The story of Acts now moves to the man who will dominate the remainder of the book. Paul is the primary subject of Luke’s account from Chapter 9 on. Luke has intimate knowledge of Paul’s life and activities as one of his travel companions and a trusted friend (Col 4:14, II Tim 4:11). Chapter 9 recounts the story of his conversion – perhaps the most famous conversion in history. The text begins with Paul (Saul) as a savage persecutor of the church and ends just over three years later with him preaching in the synagogues and developing disciples. God intervenes in an amazing way in Paul’s life and in so doing teaches us that every conversion is miraculous.
The persecution that began after Stephen’s stoning continues under the leadership of its most ardent champion – Saul. The text tells us that he is still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He is passionate and obsessed. He is so committed to stopping the new movement that it now defines him – he almost cannot speak without uttering threats against the believers. He will stop at nothing in his righteous quest to stamp out this perversion of Judaism. In 8:3 Luke said Paul was ravaging the church – it is as if he is a wild animal who wants to rip the church to pieces (being furiously enraged at them – 26:11) and will not stop until he does.
Saul’s persecution has scattered the believers beyond Jerusalem (as we saw with Philip going to Samaria) so he expands his range and decides to pursue them where they now live. He asks the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus authorizing him to bring believers back to Jerusalem for trial – both men and women (bring them bound to Jerusalem). Paul will later testify that he pursued believers to several outlying cities around Jerusalem (26:11), so this is not the first time he has asked and been granted this authority. Damascus is approximately 150 miles and a week of traveling from Jerusalem, so this trip alone shows his passion for the pursuit.
This gives credence to Paul’s later testimony in Galatians 1:14 that he was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. No one wants the new movement stopped more than Saul and no one works harder at stopping it. He defends the ancestral traditions – the Law itself – from the blasphemers. He is committed to persecuting the church because he sees it as God’s work (I acted ignorantly in unbelief (I Tim 1:13) – being zealous for God (22:3)).
Around noontime (22:6) on one of the days of his travel to Damascus a light from heaven (brighter than the sun – 26:13) flashes around him. The light is blinding and causes Saul and everyone traveling with him to fall to the ground (26:14). Jesus appears in the light and says to him in Aramaic (26:14), “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:14). Saul asks Jesus, “Who are You, Lord?” Jesus answers, “I am Jesus the Nazarene (22:8), whom you are persecuting.” Jesus goes on to tell him to go into Damascus and that someone there will tell Saul what to do.
The conversation is very brief and understood only by Saul. Those traveling with him hear a voice and see the light, but do not see Jesus and do not understand what is said (7, 22:9). Saul arises after the light is gone and finds that he cannot see. He opens his eyes but is blind. His traveling companions lead him by the hand the remainder of the trip to Damascus. Once in Damascus he spends the next three days blind, fasting, and praying.
It is helpful to examine the exchange between Jesus and Saul more closely (especially since it changes everything going forward in regard to spreading the gospel). The first thing to notice is that Jesus asks Saul why he is persecuting Jesus. He does not say, “My church” or “My disciples.” He says “ME”. Jesus thus signifies that His followers are a part of Him – what is done to them is done to Him. This goes right along with His words to His disciples just before His crucifixion – “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even to the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40). It also signifies that His Spirit indwells them – His body IS the church. This is reassuring on so many levels – we are part of Christ and He identifies with our suffering and hardships as if they are His own.
Jesus also tells Paul that it is hard for him to kick against the goads. This is apparently a common saying of the time meaning to resist something that is inevitable. A goad is a pointed stick used to drive an animal (this is the origin of our expression “to goad” someone to a certain behavior). An animal thus driven would sometimes resist by kicking against the goad – all to no avail. The expression here could mean that Paul by his persecution is trying to stop something that cannot be stopped. It also could mean that he is resisting God’s direction to become part of the new movement. In either case, he is fighting the inevitable.
Understand what this conversation means in Saul’s life. He has come face to face with the person he believed to be the fraudulent head of a blasphemous movement. By appearing to Saul in this way Jesus has left no doubt that He is in fact who his disciples say He is. Jesus is not just some dead criminal with deluded followers. He is the risen Son of God and Saul now has no choice but to believe. His entire life has now reversed course.
There is no way to know for certain why God leaves Saul blind for three days. It is interesting that later in Acts Paul will strike a man blind for trying to turn others away from the faith (13:6-12), so perhaps that is what is in view here. It also changes him from a proud fighter for the truth into a man wholly dependent on others. God certainly humbles him and perhaps punishes him with the blindness. Whatever the case, Paul responds perfectly and spends the time fasting and praying.
A man named Ananias who is a disciple in Damascus has a vision in which Jesus tells him to go to where Saul is and lay his hands on him and cause him to regain his sight. Ananias has heard of Saul and responds predictably. He effectively tells God, “I know who Saul is and what he has been doing in Jerusalem and why he is here – are you sure you have the right guy? He has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Your name.” Ananias wants nothing to do with Saul and his savage persecution and reminds God just who He is directing him to. He knows that believers go to prison and die when Saul is around (it is a sign of just how intense Saul has been in his persecution that his reputation precedes him in Damascus).
God’s response to Ananias must completely shock him because it is so out of context. Nothing that God says makes sense in light of what Ananias knows about Saul. God tells him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” It not only is safe to go to Saul but God has actually chosen him to be a witness beyond what anyone else has done to this point. He will not only testify to the Jews but also to gentiles and kings. He has been the foremost persecutor and hater of the church but now is God’s chosen instrument. “Go to him, Ananias, I have BIG plans for Saul.”
Not all of the plans are positive, however. Notice the last sentence of God’s response. “For I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Saul will carry God’s name to places it has never been and he will do things no one else has done. But he will do so at a cost. He will suffer much in his mission. Paul will later testify to this very thing when defending his ministry to the Corinthians (II Cor 11:23-27): Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Beyond what he says here we know from history that he will be martyred by Nero because of his faith. What God says about Saul certainly comes true. The persecutor will become the persecuted and suffer like Jesus Himself. He will join the fellowship of those who are afflicted because of their identification with the Lord Jesus. (David G. Peterson, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 309)
How amazing and different is our God! You would expect Him to say that He has great plans for Paul and that after conversion his life will be wonderful as he serves God (that is what this text would say if we wrote the Bible). Instead, God says He will in fact do great things through Paul but along with those great things will come all kinds of suffering. This is similar to what Jesus told the disciples in Matt 10 about how hard their lives would be as His followers. God does not sugarcoat what He calls His children to, and does not waste time with sales pitches (“Welcome to Christianity – come and suffer!”). The way of the believer includes suffering because it is in a sin-cursed and sin-serving world and because God uses it to make His children more like Him. And in the end that is so much better than the promise of an easy life. “Come and suffer” IS a sales pitch when coupled with all things work together…[to make us] conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:28-29), and “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
God tells Ananias that Saul has had a vision that Ananias is coming to give him back his sight. With this information and God’s promise that Saul is truly changed, he goes to where Saul is staying. He enters the room and addresses him as Brother Saul – a greeting that shows Ananias believes Saul is now friend instead of enemy. He tells Saul that Jesus – the one who appeared to Saul on the road – has sent Ananias to restore his sight and to enable him to receive the Holy Spirit. He then lays his hands on Saul’s eyes and removes his blindness. Immediately after receiving his sight Paul is baptized and breaks his fast.
In Paul’s account of his conversion in 22:3-16, he says that Ananias actually passes along the mission that God communicated to Ananias. Ananias says to Saul, “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
It is interesting that no one through this process actually gives Saul the full gospel. Ananias tells him to be baptized and wash away his sins, but does not say anything about Christ’s atoning death. And Jesus does not say anything to Saul beyond showing Himself to be alive. But that in fact is the key. Paul now knows that Jesus truly lives which means everything he has heard the believers preaching is true. He has heard the gospel – he would not consider it blasphemy if he did not know the message – he just has not to this point believed it. By physically seeing that Jesus is alive and divine, he now believes the message and knows the gospel is true.
After he is baptized and can see again Saul begins his ministry. The text tells us that he immediately enters the synagogues and proclaims Jesus saying, “He is the Son of God.” What is amazing is that there does not appear to be any training time that he undergoes before preaching. Luke makes it sound like he walks out of the water of baptism and into a synagogue and begins to teach.
There are a few reasons why this is possible. Saul has been raised as a Pharisee and received the highest level of Jewish education (22:3). As such he knows the scriptures inside and out. Now that he knows for certain that Jesus is the Messiah he can – through the Spirit – connect the rest of the scripture to Him. He can proclaim and defend Jesus based on his knowledge and training and knows that it is true because of his confrontation on the road to Damascus. Paul will later say of his preaching, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11-12). He came face to face with the Messiah and that experience is what causes him to preach and informs his message. He does not need the training of man.
Those who hear him preach are amazed at what they hear. Like Ananias they know who Saul is and know his history of persecution and why he came to Damascus. They presumably become convinced, however, because Saul continues to increase in strength (he becomes more and more powerful and authoritative in his knowledge of the gospel and his experiences in the Spirit) to the point where he confounds the Jews in Damascus and proves that this Jesus is the Christ.
The text does not say but we know from Paul’s testimony in Galatians that during this time he goes to Arabia (area bordering Damascus) likely to preach to people there. He then returns to Damascus and spends a total of three years (Gal 1:15-18 – Luke refers to this as many days in verse 23 of our text) ministering before hearing of a plot against his life and leaving the city.
It makes sense that the Jewish leaders are not happy with Saul changing sides. He was their foremost instrument against the church and the one who did the most to stop the movement. And the fact that he not only converted but is now becoming a leader in the new movement and is very visible preaching in the synagogues does not look good for them at all. They need to eliminate him before he becomes even more of an embarrassment. He is a traitor and needs to be killed.
When Saul hears about the plot to kill him he flees the city. He has to leave secretly, however, because the Jews are guarding the gates of the city hoping to catch him as he leaves. Saul gets around this by having men lower him through an opening in the wall in a basket by night. Thus escaped, he makes his way back to Jerusalem.
Notice who the men are who lower him through the wall in verse 25 – his disciples! He has progressed to the point that he has his own disciples. This is a measure of his leadership and how much the Spirit works through him. He has spent the three years not only proclaiming Jesus but also making disciples. God wastes no time in using Saul to impact everyone around him.
Saul leaves Damascus safely and travels to Jerusalem. Once there he has difficulty associating with other believers because they are still scared of him (three years after his conversion!). Thankfully, Barnabas steps in (introduced in 4:36) and brings Saul to the apostles (he spends 15 days with Peter and also sees James – Jesus’ brother – but no other apostles (Gal 1:18-19)) and testifies to Saul’s conversion and his work in Damascus and reassures them that Saul is genuine (Luke does not say how Barnabas knows Saul or knows what he did in Damascus – perhaps this is the beginning of their long friendship). After this Saul begins to minister in Jerusalem just as he did in Damascus (until his life is threatened again and he goes back to Tarsus – the city of his birth).
Luke gives an amazing postscript to this story in verse 31. He says that the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoys peace and continues to increase. This is because Saul is now a believer! The entire church throughout all of Palestine is at peace because of one man’s conversion. This is a testament to just how far-reaching and intense his persecution was. He was a one-man wrecking crew to the extent that his change of heart allows thousands of people in three different areas of two countries to breathe easier.
It is interesting from that standpoint to consider what God has done with Saul. He has used him up to now as an instrument to scatter the believers and thus spread the gospel more quickly outside of Jerusalem. He will now use him as an instrument to take the gospel to the gentiles. Saul has effectively been a chosen instrument of God all along – as a sinner God used to further His own plans and now as a believer God will use to further His own plans.
Saul’s conversion should make us appreciate our own salvation story. His conversion is an amazing and miraculous event from the supernatural confrontation on the road to his vision of Ananias and being healed of blindness. He comes face to face with the risen Savior and his life changes forever. From that standpoint, however, his conversion is really not all that different from anyone else’s. Anyone who believes Christ must first come face to face with Him – albeit not physically. And everyone’s testimony includes the fact that they realized that Jesus is real and that He really died for them and rose again – the same realization Saul had on the road to Damascus. Jesus confronts every person who becomes a believer – He just typically does it in more subdued way than He did with Saul. Everyone should consider his conversion a miraculous event. There are no boring testimonies – just stories of how Jesus entered lives and made them His own.
Saul’s conversion should give us hope (I Tim 1:12-17). Saul was a rabid Christ-hater confident in his convictions. He was not considering Christianity nor was he open to hearing the gospel. He hated everything having to do with the gospel to the point that he wanted to kill those who believed it. And yet, in an instant he was saved. If Saul of Tarsus could go from savage persecutor to powerful missionary in seemingly a matter of days, then no one is beyond hope and we should never give up and never stop praying. We need more faith, more holy expectation, which will lead us to pray for them that Christ will first prick them with His goads and then decisively lay hold of them. (John R.W. Stott, “The Message of Acts,” The Bible Speaks Today, 180)
This means that we should not be despairing for those who show no signs of being prepared for conversion. It is a mistake to think that prayers for others are only effective if they have immediate effect in some kind of openness or interest or spiritual sensitivity. Paul was not open and not interested and not spiritually sensitive. He was utterly closed and utterly convinced that Christianity was untrue and he was spiritually dead in trespasses and sins as he says in Ephesians 2:3.
He was not “ripe for the picking” as we like to say. He was way beyond picking. He was hard and dry and shriveled up. What happened to Paul was sudden and utterly unexpected, and that means the same can happen for others. We should keep praying and keep speaking the truth in love. (John Piper, “Overflowing Grace for All Who Believe,” Sermon on Acts 9:1-19; I Tim 1:12-16)