How did Jesus convert one of His worst enemies? How did He turn a man who was an avowed enemy of the cross and who hated God’s children with a passion executing multitudes of them by stoning into one of His strongest, most faithful followers, and a man who wrote 2/3 of the New Testament?
Many people know the verse that declares, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27).
I think many times in life, we run into people whose hearts toward God appear to be so hard that even He couldn’t soften them. Such is the case with a man known as Saul, a Pharisee of Pharisees. He hated the followers of Jesus so much he made it his mission in life to utterly destroy the early church, and he came pretty close to succeeding. The hatred that filled this man’s heart toward believers had warped his view of who God and His Word are.
The Dangers of a Bitter Heart
One of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not kill.” However, Saul managed to ignore that command and sought to kill as many followers of Christ as he could find. We know from his own testimony he believed he was doing God’s work in executing these believers. Anytime we pervert the Word of God to violate the love of God, it is usually because we allowed bitterness to take root in our hearts. Saul is an example of a heart ruled by anger and bitterness in his quest to purify Israel of the scourge of Jesus followers.
In Matthew 22:36–40, Jesus says that the entire Old Testament was all about love. We know John tells us that God is love in 1 John 4:8. Therefore, it stands to reason if one is going to properly interpret and understand the Bible, it should be seen and understood in the context of love. To not view it from that perspective is to not connect to the heart of its author. Paul, like many religious leaders of His day, didn’t have that revelation. Hence, they were greatly misguided by their own selfish desires and deceived by the bitterness that ruled their hearts.
The Power of Love!
Jesus taught His disciples in Luke 6:26–27 to love their enemies. Saul encountered this same Jesus who taught His disciples to love their enemies. Jesus also taught them to pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:44). I believe Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus with Jesus was an answer to those prayers.
At the time Jesus appeared to Saul, he had in his possession letters of permission to execute even more believers. Saul, who was later known as Paul, described what happened to him in this encounter with Jesus in a letter he wrote to Titus (Titus 3:3–7). He said he was showered with God’s kindness, love, and mercy and realized salvation had nothing at all to do with obeying or keeping the law but everything to do with the work of Christ on the cross. He lost his physical sight temporarily but had his spiritual sight opened to see the glorious light of the gospel.
Being loved leads to Repentance
Most people don’t know that in Titus 3:3–7, Paul is explaining what caused him to repent. The reason many people miss this profound truth is that they have been taught repentance is turning from sin. Certainly, God wants us to turn away from sin, but He knows people are slaves to sin and are dead in their sins. Therefore, they don’t have the ability to turn from their sins; for that to happen, they must be set free.
If someone locked you in a prison and told you to set yourself free, you would think that person is insane. But if someone came, paid your debt or fine, opened the prison doors for you and said, “You are now free to go,” that changes everything. That is what the gospel does for people. Notice how Jesus taught Paul how to turn or bring people to repentance in Acts 26:18.
“To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18).
Seeing Truth is why people repent
Jesus describes repentance as having your eyes opened to see the light, which is the power of God that frees a person from darkness otherwise known as the kingdom of Satan. The freedom God offers is directly connected to “receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Religion will teach people they must promise God they will turn from their sins first, and then God will forgive them.
Forgiveness isn’t something God will do if you promise Him you will turn from your sins. Rather, it is something He has already accomplished and the reason you can come to Him. You don’t need to get God to forgive you; you already have His forgiveness. All you need to do is receive it.
Knowing you are forgiven is evidence you are seeing the light
Knowing you are forgiven is evidence you are seeing the light. Jesus teaches us His light will turn people to God and set them free from darkness. Darkness is the absence of light; evil is the absence of good. Paul wrote that we overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). He understood this from personal experience; he was the evil persecuting the church of God. However, Jesus overcame the evil in Saul’s heart by showering him with God’s goodness. This is why Paul teaches in Romans 2:4 that it is God’s goodness that leads a person to repentance. The person doesn’t come to repentance; he or she is led to that place by God’s goodness.
Light is reason we can escape the Darkness
No one can escape a life of darkness without seeing the light. The light is the reason people turn to God. It is the light that sets people free from the darkness. You can neither turn from darkness without the light nor can sinners set themselves free or turn away from sin without the power of God. It is why God gets all the glory because He did it all.
Paul, a former Pharisee, knew that the Pharisees’ understanding of repentance was to turn away from sins; yet, the Pharisees didn’t turn to God. What is the point in turning away from sin but not turning to God? The Pharisees wanted to prove to God they could overcome sin in their own strength. God knew they couldn’t free themselves from sin, but they lived under the delusion they could be their own savior.
God knows that sinners need to be set free from the bondage of sin and that is why Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18). Jesus is the light of the world; turning to Him is where our freedom comes from.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:11).
A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus
On the road to Damascus, Saul saw a great light; that great light was Jesus. Jesus asked Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul was most likely expecting severe judgment for his sins, but Jesus did not give him what he deserved. Instead, he showed him goodness and mercy. The great evil that plagued the church had been subdued and overcome by God’s goodness. The believers Saul killed were multiplied many times over through the ministry of Paul. Jesus took a sworn enemy of the church and stopped his murderous campaign by showing him God’s love, kindness, and mercy.
Evil is Overcome by God’s goodness
We should never lose hope for those we think are so hardened and filled with hate and anger at God and His children. Evil is overcome by light aka God’s goodness.
In 2006 when YouTube was in its infancy, a small but radical group of atheists roamed all over YouTube attacking and challenging videos posted by Christians. Two of them were as hateful and as mean spirited as they came. I saw their videos and read their ugly, rude comments and other channels. It was easy to get the impression these guys would never become believers in Jesus. In their minds, they were convinced the Bible was a fraud, filled with errors, and written by men for the purpose of controlling people, etc. I hadn’t given these guys a lot of thought in many years, but a few years back, I searched for them on YouTube. To my surprise, both were born again followers of Jesus. Instead of arguing with believers all day trying to talk them out of their faith, they were now testifying of God’s love, grace, and power. I couldn’t tell you how overjoyed I was on making this discovery. While many people probably gave up on these guys, God didn’t. Somehow, He managed to shine His light into their darkness.
You may know people like this or have friends and family who appear hardhearted toward God. Don’t be discouraged; there is no darkness that is impenetrable to God’s light. Trust God to shine His light into their darkness and be that light to a lost and hurting world.