The Makeover That Changed the World

Bill McFarland

October 2, 2005


The number of “makeover” programs there are right now suggests there is something fascinating to us about big changes in people’s lives.  People may stop and watch something as unimportant as a makeover of hair style or something like that.  The makeover can involve someone’s wardrobe, what kind of clothing the individual dresses himself or herself with.  Or, it may involve the makeover of someone’s living room or his whole house.  Makeovers like these, changes in people’s circumstances, do tend to get our attention. 

But what if it involves, not these outward things, but someone’s entire set of convictions by which he lives his life?  What if someone’s entire belief system is suddenly altered or changed?  If what’s made over is his heart, his values, his hopes, his dreams that would tell you this is an event that deserves attention. 

Something like that is described for us in the great book of Acts.  J.W. Roberts referred to this event as “one of the most important events in the history of the world.”  He was talking about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, whom we come to know better beginning in Acts 13:9 as Paul.  This is the best known of the conversion stories.  It is important enough that Luke records it for us three different times in Acts, then it is mentioned in several of Paul’s letters.  This is the first conversion account of someone who has been an out-and-out enemy of Jesus Christ.  There have been others who did not believe but were taught and then embraced the faith of Christ.  But here is someone who was trying to destroy that faith but becomes the strongest proclaimer of it. 

What accounts for such makeover?  What lessons should you and I learn from what takes place here in this good man’s life?  This morning I want to try to combine the different accounts that we have in the New Testament to tell you the story, and then we would like to draw some lessons from it that can strengthen our own faith. 

The Story of a Conversion

Let’s start with the story of this man’s makeover.  When we meet Saul of Tarsus in the book of Acts, he is a young man (that could mean he is under 40), and the witnesses against Stephen are laying their garments at his feet (Acts 7:58).  Some take that to mean that he was in charge of this detail of people who were carrying the execution of Stephen.  Later on, though, Saul tells us something of his background.  We know that he was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5).  Benjamin was the very smallest of the tribes of Israel.  His parents had given him the name of the most famous member of the tribe of Benjamin, King Saul.  It is interesting to me that his name means “called of God.”  It fits Saul and what happens in this passage.  Saul was from Tarsus, which was the capitol of Cilicia, “no obscure city” (Acts. 21:39).  It was a commercial and intellectual center at that time.  Paul was born as a Roman citizen, something which was counted as a high privilege (Acts. 22:28).   No doubt he was taught the law very well beginning somewhere about age 5 and going up to about 13.  He knew the Old Testament scriptures completely, for he quoted part or all of some 200 different passages from all over the Old Testament in his writings in the New Testament.  He was a Pharisee of Pharisees (Acts 23:6), meaning he was from the strictest sect of the Jews.  He appears to have been from a family of some wealth and standing.  He had a sister in Jerusalem, a nephew with access to leaders, and a family well enough off to send him to Jerusalem to complete his education.  He was brought up there (Acts 22:3), probably from about age 13, and he was taught by the renowned Jewish teacher, Gamaliel.  His family had not raised him merely to be educated.  They had also trained him to make a living.  Jewish parents believed that to fail to teach a child a trade was to teach him to be a thief, so his parents had taught him to be a tentmaker.  The kind of personality that Paul had shines through in his writings.  One observed that the letters of Paul “reveal a man of keen intellect, sensitive nature, infectious spirit, immense vitality, strong determination, and a vast capacity for friendship.”  That is quite a description, isn’t it? 

The thing that stands out most, though, when we meet Saul is that he is in some kind of a leadership position in an effort to wipe out the church of Christ.  Perhaps he had been the moving force behind this effort, or maybe he was given the task because the authorities saw his determination and ability.  At any rate, when Stephen died, Saul was there “giving approval to his death.”  (Acts 8:1)  And Acts 9:1 describes him as breathing, threatening and slaughter against disciples.  In other words, he was using threats and murder to ravage the church.  In Galatians 1:13-14, he himself described his activities, “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it, and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”  He was for something that caused him to be against Christ. 

In Acts 22:19 he says that he beat those who believed in Christ.  In 22:4-5 he said, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women.”  The first recorded efforts to persecute even female members of the church of the Lord were conducted by Saul of Tarsus.

In Acts 26:9-11 he described this effort in his life.  He said, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And I did so in Jerusalem.  I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.  And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”  Here is the kind of man who is not only for what he believes, but he will try to force other people to speak against what they believe and to deny the convictions of their lives. 

On one such journey to these foreign cities, the turning point comes in the life of this talented and zealous young man.  He had gone to the high priest and had secured authority to bring people back from Damascus if he found any there who were of the Way (Acts 9:2).  Damascus was a journey of 140 miles to the north-northeast of Jerusalem.  Going by foot the way they had to go, it was a journey that took nearly a week.  When Paul and his fellow travelers were near that city, about midday a great light out of heaven shined around that party, a light like no other, above the brightness of the sun, according to Acts 26:13.  Saul fell to the ground unable to see, and a voice spoke in the Hebrew said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14)  Goads were the sharp prods used to move cattle along.  There was something which, in the Lord’s providence, was hard for Saul to resist. 

The first question from Saul in response to this is, “Who are you, Lord?”  (Acts 22:8)  Maybe he was using “Lord” as just a polite way of addressing someone at that point.  But if he was, the answer must have struck him like a body blow.  Think of it: the voice said, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”  This glorious, powerful one before whom Saul has fallen is the one that he has been persecuting!  The truth must have hit Saul.  Jesus was alive, and he was glorious and powerful, and he was the fulfillment of everything that Saul had been so zealous for.  Now Saul has been against him.  Just imagine!  These people of the Way whom Saul has been breathing threatening and slaughter against, these people that he was beating and dragging to prison and trying to make blaspheme, they were right!  Saul was wrong!  Saul had been acting ignorantly and in unbelief, he said later on.  He was a blasphemer speaking against the divine Son of God!  (I Tim. 1:13) 

So there was a second question from him: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10)  However he meant “Lord” in the first question, he meant it in this second question as the one who had the divine right to tell him what to do.  This man has repented.  He is ready to take directions now from the one he has been trying to destroy and wipe out.  And the Lord told him to get up and enter the city and there it would be told him what he must do.  (Acts 9:6)  This man who had swooped down toward Damascus in proud strength ready to take vengeance on everyone who wore the name of Christ now has to be led into the city, not as a conquering warrior, but by the hand as a blind beggar.  He still couldn’t see, but he did what the Lord told him to do.  For three days, he neither ate nor drank.  He was still without sight.  He was praying through this time, Acts 9:11 says.  Followers of the Lord were understandably hesitant to get close to him because they had heard how much evil he had done to the saints in Jerusalem.  Yet the Lord found a man, and he sent a devout disciple named Ananias to tell this chosen vessel what he needed to do.  Ananias risked his life and stood by Saul, laying hands on him, and explained that the Lord had sent him so that Saul could receive his sight and so that Saul could know what he was being sent to do and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Then Ananias said to Saul, according to the scriptures, “And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”  (Acts 22:16)  The Bible says he arose and was baptized.  (Acts 9:18)

An amazing conversion has taken place now in this story.  People were suspicious of Paul.  They could hardly believe a man would change his convictions like this.  But Paul’s subsequent behavior left no doubt about the genuineness of the makeover.  He set immediately at going to the synagogues and saying, “He is the Son of God,” and proving that Jesus was the Christ.  (Act 9:20, 22)  His efforts to do what the Lord gave him to do set him to a lifetime of going all over the Roman world and trying to open people’s eyes to Jesus and to turn them from darkness to light.  He met suspicion on the part of his brothers in Christ and hatred from his former brethren among the Jews.  This fellow who had been led by the hand into Damascus had to be let down in a basket out of Damascus just to escape with his life, according to 9:23-25.  As he served, he found hardship, shipwreck, stonings, beatings, jail and anxiety, but he gave everything he had to lead people to the faith that he had formerly sought to destroy.  Paul was saved in this change, and you and I are blessed by this great change in his thinking and in his life. 

The Lessons of The Conversion

I would like to suggest to you three ways that we are blessed by this great story and by its results.  In the first place, there is evidence in this story to confirm and to support our faith.  There was nobody who wanted less to believe in Jesus than Saul of Tarsus.  That should be obvious.  He had not only the zeal of his convictions, but all of his efforts invested in this intention to destroy the faith of Christ.  Anybody who knows anything about human nature can image how tough it would have been to change a person like this.  But he did change!  So how do we explain the change?  Was he an imposter for the sake of wealth or reputation or power?  It brought him anything but those things.  Was he self-deceived, or was he deceived by the fraud of others?  His letters are not letters from a man who is out of his mind.  Was Christianity then a divine institution, and is Jesus really alive?  An article in my Bible encyclopedia observes that “only the Damascus encounter with Christ was powerful enough to cause the young Jewish rabbi to reconsider the death of Jesus.  Only his meeting with the risen Christ was sufficient to demonstrate that God had vindicated the claims and the work of the one he was opposing.”  The only way to explain the change in Saul of Tarsus is that Jesus actually was seen by him.  In I Cor. 15:8, Paul shows that last of all Jesus had appeared to him and that he had responded to that grace by serving more abundantly than they all. 

Not only is there evidence in this story to support our faith, there is instruction in this story to tell us how to live by faith.  We can learn here about the most important thing of all, and that is how we are to respond so that the Lord can wipe our sins away.  You will agree I hope that there isn’t any more important question than this.  If he is alive, he can forgive.  The question is how, when does he forgive?  Two things about this story are especially important.  In Acts 9:6, the Lord said to him, “You go into Damascus and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”  Isn’t that interesting?  He had a vision, but the vision didn’t tell him how to be saved.  The Lord sent a man, a servant of his, to tell him that.  The Lord wanted him to hear it from another man.  Friends, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”  (Rom. 10:17)

The other thing to notice is the statement in Acts 22:16 that we read a moment ago, “rise and be baptized.”  Remember that this is a man who has seen a vision of Christ and he has been praying for three days.  And Ananias comes out there to him and says, “Why are you waiting?  Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”  That is the same thing that had been preached at the first on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38).   When a person has believed that Jesus is Lord and has repented as Saul of Tarsus had done as evidenced by his behavior, he is to act in response to the gospel.  Baptism plays a similar role in all of the conversion accounts in Acts.  It is in keeping with the great commission.  (Mk. 16:15,16)  “Calling on the name of the Lord” is the crucial thing.  We live in an age when all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.  (Acts 2:21)  But how does one call on the name of the Lord?  This story gives us the Bible answer.  A man who believes and repents is to be baptized into Christ, not because he thinks he already has been saved, but in order to call on the name of the Lord so that he can be saved by the Lord.

Thirdly, observe with me that there is motivation in this story.  We all lack motivation sometimes in our Christian living.  However Saul was treating the Lord’s people he was treating the Lord, we discover in Acts 9.  He was breathing threats and slaughter against men and women, but Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting me?”  The Lord is with his people, and if this matter was so crucial that Saul would make a big change and then put forth all this effort, how important should it be to me that I be right with the Lord?  Paul says in Phil. 3 that everything that was gain to him he had counted but lost for the sake of Christ.  If he will make that kind of commitment, what kind of commitment should I make?  If the Lord could save a blasphemer and a persecutor, then can’t he save me, too, according to I Tim. 1:15-16?  And if one converted to the Lord should serve this way with this kind of zeal and this kind of faithfulness, if his life proved the genuineness of his conversion, then shouldn’t my life prove my devotion to the Lord, too? 

In this great story there is evidence, instruction and there is motivation.  You and I want to examine ourselves in light of this story.  Jesus met Saul of Tarsus face-to-face on the Damascus road.  You and I meet Jesus face-to-face in the gospel and the invitation of the Lord for us to come and call on his name for our hope. 

This morning you and I choose how we respond to that invitation.  We have a choice about how we respond to the goodness and greatness of the Lord.  He wants us all.  You and I have to decide whether we want him.  If you do, and if we can help with your response this day, would you not come while we stand and sing together?