Date: 10 Apr 2016
Text: Acts 9:1-19
Last week we spent a few minutes looking at the trials and tribulations that Peter and the other disciples faced as they went about the regions of Galilee and Jerusalem and sometimes further afield preaching, teaching and healing in the name of Jesus. They came across many people who wanted to see an end to their activities and one of the most zealous of their ‘enemies’ was a leading Jew and Pharisee by the name of Saul.
By this time the followers of Jesus were known as The Way, a name probably arising from Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6a). Saul hated the members of The Way with a vengeance and went hither and thither doing his utmost to get rid of them. What one might call the high point of his crusade against the followers of Jesus came with the stoning to death of Stephen. We can read about this in Acts 7:54-8:1 and although Saul didn’t throw any stones himself he was undoubtedly the instigator and as I like to view it, he held the coats while others did the dirty work.
Following the stoning of Stephen we read in 8:3 that, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” Saul probably felt invincible and that nothing was going to stop him from his avowed intent to destroy The Way and all those who followed Jesus. Having dealt with Stephen, he decided to go to Damascus to continue his work there.
Saul was undoubtedly an extremely zealous pursuer of followers of The Way and he really did have quite a pedigree to support his claims to being a righteous Jew. We know from the letter that he wrote to the Philippians some time after his conversion that he had great claims to being a true Jew. He says in Philippians 3:3-6, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by His Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
Saul may well have had a faultless pedigree as a Jew and a Pharisee but he was obviously an angry and evil individual when it came to opposing Jesus and all that He stood for and did. From what we can read of his activities in parts of the earlier chapters in Acts, Saul seems to have been absolutely determined to curtail the spreading of the gospel, even if that meant using or inciting violence.
As part of his campaign against The Way, Saul decided to go to Damascus to visit the synagogues and root out Jesus’ followers from those synagogues. Damascus is approximately 130 miles northeast of Jerusalem and the journey there would have taken anything up to six days.
Before he left, Saul went to the High Priest, who at that time was Caiaphas, to seek letters of authorisation for his task. Even though he was an important figure within Jewish circles, in order to comply with the law Saul still needed documentation to help him go about his task, which is why he went to the High Priest to obtain the paperwork to take to the synagogues. The NIV refers to “letters” (9:2), The Message translation describes them as “arrest warrants”, whilst the NEB talks of them being “letters to the synagogues authorising him to arrest anyone he found, men or women, who followed the new way”, words which may have been closer to the truth. After all, Saul was on his way to arrest any men or women who were in the synagogues and found to be followers of Jesus, and these warrants would give him the authority to do just that. We can determine from 9:7, that Saul was accompanied in this task by a number of others although we have no idea how many or who they were.
As they made their way towards Damascus, presumably on the last day of the journey, we read that “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (9:3). This happened at around noon and so it would be easy to think that this was simply a very bright sun. However, Paul tells us later in Acts 22:6b that “a bright light from heaven flashed around me”, and this was obviously a light that was far brighter than any sunlight Paul had ever experienced. As this light flashed around him, Saul fell to the ground and as he did so he heard a voice speaking to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). We learn later in 9:7 that whilst Saul’s companions saw the light they didn’t hear a voice just as the newly named Paul tells us in Acts 22:9 that, “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.” That tells me that this voice was speaking only to Saul and no one else. Whatever was to come was intended only for Saul to hear. That happens today when God speaks to an individual about an issue but to no one else. God doesn’t just communicate to a group of people or to a large fellowship; He also communicates directly with individuals especially, but not exclusively, when He is calling them by name to serve Him.
Saul was not surprisingly totally bewildered by what was happening and was only able to mutter or mumble, “Who are you, Lord?” (9:5a). I wonder how Saul felt when the voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5b). Having already persecuted many, many followers of The Way, Saul was now on his way to persecute even more followers in Damascus. By persecuting the followers of Jesus, he was also of course persecuting Jesus Himself. The Lord feels every barb and every pain that is inflicted on His followers even today. Christians today aren’t simply following someone as if He was a great politician, or film star, or overpaid Premier League footballer; they are following their Lord and Saviour, the One Who suffered and died for them. That is an entirely different matter. Jesus walks beside us each and every day and He is more than aware of what is happening to us. He is also aware of all those who persecute His family which is why He now confronted Saul over his activities.
Having identified Himself, Jesus then told Saul to get up and go into the city where he would be told what he must do. Everyone at the time would have known just Who this was when the voice said, “I am Jesus”; there was no need for anything else to be said by way of identifying Who was speaking. Saul would most certainly have known Who was speaking to him. There is a suggestion that at the time of Jesus’ trial during the night shortly before His crucifixion, Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin and as such would have been amongst those who condemned Jesus to death. If that was the case how must Saul have felt at that moment as he was confronted by the One he had helped to condemn to death on a cross?
I find it interesting that having been challenged by Jesus, Saul didn’t say anything; nor do we read specifically that he expressed faith in Jesus Christ. Firstly, I suspect that Saul was so dumbstruck that he was unable to utter more than those few words when he asked Who was speaking to him; and secondly, I think Saul’s actions make it very clear that he realised that this was most definitely Jesus and he should place his faith in the risen Jesus Christ.
It is also interesting to see that whilst his travelling companions knew something was happening, they could not hear any voice whatsoever, and so they were dumbstruck at what was happening to Saul. Eventually Jesus told Saul to “get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (9:6). Saul was probably in a state of shock but did exactly as he was told. Unfortunately when he did stand up and opened his eyes he couldn’t see anything; he was blind. That meant that his friends had to lead him by the hand into Damascus. We aren’t told immediately where Saul was taken although we learn later that he was taken to the house of Judas on Straight Street where he stayed for three days, during which time he neither ate nor drank. I doubt that this was deliberate fasting as it seems likely that Saul was so shaken by this amazing experience that he was simply unable to eat or drink for those three days. Strangely for Saul, someone who was very learned and generally very active, all he could do was just sit there in blind silence. No doubt he was able to reflect on just Who God was and what he had been doing thinking that he was pleasing God. In his mind Saul had been serving God and pleasing him by observing the Law and persecuting those who failed to follow suit. Now, thanks to this encounter with the risen Jesus Christ, he was discovering the opposite. All that he had done was to serve the Law and not God; and all that he had done displeased God as it was persecuting the very One He had sent as Lord and Saviour of the world. I wonder what was going through Saul’s mind as he sat there. Jesus had said to him to wait and he would be told what to do. I don’t know if that time of waiting felt like an eternity or went like lightening, although I can imagine that it was quite a mentally and emotionally painful 72 hours.
It is now that we meet another very important player in this dramatic story when we meet Ananias who was a disciple of the Lord. The Lord called to him in a vision and told him to go to the house in Straight Street where he was to ask for a man by the name of Saul of Tarsus and when he had found him he was to lay hands on him and restore his sight.
Now Ananias as a loyal and faithful disciple of Jesus knew exactly what had been happening in and around Jerusalem and was also aware that Saul had been coming to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus, people like him. Now, Jesus Himself was asking him to meet Saul and restore his eyesight. Horror of horrors; what was Ananias to do? Whilst he wanted to obey Jesus he also knew of Saul’s reputation and was no doubt more than a little worried as to what might happen. What would you do? Here is Saul on his way to your city to do you harm in one way or another and Jesus asks you to care for him. Would you look after your own skin or do as Jesus asked? Perhaps God sensed Ananias’ worries just as He senses our daily worries and concerns. Rather interestingly on this occasion God felt the need to explain to Ananias what was happening and so said to him, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (9:15). Ananias heard God’s words and being a truly faithful follower of Jesus, trusted Him and did exactly as Jesus asked. He went to the house in which Saul was staying and placed his hands upon him. Look at 9:17 and see the way that Ananias greeted Saul: “Brother Saul”. The NEB words it in a slightly different but perhaps slightly better way when it puts the greeting as, “Saul, my brother”. Ananias had never met Saul and probably would never have met him had it not been for Jesus asking him to help this new disciple. And yet Ananias felt able to regard him as a brother, a brother in Christ. If Jesus said that he was OK then that was fine by Ananias and he could accept Saul as a brother. When we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour we become part of God’s family and that immediately means that we have more brothers and sisters than we could possibly ever imagine. Having greeted this new brother, Ananias laid hands on Saul and said to him, “Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (9:17). It was important that not only did Saul have his sight restored but that he received the Holy Spirit to give him the power and the strength to serve Jesus. We all receive the Holy Spirit when we come to faith and it is through Him that we are able to do whatever we do in serving Christ.
Let’s just go back to 9:15 for a moment. God had called Saul His “chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles”. This was a man who had made it his ambition to totally eradicate The Way and all who followed Jesus, and yet God had chosen him to proclaim His name. It may seem strange to us that God would choose such a person. However, God knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows everything about us. Consequently He recognises those who are specially gifted to serve Him in special ways. We know that Saul was a great Jewish scholar and although he had been God’s enemy, God obviously felt that he was just the man. Saul’s conversion also demonstrates God’s power and how He can turn people around in the blink of an eye. As a result of this encounter with the risen Jesus Saul became a new man. The same happens to us when we come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we become new people. There is a song that we sing from time to time that begins, “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation...” Saul undoubtedly thought that in doing what he did he was serving God. He was totally wrong in that as in God’s eyes he was still a sinner and was therefore condemned to death. By welcoming Jesus into his life, he was no longer condemned but forgiven. Look back at Acts 8 and see what Saul had done. Look at the beginning of Acts 9 and see what he was planning to do. Despite that, God forgave him and accepted him into his family, and he can do the same for us.
Remember that Saul had been blinded by the brightness of the light in which Jesus appeared, and he was blind for the three days that he was alone in the house on Straight Street. However, as soon as Ananias laid hands on him, “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes” (9:17). Once again this was God’s power at work through one of His followers. Saul had been blinded for several reasons; those reasons including the need to bring some humility to his life and to give him a taste of the suffering that was to come as he served Jesus. No sooner had he received his sight than Saul got up and was baptised, and having done that he had something to eat to regain his strength. Saul then stayed a number of days in Damascus with other disciples when I’ve no doubt he got to know them and built relationships in preparation for whatever God had in store for him.
This is one of the most amazing conversion stories ever told. It is incredible to think that the risen Jesus could appear to someone who at the time was probably His greatest enemy and appoint him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. But, that is exactly what Jesus did.
Saul’s conversion had to be special in order to turn him around from being a persecutor to being persecuted in the name of Christ. He was the leading opponent of The Way and as a Jewish zealot would not have agreed with Jesus in an intellectual discussion. He did however respond to the greatness of God when Jesus appeared in person right there before him on the road to Damascus.
Coming to faith in Jesus is vital for everyone’s long term wellbeing. However, we mustn’t think that our conversion has to be like Saul’s and that because such an event didn’t happen to us that we haven’t been saved. Every conversion is different with some coming to faith in an instant and some coming slowly as they develop a genuine understanding of the need to come to faith in Jesus Christ. The important thing is not the nature of our conversion; the important thing is that we do come to faith in Jesus just as Saul did on that dramatic day on the Damascus Road.