Ananias… laying his hands on him… 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.” Acts 9:17-18
Please open your Bible at Acts 9. We are looking at the conversion of the Apostle Paul, and this story is told three times in the book of Acts – here in chapter 9, and also in chapters 22 and 26. We will refer to each of these in order to get a full picture of this remarkable story.
I want you to see the relevance of this story.
This is a story about anger. Saul was “breathing threats and murder” (9:1). We are living in the age of outrage. People are angry. The issues vary but the sense of outrage seems to be universal.
It is a story of anger against Christians. Saul was breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord (9:1). Saul had it in for Christians. If you have ever felt anger against Christians this story is for you.
Notice that this anger had built up over a period of time. Saul was “still” breathing threats and slaughter (9:1). The worst kind of anger is the smoldering kind. It begins with you being offended. You take that into your heart, and it stays there. And while it smolders, it hollows you out from the inside.
This is the story of a religious man who turned to violence. Saul was motivated by the profound conviction that people of another religion must be eliminated. He made it his personal mission to destroy Christians, and he believed that he was serving God in what he was doing.
You can immediately see the relevance of this story to our world where we are plagued with acts of terrorism. The suicide bomber sincerely believes that he is doing the will of God and that he will be greatly rewarded in heaven for his taking of the lives of others.
That is exactly the position of this man Saul of Tarsus. He is “breathing out threats and murder” (9:1). He is ruthless and relentless in his campaign of violence. He acts in the name of God, convinced that God will reward him for what he is doing.
This story speaks to us in a profoundly personal way. The conversion of the Saul of Tarsus is a model of what must happen in each of our lives if we are to become true Christians.
Now some of you will be saying, “Surely not! Surely the experience of the Apostle Paul was unique, something never to be repeated.”
Think about what happened to him: “As he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed 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).
He sees a blinding light, and he hears an audible voice. This was not a man hearing voices in his head. Verse 7 tells us that those who were travelling with him heard the voice. This was not a psychological experience. Saul of Tarsus heard the voice of the Son of God as clearly as you are hearing my voice right now.
The blinding light was not a hallucination taking place in his mind. Why not? Because the effects of it were that Saul could no longer see. The blinding light burned his retina, so that the man who had come to arrest others had to be led by the hand into the city.
You read this story of the blinding light and the audible voice of the Son of God and your natural reaction is to think that that this story is about as remote from your experience as any conversion story could ever be.
And yet, Paul says, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 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. So, what happened to him that must also happen to us?
I want to show you from this story three marks of genuine conversion.
1. You Come to a True Knowledge of Jesus Christ
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).
Saul of Tarsus knew a great deal about Jesus. This man was a brilliant scholar and he had chosen to focus his attention on the followers of Jesus. He had made this study his specialty.
He knew the claim of Christians that Jesus was the promised Messiah – he was born of a virgin, and he lived a perfect life, fulfilling all that God has ever called us to do. He knew Christians had put a spin [that is how he would have thought of it] on the death of Jesus. Far from being an ignominious defeat, he laid down his perfect life as a sacrifice of sin, the end of all sacrifices. And he knew that God had vindicated this Jesus by raising him from the dead.
All of this was a matter of public record in Jerusalem. Peter had declared it publicly on the Day of Pentecost. Saul was present at the death of Stephen, and would have heard his lengthy defense of the gospel recorded in Acts 7. Having chosen to make his name and his career as the great oppressor of Christians, there is no question that Saul of Tarsus knew a great deal about Jesus.
But reflecting on his conversion, Paul makes this remarkable statement: “I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…” (1 Tim. 1:13).
Saul knew what Christians believed. He knew how Christians lived, but he says, “I acted ignorantly.” Why? Because at its heart, the Christian faith is not a set of beliefs to be debated. At its heart, it is not a way of life to be considered and then accepted or rejected. At its heart, the Christian faith is about a glorious person who even his enemies cannot ultimately avoid.
Saul had viewed the Christian faith as “organized religion,” a means of manipulation and social control, a set of beliefs that puts a spin on the life and death of Jesus in order to claim the loyalty and, no doubt, the money of naïve and unsuspecting people.
It made him angry. He set himself against it. He decided that he will do everything in his power to destroy it. So he strides out on the road to Damascus, and suddenly he falls to the ground, stopped in his tracks by a blinding light. He sees the risen Lord.
There are three accounts in the New Testament of what it was like for a person to see the glory of the Lord, and they all have one thing in common.
Three of the disciples – Peter, James and John – saw this when they went up a mountain with Jesus: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mat. 17:2).
Then they heard the audible voice of God: “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom, I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this they fell on their faces and were terrified” (17:5, 6).
The Apostle John heard a voice and he saw the glory of the risen Lord – “one like a son of man” (Rev. 1:13). “His eyes were like a flame of fire… his voice was like the roar of many waters… When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (1:14-15, 17).
iii. Damascus Road
We have the same thing here in this story of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul is surrounded by this glorious light. He falls to the ground, and he hears the audible voice of the Son of God calling him by name, and speaking to him directly: “Saul, Saul…”
You may say, “This all seems very remote from me. I have never had a Damascus Road experience.” One day you will!
What happened to Saul of Tarsus will day happen to you. One day you will be face-to-face with Jesus Christ. You will find yourself in the glorious presence of the Son of God. You will see his face. You will hear his voice. He will call you out by name.
In the First World War, there was a military chaplain who became known as “Woodbine Willie.” He got that nickname because he gave Woodbine cigarettes to the soldiers in the trenches. His real name was Studdert Kennedy, and he had a remarkable ministry to men who were literally on the verge of eternity.
Willie wrote poems, and one of them was about a soldier who had a dream in which he saw himself in the presence of the Lord, looking into the eyes of Jesus Christ. It is written in cockney dialect, so I am giving you my translated, adapted version for clarity! He wrote about this dream in a poem called Well?
The other night I dreamed a dream,
And, just between me and you,
I never dreamed like that before
I half thought it was true.
I dreamed that I was dead, you see,
At least that I had died,
For I was very much alive,
Out there on the other side.
There ain’t no throne, and there ain’t no books,
It’s Him you’ve got to see,
It’s Him, just Him that is the Judge
Of blokes like you and me.
And, boys, I’d sooner frizzle up,
In the flames of a burning hell,
Than stand and look into His face,
And hear His voice say—“Well?” 
One day you will see and hear Jesus Christ as surely as Saul did on the road to Damascus. What happened to him will happen to you. You will hear him voice call out your name, and he will say to you, “I am Jesus…”
You may think of Christianity as set of beliefs for you to debate and way of life for you to consider, but you are dealing with a person. And not just any person – this glorious person, the Son of God – and you cannot avoid it.
Paul would say to us, “I thought I knew all about Christianity, but I missed the risen Lord who lays claim to every life, including mine!” There is a sovereign Lord in heaven and his name is Jesus.
You are not dealing here with something but with someone. Seeing who he is changes everything.
2. You Come to a True Knowledge of Yourself
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5).
Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer is “I am Jesus.” Jesus, who was born in a manger. Jesus, who died on a cross. Jesus, who rose from the dead. Jesus, who is exalted in glory. Jesus, who you are persecuting!
Here is this brilliant man. He thought he was fighting a system, a belief, a religious movement, but he finds to his horror that he has set himself against this glorious person –Jesus, the Son of God.
Saul saw himself as a man with right on his side. He was a man on a mission and he was convinced that God would reward him. He saw himself as a man on his way to heaven, but when he met the risen Lord, he knew that he was a man on his way to hell. He had set himself against the glorious Son of God.
“Why are you persecuting me?” Paul was persecuting Christians, but Jesus says, “You are persecuting me!” Has it ever dawned on you that every sin you have ever committed is a personal offense against Jesus Christ?
Let me read another extract from Woodbine Willie’s poem.
I seemed to stand alone, beside
A solemn kind of sea.
Its waves, they got inside my mind,
And touched my memory,
And day by day, and year by year,
My life came back to me.
I saw just what I was, and what
I’d had the chance to be.
And all the good I might have done,
And hadn’t stopped to do.
I saw I’d made a hash of it,
And God knows, that was true.
A throng of faces came and went,
before me on that shore,
My wife, and mother, kids and pals,
And the face of a London whore.
And then as these memories come back, he sees the face of Jesus Christ.
It seemed to me as though His face
Were millions rolled in one;
It never changed yet always changed,
Like the sea beneath the sun.
‘Twere all men’s face yet no man’s face,
And a face no man can see,
And it seemed to say in silent speech,
“Ye did ’em all to Me.
The dirty things you did to them,
The filth you thought was fine,
Ye did ’em all to Me,” it said,
“For all their souls were Mine.”
All eyes were in His eyes–all eyes,
My wife’s and a million more;
And once I thought that those two eyes
Were the eyes of the London whore.
And they were sad – O God, how sad,
with tears that seemed to shine,
And quivering bright with the speech of light
They said, “‘Her soul was Mine.”
And then at last He said one word!
He just said one word, –“Well?”
And I said in a funny voice,
“Please can I go to Hell?”
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
When we wound others, we wound Jesus. When you grieve others, you grieve Jesus. If you abuse others, you abuse Jesus. If you lie to others, you lie to Jesus.
Saul would say, “I thought I was doing what I did to people who deserved what they got. Then I discovered that I was doing what I did to the sovereign Lord of the universe.”
Suddenly this man has a completely different view of himself. He thought he was on the road to heaven, but he discovers that he is on the road to hell. He has sinned against the sovereign Lord of the universe, and far from being a righteous man who would be richly rewarded by God, the only thing he can do is cast himself on the mercy of God.
This gets to the heart of what happens when a person becomes a Christian. When you come to know Jesus Christ, you will come to a whole new understanding of yourself. When you see yourself as you really are, the swagger will be gone, and there will be a new humility about you. When you see that you are a man or a woman whose only hope lies in the mercy of God, your anger will soon drain away.
Seeing Christ as he is will lead you to see yourself as you are, and that will lead you to submit yourself wholly and without reservation to him.
3. You Submit Yourself Entirely to Jesus Christ
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).
If you think that submitting yourself to Jesus sounds like a terrible burden, I want you to know that it is an enormous relief. I say that because of this account of Saul’s conversion recorded for us in Acts 26.
Goads were sharpened sticks used by shepherds to prod stubborn animals. The Lord says to Saul, “You are kicking against the goads!”
Imagine a row of metal spikes, like javelins, lying horizontal about two feet off the ground, pointing at you. A man comes up beside you. He is angry, and with all the force he can muster, he kicks the spikes. The spikes go through the toe of his trainers, and the man pulls back in pain.
But his pain makes him every more angry, and so he lashes out again. The spikes sink into his shoe and blood now flows freely from his foot. He can’t 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 the goads, all that happens is that you injure yourself. And the more you do it, the worse it gets.
Is that a picture of what you are doing? Repeating time after time what has hurt you before. It is as if you are 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. “Lord, what do you want me to do?” (Acts 22:10). If you will submit yourself entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ today, you will know an enormous relief.
Lord, I have been kicking against the spikes. I have been acting as if I was the sovereign Lord of my own life, deciding what I will believe and what I will do. I have been acting as if I was my own god, and in the process I have only been destroying myself. I now see that my only hope is to submit myself completely to you.
Here is the good news. When Saul says, “Who are you Lord?” The answer is not: “I am Jesus, whom you have been persecuting, and you’re done for!” That would have been justice, but Jesus meets him, not with justice, but with mercy.
“I received mercy… The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13, 14). He received that mercy as a sample of the mercy that Jesus Christ offers to all of us today.
Metal spikes were hammered into the hands and feet of Jesus, so that you could receive mercy, and kicking against the spikes would not be the end for Saul or for you.
 Adapted from the poem: Well? from, The Unutterable Beauty: The Collected Poetry of G. A. Studdert Kennedy, p. 137-142, Hodder & Stoughton, 1927.
© Colin S. Smith
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