Each week, the Calvary Monterey church staff meets for Bible study, worship, and prayer. Right now, we are making our way through the books of Acts. Recently we inspected Paul’s conversion (Acts 9). We gleaned a handful of principles from his story which would help us in modern-day ministry work. What follows are those points:
1 People go through a process to come to Christ.
Jesus said Paul (Saul) had kicked against the goads (Acts 26:14). This meant he resisted the Lord for a while. His conversion on the road to Damascus was preceded by pangs of conscience, a stirring of his soul. But what did Paul kick against?
First, Stephen’s bold witness for Christ, followed by his murder, haunted Paul. He’d been holding the coats of all who stoned Stephen to death, consenting to it all, when Stephen forgave and prayed for his killers. Additionally, Stephen’s murder was brought on by a sermon. Stephen had demonstrated the historic propensity of Israel to reject God’s messengers and plan. His point: they'd rejected God's ultimate messenger and plan, Jesus Christ and his gospel. Paul remembered that message. Second, Paul kicked against Christ’s ministry while on earth. Jesus was a known entity, of course, and Paul heard of him (some suspect he saw him, which is a reasonable suspicion). He could not shake the teachings and miracles of Christ from his mind. Third, Paul wrestled with the Old Testament promises which alluded to God’s forgiveness and love. God promised a New Covenant in which he would put his Spirit inside his people. Fourth, Paul had become conscious of covetousness within himself, a sin he felt no power to control. He called it a law of sin within him. One day, he recognized the law’s command “you shall not covet,” but realized the inward sin of covetousness was stirred up in him by the law itself. He knew he needed God's intervention, for he could not cleanse himself. In meditating on the law, he was thinking on his own shortcoming. He was a covetous man. He wondered how God could release him (see Romans 7:7-12).
All these ingredients stirred together and ripened Paul for the gospel message. The road to Damascus was the perfect place, geographically and spiritually, for Paul to turn to Christ. We must realize the inward and outward workings of God in a person’s heart. Humans, like Paul, must go through a process before they are ready to receive the love of God in Christ.
2 No one is beyond the grace of God.
Paul felt his testimony was meant to encourage every subsequent generation of believers. He thought himself an example of God’s extreme grace. Listen to his words: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15–16 ESV).
Considering all Paul new of God before his conversion — he was fluent in the Old Testament Scriptures after all — his crimes against the church caused him to think of himself as the “foremost” of all sinners. He became an example to those who were to experience the perfect patience of Christ. Paul seemed to want us to know there is no one beyond God’s grace. If he wasn’t, no one is.
3 There is a collision in every conversion.
Acts 9 describes the moment in Paul’s life when he collided with Jesus. He was knocked to the ground. His conversion was a collision demonstrable and loud. While not every testimony is this pronounced, when a person becomes born again they are brought from death to life, from darkness to light. A collision is required. A changing of the guard, a shift of the heart, and a crisis of life must occur. A person must see their need for Christ.
I recently spent a few minutes laughing with the little grandchildren of one of our pastor’s, Mike Casey. Mike’s testimony is a radical one which includes drug addiction, homelessness, a heroin overdose, a stroke, and a diagnosis he’d never walk again. As I watched his granddaughters laugh and play, I prayed and thanked and hoped in God that their story would not be similar. However, they will have to come to some point of collision. It will (I say by faith) be much more subtle, but for them to turn to Christ, a collision must occur.
4 Jesus identifies with his people.
In the midst of Paul’s story Jesus said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” We are members of his body (Ephesians 5:30), so when his body hurts, he hurts. In speaking of a future day of judgment, Jesus spoke of those who had persecuted his people by saying, “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matthew 25:44-45).
The Lord identifies with his suffering saints, his hurting children. He felt Paul’s persecution of the church was persecution of himself. It is not difficult to imagine a believer at that time, under duress, wondering if God saw his children in their pain. Jesus announced to Paul that he not only saw the hurt but felt it.
5 We are one in Christ, but God has a different plan for each one of us.
A few days after his conversion, in Damascus, the Lord showed Paul, through a brother named Ananias, how Paul was a “chosen instrument.” He would carry Jesus’ name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. God would show Paul how much he would suffer for the sake of his name. Later, Paul wrote how he had been set apart before he was born (Galatians 1:15).
Modern believers can readily appreciate God’s design for Paul. He was raised in a Jewish family, but in the predominantly Gentile city of Tarsus, so he could fit into many different cultures, Jewish and Greek, which the earlier apostles could not do with as much ease. Paul was also a dual citizen, Israelite, but also Roman by birth, which allowed him to trapse throughout the empire wherever he wished. Additionally, he was raised to know the Old Testament Scripture, excelling as a Pharisee at a young age. God used his catalog of scriptural knowledge to help him, once in Christ, to teach it accurately, refining and delivering the greatest Christian doctrines to the church in his letters. But Paul was also raised to learn a trade — his was tentmaking — which enabled him, when necessary, to provide for himself on the mission field. Lastly, God even used Paul’s singleness for the mission; the flexibility afforded a single man made Paul more effective as a traveler and propagator of the message.
I fear modern believers, seeing Paul’s effectiveness, would strive for something similar. But each of us has a different design from God. We don’t have Paul’s background. We will never write Scripture. We can learn from his faithfulness, diligence, and sacrifice, but we must be content with Christ’s personal calling on our lives. Paul was Paul. Others were not like him. And if God chose to use him abundantly and powerfully, wonderful. He might use us today in large ways or small ways, but we should not be jealous of one another, and instead rejoice in all the victories God has for us.
6 God will raise up a fresh wineskin at strategic moments.
By the time Paul was saved, God was ready to do a new work. He had promised a day when the nations would come to him, but up to that point in the church’s life, they had not anticipated how wide the door to the Gentile world would be. Ten years after the resurrection of Christ, the church was still Jewish. They did not know how broad and multicultural the church would become. Peter, of course, would be the one God would use to open the door, for he preached to Gentile Cornelius and all his household, but Paul would be the one to run through the door. “New wine must be put into fresh wineskins,” Jesus said (Luke 5:38). The Gentile world’s reception of the gospel was the new wine; Paul was the new wineskin.
Are there not smaller moments in human history and culture where God has a fresh work planned but needs a fresh messenger or group to operate in that new frontier? Are there not still times God looks for fresh wineskins to hold the new work he is about to do? I do not refer to anything antiscriptural or beyond biblical lines, but God’s people have a tendency to box themselves in, to operate only within the previous ways they’ve seen God work. When a new generation arises with new questions, idols, and obstacles, God must often look for a fresh wineskin who can deliver the gospel to the new generation.
7 Times of preparation are essential for God’s messengers.
After Paul’s conversion, though the timeline is cloudy, he went to Damascus, Arabia, Damascus again, Jerusalem, Tarsus, Antioch, and back to Jerusalem. Some of these stops were brief, while others lasted years (Galatians 1:17-18, Acts 9:30). Time was required for the Spirit to develop Paul into a force for his kingdom. Long seasons of relearning the Scriptures were necessary. Paul needed time to grow.
God’s messengers need seasons and times of preparation. We are always under God’s shaping hand, of course, even while we do the work, but there is necessary training and time God must pour into his servants. Whether it comes in the form of formal education or life education or on the job training, God will prepare his people.