As central as Philip was in the revival in Samaria, Saul was central in the persecution in Jerusalem. In both cases, God intervened in order to redirect the course of history. Alongside the coming of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of Cornelius, the conversion of Saul is one of the great turning points of Acts.
Not infrequently, I know the passage I’m preaching is much deeper than I could ever adequately express. This is certainly one of those times. Derek Thomas says, “This spiritual transformation ranks among the most significant events in world history.”
The trajectory of Saul’s life was dramatically corrected. To some degree, this is true of everyone who submits to the will of God. Our fallen worldview, selfish desires, and depraved thoughts must be transformed. Our conversion blinds us to the things of this world in order to redirect our vision.
It is the beauty of Christ that begins to flood our hearts and minds. The truth of the Gospel transforms our purposes to set aside our own glory in order to live for God’s glory. Jesus Christ corrects our worldview by giving us eyes to see him and his mission.
First, we will look at Sight Lost (1-9). Second, we’ll see Sight Regained (10-19).
A Savior Who Blinds (1-9)
Saul had been arresting men and women in Jerusalem (Acts 8:3), but now with letters from the high priest (c.f., Acts 22:5; 26:12), he secured the help of the synagogues at Damascus in order to find refugees he could arrest there as well (Acts 9:2). As the persecution drove saints outside Jerusalem, Saul was chasing them down and dragging them off to prison.
As he came near to Damascus “a light from heaven shone around him” (Acts 9:3). If the Ethiopian eunuch was sympathetic to the truth, Saul is as opposed to the truth as he could possibly be. Remember, he was present at Stephen’s execution. He heard Stephen explain his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He watched the peace with which Stephen accepted his death. He heard him say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). And yet, Saul approved of his execution and followed it up by sparking this “great persecution” (Acts 8:1).
Saul was on his way to arrest disciples who had fled Jerusalem and traveled some 140 miles, over the course of six days, to get to Damascus. But God intervened. Saul had reached the boundary God had set around his bloodthirsty mission. What exactly stopped him? What flipped his mission upside-down? It was the fact that he had met Jesus Christ (c.f., 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8).
Consider the shock this would have been for Saul. He had been wrong this whole time. Jesus must have risen from the dead. He was indeed alive! Saul’s mind was blown! This was a radical paradigm shift that would have taken him several days to soak in.
Jesus so closely associates himself with his disciples that any persecution they experienced, was directed towards Him (Acts 9:4-5; cf., Luke 10:16; Matt. 25:40). Jesus’ response may have repeatedly echoed throughout Paul’s ministry making the doctrine of a believers union with Christ such a central theme of his writing.
Still lying on the ground, Jesus instructs Saul to get up and go into the city (v.6). The blinding of Saul served to change his purpose. He was no longer going to the city in order to arrest people of “the Way” but now he was going to the city for further instruction.
Saul’s traveling companions were speechless because they could hear Jesus’ voice but not see him (v.7). We do not know anything more about these individuals. Later on, Paul will report that they were unable to understand the voice (Acts 22:9).
Pause for a second on that fact. God selected Saul among the many traveling on that road and it was only Saul who could hear the voice of Jesus with understanding. Saul didn’t earn favor, if anything—as the chief of sinners—he was deserving of greater condemnation, but God showed him mercy (1 Tim. 1:16).
This is precisely how unconditional election works. God chooses us for his own pleasure, apart from anything we could say or do. Paul, writing to the Galatians, would say that God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:16). And, by implication, He was pleased to pass over others, as he has apparently done with Saul’s traveling companions.
It is interesting that Jesus literally left Saul in the dark about what was happening for three days (vv.8-9). There was no comfort, just instruction. Sometimes Christians are guilty of trying to make the gospel tantalizing. They make statements like, “If you turn to him your life will have meaning and purpose.” But what if the person already finds meaning in life?
Prior to meeting Christ, Saul was committed to living a life of moral goodness. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He saw the disciples as attacking his religious values. He saw his persecution, not as cruelty, but as religious zeal. He was sure he was living a life that was pleasing to God. But, in reality, he had misunderstood the God he was trying to serve. He had not seen the One who reveals the Father.
In order to truly see Christ, you must first be blinded by him. You must see your righteousness as filthy deeds-no more worthy than Saul’s misguided zeal. Have you seen Christ?
If you know Christ, you will begin to see the world through his eyes.
A Savior Who Commissions (10-19)
The Lord sends Ananias to heal Saul (Acts 9:10-12). Understandably, Ananias hesitates because of Saul’s reputation (Acts 9:13-14). His response places him in the company of faithful saints. Moses hesitated multiple times when God told him to stand before Pharaoh and say “Let my people go!” (Exod. 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13). Gideon hesitated when God told him to “pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the Lord your God… Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down” (Judg. 6:25-26). In the next chapter we will see Peter hesitating to obey God’s commandment (Acts 10:14).
If we aren’t experiencing some level of hesitation in our obedience to God, there is a good chance we have minimized or disregarded His commandments. God’s call upon us usually takes us out of our comfort zones.
In order to settle the fears of Ananias, the Lord explains the purposes he has for Saul. Those purposes involve “carrying” the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15), as well as the suffering he will endure for Jesus’ name (v.16). His purposes are two-fold: to evangelize and suffer.
Ananias was no longer reluctant to believe Saul’s conversion was authentic. He confidently calls him “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17). John Stott writes,
“I never fail to be moved by these words. They may well have been the first words which Saul heard from Christian lips after his conversion, and they were words of fraternal welcome. They must have been music to his ears. What? Was the arch-enemy of the church to be welcomed as a brother? Was the dreaded fanatic to be received as a member of the family? Yes, it was so.”
Ananias becomes the mouthpiece of Jesus who now commissions Saul. F.F. Bruce writes,
“Ananias uttered the words, but as he did so, it was Christ himself who commissioned Saul to be his ambassador. Ananias laid his hands on Saul, but it was the power of Christ that in the same moment enlightened his eyes and filled him with the Holy Spirit.”
This filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17), as we have repeatedly seen throughout the book of Acts is not one of regeneration, but empowering. Saul was now enabled by the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission he had been given. A mission he will “immediately” begin to fulfill (Acts 9:20).
This passage reveals that Christ is both Savior and Lord. And it shows us the cost of discipleship. For Saul, following Christ meant that he was giving up everything he had ever known. His education and spiritual training was leading him to be the next great leader of the Pharisees. In fact, he was already among the leadership at this point. His reputation was growing. For him to throw in his lot with the Christians was ludicrous from a secular standpoint.
If you have the eyes of Christ, then you know the mission of Christ. If you know Christ’s mission, you might hesitate, but you will eventually abandon your own mission in order to take up His greater kingdom mission.
Is there a disconnect between how you perceive the revealing of Christ for salvation, and the following of Christ in mission? We have such a high view of the sovereignty of God when it comes to the subject of salvation (soteriology). But when it comes to the way God will use us in the process of bringing others to him (missiology), we become petrified. What if you took up the mission of Christ with the same confidence and passion with which you see your own salvation?
In the same way that God has accomplished salvation in You, He will go on to accomplish His mission through you!
The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Saul (Acts 9), and Cornelius (Acts 10) make a sequence of accounts which record individual conversions. Each experience was unique, and not indicative of what every Christian will experience. But there are some important consistencies to point out.
First, it was clear that none of them knew Jesus. All of them appear to have had some-or in Saul’s case-significant knowledge of the Old Testament, but none of them understood its essential connection to Christ.
Second, each case involves divine intervention. God does a work that would otherwise be impossible and unexplainable. Derek Thomas, reflecting on the miraculous conversion of Saul, writes “This should give us cause for great hope about those who appear to be utterly indifferent, even hostile, to the gospel. There is no telling what God can do, in an instant!”
Third, God always involved a messenger in one aspect or another. The Ethiopian eunuch was converted under the preaching of Philip. Saul was converted by the blinding revelation of Christ, and he is subsequently healed and commissioned through Ananias. Cornelius and his household were converted under the preaching of Peter.
The Ethiopian had Philip. Saul had Ananias. Cornelius had Peter. What about you? Who did God bring into your life? Be sure to thank God for doing that work of transformation and sending the messenger He did.
How will God use you? You might have some reservations, but you can be confident that God is just as sovereign over His mission as he was over your salvation!
For further reflection and family worship questions see The Radical Impact of Saul’s Conversion Experience.