“1But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-2
The above account from the book of Acts details the murderous actions of a man named Saul against 1st Century Christians, known as followers of the Way (likely derived from Jesus’ statement in John 14:6). The author of Acts, Luke, writes that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. We need only be reminded of Luke’s account a couple chapters earlier of the stoning of Stephen where we were first introduced to this man named Saul, “58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Acts 7:58
At the beginning of the next chapter we read more insight into the intentions of this man named Saul against the church of Jesus Christ, “1And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Acts 8:1-3
Let’s look again at verse 3, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Certainly we can picture this scene and it’s not a pretty one. It’s unlikely that dragging men and women off to prison is meant to convey a peaceful tone. It seems appropriate to assume there was a struggle; perhaps the people crying out for mercy to God and their captors; children seeing their father beaten and perhaps their mother being dragged out of her home by her hair all at the hands of a man named Saul. Though unwritten in the biblical account, it doesn’t seem inconsistent to imagine the details of the horrific events. Would it be too different than what is happening in the Middle East to Christians today? It seems safe to say that similarities would likely abound and it’s brutal portrait. The vacuous term “hate crime” would have been fitting to describe the actions of Saul against the Christians, for he genuinely hated them and the Man they represented. This is the background of Saul and the landscape of Jerusalem at the time we enter into our passage from Acts 9.
With that in mind, notice what we read next,
“3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Acts 9:3-6
Saul was on his way to Damascus, likely to continue ravaging and persecuting Christians when he is interrupted on the road by a blinding light and a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What courage and hope this offers believers who are being persecuted today. Our Lord is neither blind nor ignorant of the actions of wicked men who would savagely beat, kill, discredit, shame, ostracize, etc. those who are followers of His. He is fully sovereign over these events and intimately aware of the details, even to the counting the number of hairs on the head of the persecuted. As it relates to Saul, He knows the brutal persecution that has come at his hands and our Lord confronts him with the question why are you persecuting Me? Again, the comfort that believers can take in knowing that the temporary suffering that we endure in this world is felt by our Lord. He takes it as personal persecution. The evil actions of men against Christians are nothing less than evil actions against the Lord Jesus Christ.
Given the level of brutal persecution that Saul has inflicted upon the early church, one might expect that his day of reckoning has arrived. Finally the cries for justice would be met by the sovereign and just right hand of the Lord God Almighty, right? Thankfully, God’s idea of justice and our idea of justice are rarely equivalent. Instead of pouring out vengeance upon Saul for his vile actions against Christ’s church he tells Saul to “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do”.
Saul’s companions then lead the blind man into the city where he waits for three days, neither eating nor drinking. As we read through the section of the passage we find our Lord’s plan continuing to unveil by involving a man named Ananias,
“And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
This same Saul who just days earlier was brutally ravaging men and women who were followers of Christ is now left humbled and broken at the mercy of God and we read of him praying, waiting on the Lord; quite a turn of events in just a short time period. Saul’s reputation was not limited to just the Christians in Jerusalem whom he had accosted; Ananias is in Damascus and is fully aware of the wake of carnage that Saul has left behind, so much so that he offers objection to the command of our Lord, “13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” For Ananias, to approach Saul meant sure death. His objection, as though our Lord was ignorant to the deeds of Saul, was out of self-preservation. How patient and kind is our Lord in dealing gently with the fearful Ananias and offering him words of encouragement about His plan, “15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Now wait a second. Is this justice for those who have been brutally ravaged, ripped from their families and homes, even murdered at the hands of this man Saul? Doesn’t he deserve to pay for his crimes against humanity? We like to hear verse 16, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” because it sounds like a just retribution for the crimes of atrocity that Saul has committed. But when we read of verse 15, “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” we’d prefer to object. The objection is not limited to the world, whose eyes are blinded to reality of redemption and reconciliation in Christ, but also from professing Christians who too often fail to realize the power of conversion, the meaning of spiritual life from the dead, and the working of grace at the merciful hand of God in their own lives. Obviously this is a general statement and certainly not the sentiment of all believers, but if we are honest with ourselves typically our first cry is one for justice against the sinner not mercy.
Concluding our account of Saul’s conversion we read of Ananias’ commissioning of him, “17So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.” Acts 9:17-19
Continuing on with Paul’s immediate response to his conversion:
“For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. 23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” Acts 9:19-25
Saul, called Paul in Acts 13:9, immediately responded to his conversion by proclaiming the name of Christ and affirming His deity as the Son of God. The very actions and statements that he once condemned as blasphemous and sought to ravage the church of Christ as a result of, he was now affirming himself. In fact, his proclamation of Christ led to his own persecution and plots of death (vs. 23). The power of Christ in the conversion of Paul turned him from one vehemently opposed to the message of the Gospel, one who ravaged the church, was complicit in the murder of Christians, and dragged men and women from their homes into prisons, into arguably the boldest witness for the Gospel that the world has ever known.
When we read of this within the context of Acts, we understand that this man named Saul has a conversion experience like no other on the Road to Damascus. We know how mightily Saul/Paul was used by the Lord in spreading His name and establishing His church. However, we disconnect this passage from our own real world experiences and fail to see the power of conversion in the lives of sinners today. Those who may have been murderers like Paul, or child abusers, or sex offenders, or the worst that society has to offer who have been miraculously converted to Christ through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit; raised from death unto life; and useful for the Master’s good work (2 Timothy 2:21). Paul was that guy. He readily admits his sin in his letter to young Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost” 1 Timothy 1:15 and openly confesses the person that he was in persecuting the church Acts 22:3-5; Philippians 3:6. But he is intimately aware of the power of Christ in his life in converting him from wretched, murderous sinner to a glorious saint. Romans 1:16; Philippians 3:8-11
Let us not fail to understand the power of Christ in the conversion of sinners. Let us not be guilty of snubbing our noses at the mass murderer serving a life sentence who has been turned to Christ and now leads a Bible study in prison proclaiming the Gospel to the worst of society. Let us not fail to recognize the power of God’s grace in the lives of others. Last of all, let us not fail to recognize that God did not save us because we were good or not as bad as others. We too were dead in trespasses and sins, guilty of blasphemy and rebellion against a holy God and guilty of violating His holy standard. But God…who had mercy on us (Ephesians 2:4)…so too can have mercy on whomever He wills (Romans 9:18), even those whom society deems as a lost cause or too bad, and such were some of you (1 Corinthians 6:11). This is the power of Christ in conversion.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Image Credit: La conversion de Saint Paul by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.