Conversion, Baptism and Service
John Heading, Aberystwyth
Outwardly, Peter might have had an advantage over Paul, since he had experienced directly the years of the Lord's ministry on earth. From the parables in Matthew 13. 31-33, 39, Peter would learn that no activity of the flesh was suitable for service in the church; from Matthew 16. 13-19 he would learn that only revelation from the Father and the building activity of Christ would fit one for a place in the church; from John 13-16 he would learn that church ground is entirely spiritual.
But Paul, as Saul and unsaved, knew nothing of this. His attitude was Pharisaical throughout; on certain points he even sought to contradict the teaching and thoughts of Gamaliel, who had said that if the work were of God, "ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God", Acts 5. 39. Saul sought to overthrow the early work of the church, and he did not believe that it was of God. Yet in spite of this, Saul, as Paul, would become a chosen vessel for service in the highest capacity.
God's purpose had been made known in Genesis 12. 3, "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed". Jew and Gentile would be embraced in this promise, and Paul often used to write about this blessed fact, Rom. 11. 11-32; 15. 8-12; Eph. 2. 11-22. To carry out this programme, God would select His servants to carry out its various parts. Geographically, there would be testimony in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth, Acts 1. 8. Peter and the other apostles would begin in Jerusalem, Acts 2; those "scattered abroad . . . except the apostles" would spread the message through Judaea, 8. 1.; Philip would testify in Samaria, 8. 5; while the uttermost parts of the earth would involve Philip, 8. 26; Peter in Caesarea, Acts 10; and Paul on his various missionary journeys. Those who work today either at home or abroad are still called to this expansion of the testimony. In The Acts, the order was to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile, Rom. 1.16. Thus to Peter was granted the apostleship of the circumcision, Gal. 2. 8, but Paul was a chosen vessel from his birth, God having revealed His Son in him at the appropriate time, 1. 15-16, and in whom God was mighty toward the Gentiles, 2. 8.
Thus Paul's conversion was a clear demonstration of the miraculous, followed quickly by his baptism and his early activity in God's service.
Paul's Conversion. His first con tact with the truth coloured the rest of his subsequent life and ministry. Today, the first contact of a young convert with Christian things moulds his outlook afterwards; the method of his second birth and the means whereby the things of the assembly and its service are brought before him can either be helpful or detrimental to a growth in grace. For ourselves, where did our present attitude to the assembly and to religion in general have its origin? If the foundation were correct, then in our witness and gospel work we cannot shun to declare the full blessings and privileges of assembly fellowship.
Paul, still as Saul, learnt three lessons straight away, (i) He had a vision of Christ manifested through "a light from heaven", Acts 9. 3. Three times in Acts this vital phrase from heaven" occurs; here in 9. 3, recalled in the apostle's later testimony in Jerusalem, 22. 6, and also recalled before king Agrippa, 26. 13. This heavenly light coloured his ministry relating to the heavenly character of the assembly. Yet towards the end of his life, Paul realized that the eternal light was even greater than that which he had seen, "dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see", 1 Tim. 6. 16. (ii) Paul's knowledge of the divine call to service was not something that originated later in his life, although his missionary journeys commenced many years later in Acts 13. The fullest account of his conversion occurs in Acts 26, where he shows that the Lord said to him, "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness . . . (to) the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee", vv. 16-17.
Thus the work of Paul and the work in Paul were all of God. (iii) The confession whereby he recognized the Lordship of Christ. He had said right at the beginning, "Who art thou, Lord? . . . Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?", Acts 9. 5, 6. The apostle commented on such a confession many years later, when he wrote, "no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit", 1 Cor. 12.3.
The apostle described his unsaved state as "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious; . . . I did it ignorantly in unbelief . . . sinners; of whom I am chief", 1 Tim. 1. 13-15. By this means he would be a pattern to all who would believe afterwards. This shows how intelligent educated men can sometimes sink to the lowest level of inhumanity, so as to support a godless cause relating to some ignorant ideal in life. The sufferings of others are indifferently disregarded by such callous hearts. Saul's education at the feet of Gamaliel, his zeal towards God, and his knowledge "of the law of the fathers" did not prevent him from persecuting the disciples, either to prison or to death. This persecution was directed by the high priest and the elders of the people, Acts 22. 2-5; 26. 9-11.
In such a state of sin he was found by the Lord on the Damascus road! The vision of the living Christ placed Saul as the last in the line of those who had seen the Lord alive after His crucifixion, 1 Cor. 15. 8. It was a vision in which Saul both saw and heard "that Just One", Acts 22. 14. Indeed, the apostle was a man of visions, for "Where there is no vision, the people perish", Prov. 29. 18. Throughout his life, these visions were: (i) on the Damascus road. Acts 9. 3; (ii) in the house in Damascus, 9. 1 2; (iii) in the temple courts in Jerusalem, 22. 18; (iv) the vision of the third heaven, no doubt at Lystra, 14. 19; 2 Cor. 12. 1-4; (v) at Troas, Acts 16. 9; (vi) in Corinth, 18. 9-10; (vii) as a prisoner in Jerusalem, 23. 11 ; (viii) on the ship in the storm, 27. 23-24.
It was in this manifestation of glory at Saul's conversion that Christ associated Himself with His church. Note that Peter claimed to be a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker of the glory yet to be revealed, 1 Pet. 5. 1; by contrast, Paul was a witness of the glory of Christ, but a partaker of His sufferings. Peter spoke of glory: "God ... hath glorified his Son Jesus", Acts 3. 13 (in heaven—not seen by Peter); "he received from God the Father honour and glory" on the mount, something that Peter nearly missed by reason of sleep, 2 Pet. 1. 17. But Paul's first sight of the Lord in glory was quite distinct, and this glory was in association with the church as part of Himself – this was to be one of the chief foundation stones of Paul's ministry. How many of us have had a spiritual impression of Christ (either at conversion, or shortly afterwards, or in subsequent years of maturity), so as to form the whole heart and life in His service? The Lord's question, "why persecutest thou me?", Acts 9. 4, shows that the Lord regarded the persecuted church on earth as part of Himself, of His body. This comes out particularly in 1 Corinthians and in Ephesians. Certainly the vision brought about immediate implicit obedience on Saul's part; he had to arise and to enter Damascus, Acts 9. 6, a command given to him and to no one else, v. 7.
Paul's Baptism. The baptism of this one who was destined to become the apostle terminated the visit of Ananias to the house where Saul lay blind. For Saul, all the resources of the world were suddenly dissipated; he lacked natural sight (speaking of worldly understanding), and did not partake of natural food (speaking of worldly sustenance of the mind). He had to do without these, so that his new-found faith could perceive the Lord by feeding upon Him.
Acts 9. 10-16 shows that there was someone ready to help when God called. Ananias recognized the Lordship of Christ, by saying "Behold, I am here, Lord", v. 10. In other words, he held himself at the disposal of the Lord. This contrasts with Samuel, who as yet did not know the Lord, so missed this title out when he said, "Speak; for thy servant heareth", 1 Sam. 3. 7-10. The Lord revealed to Ananias that He took great interest in what happens in the home, that He was aware of all distressing circumstances taking place in Saul's room. He knows where we dwell, and He knew that Saul was praying. Thus later there was a heavenly visitation to the house of Cornelius, and to the house where Peter was staying, Acts 10.3-6,11-16. At the very thought of going where Saul was staying, Ananias did not give a Jonah-like answer complaining at divine mercy; rather in perplexity he rehearsed Saul's known character before the Lord until full understanding was granted to him. The Lord's answer should encourage all those who are young in the faith, for it indicates that the future service to which we will be called is all arranged in the present in the purpose of God: "he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name . . . For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake".
Thus God's purpose for His servant was made known from the beginning, and Paul's testimony would be effective through increasing sufferings. The Lord's own sufferings had been made known by the prophets, 1 Pet. 1. 11; conversely, Paul's sufferings were made known by the Lord. At the same time, the Lord made it clear that Paul would be a "chosen vessel". "He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry" is how Paul expressed it many years later, 1 Tim. 1.12. We too should sense that we are chosen vessels according to the capacity and ability granted. In Paul's case, the spheres of this then-future ministry were made known. Work amongst the Gentiles would be his primary work on his missionary journeys ; work before kings would occur during his later imprisonment, before Agrippa and Nero; work before Israel would represent his original testimony prior to Acts 13, before he was sent "far hence unto the Gentiles", Acts 22 21. During all his service, the apostle would suffer for the Name of Christ, (i) so that he would learn at the hand of God what he had caused others to suffer previously, (ii) so as to lead to the greatest apostolic effectiveness, (iii) to know that suffering would lead to reigning, 2 Tim. 2. 12; (iv) to learn more of Christ, that His grace was sufficient, 2 Cor. 12. 9.
What a help Ananias was to Saul upon this visit, Acts 9. 17-19. He stressed the divine Name and character, "the Lord, even Jesus". He stressed the divine control, "hath sent me". Divine power would be revealed naturally through a miracle, "that thou mightest receive thy sight" ; (the laying on of hands was associated only with this miracle, according to the Lord's words in verse 12). Divine power was revealed spiritually, in that Saul was now "filled with the Holy Spirit". Of course, he already had the Spirit, as can be seen by his ability to call Jesus "Lord". This filling corresponded to his being taken up as a vessel, proved by his subsequent service immediately afterwards. In Acts 4. 31, the filling resulted from prayer, and led to boldness in testimony; in Ephesians 5. 18-21 it leads to heart-exercise and to mutual submission.
But for all this to be enjoyed as a spiritual reality, baptism was necessary, Acts 9. 18. Before even partaking of food, Saul arose "and was baptized", though where this took place is not stated. Without doubt, Saul did not despise "Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus", as Naaman had previously despised the river Jordan in Israel, 2 Kings 5. 12. Later, Paul explained that Ananias had said, "arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins", Acts 22.16. This does not imply washing that brings cleansing from sin—only the blood of Christ can effect that. Rather, it was to be a practical act whereby the practice of sin was disclaimed—and how much past sin had to be abolished as a way of life, everything that was contrary to the Name of Jesus. The doctrine behind such a baptismal stand for Christ was explained much later by Paul when he wrote Romans 6: the old man reckoned as crucified with Christ, and the new man walking in newness of life. This marked all of Paul's subsequent life and service.
Paul's Early Service. We cannot believe that Saul received all his apostolic knowledge immediately upon conversion; we believe that he grew in this knowledge in the personal school of God,- receiving special revelations concerning the truth of the church. But right from the start he preached Christ in Damascus, "that he is the Son of God", Acts 9. 20. Between that testimony and that recorded in verse 22, "proving that this is very Christ", we feel that he spent time in Arabia, Gal. 1.17, where he learnt, as alone with his Lord, the Old Testament Scriptures afresh—no longer Pharisaical but divine and spiritual. Young believers today must often pass through the same experience—much religious teaching of pre-conversion days must be discarded, opening up the way for the blessed understanding of Christ in all the Scriptures. Without this, service is empty, with lack of a solid spiritual foundation of edifying doctrine.
After that, Saul came to Jerusalem, Acts 9. 26; Gal. 1.18. Three years had passed, and now he sought the fellowship of the church in Jerusalem (not to gain knowledge from the other apostles, since he "conferred not with flesh and blood", Gal 1. 16). Saul was right when "he assayed to join himself to the disciples" ; this showed a right preliminary appreciation of fellowship, and was the opposite of Acts 5. 13 when "of the rest durst no man join himself to them". But the assembly too was right in refusing to accept him directly; they needed absolute certainty regarding his Christian credentials. They were not prepared to accept a man without commendation, particularly when they knew of such adverse reports concerning Saul's unconverted behaviour. However, Barnabas was a proved man in the church at Jerusalem, 4. 36-37, and so the saints could willingly accept from him a "verbal letter of commendation", for he must have had special knowledge about Saul, (i) about his conversion, and (ii) about his original preaching in Damascus, 9. 27. Consequently he was received by the assembly, "coming in and going out", the former being for assembly service, and the latter for gospel service as he "spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus".
Much more had to be learnt by the Lord's servant before he could be considered as prepared for his missionary journeys amongst the Gentiles. Thus in Acts 9. 30 the brethren brought him from Jerusalem to Caesarea. God works out His purpose by opening and shutting doors for His servants. Thus God did not use Saul to introduce the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. Neither did he use Philip the evangelist who was also at Caesarea at that time. 8. 40. Rather, God arranged circumstances for Peter to be brought straight to Cornelius' house, there to preach the gospel, 10. 24-25. Whether Saul met Philip in that city, we do not know; he may have left Caesarea before Peter arrived, 9. 30, in which case they would not have met there. But the lesson to be learnt is that God uses whom He will, and others that are apparently passed by must submit to the divine leading.
After that, Saul returned to his home city of Tarsus, Acts 9. 30. In other words, he had to learn to testify on home ground before being called to wider spheres. He knew that the Lord would ultimately send him far hence to the Gentiles, but he awaited the time of this calling. By this time, Saul had become a fine teacher, and Barnabas knew this. Consequently, when the grace of God had reached Antioch, Barnabas wanted the best teaching for the young church. He therefore departed to find Saul, and to bring him back, after which both taught the church in Antioch for a "whole year", 11. 26. Saul also had to learn about the practical sphere of ministry, and it is interesting to note that he and Barnabas took "relief" financially to the brethren in Judaen, delivering it to the elders, 11. 30. Returning to Antioch, these two servants of the Lord spent time in prayer with the prophets and teachers in the church. We believe that they were seeking God's will for their service. It was at this stage, that God's servant received his call to missionary endeavour. His preparation had served him in good stead; God uses spiritual and practical preparation in the post-conversion period, service thereafter developing near or far, but always in fellowship with the Lord's people.