The Conversion of Saul
1 But 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. 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.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 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.” 13 But 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.” 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. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So 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.
Saul Proclaims Jesus in Synagogues
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.
After Pentecost, the new believers quickly established four priorities: learning from the apostles’ teaching, growing in fellowship, breaking bread together, and praying (Acts 2:42).
The first believers were all Jewish, and in the earliest days, they met in the courts of the temple and in homes. The depth of their commitment to each other was demonstrated as they sold their possessions and gave to people in need. God performed many miracles through the apostles, and the believers enjoyed wide support across the city of Jerusalem.
A Pattern of Persecution
The temple authorities took a different view. They arrested Peter and John and brought them before Caiaphas, who had interrogated and condemned Jesus. The ruling council instructed the apostles not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Peter and John responded by saying that they could not stop speaking about what they had “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Later, all the apostles were arrested. And when that did not stop them, the ruling council had them flogged. It was their first taste of what would become a pattern of persecution.
As the number of believers continued to grow, they appointed leaders to oversee the ministry so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and preaching the Word of God (6:2–4).
Stephen was the first man chosen for this work, and he became the target of a group who wanted to destroy the community of believers. He was arrested and tried on false charges (6:9–14), just as Jesus had been before. He gave a marvelous defense of his faith, but before he could finish, he was dragged out of the city and stoned (Acts 7). Stephen became the first Christian martyr, the first of many who have given their lives in serving the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stephen’s death was the beginning of a wave of persecution against the early believers, who left Jerusalem and scattered (8:1). One especially zealous Pharisee by the name of Saul was determined to hunt them down. With the support of the high priest, he set out to pursue them. The first city that he targeted was Damascus.
The Apostle to the Gentiles
It was on the road to Damascus that Christ intercepted Saul’s life. He was blinded by a brilliant light, and he heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Confronted directly by the risen Lord Jesus, the whole direction of his life turned around, and the greatest enemy of the church became its greatest champion. We know him better as the apostle Paul.
Like most of the first believers, Paul was a Jew. But God commissioned him to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world. And it was through Paul’s missionary journeys that churches were planted throughout the Roman Empire.
God spoke to Paul directly, just as He had spoken to the prophets in the Old Testament. The New Testament includes thirteen of his letters, beginning with the book of Romans to which we will turn in the next chapter.
No Stranger to Suffering
You might think that a person so uniquely used by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit would live a life of constant triumph, but Paul spoke candidly about his experience of weakness. His testimony gives us an insight into one of the deep valleys of the Christian life.
Paul was no stranger to suffering. On five occasions he endured thirty-nine lashes. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. And three times he was shipwrecked (2 Corinthians 11:24–25). Constantly on the move, he faced danger wherever he went. This man was no wimp.
Paul endured something that was deeply painful in his life, which he describes as his “thorn in [the] flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We don’t know what this was, but knowing Paul’s courage, we can be confident that it was no minor irritation.
He pleaded with God for relief from this problem, but God did not give him what he asked. Instead, God gave him this promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The mark of true spirituality is not that God gives you everything you ask, but that you walk with Him when He does not.
The Pressures of Ministry
The reason Paul experienced weakness was not that he lacked courage or stamina. It was that God had put him in situations that pushed him well beyond the boundaries of his own comfort. He knew what it was to feel utterly, unbearably crushed, and at one point he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8; see also 11:28–29).
Those who throw themselves into the work of Christian ministry will soon experience the weakness that Paul knew. As you follow Christ, you will experience times of discouragement and even exhaustion. You will face unanswered questions and problems that seem to have no resolution.
But this weakness is not something to be afraid of or ashamed of. Paul saw his experiences of weakness as opportunities because this was where Christ’s power rested on him (12:9). It will be the same for you.
In Christian ministry, strength that knows itself to be strength is actually weakness, and weakness that knows itself to be weakness in God’s hand is strength. That is why Paul said, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
A View from the First Valley
Never imagine that your feeling of weakness means that you are out of the will of God. If you wait until you feel confident before you move forward in what God is calling you to do, you may never get to it.
Jesus did not live within cautiously safe limits. When He says, “Follow Me,” He calls us beyond ourselves and leads us outside our comfort zones. A person who knows only his strength and not his weakness has not followed far.
God often puts us in situations where we know that we are out of our depth so that we will learn to depend on Him. When you experience weakness, Christ’s power will rest on you. And it will be obvious that what you accomplish has been done by God.
- Think of a situation you have faced (or are facing) that caused you to feel completely overwhelmed. What have you seen God doing in your life through this experience of weakness?