When Saul of Tarsus came on the scene, in Acts, chapter 7, there were many Jews in and around Jerusalem who believed Jesus was the Son of God and they were meeting apart from, but still under, the protective umbrella of Judaism. By that, I mean they hadn't separated themselves from the Law and Temple worship, but they were assembling as Jews who believed Jesus was the Son of God.
However, even before Stephen was martyred, Saul of Tarsus had been persecuting Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. The Roman overseers of the office of the Jewish high priest gave the high priest authority to extradite Jews who were strictly religious offenders and had fled outside the Sanhedrin's jurisdiction. Saul obtained letters from the high priest (evidently Caiaphas) that gave him power to arrest Jews from Palestine who had fled to Damascus because of that persecution in Jerusalem. Saul evidently wasn’t satisfied with what he had accomplished in Jerusalem and Judea. He wanted to go after the believing Jews at Damascus. He was doing all of this in the name of religion. He thought he was doing God a service by doing away with anyone believing in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God. Saul never forgave himself for the things he did to them. God forgave him; the Christians forgave him; but he never forgave himself. 1 Corinthians 15:9. “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
That's the historical background for this message.
Acts 9:1-2. “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2: And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”
The city of Damascus is about 125 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It would take about a week to get there on a horse or by a horse drawn carriage so he probably went on horseback.
Saul was totally religious. He was an absolute believer in the Old Testament, in Judaism, in the Mosaic Law, and he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, of the tribe of Benjamin, et cetera. He was a Jew through and through. But he hated Jesus of Nazareth with a passion because he felt He was an impostor Who was trying to destroy what to Saul was his whole life.
He believed that Jesus and those who followed His teaching were trying to destroy the very frameworks of Judaism and the only way that could be corrected was to stamp them out. He was sincere and devout enough to attempt a round trip journey of 250 miles to stop those practicing it from doing so as far away from Jerusalem as Damascus.
It’s no different today. People who love their religion will go to any extreme to protect it. He was going to arrest those believing Jews and take them back to Jerusalem and to prison or death and he made no distinction between men, women or children.
Verses 3-4. “As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
If we were in God's place, what would you and I have done with a man like Saul? We'd have done away with him. But instead, God displayed the high point of His grace to a sinful man and saved him.
We know that the devil inspired Saul’s rebellion and that he was not working in the will of God, and yet God in His grace didn’t wait for him to realize the error of his ways. He stopped him in his tracks with this light from Heaven.
If this happened to me, I would have blamed this on Satan. Saul probably thought “Is the God I serve doing these things to me? Why is He doing this to me? I’m His most loyal servant!”
As I mentioned, Saul may have been riding a horse at the time. I think this fall knocked some horse sense into him while he was lying there in the bright light shining from Heaven.
Any religious person thinks of God as being in heaven so Saul undoubtedly thought that the voice he heard was the voice of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God he believed in, and that He was speaking to him.
Verse 5. “And he said, ‘Who art thou Lord?’” Then the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
Saul addressed the Voice he heard as “Lord.” The name “LORD” is used in the Old Testament rather than Jehovah or God. The Jews believed the name of God was too holy for sinful man to even speak. Saul was actually acknowledging that this was the Voice of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob speaking to him. He was being accused of persecuting Jesus and it was compared to kicking his feet into a bunch of ox goads. Verse 6. “So he, trembling and astonished, said, Lord, what do You want me to do? Then the Lord said, Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Put yourself in Saul's shoes. The very One he was hating, the One he thought God wanted him to destroy even the memory of His name and His ministry, was the same Person as Jehovah from the Old Testament, and this was the One speaking to him now.
Genesis 1 states that God did this and God did that. Then, in Genesis chapter 2 verse 4, He is called the Lord God. And that was the beginning of the reference to Jehovah as the Lord God. Here, Saul suddenly realized that the One he was trying to get rid of, this Jesus of Nazerath, was the same Lord God that he worshipped.
Verse 7. “And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.”
There undoubtedly was a large contingent with him. If he was to arrest any number of people and take them back to Jerusalem there had to be quite a few men with him, but none of the men saw anyone or understood what the Voice said. Saul was blinded by the light from heaven. He could hear the voice of Jesus but he couldn’t see Him because he was not a believer in Jesus at this time. Stephan, on the other hand, was a believer in Jesus and while he was preaching to the council and the high priest, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and that’s why they stoned him. Acts 7:55-56. “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56. and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
While they stoned Stephen to death for those words, Saul held their coats and watched.
Paul’s writings indicate he went through the rest of his life recalling this experience. After his conversion he preached the same sermon that they stoned Stephen for preaching, almost word for word. God's Grace saved him there on the Damascus road but he suffered a lot of things for preaching the same message that he previously persecuted the believers for preaching.
All through Bible times, God chose the lowly to do His bidding. And if they were in a high position when He chose them, He took them to a low position before He could use them.
Look at Moses. He was next in line to be Pharaoh of Egypt. He was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians and the second man in power over all Egypt. God couldn't use him that way so He had Moses go to the back side of the desert to herd sheep. Shepherds were actually an abomination in the eyes of the Egyptians. After 40 years of herding smelly sheep with no contact with the outer world, God told him, “I'm going to send you back to Pharaoh.” Moses said, “Lord, I can't. I'm a nobody. I can't even talk plain.” But that's where God wanted him and that’s where he went as God’s messenger.
King Saul was a proud individual. He was the tallest and best looking young man around. He had military talent and so forth but didn't amount to a hill of beans. But who did God finally use? A little shepherd boy named David.
It was the same for Saul of Tarsus. He was the big man in Judaism. We read in Galatians that he progressed mightily in the Jews' religion. God couldn't use him where he was so He put him where he was a nobody, lying in the dust on the road near Damascus. On top of that, God struck him blind. Saul had no claim to fame of any kind. He was shaking in his boots when he said, “Lord, what would You have me to do?” Jesus told him to go into the city where some un-named person would tell him what to do. The Lord could have told Saul directly but He didn’t even dignify him in that way; He chose another person, Ananias, as a go-between.
Verses 8-9. “Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
In the Bible, three days, (and of course three nights) often comes up and is a picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. What was happening here was that Saul would symbolically go through a death, burial and resurrection in his own life. He was going from his important place in Judaism to that of a lowly servant.
How long was Jonah in the great fish’s belly? Three days and three nights; then Jonah was a changed man and could go preach to the Gentile city of Nineveh. Saul would soon be using his Gentile name of Paul and he, like Jonah, would be preaching primarily to Gentiles.
Jesus chose Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles when he was in Gentile country way up near Damascus, a long way north of the Sea of Galilee. But not one of the original disciples was chosen from Gentile territory. The Gospel was to go to the Jews first and Jesus chose them all from within the borders of Israel.
Verses 10-12. “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, "Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11. So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”
Ananias evidently was a resident of Damascus and not a refugee from Jerusalem. He received a vision from the Lord Jesus and he obeyed willingly. Jesus gave Ananias specific directions to a man's house on Straight Street in Damascus where he would find Saul.
My Bible dictionary tells that Straight Street is about a mile long and one hundred feet wide and is still one of the main thoroughfares running through Damascus east and west.
Saul had been preying on Christians, but now he was praying to Christ. Like most Pharisees, Saul was a man of prayer and he continued with that priority after his conversion. The Lord prepared both Ananias and Saul for their meeting so when He brought them together they would have no doubt about Who was dealing with them. (This brings to mind the case of Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8 and Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10).
9:13-14 13. Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in 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 vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake.”
Verses 15 and 16 surely would have encouraged Ananias to go to Judas' house to find Saul. If you know about Paul's missionary journeys you know how he suffered starvation, deprivation, imprisonment, stoning, beatings and shipwreck.
Ananias wanted to be sure he had heard the Lord correctly. We calculate our future on the basis of our normal experience and this wouldn’t be a normal experience for Ananias. Our calculations leave us unprepared when God overrules and negates human plans and does the unexpected. He had heard of Saul's reason for visiting Damascus and his authority from the chief priests to extradite people. He referred to the believers in Jerusalem as “saints,” and this was the first time Luke used the name “saints” for Christians in Acts.
We haven't seen that word “Gentile” much in Acts before now because it's been all Jewish. But here is the big turning point in the book of Acts. God said, “I'm going to send him to the Gentiles. He's also going to kings and the children of Israel.” In Acts 13:42-49, we have the fulfillment of this. And he was eventually martyred for it.
Saul was a good choice because he was a Jew by birth, a Benjamite, a Pharisee of the Pharisees and a Roman citizen because his father had Roman citizenship. God took a man who is not just a Jew but also a Gentile by virtue of his Roman citizenship and commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a Gentile city.
Verses 17-18. “And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18. Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”
Ananias showed his Christian love for this new Believer in Christ by calling him “Brother.” God used him to restore Saul’s sight and in his filling of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t come to commission him to God’s work, that would come directly from the Lord. Saul wanted to be baptized immediately. He grew up under the Jewish economy and it demanded it.
Verses 19-22. “So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. 20. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. 21. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” 22. But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.”
There’s no doubt of the sincerity of Saul’s conversion. He didn’t go any other place to find a large audience. He went and preached that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, to the Jews in “the synagogues,...” He wanted to convince his fellow Jews that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel.
You can see how Saul's change of conduct would bewilder the Jews who lived in Damascus. Instead of persecuting the Christians he was trying to prove that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. This is what people then and now need to believe to obtain salvation. 1 John 5:1 “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.”
Saul had done a 180 in his beliefs and in his conduct and he had truly repented. His commitment to tell others that Jesus was the Messiah kept growing. He didn’t succeed very well when he tried to convince the Damascus Jews and they tried to kill him so his disciples (evidently those who had heard his testimony and believed) sneaked him out of town by lowering him over the city wall in a basket.
Some time, probably between verse 22 and verse 23 timewise, Saul went to Arabia for three years to study the Old Testament to gain understanding and to recognize the meaning of the covenants of God with Israel and their connection with the advent of Christ.
The purpose of that three years of earthly study was to better enable him to prove to the whole Nation of Israel and the Gentiles who Jesus was. Since the New Testament was not written at this time, this is as much as even Saul knew at this time - that Jesus was the Christ. The Jews who would believe were saved and became disciples of Christ.
God had greater things planned for him than what we have read here. Acts chapter 13 tells how God fulfilled His promise to send him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
As the TV commercials say, “But wait, there’s more!” God also revealed many things to him that formerly were unknown, or were “secrets” hinted to but not revealed in the Old Testament. Guided by the Holy Spirit, and under the pen name of Paul, his letters give us a more perfect understanding of God’s overall plan not only for the Jews and the Nation of Israel but for the Bride of Christ, the church, and for the final disposition of all mankind.