Today, we will cover Acts 9 and Saul’s conversion experience, his very first repentance, from which the great Apostle Paul was birthed. We will see that this story serves as a good model for regular, continuous repentance, not just a single, dramatic salvation moment. Specifically, we’ll explore the connection between how we act or fail to act toward others and how God receives those acts as things done directly to him.
Read Acts 9:1-31.
This is Saul’s conversion when he became the great Apostle Paul. His salvation moment. And what is salvation? It is the very first time you repent. When you recognize, oh my goodness, I have been living for myself and I have ignored God, the one who loves me and created me. Salvation is the first time we repent of our sins and ask God for forgiveness.
Let’s look at this conversion account. Last week, we left off with Saul persecuting the church. Stephen is dead and now Saul is throwing Christian believers into prison. But things took a radical turn on Saul’s way to Damascus. On his way, Jesus appears to him in a great flash of light and Saul is blinded.
So the first step of his salvation is when Saul was stopped in his tracks and he recognizes his blindness. Isn’t that a familiar experience for many of us? Our life was fine and dandy and then suddenly a flash of light, a failure, a circumstance, or maybe for some of us it was a gradual, but we ended up with the same realization — man, I’m blind. I didn’t know there was a God. I didn’t know even know myself, that I am such a sinner.
Then, the second step of Saul’s salvation was a period of disorientation when he was totally dependent on other believers to guide him. We’ve all been there. We are born again. We are a young believer, a spiritual newborn. We don’t know anything. We don’t know which way is up. We don’t know how to feed ourselves. We don’t know how to study the Bible or pray and some other members of God’s family take you under their wings and they care for you. They teach you how to have a morning devotion. How to pray. It’s like learning how to eat or brush your teeth or tie your shoes for the first time. Someone had to guide us step by step. And Saul after his blindness is going through that period of disorientation which leads to us desperate dependence on those he was persecuting moments earlier. Talk about eating his humble pie.
Third, we see him waiting on God to speak.
Fourth, a new direction is given.
Fifth, he steps out into obedience to that new direction.
This is a somewhat familiar experience for many of us. We may be able to point to our version of this kind of blindness, disorientation, depending on others, waiting on God to speak, receiving a new direction and obeying that new calling for your life.
And if salvation is our very first repentance and we are sinners, then shouldn’t this same pattern be a regular part of our lives?
How many can identify with this and say this kind of repentance is a regular part of your life?
You may be thinking, why does the Bible make such a big deal about repentance? Because I don’t feel like I need to repent. I don’t hurt anyone. I am kind to others. I smile when I pass by strangers. When I hear about suffering in the world, I feel some emotions. On top of that, I attend bible studies, small groups, worship services. I am an overall nice person.
So why do I need to repent? For what?
To answer that, I want to look at one verse from Acts 9 along with a couple of other passages.
Acts 9:4 – Jesus says to Saul, why do you persecute me? That’s an odd thing to say. Saul is persecuting Christians, he is not persecuting Jesus directly so why would Jesus, why do you persecute me? Somehow what is done to another person, Jesus says is an action directed toward Christ himself. The church is Jesus’ body so it can make sense theologically why Jesus would say this, but I think it goes deeper than that.
Please turn with me to two other passages with a similar theme —
Matt 25:31-46. Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it unto Jesus. And whatever you didn’t do to the least of these, you didn’t do it unto Jesus.
2 Sam 12 – we won’t turn there but this is the account of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba followed by murder to cover up and when he is confronted by Nathan about his sin. What worse crime can you commit against another human being? Yet, David doesn’t say, how could I commit this sin against Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, having him killed and now sleeping with his wife?
Instead, he says in v13 – how could I sin against God?
Why is there this blending between acts done unto other people and how God perceives these things?
This is a very, very important point. The entire law of the Old Testament can be summed up with 2 commandments. The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind and soul. And the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor.
People try to say the most important thing is having a good prayer time and an intimate devotional life with God. Others say that it is all about world missions and evangelism. Both camps have their verses to back their position. And they try to parse the 2 greatest commandments – see, loving God is the greatest commandment so God is okay for us to spend all of our lives trying to get that part right.
But I want to say with all sincerity, that from my reading of the Bible, both verses by themselves are insufficient. A balanced Christian life knows that both love of God and love of neighbor are always held in tension. As God blesses us, we in turn become a channel of blessing to others. That was Abraham’s call in the OT. And using NT language, we are to be filled with the love of God so that we can love those around us.
So why is this relevant for repentance?
Why do we have to repent? Usually we think we need to repent when our sins are blatantly done unto others.
Acts 9 – Jesus said to Saul, why do you persecute me? Saul was trying to harm Christians. And this harm that Saul was inflicting on other believers, Jesus received as attacks upon himself. In this case, repentance is clear. We know we should repent and say sorry when we do wrong others. Wronging someone else or failing to love our neighbor is tantamount to sinning against God or failing to love God.
But I want to bring back Matt 25 – whatever you did to the least of these, you did it unto Jesus. And whatever you didn’t do to the least of these, you didn’t do it unto Jesus. This passage is harder to swallow. The twist of this passage is that in the end, God will judge people who thought they were loving God and what a shock it will be when they hear God’s judgment – when you failed to love those around you, you failed to love me.
There will be many excuses by religious people on Judgment Day. What do you mean I didn’t love you Jesus? I didn’t see you on the streets or I would have surely stopped and served you or at least offered a prayer. Our standard for repentance is, if I do something wrong, I will repent. This would mean, some of us would repent often but some of us wouldn’t need to repent that often because we are good kids. We don’t offend too many people and we are not addicted to things that others struggle with.
But if this passage becomes our standard, then we can’t get away with the excuse that we don’t need to repent much. Every day, in the course of a day, I wonder how many times I sin by failing to recognize someone in need right next to me. When I read the news and I see people suffering, I wonder how many opportunities God is giving to me to intercede for those people in need or send some money, no matter how small, but I totally miss it because my eyes are blind to the needs and burdens of others.
What is sin at its core? Sin is more than just wrongful acts we do toward others. Sin is selfishness. It’s when our eyes have turned inward, when all we think about is ourselves. Of course, we won’t hurt anyone and we will have a healthy dose of church or bible study or community service so that we can feel good about ourselves. But when those overt acts are over, we revert back to sin. Meaning we easily become consumed with ourselves. Sin is our identity. That is who we are.
And because we are sinners who are only concerned with ourselves, I wonder how many sins we commit without even realizing it. Sins of omission – sins that we commit because we ought to do something but we fail to do it. We ought to love our neighbor, not in an abstract sense, but the person in our dorm who we are annoyed by, that is who we are to love. And when we fail to do something like that, nobody notices. But that choice to ignore God’s prompting causes a hardening of our hearts.
We turn a blind eye when we look at people around us because we know that everyone is needy and I can’t afford to sacrifice my time for others because my grad school is at stake. Isn’t that our subconscious calculation? And we do it so well that we don’t even notice that we have become spiritually blind. And our ears that once could hear the cries of the people around us have grown deaf. And the voice of God is no longer real and personal. And before you know it, you are just practicing empty religion.
This is why we need to repent. This is why we need a Savior. It is not just a one-time decision to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Because though we are saved once, we still live in the presence of sin and we fall back into our old ways of selfishness and self-concern.
Sin is relational. Sin is first and foremost against God, as David confesses. So our actions toward others has a direct correlation with our relationship with God. Likewise, our love for others seems to be received by God as an act of love toward Himself.
Loving God and loving neighbor. God invites us to repent so that we can be filled with God’s love and with that supply of God’s fresh empowerment, to step out in love of our neighbor. For what we do unto others, good or bad, we do unto the Lord. Love God and love neighbor – these are 2 sides of the same coin. I have never met a godly person who loves God whose heart is not also bursting with concern for people. Let’s repent and ask God to change us into people who love him and love others.