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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Baptism Before Breakfast


“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." Acts 9:15-16

Those words were written in a letter to a believer called Timothy. They were written by the main character in these first two sections of Acts 9. What was his name? A better question would be, ‘what were his names?’ In Acts 9, he is called, ‘Saul’. In most of the following chapters of Acts, he is called, ‘Paul’. Why? Well, Acts 13:9 is quite instructive. It says, ‘…Saul, who was also called Paul…’ His name wasn’t changed at some point in time like, for example, Jacob’s in the Old Testament, where he was told, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel’ (Genesis 32:28). ‘Saul was also (concurrently) called Paul’. Like many people at that time, Saul/Paul had two names that were interchangeable. ‘Saul’ was his Hebrew name. Hebrew was the main Jewish language of that time, and Saul was a Jew. He was a religious Israelite – a very, religious Israelite, belonging to a hard-line group called the Pharisees. In Acts 9, he is in a Jewish setting. People would have, in the main, addressed him by his Hebrew name. So Luke, in writing this account does the same.

Later, when Saul/Paul goes out into the wider world of the Roman Empire and preaches the gospel to non-Jews, or Gentiles, he would have been, in the main, addressed by his other name of Paul, which would have been a familiar name to those he was then communicating with. It is a Latin (Roman) name, which also has Greek associations. Interestingly, after Acts 13, the name ‘Saul’ is never used again for Saul/Paul, apart from when he is telling people about his Damascus Road conversion, in Acts 22 and Acts 26, and repeating the words of Jesus to him. In fact, it is never used again in the rest of the Bible - which is significant, because the rest of the Bible contains all of his many letters, which make up such a sizeable part of our New Testament. In those letters, he always refers to himself as ‘Paul’. Saul, the Jew, seems to have vanished. Paul, the ‘minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’ (Romans 15:16) is everywhere.

Acts 9, is the story of Saul’s conversion. When does this take place? Sometimes with the Bible accounts it is difficult to judge the time period between events, and this is particularly true of Acts. Comparing this chapter with other scriptures (see Galatians 1 & 2), we can be sure that verses 20 – 31 actually cover a period of several years, but this is far from obvious in Acts 9 itself. But it does tell us when this conversion happened.

The chapter begins with the word, ‘meanwhile’. This informs us that this happens during the period of time described in Acts 8. There, Saul had begun his mission to ‘destroy the church’ in Jerusalem. Believers had fled that city and ‘were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’. It appeared that Saul’s plan was working. But, actually, the only plan that was working was God’s plan. Those that were scattered, engaged in another type of scattering. They sowed precious seed into this new landscape. ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went’ (see Acts 8:1-4). Many others came to faith in Jesus - they believed and were baptised. ‘Meanwhile’, so now, at that time, Saul hadn’t stopped. He was murderously determined to root out what he saw as a corruption of Judaism. He was going to find those, ‘who belonged to the Way’ (v.2). What a great name! We can only speculate as to how it came to be used to describe the early church, but describe them it does. These were the followers of Jesus. Jesus had claimed to be the only way to God in his speech recorded in John 14:6. He said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.

‘The Way’ is used elsewhere in Acts. It is an expression that acknowledges the New Testament church as having grown out of the promises of the Old Testament. Many years later, the converted Saul/Paul, when opposed by unbelieving Jews, would make this claim (Acts 24:14), ‘I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect’. Jesus hadn’t overturned the Old Testament writings. He had fulfilled them. He hadn’t dismissed the Old Testament commandments. He had completed them. They were now signed, sealed and delivered to anyone who would believe this ‘truth’ and find ‘life’. The message of that early church was that the only ‘Way’ to God was not through your own ongoing moral living, but through the already-obedience of God’s Son, Jesus Christ the Lord, and through your faith-only in his name.

Saul hated this message. He loved his religious excellence. The message of Jesus undermined everything he believed. He was going to stop it and no-one could stop him. Except… God… could. As Revelation 19:1 says, ‘‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God…’ Even while, ‘Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples’, ‘meanwhile’, the Lord was breathing out love and mercy and forgiveness towards ‘the worst of sinners’. Why? ‘As an example’. ‘As an example’ of what? ‘An example’ of what our Lord is like. ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. That was the plan. Unlike Saul, God’s plans are never thwarted. His plan remained on track. Saul was derailed.

Acts 9:3 onwards, concisely describes this. I say ‘concisely’, because some of the details are missing. In later chapters of Acts, particularly chapters 22 and 26, we find speeches of Saul/Paul which give us further details. In a previous message I mentioned the doubts that Saul evidently had, which he so successfully masked by his resolute action. In Acts 26:14, he tells of the Lord’s words, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’. His conscience had been pricked. The steadfastness of believers, in the face of the persecution and even the threat of death, had witnessed to him. Some small part of him, at the very least, wondered whether he had got it all wrong about these people and their claims of a risen again Jesus. In God’s hand he was already prepared for this moment. Acts 26 also informs us that when he hears this voice, the language spoken is either Aramaic or Hebrew. He isn’t addressed as ‘Paul’, in his everyday language of Greek, or Latin. He is spoken to as ‘Saul’ the Hebrew and asked a question, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

His heart is prepared. The circumstances are awe-full and awesome! He knows. He knows he is in the presence of someone far superior and supreme. He asks, ‘Who are you Lord?’ The answer contains a multitude of truth. The answer contains the basis upon which thirteen books of our New Testament are written. But there are three things that must have instantly hit Saul, as he stood humbled ‘under God’s mighty hand’ (1 Peter 5:6) that day. 1. Jesus is Lord (as Romans 10:9). 2. The Lord is risen - Jesus is alive. (as Luke 24:34). 3. If you persecute the Lord’s people, you persecute Jesus himself. The Lord answers, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9:5). This is an extra-ordinary truth – one that believers do well to keep in mind. When we are mocked for our faith, we can be rattled. Does it threaten to separate us from what we believe about Jesus? It shouldn’t. Because it makes us one with him. How can this be?

You may not actively follow football, but it is hard to avoid the way it has dominated the headlines recently. The men’s World Cup tournament in Qatar, starts two weeks from today. It only happens once every four years and, for many players, this will be the pinnacle of their careers - perhaps their whole lives. On Wednesday of this week, the English side, Chelsea, were playing the Croatian side, Dinamo Zagreb, in the Champions League. All of a sudden, one of the players, Ben Chilwell, collapsed to the ground in pain. He said that his hamstring just ‘popped’. That is really painful. So, was he pictured in all the newspapers clutching his hamstring? No, he wasn’t. He was pictured with his head in his hands. He knew, in that moment, that his World Cup dreams had disappeared in a puff of smoke. The pain in his upper leg would have been significant, but the pain in his mind was more so. Only one part of his body had suffered an injury, but his whole being was affected. He was holding his head because of the anguish there. So it is with the body of Christ.

‘After all’, as Paul says, in Ephesians 5:29, ‘no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body’. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul speaks of the church, in similar terms, as ‘one body’, ‘made up of’, ‘all its many parts’. He says, ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’. As believers, are we often like that when other believers are suffering? Sadly, I have to confess for myself – not as often as the Bible tells me that I should be. But Jesus is always as he should be. ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body’. When his church is pained, Christ is pained… always.

What an illustration Jesus gives us in Matthew 25:31-46, where he speaks of those end times when he will return, ‘in his glory’. In his language, he wraps himself up in the lives of his believing people, in a way that is breath-taking. Their experience now is his experience now. People are then going to be posed a question about their own treatment of Jesus. Some are going to reply with a question themselves - ‘When did we (do this)?’ The answer will be, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ - ‘whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ These are solemn words, well worthy of our constant attention. How must Saul have felt, that day outside Damascus, when he was confronted with this truth about ‘the Way’? Damned? Condemned? Completely at a loss as to what he could do about his awful predicament? He was that! In the Acts 22 (v.10) narrative, he responds with a question, ‘what shall I do, Lord?’ That account gives the same response from Jesus as we have here in Acts 9:6. Saul had spent his whole life telling God what he was doing for him. But God hadn’t been listening. Now, Jesus was telling Saul what he was going to do in future, and Saul’s ears were opened like never before. This moment really reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, recorded in Luke’s first book, Luke 18:9-14. Saul can be seen as both those men.

Jesus told this parable’, ‘to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else’. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people’’. And this so-called ‘prayer’ continues with boasting about all the good things that he did, and all the bad things he avoided doing’. That was Saul, up until about a minute previously. Now, his prayer must have been different. Now, he would have really prayed. He couldn’t turn to the good things that he had done and the bad things that he had avoided. His world had been turned upside down. Everything he had been doing for God had been revealed by Jesus to have been against God. How his inner voice must have been like that of the tax collector of Jesus’ parable – ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ – ‘God be merciful to me’, ‘the worst of sinners’!

This idea is backed up by what the Lord reveals to the ‘disciple named Ananias’ ‘in a vision’ (v.10). Ananias already knew Saul by report, or ‘reports’. In verse 13, he says, ‘‘Lord’, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem’. Again, what an elevated status the Bible gives to the suffering church of Christ? – ‘your holy people’. But the Lord has told him something remarkable about Saul, in verse 11 – ‘he is praying’. How significant? Well, the implication is huge. This bold, self-righteous Pharisee must have prayed a multitude of prayers in his former life. But something had changed. Saul thought he had often prayed. God didn’t… until now. Now, ‘he is praying’, he tells his disciple, Ananias.

But before Ananias is involved, Saul has to endure three difficult days. The Lord, in his infinite goodness, has held out hope for this wretched man. For the first time in his life, Saul was actually going to do something for God. Verse 6, says, ‘you will be told what you must do’. During those three days of waiting ‘he was blind’ (v.9). Perhaps this was a ‘sign’, an illustration of his spiritual state. Saul had previously believed that he had read and understood every Old Testament word written. Now he knows – he could not see – the sum total of what he had understood was zero – in fact, it was well into minus! So, overwhelmed is Saul that he ‘did not eat or drink anything’.

Some of us might think, ‘I could do with not eating or drinking for three days. I’d lose some weight real fast!’ Saul lost more than that. He got rid of some excess baggage. Spiritually, he had never been so healthy!

In Philippians 3, Saul/Paul writes about his former way of life. He describes himself as ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’. As religious people go, he was the best of the best. He mentions his good works – his obedience of ritual observance from his earliest days – his ‘faultless’ keeping of the Old Testament rules – his ‘zeal’ for God. He surveys all those things and then gives his conclusion – ‘I consider them garbage’. When did that happen? During those three days in Damascus. During that time he effectively died to his former self (as Galatians 2:20). Why? Because Christ had died for him.

Have we been living a life where we have assumed a relationship with God through ideas of our own? We have prayed ‘religiously’ – the name of ‘God’ has been part of our conversation for years – We have read God’s word and tried our best to ‘obey the rules’ – surely, that is what the Bible teaches as the right way to know, and be known of, the Almighty? No. The Bible teaches us that Saul ticked all of those boxes before. Where did that leave him? In God’s sight, he was detestable – ‘the worst of sinners’. Where will that kind of relationship with God leave you? In a very similar place.

What must you do? Do what Saul did. Have your eyes opened. See that way of life as God has always seen it. ‘Consider it garbage’. Bin it – burn it! You don’t need to give yourself a new name. You do need a new life – a new life in Christ Jesus – a relationship with God through Jesus his Son. Join his body of believing people – come to church. That’s ‘the Way’!

In verse 15 we read of Saul being God’s ‘chosen instrument’ to expand this spread of the gospel further outside Israel’s borders. We don’t have time for that today, though. Verses 17-19 tell us of Ananias arrival at the house of Judas, where the Lord had sent him. We can only speculate as to what he must have been thinking given the transformation in Saul’s thinking that he had just been told about – but let’s speculate!! Acts 22:12, tells us that Ananias was ‘a devout’ Jew. I wonder whether his mind was allowed to recall the words of God spoken to his servant Abraham, so long ago – ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ (Genesis 18:14).

When he arrives, he lays his hands upon Saul, and Saul receives the fullness of God’s Holy Spirit, and his blindness is gone forever. Ananias has already accepted Saul as now belonging to God’s New Covenant people. Saul’s past is as irrelevant to Ananias, as it is to Ananias’ Lord. In verse 17, what a wonderful greeting as he walks through that door on Straight Street, and says, ‘Brother Saul’. Before, they were on opposite sides of this great debate about God’s promised Messiah. Now, they are brothers in Christ.

Something else then takes place. So important is this thing, that Saul does it even before breaking his painful fast. Before that, Ananias has some words for Saul. They aren’t in this concise account, but they are in Acts 22. Ananias tells Saul of the great commission that the Lord has for Saul in order that the wider world can hear of the love of God that is in Christ Jesus the Lord. Then he gives him a push. It’s a push into a pool. Acts 22:16 has Ananias saying this, ‘and now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’

Have any of you been through an experience like Acts 9? Probably not so dramatic. But, do you now see, what you couldn’t see before. Have you found peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ his Son. Are you wondering what comes next? If so, then just for you, I’m not going to finish today’s message. I’m going to let Ananias finish it for me!

And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.


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