Change of Heart

            For a moment, I want you to imagine this scene:  You’ve gathered with fellow Christians on Sunday morning to worship, the sun is streaming through the beautiful stained-glass windows, and you can feel the Holy Spirit filling the room as your voice is raised in a song of praise. 

              Suddenly, a group of militants come pounding through the doors behind you, machine guns pointed directly at all of you, expressions of hatred and “I mean business!” visible on faces that are without mercy.  One of them drags Pastor Cherie from the pulpit, forcing her to be first to exit up the aisle as the other militants demand that the rest of you follow suit.  You are savagely shoved out the doors, some of you stumbling and falling on the steps.  Mercilessly, you are kicked and verbally abused as you are herded into the street like livestock, lined up and scrutinized by a no-nonsense, obviously cruel leader.  He hates you because you are Christian.  You challenge his lifestyle and religion and speak blasphemy about his most cherished beliefs.  You are pond scum and deserve to rot in prison, or better yet, to die.  He orders you to renounce your faith in Jesus—to say that Jesus is not Who He says He is.  No one moves.  No one speaks.  So he hits you in the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking out a front tooth; then a blow to your stomach almost knocks you to your knees.  “Renounce this heretic Jesus!” he screams, murder in his voice.  But you simply crumple into a ball and say nothing.   You’re terrified, but you stand firm in your faith.  And then he grabs your teenage daughter……

            Fellow Christians, meet Saul—or the Apostle Paul as he was called after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Reading Bible stories that took place over 2,000 years ago can desensitize us to the reality of the persecution that those first Christians faced.  Nestled in our warm and fuzzy churches and politically-correct neighborhoods, we have a tough time relating to their circumstances.  But we might also have a problem reconciling that such a good man could’ve been so seemingly bad at one time.  It makes us squirm to think that Saul was a terrible force to be reckoned with once—not unlike the religious terrorists we see in the Middle East today who behead Christians on TV.  If this scenario offends your delicate sensibilities, it should. 

              WHY, then, might you ask, would God ever choose a man like Saul to become THE voice to the Gentiles?  By Paul’s own admission in 1 Timothy, he confesses, “… I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.”  He also testified before King Agrippa, in Acts 26,  “…not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death, I cast my vote against them.  And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.” 

            And don’t miss this.  He did in all in the name of God.   

            It would literally take supernatural power to change such a brute into the gentle, repentant man who would become the spokesman to the Gentiles.  To fully understand the complexity and the enormity of the change of heart that occurred in Saul on the road to Damascus, it’s important that we briefly address not only his violent past, but the cultural, educational and religious heritage that defined him. 

            Saul’s parents were members of the Pharisees, the elite party most fervent in Jewish nationalism and adherence to the Law of Moses.  Therefore, friendships with non-Jews were most likely discouraged.   History records that Saul was extremely bright and had what we would call a “photographic memory.”  He spoke Greek, Aramaic, and had a working knowledge of Latin.  He was well-schooled in Jewish history, the psalms, and the literature of the prophets—all by age 13.   Therefore, at this tender age he was sent from Tarsus to Jerusalem to study under the esteemed Pharisee, Gamaliel, where he learned to analyze and extract as many meanings from a text as possible.  He learned to debate forcefully, a skill that made him a great orator and lawyer in defending the sacred Law.  His intelligence and powerful personality would lead, undoubtedly, to a seat on the prestigious Sanhedrin council, thereby making him a ruler of the Jews.   In Galatians, Paul admits:  “…”I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.”  

            But keep in mind that in Matthew 23, Jesus had delivered a scathing rebuke to the Pharisees, calling them “a den of vipers”—men who were religious hypocrites.  They cared more about looking pious than being pious.  Instead of the law being used as a means for spiritual guidance and the revelation of God’s person and His will for the people, it became a tool for the Pharisees to satisfy their greed for money, status and power.    Unfortunately, Saul was caught up in the glitz and glamour of this elitist life, and he cared little for those outside his Pharisee clique.  These “followers of the Way” were especially heinous to him because their beliefs about salvation in Jesus, good works, and caring for one another threatened his ambitious and self-serving lifestyle.  

            Saying that Saul was a bit “over the top” is an understatement.  In his passion, intensity, and religious zeal, he breathed murderous threats against the disciples, and got a hunting license to round up traitors to the faith in Damascus.  As Christians were shackled and chained in prison, Saul insisted they renounce their faith or risk possible death.   In his letter to the Galatians, Paul admits:  “…I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.…”  Later, Saul would call himself “the worst of sinners.”

            Who better, then, to be the voice of Christ, right?  Actually, Saul has great credentials for the “Apostle to the Gentiles” position that Jesus has designed for him.  Saul is zealous, religious, well-educated, tri-lingual, extremely intelligent, focused, articulate, and confident—the kind of man who takes up a cause with unparalleled passion, who speaks and writes fluently, who can logically lay out an argument before anyone, peasant or king.  Who more qualified, then, to write to the churches of Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus and the other fledgling congregations that needed a teacher, a cheerleader and a mentor?  Who better to speak clearly and knowledgeably to folks hungry for a Savior than a man who himself had been saved. 

             But what about the brutality, the religious ladder-climbing, the icy heart?  Well, those things are about to become history when Jesus gives Saul an attitude adjustment and a spiritual heart transplant.  The sinner is about to meet the Savior on the road to Damascus. 


Acts 9:1-20 NIV

     Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

     5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

     “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

     7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

     10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

     “Yes, Lord,” he answered.

     11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

     13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

     15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

     17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

     Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.


             A larger-than-life character like Saul would need a larger-than-life, supernatural confrontation to get his attention.  Enter Jesus, the Risen Lord, who will take on Saul, the persecutor, and transform him to Paul, the humble servant.   Saul’s sin is revealed when Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul doesn’t recognize this Voice Who knows his name and what he has done.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord says.  Jesus makes it clear that the Christians belong to Him; so, when Saul persecutes them, he persecutes Jesus.  It’s personal.

            The realization of Who he’s talking to must’ve hit Saul like a ton of bricks.    In this moment, Saul’s world collides with truth.  Jesus IS the Risen Lord.  With his knees pressed in the dirt, surrounded by heaven’s light, Saul cannot deny that Jesus is Who He says He is.

            Paul is recounting this confrontation with Jesus to his fellow Jews, in Acts 22.   Jesus has just asked Saul why he is persecuting Him, and Saul counters with a question of his own: “What shall I do, Lord?”  Suddenly there is a change of heart and attitude.  Saul’s agenda and wannabe aspirations vanish in the bright light of Who Jesus is.  Christian writer Patrick Morley comments, “Spiritual excellence is not about ascending the ladder of leadership to greatness.  It is about descending the ladder of humility to servanthood.”     

            In an incredible show of mercy and grace by the Lord Jesus, Saul is not shamed or condemned for his mountain of sin.  Instead, in His great love, Jesus is about to give Saul not only forgiveness and a new life in Christ, but a vocation, one ideally suited to all of Saul’s positive attributes and talents. But, for the moment, Jesus simply commands him to go into Damascus where Saul will be told what to do.  As always, Jesus is more interested in our repentance and obedience than He is in our dirty laundry.  

            Temporarily blind, a normally self-sufficient Saul is led by the hand to the house of a man he doesn’t know, to await another man he doesn’t know, who will allegedly heal his blindness.  It is Saul’s first experience with being totally dependent on and cared for by others.    We can only imagine the humility and confusion of being ministered to in Christian love, let alone the depth of spiritual darkness Saul wrestles with while praying and fasting in a stranger’s house.  Eyes blinded and covered with scales, the only direction he can look is inward; and he isn’t happy with what he finds. 

            Charles Spurgeon said, “Somewhere between the Damascus road and the visit from Ananias, Paul’s life was transformed forever.  He started taking orders from Christ his King.  He advanced on his knees.”  This is the onset of Saul transforming to Paul as he sheds his “bad-guy” persona to become a new creature in Christ.  This moment must be incredibly hard for Saul, because it will mean giving up everything he values and aspires to—his whole way of life—to follow Jesus. 

            Robin told a story last week of the little boy who had his hand stuck in a priceless antique vase and no one was able to extract it.  The vase would have to be broken to extricate the boy’s hand. Then someone noticed that the boy’s fist was clenched, so he was told to unclench it so that the hand could come out easily.  The boy adamantly refused because in his clenched fist he held a penny.  He couldn’t see that what he clung to so tightly was of little value, and he put at risk what WAS truly valuable.   Saul had been clinging tightly to a life devoid of meaning and value until faced with what is truly priceless:  salvation in Jesus Christ.

             Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing to do.  Ask Ananias.  He is told by God in a vision that he is to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, who is praying.    Ananias vapor locks.  But like any good, obedient, Christian, Ananias says, “Are you kidding, Lord?  Do you know who this guy IS?  He kills Christians!”  God, obviously, needs instruction from Ananias about Saul’s character, right?    I mean, would YOU dare question God?  Yeah, me either. 

            Ananias’s response is perfectly normal, especially when one is in fight-or-flight mode.   Ananias feels like God is asking him to hand-feed a steak to a tiger!  Lay hands on this guy?  Really?     

            Being slaves to human nature, we doubt God’s sovereignty sometimes because we can’t see the big picture, causing our faith to wobble.   God understands Ananias’s hesitancy.   So He offers a small explanation to Ananias by telling him that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument to carry {his} name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”  Then, God hands Ananias a bone, saying “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.”  If Ananias smiled a little at the “suffering” part, I can’t say I’d blame him, being a slave to human nature myself! 

             Ananias’s gesture to Saul is nothing short of astounding.  Saul is an enemy to Christians, but, in faith, Ananias lays his hands on him, calling him “Brother Saul.”  The first thing Saul experiences as his eyes are opened is a fraternal welcome.  I once read a quote from a 6-year-old girl who said, “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”   

            Ananias is a hero in my book.  He went to a place he didn’t want to go when God called him to obedience.    He faced his fears, and he proved that faith acted upon is faith lived.

            Famous people like the Apostle Paul, may make the headlines; but “the little people” like Ananias matter, too.  Until Jesus reigns eternally, one may never know how enormous the impact of  small deeds done in Jesus’s name can be.   Sometimes we aspire to be larger-than-life like Paul instead of a “behind-the-scenes” kind of guy like Ananias.    But as Pastor Ray Stedman counsels:  “We, who are nothing, can be filled with Him who is everything—and that will make us something.”

            Paul is living proof that even though our pasts may be less than stellar, we can find a new beginning in Christ.  Romans 8:28 says that “…in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Paul spent the rest of his life in service to Jesus, forever grateful for his calling and salvation.  Ironically, he was still a force to be reckoned with—but motivated by love, not hate.

              I find comfort that Jesus can take the worst of sinners, radically change his heart, and ultimately give his life meaning and purpose in Christ.  If there’s hope for a terrorist, there’s   hope for me.    

            My intention today was not to vilify the beloved Apostle Paul, whose commitment to Christ made possible our own salvation, but to contrast a former life spent in spiritual darkness with a life ultimately lived in the light of Jesus’s saving grace.   Amazing grace does save wretches, and no sin trumps the grace and mercy of God.  That Saul was such a slave to sin in his former life makes his conversion and transformation all the more powerful and sweet.

            True repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand.  Perhaps you can identify with Saul in that you have “sinned and fallen short.”  But Jesus doesn’t see what we’ve done; He sees what we can be.  Jesus is in the business of changing hearts and minds, and a repentant spirit is the only credential you need. 


Will you pray with me?

Heavenly Father, we willingly sacrifice our broken hearts and contrite spirits that we may better love and serve you.  Amen.