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SAUL OF TARSUS CONVERTED
FOURTH QUAR., LESSON I., OCT. 2, ACTS 9:1-20
Golden Text—”Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”—John 3:3
In this lesson we have a forcible illustration of the importance of a correct knowledge of the truth as well as a zeal for God. Paul had the latter, but, lacking the former, he went to the extreme of persecuting the Church of Christ. Nevertheless, God, who reads the heart, discerned its loyalty and zeal, and, without blaming him for doing that which he thought was right and acceptable to God, he simply pointed out to him the better way. Light, says the Prophet (Psa. 97:11), is sown for the righteous; and Saul was righteous at heart and hence the truth was due to him in God’s appointed time.
Before that time arrived, however, the beloved and faithful Stephen had sealed his testimony with his blood, while Saul was consenting unto his death. Was God negligent, then, of the interests of his faithful martyr? Ah! no; but his ways are not our ways. Stephen’s life was fully consecrated to the Master’s service, and evidently the only question with him as to when or how it might end was, which time or way would be most to the glory of God. It has been truly said that the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church. Stephen thus became an example to the whole Church of faithfulness even unto death; and having thus gloriously finished his course, there was thenceforth laid up for him a crown of righteousness to be received at the Lord’s second appearing.
Little did Stephen think that one who stood by, consenting unto his death, would soon go forth as a zealous advocate of the very cause he was persecuting. That Paul’s heart was right in the matter, even when his head and his hands were in the wrong, is very clear from his statement of the matter in Chapter 26:9-11, where he says, “I verily thought within myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and, being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them, even unto strange cities.”
Again, we find the Apostle referring to the matter in his letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:12-14,16), saying, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful [at heart, though wrong in action], putting me into the ministry who was before a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious: but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. … Howbeit, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.”
In view of these statements, therefore, we are not to consider Paul’s conversion as a conversion of the heart from a disposition of opposition to one of harmony with God, but as a conversion or turning about, through a better understanding of the truth, from an erroneous course to one in harmony with God and his plan of salvation.
The Lord’s mercy and love to this deluded though sincere servant were beautifully manifested in the words addressed to Saul: In the midst of the overwhelming glory of the heavenly presence a tender voice fell on his ear, saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And Saul answered, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness, both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people and from the Gentiles unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God,
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that they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” And Saul, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” And the Lord said unto him, “Arise and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”—Compare Acts 9:3-6 and 26:13-17.
Saul’s prompt obedience and instantaneous change of conduct were indicative of a noble character; and his question, “What wilt thou have me do?” showed an earnest desire to be active in the service of God to the extent of his ability and knowledge. And no sooner had he learned the will of God than he was off about his Master’s business—preaching Christ at Damascus and Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, to Jews and Gentiles, calling upon all to repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance. (Acts 9:19,20; 26:19,20.) Nor did the zeal of this faithful soldier of the cross abate in the least until he had finished his course. After years of unmitigated toil and care and persecution and trouble on every hand, he rejoiced at the close of life to say—”I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”
The instance of this lesson affords also a striking illustration of the Lord’s personal oversight and supervision of the interests of his Church, both as a company and as individuals. By the loss of Judas a vacancy had occurred in the company of the apostles, which vacancy the apostles themselves endeavored to fill by their election of Matthias. (Acts 1:26.) This they had no authority to do, but, presuming such to be the Lord’s will, they chose two and asked the Lord to indicate which of the two whom they had selected would be his choice; and when the lot fell upon Matthias—for it must of course fall on one of the two—the eleven accepted him as the Lord’s choice for the place of Judas. But the sequel showed that the Lord merely ignored their presumption in the matter, and in his own time and way chose Saul of Tarsus, a man at heart devoted to the service of God and needing only to be enlightened by the truth when all his consecrated powers would be fully enlisted in the blessed work of bearing the name of Christ to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. And this Saul, afterward called Paul, was the most noted, self-sacrificing and efficient of all the apostles.
Then, too, in the selection and special favor shown to Saul, we see the Lord’s appreciation of loyal and zealous hearts. What a comfort is this to all the saints in the midst of a realizing sense of our own infirmities and short-comings, that if our hearts are loyal, the Lord can read it there. If we lack knowledge he will grant it in his own good time and way; and his wisdom will correct our mistakes, and his love and mercy and grace will abound toward us more and more as we continue to walk in his ways.
The part which Ananias was privileged to take in the healing of Paul’s eyes and in enlightening his mind with the truth was one which must have brought great joy and blessing to his own heart—not only because of being specially chosen of the Lord for this purpose, but also in seeing such a one as Saul of Tarsus so fully convinced of the truth and enlisted in its service. How wonderfully wise are the ways of the Lord; how blessed is his truth; how tender are his providences; how consoling is his mercy; and how rich are his abounding love and grace! And how glorious is the hope set before us in the gospel of ere long seeing him face to face and of being transformed into his glorious likeness, when, being like him, we shall not be overpowered with the glory or stricken with blindness.
The golden text of this lesson was evidently chosen with the idea that Saul of Tarsus was born again when he was converted to the service of the cause of Christ. But such was not the case. Saul was only begotten of the spirit when through the teaching of Ananias he was brought to a knowledge of the truth and to a full consecration of his life to its service. But his birth as a new spiritual being was not due until the resurrection. Birth presupposes both a begetting and a course of development ending at a particular time in the completeness of the new being. The Greek word (gennao) rendered born has the significance of both begetting and birth. Hence, except a man be both begotten and born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God. Paul’s birth was not due until the dawn of the Millennium, at the second advent of the Lord. The Lord was the first born from the dead (Col. 1:18), and this second birth in his case surely did not mean conversion to God; nor does it ever have such significance.
— September 1, 1892 —