Acts: For the Cause of Christ #16
Title: Saul’s Conversion
Last time we were in Acts we looked at Acts chapter 8. Acts chapter 8 starts the transition of focus from the Jewish nation to the church at large as the church is being filled with Jews and Gentiles. But more specifically, Acts 8 is a look at two different professions of faith, Simon the Sorcerer in Samaria and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Simon professed acceptance of Jesus, but only sought the power of God without repentance to God. The eunuch was searching the Scriptures seeking to understand. The Spirit had been working in his heart and he was ready for the truth. We also saw that Philip was willing to go where the Lord lead, from Samaria to roads of the Judean desert, to traveling to towns and cities.
This week we look at chapter 9, and see the a new character in the narrative beginning his journey with Christ and that he will put the Cause of Christ before himself.
Saul’s Conversion and Baptism 1-19a
Luke brings us back to Saul. Saul isn’t satisfied with the believers that are that have remained in Jerusalem, he must go to other cities and hunt them down. In Acts 26:11 he says himself before King Agrippa, “…Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.” It is thought that he was seeking to find those who escaped Jerusalem to bring them back to imprison them. So the papers he received from the High Priest were essentially extradition papers. This also could have letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus explaining Saul’s authority and mission. Either way his mission ended on the road outside the gates of Damascus. You’ll notice the that believers are referred to as “the Way”. This term is a reference for the new movement and is used at least 5 other times in Acts, it seems to be a term used by the early church to describe “their movement as way of life or way of salvation (Bruce, F. F., NICNT: The Book of the Acts; © 1988; p 181)”. I think it is also a reference back to Jesus’ teaching of Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Near the city of Damascus, Saul and the men he was travelling with were thrown to the ground by a flash of light. We see in Acts 22 and 26 that they were nearing the city around midday when this light greater the sun flashed causing them to fall. Then Saul’s personal interaction with the Lord begins. Saul hears a voice calling to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Here is another example of the union Christians have with Jesus. The church is called the body of Christ. Saul, seeking to eliminate “blasphemers” of Judaism is fact attacking the body of Christ. In Colossians 1:24, Paul tells the church in Colossae that he rejoices in the afflictions and sufferings he endures, as it is his part of Christ’s suffering for His body, the church. When a believer is persecuted Christ knows it and feels it. John Phillips, commenting on the Colossians passage, explains it this way, “As just one member of the body of Christ, Paul was suffering. But no member of a body suffers alone; other members suffer with it. If I cut my finger, my whole body feels it, especially the head, where the nerves register and interpret the pain. Paul was in prison and in pain. The Lord Jesus, the Head of the mystical body, felt that pain. Paul was suffering, and Christ was suffering. They were suffering together. Paul, in his sufferings, was helping to fill up the measure of the sufferings of Christ (Phillips, John., Exploring Colossians & Philemon, © 2002, p88)”. If this is true of Paul and his sufferings, then surely it is true of any believer being persecuted. Whether it is in China, North Korea, or Iran, or of the early believers in Jerusalem in the first century.
Saul does the natural thing and asks, “who are you lord?” Some think that Saul was offering a respectful “sir” as the word for Lord could be understood in that way. However I have a hard believing that this rabbinically trained Pharisee would have understood this light and voice to be a divine manifestation. In other words, Saul was addressing the speaker with Lord seeking Him to identify Himself. When the Christ identifies Himself as Jesus, Saul is confronted with the Lord of Glory, and his hatred is replaced with faith. Christ tells him to go to the city where he will receive more information.
The men traveling with Saul saw only the flash of light and heard a noise. They did not see Christ standing glory or hear His words to Saul. Saul, now able to get up from the ground, found he couldn’t see. Lots of times before we come to the Lord, or if the Lord is bringing an erring child back, the Lord has to break the pride of the person. There is nothing like a good healthy dose of humility to bring someone on their knees to the Lord. Personally, I think that is part of what happened here to Saul. The Lord took his sight for three days, he was humbled, he didn’t eat or drink for three days. We are told in verse 11 that Saul is praying during this time, so it seems to me that Saul is fasting and praying during this time.
In my head, if this were a movie or TV show, here we might get a fade to black to close the scene for the moment.
If we had a fade to black after verse 9, then here we would have a fade from black and a “Three days later” printed across the screen as Luke changes scenes here to introduce us to a disciple of Christ in Damascus named Ananias. It is believed that this man is a native to Damascus and not a “refugee” that had fled from Jerusalem. We don’t really know anything about him, he isn’t referred to as any kind of leader, he wasn’t an Apostle or deacon. He appears to be an “ordinary Christian”, but the Lord appears to him in a vision.
Ananias is at first willing. He is called, and he replies, “Here I am, Lord”. Then Christ tells him what he is supposed to do and fear comes in. Word of the persecution in Jerusalem has reached Damascus, and word of Saul’s mission to arrest followers of Christ had preceded his arrival to Damascus. Ananias was fearful, but sometimes the Lord asks us to do things we find uncomfortable or scarey, but who are we to question God or His plans? The Lord, in His mercy, explains to Ananias that He has changed Saul. Saul is now Christ’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, kings and rulers, as well as to the Israel, and that Saul would have to suffer a great deal for Christ.
Ananias obeys and goes to the house of Judas on the street called Straight where Saul was staying. Calling him “Brother” Ananias identifies himself as a fellow disciple. It is important to note that Ananias is not the one commissioning Saul or healing his blindness. Ananias is merely the servant the Lord is using. The Lord is commissioning Saul, which is discussed in greater detail in 26:16-18 and connects to 22:14-16. Ananias lays his hands on Saul and the blindness is lifted and Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. “It is significant that a non-apostle is the mediator of the Spirit. The church’s ministry is expanding in ways that mean that non-apostles will do important work. In Acts 8 it was baptism by Philip. Here it is laying hands on Saul so that the Spirit may come (Bock, Darrell F., BECNT: Acts © 2007, p 362)”.
Once he his sight was returned, he was baptized and after the baptism, he broke his fast taking some food and regained his strength. We should note that Saul was converted on the road to Damascus and there received the baptism of the Holy Spirit placing him in the Body of Christ, so this was water baptism after his conversion and the filling the Saul received here was not the baptism of the Spirit either, merely the Spirit filling him for his new mission.
Saul was sure he was doing the will of God by persecuting the believers, the members of the early church, but he was acting against God and attacking the Messiah. So the Lord confronted him and humbled him, bringing him to salvation and converting Saul from his former glory in legalism and good works.
Are you seeking salvation in the wrong places? Are you seeking salvation in the good things you do? Or are you a Christian who is living with some sin? Will the Lord have to humble you before you can see?
Saul in Damascus 19b-25
We see in these verses that Saul spent time disciples in Damascus; it’s possible that Ananias introduced Saul to the others. Luke doesn’t give us their reaction, whether they welcomed him with open arms or if they were suspicious and concerned as Ananias had been. But we do see what Saul was doing while he was in Damascus. He was proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God.
We should note that this is the only place in the book of Acts where that specific title is used. “Other titles, such as ‘Christ’[or Messiah] (see v 22), ‘Lord’, ‘ Righteous One’, and ‘Judge’, are more prevalent (Bock, p365)”. It is possible that the message Saul was proclaiming here in these synagogues was similar to what is recorded in Acts 13:16-41 when Paul is in Antioch in Pisidia. “The title ‘Son of God’ is probably meant in terms of full ‘sonship,’ given its outgrowth from Saul’s vision in seeing the a glorified Jesus whom he had heard preached as the Son of Man at God’s right hand in Acts 7:56 (Bock, 365)”. If we look a little further down to verse 22 and use the Acts 13 passage as a guide, then the title also has a Messianic force with it as Saul was teaching in the synagogues.
The crowds were surprised that the persecutor from Jerusalem was now preaching Jesus as the Messiah. As I suggested earlier, it may be that Saul’s mission or reputation as a persecutor had reached Damascus before he arrived himself. It would be like a member of the ACLU beginning preaching Jesus. Saul continues to preach Jesus and grows stronger. That phrase isn’t about Saul’s physical strength, but is the idea of becoming a stronger, better preacher. So much so, that he was proving that Jesus was the Messiah and confounding the Jews he is debating. Here is also the first time the the term “Jews” is used as a separate group distinct from Christian believers. The Jews in Damascus plot to kill Saul. Saul escapes with the help of the disciples, by being lower down the city wall in a large basket, similar to what was used to collect the leftover food from Jesus’ feeding the 5000. Saul had to go over the wall as the gates were being watched constantly. This is also the first of several plots Luke notes in Acts, all by the Jews against Paul. We see here that apparently sometimes the Christians didn’t wait for martyrdom, but escaped to preach another day.
By looking at Luke’s writing here in Acts, it appears that there was very little time between Saul’s conversion and commission, his beginning to preach and then going to Jerusalem. But Paul’s own writings in Galatians 1:15-18, he tells us he spent 3 years in Arabia before returning to Jerusalem. Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, that a ruler under the Nabataean King Aretas was guarding Damascus and was going to arrest him. So do we have a problem with Scripture? Aren’t these contradicting and shows that the Bible can’t be trusted? No. These apparent contradictions can be explained.
It is suggested by various sources that there is truth in each account as they are from different perspectives and purposes in writings. We need to remember first that, Luke is not detailing Paul’s entire career, but only major points that intersect with big events in the young church. Since Luke is recording highlights of the church growth and movement, why would Paul’s three year retreat into Arabia be of interest to Luke’s account? It is suggested that Saul went to Arabia before this section of verses. So that Saul’s time in Damascus bookends his time in Arabia. We are not given and indication of how long a time passed between Saul being in Damascus until his being in Jerusalem. And if Saul’s preaching did create such a stir, why would someone “exclude the possibility that a regional leader such as King Areta might be concerned for the public peace. After all, Pilate in the end execute Jesus, but Pilate’s primary concern was for the public peace, an issue raised by many of the important Jews in Jerusalem (Bock, p364)”. At this point, I lean to the two visits to Damascus view, where Saul went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus to preach before having to escape for Jerusalem.
For Saul Damascus must have meant humility. He entered Damascus blind, being led by the hand as the Lord humbled him at his conversion. Now after he had been doing exactly what the Lord had commissioned him to do, he has to escape in hamper over the wall like a criminal. This was the beginning of the sufferings for the sake of Christ, for the Cause of Christ, that Saul would face in his lifetime. Later in 2 Corinthians 12:10 Paul says he takes pleasure in suffering and persecution for the Cause of Christ, “So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And at the end of his life he reminds Timothy, “In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)”.
What are you willing to do for the Cause of Christ?
After Saul was able to get out of Damascus he went to Jerusalem. This would have been difficult to do as he would not have many places to go. His former associates in the Pharisees may have heard of his time in Damascus and viewed him as traitor to the “true cause” of crushing the new movement. While Scripture is clear the disciples in Jerusalem were still wary and suspicious of him remembering him as the persecutor. They probably though he was playing the long con and just trying to infiltrate them to get the evidence he needed to arrest the whole lot of them.
Re-enter Barnabas. Again living up to the meaning of his name (the son of encouragement), Barnabas introduces Saul to the group. Now in verse 27, Luke says Saul was introduced to the apostles. It is generally thought the “apostles” is just a generalized plural, referring to the whole group instead of an individual. Again in Galatians 1, Paul himself says when he first went back to Jerusalem, he only met Peter (Cephas) and James, the half brother of Jesus. Now, this James is not an apostle in the strict sense that we think of Peter and John, but in the broader sense of a messenger. Barnabas introduces Saul and explains his conversion, his seeing of the risen Christ, and his ministry in Damascus. It has been suggested that Barnabas and Saul were familiar with each other from before as their respective homes were near each other (Cyprus and Cilicia), however no real evidence of this exists. So how did Barnabas know all this about Saul? Saul may have told him, or Barnabas had heard about Saul from others in Damascus. Whatever happened, Barnabas’ introduction was enough to calm the worries of the other disciples in Jerusalem.
Saul was now able to come and go as he pleased with the disciples, and we see that Saul didn’t waste much time before proclaiming the Jesus in Jerusalem. There is nothing in the language here that Peter or the others had any authority over Saul. In Galatians 1 Paul is adamant that he received his commission from the Lord and that he was on equal standing with Peter and the rest of the Twelve. Saul apparently decided to pick up where Stephen left off when he died, by debating with the Hellenistic Jews. They once again turned violent and tried to kill Saul. Why not? It got rid of Stephen and inflamed persecution against church. Except the chief persecutor was now on the other side of the debate. Once again, Saul had to flee. “Jerusalem was too hot to hold Saul (Bruce, p195)”. In chapter 22:17-21 we are given some additional information from Paul. At some point he was in the temple praying, and the Lord put Saul in a trance and probably by a vision warned Saul to flee as his life was in danger. Saul seems to protest, saying the he is known in Jerusalem because of the persecution, as that would be able to help him in his witness. The Lord tells him to go, because he will be sent to the Genitles. Then we find that Some of the disciples took to the port at Caesarea and sent him to safety to his home of Tarsus. Here in Tarsus we have to leave Saul for now. He exits. Stage right. Saul will re-enter the scene later in chapter 11
Luke gives another progress report here in verse 31. We see that the church has come through it first test of persecution and has been strengthened. They church is at peace, but it is still working and growing. The church continues to grow in numbers and spiritually.
Notice that the summary of the church’s locations seem to parallel the locations given in 1:8. The church hasn’t gotten to the uttermost part of the world yet, but the areas of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee have been covered by the Gospel. In Acts 2 the gospel was opened to the Jews, in chapter 8 it was opened to the Samaritans, soon in chapter 10 it will open for the Gentiles. Saul is off-stage for the moment, as focus back on Peter, then Peter will fade into the background of Acts and Paul takes centerstage. The scene will shift from Jerusalem to Antioch. “God changes His workmen, but His work goes on. And you and I are privileged to be a part of that work today! (Wiersbe, Warren W., Be Dynamic © 1987, p 120)”
After his conversion, Saul constantly sought to find ways to be apart of the church body and to proclaim the gospel. He even debated the men that caused Stephen’s death, risking his own life. Saul was willing to risk everything for the Cause of Christ, what about you?
Saul was sure he was doing the will of God by persecuting the believers, the members of the early church, but he was acting against God and attacking the Messiah. So the Lord confronted him and humbled him, bringing him to salvation and converting Saul from his former glory in legalism and good works. For Saul, Damascus must have meant humility. He entered Damascus blind, being led by the hand as the Lord humbled him at his conversion. Now after he had been doing exactly what the Lord had commissioned him to do, he has to escape in a hamper over the wall like a criminal. This was the beginning of the sufferings for the sake of Christ, for the Cause of Christ, that Saul would face in his lifetime. After his conversion, Saul constantly sought to find ways to be apart of the church body and to proclaim the gospel. He even debated the men that caused Stephen’s death, risking his own life.
Are you ready to humble yourself before the Lord, or will the Lord have to humble you before you can see? Saul was willing to risk everything for the Cause of Christ, what about you?