness then we will be connected willingly and committedly to the local church. Approaching this in a different way, let it be observed that if the apostle Paul saw the need to be joined to other believers then certainly we should see our need!
Stott (as usual) has said it well: “True conversion always issues in church membership. It is not only that converts must join the Christian community, but that the Christian community must welcome converts, especially those from a different religious, ethnic or social background. There is an urgent need for modern Ananiases and Barnabases who overcome their scruples and hesitations, and take the initiative to befriend newcomers.”15
Let us do all we can to help disciples to do what they need to do in order to become a part of the local church.
He Continued to be Intentional to Make Disciples
Despite the danger that he had faced in Damascus, Saul continued in Jerusalem to make disciples of Christ.
And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.
Saul was sure that the Christ who saved him was able to save others as well. “By temperament as well as by reason of his dedication to the Lord, he was eager to confess his newly found faith, and the synagogues of the city provided the platform he needed.”16
It is interesting that Saul seems to have picked up right where Stephen left off. It must have amazed those in the Hellenistic synagogues to hear a man saying the same things that Stephen had been saying—saying, in fact, the same things that he had persecuted Stephen for saying!
I don’t think that Saul went there in order to win a debate. There is good reason to believe that he went there to reach his kinsman according to the flesh with the gospel (see Romans 9:1; 10:1). Saul knew the power of God to transform his life by transforming his thinking about Christ, and he knew that this same power could transform others. We need the same assurance. We need the same confident certainty.
Saul had experienced a new revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, and he therefore had a brand new reverence for God. He had also received a new relationship with the Body of Christ. But further, he realised that he had a new responsibility: to tell others about Christ.
We too have this responsibility. If we have experienced conversion to Christ, our responsibility is to be His witnesses (1:8).
I think that sometimes there is confusion about this. Many believers turn the opportunity to speak of Christ to speak of themselves. But as Stott reminds us, “Testimony is not a synonym for autobiography. To witness is to speak of Christ. Our own experience may illustrate, but must not dominate, our testimony.”17
James 4 has recently helped me to see the corruption and pollution of my own heart. I have often said that no man is fit for public ministry who loves to be public. That is, one who loves to be in front is thereby disqualified from being so.
James 4 has revealed to me my penchant for self-exaltation. I too easily desire to speak of myself. I have learned by experience the truth of James 4:6 that “the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy” (KJV). The word “spirit” there refers to my spirit, not to the Holy Spirit.18 The context makes this clear. James’ point is that we are self-absorbed creatures who are always looking out for numero uno. And this can even be seen when we share the gospel.
We must be careful of making our witnessing about us. It is about Christ. Christ is “the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1), and it is that testimony that is to be the centrepiece of our witnessing. This is not say that we are not permitted to share what Christ has done for, to and in us, but rather that, in doing so, we must be sure to point to Christ and not to ourselves. Your testimony is ultimately of no value; it is the testimony of God that matters.
He learned that He was not an Indispensable Disciple
The closing verse of our text is an interesting one: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (v. 31).
Before my recent studies of this passage I used to interpret this verse as teaching that, because Saul was now saved and a member of the church at Jerusalem, “the churches . . . had peace.” That may be an erroneous interpretation. The context seems to indicate that the reason that the churches had so much upheaval was primarily because Saul had been converted (vv. 23-25, 29)!
This former persecutor was now being used of God to turn the Jewish world upside down, and so the persecution increased for all the church. But once Saul was sent back home to Tarsus things calmed down back in Jerusalem as well as in the wider region.
It may very well be that the churches experienced a measure of calm because Saul was no longer persecuting them, but surely they also experienced some calm because the one who was now being persecuted was no longer in their midst. A strange irony indeed!
In this last verse we see the Lord’s promises as represented in John 14-16 with reference to the Comforter being experienced. The Lord was taking care of His people as He said He would. And Saul was among them.
I confess that this point is more of an indirect extrapolation from this text than an explicit exposition of the verse, but I believe that it is justified. Though Saul would not become better known as Paul until chapter 13, and though it would only be then that Paul will assume prominence as an apostle, nevertheless it seems to me that at this point the church in Jerusalem and in the surrounding regions were being blessed already in an unusual way by the ministry of Saul.
Therefore, when he left them for Tarsus, even though they now experienced some rest, they did lose out on his giftedness and ministry. And yet, according to v. 31, “the churches . . . were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.” Even in the absence of this famous convert, the churches grew. The churches, as well as Saul, no doubt, learned from this the truth that Christ will build His church. Though He always chooses to use means—such as men like Saul—nevertheless He is not dependent upon any man or any means.
Saul himself would make this point over and over again in his writings and he would experience this on numerous occasions as he traversed the world making disciples of Jesus Christ and thereby planting churches.
The person who has experienced so great salvation is not under any delusions about his self-importance. He—at least if he is thinking clearly—will know that he is not indispensable. By virtue of coming to grips with who he is apart from Christ, he will be the first to proclaim, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And, armed with this self-knowledge, he will cease to think that God’s purposes depend on him!
Saul understood this. And this time period in which he no doubt heard of the growth of the church in spite of (or because of?) his absence would have been a good lesson that God will fulfil His promises and accomplish His purposes. This would have been a wonderful lesson for all that the Holy Spirit was the necessity, not any particular leader. We too need to learn this.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a wonderfully gifted man, who died at the young age of 29. God used him mightily in Scotland and beyond. In fact, to this very day the story of his life continues to be used to strengthen the church around the globe.
Under his ministry, his local church as well as the church at large in Scotland grew through many conversions. But what many do not realise is that the greatest growth in his local church, the most significant awakening or revival, occurred in his church and in that region while he was away on a missions trip in Palestine.
When he heard the reports he gave thanks to God that he was not there because no one would be able to credit him with it. All the glory would go to God. That, my friend, is humility. That is a wonderful example of someone who was sure that he was saved—and sanctified and enabled to serve—only by the grace of God.
Those who are confident in the gospel are sure of the success of God’s program—with or without them—and they will help others to see this as well. After all, don’t Paul’s letters offer much hope to his readers with reference to the power of Christ?
Make no mistake: God uses the means of gifted men to “grow” His church, but the foundation of the church is none other than Christ, the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).
Be careful of overestimating the value of a pastor, minister or church member. Rather, learn to grow in your faith in the power of the Holy Spirit who glorifies Christ in the conversion of the lost.
What can we say as we conclude this study? Let us simply note that Saul, though he was used in a unique way in a unique time of transition in the history of redemption, nevertheless shares with all of God’s children the privilege of assurance of salvation. That is the birthright of every believer.
I am aware that issues of temperament and disposition are involved here, but the Bible does teach that those converted can be sure of their salvation and that they should pursue this knowledge (Philippians 2:11-13; Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 8:12-17; etc.).
John Stott sums this passage up by pointing out that the sure proof of Saul’s conversion is found in changes in his relationship to God, to the church and to the world. He writes, “If these three relationships—to God, the church and the world—are not seen in professed converts, we have good reason to question the reality of their conversion. But whenever they are visibly present, we have good reason to magnify the grace of God.”19
And so I ask you: Are you sure of where you belong? Do you love the brethren (1 John 3:14)? Are you sure of to whom you belong (2 Timothy 1:12; 1 Peter 1:3-8)?
If not then seek the Lord until He is found. And when you find Him, like Saul of Tarsus, you will soon come to appreciate that it was He who found you. You can be sure of that!
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 167. ↩
- Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 109. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 91. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 1:275. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 18.2:390. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:275. ↩
- Erdman, The Acts, 92. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:122. ↩
- Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 18.2:384. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 166. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:277. ↩
- Fortner, Life After Pentecost, 108. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:126. ↩
- Fortner, Life After Pentecost, 109. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 178. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 164. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 178. ↩
- Most modern translations incorrectly capitalise the word “spirit” indicating a reference to the Holy Spirit. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 180. ↩