Please read Acts 9: 1-19 and then pray; Gracious God, open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your Word and live my life for the glory of your Name. Amen!
We are in a season in which we are considering the great historical fact and the mighty doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. During this Easter season, we are often being drawn into some of the stories concerning Jesus’s resurrection appearances to his followers – to specific disciples. Last week for example, the bible reading from John 19 took us to Jesus’ post resurrection appearance and meeting with his disciples behind locked doors. On that first Easter Sunday evening, one disciple, Thomas, was not present. A week later, he was present, and Jesus invited him to touch his wounds. Thomas did not need to do that. He could see Jesus was physically alive. No further proof was needed by the one who had doubted. Thomas simply worshipped Jesus with by exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” (John 19:28). Many others saw the resurrected Lord over a period of 40 days after his resurrection and before his ascension. Luke writes this at the beginning of the book of Acts.
After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
All the appearances of the risen Lord Jesus took place during this forty-day period – except one – a very, very notable one. The last resurrection appearance occurred quite some time later. This forty-day period had long gone by then. Quite a lot of time had elapsed between the ascension of Jesus and Saul’s Damascus road encounter with Christ. This encounter was to be a one-off, extra-ordinary, remarkable, miraculous, unrepeatable appearance to a man who would become the greatest apostle of all Christ’s apostles. A unique calling to a unique man required a unique encounter with the living Christ – and this is what we have in Acts 9. This is supernatural. This is glorious and hugely significant from a historical perspective. This represents another massive turning point in the history of God’s salvation plans for the world. As the Christian writer Bruce Milne explains”:
The coming to faith of the apostle Paul, the leader of the extension into the Gentile world, and the largest contributor to the New Testament was an event of almost incalculable significance.”
The great bible preacher and teacher John Stott describes this as “the most famous conversion in Christian history.” This “most famous” of conversions and transformations is so because of the very nature of the encounter. It was an encounter with the living Lord Jesus. Saul knew it. Others also came to know about it and understand it to be such, including a man called Ananias. (Acts 9:17)
In Paul’s very great chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he begins by outlining the way Christ appeared to many people, including all the apostles, and even to a crowd of 500 witnesses on one particular occasion (v6). As he comes to verse 7, he then states that Jesus appeared personally to his own brother James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared TO ME ALSO – as to one abnormally born.
What Saul of Tarsus experienced on the Damascus Road was not normal, it was utterly abnormal, “miraculous” – and it was late – but it happened precisely when God ordained that it should happen to the very man God had specifically “chosen to be his special instrument” for taking the gospel to the Gentile world. (v15) Paul’s significance simply cannot be exaggerated, and even though he insisted that he was “the least of all the apostles”, most now insist, that he was in fact the greatest and by far the most influential of all the apostles, and the greatest Christian thinker and evangelist of all time.
Taking time therefore, to once again consider his dramatic conversion, and its impact for the glory of God, is very important, and something from which we can derive huge encouragement and inspiration.
The great significance of Saul’s conversion is also shown by the fact that this is recorded three times in the book of Acts. What we have in chapter 9 is Luke’s version of Saul’s conversion as part of his general narrative concerning the story of the early Church and its phenomenal growth. As Luke was a travelling companion of Paul, he was able to record Paul’s own testimony and experience. But we also have two other accounts of Saul’s conversion which are given to us in the form of personal testimonial speeches made by Paul before a crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22: 3-16) and before King Agrippa and Festus (Acts 26:4-18). These are of course written by Luke as the author of Acts, but they reflect actual personal speeches made by Paul which centred around his personal conversion testimony. Taken together these 3 passages from Acts give us a comprehensive picture of what happened on that glorious and fateful day.
At the beginning of chapter 9 we read that Saul “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. Saul’s persecuting activities began some time before this, most notably as he orchestrated the stoning of Stephen who was the first Christian martyr. At the end of Stephen’s historic speech, we read this in Acts 7 v 54 – 8 v 1a. Saul took personal responsibility for Stephen’s execution. He was the master of ceremonies that day, and this is stressed when Luke writes that those who actually did the stoning “laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This was the incident that sparked a great and vicious persecution against the Church in Jerusalem. Saul headed that move to destroy the Church and many Christians fled Jerusalem for sanctuary elsewhere. We read this in Acts 8: 1-3.
Chapter 8 of Acts is then filled out by Luke with details of what happened next as Christians were dispersed by the threat of violent persecution. It backfired! Christians fled, but they took the gospel with them and the good news also spread and dispersed, and we are given many details about the exciting and powerful evangelistic ministry of Philip. In fact, Chapter 8 is all about Philip who was just as anointed and powerful in word and deed as Stephen had been. (Acts 6:8, 8:6). It’s a remarkable story as God starts to move in power across the whole of Samaria. Read Acts 8: 4-8.
The gospel is taken to new places. The region of Samaria where Philip was very active was greatly impacted and transformed by the gospel. (Acts 8:14,25). The apostles Peter and John went to investigate this great movement of the Holy Spirit. But when we move on to Chapter 9, Saul’s personality and activities are brought back to our full view and attention – because he is not satisfied with his efforts solely to disinfect Jerusalem of Christianity; he is now on the march to disrupt and destroy things in other places. He had set off on a hot-tempered mission to Damascus in the north, a week’s journey away from Jerusalem. It had become clear that Christians now lived and moved and worshipped in Damascus where there were several large synagogues. Chapter 9: 1-2 give us the context and the aims of Saul’s aggressive mission to destroy faith in Jesus.
Biblical commentators linger over this expression “breathing out murderous threats”. The imagery used here by Luke is vivid. Saul is a wild beast who is panting and snorting and looking and behaving aggressively and defiantly. He can be compared to a wild and angry bull. He wants to wipe out “the Way” and its followers. He only has destruction on his mind. He is willing to act violently where necessary. Nothing and no-one will stop his obsession with destroying the infant Church which in his mind is full of poisonous and dangerous heresy and blasphemy. In Acts 26:11 Paul says: “In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” It is worth us noting that today, in our world, in our time, there is a terrific amount of psychotic, obsessive, ruthless and even satanic persecution aimed directly at the Church in many parts of this world. It is actually on the increase – and often the worst of it comes from religious extremists. Nothing has changed. Christianity has always been under attack. Christ, his gospel, and his people are hated. (John 15: 20-21)
As Saul neared Damascus with his entourage – he was stopped in his tracks. His entire world was turned upside down in an instant. For on that dusty road, this maniacal persecutor of the Church was confronted by the most glorious and brightest of lights which flash all around him and the group who accompanied him. Saul was instantly floored! There is emphasis on the suddenness of this! Luke has not us used the word “suddenly” since Acts 2:2 where he describes the suddenness of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost who gave birth to the Church. Now, in this instance, it is Christ who suddenly comes, and the brightness of his glory is even brighter than the midday sun that was also bearing down on Saul and those with him.
What we must understand is that this was not just an appearance of magnificent, blinding, irresistible and powerful light. This was the Lord Jesus Christ – risen and now glorified. He had come for Saul personally. It was a personal visit – a personal encounter. As John Stott says:
There could be no mistaking what had happened. The risen Lord had appeared to Saul. It was not a subjective vision or dream; it was an objective appearance of the resurrected and now glorified Jesus Christ. The light he saw was the glory of Christ, and the voice he heard was the voice of Christ.”
This is upfront and personal! Why are you persecuting me, Saul? The personal encounter/conversation continues with Saul’s question. Who are you, Lord? Then the person and the voice from the light responds with powerful directness. I AM JESUS whom you are persecuting. There we have it. This is Jesus – risen and gloried and appearing in blinding light. Later in this chapter both the disciples Ananias and Barnabas reveal that Saul met Jesus. Read verses 17, and then 27. Jesus had “appeared to Saul” and Saul had “seen” Jesus and was blinded by the sight of his majesty and glory.
Saul was instantly “converted.” This marked an immediate and dramatic end to his opposition to Jesus and the followers of the Way, His Way. He now knew that Christ was indeed risen and Lord. It now hit him with great force that he had been wrong – oh so wrong. Stephen had been right. The Christians were right. Jesus was and is risen and He is Lord. This was the Way, the Truth and The Life standing before Saul as he lay in the dust! All of Saul’s aggression, murderous zeal and intent, all his anger and hatred, melted away in those moments as he lay on the floor before Jesus. Not only had been blind and wrong in his own beliefs, he had been primarily persecuting Jesus himself – not simply his followers. He had been hurting the Messiah and Lord. The bond between Christ and his people is so strong, so deep, so unique and personal, that those who lay a finger against Christ’s chosen people, hurt and harm him – the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God! Christians are “in Christ” and He is in them by His Spirit. Oh – what had Saul done? What crimes he had committed! What dreadful mistakes he had made! He was the murderer, the man of violence, and the blasphemer. Now he was humbled in the dust, but Christ was actually ministering mercy toward him – glorious, free and unlimited mercy. These were moments for the outpouring of divine mercy, grace, forgiveness and new hope. As Paul himself would later write to Timothy, once again sharing his personal testimony:
Even though I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1: 13-14)
Saul was humbled. Saul became Paul. The name Paul means “humble one”. He was now to become Christ’s humble servant and obedient apostle. He was struck blind and his companions were struck dumb. They were speechless. He was sightless. They staggered into Damascus and into a house on Straight Street. Paul couldn’t eat. He wouldn’t eat. He simply fasted and prayed and waited – three days in all. All he could do was – pray. The next part of the story is just as remarkable and miraculous. There were so many supernatural things happening in conjunction with this conversion. We now meet a man named Ananias – a incredible man – one of the unsung heroes of the NT.
He’s remarkable because he was no doubt one of those Christians, perhaps one of the leaders within the Christian fellowship in Damascus, who Saul had set out to capture and drag back to Jerusalem. Ananias is told is a vision by the Lord to go to Saul and to pray for him. He’s told exactly what to do and where to go. Is it surprising that he resists and questions the Lord? He is being commanded to go to help someone who hates and murders and harms Christians. Saul’s reputation is bad; it is notorious. But the Lord says a second time to Ananias – GO! The Lord explains that this “Saul”, this persecutor, is destined and called to be God’s ambassador and herald to the world. Saul is a chosen vessel. He is a specially prepared and chosen instrument. So – Go and pray for him! Baptise him! Welcome him into the Church! Feed him! Give him refuge and support. He’s my servant now! He’s my apostle to the Gentile world. He will not cause suffering but will suffer greatly for me and my Name from now on.
Ananias obeys! Wow! Look what happens. Saul/Paul regains his sight instantly! Saul/Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul was filled with divine love, power, peace, grace, mercy and joy in one heavenly outpouring! Saul is then baptised – old things gone completely – new life in Christ entering his heart and soul – and membership of the Church. Baptism involves being joined to Christ and his people. You can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Christ and his people are one. Persecute them and you persecute him. Join Him and you join them. Reject them and you reject him. (Luke 10:16) Saul enters into Christian fellowship and friendship. The people he once wanted to destroy are now his family. Did you notice how Ananias addressed Saul?
Brother Saul, the Lord 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.
Enemy Saul has become brother Saul. This was a truly astounding miracle of grace and power. This was a sovereign act of Jesus Christ. No wonder Saul can now get up and eat. His appetite is back. It’s now time to regain strength and begin a ministry that will be so powerfully led, inspired and empowered by the Spirit who has filled him.
So, as we move toward the conclusion of this – what must we take away today from this amazing story detailed as it is in the book of Acts?
- Jesus Christ who is risen, ascended and glorified can change and transform any Saul is perhaps the greatest example of this. He is an example of Christ’s unlimited goodness and grace. Saul was named after the 1st King of Israel who shamelessly and obsessively pursued an innocent young David who was destined to be King. Saul of Tarsus just as obsessively tracked down Christians in order to harm them. But now he had been changed from persecutor of the faith to preacher and proclaimer of the faith. The change can only be explained by the power and grace of God. Saul the aggressor became Paul the humble servant of Christ. To use Paul’s own words in Galatians 1: 23-24; “They only heard the report: The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And they praised God because of me.” The history of the Christian Church and gospel is littered with stories of staggering conversions, individuals who whose transformation flummoxed people.
- This is the next point. The changes that Christ makes to a person’s life are almost too hard to comprehend. The radical nature of new birth is so great. Ananias struggled to believe that such a man as Saul could be changed so radically – but he could. No-one is safe from Christ’s grace and power. Ardent atheists have come into the Kingdom in their thousands! Hard line Islamists are coming into God’s Kingdom even now in many parts of the Middle and Far East. Criminals of all persuasions have been arrested and transformed by the risen Jesus. Occultists have been floored as Saul was by the light of Christ. Some testimonies are almost too good to believe, but they are true. Saul the persecutor was joining the likes of Matthew and Zacchaeus the fraudulent and unscrupulous tax collectors. The transforming power of Christ knows no limits. Often – those outside the Church and inside the Church struggle to believe like Ananias did, that such change is possible. But it is. Nothing is impossible with the Lord. (Luke 1:37) Keep praying for those in your family who you feel are a million miles away from conversion. God can do it. His grace is amazing.
- God chooses who He chooses – and many of his choices would not be ours, and some of his choices we might be deeply puzzled by. Who would have thought – Saul of Tarsus? Surely not? And yet this man was chosen to be such a glorious instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit. Paul went on to write two thirds of the New Testament. God, it seems, wants to use all manner of broken sinners. His choices are not who we might expect. He wants to use the poor, the uneducated, the marginalised. He wants to use flagrant unbelievers, the arrogant and the immoral. He will pick out who He wants to pick out. God will transform them/us into the vessels of his love and power. God can remake anyone, whether it’s John Newton the slave trader, Nicki Cruz the American gang leader, or Augustine the sexually immoral philanderer. All can move from a place of ignorance and unbelief to a place of being precious and wonderful witnesses and messengers of God’s love and peace.
What will Jesus Christ do in our Church in the coming months and years? What power will he demonstrate among people in our local community. Which atheists will bow the knee? Which stubborn unbelievers will see his amazing light and majesty, and crumble under the weight of his glory? Who will be radically healed in body, mind and spirit? Who will be lifted from pits of depression and despair by Jesus? Who will he choose to direct into this fellowship? Who will the Lord be sending you to pray with soon? Who will see again? Who will lose scales from their eyes as you lay hands upon them in healing prayer? Who will we see being filled with the Holy Spirit? Who will we witness being baptised with water? Who will become preachers who were previously mockers and scorners? Remember – Jesus lives! Easter never stops! Easter’s truth never fades – it’s flame blazes ceaselessly!
Behold – Jesus is alive forevermore! Amen!
Revd Peter J Clarkson 1.5.22