A Leopard Changes His Spots

Acts 9:20-31

I used to believe the old saying, “a leopard can’t change his spots.” Until I met Bill Goforth. I wish you could have known Bill – one of the most gentle, godly and wise elders I’ve ever had the privilege to serve with. He died a few years ago in his 80’s. But up into his 50’s, he was (by his own description) one of the hardest, meanest, most vulgar men around. Anyone would have quickly written him off as a hopeless case – anyone, but his wife Betty – who never gave up on him and never quit asking and encouraging and modeling the life of a Christian. I’m sure she had long ago quit hoping he would come with her and the kids when she asked – right up until the Sunday morning he got up and got dressed and announced, “I’ll be coming with you today.” And every Sunday after that, Bill came, and as his heart softened, his love for God grew, and one day he surrendered his life to Jesus, and he was never the same again. And I asked him one time, “what made the difference?” and he said, “Betty never gave up on me.”

But I’ve also met plenty of the other kind – more like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They claim to have a change of heart – turned over a new leaf. But give them a couple of weeks, watch them when they’re faced with temptation or provocation and back they go. They show their true colors and you see what they’re really made of. I’m sure you’ve been disappointed by someone you thought had really changed, but who proved once again how easily trust can be broken.

So, what do you do with Saul?
Suppose you were one of the Jews in Damascus. You had heard of the reputation of Saul who was coming to rid your city of these insidious Christians. Yet, the next thing you know he’s in the synagogue defending their beliefs and preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. Everybody’s looking at each other and asking, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
It doesn’t take long to realize he’s a traitor to the cause – and not just another one of the heretics, but a defender and proclaimer of the heresy. He’s got to be stopped. We are duty bound to put him to death. And so they put a 24/7 watch on the city gates to capture and kill him.

Suppose you were one of the Christians in Jerusalem.
Luke writes, “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.” The last you saw of Saul, he was rampaging through Jerusalem intent on destroying the church and was headed north to do the same in Damascus. Now, just a few months later, he’s home and he claims he’s a changed man and wants to start meeting with the Christians. Yeah, right. Do we look that gullible?

And that would have been that… if not for Barnabas. You remember Barnabas – back in Acts 4 – the one who sold his land and gave the money to the apostles to take care of his needy brothers and sisters in Christ – the one everybody called the “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas looked beyond Saul’s reputation and did a little investigating. He found out the whole story about Saul’s trip to Damascus and the bright light on the road and the preaching in the synagogues. Barnabas decided, he’s the real thing – and he went to bat for him. Barnabas arranged a meeting with the apostles. Barnabas told his story and vouched for his sincerity. Barnabas put his reputation on the line and risked his life to convince them that Saul had had a change of heart and a change of life.

Is Barnabas just the trusting sort, with a heart bigger than his brain? Is he the rescuer type who’s attracted to lost causes? What do you make of Barnabas? I think Barnabas is that rare individual who’s not swayed by the majority opinion, who’s not afraid to take a chance on somebody everyone else has written off. It takes a lot of courage to stand alone for what (or whom) you believe in.

His trust isn’t misspent. Saul is welcomed into the church and immediately begins preaching and debating with the Jews about Jesus.

But trouble seems to follow Saul.
Just like the Jews back in Damascus had put a price on Saul’s head, so the Grecian Jews in Jerusalem decided he must be put to death.
In Damascus they lowered him by a basket through an opening in the city wall where he escaped. In Jerusalem when they learned of the plot, they sneaked him off to Caesarea and then to his hometown of Tarsus.

Ironically, once Saul is out of town, Luke tells us that, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

When I began this morning, I mentioned that you’ve probably been disappointed by someone you thought had changed. But I imagine the one who has disappointed you most is yourself. [Picture – mirror] Times you’ve said you’d change, and didn’t. Habits you swore you’d give up. Sins you wanted to put behind you. Positive behaviors you committed yourself to take on.

I’ve thought a lot about the whole idea of changing spots or turning over a new leaf. It’s the age-old dilemma of free will or determinism. Are we victims of our environment, our upbringing, our past; or can we choose our direction – are we capable of change?

If you put your faith in self-help and 12-steps and psycho-therapy, it all comes down to you. If you change, it is because you have the strength, you have the will power, you get a grip on your problems. And I don’t want to downplay any of that. If you have the desire to change, there are the programs and tools available to help you do it.

But I am convinced that any real change – any change that gets down to the heart of who we are – has to be by the strength of God and in connection with the relationship that we have with him. Without that foundation for change, we are wrestling with wavering will, ambiguous motives, infinite capacity for self-deception, and most of all – an enemy who wants to see us fail.

But we have a strength available to us that isn’t subject to our human frailties of motives and will power – that isn’t bullied and frightened by the power of Satan.
How did Saul make the incredible 180-degree turn-around in his life? It wasn’t because of his strong will and intense spirituality. When Ananias walked into the room and laid his hands on Saul he said, “Jesus… has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Here at the end of our passage this morning, why was the church prospering and growing in spite of the opposition and persecution? Vs. 31 – “It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.”

You may think you can never change – year after year you struggle with the same sins, give in to the same temptations, find yourself defeated by Satan, until you’re convinced you cannot live up to what God wants from you. And so you live with guilt, you numb yourself to the feelings of shame that come with failure. What does it take to break sin’s grip? How can you begin to experience a victorious life in Christ?

Do you want to gain control over sin? Paul writes in Rom. 8:9, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”

He writes in 1 Cor. 6:9-11, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers or swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Do you want to be more like Christ? Paul writes in 2 Cor. 3:17-18, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Are you seeing the common theme here?
· This book is the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
· Jesus did not leave us orphans, he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within us as God’s living presence.
· When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we not only receive the forgiveness of our sins, but the gift of God’s Holy Spirit living within us.
· It is God’s Holy Spirit who gives us the power to stand up to Satan and say “no” to sin. It is God’s Holy Spirit who molds us more and more into the likeness of Christ.
· It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience … that enable us to be people who glorify God by our lives.
· The Holy Spirit is the key to who we are and how we can live the kind of life that God calls us to live.

Can a leopard change his spots? Can a man or a woman turn their life around?

Illustration – Regarding Henry

You may not experience the dramatic, over-night transformation that Paul seems to have experienced, but there is no one whom God cannot change who turns his life over to him.