Qualities of Gospel-Saving Faith – Acts 21:37-22:21
Sometimes people come up to me and say, “I don’t think I’m saved. Not anymore.” Then they’ll list why they feel this way. Usually it’s because they feel like they’re not changing. They hate themselves for that and assume God must too. As a result, God would not waste His time on someone like that, right?
Then people read Paul’s conversion story which is very dramatic, complete with flashes of light, visions and a voice and they think, “My testimony is boring. That’s never happened to me. Maybe I’m not saved then?” Maybe you felt like that these weeks in small group when you had to share your testimony. Some people have testimonies of how they came to Christ radically and suddenly. It was a 180% turn. Others of us have testimonies of how we came to Christ slowly and gradually. It was a couple of degrees at a time!
If Luke only gave us Paul’s salvation story in the book of Acts, we would have reason to feel that this is a paradigm for everybody. However, we have sexually altered African finance minister getting saved (Acts 8). How? By reading Isaiah. Remember Lydia? Businesswoman who was selling purple cloth getting saved. How? No miracles or visions. Paul did a Bible study with her in Acts 16. There is only one way to Heaven, which is through Christ, but there are many ways people can come to Christ!
Whether dramatic or not, all of our testimonies are amazing not because our circumstances of how we came to Christ were amazing, but because the Christ who saved someone suddenly and the Christ who saved someone more through a process is amazing. The song is not “Amazing testimony how sweet the sound!” Right? It’s “AMAZING GRACE!” By the way, I think all believers are saved through a process anyway. Even Paul had heard Stephen’s speech, knew of Christianity somewhat before he finally came to experience it for himself.
As we pick up the story at the end of Acts 21, we find Paul arrested (as usual) in Jerusalem. As Alvin said last week, he’s living out his life verse in Acts 20:24. He is headed to Rome and that is where the book of Acts ends. Jesus’ promise that they will be witnesses in Jerusalem first and to uttermost parts of the earth (like Rome) comes true by the end of the book.
What was the secret of Christianity sweeping the Roman Empire? Did the disciples join a movement? Did they all sign up? Really it comes down one thing. The secret of all of it is because they were converted. They weren’t bad people who got better. They were dead people who became alive. They didn’t take up a religion or a fad. They were taken up by Someone. And the Christian life is about Him who keeps taking you up, transforming you inside-out again and again by the Gospel story.
Today we’re going to look at Paul’s conversion story. This is the second of three times he shares it in the book of Acts. 25 years later, Paul is still sharing it. It was like it happened yesterday for him. Are there elements of his conversion that is true for everyone’s conversion? I believe so. Everyone here needs to know they are converted. It will be sad if you have been attending a church for so long and the Lord says at the end, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:21). Secondly, sometimes we don’t know what we should be looking for in someone who professes faith. Is it a mere profession of faith or does this person have a possession of it? How do we know the Gospel has reached and saved a person? And more than that, what does it mean to live deeply converted lives? Because we don’t graduate from salvation and the Gospel, we grow deeper into it. Let’s start with this, having Gospel-saving faith means:
I. Relationship over religion (vv. 1-9, 11-14, 16)
Before we look at these verses, let’s see how Paul gets to share this testimony at the end of Acts 21. By the time he reached the top of the steps, Paul must have presented a sorry figure—bruised, battered, begrimed, and disheveled. But, as so frequently in Acts, he is quickly in command of the situation. He talks to the Roman official in Greek. He’s surprised because all this time he thought Paul was someone else. Besides, Greek was the language of cultured, educated men, not common criminals such as he assumed Paul to be.
Apparently, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, some three years previously, an Egyptian adventurer appeared in Jerusalem, claiming to be a prophet, and led a large band of followers out to the Mount of Olives. There he told them to wait until, at his word of command, the walls of the city would fall flat; then they would march in, overthrow the Roman garrison, and take possession of the place. But Felix, procurator of Judaea, sent a body of troops against them; they killed several and took others prisoner.The Egyptian himself discreetly disappeared. Those whom he had duped would cherish no friendly feelings toward him. Now, thought the tribune, the impostor had reappeared and the people were venting their rage on him.
Paul says “No, I’m no terrorist or Egyptian, would you give me an opportunity to speak to the people?” If I were Paul, I would ask this guy for a chair, maybe his shoulder to lean on and cry, a drink of water perhaps? But not Paul. He figures this might be the last time he can share and what could he possibly share at this point? His testimony. What do we mean by relationship over religion?
a) Being moral is insufficient
Notice v.1: “Brothers and fathers.” This is the first of six defense speeches of Paul. He will defend him himself as a messenger of the Gospel and the message itself. The phrase “Hebrew language” most likely means he talked to them in Aramaic, which everyone knew. Notice he doesn’t say, “Liars, hypocrites, white-washed graves, listen to me” (actually next week Paul will get really ticked and curse at a priest). He’s very polite and courteous after getting beaten up. And where does he get this idea of addressing them as “brothers and fathers?” The last time this phrase is used is back in Acts 7. Stephen, before he got stoned, uses this. I think Stephen’s speech really made an impact on an unsaved Saul at that time! You never know how God is using things you say or do in the lives of unbelievers.
He says, “I am a Jew.” Though I was foreign born (being born in Tarsus in Cilicia—modern day Turkey), I was raised right here in Jewville—Jerusalem. Not only that, I studied in the Harvard of Jews, being trained by the top rabbi, named Gamaliel. This means he was not just an ordinary Jew, but a Jew of Jews, carefully and thoroughly instructed in the Old Testament law and the rabbinic traditions. He was a Pharisee and as a Pharisee, they memorized large portions of the Old Testament, broke down the OT into about 600 some laws and Paul says he kept them perfectly…so how can you charge me with hating Judaism?
A lot of people say, “It’s enough to just live a nice, moral life.” No one has lived a more moral life than Paul here and he needed to be converted. It doesn’t matter if your parents are Christian. God doesn’t have grandchildren. It doesn’t matter if you grew up going to church. Going to church doesn’t make you a believer just like going to McDonalds make you a Big Mac. I was very devout and sincere before Christ saved me. I thought God would grade me on a curve because I believed my good deeds outweighed by bad deeds. But God grades on Pass or Fail and we all have failed. How good is good enough for God? You have to be perfect (James 2:10)! And only one person fits that!
It must have been hard for Paul to talk about his past, as he killed Christians. But he shares it. Looking back Paul says, “I was moral externally, but I was angry and full of hatred. I thought I was so good, but in reality I was the worst there was. My external resume was not enough for me.” Later in Philippians he says his resume is “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8). The American equivalent, pardon me, is “crap.” The heart of sin is building your identity on yourself instead of on God and his grace. When you become a believer, you know not only that you are a sinner, but that all your good deeds were not good enough. You knew you were a crooked stick before but not as crooked as the next guy. You had comparative righteousness. But when you know Christ, you come up against the straightest stick in the Universe and realize you are more crooked than you ever thought you were. And your righteousness is not your resume anymore, but Christ’s resume that is given to you. Look down at v.14: “to see the Righteous One.” There is only one who can truly be called Righteous!
Then notice in v.16, Paul gets baptized, an outward demonstration of inward change. In the Jewish mind, only dirty pagan Gentiles got baptized and now Paul, the Jew of Jews, gets baptized, saying, “We are all the same. We all need salvation and our goodness is not good enough. We all need to call on His name and gets our sins washed by His blood.”
But we don’t live like that, even as believers. Today sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking God accepts us based on our post-salvation resume or we are better than others because of some standards we set. I did my quiet time. I don’t smoke. I haven’t missed church like that person. I understand the Gospel of grace better than he does. I must be a better person! Or if you are not meeting your standards, you think, I must be a bad Christian!
How is your walk? Oh, I’m doing my quiet times, we say. Good, but how is your walk? Don’t reduce the Christian life to a 30-minute exercise in the morning. It’s a relationship! Are you growing to see your sins better? His love deeper? And does that overflow in how you love your co-workers? Your in-laws? Are you growing from looking less at your badness and goodness and more of His goodness and righteousness which you are covered by?
b) Being zealous and sincere is insufficient
He was zealous for God in all these ways. He was very sincere. But sincerely wrong. You can be zealous for God and actually be fighting against Him! People say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe just as long as you believe with all your heart.” Hitler believed killing Jews with all of his heart and he was wrong. Paul believed too, but it was wrong as he killed people around him.
Keller uses this example, “Here are two skaters. One goes out on a half an inch of ice, and she says, “I know it will hold me up.” The other one goes off on four inches of ice, and she says, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m afraid. I’m scared. I hope it’ll hold me up.” One dies. One lives. Who dies? The one with a lot of faith is the one who dies. The one who lives is the one with a little faith. Why? It’s not the faith that saves you; it’s the ice. It’s not the quality of your faith that saves you, but if it’s in the right object.” When you are a Christian, you see that it is not how tightly you are holding on to Christ, but you are amazed at how tightly He is holding on to you! I am safer than being in the hand of Christ. I am His finger!
c) We need a collision of sin and grace with the living Christ
In vv. 6-8, we read of the dramatic encounter Paul has with Christ. What did Paul come to realize? He met a Christ who knew his name: “Saul, Saul.” That’s always a sign. I thought I knew about Him. But I found out He knows me and I didn’t know Him at all. Before I was even created in my mother’s womb, a God who set His love upon me. He is not a picture on stain-glass window. He is not just a Sunday school story. He knows me! He’s alive!
Not only that, Jesus says, “Why do you persecute me?” He says it again in v.8, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” He doesn’t say, “I am Jesus. Why are you persecuting them?” That’s the gospel! The gospel is you’re far worse than you ever dared believe, but you’re far more loved than you ever dared hope, at the same time. On the one hand, Jesus says to Saul, “Do you know what? It’s not that you’re disobeying the law. You’re persecuting me.” A Christian is a person who has realized you haven’t just been disobeying the rules, but you’ve been fighting Jesus. Your sin is far worse than you thought Paul. You’ve been attacking the very God you thought you were pleasing.
You’re not a Christian and you don’t get converted till you start to see you’ve personally been fighting and attacking the one who died for you. “Me? Why are you attacking me?” Paul sees, “I am a sinner and my sins personally affect you.” But Christ doesn’t strike him dead. Instead, he gets a hand and is lead to Ananias. He isn’t permanently blind, but temporarily. In other words, lots of grace!
And I am not sure if there is anything more beautiful than Ananias coming to Saul and saying, “Brother Saul.” “I don’t care what you’ve done. If you’re a Christian, you are my brother. You’ve been adopted. You’re in him. You’re in the family.” Don’t you see what the gospel is? Saul was much worse than he thought he was when he was living a moralistic life, and now he’s far more accepted than he ever dared hope. That’s what it means to be a Christian. There is a collision between sin and grace.
It’s all about a relationship. When Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting me?” He’s saying, “I am a God who has decided to voluntarily bind up my heart with my people. I am a God who has chosen to knit my heart with my people. My own joy is so deeply tied with them such that when I see something going wrong with your life, I experience the deepest and most shattering pain possible. At the same time, we are like the gems on the breastplate of the high priest. It had 12 beautiful precious stones, and over every one of the stones was engraved one of the names of the tribes of Israel, so that the high priest had engraved over his heart the names of the people of God that he bore before the Lord. Our name, when you believe in him, is engraved over his heart, and he bears our name before the Father. When the Father beholds looks at us in Christ, he sees a gem. He sees an absolute beauty.
Paul understood that balance. Having Gospel-saving faith means you are seeing deeper and deeper your sin colliding with the depths of his grace. He can share his past because he is far worse than he could possibly share and yet get up and serve the Lord because he is far more loved and has been shown grace than he ever imagined. So who cares if people don’t accept me or don’t notice or appreciate me? My name is engraved on His heart. Who cares if people criticize me? No one can criticize me more than the cross has. Lastly, having Gospel-saving faith means:
II. Living for God’s purposes over my own agendas (vv. 10, 15, 17-21).
The Gospel pulls in Paul, but only to push him out to bring the Gentiles in. Notice the questions, “Who are you Lord? And what do you want me to do Lord?” That is always the order in salvation. You are captured by the person of Christ who comes after you in mission and then He sends you on mission. The Lord tells Paul that in Damascus he would be told “all that has been appointed for you to do” (22:10). The way of the Lord is always one step at a time. Then, Ananias tells Paul, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One [a Messianic term], 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” (22:14-15). The first word translated “appointed” is a military word meaning, “to give orders or a command.” The second word that Ananias uses means “to take into one’s hand,” and thus to determine or choose. Neither word leaves a lot of choice to Paul concerning his future! God had determined how Paul would serve Him.
Look at vv. 17-21. Paul gets a vision in the temple. In many ways Paul’s vision in the temple parallels the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:1–13). Just as with Isaiah, Paul had a vision of the Lord (for Isaiah the Lord was Yahweh). Both experienced a call, a commission. Both were told that the people would resist their message. In Isaiah’s case the prophet was told to remain in the city in the face of the resistance. Paul was told to leave. Paul protests. He thinks his history and how well he knows the people in Jerusalem and they would see his difference and believe. Jesus says, “No. I want you to leave.” I can hear him say, “But you told Isaiah to stay. Why can’t I stay?” It reminds me of the part in Narnia when one of the characters asked about someone else’s life and Aslan said, “Child, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”
He had an agenda for Paul, and that agenda did not coincide with what Paul initially wanted to do! How do you know when you have Gospel-saving faith? You realize more and more that God is uncontrollable and you persevere giving up your rights to self-determine your life. Notice the question, “Who are you Lord?” This is a question God will keep you asking for the rest of your life. You more you think you figure Him out, the more He surprises you. Some people want a relationship with God but they want to run their own life. But then He wouldn’t be God. We all want a God we can create and control and fits our agendas. If we knew how it was going to work—it wouldn’t be faith. If we knew where the supplies would come from—it wouldn’t be faith. If we had it all mapped out—it wouldn’t be faith.  The Christian life is always a call to the unknown. Don’t say, “Show me and I’ll believe you.” Because he won’t. He says, “Believe me and I will show you.”
A couple of other quick applications here: 1) Even in heaven, Christ hurts when we hurt. When the resurrected Lord says, “I am still experiencing the suffering of my people,” we have an incredible resource for suffering. How can you read this and think He doesn’t care about you? “Persecute them, you’ve persecuted me. Stab them, you stab me. Hurt them, you hurt me. They’re weeping, I’m weeping.” Of course he cares. He has plunged Himself into our suffering at infinite cost to Him. 2) Christ identifies and is closely knit with His people. What about us? Jesus says, “I am present in my people, so much so that what happens to them happens to me.” If Jesus is present with his people, you and I need to be present with His people. If He is this deeply committed to the church, how can we not be deeply enmeshed and participating in His church?
There is an old movie called “The Fisher King.” Maybe early 90s? Amanda Plummer plays this really klutzy girl who has no friends. Robin Williams takes her out. At the end of the day he is walking her home and she says, “Listen. I know how this works. You are all kind and nice now and after you sleep with me, you’ll take my number in the morning and never call me again…And ever so slowly, I’ll turn into a piece of dirt. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this. It was really nice to meet you. ‘Night.” She runs down the street and Robin Williams chases after her.
“I want to talk to you.” She says pretty much in response, “No, no, if you got to know me you would not like me. I am tired of rejection … it was nice to go out. But everyone who gets to know me doesn’t like me, so thanks.” And Robin Williams says, “I do know you. I know that you think you are awkward. I know that you think you are clumsy and…I’m in love with you.
And not just from tonight. I’ve known you for a long time. I know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again. And I know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and I know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…I love you…I know that you are kind of clumsy but I want you to know that I know who you are and I love you, and I want to stay. I know you and still love you.” And she looks at him and its as if she is looking into the heart of what she thought was an enemy and she sees there understanding and love and she grabs his face and says, “Are you real?” This is a miracle that you love me. It’s a relationship!
When you are taken up by the Gospel, it is the same thing. A real Christian is a person who says, “It is an absolute miracle that God’s loves me. “It’s just a miracle that I am a Christian. Is this really happening?” It knocks more than your socks off. It knocks your whole world over. As the hymnwriter says:
’Tis not that I did choose Thee,
For Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse Thee,
Hadst Thou not chosen me.
’Twas sovereign mercy called me
And taught my opening mind;
The world had else enthralled me,
To heavenly glories blind.
My heart owns none before Thee,
For Thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love Thee,
Thou must have loved me first.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts (p. 412). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.
Bruce, F. F. Ibid
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (326).
Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer
Polhill, J. B. (1995). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 462). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
From Lewis, C.S. The Horse and His Boy.
Cole, Stephen. “God’s Mighty Power to Save.” http://www.fcfonline.org/content/1/sermons/012702m.pdf accessed 15 November 2013.
Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (p. 815). Nashville, TN: Thomas