God makes strange choices. Someone once said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”
Saul of Tarsus was a strange choice.
• He had been dedicated to stamping out Jesus’ little band of followers.
• He had dragged Christians out of their homes in Jerusalem.
• He had joined in Stephen’s execution.
• Now he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there.
But suddenly, on the road to Damascus, a brilliant flash of light drove Saul to his knees. A voice from heaven challenged him:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.”
Saul arose, blinded by the bright light. His aides escorted him into Damascus, where he fasted and prayed.
Then God appeared to Ananias, a Christian, and told him to restore Saul’s vision. Ananias, dumbfounded, said, “Lord, apparently you don’t know much about this man. Let me fill you in.” But God said,
Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine!
Ananias did as he was told, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle—the greatest missionary that the world has ever known.
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An amazing story! Why would God pick the worst man to do the best job?
• You might say that Saul was a highly committed man, and God picked him because of his commitment.
• You might say that God is a great judge of character, and could see traits in Saul that we could not see.
But that doesn’t really explain it. God could have chosen anyone, but he chose Saul. God works in mysterious ways, and his choice of Saul was very mysterious. One of our favorite hymns is “Amazing Grace.” That is what was at work here—Amazing Grace.
God loves paradox, and that often confuses us. Paul says,
“the foolishness of God is wiser than men,
and the weakness of God is stronger than men”
(1 Corinthians 1:25).
God is a master of surprise. I was reminded of this when I read the story of John Newton. Newton was the son of a ship’s captain. His father was often gone on journeys to the far corners of the world. His mother took him to a little chapel for worship. The sermons went over little John’s head, but the music struck a responsive chord. The pastor, David Jennings, was using some of the new music by Isaac Watts—songs such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
But Elizabeth Newton did not have many years with her son. She died when he was only six years old. John’s father was somewhere in the Mediterranean—possibly dead himself. John imagined himself an orphan.
The captain returned home in the spring of 1733. He discovered the door of his home hung with crepe. He found his son next door. Together they grieved Elizabeth’s passing.
John’s father took him to sea. He trained John well. Then he sent him to sea with other captains—preparing him for a life as a sailor.
Newton became a sailor. Then he became a ship’s officer. He was a slaver—an officer on a ship that loaded slaves in Africa, took them in chains to the West Indies, and returned home with a cargo of rum. Such trafficking promised to make Newton a rich man. It was exciting and adventurous work.
For one thing, there were the women. One third of the slaves were female. They had nobody to protect them from the crew. John Newton got his pick of the women.
Later, in his account of his Christian conversion, he wrote of this period of his life:
“That I was a slave to every customary vice
was perhaps the lightest part of my character.
…so industrious was I in propagating my (beliefs)
that…for years I never was an hour in any company
without attempting to corrupt them.”
Then, in 1748, on a trip from Africa to America, Newton read a book called The Christian Pattern. Newton had not intended to take the book seriously, but one passage caught his attention. It said:
“Since life is…short…,
it highly concerns you to…take good heed how you employ it.
Today the man is vigorous…and flourishing,
and tomorrow he is cut down…and gone.
Ah, stupid, unthinking sinner!
how wilt thou appear at the tribunal,
or what plea canst thou urge at the bar of sentence
to him who needs no evidence,
but is himself privy
to thy most concealed impieties?
How shalt thou escape the terrors
of that dreadful day?”
Newton went to bed thinking, “What if that is true?”
That night, a violent storm awakened him. Water poured into the cabin, soaking his bed. A crewman shouted, “The ship is sinking.” Newton rushed to the deck, where he bailed and pumped. At one point, he had an idea to save the ship. He mentioned it to the captain, and the captain agreed to try it. As he turned to leave, Newton heard himself say, “If this doesn’t work, God help us.”
Then Newton was struck by his words. He thought:
“What mercy can I expect—
I, the chief blasphemer?”
God had gotten Newton’s attention—just as he had gotten Saul’s attention so many centuries before. Newton began to read the New Testament, looking for answers. He found them. Later, he said:
“The more I looked at what Jesus had done on the cross,
the more he met my case exactly
I needed an Almighty Savior
who should step in and take my sins away,
and I found such a one in the New Testament.”
Just as God had done mighty works through the converted Saul, so he did mighty works through the converted John Newton;
• Newton began telling his story, with dramatic effect.
• Friends urged him to become a priest. He taught himself Greek and Hebrew, and became a Clerk in Holy Orders of the Church of England.
• He told his slave ship stories to Wilbur Wilburforce, a powerful member of Parliament. Wilburforce became a great opponent of slavery.
• Newton published an account of his conversion, which influenced many lives for Christ.
• He wrote a number of hymns, including “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”
God worked very directly in Saul’s life. God worked very directly in John Newton’s life. God still works in our lives today—sometimes very dramatically and sometimes subtly. The intent is always the same. He always works to redeem us—to draw us to himself.
John Bishop put it this way in one of his sermons. He said:
“God’s main purpose with us
is not to get us somewhere
but to make something of us on the way….
When your way is rough and lonely,
when you are beaten by failure
and chilled with disappointment,
remember that God is seeking to develop your soul
by those experiences….
It is not getting somewhere
or finding something on which we have set our hearts
It is what we become on the way that counts.”
What we become along the way—if we give ourselves to God—we become by the grace of God.
“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.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan