The Grace of God
By Nonso Ukeka
Key Verse 9:15
“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.’”
Saul was, as he described himself, a Hebrew of Hebrews. He thought himself as a great man. He was born in Tarsus, yet he studied under and was thoroughly trained in the law by Gamaliel— one of Israel’s most respected and notable members of the religious senate. Saul became so zealous as a religious Jew that he rose to the ranks of becoming a Pharisee at a relatively young age— something not many Jews in his day could brag about. When he began his murderous campaign against the early Christians and their teachings about Jesus, he gained worldwide notoriety. Saul considered Christians as heretics and blasphemers of the worst kind. He thought that they were spreading lies about the Jewish religion and tradition, and they had to be stopped at any cost. Christians all over trembled at the name of Saul, and at the same time the religious leaders were glad when they heard that Saul was in town. He gained the respect and recognition of the leaders and elders. They thought that he was truly a blessing from God. Saul thought that God was really showing him mercy by enabling him to jail and kill the Christians. Saul was absolutely on top of the world, and there was nobody who could knock him down.
The fact of the matter is that Saul was actually in danger. He had launched a campaign against God Almighty without realizing it. Saul was not attacking and persecuting people; he was attacking the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of kings, God’s holy and anointed One Jesus. Saul was ignorant; he was unbelieving; he was so filled with arrogance and his own self-righteousness that he could not see that he was running head-first towards destruction. His pride blinded him so much that he couldn’t even accept God’s love and forgiveness through Stephen as he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against [him]” when Saul approved of his murder. But God heard Stephen’s prayer. God did indeed loved Saul and was ready to offer him mercy. Stephen successfully planted small seeds of faith in Saul’s heart, and even though he was not yet ready to accept the grace of God in his life, this grace stalked him everywhere he went. Saul must’ve resisted bitterly in his heart as he continued his rampage against the Christians. But grace hounded him even more, day-after-day, getting him to a point where he would no longer be able to resist. And on that faithful day on his way to Damascus, Saul came face-to-face with God’s love and grace when he had a personal encounter with Jesus the Son of God.
Let’s read verse 5, “’Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.” As Saul was on his way to imprison Christians in Damascus, the Bible tells us that he was suddenly accosted by a great light from heaven. The experience was so powerful that he was knocked to the ground. This was an overwhelming experience. Without warning or time to prepare, he suddenly found himself in the presence of God Almighty. In that very moment, he realized that he was a great sinner before the pure and holy God. As great as he once thought he was, he suddenly realized that his great acts were worthless before God. All the good that he thought he was doing in that very moment was nothing but filth. His whole life was filth before God. It dawned on him that just as sudden as the light flashed down from heaven, he should’ve suddenly been struck down dead. But God didn’t strike Saul dead. He didn’t even rebuke Saul. Instead, God lovingly called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This was God reaching out to a lost man, begging him to turn around, to come and be rescued. Jesus was calling out, “Saul, what have you been doing? Where are you? I’ve been calling for you.” For Saul, this was a moment of undeniable love from God. This was not the God that he knew. This was not the God that he thought he served. How can a God, who knows how sinful I am call out to me like this, rather than destroy me? “Who are you, Lord?” He asked. This is when the Lord can finally reveal himself to Saul and to help him see the error of his ways. He answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The gospel message he heard from Stephen was finally confirmed in his heart. All along he had been fighting against the Lord by persecuting Christians. But even greater than that was the war that was waged against God inside his heart. But in this moment, he realizes that he is unable to fight anymore, and simply surrenders to Jesus. It was now time to help him put his old life behind and give him a new one. Finally, Saul is now ready to fully receive the grace of Jesus in his life. Only Jesus is able to offer Saul the grace of forgiveness through the repentance of sin, and the grace of mission through a life of obedience by faith.
When we think about grace, what usually comes to mind? Normally, people think only of the word ‘favor” or receiving what one does not deserve. So they think of selfish things that are entirely to their own benefit— mundane things even physical things. The grace or favor of receiving what we do not deserve is entirely when it comes to God’s forgiveness because forgiveness is undeserved. But God’s grace to Saul and to us is so much more. God’s grace is a way of life for the repentant sinner. For Saul it was revealed in discipline. It was also revealed in suffering. Why? Because it transformed a reviled killer like Saul into the revered saint whose testimony is shared all around the world to this day. It was this grace that completely transformed a destructive man into one of greatest shepherd leaders in history, protecting many in the church from the attacks of Satan. It was this grace that transformed a man who once was on a war path against Jesus, into a man who considered himself a slave of Christ and his gospel. As we go through the passage, let’s consider carefully how God shed his grace on Saul and how easy it is to take the grace of God in our own lives for granted.
First, God’s grace on Saul was revealed by making him helpless, let’s read verse 6, “’Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” Paul didn’t like to be told what to do. But the first thing we see is that he needed to learn to humble himself and be told what to do. This was Saul’s first direction and a challenge of faith. And what was this challenge about? Saul had to now learn to listen to God. He had to now learn to completely depend on God. No longer can he go off on his own to do things out of his zealous emotions. He had to learn to wait on God. He had to learn to trust God, and let God do whatever he wanted with him. Saul initially travelled to Damascus with a goal and a plan in mind. He wanted to capture and imprison the Christians who had escaped Jerusalem, and he knew how he would go about doing it. He had become an expert Christian hunter. In his ignorance, he thought that being able to capture Christians was God’s grace in his life. He thought he was doing all of this for God. But this is far from the truth. Saul was acting only on his own human, emotional zeal. All through his life Saul studied hard and worked even harder. He only knew how to rely on his own intellect and strength to go wherever he wanted in life; to do whatever he wanted to do. Others also came to rely on Saul’s skills as well. But it was the grace of God that came and knocked this prideful man down from the top of his own personal world. It was the true grace of God that made him helpless as a child again. When Saul met Jesus, he realizes that there’s absolutely nothing he could do to help himself against this Holy God let alone serve the Almighty God. His heart was left wondering what he should do. It was Christ’s marvelous grace that chose not only to forgive Saul, but also tells him, “Get up, I will now tell you what you must do.”
Second, God’s grace on Saul was revealed by making him blind. Let’s read verse 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.” In addition to being helpless, God also helped Saul by making him physically blind. All his life Saul thought he was anything but blind. He thought he understood the world around him very clearly, and even more he thought he understood the Scriptures and knew God. For the most part of his life he memorized the Law and followed it perfectly, so he was able to clearly see how wonderful being a Jew was and how wretched others were. Even as a Pharisee, he was able to clearly see the power and respect that his religious knowledge gave him. But the fact was that Saul was truly the one who was blind. In his blindness, when he looked at the Son of God, he saw a heretic. He was unable to see his glory. In his blindness, when he looked at the disciples he saw them as a nuisance, worshippers of a fake messiah who was hung on the cross. He could only see hatred and disdain for people like them. He was as blind as any other man. His pride, arrogance and self-righteousness made him too blind to see God, or the kingdom of God at work.
Let’s read 9, “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.” For three days, scripture tells us that Saul did not eat or drink anything. What was going on with Saul during those three days? For a man who had become completely helpless and blind, dependent on the mercies of anyone around, three days must’ve felt like an eternity. It was plenty of time for him to truly contemplate all that he had done in his life, his mistakes, his regrets, his sins. For three days, he must have replayed all the bad things he had done to others and to God. He remembered the instructions and advise that his teacher gave him, which he wished he had listened to. His heart and mind must’ve poured over all the Scripture he had known, which now he knew he did not truly understand. Saul must have battled with his own shame and guilt for all his sin against God. And Saul finally became a broken man, inside and out. So in these three days which God gave him to think things over in his blind state he grieved heavily over his sins. What wonderful grace of God that was in his life!
Day after day, as he was tormented by who he had been, and what he had done, he was also forced to fully depend on the grace of God. He learned to let go of his own righteousness, and fully embrace the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He had heard this gospel before but had rejected it as absurd. But now while he was blind, God gave him the grace to contemplate the wretchedness of his own soul and the holiness of Jesus who didn’t kill him for his crimes but who died for his sins and spared him on the road to Damascus. So during those three days, he accepted the Lord’s forgiveness. Ultimately, he learned to fix his spiritual eyes on the one who is calling him. Night after night, he wondered what plans the Lord had in mind for him. He thought to himself, “What am I doing here? When will God restore me?” But this too was God’s grace as he learned patience and how to wait on the Lord. It prepared his heart for God’s mission. As Saul waited, he fasted and prayed.
Third, God’s grace on Saul was revealed as he used Ananias to extend to him a helping hand. Let’s read verses 10-11, “In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. 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.’” Ananias was one of the people Saul initially came into town to throw into jail. Now Saul was completely dependent on this man. This is his grace of humility. In the past, it used to be the most difficult thing for Saul to be in the presence, let alone accept the help, of a man like this. Ananias was a simple and humble man, he had no credentials to his name. He only believed in the name of Jesus. Now Saul would have to depend on this man who he was ready to persecute, just days ago. Saul needed Ananias not only to help him receive his sight, but he also needed Ananias to bless him. Saul needed Ananias to walk him in this new way of life. Ananias would be the one who would help Saul transition into the family of God, as people were still fearful of him. Ultimately, Saul needed Ananias because God had called on Ananias to serve him. God would reveal his will to Ananias concerning Saul, because He wanted him to become much like a shepherd to Saul.
Let’s read verses 15-16, “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. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’” At first when Jesus called Ananias to heal Saul and bless him, Ananias was reluctant. (13-14) But why? Well simply put, he was afraid. As great as a man he was, in that moment, all he could think of was the type of man Saul used to be. He became anxious over his life, he was fearful for his family and friends. Ananias just allowed fear to cloud his heart and took his eyes off Christ when he thought about the terror of Saul. In a brief lapse of judgment, Ananias had also forgotten the grace of God for his own life as well. But just as he was gracious to Saul, the Lord continued to be gracious to Ananias as well. Rather than rebuking Ananias, he simply shares his heart’s desire for Saul with him. He tells Ananias, I have chosen Saul. He reveals to Ananias the life mission to which Saul would be called to.
Why does Jesus share so much detail with Ananias about Saul’s future? Because he wanted Ananias to overcome his fear and out of his love and gratitude for Jesus, to work together with him to bring Saul into the sheepfold. God is always gracious to all of us who believe in Jesus. He calls us to join in his life-saving work as he gathers people to himself. The Lord sends many people into our lives to serve his kingdom and his glory. How easy it is for us to complain, or to fear or despair when God calls us to sacrifice ourselves, even our lives to serve someone like Saul, or someone difficult to serve, or someone not easily liked. Why do we complain? Do we think we are better? Do we think we deserve Jesus’ grace more than they do? On the other hand, we who have received the Lord’s grace should repent and always be ready to share God’s broken heart for lost souls, and share his grace especially with the least deserving. Who knows how many Sauls God may call us to pray for, or to give the word of God to. From this, we can learn that it’s important to always remember the grace of God in our own lives; only in doing so are we able to serve the kingdom of God with our lives.
Lastly, the grace of God was revealed in Saul’s life when he became a part of Christ’s holy family. Let’s read verses 17-19, “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.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” First, we see that Ananias deeply repented and forgave Saul and accepted him as a brother. When Ananias called Saul, “brother,” he truly meant it. He saw Saul as a fellow recipient of God’s grace, just as he received it. He no longer held any grudges or resentment towards him. God really worked in Ananias’ heart and because of that, Ananias in turn was able to help Saul to fully receive grace and forgiveness.
First thing he does is to pray for Saul and to give him the name of Jesus. This was a real blessing because Saul would learn to rely and hold on to this name as he began his journey of life in Christ— a life of grace and a life of faith and a life of mission. In his life in Christ, as a man redeemed by grace, Saul would learn that all that he was, and all that he did was because of this name— Jesus the Savior— and his grace. This was a firm confirmation in his heart about who Jesus is to Saul, as Lord. It was the Lord who had given him back his sight.
Next Ananias blesses Saul by baptizing him, beginning his new life as a Christian. Ananias really helped Saul as he took his first steps as a Christian. It was God’s grace as Saul found true love and friendship among other believers. They would be able to encourage him, they would be able to study the scriptures with him and help him grow in faith. Ultimately, it was through the fellowship of believers that Saul, who later became known as Paul, was able to proclaim the name of Jesus to the gentile world and to suffer for his name, through whom, even we now have the gospel over 2000 years later. Let us continue to thank God for his grace in our lives and be ready and willing to serve others out of the love and gratitude in our hearts for God. Let us also pray for those who have not encountered Jesus personally in their lives, that he may meet with them and transform them through his marvelous grace. Amen