Published by Stanley Pouw in 2023 · 15 January 2023
John Newton went to sea and like most sailors of his day, he lived a debauched and rebellious life. For several years, he worked on slave ships, capturing slaves for sale to the plantations in the New World. Eventually, he became the captain of his own slave ship. A combination of a storm at sea one night coupled with his reading of a testimony of Christianity eventually led to his conversion.
He became a leader in the evangelical movement in the 18th century. And along with men like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and William Wilberforce, he was a force for the Christian faith. On his tombstone is written, “John Newton, once an infidel, was by the mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ restored and pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
He wrote the hymn we all love, Amazing Grace, a grace that he had experienced. There is a lot of talk about transformation. There’s a lot of talk about becoming better than you are, a lot of superficial options: a new wardrobe, or surgeries, or diets, or relocation, or new friends, or cultivating a better self-image. But none of that is capable of creating a transformation. But Christianity is all about complete transformation.
People can’t change themselves. Jeremiah 13:23 says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good who habitually do evil.” Jeremiah 2:22 says, “For though they wash you with lye and take you much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before me.” Jeremiah 9:4-5 says, “Everyone has taught their tongue to speak lies.”
Jeremiah also said, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Isaiah 1 says, “Man is sick from the top of his head to the sole of his feet, and everywhere in-between.” And yet, people long for transformation. They long to be different, to be rescued from their own wretchedness as well as their external circumstances.
There is only one who can totally transform a person on the inside and then on the outside and that is God through the gospel. Let us look at one such remarkable transformation. Open your Bible to Acts 9. If you ever question the sovereignty of God in salvation, the question should disappear in the story of Saul. Here is an illustration that God is the only initiator of salvation.
His name is Saul of Tarsus. Let me read you the story in Acts 9:10 -17, “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying.
12 And in a vision Saul has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” 13 Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”15 But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” 17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.” Not only a miracle appearance of Jesus on the Road to Damascus in a blinding, heavenly light, but a miraculous word from the Lord to a man named Ananias in a vision; and another vision given to blind Saul introducing him to Ananias.
This is a supernatural event. This is a conversion like no other conversion. But then, we don’t have another apostle after the original 12. So something dramatic and heavenly and miraculous and first person from the Lord Jesus had to happen if an apostle was going to be added to the original ranks. Saul from that day forward, is completely transformed. Acts 9 gives us an initial picture of that transformation.
And we see parallels here to our own experience of conversion. And while we don’t have a miraculous conversion, it is still initiated by God. Your conversion and your salvation was initiated by God from heaven. Remember Nicodemus asking Jesus, “How is it that a man can be born from above?” and Jesus says, “Well, it’s a Spirit birth. And the Spirt blows where He will, when He will, on whom He will.”
What happened to Paul after that work began also is an illustration of what happens in the life of every believer, minus the conversation with the Lord, minus the visions, minus the light from heaven, minus the actual presence of Christ. There are still parallels in what happened to Paul that are our own experience as well. That makes this a really wonderful passage to look at.
The first thing in a transformed life is a clear introduction to Christ. Paul knew the gospel because no one can be saved without the gospel. In Romans 10 Paul said, “How will they hear without a preacher? They can’t call upon the Lord if they don’t know Him. How will they call on one whom they have not heard? How will they hear unless there’s a preacher? Blessed are the feet of those who are sent.”
Faith comes by hearing the truth about Christ. In those days, the very movement of Christianity was called the Way, because of its exclusivity. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Christianity is the only way. There is no salvation in any other, the only way, the truth, and the life. It was the narrowness and the exclusivity of Christianity that Paul was well aware of, and there was no other way, including Judaism.
This is where the transformation begins with an understanding of the gospel and a confession of Jesus as Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If any man is in Christ he’s a new creation.” So if you’re looking for a changed life from the inside out, you can look only to Christ where there is transformation. The New Testament says, the one who is dead in sins becomes alive to righteousness.
Follow Paul’s response in verse 10, “There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’” The Lord said, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision Ananias come in and lay hands on him, so that he regains his sight.’”
This is absolutely amazing. The Lord gives to Ananias a vision of Paul, and gives to Paul a vision of Ananias. This is God miraculously creating a basis in which these two men can meet. Now Saul is blind. He’d been blinded by the blazing light of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he in that blindness is brought into Damascus and left there in the house of someone named Judas.
Three days of what? You might say three days of fasting and praying because notice at the end of verse 11, “The Lord says to Ananias, ‘Go to the house. You’ll find a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.’” Here is the second thing that happens to someone who is transformed, they immediately enter into dependence and communion with God. Really an amazing thing.
Over in Acts 22 where Paul gives his testimony, listen to what he says about Ananias. “A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the law, and well-spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” Ananias, after this scene, disappears completely from the holy Bible and is gone as suddenly as he appeared, and we don’t know anything more about him.
But God plucked him up to use him providentially as His tool in the initial days of the life of Paul. So for Saul there is a cry out for communion with God. He used to pray the prayers of a Pharisee. Now he prays in blind, helpless dependency. He’s trying to sort out what just happened to him. Prayer is simply the soul of a Christian moving under the pressure of the presence of God.
Everything he once hoped in, everything he put his trust in, everything he worked for, all religious attainments, all spiritual accolades were manure. He’s crying out for everything he needs because everything he had is gone. “I counted them all as lost,” he says in Philippians 3:7. And prayer is not a one-sided conversation, and Paul learns it very fast, because Ananias is given a corresponding vision.
Paul has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. So Ananias knows to go see Paul. Paul knows Ananias is coming, even though Paul is blind. This is an indication that God is in absolute and total control of the thoughts and minds of men. He is directing each of these men. He is bringing them together. This is the work of God.
Salvation is the work of God: miraculously in the case of Paul, providentially in the case of all of us. So God has ordered the event, and we see, first of all, the transformation begins with a knowledge of Christ, and then it continues with fervency in prayer. A new communion, a new air to be breathed, the very presence of God. We cry out to Him for all that we need, and He hears and answers.
And there is a third reality in salvation that has to do with the action that we’re called to perform. Verse 13, “Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem.’ He’s saying, “Lord, should I really go and find this guy? Verse 14, “He has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”
The idea of going to find Saul seems like madness because Ananias has no idea about the Damascus Road encounter. Jewish refugees had been scattered out of Jerusalem and Judea. And no doubt, there had been information sent by these persecuted believers. So the evil reputation of Saul has proceeded him, and Ananias isn’t sure that he really wants to do what God is telling him to do in this vision.
The Lord takes a little of the fear out of this by saying, “He’s praying.” So he doesn’t rebuke Ananias. He encourages him with the fact that he’s praying. Verse 15-16, “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
You have nothing to fear because I’m commanding you to go. You have nothing to fear because he’s a chosen vessel of Mine to become a preacher of the very gospel he had persecuted. He’s an instrument of election.” The call to ministry is a call from God, just as the call to salvation was a call from God. He is, in a unique way, miraculously called personally by the Savior, to be an apostle.
In Galatians 1:1, Paul says that he is an apostle, not sent from men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead.” Paul, an apostle, is a chosen vessel by God to bear the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to preach the gospel before the Gentiles, and also kings as we see at the end of Acts; and also the sons of Israel. And he ended up as a missionary and apostle to the nations.
He’s chosen, and he’s going to suffer. “And I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” He’s not going to be the one persecuting others, he’s going to be the one suffering. His whole life is turned completely upside-down. He is now a believer in the One he persecuted. He is now confessed Him as Lord. He is now acting in obedience to Him.
In Acts 22, Paul gives his testimony, Ananias says, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One (that’s the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ) and to hear an utterance from His mouth, for you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. Now get up and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
Verse 17-18, “So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized.”
What does baptism symbolize? Our burial, and the death of Christ, and our resurrection to newness of life in Christ. But also, it symbolizes our union with all other believers, right? We’re all one body,” Ephesians 4. So baptism not only symbolized his personal burial with Christ and resurrection in Christ, but it symbolized his union with the fellowship. Apparently, Ananias baptized him. He has a new family.
Ephesians 2:19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s family. You have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building fitted together is growing into a holy temple to the Lord in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Let us pray.