Introduction: We embark in this week’s notes on the study of the first of Paul’s letters, written to the Thessalonians. Surely any such study of one of Paul’s letters must begin with an account of his conversion from being “Saul, the rabid persecutor of the church,” to Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentile world, who wrote most of the New Testament. Let us study this week, then, how God brought this man to his knees, and changed his mind, heart and will to become His greatly used instrument to spread the Gospel throughout the ancient Roman world.
Monday: read Acts 9:1-4; Acts 22:1-7 & Acts 26:9-14. Clearly, the New Testament considers the conversion of Saul to be one of the greatest moments in biblical revelation, and demonstrates this by recording his conversion not less than three times in the history contained in the book of Acts. As William Harrell puts it in his 1998 Bible notes:
The Word of God emphasizes the great importance of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus by recording three accounts of it. Here, in Acts 9, is the first and fullest account. Then, at Paul’s defense in Jerusalem (Acts 22) we are given another account. The third account is given by Paul when he appeared before Agrippa (Acts 26). The story of such a religiously and educationally refined man as Saul—who so zealously opposed Christianity—being converted to Christ, so richly manifests the triumphs of divine grace over the hardest and most arrogantly sinful heart that it bears telling many times. The importance of Saul’s conversion lies… especially in the fact that nothing in the Bible, except the resurrection of Jesus, better demonstrates the almighty, life transforming power of God than this absolutely committed enemy of Christ being converted into Christ’s greatest champion.
Meditate and Pray: Let us thank God for His power to tear down the most impregnable human walls of unbelief. No one can resist His will when it comes to effectually calling sinners to repentance and faith! No wonder we glory in the life-changing power of the Cross throughout uman history. Here is a hymn by John Bowring (1825), which sounds this note of victory so clearly;
In the cross of Christ I glory,
When the woes of life o’ertake me,
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Tuesday: read Acts 9:5-9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1. Though Saul is blinded by the brilliant light from Heaven, and must be led by his companions after his encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, he nevertheless begins to “see” things which had hitherto been hidden from his hard-hearted mind. For example, in his first question, “Who are You Lord?”, Saul immediately confesses that the One he sees in Heaven is indeed the “Lord,” the only true God, Creator of Heaven and earth and immediately bows the knee when the voice from Heaven identifies itself as “Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” From now on, this Jesus whom he had so maligned and blasphemed would be his “Lord.” In every one of his letters, beginning with the earliest Christian writing of the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 1:1), the Apostle would never fail to identify Jesus by the personal Name, “Lord,” Maker of Heaven and earth!
Meditate and Pray: Thank God for the work of His Holy Spirit, effectually calling sinners like Saul into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ. Ask God to make such converting work the highlight of your Lord’s Days, when your church gathers to sing of this mighty converting work, as hymn # 394 from the Trinity Hymnal encourages us to do:
This day at Thy creating Word
This day the Lord for sinners slain
This day the Holy Spirit came
All praise to God the Father be,
Wednesday: read Acts 9:5-9 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17. Think of the pain in blinded Saul’s heart as he contemplated the identification of Jesus, his new “Lord,” with those he had so abused and with the Church he had so hated. This is the beginning of the end of Saul, the self-righteous foe of the Church of Christ. All the faces of the Christians whom he had beaten, arrested and condemned to death arise before his mind’s eye: Faces which Saul now recognizes as shining with the Heavenly glory of this Jesus whom Saul now worships! Talk about turning Saul’s world upside down! The light on the faces of those Christians – whose calm demeanor under persecution had so enraged him – now revealed as to their source in the very face of Jesus Christ! No wonder he calls himself in 1 Timothy 1:15 “the worst of sinners” as he considers the enormity of his crime! Yet, what mighty Grace that could so profoundly change the worst enemy the Church of Christ has ever known into its greatest supporter!
Meditate and Pray: Lord, we would ask for many foes of your suffering Church to be converted in our day. Grant to many who hate you and your people the Grace of real repentance, so that they, like Saul, will bow the knee with changed hearts, minds and wills, hating the very sins which they used to celebrate. Melt their hearts with the knowledge of how good, forbearing and longsuffering you have been in your dealings with them. Cause many to want to be done with the dreadful disease of sin, especially that of hating you and your people. May they say with the Psalmist, “My sin is always before me. Against You, You only have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight – that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (Psalm 51:3-4). Amen.
Thursday: read Acts 22:6-11 and 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3. Saul not only seeks the identity of the Speaker in the Heavenly vision, asking “Who are you Lord?” He also seeks specific knowledge as to what he is to do in Acts 22:10. Why is this important? Because such a question is proof that Saul’s conversion includes not only illumination and understanding of the truth, but also surrender of Saul’s will and consecration of Saul’s hands and feet for doing God’s will. His new-found faith expresses itself not only in saving head knowledge; but also in action. How does the Apostle give thanks for the very same thing in the conversion of the Thessalonians? He says in 1 Thess. 1:3: We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditate and Pray: Lord, help us to maintain a true confession of faith, which not only cognitively grasps the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but which also enters at once into His willing service. Help us to remember every day of our lives your legitimate claim to Lordship over every area, every sphere of our lives. Amen.
Reaffirm that you cast yourself down and submit to the Lordship of Christ with the words of hymn # 491 in our Trinity hymnals:
Take me, O my Father, take me;
Fruitless years with grief recalling,
Once the world’s Redeemer, dying,
Fri./Sat./Sun.: read Acts 7:59-8:1 and Acts 22:6-11. We have seen how God’s powerful converting work in Saul’s life began with his surrender and consecration. As B. B. Warfield wrote of Acts 22:10: Surrender and consecration, we may take it then, are the twin key-notes of the Christian life: “What shall I do Lord?” the one question which echoes through all the corridors of the Christian heart.
Well, then, how did God work such a spirit of submission to the Lord Jesus into this hitherto stubborn, rebellious foe of the Christian church, Saul? To be sure, He could have done it as a raw miracle, converting Saul simply as a demonstration of His own monergistic power – just as He can make “even the stones” praise His Name. But, most often, God works through human instruments, using the testimony of even Christian martyrs to begin the work of conviction and then conversion in the hearts of men like Saul. Well then, ask yourselves the question: ‘Who could have been the human instrument leading to Saul’s conversion?’ The answer is Stephen, the first Christian martyr in Acts 7. As one scholar put it, speaking of his testimony before Saul as he died in Acts 7:59-8:1, and then Saul’s vision of the same Heavenly Lord Jesus which Stephen had seen:
This speech Saul of Tarsus heard. From him the account of it may have been derived. And he never forgot it. Of that we may feel assured. Instead, rather, that argument formed the basic outline of the life-teaching of Paul, the converted Saul. Stephen had said in substance, “Jesus whom you crucified was the “Lord” in human flesh”; and then, right there on the spot, “being full of the Holy Ghost, and gazing intently up into Heaven,” Stephen “saw the Glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” and cried out, declaring what he saw.
In the same way, at length, Saul of Tarsus himself also saw in his vision on the way to Damascus, – saw Jesus standing as the incarnate Lord in the midst of the Heavenly Glory, and saw that as such He was the Messiah whom the prophets had foretold. And it was all this, set in one solid event before his mind, which revolutionized his whole mental and moral being in an instant.
Meditate and Pray: Oh that the Lord would make our testimony to the Lordship of Christ as effective and life-changing for others as Stephen’s was for Saul. Ask the Lord to give you and your church this kind of effective witness with the words of hymn # 452:
The vision of a dying world is vast before our eyes;
We feel the heartbeat of its need, we hear its feeble cries:
Lord Jesus Christ, revive Your Church in this, her crucial hour!
Lord Jesus Christ, awake Your Church with Spirit given power.
The savage hugs a god of stone and fears descent of night;
The city dweller cringes lone amid the garish light:
Lord Jesus Christ, arouse Your Church to see their mute distress!
Lord Jesus Christ, equip Your Church with love and tenderness.
Today, as understanding’s bounds are stretched on every hand,
O clothe Your Word in bright new sounds, and speed it o’er the land;
Lord Jesus Christ, empower us to preach by every means!
Lord Jesus Christ, embolden us in near and distant scenes.
The warning bell of judgment tolls, above us looms the cross;
Around are ever-dying souls – how great, the loss!
O Lord, constrain and move Your Church the glad news to impart!
And Lord, as now You stir Your Church, begin within my heart.