A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

When I posed this question to our congregation on Sunday I got a range of interesting answers. Some people said that we are always changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. No matter what is going on in our lives, our circumstances are continually shaping us. Another perspective put forward was that in some ways we are who we are and that doesn’t change. I have known some people who were preparing to be married that expected their partners to change. The changes they were hoping for never happened and it placed a lot of pressure on their marriage.

So what do you think – can people really change?

The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20 gives me hope that God can change us for the better. At the start of the story Saul was an enemy of Jesus. Earlier in Acts we read the story of the death of Steven, a disciple of Jesus who was the first of his followers who was killed for his faith. Acts 8:1 tells us that Saul was there, approving of Steven’s murder. In Acts 9, Saul was intensifying his persecution of Jesus’ followers by going to Damascus to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.

Something miraculous happens along the way. The risen Jesus appears to Saul and it completely changes his life. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, his encounter with the risen Christ changes Saul into a follower of Jesus. This change is so dramatic, by the end of the story Saul is going to the Jewish synagogues, not to arrest Jesus’ followers, but to tell other Jewish people that Jesus is in fact the Messiah! Saul, whom we also know as Paul, then spent the rest of his life traveling the known world, telling people about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the way it could change their lives, too. Most of our New Testament was written by Saul to these communities of Jesus’ followers, encouraging them in their faith and helping them to live the new life he had found in Jesus.

As we read Saul/Paul’s writings, we get a picture of the change Jesus worked in him, as well as the kind of changes Jesus wants to be working in us. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 talks about the way Jesus wants to make us more loving people. In Galatians 5:22,23 Paul writes about the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in people who reach maturity of faith. Paul talks about the difference it can make to our lives when we are clothed in Christ in Colossians 3:12-15. Here, as well as in other passages of the Bible, Jesus shows us the kind of people he wants to shape us into as we encounter his grace and grow in his love.

I have recently been coming across the phrase that the Bible is more about transformation than information. While the Scriptures give us information about Jesus and the way God has worked in people’s lives in the past, I agree that sometimes we forget that God wants to transform us into new people who are living the life of the risen Christ. For example, in Romans 12:2 Paul writes, ‘Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). Paul, who knew himself the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus, is encouraging all of us to be transformed into new people through our encounters with Jesus so we can live the new life he gives us through his Spirit.

Saul had a dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’ve never had an encounter with Jesus like that, but we can still learn from Saul’s story about how Jesus meets us to change us into the people he is calling us to be.

Firstly, we meet Jesus when we spend time in his Word. This brings us back to the theme we’ve been running with a lot this year – the importance of listening to Jesus in the words of the Bible. The Apostle John identifies Jesus as the eternal Word of God in the opening verses of his gospel. When we read the Bible and listen to what Jesus is saying to us, our encounters with him are just as real as Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.

The second thing we can learn is the importance of prayer. When Jesus sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, Saul was praying (v11). I’m curious to know the content of Saul’s prayer, but just that he was praying shows prayer is a vital part of the way God wants to change us. When we are talking with God about what’s happening in our lives, wrestling with how Jesus’ words connect with our lived experiences, and bringing everything that’s happening in our lives to God through prayer, then God will use that to shape us into more faith-filled, loving people.

The third thing we can learn from Saul’s’ story is the significance of Christian community. Jesus didn’t leave Saul to try to work out the changes he was making in his life on his own. Jesus was reaching out to Saul through Ananias, connecting with him and embracing him in a community of faith. We read in verse 19 that ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus’ (NLT) which shows us that right from the start he knew the importance of being connected to a community of believers. Many of Paul’s letters were written to communities of Jesus’ followers to help them live the life of Christ in their relationships with each other and in the context of the surrounding non-believing culture.

One of the problems we can face as followers of Jesus today is the belief that we can change on our own. When we look at Saul’s conversion story, he was shaped into the person Jesus was calling him to be through an encounter with Jesus, prayer and being part of a community of faith. This story tells me that Jesus wants to work in our lives in a similar way. Jesus wants to meet us in his Word, talk with us in prayer, and shape us through contact with his flesh-and-blood body, a community of believers. By exercising these basic spiritual disciplines, Jesus will be at work in our lives through his Holy Spirit, shaping us into the people he is calling us to be, changing us into people who trust him, love others, and are producing the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

  • Do you think people can change? Maybe share some stories where you or someone else you know has changed, or stories where you haven’t seen a change you were hoping for.
  • What is your reaction to the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20? What do you like about the story? What do you not like about it? What questions do you have?
  • When you read Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22,23 or Colossians 3:12-15, do they sound like the life you’re living now? Do they sound like a life you’d like to live? Explain why…
  • Do you tend to read the Bible more as information or for transformation? How might the way you read your Bible change if Jesus wanted to change you by speaking to you through it?
  • Do you make time for talking with God in prayer? How might your approach to prayer be different if you saw prayer as your chance to talk with Jesus about what’s happening in your life?
  • Do you connect regularly with other Christians in some way? Would you be more willing to connect regularly with other Christians if that was a key way that God was going to shape you into a more faith-filled, grace-giving, loving person?
  • Are there things in your life that you would like to be different?
  • Do you believe that Jesus can change you like he changed Saul? Explain why…

The End Times (John 5:21-29)

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What would you do with your life if you knew you were going to live forever?

Most people I have known over my life, both from within and outside of the Christian church, have told me that they believe the goal of a religious life is to do enough good to get into heaven. The requirements or the standards may be different from person to person, but the one goal remains the same: do enough good and avoid enough bad so that when we move from this life to the next, we can be sure that we qualify for eternal life. So the view is that we spend our whole lives trying to do good in the hope that maybe we’ll be good enough to get eternal life.

But what if that’s actually back-to-front? What if the goal of a life of faith isn’t to try to get eternal life, but to grow into a life that has been given to us which will last for ever?

On Sunday we celebrated the last Sunday of the church year. It is often called the Day of Fulfilment because it looks forward to the end of time when Jesus will return to judge between those who will live for ever with him and those who will miss out on that eternity. It is a reminder that not everyone makes it into eternal life. Jesus teaches us what is needed if we want to spend eternity with God when he says, ‘I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life’ (John 5:24a NLT). The Christian perspective as Jesus teaches it is that all who listen to his word of grace and truth (John 1:17) and trust in God (John 1:12; 6:29) will live for ever.

The best news in from Jesus in John 5:24 is that we don’t even have to wait to get it. Instead of spending our lives trying to do good so that we might have a chance at getting eternal life, Jesus goes on to say that it is already ours! He says that those who hear his message of grace and truth and trust that God will give what he promises ‘will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life’ (NLT). I checked the Greek to make sure that the tenses of the verbs were faithful translations of the Greek test and as far as I can tell there is no mistake here. According to what the Apostle John reports Jesus said, eternal life isn’t something that we work for in the hope that we might somehow be good enough. Through his life, death and resurrection for us, Jesus has already carried us over from death to life and eternal life has already started!

Jesus goes on to say that one day he will return to fulfil all of God’s promises to us, to raise the dead to new life, and to judge between those who will live with him forever and those who won’t. He says that we don’t need to fear that judgement because we are already free from condemnation. This is the same as what Paul says in Romans 8:1, that ‘now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus’ (NLT). We don’t have to be afraid of being judged or condemned by God or anyone else because Christ has already carried us over from death to eternal life, and we already participate in the resurrected life of Jesus now because of the gift of the Holy Spirit in us.

This means that we can understand Discipleship as growing into the eternal life which Jesus has already given to us. God has a new life for us to live which is grounded in and producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control like we read about in Galatians 5:22f. It is a life which is sustained by, flowing out of and expressing itself in the love that God has for us which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a – love that is patient and kind, that is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude, that does not demand its own way, is not irritable, keeps no record of being wronged, does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices when the truth wins out, that never gives us, never loses faith, is always hopeful, endures all circumstances, and lasts forever. This is the love of God which is the source of our lives and which brings life to others.

The goal of the Christian life, then, is not to somehow do enough good to get eternal life. The goal of the Christian life is to grow into the life that Jesus has already breathed into us through the Holy Spirit which is stronger than death and which will last forever. Whatever we decide we want to do with the life Jesus has given us, or whatever we believe God wants us to do with this life, we can constantly be growing into the life that is described by the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians and Paul’s words description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. This is what it can mean to be Jesus’ disciples: following him into the life that will last forever which Jesus has already given us and in which we participate now.

A lot of people are afraid of the end times because they see it as a time of judgment and condemnation. We don’t need to be afraid, but we can look forward to Jesus’ return with confidence and hope. Jesus has already carried us over from death to life, and the life the Holy Spirit breathes into us now through his word of grace and peace will last for ever.

So, what do you want to do with your life, knowing that you’re going to live forever?