Acts (Part 13) - Saul's Conversion
Before getting into Acts 9, a review of this important transitional point in the history of redemption (which is the history of creation) is in order. Many Christians (most?) have collected biblical data throughout their lives in a rather haphazard manner. We learn a fact, a story, a principle, a doctrine, etc. and store them away in our mind’s duffle bag labeled Bible stuff. As we attend church or read some Christian book or talk to a friend, we gather this data—increasing our biblical knowledge—but rarely is it well organized. Usually we simply press down the contents of our duffle bag in order to fit more in.
Partially responsible for this problem have been ill-conceived organizational systems. We may cast a template of dispensational divisions over the whole of our data, artificially creating separated administration and purpose categories for historical periods throughout God’s Word. But it fails to offer us a truly relevant, coherent, and cogent understanding of biblical data as a whole. That is why I appreciate biblical theology.
Geerhardus Vos argued that while both biblical theology and systematic theology are transformative, “biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle” (Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 16). In other words, biblical theology follows a historical, storyline development while systematic theology is of logical construction. They don’t stand opposed to each other, but I believe that learning the Bible through a biblical theology approach may help us see that the Bible is one story of God’s Plan with one purpose throughout.
Back before time began, God determined to create. His purpose for creating was so that he and his creation could enjoy an everlasting love relationship together. Some people may argue with this, saying that God’s purpose for creation was to bring glory to himself. But this is an imprecise understanding of purpose. God always brings glory to himself in everything he does. It was not necessary for him to create to be glorified. So while glory to God would be accomplished through his creating, it was not the specific purpose for creating.
Bringing glory to himself may be thought of as a somewhat arrogant activity. Certainly if I were to promote glory for myself, we would all disapprovingly view it as arrogance. But that is because we hold the person and the virtues as distinct. We will admire the person who acts heroically, approving of both the action and his/her desire to do so. But we view the virtue and the person distinctly. God is unique in that not only does he act in virtue, he himself is virtue. God does not only act in love, he is love. God is justice. God is mercy. In other words, God’s essence (who he is) and his existence (what he does) are equal. Of course we must be careful not to slip off the road into the ditch, thinking more of God as the virtue without thinking of him as person as well. It is not love that is God, but God that is love.
Since God both acts in virtue and is virtue, to think of love as virtuous and right is to think of God as virtuous and right. And to dishonor what is good and right is to dishonor God. Therefore God cannot fail to glorify himself. Doing so would be to strike a blow against virtue itself—something God cannot do. It then is not arrogance that moves God to glorify himself; it is the fundamental reality of who he is—a person of necessarily defined worthiness.
Two essential points must be in view for God to realize his purpose of everlasting love relationship with his creation. That creation (humanity—Adam and Eve) must understand this exclusive worthiness of God because of who he is, and that creation must consequently pursue God in faithful love. Love is not love if coerced. So Adam and Eve stood at a crossroads. Would they set their faith on God in loving pursuit of who he is, or would they place that faith in themselves. For different reasons, both placed their faith in themselves and were then immediately corrupted, severed from relationship with God.
Had God no continuous one-purpose plan, the moment of faith directed away from God should have resulted in the casting away of creation as far as east is from west. Apart from God, who is all good, necessarily exists that which is all bad—suffering, pain, sorrow…all to the extreme (our understanding of hell). But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because back in eternity past as God determined to create, he did so with full knowledge of this still future failure of Adam and Eve. He did so with planned foresight of redemption. His creation—this one plan of God—included his work of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.
But how can God be just without the immediate casting away after sin? Paul supplies the answer in Romans 3. Verses 24 and 25 tell us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (emphasis added). So then, because his one plan included redemption, his one purpose—so that he and his creation would enjoy everlasting love relationship together—remained in force even in this fall.
We see the working of his purpose for relationship in the blessing that continued to flow from God on all creation even after sin entered the world. And we see the revelation of redemption growing throughout the OT. In Genesis we spy the first hint immediately after the fall in Genesis 3:15. We note from Job, one of the oldest books of one of the oldest times on earth, that revelation of a redeemer had already occurred. We see in the Noahic covenant that God would sustain for redemption. And then we come to the grand revelation and promise of the Abrahamic covenant. This was no mere real estate deal. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, promises were made in this covenant. Take note to whom they were made. They were made “to Abraham and his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). In this passage Paul is explaining how relationship with God comes about. The Jews were so Law-focused that they believed relationship with God came through the following of the Law. But no, Paul argues. If it is through the Law that relationship comes, the Abrahamic covenant, which established that the righteousness necessary for relationship came through faith, would be nullified. But since that is not so, relationship does not come through the Law.
Paul anticipates the logical next question of the Jews—“Why then the law?” (Galatians 3:19). Paul answers that the Law was given “because of transgressions.” The law was given so that the Jews would understand their unworthiness of relationship with God because of their sin. It was given (as Paul says later in Galatians) as a schoolmaster to make them aware—to drive them to the Abrahamic promise of relationship through faith in God’s redeemer. Note the intricate explanation in Romans 5:12ff. Sin came into the world through Adam, and because of him death spread to all people because all sinned. The point here is not that all people then committed all kinds of different sins. That was true, but Paul says in verse 13 that since there was no law, the guilt of those sins were not imputed to those people—“sin is not counted where there is no law.” Yet those people still died. Why? If death is the punishment for sin, and sin is not charged when there is no law, why did these people still receive the punishment for sin? Paul’s explanation is that they were still guilty of Adam’s sin. Death spread to all because all sinned in Adam.
The point for our discussion is in this progression of thought. Prior to the Law, people died because of Adam’s sin. Not being aware that certain things were sin, they consequently were not aware what pure righteousness and holiness were. Therefore God sent them the Law so that even though they would consequently now be guilty of those sins, it would also make them more aware that they couldn’t get to God on their own; they needed a Redeemer, a Messiah, a Savior. So the Law was not a system put in place because God wanted to accuse them more or live under a different set of rules. The Law was part of that one plan—that growing revelation of redemption for reconciliation and restoration—so that that one purpose of everlasting love relationship could be realized.
About 490 years extended from Abraham’s call in Ur to the exodus from Egypt. 490 years followed before the construction of Solomon’s temple—the symbol of God’s dwelling in relationship with humankind. Another 490 years passed until the exodus from the Babylonian/Persian captivity. And finally another 490 years transpired from that exodus to Christ—the Immanuel, God with us. That covers the history from God’s promise to Abraham to Christ’s accomplished redemption. It also marks the end of God’s specific activity with Abraham’s physical generations through which Christ came. And it is that point in Acts which we are now studying.
At the beginning of that final 490 year period, the angel told Daniel in Daniel 9 that this would be the last 490 years for “your people and your holy city” (Daniel 9:24). As discussed last time, Christ came at the beginning of the last 7 year period within those 490 last years. He died and rose 3½ years later. And 3½ years after that, Saul saw Christ. What an end! To the very day that Gabriel prophesied 490 years earlier, the transition is being made—an end to focus on the Jews and a turn to focus on the world. But note that those Jews who came to Christ, and really all those through history prior who trusted by faith in God’s coming Redeemer, are the firstfruits to God. That firstfruit designation we see in Revelation given to the 144,000 from Israel (Revelation 14:4b), and we see them standing next to the great multitude of believers (Revelation 7:9) all crying out praise to our God and the Lamb.
Saul’s conversion recorded in Acts 9 varies slightly with his retelling in Acts 22 and 26. But the variations are merely differences based on audience. He emphasizes the light more in his recount before Agrippa (a king who would appreciate more the presentation of glory). In Acts 26, Paul condenses the account so that his confrontation on the road and his appointment to the Gentiles are merged without the intermediary trip to Straight street and the involvement of Ananias. But it is the same story, the same account: the supernatural transformation of his soul into relationship with God.
And, indeed, all three of the central conversions here at this transition point (the eunuch, Saul, and Cornelius) involve supernatural elements. And they are given as God’s stamp, informing us that this is no man-contrived religion born in the backstreets of Jerusalem by a band of disappointed disciples of a slain leader. This is the glorious working of the Great God who planned creation, spoke its existence, endured its fall, and mapped its road to redemption, reconciliation, and restoration for the realization of his one purpose—to enjoy with his creation a love relationship that would last forever.