The most devastating news for a sinner is that Jesus rose from the dead. This news is devastating because it means that Jesus really is God, he really does reign over the universe, and he really will deal with sinners by sending them to hell. People deny this truth in two distinct ways. First, they deny this truth through apathy. They just don’t care. Especially in the opulent West, where our highest values are comfort and security, the idea that Jesus has risen from the dead simply doesn’t matter. It is much easier to lock the doors at night, and go shopping in the morning. There is little time to worry about a man rising from the dead 2,000 years ago, when work needs to get done, lawns need to be mowed, and vacations need to be paid for. Second, the truth about Jesus is denied through outright derision. This can be seen in the current media frenzy over the atheistic elite. Richard Dawkins has published a book on The God Delusion, lashing out at Christianity, and Sam Harris has written an angry Letter to a Christian Nation, sharply stating reasons why religious types are stupid and dangerous. Clearly, for either of these two types of people, coming to the realization that Jesus did, indeed, rise from the dead would be devastating. Frankly, the truth that Jesus is risen from the dead is not—by itself—good news.
There is another man for whom this news would have been devastating. Saul of Tarsus described himself as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless” (Phil 3:5-6). While Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would be just as disturbed by Saul as the Christians were, Saul clearly fell into their camp in that he held Christians in derision. For Saul, Christians were a nasty Jewish sect that was twisting the truth of Scripture. They claimed that the Messiah had not only come, but had been crucified by Roman soldiers. The idea that the Messiah could be crucified was ludicrous to Saul. Jesus was not the Messiah, and he did not rise from the dead.
Knowing Paul’s conversion experience, however, begs the question, was Paul devastated when he finally learned that Jesus had risen from the dead? Acts 22:6-8 states, “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’” This news had to be devastating to Paul. For example, the account in Acts 9 says that Paul went into the city “and for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” What was he thinking? Was he crushed? Was his life as a Pharisee flashing before his eyes? Did he fear the wrath of the risen Messiah? Or, was there more to his conversation with Jesus than written here?
The account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 26 gives us a fuller answer. When recounting the story before Agrippa, Paul shared more of Jesus’ words from the light, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
The gospel suddenly has a much fuller meaning. The majority of what Jesus said is the explanation of his purpose for sending Paul to the Gentiles, but the last sentence has particular importance. There are two key points: that they—Gentiles—may receive forgiveness of sins, and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ. This is the heart of the gospel. It is not enough to say that Jesus has risen from the dead and is the reigning King of the Universe. That truth, by itself, is not good news. The good news is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead brings forgiveness from sins and a way for sinners to be sanctified by faith in Christ. This is the good news. The gospel, in its fullest sense is the good news, the great news, that sinners can be forgiven, and moreover, sanctified, or made holy before the King of the Universe. Paul was not devastated on the Damascus Road, he was recreated into a new creation who no longer persecuted Christians but poured out his life for the creation of Christians. Paul clearly got all of Jesus’ message when he wrote to the Galatians, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”