Acts 9:1–19a . . .
“Saul’s Arrest, Witness, and Conversion”
While there have been many amazing conversions in world history, few have been more amazing than that of Saul of Tarsus, which is undoubtedly the most spectacular, significant, and famous conversion in church history. Luke, at this point in his Acts volume, has told the dramatic, life-changing stories of Stephen and Philip, who'd helped prepare the way for the gospel to go out to all nations and people. In today's passage, Luke tells the story of Saul's conversion that launched the gospel for the entire world to receive. In Luke's eyes, Saul’s conversion was clearly of supreme significance since he includes this account three times in Acts: once in today's narrative, and twice in Paul’s speeches that are found in chapters 22, and 26. What's of special note in this nineteen-verse account is God's sovereign grace that's so evident in Saul’s conversion.
Enter Saul the Persecutor
If you thought after reading Acts 7:58 that young Saul was merely standing by as a cloak guardian while Stephen was being stoned, this impression is quickly corrected by Luke's unfolding and revealing of Saul herein. A few verses later, in 8:3, we're told that "Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison." Now we read that Saul is “still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1). The word “still” is significant. It indicates that Saul has been breathing out threats to murder for some time, indicating that Stephen’s death didn't slow Saul down at all. Instead, it appears to have "fueled the fire” of his zeal to crush Christianity. And Saul was the apparent ringleader of church opposition to the day.
For example, after Stephen’s death, Saul began to lead a persecution campaign against the church. While conducting it, he personally cast into prison many Christians (26:10), both men and women (22:4). For punishment, he put them on public display in synagogues, compelling them to blaspheme by renouncing their Lord Jesus (26:11). Soon, his reputation among Christians was that he'd "made havoc of" the church in Jerusalem (9:21). Many years later, he confessed that he'd been responsible for some Christians being killed (22:4; 26:10). Today's text affirms that his campaign was intent on "slaughter."
Saul appears to have been a man consumed with self-importance. He couldn't see the truth of the gospel because his eyes had been blinded by the greatest sin: pride. It was the "pride" sin that brought down Lucifer, who fancied that he could rise to the place of the Most High (Isaiah 14:12–14); and it was the sin that brought down Adam and Eve, who also desired to become equal with God (Genesis 3:5). No wonder that when Paul looked back upon his career of persecuting the church, he said of himself, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15).
The persecution Saul unleashed had scattered believers far and wide to flee for their lives. But God, in his great wisdom, had a meaningful purpose behind the trouble: Everywhere that Christians went they preached the gospel. One place offering safety was Damascus, a leading city in Syria. The church there was perhaps founded by those Jews who'd been converted at Pentecost. So now its ranks were doubtlessly swollen by refugees from Jerusalem. Let's now review Luke's dramatic account in vv. 1–9.
Stopping Saul So He’ll See the Light (9:1–9)
Verses 1 and 2 vividly depict Saul’s intent. We see his intense desire and determination to rid the world of Christianity by taking active, aggressive, severe action against those saints who'd fled from Jerusalem. While Saul may not have brought about the execution of all those whom he'd arrested, including women as well as men (v. 2), v. 1 strongly suggests that this was his desire and ambition. We know from other accounts (22:6; 26:13) that it was “high noon” when Saul (in v. 3) was stopped in his tracks by a bright light from heaven, albeit the radiance of God’s glory. Saul, as it were, “saw the light.” But in addition, he was to become a light, a light to the Gentiles, as well as to his own people. Unlike his companions (v. 7), Saul had no difficulty understanding the majestic voice that came from amidst the overpowering radiance. Moreover, he could see the person speaking, for in later years he listed himself among those who'd seen the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8), who wasn't merely human in appearance but in a glorified state. And the blindness (v. 9) to which Saul was subject for three days provided him with time to reflect, meditate, and pray.
Saul, confused, heard the voice questioning him (v. 4), saying, "Saul, why do you persecute me?" He knew that he was in the presence of a being so exalted that he must address him as Lord; yet he didn't immediately grasp how he, the best of the Pharisees, had offended the God of Israel. In his complete bewilderment, he called out the pointless question, "Who are you, Lord?" The voice was indeed that of the Lord's. Perhaps Saul had realized that he was in the presence of Jesus, the one whom he'd been persecuting. Perhaps he also needed to confirm the Speaker's identity.
The Lord answered Saul with two statements designed to turn his life in a new direction. He said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Saul’s suspicion was therefore correct. The Lord who speaking to him was, in fact, Jesus. Saul suddenly perceived with horror that his tireless work to extinguish the new church amounted to blasphemy, for he was desecrating the Lord's work. Saul’s heart melted. The presence of a glorious Christ shriveled up his layers of pride and left him as a naked soul. Seized by the shock of utter astonishment, he found himself trembling. Jesus told him, "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do," and Saul did so, surrendering to Jesus without hesitancy.
We hearty souls are to similarly serve Jesus according to God's will, not our own. We're to seek the Lord's direction and timing, instead of choosing the ministry and the timing that seems best to us. Committing to do whatever he asks requires courage., but anything less amounts to putting limitations on our obedience. Have the passion to serve him while realizing that our service to him is not an option in his plans for us.
Saul got up from the ground, but was without his sight; he'd been blinded by the great light. He was led by his companions into Damascus, where he must have been met by someone appointed by the Lord (v. 6). He was taken to the house of Judas (v. 11), where he neither ate nor drank (nor saw anything) for three days. He knew that the One whom he opposed, the One he thought to be dead, was certainly alive. Saul likewise learned that his persecution of the church was really a persecution of Jesus. He'd been wrong on one crucial point: Jesus wasn't a heretic or a revolutionary; Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. This one fact forced him to rethink and rearrange all of his theology.
Saul and Ananias Have Visions (vv. 10–19)
While vv. 10–16 describe two complementary divine visions that Ananias and Saul each received, vv. 17–19a show Ananias divine act of placing his hands on Saul and restoring his sight. Saul's heavenly vision prepared him for Ananias's arrival, clearly indicating that he was the one God had appointed to reveal God's will for Saul. For Ananias, his vision was designed to direct him to the house of a certain Judas where he'd personally meet Saul. It's difficult to estimate the amount of resistance that Ananias, the recent Jewish convert, would have had to this divine instruction from God to receive Saul as a brother in the Lord.
In vv. 13 and 14, we hear Ananias reminding the Lord that Saul was an enemy, one who'd caused many Christians great suffering and adversity. Did Ananias feel that the Lord might not be aware of who Saul was and what he'd been doing? Rather than attempt to pacify Ananias, or to alleviate his apprehension, God told him that Saul wouldn't be only a brother, but he'd be his instrument for bringing the gospel to Gentiles too. For many Jewish Christians, that realization would have been a very bitter pill to swallow; nevertheless, Ananias obeyed. The ultimate issue was God’s ability and desire to save — even the most committed of unbelievers.
Two distinct yet complementary visions When Saul's company arrived in the city, his companions arranged for him to stay in Judas' house on a street called Straight. There, while waiting for further instructions from the Lord, Saul had his vision, revealing that a man named Ananias would soon come and heal his blindness. The visitor was to accomplish this miracle simply by the touch of his hand. Meanwhile, a faithful disciple in Damascus, the same Ananias, also had a vision. He saw the Lord who'd directed him to help Saul. Ananias balked at first, knowing perfectly well who Saul was — that his purpose in coming to Damascus had been to arrest believers such as Ananias. But the Lord patiently explained that he'd chosen Saul for an important ministry: to reach both Jews and Gentiles.
Ananias, a good man, immediately dropped his objections and obediently set out to fulfill his assigned task. To approach someone who'd been a ruthless persecutor of believers took great confidence in the Lord’s word, as well as considerable courage. But Ananias didn't need to be afraid. When he came to that house, Saul received him gladly. Then, in obedience to the Lord, Ananias laid his hands on Saul, with the immediate effect being what the Lord had promised: Saul fully regained his sight. Ananias's role as healer likely taught Saul humility, having had to accept help from a man he formerly despised. Initially for Saul, while walking to Damascus, he viewed followers of the Way as his inferiors; now, however, he was an avid learner and follower, sitting at their feet for instruction.
When we fit together the various accounts of Ananias’s visit, we discover that it had a dual purpose: Not only to restore Saul's sight but also to lead to salvation a most-unique man who'd effectively show much of the Gentile world how to be saved and by whom. He was eager to meet whatever requirement the Lord set before him. Although there's no account in the drama on Straight Street that Saul repented and called on the name of the Lord, we needn't doubt that he readily heeded Ananias's counsel to take those steps. Thereafter, the other benefit that Ananias had promised Saul when he arrived must have been granted — his being filled with the Spirit. With his sight restored, and with a joyful sense of the Spirit flooding his heart, Saul didn't delay taking the final step that Ananias promoted (v. 18). To show that he understood the urgency of pleasing the Lord, Saul underwent baptism, before he ate food to relieve his hunger.
- Q. 1 Why is Saul's conversion so important that it's repeated three times in Acts?
- Q. 2 Was Saul's heart open to Jesus? Why or why not?
- Q. 3 What's significant about how Ananias addressed Saul (v. 17)?
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 9.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 8:22–9:33, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “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.” 18Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.