It’s time for a quiz – a fruity quiz. Are you ready for the fruity quiz? OK, here it goes.
“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV).
Who wrote that? The answer, of course, is the apostle Paul. That’s from his letter to the Galatians.
When we think of Paul, we think of all those attributes. They well describe Paul’s life – or do they? Certainly his life in Christ – but not before that!
It turns out that in his former life – and by former life, I mean the one B-C (before Christ) and not some weird reincarnation thing – Paul was a mean, miserable S-O-B. Or more correctly, S-O-T – Saul of Tarsus.
By the way, Saul’s name was later changed to Paul. Saul is a Hebrew word meaning “asked for,” going back to the Old Testament Saul, who became the first king of Israel after the Israelites asked God for such a leader (1 Samuel 9).
Paul is a Latin word meaning small, applied to the New Testament Saul either because he was short or because he was small in comparison to the scope and nature of Christ. The name change is mentioned in Acts 13:9 with little fanfare:
“…Saul, who was also called Paul…” (Acts 13:9, NIV).
No big description of how it got changed, just that it did. From that point on in the Book of Acts – and the rest of the New Testament for that matter – the guy went by the name of Paul. Where the text calls him Saul, so will I; where the text calls him Paul, well, so will I.
Now for a little background.
It wasn’t long after the Christian Church was founded before trouble began. This new religious order, or sect, didn’t sit well with the Jewish leaders. They thought once Jesus was gone, His followers would just go away. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. If there’s some group you wanna get rid of, you kill the leader and the group disbands; problem solved. However, that didn’t work in this case. Jesus was crucified – that was a horrible death – and His followers should have been scared to death by that.
The Jewish and Roman leaders weren’t expecting God to pull a fast one on them – the resurrection of Jesus. He came back from the dead – but not to haunt them. Jesus did not target them. He wasn’t into revenge. Instead, He came to bring new life to everybody. He came to dish out salvation – not retribution.
Anyhow, the Church – the new earthly body of Christ that began on Pentecost (as described in Acts chapter 2) – was growing and expanding. This troubled the Jewish leaders – and it troubled a young man named Saul. Saul was a Pharisee and an up-and-coming rising star in the Jewish leadership circle.
Acts chapter 9 starts out with Saul hell-bent on destroying those pesky Christians. Saul was dripping with venom and vengeance; he wanted to kill as many Christians as possible. He was already present – and giving his approval – at the stoning of Steven (Acts 8:1).
Now he was at it again. He had left Jerusalem and started out for Damascus to stomp out Christianity there. Why there? Well, Damascus was about 100 miles north of Jerusalem and a lot of Christians had fled there when the environment became hostile in the Jewish capital. Saul was gonna hunt them down and arrest them or kill them or whatever it would take to crush the cult – or what Saul considered to be a cult. And Saul was doing this in the name of God – ‘cause he thought God would want the fake religion with its so-called false Messiah to be eliminated.
Well, that was his plan, anyhow. God let things slide – for a while. I like to say, “I’m patient to a point; just don’t get me to that point!” Jesus Christ is patient, too, but Saul was really getting on His nerves, so something had to be done.
So, when Saul was on the open road – before he could strike again – Jesus decided to strike back! Jesus acted swiftly and suddenly. He didn’t give any warning.
The text doesn’t say what Saul’s mode of travel was, but tradition says it was by donkey. I’ll accept that. Why? So I can make this statement:
God knocked Saul off his ass and onto his ass!
What does God have to do to get your attention? Jesus basically whacked Saul aside the head and made him fall to the ground.
When you’re doing the wrong thing – going against God’s will – does God have to knock you down and knock some sense into you?
God will do whatever it takes to get His way – and to have His will be done.
A voice from heaven thundered, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This would be a little scary. Whoever this was knew Saul’s name and was not too pleased with Saul’s actions.
Saul was caught by surprise and had no clue what was going on. So he asked, “Who are you, lord?” That’s “lord” with a small “l.” A better translation would be, “Who are you, sir?”
There was a great light, but Jesus must have been standing there in some form, for later Paul said that he had seen the Risen Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul remarked:
“Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9, NRSV).
The big voice identified Himself as “Jesus,” the one Saul was persecuting. But how could that be? Saul wasn’t literally persecuting Christ, so why did Jesus claim he was?
Recall that Jesus once one pointed out that when you do something for or to the least of these, you do it to Him (Matthew 25: 40, 45). Thus, if you hurt Jesus’ followers, you hurt Him – especially since they are part of the Body of Christ and you’re causing harm to that Body.
Jesus told Saul to get up, get off his ass, and go to Damascus to finish the journey he started, but now with a different purpose.
Note Jesus didn’t give him detailed instructions. Instead, Jesus directed Saul to that city where he would be told what to do. Jesus was gonna let someone else instruct Saul – allow a mature Christian to guide and mentor the new believer. That’s called discipleship.
Even though Saul was converted by a miracle, he still needed counsel and direction from a fellow believer. That, of course, would bring Saul down a peg. Here he was a Pharisee – a scholar and a lawyer in his own right – and Jesus was telling him to take directions from some nobody. After all, Saul was a teacher of the Law; he wasn’t supposed to be a student! In any case, Saul was gonna be humbled, as we shall see.
The text says that, “The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7, NLT). Bible scholars point out that we don’t know who those men were. Really? I know who they were. It’s not too hard to figure out.
They could have been other travelers who just happened to be going to Damascus, too. Or maybe they were folks going to the circus, the Damascus Shrine Circus. Seriously, though, I know who they were. They were Saul’s pals, his partners in crime, his cop entourage, his punishment posse. If he were going to Damascus to arrest any Christians he found there, then he would need some back-up. These were gonna be the arresting officers!
So, after Saul had seen the Lord – big “L” this time – he didn’t see anyone or anything else for days, because he was temporarily blinded.
Saul was blinded by the light – as the Manfred Mann song played. The light was so bright it removed Saul’s sight – as would happen if he had looked directly at the sun during an eclipse. But in this case, the light represented the glory of the Lord.
That’s what the shepherds saw when the birth of Christ was announced. The Gospel of Luke tells us:
“All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened” (Luke 2:9, CEV).
So the glory of the Lord caused Saul’s blindness. And this wasn’t a momentary blindness; it actually lasted three days (Acts 9:9). Yep, Saul was in the dark for three days. Does that remind you of anything?
Jonah was inside the belly of a big fish (or whale) for how long? Three days! Jesus was in the grave for how long? Three days!
“So what?” you say. “What does that mean?”
Maybe we can get a clue from the second part of verse 9: Saul did not eat or drink.
“So what?” you say again. “That doesn’t mean anything. He was probably just so agitated and anxious about not being able to see that he didn’t feel like eating anything.”
Well, that could be. But we are talking symbolism here. When you don’t eat or drink, it’s called a fast. Saul was fasting. In the Bible and in religious contexts even today, when people fast, what are they doing? They’re being repentant; they’re atoning for their sins.
Now let’s go back to the idea of three days in darkness, three days in a fish, three days in a grave. Do those have anything to do with sin? Yes.
Jonah flat out refused to obey the will of God. He was told to go to Nineveh and preach there (Jonah 1:2), but instead he fled and went in the opposite direction. He ended up on a ship – but there was no escaping from the Lord. God stirred up a storm (Jonah 1:4), which didn’t subside until Jonah was tossed overboard (Jonah 1:15) and then he was gobble up by that fish creature (Jonah 1:17). That was the consequence of disobeying God. And, while he was inside that fish, Jonah had time to pray. I mean, what else could he do? Whip out a deck of cards and play “Go Fish”?
So he prayed. Jonah chapter 2 recounts that prayer. It’s a very penitent prayer. Jonah was asking for forgiveness and offering up praise to the Lord at the same time. The three days in the fish allowed Jonah to repent of his sin – and forced him to turn to God instead of running away from Him.
Now let’s look at Saul. He was going against God by persecuting the children of God. Saul didn’t get tossed overboard, but he did get tossed to the ground, on his ass. And then he was blind – in darkness – for three days. Yep, that gave him time to repent, forcing him to turn to Jesus instead of opposing Jesus. That’s the meaning of religious conversion, by the way. It means to turn around – and turn to God.
The chorus of an old hymn applies here:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
Anyhow, I mentioned three things, and the third is the three days in a grave. What does that have to do with sin? Jesus did not sin. Well, why did Jesus die on a cross? To save us – all humankind – from our sins. As part of that process, He spent three days in a grave – a borrowed grave, by the way, since He would not need it permanently.
In this way, Saul could identify with Jesus. Being in the dark was sort of like being in the grave for him, out of which he would begin a new life – one of service and devotion to Christ.
Have you buried your old life and decided to follow Jesus?
OK, three days was long enough. Time to move the story along. Something had to happen.
In the case of Jonah, the fish puked and the prophet was spit up on the shore (Jonah 2:10), and he went out and preached to the Ninevites as he was supposed to and the people repented.
In the case of Jesus, He was resurrected, and in this way offered the method for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
What happened in Saul’s case? He would once again get his sight back, with the help of some guy named Ananias.
Ananias, though, was no fool. He knew of Saul and his destructive intentions. So he was skeptical and hesitant when the Lord told him to go to Saul. He was thinking, “Can I really trust that guy?”
“Ananias protested, ‘Master, you can’t be serious. Everybody’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s been doing, his reign of terror against your people in Jerusalem! And now he’s shown up here with papers from the Chief Priest that give him license to do the same to us’” (Acts 9:13-14, The Message).
But the Lord assured Ananias that everything would be OK.
“The Lord said to him, ‘Go, because I have chosen him to serve me, to make my name known to Gentiles and kings and to the people of Israel. And I myself will show him all that he must suffer for my sake’” (Acts 9:15-16, GNT).
Notice that Jesus pointed out that Saul was God’s chosen vessel or instrument to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. It seems God chose the most unlikely person to do that. Not the person we’d pick, considering Saul was completely opposed to the Gospel. But God was right, of course. Read Paul’s letters and it’s obvious why God chose Paul. Paul was a brilliant, passionate, and compassionate man willing to suffer the abuses he once meted out.
So, Ananias obeyed, unlike Jonah. Recall that Jonah did not want to save the people of Nineveh, and that’s what ultimately caused him to be a fish dish.
Ananias went to Saul. He laid his hands on Saul and Saul’s sight was saved. How that actually happened is interesting. Acts 9:18 says,” something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes” (NLT). Scales? Were they caused by too many omega 3 fish oil pills? No, Saul didn’t overdose on vitamins and supplements! But scales are symbolic. It could be another connection to Jonah’s whale of a tale, but we can do better than that!
The scales do represent a fish – the fish as a Christian symbol. That’s right: after Saul’s conversion, he was oozing Christianity!
And, once he could see again, he saw everything in a different light – the difference between a low-powered conventional light bulb with a yellow glow and a bright L-E-D bulb with a blue cast simulating daylight. What a difference! The brightness allows you to see everything – all the dust and dirt. The new light of Christ allowed Saul to see all of his flaws and how wrong he was to target the Christians.
Later, before King Agrippa, Paul recounted his conversion experience, as recorded in Acts chapter 26:
“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.
“One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’
“‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.
“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’” (Acts 26:9-18, NLT).
Does Paul say anything about his conversion in any of his letters? Well, of course he does. He writes several paragraphs about it in his letter to the Galatians:
“Let me tell you, my friends, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any human being, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me.
“You have been told how I used to live when I was devoted to the Jewish religion, how I persecuted without mercy the church of God and did my best to destroy it. I was ahead of most other Jews of my age in my practice of the Jewish religion, and was much more devoted to the traditions of our ancestors.
“But God in His grace chose me even before I was born, and called me to serve Him. And when He decided to reveal His Son to me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the Gentiles, I did not go to anyone for advice, nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus. It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord's brother.
“What I write is true. God knows that I am not lying!
“Afterward I went to places in Syria and Cilicia. At that time the members of the churches in Judea did not know me personally. They knew only what others were saying: “The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!” And so they praised God because of me” (Galatians 1:11-24, GNT).
When Paul writes his first letter to his buddy Timothy, he also talks about his life-changing experience:
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:12-16, NIV).
That’s why Paul could say in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).
Or, to use another translation:
“This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT).
When Paul speaks of being a new creation in Christ, he’s not just using a pretty little phrase! He really means a new creation – a new creature!
He went from murderer to missionary, from persecutor to preacher, from a monster attacking Christians to a model for Christians.
When we read Paul’s letters, we think how great Paul was – but don’t forget how bad Paul was before that! It’s hard to believe that the same person who outlined the Fruit of the Spirit was the same person who was crushing that fruit and trying to crush Christianity.
Saul to Paul was a momentous change. Again, he went from persecuting Christians to being persecuted as a Christian. So when he talks about new life in Christ, he’s not talking about a little cosmetic change; he’s talking about such a huge difference in your life that nobody can believe you’re the same person. That’s what Jesus meant when He said you must be born again!
People will ask, “Is that really you?” You used to go partying and drinking and doing drugs and selling drugs and robbing people and whatever other vile acts you used to commit – but now there’s no trace of any of that. Even if you never did any of those things I just mentioned, I’m sure you’ve done stuff in your past that you now regret. Yes you have and yes I have. But that’s all behind us now. We live in newness of life. We can’t be chained to our past!
I know someone who went through his Gothic phase a few years ago. He would always dress totally in black, had the chains on his pants and around his neck and sometimes on his arms. He even wore black fingernail and toenail polish. Oh yeah, and he suffered from Depression, which just added to his dark outlook.
He says he’s now past that phase. When he was over at my house recently, he said his feet ached so he took off his shoes and socks – to reveal bright pink toenails! I’m thinking, “What phase is this?” He claims his daughter painted his toenails while he was asleep. His daughter is three, so I don’t think she really did that.
Going from black to pink polish may be a radical change – but that’s not the kind of change I’m talking about here.
I’m not interested in a modification. I’m interested in a transformation!
Look at cars. Each year, car manufacturers tweak the design and make a little change here and there – but then every few years, they come out with the totally resigned model. The only thing that’s the same is the name. If they took the nameplate off, you’d never guess it was the same kind of car.
Then there are the toys called Transformers. They transform from cars into robots – they’re totally different than what they were at the start.
And, of course, Christians use the image of a caterpillar turned butterfly to illustrate being transformed.
That’s how your life should be as you walk with Christ. You should be growing spiritually. You should be growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Today I should see the resigned model of you – not the old rusty clunker.
If auto makers put that much time and effort into redesigning a car, don’t you think you should spend a little time and energy redesigning you? Oh yeah, and you’ve gotta do it with God’s help or the change won’t be complete or permanent.
By the way, in the Bible, a person’s name changes when there’s a total life change – and I don’t mean how Paul becomes Paulette after a sex change operation! That’s a freakin’ metamorphosis in body, but not in spirit. We’re talkin’ new creation in Christ, not a new creation in plastic surgery!
Here are just a few examples of Biblical name changes: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Simon became Peter. Their lives totally changed and they became more aligned with God and His will. That’s also true for Saul who became Paul.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to change your name. When you serve Jesus, you’re aligned with the Name Above All Names. When you follow Him, you have His name – because you are a Christian, which means Christ-follower.
What lessons can we glean from the conversion of Saul to Paul?
1) God will get your attention – somehow. If He has to knock you down first, He will. But He will get you back up and allow you to soar in what He has called you to do.
2) God will give you an opportunity to repent and to listen to Him. Jesus may shut your eyes to shut out the distractions, but He will then open your eyes to see things in a new light.
3) God will prepare you and equip you for your new way of life. The Holy Spirit will give you the wisdom and knowledge you need, along with any other necessary tools. If God wants you to do something, He will make sure you’re able to do it!
4) God will put people in your life who will help you. You’re not living in a vacuum; you’re living as part of the Body of Christ. And there are lots of members in that body; Jesus may send some your way as you journey on The Way.
Accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior changes everything! Are you ready to be new and improved? A new car is nice, but a new you – transformed by the Holy Spirit – now that’s the best upgrade ever!
Be transformed! Be a new creation in Christ! You’ll be better for it – and so will be the world! You’ll be a living example of just what Jesus Christ can do! Everyone will be amazed by the power of God in your life! What an awesome God we serve! Amen!