The Persecutor Becomes the Persecuted
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 9:19–9:31
A couple weeks ago we saw the conversion of a man named Saul. Saul is also Paul, who wrote a third of the New Testament. Before he was a Christian, though, Judaism formed Saul’s outlook on the world. It shaped his worldview, his values, his heart-commitments; it shaped the way he related to God. It shaped the way he read the Scriptures. By the way Saul read the Scriptures, there was no way Jesus is Lord.
But Christians were teaching Jesus is Lord and Savior. Christians were undermining all that Saul built his life on. So Saul hated the church. He breathed to destroy the church, to stop their gospel. Jesus had other plans for Saul—don’t forget, the book of Acts is about the acts of the risen Lord Jesus.
The exalted Jesus appears to Saul. He gives Saul a glimpse of his glory. It changes Saul forever. Jesus transforms Saul’s heart. He transforms Saul’s worldview—Jesus is now the center; Jesus is now what the Scriptures are about; Jesus is now Saul’s treasure and purpose. Today we’ll see just how transformed Saul really was. The persecutor who tried to stop the gospel becomes the persecuted for spreading the gospel. Let’s hear the word of the Lord and then pray…
19b For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. 23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they didn’t believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
A Divine Reversal to Reach the Nations
As we approach Acts 9, we encounter a divine reversal in the life of Saul. Chapter 8 began with Saul persecuting the church in Jerusalem. Chapter 9 began with Saul going to persecute the church in Damascus. But now Saul is the one persecuted in Damascus for the gospel; and Saul is the one persecuted in Jerusalem for the gospel. The one who makes all the difference is the risen Jesus; he causes the divine reversal. Jesus transforms a murderer into a missionary.
Luke tells this reversal, because Saul becomes a major player in Luke’s narrative. Very soon Luke will shift to Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles. The gospel advanced in Jerusalem. The gospel advanced in Judea and Samaria. But very soon we’ll see the gospel advance to the end of the earth. Luke will spend 16 chapters developing this mission to the Gentiles. The primary missionary that Luke follows is Saul (or Paul).
God causes a divine reversal in Saul’s life to bring about a divine reversal among the nations, to turn many from darkness to light. Ask yourself this: has God caused a divine reversal in your life? Has God turned you from darkness to light? Has God converted you? If so, then how might he use you to bring about a divine reversal among your neighbors and the nations?
We can’t change anybody on our own—that’s God’s work ultimately. But God uses us in the process. We deliver his message that transforms people. How might he use you to work a divine reversal among our neighbors and the nations? Be thinking about this as we continue. We’ll return to it in a moment…
Saul’s Ministry in Damascus
Our passage begins with Saul’s ministry in Damascus, and then it will proceed to Saul’s ministry in Jerusalem. In both cases, Luke develops the following pattern: Saul partners with the disciples; Saul proclaims Jesus Christ; Saul is persecuted by enemies.
In Damascus, we first see that Saul partners with the disciples.[i] Verse 19, “for some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.” A key characteristic of Jesus’ disciples is that they’re together.[ii] They weren’t lone-ranger Christians. They were with one another. Saul is with the disciples here. He’s gone from trying to kill Jesus’ disciples to gathering with Jesus’ disciples.
Next we see that Saul proclaims Jesus Christ. Verse 20, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” Some say that Saul went off by himself to think on the Scriptures for three years before preaching. They get that from Galatians 1:17-18. But the point there isn’t that Saul went off and studied by himself for three years, but that he simply didn’t consult with the Jerusalem church until three years later. During that three years, he was preaching Christ, verse 20 says.
In particular, he was preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. Other religions who claim the Bible as their holy book have different understandings of what that means. So we need to be clear. We get a clue in verse 22, where it says that Saul was proving that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King. We get another clue in Saul’s own preaching later in Acts 13:33. He cites Psalm 2:7 referring to Jesus: Yahweh says, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
Basically, for Jesus to be the Son of God meant at least two things. One, he was the promised anointed King in David’s family line. The Prophets and the Psalms expected a future king in David’s line. If you read 2 Samuel 7:14, this future king would relate to God as a son relates to a father. Two, there were also expectations that the future king in David’s line would be much, much greater than David himself ever was. His kingdom would spread from sea to sea (Zech 9). His rule would last forever (Isa 9). He would share Yahweh’s throne (Ps 110). Psalm 45:6 even identifies him as God (Heb 1:8).
To proclaim Jesus as “Son of God” is to proclaim Jesus as both the ultimate King in David’s line and God in his own right. He is Son but also God in his own right.[iii] That message doesn’t sit right with a people who just crucified Jesus. How can Jesus be true King and God over all, if he died with such disgrace? It doesn’t make sense to the natural mind. The people are amazed that Saul starts preaching such a message. But they can’t stop him. He kept increasing in strength and confounded the Jews.
This leads to Saul’s persecution by enemies. Verse 23, “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
This one who came into Damascus so proudly persecuting Christians, now gets forced out of the city by persecutors. He leaves Damascus in weakness. That’s how he talks about his escape in 2 Corinthians 11:30-32—he uses it as another example to boast in his weakness. It became another way of saying, “Hey, I’d rather be weak in a fish basket with Jesus than pretending to be strong without Jesus. His whole mindset shifted. The way down for Saul is actually the way up, because it identifies him with Jesus.
I might add here also a very practical observation. It’s not always the case that Christians stay to endure persecution. There are places in Acts when Christians can’t escape persecution—they’re in jail or surrounded or something like that—or when Christians choose to stay and endure persecution. Yet there are other occasions when they deem it best for the gospel’s sake to leave a region. We should keep this in mind when our own missionaries are forced to leave certain places. And we should be careful not to heap guilt upon them for leaving. If they’ve prayed and, with input from the church, choose to leave a region, they’re free to do so if it better serves the gospel’s advance.
Saul’s Ministry in Jerusalem
That’s actually what ends up happening. Persecution doesn’t stop the gospel; it simply relocates people to spread the gospel elsewhere. That happens next with Saul’s ministry in Jerusalem. And again we encounter the same pattern.
First, Saul partners with the disciples. It takes more work this time, because three years have passed and folks in Jerusalem haven’t had any contact with Saul. Last contact they had, Saul was ravaging the church (Acts 8:1, 3). The trust that comes with seeing someone face-to-face isn’t built yet.
So look at what happens in verse 26. “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they didn’t believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.”
So they’re still fearful, but good old Barnabas. We met Barnabas in 4:36, the son of encouragement. He reassures the disciples that Saul is legit; and that’s enough for folks to let down the walls. Verse 28 says that Saul “went in and out among them at Jerusalem.” There’s now freedom in their fellowship. Saul is one of them. He partners with the disciples to advance the gospel.
He also proclaims Jesus Christ. Verse 28, “He went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.” Verse 29 says that some of this involved speaking and disputing against the Hellenists. Jesus Christ had just dismantled Saul’s worldview; Saul is now dismantling theirs and arguing that Jesus must be at its center. Surprisingly enough, that’s exactly what Stephen was doing when Saul took part in stoning him. But now Saul has aligned himself with Stephen.
Can you imagine the stir? They watched Saul oversee Stephen’s martyrdom. They laid their garments at his feet to kill Stephen. But now Saul is back preaching Stephen’s message. They don’t like this. This is way too compelling to have such an enemy of the gospel won over by the gospel.
So it goes on to say that Saul is persecuted by enemies. Verse 29, “But they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.” A little life-lesson here: expect old friends to hate you because of your solidarity with Jesus. It may not be a violent hatred necessarily, like Saul’s was. But as long as they love the world over Christ and you love Christ over the world, you can expect them to hate the new you. Jesus told us it would be this way.
So we see the same pattern that he had in Damascus: Saul partners with the disciples; Saul proclaims Jesus Christ; Saul is persecuted by enemies. What’s the point? The point is to stress Saul’s solidarity with Jesus Christ. This man was truly born again, and it changed everything about him. When a person is truly united to Jesus, that person will partner with the church, will proclaim Jesus Christ, and will risk facing persecution to get the gospel into the lives of others…
How does your solidarity with Jesus impact others?
I want to return to the question I posed at the beginning. I asked you to consider whether God has caused a divine reversal in your life. Has the Lord transformed your heart and your worldview and your purpose? Can you say that you’ve encountered Christ in a way that turned your world upside-down?
If you profess to be a Christian, but there’s been no real change—Jesus hasn’t impacted your way of living all that much; you still have the same mindset, the same values, the same purpose you had without him—you need to consider seriously whether you are a Christian. And maybe you don’t identify with that at all, you just know that Jesus hasn’t impacted your life that way.
There’s still hope for you. What we observe in the transformation of Saul is that Jesus transforms the worst of sinners. Jesus turns murderers into missionaries. He can transform you. His death on the cross is that powerful to free you from sin. His resurrection life is that glorious to make you a new person. His daily grace is sufficient to make you more and more like Jesus. Don’t hesitate to trust in him, and give your life to him. Then make your solidarity with him public.
But if Christ has brought about a divine reversal in your life, then how might the Lord use you to bring about a divine reversal among your neighbors and the nations? Again, we can’t change people. That’s ultimately God’s work of grace. But he uses us. He uses us to deliver the message that does change people, the gospel of Jesus Christ. What does that look like for you in relation to partnering with Jesus’ church, proclaiming Jesus’ message, and enduring persecution with Jesus?
Being a Christian isn’t a private matter. Rather, a person’s solidarity with Jesus gives way to public identification with Jesus in the people we partner with, in the message we announce, and in the persecution we may face. Someone could say, “Yeah, but isn’t Saul a special case? Doesn’t Saul become an apostle? Is it right to say that such a public solidarity with Christ should be true of all Christians?”
Yes, Saul becomes an apostle. Yes, he is unique in that sense. Yes, he has a unique encounter with Jesus. Yes, not everything that Saul experiences will be our experience. But Saul also writes in several letters to his churches, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Once he’s in Christ, there are things about Saul’s life we should imitate. All three of these appear elsewhere in his letters: we partner with Jesus’ people; we proclaim Jesus’ message; we endure persecution in the path of love.
What does your partnership with the church look like? Is it vibrant? Are you investing in relationships to strengthen one another? Are you making every effort to be with one another? Is there a sense of partnership to advance the gospel? And if not, what are you doing to cultivate that? Hospitality? Care group? Meeting needs? Serving?
Are you proclaiming Jesus’ message to others? People who follow Jesus tell others about Jesus. What are the names of three lost people that you know, that you can be praying for and looking for opportunities to share Christ with them?
Are you running away from persecution when you know that’s what it will take to advance the gospel? I was at a missions conference on Monday and Tuesday, and we looked at passage after passage on how getting the gospel to the nations isn’t easy, comfortable, or convenient. It’s hard. It requires endurance and patient labors and years of investment—death to self.
In the American mindset, the supreme values are safety, comfort, and convenience. Solidarity with Christ calls us to a different set of values. If we look at our Savior’s cross, love isn’t safe, comfortable, or convenient. As Ben said last week, “Our vision has been blurry far too long; it’s time to put on the lenses of the kingdom, where the first is last and the last is first.”
Jesus’ Church at Peace & Growing
How’s that going to happen? How’s that kind of life possible, sustainable? Where does our help come from? The answer comes in verse 31. Luke gives us another snapshot of the church’s growth. Jesus’ plan is right on track. Saul’s conversion and his solidarity with Christ alongside them brings a great sense of peace. Verse 31 says, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
Notice first the passive verb: “the church…was being built up.” This is what you call a divine passive. Supply the subject and it goes like this: the Lord was building up the church. Peter uses the same wording to speak of God building up the church as a spiritual house, each member being a living stone (1 Pet 2:5). Part of the answer to how you partner, preach, and endure persecution is this: Jesus Christ does it in you. He builds you up to be this way. He strengthens you.
Another part of the how is this: walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Peace came by walking in the fear the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. This is really significant. The Old Testament promised that in the day of Messiah’s reign, his people would know peace, his people would have the fear of God in their hearts, and his people would be comforted.[iv] We find that in the church here. God is fulfilling those promises; and each one is a sign that his Messiah reigns. We can partner, preach, and endure persecution, because Jesus reigns.
Walking in the fear of the Lord
See, when we fear everything else but the Lord, we don’t have peace. We don’t have peace when we fear man. We’re scared of what somebody’s going to say about us. You’re worried about not being accepted. You’re frantically trying to please everybody. You avoid people who aren’t like you. You run away from neighborhoods that might hurt you. You hide behind your iPhone in waiting rooms.
You don’t have peace when you fear circumstances. You’re like the guy in Proverbs who stays in his house all day and does nothing because “Hey, there might be a lion in the street.” You don’t have peace when you fear death. The fear of death is one of the devil’s weapons. He uses it to make us afraid and keep us enslaved, so that we don’t love and don’t speak and don’t move into that neighborhood and don’t go to that country and we fear people coming this one as well.
You don’t have peace when you fear the loss of your possessions, and the loss of your 401K, and the loss of your freedoms. But when we fear the Lord above all, it brings peace. I’m not saying to deny these other fears—they’re really there. Rather, the fears we do face are given their proper perspective before a grand vision of God’s sovereignty and God’s authority and God’s mission to save the world.
Part of fearing the Lord is trusting his word above all other words. If you fear man, it means trusting that if God is for us in Christ, who can be against us (Rom 8:31)? If it’s a fear of death, his word says that Jesus died to destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb 2:14). If it’s fear of losing possessions, you trust that in Jesus Christ you have a better possession and an abiding one (Heb 10:34).
If it’s fear of meeting people’s needs, then we trust his word that “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11). We have a generous Father who can meet every need.
God puts this kind of fear in his people. Jeremiah 32:40 says, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” It’s all grace, and we get it through faith in Jesus Christ. He will enable us to partner and preach and endure persecution to see people saved, by putting the fear of him in our hearts.
Walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit
We can also partner, preach, and endure persecution because the Holy Spirit comforts us. Verse 31 says the church was walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes the Spirit comforts his people through other Christians ministering to one another—so a Titus could bring comfort to Paul by his report of the church (2 Cor 7:3). Sometimes the Spirit comforts his people through the words of Scripture—we get this in Romans 15:4. At other times, though, the Spirit himself comforts his people through supernatural intervention (2 Cor 1:4-5). God blesses the church with a concrete manifestation of his grace that makes them confident in Jesus’ reign, confident in Jesus’ presence, confident in Jesus’ coming kingdom.
Any one of these—maybe even all—could be present verse 31. The point being that our God doesn’t leave us alone in the mission. He comes with us to comfort us, to give us courage to keep acting on his revelation in Christ. That’s how the Spirit does it. He takes the objective reality of God’s work in Jesus and he so presses it into our heart and mind that it comforts our emotions and encourages our will to act.
Comfort is a good gift from the Lord. The problem is that we often pursue comfort in the wrong things. Instead of finding comfort in the Spirit when hardships come, sometimes we turn to worldly comforts. And the Lord sometimes strips those worldly comforts away from us, doesn’t he? So that in the end we’re driven to say with Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you, O Lord; and on earth there is nothing I desire besides you.”
Saul experienced this himself. In 2 Corinthians 1, he speaks of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8). “But,” he goes on to say, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). The resurrection became his comfort from God in affliction.
What’s your go-to source for comfort? Where does your soul find rest when anxious? Who do you turn to as your ultimate comforter, and is it the Lord? Jesus gave the Spirit to comfort and encourage us in his mission. When the church walks in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it experiences peace.
It also multiplies. That’s the observation Luke makes at the end of verse 31: “it multiplied.” It’s a great desire to want to grow, to want God to save more people to enjoy his grace and spread his glory. But the place to begin is praying the Lord change our hearts to walk in the fear of him. The place to begin is praying that we would walk in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, finding our courage and rest in Christ. When that’s true, we will partner and preach and endure persecution well. When that’s true, we’ll spend ourselves to see others in our communities saved and glorifying Jesus. Then, may the Lord be pleased to multiply us.
[i]Sometimes the New Testament uses the language of Christians partnering to advance the gospel. E.g., Rom 16:3, 9; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25; 4:3; Col 4:11; Phm 17.
[ii]Acts 1:14; 2:44, 46; 4:32.
[iii]For further study, see D. A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 43-71.
[iv]Peace: Isa 9:6, 7; 52:7; 53:5; 54:10; 57:19; Ezek 37:26. Fear: Jer 32:39-40; Comfort: Isa 40:1; Zech 1:17.