Amazing Grace (Acts 9:1-9) | Jared Betts

Embracing the Beauty of our Text

By the end of this study, I hope we are all able to see that there are many beautiful things before us in this text as Luke recounts for us the conversion of a young man of Tarsus, named Saul, who was on the road to Damascus with the express purpose of attempting to destroy Christ’s people.

We are first reminded of the reality of Christ’s unity with His people. He is mysteriously joined with them in such a that they are one.[1] It is the realization of this truth that establishes the foundation for the next, which is Jesus Christ’s amazing grace being extended to the most undeserving of people. No, the word grace is nowhere written on the page. It is, however, beautifully spelled out through Christ’s dealings with Saul.

It is within a text of Scripture such as this, that the Living God proves the eternal qualities He claims for Himself throughout His Word. He shows that He is “the God of all grace.”[2] He confirms what the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 145:8 that “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” He shows here what Isaiah says, that He “longs to be gracious” and “He waits on high to have compassion.”[3]

Inextricably Linked with Christ

Let us begin by looking at Jesus’ unity with His people. Jesus made this profound statement to His disciples regarding what they would come to understand after His death, burial, and resurrection. He said to them in John 14:19-20:

19 After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”

This is what the gospel seeks to accomplish. God Himself binding His life up with His people. Through the gospel, the living and triune God calls people into fellowship with Himself which He has had for all of eternity among the Godhead. Through the Spirit and His gospel, what does God do with a sinner who acknowledges they are completely dead before Him in sin, and incapable of conjuring up life in themselves? He gives them His life. He joins them to Himself. This is not merely Him dwelling among His people but Him dwelling within them in the Spirit.

The essence of the gospel is about the Living God giving His life to dead, depraved, undeserving dust. We are not a people bound to some religious system, but a people united to the Living God. As Jesus says, “I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”[4] Paul says:

“You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”[5]

We who are in Christ by grace through faith alone are, therefore, one with Christ:

  1. He is the vine we are the branches.[6]
  2. He is the foundation we are the building.[7]
  3. He is the husband we are the wife.[8]
  4. He is the head we are the body.[9]

God is one with His people. He has given Himself to them and caused them to live with His very life and made their bodies His home. The Christian is untied to Him.

            Take a moment to consider what God says of His people in Zechariah 2:8, “He who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.”[10] Apple here refers to the pupil of the eye. The principle be presented is that God is so intimately connected with His people that you cannot separate them from Him, nor Him from them. For a person to, therefore, harm God’s people is equivalent to them sticking their grubby finger into the very eye of I AM. How you treat a Christian, therefore, is how you treat Christ, for Christ is one with His people. There lives are bound to His, as He teaches in Matthew 25:34-40:

“’Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine (Believers), even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”[11]

By now we are able to see that this truth is on full display for us in our text. Luke tells us that Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. The wording here suggests not only that this was his constant business, but that it consumed him to such and extent that it was a natural to him as breathing. He was actively ravaging the church and wreaking havoc upon the people of God finding satisfaction in their suffering. As was said in the past, his appetite for their destruction was insatiable. We see here that he:

“Went to the high priest,and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

We understand by his own testimony later on in the book of Acts that his purpose of bringing them back to Jerusalem was not so they would rot in prison, but so they would be put to death. He says in Acts 26:9-11:

So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.”

So here is Saul of Tarsus going around consenting to the imprisonment and murder of Christ’s people, seeking authority from the high priest to apprehend people belonging to the Way, obviously a reference to Christianity, and Luke tells us that:

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’”

What did Jesus teach in John’s gospel?  He is in the Father, we are in Him, and He is in us. Christ is inextricably linked with His people. You cannot separate Christ from them, or them from Christ, for they are now one. As John MacArthur puts it:

“No blow struck on earth goes unfelt in heaven by our sympathetic High Priest.”[12]

The church is the pupil of His anthropomorphic eye and Saul was jabbing his finger into it.

            This is somewhat ironic when we consider that Saul was a student of Gamaliel, and it was this Gamaliel that offered this council to the Sanhedrin earlier in the book of Acts as to what to do with the disciples of Jesus. He said in Acts 5:38-39:

38 So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”

Saul found this out did he not? Here he thought he was doing service to God by destroying those belonging to the Way believing them to be God’s enemies only to discover that he was the true enemy of God.[13] He was the one who was being hostile to Him.

The Amazing Grace of Christ

What a terrifying thing for anyone to come to realize; that they are God’s enemy, and He is theirs. The Scripture tells us it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.[14] As is asked by some men in the Scripture, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?”[15]

As Saul and his companions were on their way to further bludgeon Christ’s bride, they were consumed by a light from heaven and thrust to the ground. This light is described else where as being “brighter than the sun.”[16] Saul then hears a voice calling out to him in the Hebrew dialect:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”[17]

There is no doubt that at this point he knew exactly who he was speaking with because he was well aware of who he was pursuing with persecution. There must have been some degree of apprehension as he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The dread must have been palpable when he heard this being standing before Him in brilliant light say these words, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Paul comes face to face not only with the futility of his operation, but the fact that he is contending with the giver and taker of life and destroyer of both body and soul in hell. He is going toe to toe with One who cannot die, and One who possess all power and authority in heaven and on earth. He is found to be fighting with the King eternal, the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in approachable light.[18] He came face to face with the One who died, but now lives forevermore.[19]

Some translations tell us in verse 6 that he was trembling and astonished after hearing that it was Christ he was contending with. This means he was filled with terror, and rightfully so, because Jesus had every divine right to crush this ravager of His bride. Like Adam in the garden, divine justice called for Saul’s death and destruction under Jesus’ wrath; however, like Adam, we see that Saul survives his encounter with Him. Acts 9:3-9:

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

Paul recounts this moment before King Agrippa after telling him how he purposed to do many hostile things to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and was furiously enraged with the saints and pursuing them so that he might do them harm. Paul says in Acts 26:12-18:

12 While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’”

This is grace. Grace is unmerited favor. It is not a thing that can be earned or acquired through some means; it is a thing that can only be received. Grace is, as Louis Berkoff says, “the free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it.” It was B.B. Warfield that defined grace as, “The free sovereign favor to the ill deserving.” Grace is when a person is given what they do not deserve.

Here we see the amazing grace of Christ to the most undeserving of people. Rather than giving Saul what he rightly deserved, Jesus refrained and granted him life, because as John’s gospel tells us, Jesus is full of grace and truth.[20] He is the manifestation of God’s grace for all who turn from themselves and cling to Him through faith.[21]

In 1 Timothy 1:12-16, Paul tells us what Christ accomplishes through him in this account. He says:

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. 15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all16 Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”

Through the conversion of Saul, God demonstrates that He is compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness and forgiveness for the most notorious of sinners. He proves through Paul that He will not cast aside the vilest of people who humble themselves at the foot of His cross and lean upon Him for forgiveness and life.

It is through Saul we see that the God we serve justifies the ungodly. He will justify any and all who repent of their sin and believes in the gospel; any and all who turn from their evil and trust in His Son; any and all who are genuinely sorrowful over sin and confident in Christ. Those who believe in Christ alone, He will forgive their sin, and atone for it, and not take it into account. He will remember it no more and remove it from them as far as the east is from the west. He will be gracious to them, for He is the God of all grace. He longs to be gracious, and He waits on high to have compassion.

How Then Shall We Live?

            It was Doctor Martin Lloyd Jones who said:

“The ultimate test of our spirituality is the measure of our amazement at the grace of God.”

Jesus said that those who have been forgiven little love little, which means conversely that those who have been forgiven much love much.[22]

If His grace does not astound you, you know not yourself; and you do not know yourself because you do not know God as you ought. If His grace causes you to shrug it is because you shrug at your sin; and if you shrug at your sin, it is because you do not first shudder at the goodness and grandeur of God’s holiness.

Before Him we are all undone. Like Isaiah, we are all found to be people of unclean lips. All of our righteous deeds are as filthy rags before Him. Because of our sin, we miss the mark of God’s glory entirely, and the just penalty for our sin is eternal damnation under His wrath.

His grace, therefore, is what everyone of us needs, but none of us deserves. If you think you deserve it, you are dead while you live. Do not call yourself a Christian, because you are not one. Genuine Christian’s know that Christ is their only hope in life and death. They can faithfully sing:

“Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.”

The fact that we need grace implies our utter unworthiness. The cross does not reveal to us our worth, rather it reveals to us our wretchedness. It shows us that we are unrighteous, because upon the cross Christ became our sin and bore it in His body so that He might satisfy on His person the wrath of God we rightly deserve. A wrathless gospel is devoid of love and grace, for it is through the outpouring of the Father’s wrath upon the Son, and the Son willingly receiving it upon Himself that justice is satisfied, love is displayed, and grace is able to be experienced by the one who exercises faith in Christ.

Like Saul, we deserve to be crushed. Divine justice demands our eternal damnation, but we see His grace toward us in Romans 5:6-10 which says:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

We see His grace in 1 John 4:10 saying:

10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

2 Timothy 1:9 tells us that God is the One:

who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”

Ephesians 1:4-5 teaches us that:

“In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace.”

His grace towards us is magnified in the second chapter of Ephesians saying that:

“You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”[23]

Before His holiness we all stand chief of sinners, but by His grace we sit alongside Christ as sons and daughters of God.

Titus 3:3-7 sums this all up beautifully by saying:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

The question before us now is this, how then shall we live in light of His grace toward us? Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound? God forbid![24] Such grace does not prod us on to further self-love. Rather it prompts us to self-denial. It instructs us to live sensibly, and righteously, and godly in this present age.[25] The love of Christ compels us to forget who we are and to lose sight of our own personal interests. He did not give us His life so we that might continue to live for ourselves. He died and rose again for us so that we might live for Him.[26]

May we, therefore, stop pursuing self and be a people who are governed by His grace. May we grow in it knowing that the grace the He justified us with is the very same grace by which He progressively sanctifies us with into His holy image. You who know Him, do what He commands you to do through Peter in 2 Peter 3:18 saying:

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

As we grow in His grace and knowledge, may His grace grow in us toward others realizing that it is by grace that we are who we are, and even then, we are still very far from who we ought to be ourselves. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31:

30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

He says further on in his letter to the Corinthians:

For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”[27]

Since He has been gracious to us, we ought to be gracious toward others, especially brothers and sisters in Christ. As the Scripture says:

11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”[28]

Lastly, may we come to the same conclusion Paul did in Acts 20:24 when he said:

24 But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”

He gave us His life so that we might live to the praise of the glory of His marvelous grace! As the famous words of John Newton go:

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!”

[1] Ephesians 5:28-32

[2] 1 Peter 5:10

[3] Isaiah 30:18

[4] John 14:20

[5] Colossians 3:3-4

[6] John 15:5

[7] 1 Corinthians 3:10-11

[8] Revelation 19:7-10

[9] Ephesians 1:22-23

[10] Zechariah 2:8b

[11] Matthew 25:34-40

[12] The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, John MacArthur; Page 268

[13] John 16:1-3

[14] Hebrews 10:31

[15] 1 Samuel 6:20

[16] Acts 26:13

[17] Acts 26:14

[18] 1 Timothy 6:15-16

[19] Revelation 1:18

[20] John 1:14

[21] John 1:16-17

[22] Luke 7:47

[23] Ephesians 2:1-7

[24] Romans 6:1-2

[25] Titus 2:11-12

[26] 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

[27] 1 Corinthians 15:9-10

[28] 1 John 4:11

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