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 the day of Pentecost, the Christian church grew rapidly in Jerusalem. But from the beginning, the apostles faced hostility. Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was put to death by stoning, and “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). At the center of it was a Pharisee by the name of Saul.
God can turn His most bitter enemies into His closest friends. He is able to change even the hardest of hearts, and we see this in the story of how the greatest enemy of the church became its leading apostle.
Saul of Tarsus had made it his mission to destroy Christians, and he believed he was serving God (Acts 9:1–2). “As he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 9:3–4).
Saul saw a blinding light, and he heard an audible voice. This was not a psychological experience. Those who were traveling with him heard the voice. And the blinding light was not a hallucination. It burned his retina and left him blind.
You may be thinking, “Nothing like this could ever happen to me.” And yet Paul says, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me… Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example” (1 Timothy 1:16). In what sense is the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, an example, a model, or a pattern for us?
Clearly, Paul does not mean that in order to become a Christian, you have to hear an audible voice and be blinded by a heavenly light. But the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is a model of what must happen in our lives if we are to become true Christians.
A True Knowledge of Jesus Christ
Saul knew a great deal about Jesus. He was a brilliant scholar, and his focus was on the followers of Jesus. He knew the claim of Christians that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that He had risen from the dead.
But reflecting on his conversion, he says, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly” (1 Timothy 1:13). Saul knew what Christians believed, and he knew how Christians lived. But he didn’t know the Savior they worshiped. But that all changed when Saul was surrounded by a blinding light, and heard the Son of God calling him by name: “Saul, Saul… ” (Acts 9:4).
You may say, “This all seems very remote to me. I have never had a Damascus Road experience.” But one day you will see Jesus Christ as surely as Saul did. What happened to him will happen to you. You will hear His voice, and He will call you by name.
You may think of Christianity as a set of beliefs for you to debate, or a way of life for you to consider. But Paul says, “Here is what I missed!” We are dealing here with a person, and not just any person—a unique and glorious person, the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ who lays claim to every life. Seeing who He is changes everything.
A True Knowledge of Yourself
Then Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer was: “I am Jesus” (Acts 9:5). Saul thought he was fighting a system, a belief, a religious movement, but he found, to his horror, that he had set himself against the Son of God.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5). Saul was persecuting Christians, but Jesus said to him, “Why are you persecuting me?” (9:4; 26:14). Every sin we ever committed is a personal offense against Jesus Christ. When we wound others, we wound Jesus. When we grieve others, we grieve Jesus. If we abuse others, we abuse Jesus.
Suddenly Saul had a completely different view of himself. He thought he was on the road to heaven, but he discovered that he was on the road to hell. He had sinned against the sovereign Lord of the universe and, far from being a righteous man who would be richly rewarded by God, he found he was a sinner who could only cast himself on the mercy of God.
Saul had been telling himself that he was a good person for years. He had regarded himself as “blameless” (Philippians 3:6), but when he saw himself as he really was—a bitter, angry person, filled with resentment toward others and toward God—he began to change.
When you come to know Jesus Christ, you will have a new understanding of yourself. The swagger will be gone, and there will be a new humility about you.
When You Don’t Know How to Stop
Submission to the Lord Jesus Christ will bring you enormous relief. Christ said to Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Goads were sharpened sticks used by shepherds to prod stubborn animals.
Imagine a row of metal spikes, like javelins, lying horizontal about two feet off the ground. A man comes up beside you. He is angry, and with all the force he can muster, he kicks the spikes. A spike goes through the toe of his shoe, and the man recoils in pain.
But his pain makes him even more angry, so he lashes out again. This time the spike sinks deeper into his shoe and blood now flows freely from his foot. But the man cannot stop, and you wince as he steps up and kicks again and again until his foot is reduced to pulp.
“Saul, Saul… it is hard for you to kick against the goads.” You don’t hurt the spikes when you kick against them, all that happens is that you injure yourself. And the more you do it, the worse it gets.
Is this a picture of what you are doing? Repeating time after time what has hurt you before? Driven by some inner compulsion, you keep doing what hurts you and you don’t know how to stop.
There’s only one way to stop, and that is to submit yourself entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). When you submit yourself to Jesus, you will experience enormous relief.
Saul said, “I received mercy…” (1 Timothy 1:13). Metal spikes were hammered into the hands and feet of Jesus so that you could receive mercy and that kicking against the spikes would not be the end for you.
God Works through People
Saul was blind and lying in the dust, but Jesus said to him, “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6).
When Jesus shows you that you are a sinner and that your only hope is to cast yourself on His mercy, His purpose is not to leave you groveling in the dust. He will lift you up and send you out to fulfill His purpose in the world.
Saul went into Damascus, and for three days, he gave himself to prayer and fasting (Acts 9:9, 11): Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, show me what You want me to do. The answer to Saul’s prayer came through a person—a man by the name of Ananias.
Saul came to know Christ through a direct encounter with the risen Lord. God broke through the pride and prejudice of this man’s heart by a direct intervention. No one shared the gospel with him. No one else was involved in his conversion.
But when Saul asked “What shall I do, Lord?” the Lord said, “Rise and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.” It’s as if the Lord says to him: “You have been awakened to who I am by My direct intervention in your life, but that is not how it will normally be.” God uses means. His normal way is to work through His people.
“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias” (9:10). The Lord spoke to him in a vision and told him to go to the house where Saul was praying. Ananias did not want to go, and you can hardly blame him. God was calling him to pray for a man who three days earlier would gladly have killed him. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem” (9:13). But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go…” (9:15). And thank God that he did!
Helping a New Believer
Saul was blind, and for three days he had been sitting in complete darkness. His entire campaign against Christians was based on the conviction that God is a God of vengeance, and now he had discovered that he deserved the vengeance of God.
Saul has been killing disciples of Jesus, and now a disciple of Jesus arrived and placed his hands on the blind man’s head. It must have been a terrifying moment—What’s he gonna do to me? But the first words Saul heard were: “Brother Saul…” (9:17). Saul, my brother! Ananias surrounded Saul with love, forgiveness, and grace.
When a person comes to faith in Jesus, our first responsibility is to surround them with love. Then we must help to ground them in the gospel. This is what Ananias did for Saul.
Saul’s blindness was a sign of the judgment of God, and when Ananias prayed for his sight to be restored, it was a sign to Saul that God’s judgment had been taken away. It was an assurance that Christ had shown him mercy, and that he had been brought into an entirely new relationship with God.
Ananias commissioned Saul, whom we know better as the apostle Paul, for ministry. You will “carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15).
When people are converted, we are to embrace them as brothers or sisters in Christ. We are to ground them in the gospel, and we are to help them discover the work that God has for them to do. Christ uses this ministry to turn outsiders into insiders and to turn enemies into friends.
When Saul was awakened to his need for Christ, the first Christian he met loved him, forgave him, prayed for him, baptized him, fed him, guided him, and prepared him. God works through people: Paul prayed, and the answer came through Ananias.
The principle of God working through people is foundational to the ministry and to the mission of the church. God can transform a human life without any other person being involved, but He chooses to work through His people. “We are God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
Jesus Christ is able to transform the life of any person, even a person who has been openly hostile to Him. This transformation is a work of God that begins at conversion, in which we discover our need for mercy and submit ourselves to Christ. When you are converted, God has work for you to do. And as you commit yourself to a local church, other believers will help you discover that work.
- In what sense is the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, an example, a model, or a pattern for us? What happened to him that must also happen to us?
- Was there a time in your life when you thought you understood Christianity, but you didn’t? What was missing?
- Respond to the statement: “When you come to know Jesus Christ, you will come to a new understanding of yourself.”
- Who in your life needs to be surrounded with love, brought to a clearer knowledge of the gospel, or encouraged to serve?
- How do you respond to God’s word that says, “We are God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9)?