Conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19)

Luke records the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience three times in the Book of Acts. Two of them are taken from accounts Paul gave in trial situations and are recorded towards the end of the book. The other account is the one described by Luke in Acts 9. Given that Luke was an intimate companion of Paul he would have heard the story from Paul’s mouth. In the early days of Paul’s Christian experience, he is addressed as Saul, which may reflect that he was then ministering primarily in Jewish settings.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the great turning points of history because of the incredible consequences that followed. All we need to do is recall the places to which Paul took the gospel and the books of the New Testament that he wrote and which have influenced life all over the world since then. The conversion was also an occasion of great personal change for Saul. As Calvin put it, ‘such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd.’

The man the devil was using

How does Saul appear at the start of the account of his conversion? We could say that he was an agent of the Jewish authorities as they attempted to crush the church. Or we could say that he was an eager participant in the process, even initiating new attempts to destroy the church beyond the borders of Israel. Yet we would also have to say that Saul was a man the devil was using in his attempt to defeat the church.

The devilish nature of the activities of Saul is shown in the intense hatred he had for the disciples of Jesus. Luke’s description that Saul was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ indicates that he had no other thought in mind. All his energies and capabilities were focused on this aim. How many believers he did this to we cannot say, although he does say later that he was an injurious person.

Nevertheless, we can learn from Saul’s experience that someone engaged in promoting the devil’s attempts to destroy the church may not be far from the kingdom. The devil may have been suggesting to Saul what he could be doing, but the person in charge of the process was Jesus, and he could intervene at any stage and change the circumstances at the moment he would know would be best.

It looks as if the Christians in Damascus did not believe that such a person as Saul could be converted. Neither did the apostles in Jerusalem when Saul later returned there. We see this Damascus response in the way Ananias reacted to the news that Saul had been changed. When those believers discovered that Jesus had overcome his opponent in love, they would have greater awareness of the amazing and gracious power of their Saviour.

In passing, we can note that the Christians had given themselves at title – they called themselves ‘the Way’. Why they did this is not known, but one reasonable suggestion is that they connected it to the title Jesus have to himself when he said that he was the way to God. As used by the Christians, it reveals that they realised they were the ones who had found the path to a right relationship with God.

A Christophany

What kind of experience did Saul have on the road to Damascus? Obviously, he saw the risen Christ, and he says in 1 Corinthians 15 that this qualified him to be an apostle (since seeing Jesus in this way was a qualifying mark of such). Yet he did not see the risen Saviour in the way that others saw him during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Jesus was in a different state when he appeared to Saul than what he was when the disciples saw him ascend. Now Jesus was glorified, and to Saul of Tarsus was given the great privilege of being the first on earth to see Jesus as the exalted Saviour.

In Acts 22:6, Paul says that the incident occurred about noon, which is the time of day when the light of the sun is brightest. At noon, on that day, Saul saw a light in addition to the sun, which could indicate that whenever Jesus reveals himself there is no need for a source of light apart from himself. What could have gone through Saul’s mind when he saw a source of light other than the sun? Did he think of Genesis 1, which says that light existed before God made the heavenly bodies?

The experience Saul had was similar to divine visits given to certain individuals in the Old Testament when God revealed himself in spectacular ways. Such visits are called theophanies and they created a sense of awe and fear in those who experienced them. The individuals realised that they were in the presence of God. And Saul too recognised that he was in the presence of God because his response was to ask, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He would have been shocked when he heard the reply, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting?’ Bruce Milne says it was a reply that ‘in an instant both shattered and re-formed Paul’s entire world’.

We can deduce two things from this divine encounter. First, Saul discovered that Jesus was divine, which would have incredible consequences for his ideas about God. Saul did not believe that God is a Trinity before this moment, but now he would have to learn more about God and about how one of the divine persons had become a man and all that was and is involved in God’s plan of salvation. Second, he would have learned that all his religious activities until then were not connected to the service of God. Instead, he had been sinning against the Lord. Those two thoughts must have been in Saul’s mind as he was led by the hand to Damascus.

The process of conversion

The Saviour did not tell everything to Saul immediately. Instead he was told to go into Damascus and more would be revealed to him there. We can imagine Saul at this time. Instead of being an initiator, he has become dependent. Instead of arranging events, he has to wait for what will happen. In those three days of physical darkness, he had to depend on Jesus and wait for him to do something. We can see how in a moment any confidence in his own abilities would have been removed. What could he do? Nothing apart from praying and thinking and fasting.

We have seen that Saul had discovered that Jesus was both divine and an exalted man. Moreover, he had discovered that he himself had been fighting against the kingdom of God. Saul would also be able to recall what he had learned about the Messiah and his kingdom from the Old Testament. On the Damascus Road he had been given the key that would open the meaning of those passages, and we can see that he had used it because he was able to preach about Jesus in Damascus as soon as sight was restored.

When a person is converted, they are enlightened about Jesus and they discover that he is the Saviour. One cannot be a Christian without this enlightenment. They also know that he is a Saviour from sin. Paul had both these details. Those converted also begin to pray, which is speaking to God because of Jesus. Paul had engaged in numerous formal prayers in his previous life, but he had never truly prayed. He now was experiencing the amazing change that occurs when someone is converted – they start to speak to God and do so because they know he is the One who sent the Saviour. This engagement in prayer was the sign to Ananias that Saul was a changed man and had become a believer.

The confirmation

Jesus informed Ananias through a vision that he should go to Saul and lay hands on him in order for him to regain his sight. Although he was initially surprised and afraid, Ananias was persuaded to go when the change in Saul was outlined. Jesus could have given Saul his sight without involving Ananias, but then there would have been no witnesses to confirm Saul’s story. Imagine how difficult it would have been for anyone to believe Saul if the Lord had not sent Ananias to him. In addition, how would Saul know what the response of the Christians would be to him? He had been told that Ananias would come, but what about afterwards?

When Ananias reached the house where Saul was, he said one of the most significant words in Saul’s life in particular and in human history in general. Remember Saul is blind when he feels the touch of the hands of Ananias. The first word he hears from another Christian after his conversion is the beautiful word, ‘brother.’ He had travelled to Damascus to arrest Ananias. Now he hears Ananias welcome him into the family of God.

The he heard Ananias announce the sovereignty of Jesus. This sovereignty extended to Ananias as well as to Saul. Both he and Saul were servants of the same Master. Ananias knew, since Jesus had informed him, that Saul was going to be a greater servant than him. Yet he also knew that no matter what Saul would do in the future, he would only be a servant of Jesus. Saul has been told by Jesus on the Damascus Road some of the matters that he would yet preach throughout the world (Acts 26:17-18).

The third detail that happened to Saul was his experience of a miracle when his sight was restored. Whatever else the miracle showed him it revealed the power of Jesus to perform physical miracles whenever he wished.

Fourth, Paul received the Holy Spirit in a special manner, which I would say is connected to the fulfilment of the special calling he had received from Jesus to be his apostle. The Spirit had been working in his heart during the previous three days revealing to him truths about his own state as a sinner who had rebelled against God and about Jesus who had come to save sinners. Yet he also needed the Spirit as the enabler who would empower him to fulfil the calling that Jesus detailed to Ananias about Saul, a calling that would include witnessing as his ambassador to different peoples and rulers as well as intense suffering.

What is the message that Saul would bring to the world? He describes it in his testimony in Acts 26 and which he says he received from Jesus on the Damascus Road. It would be about Jesus and what he could do for sinners. Through the declaration of the message sinners would be taken from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, they would be forgiven their sins, and they would find themselves now set apart to God. Though he did not know this at that time, many thousands in his own lifetime would hear the gospel from his lips, and since then many millions have been helped by his testimony and his writings to discover the way of life.

Three comments

The encounter with Jesus caused physical and spiritual turmoil for Saul of Tarsus. Physically he was blinded for a few days. Spiritually, he had discovered a fact that changed everything – Jesus is God. Later, when writing to the Galatians, Paul described his conversion as ‘But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.’ This discovery was an action of the Father as well as being an activity of the Son.

Saul received his first insights into a living doctrine that would have a strong emphasis in his teaching, that of union with Jesus. On the Damascus Road, Saul was informed that Jesus is united to his people. Saul had been persecuting Jesus when persecuting Christians.

There is something poignant in seeing that the one who had caused deep suffering for believers would himself experience similar suffering from others, all for the sake of Jesus. Saul would become a household name because of the great change he had experienced, but he also would go through many an ordeal for his faith, some of which he lists in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28: ‘Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.’

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